Tag Archives: Peru

Danny in the Andes: Final Thoughts

People would ask me… was the elevation a problem? Did I notice the thinning air? I’d tell them “I don’t know, I mean I was breathing pretty heavily, but that could have been exertion…”

Anyhoo. Where was I.

Wet and Adequately Wild

Say you’ve just spent four days hiking through the mountains. And that each day involved at least an hour or so of exhausting uphill climb. And that you no longer have young person knees. You’re likely pretty sore, but only in your legs. You might ask yourself… is there anything I can do today to exhaust the rest of my body?

You, sir or madam or non-specific, should go white water rafting.

This was the second activity provided by my adrenaline package, the first having been the horseback riding the day before we left for the homestay. And this time, there would be no burly Australian men to giggle over how I’d handle the endless stairs to Dead Woman’s Pass (adequately, thank you very much).

Actually… there wouldn’t be anybody. Not only did none of my group mates join (perhaps they couldn’t find room for the trip in their budgets), as it turns out, I was the only person who booked that rafting tour. So it was just me and the guides.

I guess March is the off season for Peru? Because this happened a lot. There were only five of us on Peru on a Shoestring. Our dune buggy trip was just four of us and a pregnant woman who couldn’t even go to the dunes. There were two people horseback riding with me, and just me and the guides on the raft. Sure, there were other, usually larger groups scattered here and there, especially at the two largest attractions we visited (the condor-viewing portion of Colca Canyon and Machu Picchu… would have been three if I hadn’t skipped the Nazca Lines), but… either it was the slow season, or G-Adventures picks sketchy, unpopular vendors, and they seem to have their shit together way too much for that.

Anyway.

The tricky wicket was that unlike horseback riding or dune boarding, white water rafting is an activity that is easier with a lot of people. Because of the rowing, you see. There’s a lot of rowing. And it’s kind of important to aid in not hitting rocks and whatnot. And not having a large group meant that there were only two of us rowing.

This was initially troubling, as my arms were getting tired faster than I was comfortable with, but then I remembered how to row properly (use your whole upper body, not just your arms) and I was okay from there. Love a good rafting trip. Also there was lunch. Good morning, especially since I spent my afternoon trying to find a place to buy duct or packing tape to patch up my backpack. Which meant finding a Peruvian equivalent of K-Mart that looked like a department store you’d build after the rise of the machines.

Also got rained on a bit, but there was an upside.

Also got rained on a bit, but there was an upside.

Final Dinner

One last time around the “special tip presentation” block… I mean, sure, yes, these tips were well earned, but I had not put aside enough currency (US or Peruvian) for all of this, so there were a few last minute trips to the ATM to cover me until the airport.

For our last dinner together, Ellard took us to a fancy restaurant across the small square from our hostel. He wasn’t paying for it or anything (I think he even got his meal comped, given that he keeps bringing his groups there), but everyone understood… this was a special occasion. It warranted a special place.

This was our last night as a group. And given how spread out we are, possibly (even probably) the last time some of us would see each other. It’s easy to succumb to melancholy at an event like that, but… I am in theatre. Multiple times a year I let go of a show, of a cast who had been a big part of my life for months, sometimes that meant the world. So after two decades of closing nights and cast parties, I’ve learned how to roll with these things. You savour. You savour every moment you can for as long as you can, and you forget about the goodbye until it’s staring you in the face. And when that comes, try to be too tired and/or drunk for it to sink in right away.

Once again, coy was on the menu, but the most expensive thing, so I saved money by getting a steak. Saved money by getting a steak. Alright, Peru, I know a scam when I see one, “Come to our country, oh, we have this delicacy, it’s an adorable pet in your country, spend all of your money to eat one,” I am on to you, Peru. I also considered buying a bottle of wine for the table, but… 90 US? Okay, I adored these people, but I was already over budget…

As soon as Ellard left the table, the discussion swiftly turned to how to give him his tip. After Brian’s heartfelt speech to Evert and company the previous night, the ladies felt that I should say a few words and present him with the tip. I reacted as I always do upon being asked to say something heartfelt on short notice… with a brief panic attack and a few cries of “What the shit, why me, why you even gotta do a thing,” and brief mental calculus as to whether saying “But Tayla’s his favourite” was going to open up a greater can of worms than I was prepared for (decision in the moment: yes, yes it was, even if I didn’t feel I was wrong). In the end, we all agreed to take turns thanking Ellard before we gave him his tip.

