(Note to reader: Four days away from the computer, I jotted notes in a little notebook to chronicle the epic hike to Machu Picchu. Now in Cuzco, I've put it all together in one long Blog entry. Tried to include photos as well, but they take too long to upload. Perhaps in a separate posting. Enjoy!)
Day 1: Getting Started
“Tomorrow I take this old bag of bones on the Inca Trail
for four days to Machu Picchu. Wish me luck!”
I wrote on my Facebook status and to my surprise, people did. 23, to be exact,
many giving me advice about how to survive the strenuous hike. I had actually
written it a bit tongue-in-cheek, but now I was starting to feel a little
nervous at 5:20 in the morning as I boarded the bus with 16 other travelers. We
had first come together at an orientation meeting the night before, where we
met Hilbert and Elvis, our two guides and went through the numerous details of
what the trip entailed—what to pack, what to expect and so on.
The way the mind works, it starts to worry beforehand about
all that might go wrong. And in this case, a lot! Consider. I’m 61 years old
and am generally in decent shape and good health. But I did have a hernia
surgery just four months earlier, have had chronic back issues, occasional
minor knee problems, a severe sprained ankle a long time ago that bothered me
for three years. I’ve been going through major dental re-working, including a
temporary front tooth that I just hope will hold up. I’m about to go up and
down a rigorous trail with 6,000 feet in elevation change (little did I know
how much up and down and just how rigorous) for some 26 miles far away from any
ambulance or helicopter. When I finally got the courage to ask what happened if
someone fell and broke a bone or any number of possible accidents, the answer
was “a porter will take you out on piggyback.” I signed no insurance waiver and
there was no discussion about back-up emergency plans. The Risk Committee at my
school would be having heart failure by now and though I’m advocating for less
fear and more lilies-of-the-field trusting, it did make me pause for a moment.
Then there’s the weather. It’s the rainy season and it could
just very well rain the entire time, as it apparently did the trip before. It
could also be quite cold at night or blazing hot during the day. Who knows?
It’s weather, after all.
Finally, there’s the group. It’s a huge risk to sign on with
13 strangers (besides my wife Karen, daughter Talia and her friend Zoe) and
hope that they’ll be good people to be with. One obnoxious person or abrasive
personality can bring the whole thing down. The guides themselves are key
players and we were off to a weird start with Hilbert, whose sentences ran
something like this: “Okay, guys, I’m Hilbert, guys and I’ll be your guide,
guys. Guys, we’re going to meet tomorrow, guys, just here, guys, at 5:30 am
guys, and bring your passport, guys and we’ll give out the poles, guys…” Really
hard to capture in print and even harder to listen to for too long.
So though this was a well-organized trip far from the old
explorer spirit of just taking off in the unknown of the wilderness, one with
porters carrying up to nine kilos of your clothes, necessities, sleeping bag
and insulate pad while you carried your day pack, with high-quality truly
rainproof tents, with cooked meals (little did we know how incredible that was
to turn out to be), experienced guides who had done the trip many, many times,
it still promised to be an adventure with more than its share of risky and
exciting unknowns. No guarantees that our bodies would be up for the challenge,
the weather would cooperate, the people would be pleasant. In short, real life.
So after my growing anxiety to just get the thing going,
there we finally were, ready to go. We got our passports and permits checked,
crossed the bridge to the trailhead, posed for the “before” group photo and off
we went. Within a mile, the sun came out and we start peeling. And so we walked
for six hours with a break for a most delicious cooked lunch with soup, trout,
vegetables and more delights that were to become a daily six-course feast. The
ups and downs were gradual, the weather lovely and everyone in good spirits as
our anxieties were soothed. The prevailing sentiment was, “This is going to be
easy and fun!”
The trouble began in the middle of the night. 12:30 am to be
exact. I went out of my tent to pee and when I crawled back in my sleeping bag,
noticed my stomach was upset. Some kind of acid indigestion, that vague
discomfort and mild pain that just sits there, not exiting either above or
below. It bothered me enough that I couldn’t get back to sleep and once I had
trouble sleeping, I grew anxious that I wasn’t sleeping. The curse of the
insomniac, something I’ve never had and it was hell. Today was the “challenge
hike,” nine to twelve hours of hiking up to Dead Woman’s Pass at almost 14,000
feet and I would need some sleep.
