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?

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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.





Adios Zapatos part 2

30 01 2008

For a girl who loves her shoes, I haven’t had much luck with them on this trip (See Adios Zapatos Part 1).

While at home in California for Christmas, I went to several stores with my brother Scott on the quest for the perfect pair of hiking boots for my trek in the Andes. At the first store, we told the salesman that it would be cold because of how high I’d be, and he tried to sell me a shoe that would be good in negative 30 degree weather (that’s Faranheit folks). Perhaps he misheard South America and thought I was going to the South Pole?

At the second store we fared little better. The girl said she knew nothing of Machu Picchu but she did know a little about hiking. When we explained that this would be a little more intense than hiking, that I would be trekking in the Andes, we could see the wheels in her brain moving. In the end she couldn’t make it past the after-dinner mint. Finally, however, I went home with a pair of shoes.

After two days of wearing them around the house per Scott’s orders, I decided they were uncomfortable and we were back at the store, this time with a girl who knew her stuff and who sold me the other shoe I had been looking at the first time.

I took them back to New York and wore them to run my errands (yes, I did in fact go out in public in Manhattan in my hiking boots), and by the time I got to Cusco they were comfortable and fantastic.

All through days one and two Hans and Frans (as I christened them because they did in fact “pump me up”) held strong. They kept my feet dry and happy no matter how much it rained of home much mud I stepped in. But come day three, I accidentally plunged my whole foot in the river while trying to cross: waterproof does not work if the whole shoe is sumberged.

Nontheless Frans served me well, and Hans was great too despite a little water. By the end of the day, however, my feet were less than happy, and when I finally sat to take off the boots, I found that my brand new shoe (Hans) was starting to fall apart. The leather on one side was coming away from the gortex, which doesn’t quite help with the whole water thing. I tried to patch it in the morning, but the thing about sticky-backed gortex is that it only sticks to dry things, which Hans was not.

So now Hans and Frans are sad, broken, and muddy, but still hanging out in my backpack, unlike the heels that were worn once and sent back to New York with the girls.

Lesson learned: My flip flops haven’t failed me yet.





I May Cry, But…

28 01 2008

I am still hardcore.

After a very trying day three, I awoke for day four—feet no less blistered and muscles no less aching, but refreshed nonetheless. Running through a river with no bridge meant squishy shoes, but when we reached the entrance to a portion of the Inca Trail, physical discomfort ceased to matter.

Lush jungle and centuries old stone steps made for a hike I can only describe as spiritual. There was something intense and heady about walking a path that the Incas themselves climbed, and I once again found myself overwhelmed: all the physical and emotional trials of the past three days had led up to this moment. And that I had survived them made me (yes, I admit it) tear up yet again.

But when we found ourselves face to face (literally) with the end of the road, I held it together. There we were, two hours into the six hour hike, and a landslide had broken the trail, leaving a gap about thirty feet wide in the mountainside.

Even Roberto looked nervous, though undeterred. After making it halfway across the gap trying to recreate a tiny trail, he gave that up and came back to our side. The only thing to do was to climbe up and over the gap. Through the jungle.

Soon I found myself hoisted into the trees, weaving Tarzan-style in and out of the tangled vines as I gripped larger trees and tried not to hyperventilate. When halfway through the venture Roberto asked if anyone had a knife the comedy of it all was only a slight relief.

But when I reached the midway point I finally looked out. I saw not only the gaping hold over which I was standing, but the thick jungle below, and the valley beyond that, and, remarkably, all anxiety melted into exhilaration. Even fear can’t overpower a once in a lifetime experience.

I won’t lie: I was much relieved to feel solid ground under my feet again, but I made it through what should have been a far more terrifying adventure than the previous day without shedding a tear.

Lesson Learned: I am Inca.





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.