Okay, yes, fine, mine was the best, or so said the ladies, I didn’t say I couldn’t do it, it’s just Brian’s was really good so that was some pressure, and I’m not crazy about being volunteered…

After dinner, people were excited to get back to the club. I’d not gone dancing with the others yet, in at least one case for stupid, stupid reasons… (“I’m sleepy.” Jesus, old man, get it together…) but like I said. We’d been a family the past two weeks, even when Maria was on her own and the rest of us were part of a larger, more Puma-based family. And if this was the end, I was going to cherish every second I could. So, drinks and dancing it was.

Right up until the moment when my presence no longer seemed necessary. Or, rather… noticed. Everyone seemed to be busy elsewhere, I’m not one to force myself into a conversation… or dance… so I quietly took my leave.

People at home hate it when I do that. There have been threats. But they were all on other continent, so…

Final Day

The final day was awkward in one way. All of us (expect Ellard, early flight back to Lima) were still in the same city, but none of us were hanging out. Well, okay, Kate and Amy were, but they’re travel buddies who still had a couple of weeks in South America, of course they were. Maria would fly out first, then me… Kate and Amy were waiting for their night bus to Bolivia, and Tayla still had a day or two of immigration hangups before heading the same way. I bumped into most of them over the course of the afternoon, helped Amy find the chocolate museum, hugged Amy and Maria farewell… next time I’m in New York (and I often feel a trip to New York is in order) I was told to let Maria know… but we’d already said our farewells over Whatsapp, so running into each other at the hostel or town square felt a little like in university when we’d all say goodbye for the day and then go to the same bus stop.

The real problem was that I had very, very little to do.

I slept in until check-out, found lunch, went to the chocolate museum, which wasn’t exactly… it’s kind of minimal. Though I did enjoy having a crepe and a beer in their cafe, and picked up some chocolate liqueur to take home, so, worth the stop.

And then I had a few hours to kill. And the good museum (the Inca museum) was closed. And the museum that was open (pre-Inca art) I’d already gone to the week before. And I was trying not to need more cash, which meant massages were out, last minute tours anywhere were out, not that I had time for one by this point anyway.

Maybe there was still an option other than “Find and outlet in the hostel lobby and borrow their WiFi/play Monopoly on my phone for two hours” but that is what I settled on. But I just needed to kill two or three hours and then my cab would take me to the airport.

So that my flight to Lima could be delayed by about an hour and a half.

Road Home

That was a long, dull wait in a tiny, boring airport, wondering exactly where the plane was, given boarding was supposed to be underway.

There was a time I was slightly irked by how my flight from Lima to Dallas kept getting pushed back, extending my first layover. I was soon glad for it, since the delay meant that a lot of people on my flight were scrambling to make connections once we landed, got our bags, and were confronted with a slow-moving line to check back in.

You ever been in a long, slow-moving line? When you were, could you see the people at the counter? If so, you may have noticed how easily you begin to judge the people behind the counter. I’d noticed it once before in Vegas, when for a spell everyone who checked someone in suddenly went on break and didn’t come back. Like three or four in a row, what the hell was happening back there? So while I wasn’t as pressed for time as some others, I was getting surly. And anxious about check-in deadlines, since my initial check-in back is Cusco didn’t seem to count here. From how long they were taking to check people in, to leaving their station after doing so (There. Is. A. Long. Line. Where. Are. You. Going.), to my personal favourite, the attendant fighting a language barrier to try and ask a Japanese woman her occupation.

You are not immigration. This is not information you require.

All was fine, though. I was checked in with time to spare, even though my layover had been cut from fiveish hours to 3ish. I even had time to hit the food court before security, looking for something to order that would cost just enough to ditch my remaining coins. (Appies from Papa John’s.)

This flight was also delayed. More time sitting and reading by my gate, suddenly realizing this was not and had not been my gate, and then sitting and reading by my actual gate before boarding the plane and taking a couple of Gravol in an attempt to get any sleep between Lima and Dallas.

I did not feel that going through security again in Dallas was super necessary, but I guess it killed half an hour. Then breakfast at TGI Friday’s and onto the only flight, since leaving Calgary over two weeks earlier, to depart on time.

Managed to sleep on that one, too. Not on purpose, I was trying to watch Skyfall…

The worst part about coming home is how quickly it feels like you never left. If home felt like a barely-remembered dream by the time we reached Arequipa, being away from home feels that way after one night in your own bed.

