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trekking tahuantinsuyu

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I stuffed a chocolate brown corduroy jacket into my backpack and remember thinking that this would keep me warm when our plane landed at the airport in Cusco. My friend and I were on our way out the door to catch a plane to trek the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu. It was winter there and summer all year round on the island where we live, so I didn’t have much to choose from when it came to packing for cold seasons. The jacket was a tight fit since I bought it years ago in my twenties. I’d gained some weight after marrying a man in my thirties who insisted we eat tacos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. His family was of Mexican descent, and he knew how to bring authentic tamales and taquitos to the table every evening. Dinner was always delicious, but I paid a price. I must have gained 20 pounds by the time I filed for divorce. Now that I was starting to lose weight after moving to a sunny island where ceviche is a staple food and you can’t find good Mexican cuisine, I remember also thinking, as I packed up the last items that day, that I would most certainly be back to my normal weight (whatever that means?) by the time I trekked 38 miles through the Andes. Never mind the fact that I was now well into my forties, that jacket would fit me again in a matter of days.

As much as I insisted that turning forty caused me to put on a few more pounds, my parents firmly believe that your metabolism does not have to slow down as you age. My father is a harsh critic when it comes to diet. I remember gleefully sharing my enthusiasm for enchiladas by taking him out to El Fenix for one of those winter Monday holidays, perhaps it was Presidents’ Day. He calmly placed his fork down after two or three bites of his lunch and silently shook his head in disbelief. “Why do people eat this food? I just don’t understand why anyone would eat this stuff. It’s so bad for you. That is going to have to be it for me.” He was leading by example in hopes that I would finally see the light of his wisdom and walk away from this forbidden cuisine the same way an alcoholic might push aside his cocktail and sign up for a Twelve-step program. He sat there, eyeing my fork, patiently waiting for me to place it down and walk with him out of that restaurant forever and into a new bright future ahead. Instead, I cleaned my plate and asked the waiter to box up his meal to go.

I try not to be fixated on weight the way my parents and American media messages suggest I should be. My dad could have finished eating those enchiladas. Enchiladas are a delicious food that people must eat and enjoy in moderation. Mexican food is a blessing to all of us here on Earth. Weight loss was on my mind that day because it just happened to be one of the benefits to embarking upon this adventure I was about to take. There were others for sure, but this one was immediate and measurable, and that was the incentive I needed to psychologically prepare myself for what I was about to do. I guess I figured, no matter what I was about to endure, at least I would lose a few pounds.

Adventure is an interesting word. Most people have positive associations in their mind when the word is thrown out there. It just sounds fun. Adventurous people are those you’d like to have as friends. But after you have set forth on a few of these journeys, you know the road isn’t always smoothly paved because it could, at anytime, present you with an unexpected roadblock or sudden sharp curve, maybe even a cliff to fall off as you plummet to your death. Didn’t busses plunge over steep ravines all the time in South America? There are inherent risks involved when it comes to any adventure. Years ago, I stayed at the Chianti Institute in Marfa, Texas over the summer. I pored through all the books in the library on lazy afternoons and distinctly remember a book by Agnes Martin. Her words have always stuck with me. “Life is an adventure and adventures are difficult. They are hard work and one does not know how they will go on or how they will end.”

These are words I know to be true, not just for travel, but also for so many other things we embark upon in life. I also know the rewards can be immense; so much so, that the hard work and difficulty it takes to move through it will make it worth it in the end. And as you get older, the regret of not taking the plunge will be far more bitter down the road than any discomfort you experience as you face these challenges. So these are the things I told myself as I prepared. Because the truth is that I am not fearless by any means. It is actually in my nature to worry, worry is part of my DNA – everyone in my family does it. And as I get older, I am even more timid and hesitant than I ever remember being racing down ski slopes in my twenties. But I know I have to make myself move through fear because if I don’t, fear will stop me in my tracks and keep me from moving forward to experience a forty something life to the fullest.

I fretted about all kinds of stuff before the plane even took off for Peru. I was worried about just making it to the fifth day on our trek. It was rated as moderate to difficult compared to all of the other hikes to Machu Picchu. The itinerary was intimidating. Eventually, I stopped reading about it online because all of the reviews were freaking me out. I’d find out everything I needed to know soon enough. I kept it to myself, but I had serious doubts. I had doubts that my ligaments and joints would withstand the relentless pounding. That is the thing about aging that no one tells you when you are younger. Eventually you start to feel the life you have lived over again in your spine and sockets. If you have had a certain amount of bumps and bruises in life, or have just lived a very active lifestyle thus far, your body has a way of keeping the memories alive for you. It’s going to bring those aches and pains back from time to time. I didn’t want that to happen deep in the Andes. How would I even get out of there if it did? 

