Tales of a wandering lesbian

The other Americans

It was early when we got up.  Thankfully, the excitement of the trail pulled us out of bed, and the promise of a good breakfast drew us into the dining area.

It was 4:30.  We had 15 minutes to throw down breakfast and get our bags to the front door for our shuttle pick up that would take us to the start of the Inka Trail.

And that was the goal.  The Inka Trail.  We were signed up for the 4-day trek that would take us some 29 miles through the jungles of Peru to Machu Picchu.  Kelly’s foot was acting up, which meant LeAnna and I would be going it alone.  Well sort-of alone.  We were trekking with a group – the only way to hike the trail after the mudslides earlier in the year.

During our briefing in the trekking office the night before we’d inquired about the others in the group.  There were 5.  We got visibly excited when our guide told us there were Israelis, Britts and a German.  Then he laughed at us.  “No, all Americans.”  Darn.  We liked our countrymen just fine, but it was exciting to think that we might have some kind of a cultural exchange with the other trekkers.

We climbed into the van at 4:45.  It was already filled with our new companions and a couple of our porters, short, dark, smiling men wearing woolly, knit hats with ear flaps and tassels.

LeAnna and I crawled across the second row of bench seats and settled ourselves in for a nap.  The others talked animatedly about their trip so far, the beeping watch that one of the girls refused to fix, and about the sickness that had ravaged their group.  Seriously?  Sickness?

LeAnna and I shot sideways glances at each other.  The idea of spending 4 days with a sick person wasn’t entirely appealing.  The idea of doing it while hiking to 14,000 feet and sleeping in tents was almost too much.

We drove up and out of Cuzco, watching the villages come alive with workers preparing for the day.  After a quarter of an hour of tattling along the roads, we pulled over and one of the porters hopped out.  The porters would be carrying our food, and non-personal gear.  This guy returned with a propane tank the size of the tank for a barbecue.  It weighed 35 lbs according to our guide, Odon.  We felt bad for whoever would be hauling that thing.  Little did we know…

The terrain was serious.  Steep mountains reminded me of the cliffs I’d seen in Japanese scrolls, and the towns nestled in the valleys buzzed with life, streams of smoke rising from rooftops.

We dozed off and on, LeAnna, our porters, and the other Americans.  The small, dark man next to me put his chin to his chest and drifted off, our arms touching gently in the crowded van.  Between unconsciousness, I opened my eyes enough to get snapshots of my surroundings.  The tall mountains, the deep rivers, the bull rings, standing out like red and white targets.

Our arrival into Ollantaytambo, the starting-place for the trek, was unceremonious.  We pulled our little van alongside the enormous tour busses and stepped out into a crowd of swarming, buzzing locals selling their wares.  Emergency ponchos, energy bars, rubber tips for hiking poles (I actually bought some of these), everything we could possibly need was pressed onto us as we made our way up the stone streets.  We were allotted 45 minutes to shop, use the bathroom, and eat.

LeAnna and I walked away from the crowd and tried to take in our surroundings.  We were in the mountains.  That was for sure.  And there were ruins at the far side of the town: deep steps built into the side of the steep slopes.

We barely had time to catalog them as we reeled around.  The importance of the elements was clear.  Not only were the mountains ever-present, the streets ran with swiftly flowing water channels.

They provided a water-source for every member of the community.

We weren’t especially hungry, but we knew we’d be hiking for something like 8 hours that day, so we decided it was a good idea to eat.  We found a funky place, the Living Heart Café, founded by a British woman who wanted to provide education for local children and opportunities for local women.  We had quinoa porridge.  It was good.  Darn good.  We scarfed it down, along with a cappuccino (for good measure) and tried to figure out if the other Americans in the restaurant were our trail-mates.  It had been so early when we met them that we weren’t sure.

And then we were back at the van for the short ride to the trailhead.  There was more talking in the van now, as we drew closer to our next adventure.

At the trailhead, LeAnna and I checked and re-checked gear, discussed our plan for the day, and posed, fresh-faced, for each other’s cameras.

