Salkantay Flashback 5: The Main Event

26 01 2009

Day five inspired a few tears of its own, but this time they were tears of happiness rather than of fear or exhaustion. Freshly showered (and wearing the dirty clothes from the trip) we rose early and piled onto the shuttle. Excitement mounted with each steep turn until the bus began to slow and the main event was there, shrouded in a heavy mist, ahead of us.

Once inside we all laughed when Roberto proclaimed it would be a “10 minute walk” to our first vista. For once, however, 10 minutes was actually 10 minutes. And then we were there: before us, emerging from the ethereal mist, was the mysterious city of the Incas in all its glory. The stone structures, perfectly carved out of the mountain stretched out to the iconic Wayna Picchu, which stood watch in the distance. It was a sight that would have drawn a shudder and made the heart skip a beat regardless how we’d gotten there. Four days of sweat and mud and various challenges, physical, mental, and emotional, on top of the beauty of the picture itself, was enough to draw that final tear to each of our eyes, and I’m sure the gals will agree when I say it was utterly, perfectly healing.

mp-blog





Salkantay 3: I Am Inca

23 01 2009

Today marks the anniversary of our last day of hiking on the trek, and the day when we joined with a portion of the Inca trail. We left our packs with the porters and headed out uninhibited, first crossing a wide river that all but demanded submersion of feet that would mean soggy socks the rest of the day. This, however, was nothing new and well worth it. We started out surrounded by coffee plants, climbing wide, ancient stone steps that called to mind the unfathomable notion: the Incas once walked here. The trail was high but wide, and a million shades of green splashed with colorful flowers. For a while I found myself alone on the trail, pondering the rainbow of intense colors I didn’t know existed.

flowers-blog

Alone in the silence of the lush trail, with the spirits of brave Incas all around me, the magnitude of my trek overcame me. It had not only been sweat and dirt and tears, but the solidifying of young friendships and the strengthening of character.
But that sense of power didn’t last long. Shortly after I’d caught up to the group, we discovered we had nowhere to go. The torrential rain of days past had washed away a portion of our trail the length of a medium-sized car. We were midway through the trail and there was no one else around.

Uh...

Uh...

After much deliberation, Roberto decided the only thing to do was go around. He went first, climbing up into the jungle on the side of the mountain. Tiffany followed, then Jennifer (also afraid of heights), then me. Each step was a trial, of mushing the dirt and hoping it would hold me, of grabbing a branch and hoping it wouldn’t bend. I gingerly weaved my way under and over vines, my heart pounding and my head spinning. Still, there was something almost exciting about it, and even I laughed when, well into the thick of the trees, Roberto asked if any of us had a knife.

When I was not far from the end, I found myself stalled, waiting for the others to make their next moves. Trying not to look at the almost vertical slope of the mountain and the gaping hole below me, I looked out and saw the dense vegetation of the Andean jungle and the valley beyond. There I was: perched in the jungle, forging a trail… playing Inca. And not at all scared.

That white leg is me. The tiny dot further up is Jen, where I was headed.

That white leg is me. The tiny dot further up is Jen, where I was headed.





Salkantay 3: New, uh, Heights

22 01 2009

I mentioned before that day two was the hardest, for all but me. On the morning of day three, though sore and blistered, all were rejoicing at having made it through the hardest part. I, on the other hand, was dreading what I knew was to come. The night before, Roberto had led us on a “10 minute” (read: 45) hike down to the hot springs below our camp. While the hot springs provided much needed relaxation of tired muscles (and will one day be visited in more detail for the experience they themselves were), the hike to and from them left little to be desired, especially for me. That night, as I picked my way up the narrow, tenuous trail, trying to stay close to the glow of the flashlight, my mild fear of heights became pretty major, so I was not too happy when I learned I had to head down the same trail, this time laden with my heavy pack.

What made matters worse was that by the light of day I could see how treacherous the trail really was. The wet, muddy ground was soft and crumbling in parts, and we had to clamber over tree stumps and cling to the inside of the narrow trail, Roberto’s instructions to “stay close to the side” being passed down the train where I carefully plotted each step in the back.

My feeling of relief upon passing the hot springs was short-lived; an hour later I found myself at a railroad track bridge, suspended precariously over the raging river and missing one of its boards. I said nothing of my fear of heights as I picked my way across, but when the bridge led to a narrow, gravelly trail high above the river, there was no need for words. There, hugging the mountain, my feet slipping with each hesitant step, I froze. On the narrowest portion of the trail, which just 15 steps to solid land ahead of me, I unsuccessfully fought back tears and was still shaky and bleary-eyed (and a little embarrassed) after Roberto nimbly guided me down.

That afternoon we crossed six progressively more terrifying bridges (the last of which consisted of two uneven logs set on rocks on either end of the waterfall) and I lost more resolve with each one. But with Roberto’s hand and my friends’ encouragement, I made it to camp where we all (even me, despite all the day’s waterworks) felt a sense of machismo when Roberto pointed out the massive mountain that we’d climbed. That night was our last camping. There was a makeshift shower at the farm—a spicket in the same stall as the hole-in-the-ground toilet—but no one showered. The mountain, after all, didn’t care that our legs were caked with mud. It didn’t even care that I’d cried.

