We woke up before dawn, ready and packed for the Pachamama pick-up. It was nice to see the people of Palacio send us off with sunrise smiles and lots of coca tea to-go. Odon and the rest of the group were in the bus, and they were all somewhat awake and ready to take us for an hour drive closer to Machu Picchu.
We took our seats, some went to sleep, but Emily went to work. You’ll see a perfect shot on the video she made on the link at the end of this, but words really can’t describe what we saw on the hour drive to the starting line. The mountains and landscapes were green, lush, and breathtaking. It was quite unnerving to stare at the surrounding nature when confronted with the fact that our driver, like any other bus driver south of the USA that I’ve ever ridden with on narrow, winding roads literally takes your breath away, drove with reckless abandon (the only thought that gets me through every ride like this is thinking and repeating in my head that the driver doesn’t want to die either). All driving styles aside, we saw an underestimate of at least 20 full rainbows outside of our windows throughout the entire ride. I kid you not. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed. I know I was looking for a pot of gold on several occasions, but I settled for sitting with the thought that no matter which end of the rainbow that I was looking at that the view was a pleasant omen for the good fortune we were about to experience on the journey ahead of us. With every wild turn we made along our trip, as you’ve read and will read, everything just seemed to work out with eyes wide open.
We stopped the bus, not quite at the trail, and had time to get a little breakfast at a tiny family cafe in the small town of Ollantaytambo (the place where we decided to book a B&B after the trail completion before heading back home). Odon and William left the group upstairs to break bread. The local news station was on the television above us, and I gotta say that Bailar hasta morir (Dance to death) with fat contestants surrounded by girls in bikinis was filled with as much meaningful news as The Today Show. With either program, the weatherman is the only one to whom I pay attention. With raining season upon Peru, they didn’t even bother to stop dancing. I thought it another good sign that nobody died.
Back to breakfast, it was a quick meal. We did manage to talk with the other people in our group to get a grasp of how our Hunger Games would be. Here is what we gathered:
-Cliff and Dorothy: The oldest couple of the group, but they weren’t the most inexperienced on trail work. Looks would be deceiving with the fact that Dorothy dressed for the first big hike day with full make-up and big earrings, but these Canadians were no fools, eh. Cliff told us that he had just completed a long hike with his son along the West Coast of the USA last year.
-Eden and Scott: Also from Canada, eh, they were the youngest of the group, in their early 20’s. Life-long friends from about the time they both learned how to walk and talk, they were amped to do a lot of both. With their sense of humor, combined with their outward, lackluster, non-excitement to hike, camp, or do much outdoors, they seemed like the perfect mix of the movie Troop Beverly Hills and this pair of siblings Jean-Ralphio and Mona-Lisa from the hit show Parks & Recreation – understand their comedy and dynamic here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cd2rWeswwGw
-Alex and Thomas: The brother and sister pair from Australia. They also spent time growing up in the USA, but this was an interesting pair to decipher from the start. The initial meeting was quiet because they were late and the last to show up for introductions, but we found out later that Alex was sick. Their first impression and physique made them instantly appear to be from the professionals of District 1 and/or 2 (Hunger Games reference). Alex was a nutritionist who was donating holiday time by working nutrition-related non-profit work in Cusco, and Thomas was the big little brother who was visiting and up for an adventure at every moment. Emily and Maggie called him Badger at first sight because we are Breaking Bad fanatics. See this video of the real Badger for impression’s sake (just for visual on the BIG little brother image here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_3u-G03Ri0
-Jayne and Graham (Odon pronounced it Gra-ham): These two were immediately the ones that made us the most jealous. You can read on their blog, but they were on month 9 of a year-long adventure around the world. Newly weds a year prior, with kids old enough to live their lives without them for a year and Skype, these two left England nearly a year ago with nothing but a dream. They were living a dream. See the blog here – http://youturntravel.wordpress.com.
William and Odon loaded us up after one last potty break, and we headed to the beginning of our hike. On the brief drive to the start, it was yet another moment where Emily was relieved that we were only hiking instead of adding white-water rafting to the mix. Because of the recent rain, the river beside the road (and I mean BESIDE the road, with the edge of the cliffs and riverside being inches to the left of our tires) was rampage worthy. It was dark brown, murky, filled with lots of water bottles and trash, and had lots of boulders that would have made any river guide from TN a little hesitant to throw everyone overboard and actually survive. These waters were scary stuff.
Stepping off the bus, we gathered for our first of several group pictures. You can see the fresh faces, legs, and untested spirit abound in the picture above. But, remember, this isn’t a story just about the 14 of us, counting our awesome guides in Odon and William. Because of our group, we had to hire 17 porters to carry our tents, food, and water (2 cooks included). It was then when Odon gave the big bag of shoes and hats to the group of porters. You could feel the excitement and appreciation like it was the best Christmas anyone had ever had. We felt a small ounce of joy for the task we had completed with the bag, but then we felt a little guilt again for not bringing more.
