Thursday, January 22, 2009

Machu Picchu

From Machu Piccu

The alarm on my cell phone sounded at 4:30 am as the New Year's festivities raged on somewhere outside our window. As I silenced the alarm, fully awake, my sister said "You've got to be kidding me!" And I responded "Happy New Year" with more than a little hint of sarcasm. We admitted to one another as I pulled the toilet paper out of my ears that I had stuffed in there a couple of hours earlier that we had not had more than 15 to 20 minutes of sleep all night. We felt as if the concert outside had moved into our room and the band had stood serenading us at the foot of our beds. At midnight the fireworks and gunfire started and I went to the window and blinked at the blurred lights and felt grateful it would all be over soon. But optimism that the band would pack up and go home shortly was ill-placed. The bands continued to play interrupted only briefly by a man yelling incoherently in fast Spanish into a microphone. Each time he yelled we each silently prayed he was thanking everyone for coming and wishing them a happy new year and a good night. But the bands played on. As we packed our things, my sister complained about the fireworks and gunshots and possible bombs that were exploding all night long while I whined about the two off-key trumpets who instead of playing in unison generally managed to only be within about an 1/8 of a note of one another. Not the most pleasing sound to the ear. I had stuffed toilet paper into my ears not caring if I injured anything as deafness had a surprising appeal during that insomniatic night. I have never regretted packing an item so much as I did for forgetting the ear plugs that were on my packing list. I have never wanted my ipod so much either - it somehow didn't make the cut for the small daypack. We pulled on yesterday's clothes, noted the rain and wondered why that had not deterred the all-night revelers. We were grouchy, to say the least.

By 5 we were sitting silently at breakfast forcing down bread and jam and bananas with cups of coca tea knowing we would regret it if we skipped breakfast along with sleep. The night before we had asked to follow the other tour group from our same company to the bus. At 515 there was still no sign of them despite an agreed 520 meeting and knowledge that the bus left at 530 am. I was as distressed by this as the German guy we met in Lima - I guess I can blame all my anal retentive time freak-outs on my partial German heritage, right? By 520 the bulk of their group was there but still eating and I chatted with them nervously about not sleeping. No one else seemed quite as annoyed and one guy claimed to have slept through all of it. All the music, all the fireworks, the gunshots and whatever the bomb-like noises were. Oh, to be such a heavy sleeper. When it was nearly 525 and the group was still waiting on one of their members I decided it was time for us to go. I didn't want to miss the first bus. I was up and did not want to waste any more time at this horrible little sleepless hotel. So I asked directions to the bus stop from the tour guide and said goodbye to the group I had been looking forward to getting to know better and Erin and I rushed out the door, up the street, across the bridge and to the long-ish line to the buses. My prior understanding of the system was inaccurate. There wasn't "a" bus every twenty minutes. There was a long procession of buses that started leaving at 530. After a short wait in a soggy line we were crammed onto a bus and zig zagging up the mountainside with views only of the green canyon wall and dripping rain out the window. The bus was pretty silent. The sun was up but there was so much gray and drizzle it was hard to tell. The windows fogged up and I worried I had planned on too many layers.

After a 20 minute ride we were let out in a parking lot and followed the crowd to the entrance clutching our tickets. We couldn't see anything yet through all the mist which added further to the anticipation. After our tickets were punched and we were through the gate we paused to photograph our initial glimpse of this seemingly sacred place. When we turned the corner and saw the ruins for the first time, we were not disappointed. So many things are hyped to the point where reality can never match expectation but Machu Picchu could not be disappointing. There is a reason it is sometimes referred to as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is fascinating.

We quickly separated ourselves from the crowd by opting to follow the path straight ahead rather than scaling the first terraces with the bulk of the people. Shortly we were rewarded by meeting our first llamas. I was ecstatic. This had been my dream, to visit Machu Picchu and see the llamas serenely watching over the historic grounds. Initially, we wandered aimlessly in silence taking photos and taking in the sacred majesty of the place, dumb struck by the beauty of it all. We admired the terraced fields and the unbelievably precise masonry and stumbled into the Room of the Three Windows just above the Temple of the Sun - not knowing what we were seeing. We also unknowingly walked past the Intihuatana Stone which we were later told exudes energy that makes one's pulse race if a palm is placed upon it. The stone is one of the few items at Machu Picchu that is roped off and we walked right by it the first time. Later, when we were there with our tour guide it was too crowded to get close enough to test out this pulse racing thing.