You call that a bridge?

You call that a bridge?





Salkantay Flashback 2: Did You Say Hardcore?

21 01 2009

I continue to write as I could not last year, while actually trekking with no access to technology (or, for that matter, showers)…

Salkantay Day 2 was otherwise known as the “hard day” from pretty much everyone involved, with the exception of me, that is. Though I faced other trials later in the game, however, day 2 was nonetheless physically and mentally taxing. The cold, cold morning began with a quick breakfast and several hours of hiking up a virtually vertical trail (while it was, in all reality, definitely not vertical, it certainly felt that way). Our bodies weakened by the altitude we huffed and puffed all the more as we trudged up the seemingly endless trail in a dense mist.

Eventually, we reached the summit, 4,600 meters (uh, that’s about 15,000 feet, folks), sweaty and freezing, exhausted and ecstatic, only to then head back down the other side.

Suzanne, or Neil Armstrong? The mountain doesn't care...

Suzanne, or Neil Armstrong? The mountain doesn't care...

On the other side of the mountain the rocky terrain gave way to a lush, sloping valley, bistected by circuitous stone walls and shroded in mist. The whole scen was a bit reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. But when the “one hour to lunch” as promised by Roberto dripped into two, then three hours, limbs got heavy, morale began to wane, and ecstasy slowly but surely became exhaustion and weariness. Still, when I found myself on the trail by myself, technicolor green mountain to one side, raging river down below, I felt (despite a sinking fear that I’d somehow missed camp and was lost in the Andes by myself) a feeling of peace like no other I’d ever felt. It was the first, and perhaps only, time I’ve ever been utterly alone in that manner; my thoughts were clear and comforting, and it was as though I could hear nature, feel the spirit of the Incas. (As I write this, it sounds cheesy, but it’s so true.)

Finally I came upon Libby, and together we trudged along until finding lunch—only three hours after Roberto said we would. Another two hours of hiking followed lunch, but after sustenance it was far easier. Besides, we all had the satisfaction of having climbed a mountain and come down the other side.





Flashback: Salkantay

20 01 2009

I’ve spent most of today glued to coverage of the inauguration like everyone else in America, or, for that matter, the world. But euphoric as I was feeling all day long, I couldn’t help feeling slightly nostalgic. Today marks the one year anniversary of my departure on what was to be the hardest and most phenomenal journey I’ve yet to take in my life.

On January 20, 2008, I rose early with three friends I’d known just under six months, and joined four strangers and a guide on a van that would take us to the start of our five day trek. After breakfasting in the backyard of what appeared to be part general store and part someone’s home where one hut served for guinea pig roasting), we piled into the back of a rickety truck and careened up a narrow road in the verdant, craggy, dodging bushes, and holding on—to the side and to each other—as we toppled this way and that on flimsy plastic stools. Like so:

That evening we huddled together for warmth, drinking sweetened coca tea in hopes of fending off altitude sickness, in a food tent below the Salkantay glacier. After dinner we shivered outside in the black night and the mountain revealed its secrets: the mist cleared just enough to reveal the jagged peak of the glacier, icey, majestic, and unfathomable in the moonlight.

Nothing short of magic.

Nothing short of magic.





Park-ing

9 01 2009

There is something about having a major, beautiful park that makes a city fantastic. If Central Park is the epitome of this, Golden Gate Park is a close second (though I think perhaps it is on par, and getting better all the time).

Some things to do in Golden Gate Park:

  1. Stop and smell the roses (or other flower of your choice): The stunning glass-domed building, just as amazing as when it first opened in 1979, is just the beginning. Inside the Conservatory of Flowers are nearly 2,000 species of plants, each more amazing and beautiful than the next.
  2. Take Tea: The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the most-visited sights in San Francisco, and for good reason. It is a tranquil oasis within the city, for relaxation, meditation, or just a nice long stroll. All the rest is so amazing, you just have to see for yourself.
  3. Look at Art: After tea in the garden stop in the nearby de Young Fine Arts Museum. In its new modern (and eco-friendly) building since 2005, the museum still houses elements of the original 1921 museum, including the Pool of Enchantment, sphinx sculptures, and the initial palm trees,  ferns, redwood. Plus, of course, a whole lot of beautiful art.
  4. Commune with Nature: Though I’ve not yet been the newly re-opened California Academy of Sciences is a recent obsession. Here a four-story rain forest, an aquarium, a planetarium, and a natural history museum all reside under one living roof. That’s right, the entire building is sustainable, from its radiant sub-floor heating to the tippy-top of its (literally) green roof, created of native vegetation that will capture rainwater and serve as a habitat for wildlife. Incredible just doesn’t seem enough here.
  5. Eat. After all that exploring, head to the historic Beach Chalet, which combines yummy food with lovely views, both inside, where WPA frescoes capture a 1930s San Francisco, and outside, where the Pacific waves crash against Ocean Beach.