I lay there awake for some three and a half hours and
finally fell asleep for a half hour before being awakened officially at 5 am.
The porters left hot water in a bucket for washing and a cup of coca tea. I
took one sip of tea, felt a chill and a shudder and rushed to the camp
bathroom, a place I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Came to breakfast and nibbled at a
banana and part of a pancake, my appetite gone. Not an auspicious beginning.
Off we went in the rain and began ascending the stone steps.
It didn’t take long for Karen and I to find ourselves at the end. Most people
were in their twenties and thirties, one group of three in their forties and
then us. I’m usually a front-of-the-line kind of guy, but I was fine accepting
that the end of the line was to be my new place on this trip. Hilbert, our
guide, had a cute expression: “Hold your llamas,” reminding us to go at our own
pace and not to worry. And so I did. And it was fine except that when I arrived
at the place where the group had been resting for 20 minutes, I got three
minutes of rest before everyone was ready to go off again. A bit of a flaw in
the “Hold your llama” practice.
By the time we got to a snack stop, with the rain
continuing, I was exhausted. My stomach still hurt, I was suffering from my
short four-hour sleep and I had eaten very little and didn’t have the appetite
for much more. I got an electrolyte chewable from my marathon-running daughter
and when I had rested for a too-short five minutes, off we went again for the
final ascent to the pass.
It was here that I began composing the sequel to Led
Zeppelin’s old hit with my new version: Stairway to Hell.
ladder to the Hindu chakras on the spine, spiritual achievement is associated
with ascent. Up to the spiritual world away from the mud and blood and sweat
and tears and swamp of the earth to the purer air up high and climbing those
stairs or ladder means you are making an effort, going against gravity to rise
above your baser self. You feel that climbing a mountain and getting a larger
overview than is possible when you’re down in the thick of things. And so some
cultures envision heaven above and that’s where the stairs go. But my heaven
was down at the base of the stairs, my hell getting to the top.
I mean, here I was, the tireless advocate of first-hand
experience, of effort, of pushing beyond your comfort level, noticing the
conversation going on in my head. I was ready to nominate myself for the
President of the Armchair Travel Association. I was eager to be the first in
line at the Machu Picchu I-Max Movie Experience. I was thinking of the Little
Engine That Could
chugging along chanting “I think I can, I think I can”
but the louder shout of “No puedo mas!!” was ringing in my ears. Step by weary
step, I pulled myself up with my two hiking poles and felt like the folks in
their walkers who I visit at the Old Age Home. Except at my pace, they would
have been speeding by me in their Ferrari walkers. Besides the lack of sleep
and bad stomach and 61 years laughing at me “Hah! You thought it was enough
just to feel young!” there was the
question of the air as we approached 14,000 feet. Not much of it for these sea
level lungs to breathe. And every time I came around a bend thinking the the
top would be in site or there would be a stretch of level ground, there they
were, 200 more steep, stone stairs.
Nothing helped. I started praying to every god I knew—
Pachamama, Buddha, Krishna, Yahweh, Allah, Thor, Zeus, Kuanyin, Shango. I
wasn’t particular. The phones were ringing, but no one was answering. I briefly
followed a llama who had a good sense of zig-zagging around the stairs and
resting every twenty yards, but lost him when I stopped to re-tie my boots.
Porters were whizzing by in sandals with 25 pounds on their back, the 14-year
old on our trip was two miles ahead, the top seemed to keep receding every time
I looked at it. The biggest encouragement I got was from three yellow daisies
on the side of the trail and later, a little bloom of lupine.
I started counting the steps, a little mediation exercise I
sometimes do and got to 500 at least twice before stopping that little ploy. (I
later found out that there were some 4,500 steps! Probably best that I didn’t
know ahead of time.) I tried to write a song in my head “One step at a time.”
Never had that cliché rung so true. But who can create something when every
ounce of your energy is talking to your feet, “Move!”
In the thick of your doubt, you lose faith. But math is
inevitable, the steps added up and there I was at the summit. It looked like
there would be no need to re-name it—Dead Woman—plus one man—‘s Pass. It was
the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.
But my exhiliration was short-lived. For now, we had to descend for the next few miles, something easier on the
lungs, but harder on the legs. And once more I found myself whining like a kid in
the back seat of a car “When are we gonna get there?!!!” Only no one was around
to hear it, because most of them were there. The lunch spot that is. Hungry.
