This day was a day in-between kinda day. The Platinum Delta members got a free breakfast so Emily and I took to the Don Estaban Don Pancho café just down the hill from Starwood. We got to know a few more locals, and then we bought our favorite painting from Valentine before going to refill on coca tea in the lobby. We met up with Doshi and Maggie, and we made our way across the Plaza to meet the rest of our hiking compadres at the offices of Pachamama Explorers. We weren’t the last ones to arrive.
We exchanged names, laughs, and a few up-and-down glances at the rest of the crew who would be walking with us. Before the trip, Emily had made it a point to go hiking with her friend Sarah and myself at other times in what I referred to Beard Boot Camp on the naturally curvy and off-roads of Nashville. She was nervous about fitness levels and possible altitude sickness, and she didn’t want to be the reason why any one of the rest of us would have to slow down or not make it. I knew two things: altitude sickness could randomly hit any one of us, no matter how good of shape one was in, and also that there was no way Emily Frances Harper Beard was going to be the reason for anyone to turn their backs on Machu Picchu. Like I had said, after my dad gave a farewell on the phone the night before we left the States and told Emily and me that it might be harder than we expect, “That’s the story of our lives … and besides, if it gets tough on Emily, I’ll just tell her she can’t do it and then there will be no way in hell she won’t dominate it!” It’s funny because it’s true.
Anyways, everyone showed up within a few minutes and after Odon explained the various rules of the Inca Trail and the road ahead, and we briefly introduced ourselves by name and country, we adjourned the meeting until the early bird wake up call the next day when we’d meet on a bus and drive to the starting point together. You could see the stomachs and the wheels of excitement turning from the outside in.
Our group of 4 dispersed from the meeting site with all sorts of ideas, questions, and a hunger for the present day. Everyone ready to refuel for a full, unplanned afternoon, we walked straight back to a familiar site in Greens for lunch. We made a small balcony table for two into a crammed picnic area in the open air for four. We ordered more of the same from yesterday, and found it an appropriate fit that we would get a group of 12 for our hiking journey ahead. From the looks of the various ages and relationship ties that we guessed about and later asked and found out about, and the fact that Doshi & Maggie had recently gone to Catching Fire with Emily and me the last time we were all together in Nashville, we felt as though we could best size up our group and the adventure laid before us as another chapter of The Hunger Games! First things first, Odon would become somewhat of our very own Peruvian Haymitch; a gregarious, natural leader who was very personable as soon as you got to know him and had an aura and track record that shined the fact that he had conquered the Inca Trail more times than you can count on a hundred hands. William, aka Williamcito, the second guide we met for our trail group, would become more like our special Cinna on the side; a quiet, smiling, doting guide with patience and a calming effect to help anyone ride any storm ahead and appear better on the outside to others looking in than what you are probably feeling below the trail smiles for pictures.
During lunch, we saw two of the participating contestants of our mission, Dorothy and Cliff. We knew from the start that they were both Canadians, eh, who were the eldest statesmen of the group. For now, that’s all we knew about them. We saw them walking slowly and aimlessly down the street, right in front and below us. Neither appeared to hear me yell DOROTHY from the balcony by the time they hit the corner. If they did, and pretend to keep going onward, they were already playing The Hunger Games perfectly. Either way, they kept walking away without much more of our attention from the lunch table. We soon stopped dissecting everyone in our group in the open after we had spent the last solid 15 minutes imagining and dreaming up what each of the other 8 would bring to our Hunger Games adventure like the movies. All of the trail talk was making us tired.
Doshi had mentioned wanting to go to place on top of the Cusco skyline called Sacsayhuaman. I was nominated as the cab broker with my Spanish skills, and I must admit I “had to” ask Doshi to pronounce the place several times for me to get it exactly right after he said it sounded like “sexy woman” out loud. Come to find out, there were several places that sounded like this and spelled different, but we found our way to all of them in the end. One place had tunnels that you could hike into, which we did. Another place had natural water slides down the side of a hill, which we saw but didn’t pay to go and do. And we capped off the rainy, broken-down circus cab of a car, over a long, uphill, bumpy ride, with a quick visit to the majestic Cristo Blanco. It appeared to be an alternative, comparable Jesus overlooking Cusco to that of the one in Brazil that every movie features, but what most compelled me was the sight I saw while standing at its back. I looked out into the land below and beyond, and I noticed that on one of the mountainsides across the city had a marking, man-made (I’m guessing again), that read Viva Peru! like a natural billboard. Again, with my lovely bride beside me at that moment, it was a perfect sign of where we were!