After an hour or so of aimless wandering I began consulting my watch. We had a vague plan to meet our trekking group "at the entrance" between 740 and 8 am. I had no idea if our trekking group would be watching for us and no idea how we would recognize them. We had simply been told there was one entrance and that is where we could find them. I asked around and found out that despite the statement on our map of an "Ancient Incan Entrance Gate", the group would indeed enter at the same entrance we did. So as we wandered and snapped photos and I craved learning more about everything we were viewing, I worried about timing. And then my stomach turned itself inside out and I became tired and irritable and my sister and I started snapping at each other. I thought she didn't care about meeting the tour guide and she thought I was obsessed with it. I kind of was.

By 715 we were back at the entrance gate where I sat on a rock and tried to convince my stomach to settle down while my sister and I took some quiet time. I know she was mad that we were just sitting but I felt awful. And I was worried about meeting our guide. At 730 trekking groups began wandering down from the ancient gate above us. Erin and I still weren't talking so I entertained myself by trying to spot our guide and watching people complete the trek I had so despartely wanted to make myself. It was incredible. The sky was even drearier than it had been when we arrived and the trekkers had clearly been through a lot of rain and mud. Yet, I still wished I had done it. I felt like I was watching the end of a marathon as I jealously watched the clearly exhausted trekkers cross the finish line with a look of accomplishment on their faces. My favorite trekker was a young 20-something girl who was clearly carrying some extra pounds who reunited with her mother at the entrance gate. The girl's mother exclaimed that she never thought the girl would finish and the girl gasped that she never thought she would do it either! She recounted how she had no idea why she ever thought to do this since she had never hiked or camped before in her life but she did it! She explained in detail how difficult it had been and all the times she wanted to turn back and I rejoiced silently for her. If she could do it then surely I could have done it, if only I had had the chance. People seemed so united and caring and supportive of each other as they finished that I was even more disappointed that we missed our own trek.

Until we met our group.

It took some effort but eventually we found our guide. I'm still not sure that he was aware that we were joining them for the tour. By the time we found him we had been sitting at the entrance gate for at least an hour and we were anxious to not waste any more time. But the trekkers had just arrived and were dealing with logistics such as storing luggage, stopping in the bathroom, grabbing a snack, etc. So we had to keep waiting. When we met our guide he immediately led us out of the park entrance and shortly after exiting Erin had near melt-down. She could not find her ticket. Still exhausted and not thinking, I snapped a stupid question at her about not looking before we exited. She went through every pocket of her jacket and backpack as I chased down our guide who had left us briefly to see what could be done. The lack of sleep was effecting Erin as well and she feared she would be blocked from re-entrance. Just as I discovered that all she needed to re-enter was her passport, she found the ticket and all was well. We made a short bathroom break and soon met up with our should-have-been trekking group.

They were awful. Individually, maybe they would not have been so bad but collectively, they were terrible. There were two guys and a girl of roughly our age range. The two guys were immediately bragging about how they were the fastest and toughest trekkers of all time. They boasted of how much weight they carried in their packs and how they refused to slow down or take the usual rests. When exchanging the usual get-to-know-you pleasantries they were dismissive and clearly weren't listening. They were arrogant and obnoxious and we were both immediately grateful that we hadn't just spent 4 days chasing after these jerks. The girl seemed nice enough and I had to wonder why her boyfriend would be so rude about the whole thing. We spent about an hour with them as the guide took us around the ruins and explained fascinating tid bits of history and insight into the Incan world. But the whole time I was just irritated by the attitude these guys were giving us. The competitive side in me would have gotten the better of me had we spent three days hiking with them. And I probably would have hated the whole thing. It was so disappointing since everyone single person we met while traveling in Peru - save this group - was nice and fun and interesting and well-mannered. We met more people traveling in Peru than we have on any of our other adventures and uniformly the people were cool. We were anxious to hike Waynu Picchu and ended up breaking away from the group early to do so.

