The Finish Line

3:30 am was not a problem for me.  I woke up a few times before because I thought it was a bear outside of our tent.  Come to find out, it was just Doshi in his tent and Odon in the tent beside Doshi’s snoring in unison out loud.  Poor Maggie and Williamcito.

The porters, who had brought fresh water tent-side to wash our faces and clean our teeth every morning, knocked on our tent to make sure we were awake.  I unzipped ours, and I returned their “Buenas Dias” with a “Buenas Noches.”  They all laughed, and that made me feel good.  Side note- I upped the small joke to William and Odon by saying “Buenas Nachos” in passing a few minutes later.  It was a good morning- I mean, night, indeed.

We strapped on our headlamps, met as a group by the location where last night’s dinner took place, and began to walk down the winding hillside, passing camp sites and other people waking up in the dark.  It took us about ten minutes, still never knowing where we were going, and then we stopped at a spot that appeared to be a train station depot without any train tracks in sight.  It was obvious to us that we were now going to wait in line for more than a minute, but it was also obvious that our group was the last complete group in the line that was fortunate to have a bench to sit on and an open-aired roof over our head.  We took our seats, and we broke out the morning snacks in a box that Odon had given each of us for the occasion.

As more groups walked up, some minutes and others 30 minutes later, each revealed a growing, irritable wave of emotions to finding out they had to sit on the ground and had to wait until the gates opened. When one group of people were complaining about not having anything to eat, I offered a snack from my box.  You would have thought I was speaking a different language other than the English accented language they are speaking.  Then, at one point, Doshi and Maggie left to go to the bathroom and I offered a temporary seat to the same group of Europeans who were openly complaining out loud that they didn’t have a seat.  They again pretended not to notice me.  Besides the rude people in front of us, there was someone at the front of the line that thought it was a good idea to play Taylor Swift and every song that Rihanna had ever sang as loud as their phone would play.  Seriously, it was 4am in the dark.  We had traveled a very long way from Nashville to get away from Taylor Swift and such.  Oh, and the europeans on our right started to do the “Olé, olé” chant as well.  The only thing that kept me sane was the fact that none of the people being annoying were from the USA!  Amidst the chaos, I had a glimmer of pride for being North American.

There was a single moment when nobody was talking or playing loud music.  It was short-lived, but a very ominous sign was revealed.  William, who was sitting near me at this time, looked over to Maggie and said, “The cicadas are out this morning.  You can hear them.  This is good.  If you hear frogs, it will rain.  If you hear cicadas, it will be clear and sunny going to Machu Picchu.”

When the lights turned on and the gate opened, a big cheer went through the crowd.  We were the third group to go through, and it felt like we were suddenly in the middle of a rat race.  It was the combination of every other group on our butts, trying to pass like porters, and the factor of Doshi losing his altitude sickness and finding his stride like a machine.

I tucked in my long pant legs, to which Odon said that my legs were growing back to normal just in time, and the sun arose without rain.  We heard the train whistle blowing below us, packed with porters going to work and travelers catered in the opposite direction and beating us to the holy land.  We moved quick.

484069_10153726427210697_2137387120_nWe made it to the sun gate (Intipunku), and it was cloudy and crowded.  Pretty funny to see people take group pictures with a white screen behind them.  We were some of those people.  Suddenly, between the sunrise and the fog, I had the following song from The Jacksons playing in my head, over and over, and I could definitely feel it- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAhz-ysgUzc.  The Incas had cranked up the smoke machine.  But then again, that’s part of the magic in that location.  Odon mentioned that every single day you will experience every season at Machu Picchu.  Odon commented that he has gotten to a place to appreciate the clouds and what they do here on a daily basis as much as the construction of the ancient ruins.  I started to agree.

We made our way down to the Guardhouse (Recinto del Guardián), and there was still fog all around.  We opted to walk around the Guardhouse to explore in the clouds, and we found some more llamas!