I still miss my group sometimes. They were good, cool, and fun people. And now I fight the urge to turn all conversation topics into “things I learned on the Inca Trail,” because oh my god nobody likes that guy.

There’s still a lot of South America to see. Perhaps I’ll get back there sometime. For now… I feel the pull of the Motherland. The United Kingdom calls to me. Yes, I was “just there last year,” if that’s a thing we say now, but you must recall… I have never “just been” to London. I have only restarted my involuntary exile from my spiritual home.

So thus ends Danny in the Andes. Back soon with… something else?

Danny in the Andes: The Old Mountain

When last we left our hero… well, when we last left me, anyway, maybe you think the hero of this story was Amy the whole time… day two of the Inca Trail started in hardship and ended in fellowship over rum tea.

We proceed.

Day Three: The Long Walk

Day three started much better than day two. I had improved my makeshift pillow by wrapping my hoodie around my book instead of my shaving kit. More comfortable and fewer toothpaste explosions. Also, it had the benefit of taking two items I’d brought for, as it turns out, no reason, and forming them into one item of actual use. Plus two Gravol helped ensure that I got some actual sleep that night.

When 5:30 rolled around, the porter made his rounds, with gentle wake-up calls and coca tea. A simple breakfast later, it was time to pack up and hit the trail. While day two is the hardest day of the hike, day three is the longest. Over 13 kilometres from Pacaymayo to Wiñaywayna.

Camp for night two was nestled in a valley between two peaks, 600 metres downhill from Dead Woman’s Pass, 360 metres uphill to the next peak. Which meant that day three opened with a quick refresher on the worst parts of day two. Which meant, once again, hiking alone.

This happened a lot. I was with a good crew, good people, and I enjoyed our times in the meal tent, even when long hours of hiking with a heavy pack made me question how long I could deal with the less-than-comfortable stool. And we had good chats in the times when we were hiking near each other. I just wish I’d been able to spend more time with them while hiking, rather than the voice in my head saying “You didn’t train. You said you were going to train, then you didn’t, and now this is happening. Are you happy with your choices?”

Some groups ended day two with this second surge of seemingly endless staircase. I’m glad ours didn’t. There’s a relief in knowing that the hardest part of your day is behind you. Also, once you clear that next peak, things get interesting. You’re back into Incan ruins and, in theory, great views.

In theory.

Because here’s the thing about day three. Day three it rained. And when you’re on a mountain, 3600 metres above sea level, and it’s raining, you are in the rain cloud. This meant that instead of appreciating the beauty of the Andes, we were more stuck in a bank of Doom Mist.

Doom's a-coming...

Doom’s a-coming…

Still. We did gather at one fort, up a set of stairs from the day’s first big downhill stretch. Which made for a cool group rest stop.

20160310_101522

On other days, you can see the path behind you and the path in front of you. On this day, we saw the fort.

There was a second fort down the hill from there, but I gave it a miss. It was rainy, kind of cold, and unlike everyone else I lacked a plastic poncho, so I and my day bag were getting soaked through. More than that, I thought this might be a chance to not be in the back of the group for the first time since day one.

The hike from there was pretty good, actually. Sure, there were a lot of vistas where I’d stop and think “Bet this is a great view when the mist isn’t in the way.” But the terrain wasn’t too hard, and I thought I was, actually, in the middle of the pack. After all, Kate was nearby, chatting with Evert about life and love, two topics I really didn’t want to weigh in on but enjoyed listening to well enough. Then after a short burst of uphill, the illusion was shattered, as we reached the lunch site, to be greeted by a clearly large group of people cheering us from inside the meal tent. Turns out I hadn’t been making better time, Kate had just been enjoying a leisurely stoll with Evert.

But that’s okay, because this was the best meal we’d bee served yet. Huge trays of beef, chicken, potatoes, salad, and quina… plus an eggplant cut to look like a condor, but which ended up looking like a pengiun.

Which is clearly great.

Best use of an eggplant I’ve seen.

And to top it all off, the chefs baked us a cake. On a mountain.

And a tasty cake it was.

And a tasty cake it was.

There were only two downsides to this lunch. First, it was a little cold. Quite cold for some. Even the Norwegians, so let’s not be casting aspersions at the Texans. The hot water kettle ended up finding uses beyond making teas and whatnot.

B and Kate snuggle with a kettle for warmth.

Bergljot and Kate snuggle with a kettle for warmth.

On that note… it was around this point that I noticed I’d been overdoing the hot beverages. Or maybe just doing them wrong. Drinking coca tea or hot chocolate was starting to hurt, burning all the way down.