I also worried about my clothing and trekking gear. As much as I tried to pull it all together living on an island, I just didn’t have everything I needed. I didn’t have the clothing made from synthetic materials. No Techwhick t-shirts. No base layers in Merino wool. Everything I packed was made from natural fibers because they were all makeshift selections from clothes I wore during my daily life in the Dutch Caribbean. I guess my yoga pants would have to double as hiking pants. Hopefully, it is acceptable to wear jeans when you hike. I couldn’t find any of the stuff I needed shopping in Aruba, and it was too expensive to ship from the States. Luckily, we found a Merrell kiosk of hiking boots after a wild goose chase one Saturday afternoon when Isabel and I visited every shoe store on the island. Every sales person assured me that they understood what I needed and knew where I could find it: and so we were off to the next shoe store, and the next, and the next, and another after that until we finally hit the jackpot. My ex-husband was kind enough to surprisingly ship a Camelbak filled with a few hiking items he deemed would be essential since he was the expert in adventure sports. I guess it was his way of making peace after I picked up all the attorney fees. My biggest mistake was not buying socks made specifically for hiking. I bought a bulk package of white cotton socks at the Chinese store because that was all I could find on the island. I was an amateur in many ways.

One thing I wasn’t worried about was arriving in Cusco. Nothing compares to that first moment when you step out on to the streets of a new city. Other people may fear being dropped into a foreign country surrounded by people from another culture. This was one of the few things in my life that never brought about anxiety.  Here I was in the Andes. I’d read about this place my entire life. I’d been here over and over again in my mind, flipping through page after page in books. There were llamas and glorious golden statues of Pachacutec and women wearing colorful textiles stooped on the steps of Spanish cathedrals. Terraces could be seen in the distance; we would eat potatoes or quinoa for dinner that evening. We went to the museum as soon as we felt we had adjusted to the altitude and peered through glass, carefully studying mummy bundles and trephined skulls. I examined Inca stone walls up close on the city streets: there really was no way to slide anything between those giant blocks placed so precisely together without mortar. Inside the cathedral at Plaza de Armas, iconography meshed together on a painting where Jesus and his disciples sat around a table serving up Guinea pig and chicha at the Last Supper. Dancers twirled down the street in anticipation of Inti Raymi. All of this would get me through anything ahead. I could climb a mountain in yoga pants and stupid white cotton socks. Who cares if I would soon freeze to death and my feet would become covered in painful blisters the size of kiwi fruit? I was in Tahuantinsuyu.

After a banana for breakfast and a long bus ride that left Cusco before sunrise, we arrived at our jumping off point, Mollepata, just as the day was breaking. Every one made it through the first day gracefully and with ease. Well, except for the first incline, the climb up seemed to be affecting all seven people in our trekking group. I stopped for a moment after the first thirty steps or so and panicked because I couldn’t catch my breath. Once we reached a vantage point along the slope of the mountain, our tour guide — Ever was his name, which is actually a common name in this region — asked if anyone was feeling the effects of the altitude. He took out a tiny bottle from inside his jacket pocket and poured a splash of shamanic flower spirit water into all of our open palms. He told us to rub our hands together and deeply inhale the fragrance. I have no idea what the stuff was but it did seem to give us the boost we needed to continue climbing.

I’ve spent a lot of time around mountains. My mother put me on skis as a toddler; some of my first memories as a child were of maneuvering my way in snow plow formation through the legs of giant wooden replicas of Bert and Ernie. But these were not the Rockies. I imagine you would have to go all the way to Alaska to see mountains this big in the United States. It was the world as I knew it, only magnified, and so incredibly so, that I couldn’t help but feel about as significant as a gnat. I scanned the panorama of snow capped peaks, jutting up across the sky (some as high as 17,000 feet). As impressive as the scenery was as I looked up high, I was equally impressed looking down to the ground at a pile of potatoes. Ever, who was enthusiastically ready to explain the process of making chuno, had just stopped us abruptly in our tracks in front of a tiny stone house with a thatched roof to gather around a tuberous heap. This is why I had come on this crazy expedition. It was the history in the Andes that made my heart skip a beat.

The long history of the potato fascinates me, so ignoble in appearance, yet they are still worshipped in the Andes today. They even designated a day on the calendar to celebrate potatoes, May 30th. These gritty, lumpy, suspicious looking spuds had to be the greatest novelty carried back across the Atlantic to Europe. Although Europeans were at first recorded to be suspicious, potatoes would eventually be elevated in status as one of the most important crops after the discovery of the New World. There are nearly 4,000 varieties in Peru, and papas (derived from Quechua) were on the menu for just about every meal we ate throughout our time in Peru. Who knew they could be that colorful and delicious!