Another ounce of joy came my way when the walking poles were handed out. I was given poles with what looked like indigenous prayer beads hanging from the handle tips and Disney character stickers posted on the sides of the metal. Emily took one look and said “I hate you” with a loving smile.
And just like that, we debriefed on the hike ahead for the afternoon, and we were off. A few more group pictures later, we were at the first checkpoint. We showed our passports and trail papers, and we crossed the river over a bridge worthy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Safely across, Odon mentioned that this afternoon’s hike for the first day until camp would be the easiest of the trek. We grabbed our poles and got moving with smiles.
William leading the way up front, was immediately followed by the youngest four of the group. We all kinda spread out along the small path pretty much according to ages. Stride for stride, we were quite the chain gang.
The view around us, from the word go, was amazing in every sense of the word. I slowed down a bit from our group within a group for few reasons: 1) I knew Emily was good to go on the hiking for the moment, 2) Dorothy struggled at the beginning (It was a little more than just the earrings. So much so that Cliff decided to carry her day pack as well as his own at the same time), and 3) doing so gave me time to get to know more about Odon and why he fully enjoys what he does.
At a pleasant pace, I learned the following about Odon:
-Son of farmers in rural Peru, he moved to the bigger city of Cusco during escuela seconderia for a life with more opportunities.
-Put himself through school while at the same time working weekends as a porter for 3 years on the Inca Trail.
-Met his wife on the Inca Trail. She was a tour guide that worked at Machu Picchu, and they met each other on the train ride from Machu Picchu back to Ollantaytambo. It was an hour train ride that was followed up with Facebook requests, emails, phone calls, and then wedding bells. Odon got game.
-He has a 3 year old daughter named “Morning Star” in Spanish.
-(opinion) due to baby’s name, he’s a total Peruvian hippie 🙂
-He almost named his daughter Azul or Azure (Blue), but his mother-in-law didn’t approve of the name.
-Has worked a guide on the Inca Trail for 16 years, and has been to Machu Picchu 100’s of times.
Odon personal fun facts aside, it was nice to learn all of the trail aspects through his eyes and sounds. We walked beside several simple homes built on the mountainside where people call home. I immediately felt an appreciation for the thought of the distance to the grocery or local hardware store for me if I was forced to live out in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t self-sufficiently farm my land in an instant. I felt fortunate for my East Side Kroger’s at that moment. I guess, in any situation, no matter how different from our own, people manage. Passing one such simple shack with a lady working outside, Odon said, “She’s gonna have trouble tomorrow.” I immediately thought he knew of some undercover Inca Trail police that was coming to get some illegal crops or something, but Odon was just talking about Dorothy and how she was already needing to stop to rest on the easy portion of the trail. He said that the 2nd day would be the hardest of the entire leg, and that most people who don’t make it to Machu Picchu have to turn around on the 2nd day. Just then, we were passed by 2 guides and an older person that had to be turned around from the trail. On top of age and physical fitness, the hidden assassin that always plays a part and shows its face on the trail, as Odon mentioned more often than not, is altitude sickness; something that can strike at any time and any person.
We took a break to check out the views, take in some water, and catch our breath on the climb. It was at this moment when we noticed some kids on the flat ground on the other side of the river that were jumping rope and playing games in the middle of what felt like nowhere. It was beautiful, innocent, and epic, just like the trail. I thought of three things: 1) I didn’t see any homes that were close to them on that side of the mountain so they had to have walked miles to meet at this specific playground, 2) I wondered if this would be the same place these same kids would go back to and sneak things from their parents in their teenage years down the line, and 3) the distance from homes to playground would have been ridiculously far for someone to forget the boardgames or other toys these kids had walked a long way to play with if someone had forgotten the jump rope. I guess they would have just played with rocks.
Step by step (everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, at some point in the trail sang New Kids on the Block to themselves or out loud, by the way), we managed to get to the tent where our porters were preparing lunch by the time it started sprinkling. I talked with one of the porters about their various jobs, and he mentioned that all the work, like the weight of the bags, was equally distributed. This particular porter placed a bunch of hot water and soap alongside the tent for us to clean our hands before jumping inside.
We all crammed inside the tent, sat on individual stools, and waited for food in silence for a couple of seconds. We had spent a few hours together, but we didn’t talk too too much on the walk altogether. I took that moment as time to glance outside of the unzipped tent and keep an eye on the snow-capped rocky mountain in the background. “It’s kinda like Nashvile” is what I jokingly said aloud as everyone agreed – we were somewhere very special and unique. We were basically sitting in a long tent with a long table in the middle that reminded most of us of the show MASH, and it was sitting on top of a flat plateau beside the trail that served as someone’s home and farm (possibly a make-shift soccer field when not crowded with hikers). It was, in two words, peaceful & pleasant.