Since we did not make the trek we wanted to do a challenging hike and wow was Waynu Picchu challenging. We signed in sometime around 1030 am and optimistically started the hike going downhill. It was raining again and when we reached the stairs we soon learned that even at 8,000 feet, the air was thin and difficult to breath when ascending endless stair switchbacks. It was a rough hike. Probably the toughest hike I have ever done despite the fact that it did not take that long. When we were over half-way up the mountain the rain intensified and Erin worried about how slick the rock steps were getting. Erin has a fear of heights but I didn't think this was the problem since the path didn't have any steep drop offs. But the higher we got the more worried she became about the descent until she told me she couldn't finish. I tried convincing her but knew if it was a fear there wasn't much I could say. I asked if she cared if I finished and she said no. So I kept going. I wanted to turn around many times. My lungs ached and I gladly stepped aside and waited for people coming down the steps. I questioned whether I was actually prepared for the Inca Trail as I gasped for each breath and finally used my inhaler remembering that asthma may be a factor.

When I finally reached the top I didn't care that the view was mostly of mountain peaks and mist. I was happy that I had arrived. I sat on a rock at the first terrace to rest before climbing further to explore the ruins. I drank some water and ate a snack and soaked it all in as the rain slowly stopped. Before 15 minutes had passed my sister's head appeared on the path and she stepped onto the terrace where I was seated. She made it! I was so intensely happy to see her and proud of her for pressing forward. I shared the last of my water and moved over to allow her to sit and catch her breath. She told me she continued on because strangers encouraged her. People coming down kept telling her she was close and that she could do it. I'm sure this is a great analogy for our journey through life but really it is just amazing for what it is. An example of the amazing people we encountered - good people who saw someone struggling and made her stronger with a few small words that helped her take a few more steps.

We spent the next hour or two wandering up and down the ruins and waiting for the mist to clear over Machu Picchu. Just before we were ready to leave it happened. The rain was gone and a wind pushed the clouds away and we looked at the vibrant green terraces and precise gray stones below us and snapped photo after beautiful photo. It was such an incredible sight.

When we finally turned back to walk down we were tired and hungry and our lack of sleep was catching up to us. As we descended we became great cheerleaders telling the ascenders they were close, telling them they can do it and sometimes enthusiastically cheering their accomplishment. We had to pay people back for the positive gift of fortification freely given to my sister. As we carefully picked our way down the steep steps we fell into conversation with a solo hiker. She became extremely enthusiastic when I recognized her accent as from Australia and we spoke of my time spent in Sydney - her home. We loved this girl and our lively conversation made the trip down fly by. She wandered through some more of the main ruins with us for a while before we said goodbye and finished up our time at Machu Picchu. We didn't see every last thing there is to see there but we saw almost all of it and we definitely saw as much as we were physically able in our sleep deprived state.

Around 230 pm we stood in line waiting for a bus in more rain. Tired. Hungry. But exceptionally happy. We waited as a couple of buses filled up and we shuffled forward until the third bus allowed us to finally sit down. As the bus zigzagged its way back down the mountain I opened my backpack and pulled out a treat: a box of three Mrs Fields truffles I had received in my Christmas stocking. We each savored a truffle and split the third, thinking nothing had ever tasted so satisfying.

((a brief warning - Erin and I took so many photos of Machu Picchu it was really, really hard to weed through them but believe me when I tell you that this 180ish photo slideshow is the edited, pared down version.))


zaimee said...

these pictures are gorgeous! i am glad that it was worth it after such a crappy night's sleep.

Tiffany said...

The pictures are stunning, breath-taking, glorious, etc. Glad the Mrs. Fields chocolates came in handy!

John said...

Do you know what, by going through the pictures, I am just at Machu Picchu. Very soul capturing pictures. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Could you pet the llamas? The pictures rock. I am not a hiker, nor would I ever aspire to think that I could seeing these pictures and reading your story gives me an actual sense that I was along with you on your trip! Thank you!

s00z22 said...

oh - I didn't want to be anonymous...I'm Sooz.

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