There was much adjusting of packs.  When I decided to hike the trail, I decided that, aside from food and tent, I wanted to carry my own gear.  It was an issue of pride for me, to prove to myself that I could carry what I needed.  I became even more attached to the idea when I found out I was the oldest person on the trek.  That’s right, me.  At 33, I was the eldest of our group.  Insane.  So I was hyper-prepared.  I had my pack packed tight.  I had it on my back , with my trekking poles set.  I had coca leaves and tons of water accessible to prevent altitude sickness.  I was ready.

When Odon, our guide, called us together, LeAnna and I were first there.  We waited as one of the others, in a loud voice, helped his entire posse adjust their packs.  We refrained from rolling our eyes, and waited patiently.  I noticed how heavy my pack was, and checked that the coca leaves were close by.  We were starting the trail at 12,000 feet above sea level.

After our final briefing, we headed to the trail, and paused for the obligatory group photo.

Odon patiently worked through all 6 of our cameras that were swinging from his wrist.  I considered the blue skies and the gorgeous mountains.  And I reached for my coca.

Now, before the trip I’d heard from everyone who had gone, “drink the coca tea.”  I’d decided, however, that I didn’t need to be ingesting a substance; that I could do the trek without.  That is perhaps true.  However, after spending 3 days in Cuzco, I knew what an altitude headache felt like, and I wasn’t interested in having one on the trail with 30 lbs on my back.

So I took the leaves, which looked just like bay leaves, and I crunched them up.  Then I stuck them in my cheek.  I stuck a lot of these crushed-up leaves in my cheek.  If you are or know anyone who is a tobacco chewer, you probably know that this is not the way to chew a leaf.  The correct way, as I would later find, is to take the entire, dry leaf, moisten it in your mouth, and then fold it gently into your cheek.

By the time we’d reached the checkpoint 1/8 of a mile in, my mouth was numb.

“My mouth is numb,” I said, turning to LeAnna.  “It almost tastes like Novocain.”

“Um,” she said, looking an even mixture of alarmed and amused, “that’s what they make Novocain out of.”

My God, she was right.  I spit the green bits out as much as I could, but they were still wedged between my teeth.  I didn’t really have time to deal with the coca situation, however, as we were almost immediately climbing.  We crossed the Urubamba River and headed up.

I swear to you, I thought I might very potentially die.  I wondered if I’d have a heart attack, if I’d black out and fall off the side of the cliff, or if my body would simply give up.  We were 5 minutes into the trek.  It wasn’t good.

I don’t know how, but I managed to muster one last grin as I was gasping for air and trying to settle my thundering heart.  I was honestly afraid for my physical wellbeing, and equally afraid to show how much trouble I was having.

But the trail leveled out, and I was able to catch my breath – roughly.  I was still a little distressed by the pace that Odon was setting.  I was in pretty decent shape, but I hadn’t been training at high altitude, and I hadn’t been hiking for 8 hours a day, nor with a big pack.  LeAnna seemed okay, and the others weren’t far behind us.  One big voice was booming on, but everyone else seemed to be quieting down.  Maybe they were experiencing the same shock I was.  I don’t know,  I was focusing on breathing.

Twenty minutes in, we hit the first checkpoint.  It was a bend in the ancient rock trail where local vendors had tiny stands selling Gatorade and toilet paper.  We sat in the shade of an enormous avocado tree.  Odon pointed at the fruit that was the size of my hand and told us it was small fruit.  “In a month there will be a hundred of them, this big.”  He held his hands to indicate something the size of a small cantaloupe.

I looked around at the stray dogs that, even here, were ubiquitous.   A tiny, three-legged dog hobbled around, more at ease than I was.

I chuckled to myself.   Great sign for what was ahead.

We left the checkpoint after a 15 minute water break, Odon in the lead.

All thoughts of a “paved path with handrails” were abruptly shoved from my mind.  Whomever had told me that I’d be disappointed at the commercialization of the trail had no idea what they were talking about.  For real.

Another half an hour on, we came to our first archeological site.  One thing I hadn’t expected from the trip was all of the archeology.  I thought we’d hike a long-ass trail and then arrive at Mochu Picchu.  The sites that we visited each day were a brilliant surprise.

From this site, we looked down onto a bigger site, and across the river to one of the original Inka trails that connected the great, ancient cities of the Inkan empire.

We spent some time wandering around the site, listening to Odon’s explanation and marveling at the enormity of where we were.