After hot soup (Peruvian miso soup of sorts) and a barrage of great foods (our foursome opted for the vegetarian menu to be safe with our stomachs, and even then Doshi had to be careful because of being lactose intolerant- a double whammy most of the time to come), our bellies were full and ready for the last half of day one.
Before we knew it, we were on top of one of the mountains. We were at our first Inca site. We all took seats around the makeshift classroom of ruin wall foundations, and William gave us a history lesson about Llaqtapata (you can Google for pictures of the site, with historic figures). After several questions were answered, we had time to walk around and take it in (constant expression of our actions the entire time there). Emily had an idea for a picture and then a video, and we took our spots. I ran to the corner, tried to climb up and jump on a wall, and leave it to me to break lose a big stone that had apparently been stuck still for over 800 years. I felt it loosen, stopped it in my tracks, braced it back up, and tried to smile for the photo, but everyone knew something was off … plus Doshi totally called me out for breaking the stone so I had to change spots and be humbled. Hindsight, William did say they have done tons of renovating throughout the entire trail and many sites so I’m gonna say that my mishap was a stone that was more like 50 years old and new to the site, historically speaking. I’m just saying, chalk another one up for the stupid American and Idiot Abroad here.
While walking around, and then walking down the mountain to the next rest stop, I spent a good amount of time getting to know Jayne and Graham. Jayne talked about several of the obvious highlights of their year adventure so far: which included them both skydiving and Graham cycling down the most dangerous road in the world at high speeds, among other things. But the REAL talk came from talking about them taking the initiative to make their year-long trip a reality and the sacrifices with family and friends that they had to decide upon when planning what they could plan. All in all, they were in a good enough place to make the leap, and they jumped at the time and opportunity because they felt it was right and could do so. Again, read their blog and try not to be inspired. There were very special people all around us on this trip.
Back to the little engined couple that could, Dorothy and Cliff were doing better with the clearer weather and more downhills than up. Cliff was red-faced from no sunscreen and no hat (Doshi’s worst nightmare), but Dorothy hit a good stride and was now like a machine on the final portion of walking day 1. We sat down beside a river, some stray dogs and passing kids going the opposite way with random horses and even a dirt bike at one point too, and we were hot, sweaty, and at our camp sit before we knew it a few steps later.
The most humbling, and partially embarrassing, part of reaching our camp site was that all of the porters, the same porters who carried EVERYTHING for us, more than 2 times the amount of each of us, who had literally ran up and down hills around us, were there, looking back at us, tents all set up, dinner being set up and cooking, and they were smiling and clapping for us as if we had accomplished the impossible. Maybe to them we had, but it was still humbling and embarrassing to me. Suddenly, we weren’t so tired now that we were finished for the day and had such a welcoming committee.
Each group within the group took their own version of baby-wiped showers, changed inside their tents, and were as refreshed as they could be within minutes. A few moments to spare before dinner, our group walked up to a tall, white steepled church being built just around the corner from the farm household we were calling home for the night. We sat down, talked about the day at hand, and took a deep breath to soak in the moment. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to stand back up once we sat down on the church bench. Prayers answered, we were able.
Dinner was ready and so were we. Dinner was filled with the same long tent, same hot tea and soup, and more good food to nourish the body from the trail. It was amazing food, every time, but I’m sure we could have eaten a horse if need be at that point in the day (It’s not like we didn’t eat alpaca).
At this point in the story, you might be asking yourself about the bathroom status. Well, culture shock and change of diet in this climate probably had something to do with most of us not having to use the bathroom indoors too much while on the trail up to this point, but there were a few places throughout the day where you could pay to use. At our camping site, there was one place that looked like an old port-a-john in the middle of the field by the tents, but it wasn’t what it appeared when I walked over to check for the crew. Instead, it was more like a closet that looked like the rancid toilet in the movie Desperado with a bowel explosion of modern art on the walls and floor. We weren’t going to use that one. Luckily, there was another closet with holes in it and slightly less wall art on it. I’m not and was not complaining. I just want to paint a clear picture what we were working with. Oddly enough, with clear pictures in mind, I didn’t need to really use the bathroom for the day.
The sky went dark after dinner, lots of clouds and mountains hindered the stars from our heights, and after we debriefed about the day we had and the morning to come and what to expect about times to be ready, Emily and I went straight to bed. We both woke up in our respective sleeping bags at one point because of some wild animals barking and hissing at each other, not knowing if it was a mountain lion, bear, puma, or the random cats we hadn’t seen as of yet, mixing with the dogs and chickens on the farm, but we fell back asleep just as quickly as stirred. The night storms and thunder helped me feel safer inside the tent too, rather than sleeping on the ground outside in the open.