By Kim Luu –
We agreed that if we were a sitcom, we’d be canceled for socially insensitive stereotyping. Or at the very least, we’d be given flaming reviews for blatant typecasting. The seven of us hiking the Inka Trail for the next four days all happened to hail from California; a slight coincidence considering we were in Peru but all had ties to the Los Angeles area. We filled all the stereotypes of a hastily written sitcom- three from Los Angeles who worked in the entertainment industry as costumers (among them was Nickolaus, an immaculately dressed man who started the first day of the trail wearing a Prada hat, and Celeste and Kat, two vegetarians of whom one was a certified yoga instructor and the other of whom was a devoted yoga practitioner) and myself an Asian engineer (I assure you there are Asians that exist outside of engineering). I suppose our saving grace was that we also counted amongst us: Melissa, Nickolaus’ sister who is a reading instructor for the deaf from Riverside; Moti, the sister of our Peruvian guide Alvaro who was visiting from LA for the first time in a number of years; and Geoff, a Brit by birth but a Texan by upbringing whose Texas twang had never quite formed due to the Brit-Texan combination in his formative years.
Geoff and I had met the others the night before the trek in Cusco, where we sat on plush cushions in the lobby of one of the finer hotels of Cusco sipping Coco tea and listening to Alvaro cover the logistics of our trip. Nickolaus, Kat, Celeste, and Melissa were there celebrating Melissa’s birthday. Geoff and I were in Peru on a little more than a whim to go somewhere in South America because of cheap airfare specials. Moti was originally from Peru but had moved away at 16, and was back for an extended vacation to visit family and to trek the Inca Trail. We were a couple of groupings of strangers from LA, on the flipside of the world.
Sitting in the hotel lobby listening to Alvaro talk about the trail we were to embark upon, the hours we would hike, stone staircases that we would climb, and the rainy season that we were well into seemed so hypothetical and academic. Oh right, 3 hours of hiking the first day, 5-6 hours of hiking the second day, 7-8 hours of hiking the third day, 5 hours of hiking the fourth day. Sure, no problem. I don’t think I so much as glanced at the map that he handed out to us, describing our campsites and the changes in elevation through Andean peaks and valleys that would take us there. I was excited and nervous, not knowing how my problematic knees would hold up to a number of daylong hikes in succession. I knew the days would be long, and didn’t think submersion into the minutia of trail details would ease my nerves. I am armed with knee braces that I picked up at Rite Aid before the trip, ibruprofen, Alleve, a walking stick, and coco leaves to alleviate either my pain, whining, or both. I am ready.
And now, here we were at Kilometer 82, the starting point of the Inca Trail. A suspension bridge across the Urubamba River marked the start of our journey. The vistas surrounding us were unreal: the rumbling muddy brown river below us, the jagged white tops of mountain peaks stabbing the electric blue sky, wisps of grey and white cotton candy clouds pasted generously around us-in turns threatening and in turns docile, old women dressed in traditional multi-layered knee-length petticoat skirts and woolen bolero hats riding their mules down the trails to town. It almost felt stolen from a movie set, an exaggerated movie set at that.
We set upon the trail, ascending in elevation through light drizzle and hot sun, alternating between pealing layers off and adding them back on. The weather of the mountains is fickle, especially on the trail when you hike through so many microclimates and weather conditions.
Our guide, Alvaro, knowledgeable but in turns hyper and frantic with energy, leads the way along a narrow worn path of well trodden grass. Alvaro has worked as a guide for about 16 years leading trekking trips in the Andes, trips in the jungle, and rafting trips down Peru’s many rivers.
Along the way, he points out mint plants used to treat sinus ailments, relatives of the poison ivy family used to numb joint pain, and agave cactus plants that send central flowering stalks up 8 feet high. Alvarro shows us a wild Gooseberry Bush growing out of the base of an old ruin. Peeling away the outer layer, he reveals a bright green berry within the pod.
“This is edible,” Alvaro says. We are curious and poke and prod at the multitude of berries on the bush. “But only if it is ripe. These berries right now are green and poisonous,” Alvaro continues as he walks away and back on the trail.
“—PAHTOOWHEE!” Moti immediately spits out a mouthful of young Gooseberry. “Alvaro! Poisonous?! What do you mean poisonous?” A slurry of Spanish ensues as Moti trails Alvarro back to the path. I don’t speak Spanish, but if I was a betting person and had to translate, it would probably go something like this, “What the hell do you mean poisonous? Why didn’t you tell me it was poisonous before I ate the darn thing?”