And waiting for me.
I finally joined them and found my appetite was still
wanting. And then our guide announced, “Okay, guys, we just have to go up over
this other pass and then down for another three hours.” I was plotting how to
fake a broken leg to see if a porter would carry me. But I trudged on, weary
step by weary step and finally reached a quite lovely campsite. Spirits
reviving, I went to the popcorn and hot chocolate happy hour followed by
another remarkable dinner (though my appetite still tenuous) and crawled into
the tent hoping for a good night sleep and a happier day three.
And indeed, it came to pass.
Day 3: Peeling Back the Layers
I slept the whole night through, my stomach felt better and
the rain had slowed to heavy mist. Things were looking up. After breakfast, we
had a formal introduction to the porters. Most are farmers with families who do
portering opposite the planting season. It seemed odd to have waited until day
three to introduce them, but better late than never and very sweet as each one
stepped forth and told us his name and where he was from and then we did the
same. And remember me wondering about our group back on Day One? They turned
out to be all lovely people with good values, appreciative of the porters and
the cooks and our guides and each other.
We found out a little history of the unionization of the
porters some seven years ago, some strict limits on what they’re expected to
carry, better working conditions and such. One of us, the Little Miss Sunshine
member of our group, was determined to break down the barriers and invite the
porters in for Happy Hour to “party with us.” They seemed alternately confused
and amused by it. I happened to be reading the book The Help
trip and the whole question about where the lines are between cultures and
service and what they mean came up in this little encounter. We Americans feel
uncomfortable with the service arrangement and want everyone to be our friends,
but that’s a weird notion in cultures that are accustomed to it. And in my
experience, that’s most of South America, Asia and a lot of Europe as well. But
I’ll save that for another blog— I have a day of hiking ahead of me.
With a good night’s sleep and breakfast behind me, I hit my
hiking stride and move to the middle of the group, not from any macho need to prove
myself, but just in response to my natural pace. I feel strong, I feel happy, I
start to notice all the things closed to me when I was in survival mode. The
waterfall racing on both sides of the lupine. The bromeliads attached to the
trees. Wildlife is still sparse and bird song as well, but sometimes the
flowers and plants look as familiar as a hike in the Bay Area.
I haven’t showered, shaved or looked in a mirror in almost
three days. I haven't stepped on a bathroom scale, not measured myself next to the
better-looking guy in the magazine or hotter piano player on the CD. My sense
of self is that bag of flesh and bones inside a thin blue poncho, feet planted
firmly on the solid earth, breath rising and falling, mind clearing like the
sun breaking through the wisps of mountain fog. I can feel all the layers of
self peeling back, the thick walls of ego softening, the heavy clothing of
civilization, politeness and good citizenship shedding, the multitude of selves
needed to negotiate the modern world falling away to reveal the core at the
center of it all, that breathing entity inside the blue poncho.
When we stop to rest at an overlook with some resident
llamas, the clouds clear and good humor and convivial conversation bubbles up.
The stories of who we are and where we’re from and what we do replaced by the
playful banter of people at ease. Yesterday’s ordeal seems like a distant
story, the world is re-born and all of us with it.
It feels good. Like Huck Finn, makes me feel that I’ve been
too damn civilized for my own good. A man’s got to get out of town and live and
breathe the rhythms of this natural earth, even if only for four days. And a
woman too. And sometimes they can all do it together.
Day 4: Singin’ in the Rain
We awoke to the morning birds and the distant song of the
quena flute. Stepped out from our tents into the welcoming warm air of the high
jungle and savored our last breakfast together of pancakes, quinoa porridge,
coca tea or coffee. It was the long-awaited day— we were going to the ancient
ruins of Machu Picchu City.
By now, day packs expertly packed, ponchos ready for the
morning mist, a song in our hearts and a lightness in our steps, we began the
gentle descent. Hearts humming, spirits thrumming, the sound of our worn boots
on the path while condors flew overhead. An hour of silent walking, each
wrapped in their own private thoughts, the steep mountains wrapped in swirling
fog peeking in through the trees. And then around the corner and a collective
intake of breath. Like an explorer discovering Shangri-la in the Himalayas,
Moses seeing the Promised Land, a lost ship sighting land, we stopped in our
tracks. No postcard had adequately prepared us for what lay before our
astonished eyes as we arrived at the Sun Gate.