Pennies from Manhattan

13 10 2008

When I was a freshman in high school (a long time ago), we were given a chapter of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to read in my English class. The chapter, entitled “Seeing” is a meditation on what we see and how we see it. In it, the child Dillard enjoyed hiding pennies, and thrilled at the thought of a lucky passerby finding “a free gift from the universe.” The adult Dillard wonders who really gets excited by a penny, given that any small enjoyment or happy experience counts as a penny.

We only read the first few paragraphs for class, and I have yet to read the rest of it. And yet (being the nerd that I am) I perused those first two paragraphs so thoroughly and so often that to this day I can recite them from memory, almost verbatim. Yesterday I slowed down my fast-paced New York life for a bit, and Dillard’s words returned to me: “It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.” Simple. Lovely. True.

And so, because in my actual struggling author poverty I too often forget to cultivate my figurative poverty, some pennies:

1) Fall days. I know I pull the California girl and have a tendency to be whiny and annoying when winter rolls around. But despite the fact that it’s the season before winter, fall is fabulous. Yesterday was one of those perfect days that sets all the city into a buzz of activity: warm but not sticky, with a light fresh breeze and that great crisp scent that can only really be had in a place with seasons (sorry California).

2) Bethesda Terrace. Dominated by Bethesda Fountain, this area overlooks the lake, where city slickers can (gasp!) row boats, and can be entered or exited through the stunning, tiled arcade that’s more reminiscent of ancient Rome than modern New York (at least to this New Yorker).

Can you say picturesque?

Can you say picturesque?

3) Eccentricities. While lost in the park I came upon many of these, but two were particularly notable. The first was an elderly man with a bushy beard dyed green and orange, dressed in a frilly lace dress and a gold hat with a bird on it, and dancing to rhythmic drums to the delight of a crowd of onlookers. The second was a tiny (and by tiny I mean about eight years old) street performer who silently and adeptly performed a series of circus tricks, adroitly juggling rings, then balls before moving on to a unicycle. Amazingly enough, less people stopped to watch him.

And I end, these being just a sampling of the pennies I picked up in the course of my Sunday. Perhaps one day does a millionaire make.





Flashback: Summer at the Lake

10 07 2008

It seems somewhat odd to blog about my trip home in terms of “travel” but California is so chock full of beautiful places and fun things to do, how could one not? My trip home started in one of the prettiest places in California (and Nevada). The Russo clan headed up to Lake Tahoe for the 2008 family reunion. Thanks to vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals by Owner), we took over a lovely (and massive) house, complete with hot tub and loft for the kids, and spent three relaxing days playing in the sun.

(Some) Russos in Tahoe

(Some) Russos in Tahoe

Which got me thinking about all the great times I’ve spent in Tahoe in the past. It really is an ideal getaway spot, especially since it’s a mere 4-5 hours from the Bay Area. This trip, we spent all our time at the beach, playing in the lake, kayaking, making sand animals (yes sand animals)…

But beyond the lake there is so much else to do. The former Olympic Village at Squaw Valley has a swimming lagoon (in case there’s not enough water in the lake), a spa, and a roller skating rink, not to mention the cable car that provides some pretty stellar views of the area. They even offer sunset and full moon hikes. Then there’s hiking, biking and horseback riding through the lush wooded areas. Even walking through the houses makes for a pretty workout.

Then there’s Emerald Bay, one of my favorite Tahoe spots. There is little that rivals Emerald Bay when it comes to pristine, intense natural beauty. As a child I joined our family friends at their cabin in Tahoe every summer, and the highlight of those trips was always the day Uncle Mike piled us into the boat and headed over to Emerald Bay, where it’s not just the striking green water that fascinates. Perhaps more fascinating is the craggy Fannette Island (the lake’s only island) atop which sits a mythical-looking miniature castle. Then there is Vikingsholm, the ornate Scandinavian mansion on the shore (which can of course be toured). Hiking around the bay affords some stunning views, but there is something about being on that rich green water and circling the island that excites.

The grown-up side of Tahoe has everything from casinos to great restaurants (my favorite being the classic, right-on-the-lake Sunnyside). But my adult Tahoe highlight centers around girl’s weekend, life vests, and the Truckee River. That would be river rafting, folks, because when it comes to fun in the sun (and fun with water) Tahoe has a little bit of everything.

Other Great things about Tahoe?

What do you get when you put my mom and her grandchildren on the beach? A Christmas card, of course.

What do you get when you put my mom and her grandchildren on the beach? A Christmas card, of course.

Some Tahoe resources:

Keep Tahoe Blue: In California “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper stickers are about as prevalent as those that read “A village in Texas is missing its idiot.” But the former slogan is far more hopeful: it’s the battle cry of the Tahoe Improvement and Conservation Association, devoted to protecting the lake and its surrounds. Visit the site for history and to learn how to help.

tahoe.com: A trip planning tool with information on lodging, activities, food, and more.

Tahoe World: The latest in Tahoe entertainment, complete with a calendar of happenings.