On the second day we set out as the sun was rising to climb to the summit of Mt. Salkantay. We had trained somewhat for this on our tiny island at sea level. At the center of Aruba, there is a volcanic formation, referred to as a mountain but actually only a hill. People living on the island call it Hooiberg, which is Dutch for haystack. It is 541 feet to the top, which makes me laugh now that I realize we were going to be climbing to a mountain summit that was 15,088 feet high. We would climb the 600 stairs to the top after work every week on Wednesdays. As part of our conditioning program, we both agreed to go on day-long hikes every Sunday to build up our strength and fortitude to survive under extreme conditions. Our theory was that hiking in sweltering heat under a powerful tropical sun would prepare us for anything we might encounter trekking the second highest mountain range after the Himalayas. We should also make our island hikes extra challenging by going all day long, so as to feel what walking 8 consecutive hours is really like. Maybe we could get lost once in a while (Check), and even better if we were really low on water (Check).

Most of our pre-hikes in Aruba were along the coast on the rugged Atlantic side of the island. The scenery was always spectacular, and our efforts really did help condition us for what was ahead. Our hardest hike in Aruba before leaving for Peru was an 8 hour day, going down and then up two dry stream beds in Arikok Park. The heat in Aruba is unforgiving, and after several years without much rain, not much grows in Arikok these days. Hiking these trails, Rooi Tambu and Rooi Prins, it seemed as if the world had ended and we were the only humans left.  No one else was on the trail, which the park ranger had warned us would be the case. Everything had died. Dead trees. Dead goats. Eventually the goats were no longer goats but scattered bones, a skull here, a leg over there, and then a rib cage. Soon we came across a deceptive green apple tree, the infamous Manchineel tree, which just happens to be the most poisonous tree on Earth. There was a big sign reading DANGER directly underneath the tree, only after going under the tree to read the small print do you find out that it is perilous to stand there because the sap could leak onto your bare skin and cause you to suddenly break into a blistering rash that feels exactly like — as many wretched victims have described — being set on fire. Some victims did not live to tell us what it feels like if you accidentally eat the apple. After that hike, I knew I could take on the Salkantay. I was psychologically prepared for it at least. And my boots were fully broken in now.

So on that second day, by far the hardest day, over the summit and into the jungle we marched. The hike seemed to go on forever, maybe ten hours, possibly 12. Who knows? At the end, we were in survivalist mode so the details escape me. As we scaled to the summit, most of us had to stop often because so many were suffering from altitude sickness. It was a relief when the horses passed by because we could actually rest without looking as if we weren’t going to make it. I remember feeling like my body was going to give up on me, but my mind stayed strong. “It is all psychological,” Ever reminded us over and over again. Eventually, I just did what I always do during my toughest moments and focused on my breathing, the climb had become a moving meditation, one very shallow breath after another. This got me to the top. We were all blissed on the way down — here was something we could do without gasping for air.  Then afternoon turned to night and we were still on the descent, except now we were walking in the dark in the jungle. By the time we made it to camp and turned our flashlight off, I could no longer walk. My legs felt like jello and my knees felt like someone had hammered  them with a mallet.

Early the next morning, freezing cold and bundled up in multiple layers inside our sleeping bags, we woke up to a hand floating through the zipper of our tent. The hand was holding a cup as it rang like our morning alarm clock, “Coca tea?” After taking the piping hot beverage, the hand reminded us to be ready to go in 30 minutes, never mind that it was still pitch black dark. I did the best I could to pack up and prepare for the day, but I left behind my sunglasses and overlooked bandaging up major blisters that were developing on my feet.

Off we went onto the outskirts of the Amazon. The scenery was epic, but my knees were shot from walking a steep downhill most of the day before, so I was limping at this point. Isabel was walking behind me to make sure I didn’t fall off the side of the mountain, as I wobbled unsteadily on a path carved into the steep slope, a path about the width of an escalator. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks on the gravel, looked over the steep ravine inches from my feet, and just started sobbing. “I can’t do this,” I told my friend. I cried because I didn’t understand any of these people. “Why would you voluntarily do this to your body? I’ve always been trained to listen to your body. If your knees are screaming at you, then it is just common sense to stop and maybe take a seat so you can rest.” Isabel offered her best Dutch words of encouragement. Eventually, Ever saw that I was in distress and came to walk behind me, taking Isabel’s place so she could move on with her life and enjoy the nature walk. The pain I was feeling on the downhill was normal he said. Everyone feels it to varying degrees. Somehow just hearing that others had walked in this agony before me helped to get through it. We made it to camp that afternoon and were so relieved to dip into hot springs at Santa Teresa that evening. You could see a glimpse of Huayna Picchu through the clearing. It became clear just how close we were.