Anyhoo, lunch over, we began our trek down the mountain to Wiñaywayna. I thought it would be eaiser to keep up with people on the way down, but the steepness was hard on the knees, and I prefered a more cautious pace, having already taken a tumble earlier. So, yeah, I got passed, just more gradually this time.

Some groups had stopped at the lunch break. Worn down by the cold and the rain, they pitched tents and called it a day. Those people were going to have to get up two hours earlier the next day, at a time no rational person would call “morning,” so I stand by our choice to push on, especially since the rain stopped and the clouds parted, and we finally had views again.

Our last stop before camp was at another Incan site, full of terracing and llamas. Always loved a good llama sighting.

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Llama!

Llama!

Worth a jump for joy from Kate and Amy.

Worth a jump for joy from Kate and Amy.

This stretch of the hike became more of a treat than a burden. I wasn’t the last person to reach camp, as Rusty had a harder time going downhill than I did, but I was still pretty far back, meaning I got to find camp alone.

See, it was at this point that it became really clear just how many groups are on the trail. Because we all shared one large camp site at Wiñaywayna, and G-Adventures, our group, had secured the spot at the far, far end. They did this so that we wouldn’t have other groups walking through our camp the next morning, which makes sense, but that was a lot of other groups to pass through trying to figure out which was mine. (It wasn’t that hard, mine would be the one with porters applauding for me.)

As it turns out, it was this night that Team US and Team UK got into a fight over Jelly/Jell-o and Tic-Tac-Toe/Knots and Crosses. Really thought that argument would have required the rum from night two, but Robbie’s blog (which was far more punctual, despite that fact that he’s still on the road and I’m not) informs me that it was night three. Oops. Also, during happy hour, I gave up on the hot beverages. They hurt too much on every sip.

Following dinner, we held a thank you ceremony for the porters, in which we presented them with a tip and thanked them for their help. And after three days of hauling our stuff, and one mountain-baked cake, that was well earned.

One last thing from night three. I made my way to the washroom before heading to my tent for the night, to find a few people from the neighbouring camp clustered around the two stalls. The stall on the left was open, but no one was going in, because apparently there was a giant bug just inside the doorway, and nobody wanted to deal with it. I chose not to get a look at the bug myself (you had to go into the stall to see it), and just waited for a turn in the stall on the right… only to find a giant-ass bug lurking on the wall.

Which nobody was talking about.

Which begged the question… how big was the other bug? If the monster bug I saw didn’t even warrant a discussion, how the hell big was the other bug no one was willing to share a bathroom with?

No, I didn’t get a picture. My phone was my only light source, so night time photos were problematic.

Only one day to go…

Day four: The Arrival

Day two was the hardest (unless you’re Rusty, who preferred a lot of up to a lot of down). Day three was the longest. Day four is the earliest. The porters came to wake us at 3:30 AM. Which wasn’t, like, super easy, especially since my tent was next the porters, who were up playing music and chatting after we’d turned in. And I’m like, “Aren’t you getting up at the same 3:00 we are? Earlier, even?”

“But it’s worth it, right?” people ask. Well. Sort of. Though not really. You’re not up at three in the morning to catch the sun rising over Machu Picchu. We got up at 3:30 then walked for a half hour to the check-in point, which wouldn’t be open until 5:00. Because you aren’t getting up at 3 AM for you. You’re getting up at 3 AM because the porters have to make a 5 AM train, and before they do that, they need to break camp, pack it up, and haul everything to the train station. And for them to do that, you can’t still be in the camp.

The wait at the checkpoint would have been a good time to chat and bond with the group, since we’d be parting ways sooner than I liked to think, but… fun fact about me. I am not a morning person. To the point that I do not socialize well before, say, 11:00. 4 AM is, in fact, a good deal of time before 11:00. So instead of chatting with the others, I pulled out my iPod and watched some vintage Doctor Who.

See, I feel sad because I have trouble connecting with people in group settings, then when I’m in a group setting, I do stuff like this. My own worst enemy some days, I’m telling you.

Five o’clock came, and we were back on the trail… for the last big challenge of the hike. The Monkey Stairs. The Monkey Stairs are a staircase right before the Sun Gate (not an actual big stone doorway like I thought, but a gap in the mountain that the sun shines through at a certain time of year when watched from Machu Picchu), said to be so steep that you need to climb them on all fours like a monkey. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that path gets steeper and steeper as you approach the Monkey Stairs. But then, at long last… you make it. And in the distance?