We hike for about three hours on the first day of the trail. We have light daypacks and fancy gortex hiking shoes but we are no match for the porters. On the trail, I walked briefly behind a porter before he left me in the dust. His calf muscles bulged with each step, veins running lengthwise down his leg and disappearing into his socks and beaten sneakers. I had my knee braces for my knee, diamox pills to help with altitude adjustment, and walking stick to help with the stairs. I was humbled many times over. The porters, in their flimsy sandals and loads up to a government-regulated 19 kilograms per person (although you’d never think it when you saw some of the massive loads) wrapped in woven blankets hefted onto their backs, easily beat us to camp. By the time we reach our camp, the porters have already set up our tents, complete with inflated Thermarest sleeping mats and two bowls set outside each tent for washing up. The kitchen tent is up. I hear popcorn popping. The smell of fresh popcorn- so out of place in our camp above purple flowering potato field- floats through the air. It was a good first day starter hike, and we had still a good amount of evening light ahead of us.
Celeste, Kat, Nickolaus, and Melissa are fast hikers. By the time Geoff and I reach camp, Celeste, a certified yoga instructor, is leading everyone in the downward dog yoga position. I run over and join them on the wet misty grass as Celeste, with her soothing yoga instructor voice, leads us in a pose and tells us to touch our fingertips to the sky. A good 15 feet behind us us, a couple of local kids have gathered and work in earnest to mimic our positions. They are 8 or 9 years old, and muffle conspiratorial giggles to one another as they wrap themselves into pretzels, touching the sky with one hand and clasping an ankle with the other. I feel like I’ve lucked upon a yoga retreat.
The sun is setting, draping its light over the folds of mountains in the distance. The air is brisk. The cook and crew work hard and fast and before long, dinner is cooked: an appetizer of hot popcorn, coco leaf tea, and a hot meal of fresh squash soup, grains, and vegetables. A few candles adorn the tables. We gather around the table inside the dining tent and trade stories. A cacophony of laughter rings through the evening air. We are camping in luxury, absolute luxury.
We set upon the trail the following morning for Day 2 of the hike. The day’s hike takes us through a cloud forest, over bridges made of bundled tree trunks, and by ruins of old stone temples with curved walls and east facing windows to worship the sun. Alpacas or llamas wander around ruins, grazing on the grass. We walk by terrace fields left over from Incan times. The fields are fallow but the stonework and terracing remain intact. Long flat stones jut out in the middle of the terrace wall to serve as a floating staircase connecting one level to the next, all still intact after 500-600 years. We walk onto a high hillside and over look an old Incan outpost below. The thatched roofing over the buildings had disintegrated over time, but the stonework masonry and mortar was still intact. Walls left standing long after the people that built them had gone. We ran through the deserted outpost, peaked into little rooms that had stone alcoves built into the walls. By evening, we wander through a field of free grazing alpacas to get to our campsite, a lush green flatland on a slight precipice above the sloping valley of alpacas and green fields below. The evening mist and cloud slowly rolls in and etches out the panorama below us until it feels like we are floating above the clouds. In the dining tent, we devour our food, and trade more stories long after the sun has set around us and mist has turned to droplets of rain. It feels like we are in a bar back home, shooting the shit with old friends. Kat gives me tips on how to launder my cashmere without destroying it. Melissa tells us that Nickolaus bought the trip for her as a birthday present, and we all immediately decide that we want to be next in line to be Nickolaus’ sibling. Geoff and I try to convince Celeste to start a yoga retreat on the trail. Moti is having a little difficulty on her first long foray into trekking but at the end of the day, is good humored about her difficulty coping with the hiking. Moti speaks fluent Spanish, and tells us that she was hurting badly through one of the passes so she cried on trail to a porter. The porter, hauling 19 kilograms of ware on his back, comforted her and told her it’s okay, sometimes life is hard, you can push through it.
Day 3 of the hike is a long day, and includes the famed Dead Woman’s pass. The hike ascends over two peaks, and descends through two valleys before we will reach camp. From below, the path looks like a straight staircase up, only wrapped around a mountain. From above, it looks like a stone spiral has been cut into the mountains.
“Didn’t the Incans believe in switchbacks?” Melissa asks.
Apparently not. Or someone got vetoed.
Even though Melissa was sick and weak that day, she was a trooper. She walked slowly and rested often, but she kept on pushing her way to camp.
