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.





Paying It Forward

16 07 2008

The fun thing about travel is, of course, the meeting of new people and the seeing of new things. That part’s a given. But an equally important part of travel (and the part that keeps us travel fiends going in between trips) is the sharing of the travel experience. Even better, sharing the travel experience when the experience itself is a new thing.

Let me explain. While at home in California I got to spend quality time with my young nieces from Colorado, who, at ages 12 and almost 11, are finally old enough to understand the magnitude of international travel and actually be interested in it. (As opposed to six years ago when the little Flamenco fans I brought from Spain were cool solely for the pretty designs on them.)

Now, these girls have had their fair share of travel in the course of their young lives, but somehow trips to California or even the all-inclusive resort in Mexico (while it of course has its merit) does not quite have the same effect. Getting their hair braided doesn’t count discovering a culture.

So the fact that Alyssa (the older sister)’s eyes lit up when I mentioned my trip to Peru was fantastic. When she enthusiastically told me she’d done a project on Peru this year, I wasted no time in whisking her away to my computer and pulling up photos from the trek (a feat not all that easy, given that the pictures—which I finally had all organized and ready to send out—were lost when my hard drive crashed).

There we sat for nearly an hour, flipping through photos of the trail, the houses, the people, and, wonder of wonders, Machu Picchu. To my delight, Alyssa was riveted, as was her sister Nicolette. They were fascinated by the scenery, the dress, the trek itself. And the fact that their aunty (who, admittedly, they know to be a bit of a priss) went five days without showering. And, for my part, I loved reliving the experiences and the stories, and watching their excitement.

But even better was the fact that they were experiencing the wonders of travel (albeit armchair travel) for the first time. While I’ll never know the exact impact it had, by the looks on their faces I’d guess that these girls figured out that there are wonders out there, and that it’s within their reach to see them.

But more importantly, I think it sparked a desire to see them, and it was educational too. Later that day, when Alyssa and I visited the store and I didn’t take a bag for our cans of condensed milk (a preview of my next post) we talked about doing little things for the environment. And when I told her that Salkantay, the glacier she saw in my photos, was melting rapidly because of global warming, her response was, “That would be terrible if I wanted to see it when I grow up and it wasn’t there.” Check and check. New generation of female travelers (and environmentalists) officially recruited.





A Belated Thanks to Inclement Weather

28 02 2008

15000 Feet wasn’t looking pretty.
Is it me or do we look like those guys from Alive?

Last night in New York it was 24 degrees (feels like 11). I left a friend’s house and walked six blocks to the subway, my stinging lips cursing the cold the whole way. But then I realized: I wouldn’t be outside, leaving a Peru party, if it weren’t for the cold.

Flashback to one year ago…

At around this time last year, my amazing, will-do-anything-for-you (and from California) parents braved the frigid temperatures of a New York February, just to see me. At that time I had lived here about six months and, though I was happy, still hadn’t quite found my place. Despite having several close friends, I was far from home, battling miserable weather, and sometimes felt lonely. It may shock those who know her (note sarcasm here), but this worried my mother to no end.

Then the cold stepped in, with a little help from mom. While the parents were waiting for me to get out of my first day interning for EuroCheapo, the temps outside became unbearable, so they sought refuge in Aroma Cafe, just around the corner from my office. My mother couldn’t help but “overhear” the bubbly girl at the next table over, who happened to be talking about travel, and the more she overheard, the more she thought this girl would make a great friend for her daughter. And so my friendly mother struck up a conversation. (Neither remembers what she said.)

I met my parents after work and was surprised when my mother exclaimed, “I met the cutest girl for you!” I was slightly embarrassed that my mother was making friends for me, but decided to email Libby anyway. After months of email tag we finally met and were insta-friends. On our first “date” I told Libby of my plans to travel in South America and she immediately signed on to be my travel buddy. Before I knew it two of her friends, Rebecca and Tiffany, were talking about hiking boots and plane tickets with us.

After four “Peru planning” meetings—and having known each other a matter of months—we embarked on the most taxing journey any of us had ever before attempted. There were blisters, tears, freezing cold days… and that was just the beginning. There was also laughter, long chats, more tears (happy ones), and bonding. One thing there wasn’t: arguing. The stress of that trip, combined with the constant togetherness, seemed sure yield hurt feelings, if not out and out hatred. But we came off that mountain stronger as individuals and stronger as friends.

Now back in the comforts of New York, Peru is all we discuss. Last night, clean and warm, we held the first of what will be many Peru parties. On the menu was the fruit tea (with rum) that we drank on night two, toasted corn nuts, a Peruvian restaurant staple, and takeout Mexican (oops, how did that slip in there?). From the comfort of a couch in Brooklyn, we watched a hilarious, disgusting, and sometimes painful to watch, video about four girls who didn’t know each other all that well but became close friends at 15,000 feet. All because my parents needed to get out of the cold.

So one year after my parents’ visit, I am sending out a note of thanks to the cold, and one to my matchmaking mother who had to get out of it.