Bingo bango.

Bingo bango.

Machu Picchu awaits.

There is a definite feeling of triumph. You’ve made it. Three days and a wake-up of hiking, some very strenuous, three nights of camping, but now you’re here. Just one last stretch of gentle downhill and you’re at a world wonder.

Also flush toilets. And a cafe. And did I mention the flush toilets? With seats and toilet paper? That were regularly cleaned? Because some of us were really looking forward to that.

Upon arriving at Machu Picchu we had some time on the outskirts to get pictures and have a reunion with Ellard and Maria.

SUCCESS!

SUCCESS!

Also to finish a video project I’d been working on.

The ladies enjoyed taking turns hamming it up as models for Brian, who’d call out things like “Now you’re a condor! Flap! Soar majestically! Now you’re a puma!” Sadly I have no photos of the results, because I didn’t think to take any, and harvesting photos off Amy or Kate’s Facebook feels uncool.

Then we had time to relax and snack in the more touristy area outside of the old city (Machu Picchu was like the Hamptons to Cusco’s New York… a place where the rich went to get out of town and relax over the summer). The food wasn’t exactly a blessed relief, because we’d eaten exceptionally well the last few days, but it was still welcome. Lunch at 8:30 is an odd experience, but it worked. What I wish I’d done is grab a beer with Robbie and Tayla instead of getting a Coke. Sure, there’s a chance I would have been having a beer near Robbie and Tayla rather than with them, but Robbie said some great things about that morning beer. Me, I was just happy throwing my bag into the bag check and exploring the area unencumbered.

After a few hours exploring the area, with and without a guided tour from Evert, I grabbed a bus down to the town to meet everyone for a lunch before our train ride back to Ollataytambo, where we’d split back into our original groups for the drive back to Cusco (which Evert, with Peruvian pride, stubbornly pronounces Cosco, as the Incas did). And at lunch, I did grab a beer. And a pizza. And it did feel good.

Not as good as my first shower in three days felt upon returning to Cusco, but good just the same.

That night… yes, amazingly this is still day four… we all met for dinner (save, sadly, for Rusty, who tended to value resting over meal times on the last two days). A final Puma Family meal, all scrubbed up and looking our prettiest. We presented our guides with their tip (there was a lot of this the last few days of the trip) in a ceremony led by Brian, who even threw in a “My dear family” to kick it off. And as a final… I’m going to use the word “treat,” but your mileage may vary… Evert ticked off one more box of the Peruvian Vacation Experience, buying the whole table a guinea pig to share. Which I also appear to have not bothered to get a picture of.

I ate a small piece. Partially because over a dozen of us were sharing one guinea pig, and partially because it turns out coy, as they call it, is really gristly. And I mean, I don’t even order prime rib often because it’s too fatty and gristly for me. So I don’t really regret not ordering coy more often, because it was always the most expensive item, usually by a fair margin, and it turns out to be gristly and organy.

Yes, organy. You eat the organs. You have to, there isn’t that much meat on a guinea pig.

Following dinner, a contingent headed out to a nearby club, as apparently Evert (at a point I’d missed) issued a challege to be up for 24 hours straight. Our day started at 3 AM, and some were determined to end it at 3 AM. Some of us were in extreme pain from the waist down, given how rough the past few days had been on our knees, and elected to go back to the hotel. As did Tayla, for whatever reason.

Sure, on some level I wish I’d stuck it out with everyone else. But in the moment I was sure I’d have a terrible time attempting to club through leg pain. So… choice made. Goodbyes said. And two last days in Cusco remaining.

Next time, a farewell to Peru, before I start ramping up to rant about superhero TV again.

Danny in the Andes: The Trail Begins

Okay. We’ve talked about my arrival in Peru, we’ve talked about night busses, and we’ve talked about the various stops and shenanigans my tour made. Now let’s get to the main event… the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

(Sidenote… apparently you’re pronouncing that wrong. When you read it just then, you pronounced it wrong in your head. It’s “Machu Pik-chu,” which translates to “Old Mountain,” not “Machu Pee-chu,” which translates to “Old Penis.” Or so our guide Evert claimed. Our guides were known to stretch the truth from time to time.)

On day one, we arose in Ollataytambo, grabbed the complimentary hotel breakfast… which, let me just say, there’s a lot to recommend about the places we stayed, but not the complimentary breakfasts. They made “continental breakfasts,” a term I have long equated with “minimal effort,” look like glamourous buffets. Anyway. Maria left for her tour, while Amy, Kate, Tayla and I met our new companions. Evert called us the Pumas, or “Puma Family.”

