The Good Kind of Tour, Er… Race

24 02 2009

So I have to say that while the budget traveler in me cringes not a little at the thought of shelling out nearly $2,000 for an eight day trip, I’m definitely intrigued by the latest travel tour company, which is not really a tour at all, at least not in the canned organized tour group sense. Competitours is the lay person’s Amazing Race, complete with challenges and a grand prize. Travelers work in teams of two performing several challenges a day and videotaping themselves as they go, all the while competing against the other teams for a grand prize (another trip).

While ordinarily I am decidedly anti-tour when I can help it, this does sound like a great thing. There is the promise of visiting under the radar locations not ordinarily on the organized tour (though this brings up the quandary of risking what makes these places unique and great in the first place). The challenges aim to be educational immersion in ways that the typical organized tour traveler might not otherwise experience a place. There is that possibility for “unexpected encounters with local people and places,” the very thing that is lacking from most organized tours.

All in all, the tour has a lot of the aspects of travel I most value: the pushing of one’s own boundaries, unique perspective, and then of course there is the bonding aspect. And one mustn’t forget the opportunity for more travel.

Bottomline: if I had the money, would I do it? Uh, Duh!





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.





Boys Don’t Cry

27 01 2008

Nor do hardcore girls.

I, however, do cry. But I don’t think that makes me any less hardcore. I survived day one’s bumpy ride (on narrow mountain roads in the back of a truck) with a smile on my face. And come day two I climbed to 4600 meters (15091 feet!) without complaint.

But when day three rolled around I found myself (aching muscles, blistered feet, backpack and all) on a seemingly crumbling trail barely wide enough to fit both my feet, miles above a raging river… and crying. Yep, right then and there, I lost it, feeling, mid-mountain, as though I simply couldn’t go on.

But the beautiful thing about being in the middle of a mountain is that, terrified or not, you don’t have a choice but to go on. So with the help of my superstar guide Roberto and my fabulous friends, I made it across the ledge (and across each of six progressively more dilapidated bridges) to find my triumphant self on solid ground at the end of the day.

I am still terrified of heights, and the thought of day three makes my legs a little shaky and my stomach a little queasy, but the fact of having faced a fear and survived it makes me nonetheless jubilant. (Though not in a hurry to do it again.)

Lesson Learned: Never let ’em see you sweat is not a mantra for the mountain. Sweat (or tears) and a little weakness only means a whole lot more strength.