There below us, the last wisps of morning mist circling
the temples as the sun broke through the distant fog, a double rainbow framing
the whole scene, was Machu Picchu in all its splendor. I don’t know what music
sounded in my companions’ minds, but I’m sure it included trumpets, swelling
strings and angelic harps. It was still early enough that the tourists had not
yet arrived and we descended to the stone buildings half a millinium old and
wandered around the ruins like lovers in a trance. The sun warmed our bones as
our guide expertly explained some of the details of the ceremonial sites,
evoking a peaceful and harmonious civilization in tune with Pachamama, our
Mother Earth. Standing there in the silence of that mystical, magical place,you
could feel it down to your bones, The surrounding steep mountains cradled the
site, the big sky above and flowing river far below, the llamas wandering
peacefully amongst the green-grassed plazas. We stood in a circle in one of the
plazas, held hands and sang a simple, ancient Quechua song our guide taught us
and felt like we, too, were now part of the community of Ancestors who followed
the Inca path of Love and Work. It was the moment of a lifetime.
So was my fantasy of how it would be. But nothing in the
above story was true except the pancakes, coffee and coca tea. Here’s the real
story of what happened.
We were awakened at the ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m. by the
shouts of the porters. It had rained relentlessly all night and no relief as we
stepped bleary-eyed out of our tents in the dark. We dragged ourselves to
breakfast, dressed in the same wet and dirty clothes and assembled on the path
in the rain with our flashlights. Down the steep, slippery stones we went,
hiking in the dark, trying to get into our hiking rhythm when we stopped. We
had walked for exactly five minutes before we stopped at a building for our
last passport-control check. Backs pressed to the wall, the unsavory smell of
the nearby bathroom, we sank down to sit on the concrete floor as our guide
proclaimed, “One hour, guys!” Apparently, the early awakening was simply to
beat the rush and be the first in line.
By the time we started walking again, the day had grown
lighter, but the rain had not let up. Everyone was doing their own personal
prayers for it to stop, but apparently to no avail. When we arrived at the
famous Sun Gate where the postcard picture is taken, we were treated to the
sight of…rain and fog. Couldn’t see a thing as our guide pointed down and said,
“It’s down there somewhere.” We descended to the next viewpoint where fragments
of building could be seen and all the hikers were converging like lemmings
swarming to the sea. Down to the next level and one short moment of “There it
is!”, the sight long awaited already filled with colorful ponchos of the
tourists arriving by early morning buses.
“Okay, guys, follow me!” and down we go outside the gates by
the souvenir stores and we’re in Disneyland on a rainy day. Packed with
tourists, people smoking, a bathroom that you had to pay money to use (Money?
What’s that?). Then stand in line to re-enter the site and get our passports
stamped and re-gather to begin the official tour. Our guide, bless his lovable
heart, a good person, but someone who could stand a little teacher-training,
started off for the 25th
time, “Okay, guys. In 1911 when Mr. Hiram
Bingham first discovered Machu Picchu City, it was overgrown in the jungle.
There were two families living here and farming. So when Mr. Hiram Bingham in
1811 (he kept confusing these dates) came here to Machu Picchu City, it didn’t
yet look like this.” And on he went while we stood in our torn ponchos with the
rain picking up and slight shivering from the cold and no body heat from
hiking. “Any questions, guys?!” and you didn’t have to be a psychic to know
that every one was thinking, “If any one asks a question, I will personally
strangle them with my bare hands.”
On we trudged with the growing mob of fellow tourists,
walking to the next set of buildings and stopped while our guide continued,
“So, guys, when Mr. Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu City in 1911…” A more
ragged, discouraged group of poncho-clad shivering people than us would be hard
to find. I actually had made peace with life in the rain and was trying to
picture Gene Kelly singing in the rain amidst the ancient buildings, undaunted by
the weather. It worked for a minute and then became annoying to have this
soundtrack from an American musical playing in my head in the land of the
At the end of the formal tour we were free to explore on our
own. Some of us took refuge under the thatched roof of one of the reconstructed
buildings and miraculously, the rain started to let up. We walked back up to
some of the higher viewpoints and snapped pictures like mad. And before we left
a couple of hours later, the sun did break through. For about six seconds, I
Despite everything, some of the magic indeed had seeped in
our spirits like the morning rain. It is a place worthy of being called one of
the Seven Wonders of the World and I’m grateful beyond measure that I was privileged
to be there.