He said “family” a lot, greeting the group or calling for attention by calling us “family,” “dear family,” or “Puma family.” I would make a joke here. I’d invent something called the “Dominic Toretto line,” claiming that if you say “Family” more often than Vin Diesel does in a Fast and Furious movie it begins to lose meaning, but damned if it didn’t work. We did become a kind of family those four days.

The last time we'd look this good for a few days.

The last time we’d look this good for a few days.

There were Steven, Leigha, and Will from Texas, two brothers and Will’s wife who were all med students on spring break. Heidi and Berjldot (who said we could call her “B,” as she didn’t love the odds of us pronouncing it right) from Norway. A third, unconnected woman from Norway whose name I don’t recall because I waited too long to write this and she’s not on Facebook and why was I born a fool who “roomed” with Tayla. Rusty from Florida (though now living in North Carolina part time), the only member of the Pumas older than me, and his sons Josh and Brian. Robbie from Devon and Alex from Bristol, who hadn’t known each other prior but formed “Team UK” in later debates with the Americans. I’ll get to that.

Porters

This is a big enough part of the experience it needs its own section.

You'll know them from the backpacks that could hold a teenager. And from hiking better than you.

You’ll know them from the backpacks that could hold a teenager. And from hiking better than you.

I believe I mentioned that you don’t have to carry all of your equipment on the trail. Our group of 15 came with three guides, two cooks, and twentyish porters who carried our personal tents, the meal tent, the chairs, the food, the cooking supplies, and all of our 6 kilo duffel bags. And while carrying all of that, they still do the hike twice as fast as any of us. In sandals. They break camp, dart along the trail, and set up either the lunch break or camp site while you’re hiking, then applaud you as you arrive at camp, and not even sarcastically. They are rock stars, served some of the best meals we had the whole trip, and make the entire hike a far better experience.

That said.

Every time a porter comes up behind you, there is a call of “Porters!” and everyone moves to the side. Like pulling over for an ambulance. This… happens a lot. Like, a lot. There are many groups on the trail at any given time, each with their own troupe of porters, meaning there are over a hundred porters that will pass you at some point during each day of the hike. Twice on days one and three. Never all at once. It can get old. But you don’t complain, because look at all that shit they’re carrying and they don’t even get to come to Machu Picchu.

Day One: The Warm-up

Together, we bussed down to Kilometer 82, a common starting point for the Inca Trail. When Evert said “Inca Trail,” which as our primary guide he did frequently, his accent could make it sound like he was saying “Inca Trial.” Which… was not an unfair assessment, all things considered. The beginning was simple. A fair amount of up, sure, but jovial chatter among we Pumas, and a ceremony asking for blessings from Pachamama, Mother Earth, who the Incas worshipped. That is, I’m told, the reason that the Inca Trail weaves its way up and down the mountain rather than following the river… to truly savour the views along the way. Which, sure, were impressive. There were plateaus, old Inca ruins, it was definitely a hike but not an arduous one at the beginning. The sort of hike that boosts your confidence for the days to come, even if those Australians from the horseback ride have hammered the notion of being sent home back into your head and now on every hill you find yourself thinking “Not yet, flesh body, we can’t get tired yet, so far to go…”

I’m sure everyone thought that. Feels universal to me.

There was also a lot of dung on the trail, because this section is dotted with villages that sell supplies to hikers, and they transport said supplies via horse and donkey. Hence dung. But complaining about feces must not be super Pachamama-friendly, as I seemed to be the only one who noticed or minded. So, whatevs, I guess.

My duffel bag carried shirts, socks, and underpants for three days, plus pajama pants and a hoodie that I was told I would need. I wanted to say “Dude, I’m Canadian, I’ll be fine” but they seemed insistent, so I brought it anyway. In my day bag, which was starting to tear open, but that’s neither here nor there, I had a wool hat (didn’t need), five litres of water (did need), my shaving kit with pills and minimal toiletries, sunscreen, mosquito repellant, a book (for real, Past Dan?), my new scarf (again, from Canada, why did I think I’d need that), a bag of popcorn from our homestay (which was already stale, why did I wait until after the hike to bin it), tour-provided snacks, and my jacket (when I wasn’t wearing it). Not present? A flashlight (didn’t think to pack one) and one of those plastic ponchos everyone else bought at the start of the hike. “Bag’s too full,” I said. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s not like it can fold up even more than it is, being made out of thin plastic,” I said.