Then we headed on to lunch.  We hiked another hour before we saw the green and yellow of the food tent that would serve as a beacon for the next four days, signaling rest and food were near.

Our beautiful porters were responsible for carrying the common gear.  The tents and the plates and the food.  They literally ran ahead of us with ridiculously-huge packs on their backs and set up for us, preparing beautiful meals.  We tossed our packs onto the tarp that was lovingly laid out for us, hurled our bodies onto the packs, and promptly, and collectively fell fast asleep.

I’m not sure if the smell of the food or the porters voices woke us up.  We dragged ourselves up from the ground and into the little tent.  The food began simply with bits of garlic bread and corn soup.  And then it became a huge tray of saffron rice, stuffed avocados, and a cheese pudding.

It was clear that my concern about eating as a vegetarian was unnecessary.  Even though they carefully prepared egg dishes for me whenever the others ate meat, I would have been more than fine eating all of the other food that graced the table at every meal.

The meal, like every meal, ended with tea and coca leaves.  I was the only one to add the leaves to the hot water.  I had no intention of feeling the way I had earlier in the day.  I grabbed a banana, and stuffed it down.  I also had no intention of running out of steam on the trail.

We had at least another 3 hours left on the trail for the day, and though we could have lain down, each and every one of us, and slept through the night, we had to shoulder our packs and head on.  This was the test day.  Odon was watching us to see who would be able to make it over the pass, and who would be sent back.  This wasn’t a test any of us wanted to fail.

The trail meandered up and down, and we all walked together, more or less.  Odon would stop us every so often to wait for those who were taking a little longer, or to sit and talk with a friend along the trail.

Odon was fascinating.  He had spent years as a porter. Carrying the packs of other people up and down the trail.  Now he hikes the trail once a week.  ONCE A WEEK.  We did some quick math and figured that he’d hiked the trail something like 500 times.  That, my friends is amazing.

The terrain changed a bit from dusty plains to high-steppe.  The sky continued to shine a startling blue, and the snow-capped mountains got gradually closer.

Our first-nights camp was in a village.  A very small village on the side of the trail.  The company had an agreement with locals to camp in what appeared to be their backyard.  Chickens, big ones, ran around the tents, looking for handouts as we claimed our sleeping quarters for the night, and admired the view.

After another brief nap, and foray to the bathrooms (the bathrooms on the trip will require an entire and separate post), it was time to eat again.  This time it was popcorn, potato soup, alpaca, eggs, and jungle potatoes – an extremely starchy potato that I was sure was filling us with energy for the morning.

Odon let us know that the Porters were monitoring how much we ate.  Not only was it more weight off their backs, it was an indication of whether or not we’d be able to make it over the pass.  We weren’t eating enough…so I reached for another potato or two.

Then he informed us that we could hire porters for the next day’s hike.  The big one.  Ten hours, summiting at 14,000 feet.  If we wanted, he would arrange for porters to carry our bags.  I’m not going to lie.  I considered it.  I asked him if I could make it and he said yes.  He also said that there would be others coming back down the mountain tomorrow who wouldn’t.  That he’d seen them and he knew who they were.  When we asked how he knew, he said they had a different, “flavor” about them.

Then he told one of the guys in our group that he would have to hire a porter.  And that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for one of the women, the one who was sick and coughing most of the time, to hire one as well.  It was a blow.  We could all feel it.  Nobody wants to be told that they can’t make it on their own.  But he was right.

By the end of the night, two porters had been hired.  They’d be carrying two packs.  They’d also be carrying the extra sleeping bag that I was carrying for LeAnna.  We were traveling with one big bag and one smaller one, our gear consolidated.  We’d planned to switch off, but I was holding up well, except for the blasted sleeping bag.  It was rented from the trekking company and not designed to be light.  I was glad to hand it over.

It was pitch black when we climbed into our tents.  Each of us had our little headlamps lit for the brief time it took to crawl into the tents.  And then it was black.  Blissfully dark and quiet.  The hard ground under us was lost as we drifted into sleep.

Bookmark and Share

1 comment

1 Ant { 09.21.10 at 6:05 pm }

Fabulous story! Grazie!!!

Leave a Comment