By the time we reach the first peak and start to descend, dark clouds moved in on the horizon and it started to rain. The rain continues to pour for a solid four hours, teasing us with light droplets interspersed with a true downpour. The stone staircases turn into flowing streams that gushed straight down the mountain. In some places, the water was six inches deep on the stairway path. Porters whizzed by us, some holding a simple piece of blue tarp above their pack to keep things dry.
The sky flashed. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand,� Geoff and I counted to ourselves. Crack. Okay lightning was eight miles away.
Flash. Crack. Okay, yikes, a little closer that time. Just 3 miles away.
“That’s not good,” I mutter to Geoff, hoping that he’ll tell me I just happened to count too slow that time.
“We’re okay. But if the lightning gets any closer, we’ll need to perch on our packs about 100 feet apart from each other on a low part of the mountain and wait it out. The packs will absorb some of the shock if anything near us gets struck. And we want to be a good distance apart from one another so that one of us can get help in case the other gets struck,” Geoff says, the innate guide mode in him emerging.
“Um, es no bueno,” the little Spanish I know gets repeated in my head. That’s not good at all. “Hmm, I guess this is why they call this the rainy season,” I tell Geoff.
When we near the second peak of the day, lighting is still striking. Geoff sends me onward and tells me, “I am damn serious, Kim. Do not stop anywhere near the peak. Just keep going and wait for me on the other side, a good 300 feet or so away from the peak.”
I am nervous. The sky flashes intermittently a few times around me. The mountains crackle and echo. I haul ass up the peak. It turns out to be a teaser though, and the real peak is just a little further beyond, having been previously hidden from view. I am breathless and soaking but I do not stop. One foot, walking stick, other foot. I trod up the staircase and over the peak. I am breathless, but there is nothing like the flash crackle pop of lightning storms to get your heart racing.
It is late by the time we finally settle into camp. But by then, the rain has died down and the lighting storm has passed. Our tent is perched on the side of a hill, and the view from our unzipped tent overlooks another Incan ruin below. Two steps beyond the opening of our tent would send us careening through shrubs down and the side of the mountain. Our daypacks are saturated with rain. Our wallet, money, and passport could be wrung out. We lay out our money and passport in the tent, hoping to dry it in the humid mountain air. Money laundering for novices. The sun has set, leaving lingering traces of blue light in the evening Andean sky. The mountains in the distance look like folds of blue shades enveloping onto itself. The mountains looks like an origami of shapes, each one just one iota shade of color different than the one in its foreground. The cloud mist drapes itself on the shoulders of the mountains.
It has been a long day though. Nickolaus is worried about his sister and upset that Alvaro wasn’t bringing up the rear and keeping his eye on Melissa when he said he would. Melissa is spent and resting in her tent. Inside the dining tent, the rest of us gather while Nickolaus and Alvaro exchange heated words outside. We understand why Nickolaus is upset, but it sounds like there would be no resolution to the dispute.
“It’s okay,” Celeste says. “Nickolaus is gay and sometimes it flares up. It’ll blow over.”
“You’re right,” I say. “Alvaro is Latin American and Nickolaus is gay. This could go on for a while.”
Luckily it doesn’t, and they make up by the end of the night before we set out on trail again for the final Day 4.
After about 5 hours of hiking on Day 4, we arrive at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. It is the entrance from which most of the postcards of the site are taken. The trail opens up at the gate onto a view of the expansive ruins below. After four days of hiking, I fee like I have been on a pilgrimage to the holy land. I haven’t washed my hair or showered in four days, I smell, my body aches. But I don’t care. At the entrance, we sit for awhile, gorging ourselves on the site below. When you are there, it feels unreal. Steep mountains jut upwards around the hilltop city, and a muriad of stone buildings are scattered within the mountains palm. From above, we can hardly make out anyone in the site, but a look through binoculars reveals a stream of people throughout Machu Picchu’s buildings. Once inside, it feels like a maze lined with terrace fields, condor rock formations, and staircases that braid everything together.
And so, these are the mental postcards of my trip. My images and soundbites are as much about Machu Pichu’s llamas and the porters’ bright red ponchos as they are about Nickolaus’ coordinating cashmere scarves and skinny jeans, yoga class on hilltop campsites, the bitter taste of chewed coco leaves, and Geoff racing with his camera in hand to capture a soaring wild condor on film. To me, Machu Picchu smells like fresh popcorn, tastes like fresh hot squash soup, and feels like the adrenaline from a lightning storm, and I couldn’t have imagined it any other way.