Then, on the way back where we left our bags by the Guardhouse, I lost my glimmer of pride for the USA.  A group of hikers we had seen a time or two, who usually had good attitudes, other than the girl who carried a bag around the size of a porter, were taking a group picture on a rock’s edge with Machu Picchu behind them.  Let me preface this picture by telling you a little more about said little porter girl.  I had seen her a handful of times while on the trail, and I had made it a comical habit in asking her every single time I saw her and her mountainous, neon orange porter-like bag on her back if she was a porter.  “I thought you were a porter.”  I would say with a smile, never getting anything other than a stink-eyed face as she walked by in return.  Well, I noticed that she was in said group of American tourists, just before they took the now infamous picture.  The others in my group that had always hiked in front of us asked me about who I was talking about.  I promptly referred to her as the girl in the movie Juno who always seemed to give Juno the stink-eye but really it was just the face she always made.  I pointed to the group and everyone in my group knew exactly which girl I was talking about.  She was giving the stink-eye look at the camera.  Everyone in our group laughed.  I was glad it wasn’t me she was looking at.  On top of that, I was glad the group wasn’t looking at me at all.  The clouds blocked any good picture of the sacred land behind the group so on the count of 3 they all flipped off the camera with angry faces.  Both Doshi and I were taken back because that was probably the most disrespectful thing we’d seen in ages while on separate world travels.  To us, it was basically like someone flipping off a picture in front of the Vatican.  This was someone’s holy land.  Anyways, my glimmer of USA pride was gone in a single snapshot.

Our group was above such shameful shenanigans, and we trickled down the path to the front gate and the bathrooms.  We were able to sit down, regain some energy as the surrounding cloud front moved out of the way for the sun to pop out, and we managed to get a little red-faced.  Everyone, including Cliff (after everyone demanded several times), put on some sun lotion.  But, the real red-faces came out, especially for Emily, because of the bobbling tourists that fell out of the buses via the trains.  Many of them already purchased their Machu Picchu t-shirts, hats, and jackets for their visit beforehand, and everyone appeared to have had a proper breakfast post warm showers.  Many were old, more often than not overweight, and everyone smelled like soap.  None of them, in our opinion, earned their entrance to the same holy land we had trekked four days for.  It kinda burned us up good.

We had our moment at the gates, but then Odon took us on our own private tour around the site, away from the rest of the newcomers.  He told us about the history (and how before there were Incas that his people worshipped the mountains), he described in depth about the specific functions of each ruined room we walked into, and we all got a further appreciation and knowledge of the people that built this majestic place, ruled this majestic place, and, most importantly, what happened to everyone involved.  The truth is, just like the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by the white man (Indiana Jones-ish) and Yale University money, nobody really knows the entire truth about what happened to the Inca civilization.  There is a lot of speculation and theories and folk stories, but there is no concrete evidence to what actually happened.  In fact, the more people research into the names, artifacts, and overall history of the land and the Incas, the less people seem to know about the truth and the land in general.

71455_10153726426730697_1234861764_nAfter another group photo, Jayne tried to give me something that I didn’t know was even possible when Doshi planned the trip.  There is a separate mountain, Waynapicchu, that has a very steep and dangerous staircase (see a reoccurring theme much?) that leads to another set of ruins and terraces above Machu Picchu.  They only allow a certain number of people up there per day with passes for those paying to make that extra journey.  Jayne was near spent, but she knew I would enjoy the extra journey.  Finding out that I would have to leave the foursome, namely Emily, for a couple of hours (the only couple of hours that we would ever spend on Machu Picchu), I eventually relinquished the offer.  I was upset for a few moments, but I knew that it was better to have a happy wife and life and allow Jayne to finish the journey with Graham and add another fun chapter to their amazing adventure.  When Odon asked me why I didn’t take the ticket, I told him:  Sometimes when you win, you really lose.  And, also, “Sure, I could have and wanted to go up that mountain, but I would have had to come back down at some point.”  He laughed at both comments, in Spanish, and then I smiled at Emily.

So with Jayne, Graham, Eden, and Scott up the mountain with their passes, Odon took the rest of us on a longer tour to some of the places where the Machu Picchu builders spent the majority of their time preparing construction.  He left us to explore the rest of the land on our own, and we all opted to walk back up the steps to the Guardhouse.  This time, with the clouds cleared, every time you turned around there was a picture worthy of a poster.