With all of our city cab-trekking and the light morning sprinkle behind us, we got dropped off near where the cab driver had originally picked us up. Doshi and Emily decided it was time to fight our group’s tired feelings with a massage. We found another market, shocker, on the inside of random street, and Maggie and I left Emily and Doshi at an hour massage place that was tucked in the dark corner upstairs. It seemed legit, at least more legit than the one down the hall, and I held all of their safe keepings while Maggie kept tabs on the clock as we explored the streets. It was amazing, at least for Maggie and me, how quickly an hour went by when exploring a new city versus laying down on a massage table. In a square mile radius, we found more markets, a supermarket with warm snacks, meat hanging on lines with flies, Inca Kola Zero, another spontaneous festive parade, and Cusco’s version of Music Row (a cobble stoned, run-down street where every building seemed to halfway hold up the adjacent wall of the next from totally collapsing but inside of each was filled with the newest, most expensive musical equipment this side of Nashville). It was all quite amazing, and although we didn’t have any sort of map in hand, we used intuition to navigate our way back to the massage place just in the nick of time. Doshi and Emily were practically new people standing and smiling in front of us … Doshi with a little bit bigger smile and story for another blog.
Everyone now relaxed and relieved, we opted for two things we knew we wouldn’t have for a few days: hot showers and dining at a nice, indoor restaurant. After showers and a change into our one set of “nice” clothes, we walked back through the plaza, into a warm, clear, moonlit night, and were moving in the right direction to the restaurant in mind when we made a new friend. As anyone who has ever traveled south of the USA border can attest to, you are more often than not going to run into a lot of street venders at all hours of the day and night … the majority being kids. Peru was no exception. In fact, the more time we spent in this country, the more we watched how the kids pretty much ran the cities- mostly unsupervised, taking care of each other, and acting far more mature than their age and most of the kids I see in the United States. This new friend was no different from this statement. This little guy, no more than 12 years old, was selling Cusco hats and trinkets. He spoke better proper English than most teenagers I know in the States, commented on the fact that he knew who Obama and George W. were by full names and times they were elected. I liked this kid immediately. I checked his political facts to see if he knew about his own country and not just a few notecards to press my USA buttons, and he did. He knew the name of the Peruvian president, sharing a little bit of political analysis, and when the next election would take place. I can’t say how much this impressed me (Side fact, most of the teenagers I work with, of all races, only cheer for Obama because he is black and because he’s friends with Jay-Z, and they typically don’t know anything about the American government and the people who run their world).
Politics aside, this young kid was on a mission. I told him where we were eating, and he led the way, talking to me in English and Spanish about his products and pride for the city the entire way. I told him that we only had money enough for dinner, but if we had any change afterwards that we’d buy a hat. I told him I’d look for him after dinner in the Plaza if we had money (knowing full well I would not get dessert if that’s what it took for the hat purchase- plus Emily said she was needing a hat for the trail). Dinner was superb, and the food was great. We even managed to eat a little guinea pig on our appetizer to the shock to Emily (she once had a guinea pig as a pet when younger named Squeaky). We saved enough money for a hat. I was ready for bed and one more great night of sleep in a bed that felt like we were sleeping on clouds before we were to go hiking in the wild, but we had to find that boy and a warm hat first. Lucky for us, and another sign of this kid’s persistence, he was still sitting on a bench in the courtyard beside the restaurant where we ate. He smiled. We smiled. He sold the hat, and we bought and appreciated everything this kid was about.
Before we start the hike of this tale, I promise I’m getting to it, I want to take another moment to reflect on this street vender kid one last time. The circumstances surrounding his life, not knowing his family structure but knowing that he is pretty much making his living at a young age in the middle of a 3rd world environment, and his passion for learning and meeting people for survival, we were all marveled and inspired. I personally would love to see this kid with half of the opportunities given to pretty much every teenager in the US just by being born in the US. And this isn’t even thinking about giving this kid a job and/or scholarship. I bet if given any opportunity he could teach graduate school business classes and run his own successful business with ease. This kid, obviously, made a really big impression on us all. We went to bed in a nice Palacio after all was said and done, feeling very blessed … again.