Why do I make these decisions.

Especially when they were so stylish.

Especially when they were so stylish.

Anyway, the point is that my bag was pretty damn heavy. But I managed it.

Views were already pretty good.

Views were already pretty good.

After some gorgeous plateaus, we descended to the river for our lunch break, being applauded into camp by our faithful porters, which was a good feeling every time it happened. After a lunch/washroom break, we were back out on the trail… realizing my concern from the previous hour. See, there was a long stretch of downhill right before lunch, which was fun and easy (spoiler alert: not something we’d be able to say about all downhill stretches), but I knew what elevation we were aiming for. Camp at Wayllabamba  would be at 3000 km, over three hundred kilometers above where we’d started. So every metre we went downhill would be a metre we’d have to make back up. Which we did. After lunch.

Still, can't complain about the lunch spot.

Still, can’t complain about the lunch spot.

Evert said the terrain would be “undulating,” implying a series of ups and downs. As I said before… sometimes Evert lies. It was up. All up. The first big challenge… though only a taste of what was to come.

Once again applauded into camp by the porters, we found our tents and settled in. Dinner would be a few hours later, but first, 5:00 happy hour. We gathered in the meal tent for tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and popcorn. We bonded as a travel family, and eventually dinner happened. We ended night one with a ceremony introducing us to our porters. There were a lot to get through, so the intros were limited to name, age, and number of children/marital status, for both them and us. Our porters were all locals to the hills, most speaking Quechua, not Spanish. The sun vanished during dinner, and after a full day of hiking, no one found it that tricky to head to bed. Well, okay, after a half hour of tentmate chatting. If you had a tentmate. Which I did not.

I also learned that flashlights were not provided, and I would have to use my phone to have any light. My phone was on airplane mode from the moment we left Ollataytambo, so this turned out to be a minor issue, but suffice to say flashlight duty burned through more of my phone battery than anything else during the trek. I guess since “Everything else” amounted to “Being on but not used,” that’s not surprising.

Day Two: The Ordeal

This was it. The day I’d been dreading. The day generally known to be the most challenging of the entire hike. And it did not… it did not get off to the best start.

I barely slept the night before. Like, night bus-level bad sleep, where I only had the vague sensation that I must have been asleep at some point, but rarely seemed aware of it. Dogs were barking. My makeshift pillow, which involved wrapping my hoodie around my shaving kit and shoving it under the air mattress, was not super comfortable. Also I guess I’d overdone the coca tea, because in the middle of the night I really had to pee. I was, however, unwilling to deal with the effort of getting my boots on, finding my glasses, and getting my phone out, so I just walked in my socks to the bushes I knew to be nearby.

Those socks remained damp for the next three to four days. So, as decisions go, I give it B, B-.

When “morning” came (said it before and I’ll say it again, if the sun is not up, it is still night), things did not super improve. I discovered that my makeshift pillow solution had caused my toothpaste to explode, getting toothpaste all over my tent, sleeping bag, and pants. I admit this made it easier to find my tent on subsequent days, but overall, I wasn’t thrilled with this turn of events. Also, when I attempted to put my contacts in, one of them fell out. A falling contact violates the laws of physics. It never manages to land, like, directly underneath where it was. I can be leaning over the sink, and the dropped contact will end up behind where I was standing. As such, I never saw that contact lens again. It belongs to Pachamama now. It was glasses from thereon out.

So, you know, doing great on the start of day two. If you’re about to embark on the most physically demanding day of your hike-slash-vacation-slash-adult life, possibly, the last thing you want is to be well-rested. And if you can have a wave of annoyances on top of being tired, even better.

Anyhoo.

A brief and simple breakfast later, it was time to begin. Camp at Wayllabamba was on an Inca terrace partway up the trail to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest elevation of the trail, and a full 1,000 metres up from camp. Hence being the toughest day… it’s four to five hours of constant climbing, and it only. Gets. Steeper.

Day two was also the loneliest day of the hike. We all went at our own paces, because of course we did, meeting up at the pre-planned break points and meal stops, but day two is when my pace and the rest of the group’s pace really began to noticeably differ. I found myself in the back of the pack both soon and often, so for long stretches I hiked alone. Well, with occasional visits with whichever guide was assigned to taking up the rear, which on day two was Daniel. So he was the main person I saw on my way to the pass.