But still, I wouldn’t have minded Scenario One.
Epilogue: Bliss-Bestowing Hands
It was an old familiar feeling. Coming down from the
mountains, dirty-clothed and beard-grizzled, into the hustle and bustle of the
town. Time away, spent with a small group of people on the top of the world,
and then down into the marketplace. In the Zen tradition, the seeker goes on
retreat up in the clouds and comes back to the workaday world with
And so we 17 bedraggled hearty hikers got on the bus at
Machu Picchu and began our descent. First step was Agua Calientes, a roaring
brown river churning it’s way through the town like chocolate at a furious boil
and people, people, people, stores, stores, stores, the buying and selling and
coaxing and begging and enticing, the first TV’s in four days blinking their
rapid images to trick our ancient hunter’s brains into paying attention, the
music blaring, the sexy curves that had been hidden under rainpants and ponchos
out on display. Quite a contrast to the serene peaks and undulating hills and
unpeopled Inca ruins who speak in whispers, “Pay attention if you like, but if
not, we’ll go on manifesting our nature as we have for hundred or thousands of
Despite my college fantasies that I would live in the
country, I’ve been an urban guy for most of my adult life. So all of this was
familiar and in a short time, walking on the roof of the world seemed like a
distant dream. We had our farewell lunch, attempted to say some formal goodbyes
to our guides in a challenging situation with other trekkers in the same
restaurant, walked to the train station past the Christmas tree in the plaza
made from green plastic soda bottles. We were back in civilization, such as it
Four of the seventeen were staying in Agua Calientes, three
were wandering the market and the remaining ten sat in a circle outside the
train station on our rice sacks filled with dirty clothes. My wife and I were
the oldest times two, but still we enjoyed the group of young folks that had
clearly bonded deeper by their arduous and thrilling four days together. Our
train was delayed by two hours and we were in that traveler’s “wherever you go,
there you are” mode, so it was just fine to hang out longer. We finally boarded
the train, continued the conversations to the last stop at Ollantaytambo,
switched over to the bus. By now, it was 8:30 and we had been awake since 3:30
that morning. Conversation went from a boil to a simmer to still water as we
dozed off. Me, too, but when I woke up an hour and a half later, we still had
not arrived in Cuzco.
The bus seems to be going about 25 miles an hour, with speed
bumps every few hundred yards on the road. Finally, the lights of Cuzco
appeared below and at one point, my wife spotted a circle of blue light at the
base of the White Christ statue we had climbed to five days earlier. “I’ve
never been happier to see Jesus,” I told her, knowing we were almost there. At
11 at night, we disembarked, made a small circle on the sidewalk with a
hands-in-the-center “Here’s to Hiram Bingham in 1911!” and hugged each other
farewell and then broke off to our various hostals. My group walked past the
bustling Plaza de Armas with rice sacks of dirty laundry on our back like Santa
Claus (the Western Zen monk come down bestowing gifts), anxious to get to the
hotel and our first shower in four days. I even passed the Samba band out in
the Plaza without taking one step in their direction, passed the Cuban salsa
band, through the electric night streets of this now familiar city with one
goal firmly in mind—shower and shave!
And here was a surprising moment. I had no desire whatsoever
to check my e-mail. I had disconnected from that world and found it supremely
refreshing. I imagined the world had gone on just fine without me and I knew
down to my newly-muscled revived body and spirit that I had touched an old
familiar self that is worthy to remember and habitually visit. I know I’ll be
pulled into it all again tomorrow and it will be okay, but hereby make this
public vow to periodically withdraw, be it a Zen retreat, a backpack trip or
just the decision to unplug and read and play piano for four days. Sometimes
you just need to get your hands off of the e-mail keyboard to feel bliss on
your fingertips again.
Gratitude to my wife and daughter for pulling me out of work
mode onto the trail, to the guides, porters and fellow hikers, to the maker of
my boots and the inventor of plastic (at least in the rainy season), to the
genius and beauty of the ancient Inca civilization (we’ll skip the brutality
and terror for now).
course, to “Hiram Bingham, who in 1911, discovered Machu Picchu City and…”