On Day 4 we paid extra money to opt out of the morning hike and decided zip lining would be far less dangerous than taking any more steps than we had to on that trek. I harnessed up and before I knew it, I was sliding across 5 cables, one after the other: the tallest and longest in South America. Along the way was a suspension bridge that we had to cross to complete the course. My legs were trembling when I took the first steps out on to that bridge. Again, my mind turned to history, and somehow just thinking about the ancient Inca and how these suspension bridges were an integral part of their road system seemed to help. Llamas crossed bridges similar to this one. If a llama can make it across, then I can do this. That afternoon we followed a train track for several hours into Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. We would finally get a hot shower and Wifi.

We lined up to board our bus to Machu Picchu four o’clock the next morning. It was June 21st, winter solstice, so we wanted to be at the top by daybreak. We’d been going up and down mountains for four days now, but I have never felt every step quite the way I did that morning climbing to the top of Machu Picchu. My body was completely beat. At this point my feet were covered in painful blisters, and my legs felt like they had just been pulled out from under a tractor. But my heart was racing ecstatically, just from the excitement of where I was about to land. Morning fog obstructed our view once we got to the top. We couldn’t see anything, but we listened intently as Ever told us all about what would soon be revealed. And just like that is how it happened. The misty curtain burned away with the noonday sun, and there it was for us to behold in all its glory: Proof that we can’t have the answer to everything there is to know here on Earth.

Our tour guide became our friend once we were back in Cuzco. He took us out for drinks to the places where the locals go, per our request. We learned even more about the Salkantay, the Inca, and the ancient Andes. People were carried out all the time he told us. Sometimes they get injured, other times they buckle under old injuries, but most of the time they just freak out and order that someone get them the hell out of there because this isn’t what they signed up for. They have to carry them out on horseback or lift them out by helicopter. We asked which trail is the hardest. “The Salkantay is harder than the Inca Trail,” he expertly stated without hesitation. We asked who was the oldest to ever finish the Salkantay. He told us the oldest man to ever finish the Salkantay was 76, and the oldest man to finish the Inca Trail was 92. Ever knew everything there was to know about the Andes. He had grown up in a tiny house far from Cuzco, learning Quechua as his first language. He went on to explain nuances in Quechua pronunciation and how the slightest misstep can mean something entirely different. He gave us several examples, but his favorite was that Machu Picchu is pronounced MAH-choo PEEK-choo, which means old mountain.  If you pronounce it (MAH-choo PEE-choo, then you are saying old penis. His favorite way to teach tourist how to pronounce Sacsayhuaman was to tell them just remember it sounds exactly like sexy woman. He filled us in on all kinds of details. “Things have changed a lot at Machu Picchu recently. We used to play soccer and barbecue llamas up there.”

I wore the corduroy jacket out for drinks in Cuzco with Ever that night and it did finally fit. I’d lost a good amount of weight. It’s amazing how much weight you can lose in a week walking from sun up to sundown. It was nice to know I could be college thin again if I spent every day climbing mountains. But real life doesn’t work like that. Most of us don’t spend all day exerting that kind of physical effort. There are just not enough hours in the day to devote that much time to exercise; I have way too many other interest to spend all my time thinking about weight and working out. In the end, it seemed so trivial to even be thinking about any of it. What a stupid thought? How programmed I was as a woman to think of something so petty before leaving on such a monumental trip. And how programmed we are as women to fixate on weight when our bodies are limitless with potential. Instead, how thankful I should be that my body has carried me through all my years in life to this moment, that it took me throughout the Andes and returned me safely back home.

Some people go to Machu Picchu and report back a kind of epiphany; they seem to have found the meaning of life up in those clouds. I wish I had such existential words to share. Although I agree that Machu Picchu definitely takes you to higher ground in the Stevie Wonder sense of the word, the truth is I am just as confused about what it all means as I ever was before I fought my way to the the top of that mountain. It’s not as if I could care less about the deeper meaning. I think about these things often. I have a stack of books on theology left to me by my grandmother sitting on my bedside table. Some of these books were given to my grandmother from a woman I never met, but who everyone agrees was the family saint, Aunt Margaret. They both marked pages, underlined sentences, and often annotated in the margins. I read the books hoping these wise women can still speak to me somehow so as to guide me as I turn each new corner. I’ve learned to accept that I can never know what is around the corner, that it doesn’t always work out the way I had hoped, that sometimes it can be painful, and sometime it can break your heart. But I have to keep turning corners again and again anyway. Perhaps the biggest inspiration to taking action and turning the corner is just knowing that at any moment you could find a city in the clouds.

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