At the first break, it began to sink in… I hadn’t seen Rusty all day. Or his sons. Not at breakfast, not on the trail, not with the group at the break point. This caused a wave of panic and a touch of despair. Had it happened? Had Rusty been sent back? The hike was already hard, but going back still seemed unthinkable. Turning back was failure. But if Rusty was gone… was I next?

At the next break point I found out that Rusty had not turned back. Knowing that he had the slowest pace of any of us (even me), Rusty had decided to get up and leave an hour before the rest of us. Josh and Brian, dutiful sons, went with him. This was a relief, and knowing this, I pushed on, up and up the increasingly steep stone steps. Pausing when I had to, sitting to drink water when I had to, just trying to get up the next section.

View wasn't bad, though.

View wasn’t bad, though.

There is a long stretch where you can see Dead Woman’s pass in the distance. And it doesn’t look that far away. But this, ultimately, doesn’t help. The endless staircase of day two constantly curves its way along the mountain, but it never seems to be curving towards the pass. Every time you round a corner you see another stretch of stairs that is not leading where you want it to be. Which is not encouraging.

Nor is it encouraging when two people come up and just stand behind you, glaring, while you pull yourself up the next step. Yes, fine, Beardy McGlower, I am taking my sweet time right now, and yes, we all were encouraged to aim for the lowest part of the next step, but that isn’t mandatory. Go around me if you’re in such a god damned hurry. Bad enough I was pulling over for porters every ten minutes.

There were times when I felt like I honestly didn’t have the strength for another step up, let alone another flight. I was as tired as I could remember being, depleted… but through force of will and plenty of water, I pushed on. And eventually, the pass was ahead. Encouraging calls from Kate, Amy, and Tayla rang down from above. Each step was a struggle, had been for a half hour at least, but the end was truly in sight. I pulled myself to the top, dropped by bag, and rested, triumphant. And then filmed the second segment of a video I’d decided to make.

I passed Rusty on the way down. As always, he had a big smile on his face, was a delight to talk to. Turns out he did okay on the uphill sections, but climbing down the same stone stairs after the peak was far harder. I see his point. The stairs were easier on the way down, but not easy. They were hard on the knees, and it was easier to roll your ankle a little stepping down. The walking sticks were still a big help.

I’m pretty sure that’s the area where I slipped and fell off the path. A combination of fatigue and a misstep sent me, somewhat gradually, off the steps and into the tall grass. This was not one of the sections where I hiked alone, as it turns out. Heidi and B were there. Possibly Leigha. So I felt a call of “I’m good, nothing hurt but my pride” was in order.

Around 2:00 I arrived at the campsite, in time for lunch. Yes, for day two, our lunch stop was also our campsite, something we were all grateful for. Others had to hike back up for two hours after lunch. We got to just collapse. And collapse I did, quite literally. Once I found the tent that was smeared with toothpaste, I unzipped it, and flopped face-first onto the air mattress. There I remained until the lunch call, five or ten minutes after.

Our port of call for night two.

Our port of call for night two.

The hero of the day was Robbie. One of the rest stops on the way to the pass is also the last place to buy supplies. Sure it’s expensive, but it’s your last chance for snacks, water, or, and this is the important part… booze. The Australians had recommended buying beers to share with the porters. Robbie took it one step further, and bought us all a bottle of rum. Happy hour truly was happy hour day two, as Evert took the bottle and whipped up a rum/tea concoction. We played drinking games and fell into spirited arguments over proper language, with Robbie, Alex, and Tayla campaigning for British terms like jelly, jam, and noughts & crosses, while Team USA fought for Jell-o, jelly, and Tic-Tac-Toe. Yes, each side had a jelly. The Brits thought jelly was the gelatin desert we were served after dinner, the Yanks claimed it was the breakfast spread. We in Team Canada were stuck in the middle, while Team Norway got to just laugh at our antics.

Robbie has, on his blog, accused us of not sufficiently having the motherland’s back in these arguments. While I will admit that Noughts and Crosses does make more sense as a name (provided that you call zeroes “noughts”), because what even is a tic or a tac, but I’m sorry, Team UK, Jell-o is a brand name so is technically correct regardless of continent.

Day two was a struggle, for a long while. Five hours of increasingly difficult climb. Moments of doubt, times when I had to fight through the urge to just stop. But if there hadn’t been hardship, there couldn’t be triumph. And there was triumph. And in the end, fellowship. Laughter and good times, buoyed by Robbie’s rum.

triumph

Wow this got long. Next time, Doom Mist and the Old Mountain.