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And boy did the tourists from the buses and trains flock to that very spot at the same time!  It was so surreal to be in a such a historical, religious site, and see so many people that took the time to pay money to get driven to that spot only to spend about 5 seconds appreciating it for a new Facebook profile picture.  Some people posed like they were doing photo shoots with professionals.  I sat in silence on the side, conflicted between trying to meditate on our journey and trying to figure out what it all meant sitting in front of tacky, young and old fanny-pack wearing tourists who couldn’t give a good damn if it was Macchu Picchu or the Eiffel Tower behind them.  Oh, the world we live in.  Everyone’s a case study.  I studied for about a half an hour before enough was enough.

After the running of the fools, we stamped our own final passport stamps for having achieved what we set out to accomplish, and we took buses down to one of Odon’s friend’s pizza place to meet up and celebrate with a cold cerveza.  Odon passed out certificates of completing the trail while he and William said a couple of extra words about how much they appreciated our group sincerely.  It was then when we all found out that William was actually a working musician on the side as well.  He was leaving us to go play a weekend full of weddings.  William plays guitar!

When Odon gave me my certificate, I gave him my good luck hat (the Michael Franti & Spearhead black hat I was wearing when I first met Emily, among other great days under it).  We were, as the little vender in Cusco had proclaimed earlier on the trip, a brother from another mother, and I was definitely going to miss my new amigo.  Everyone deserves to meet extraordinary people that inspire you to become better human beings.  Side note, life would be a lot easier if you always met such extraordinary people to follow on your chosen paths if they came with the job title of being a professional guide on the path that you have chosen.  I know it’s not always like this, but it sure is nice when it works out that way.

But yeah, I also handed over the prayer bead walking poles that Odon had given to me at the beginning of the trail.  Come to find out over the course of our walk that those were Odon’s lucky poles.  He had been using them for over 12 years and the stickers were “definitely put on there after his baby girl was born.”  He said I would have a “morning star” before long.

Before we said our goodbyes to our guides, everyone went around the table sharing and reminding each of us where we were going to next.  Being that everyone else was from another country that was celebrating “holiday”, we were the only ones that had to return immediately home to get back to work.  It occurred to the foursome more than once on the trip that there was something fishy and wrong about us living in the USA (a so-called EMPIRE, even if on a decline) and working so hard for what didn’t amount to much to show for it in the long run over other countries not being so-called Empires of the day.  It got me thinking maybe people shouldn’t be scared of the USA losing power and its place as #1 on the platform.  Maybe then we’ll all get our “holiday” more than the 3-day weekends we already have in place.  Who knows.  I do know that everyone else was going to more places.

Cliff and Dorothy were traveling a bit more in Peru, actually taking a salt mine tour near Cusco with Odon the next day before heading somewhere else.

Jayne and Graham had plans to travel to Ecuador for the next step of their year adventure.  With two more months left to finalize the year on the road, they were already looking forward to celebrating ChristMarch at home with their kiddos.  They made sure to take note about visiting Nashville eventually.

Alex and Thomas were going back to Cusco, Alex to work a non-profit gig to round off her holiday while Thomas was trying to fly down into Chile or Argentina before making the trek back Down Under.

Emily and I sat beside Eden and Scott on the bumpy train ride beside the still raging brown Chocolate River.  We talked about the long hike and how each of us appreciated different parts of it.  I was really glad to hear Eden say that she really appreciated our group of 12 even more than before after experiencing all of the raucous that morning with all the other annoying groups.  We agreed.  Eden and Scott still had a few more months of traveling to go, and they had pretty much come to the conclusion that their budget was only going to allow one meal per day unless they somehow tricked/guilted their parents to send money, food, help, or supplies.  They said so with a laugh that was contagious within our booth.

The train ride back to the start of the hike in Ollantaytambo was a great time to decompress.  Our foursome was booked to stay there in a quaint B&B called Picaflor Tamba, and I know I wasn’t the only one of us who was ready to take a shower without baby wipes.  The rest of our group was going to take a 2-hour van ride back to Cusco without any rainbows in sight.  I asked Scott, “Does it bother you that in ten minutes that I’ll be taking a hot shower?  To which he instantly replied, in perfect Scott fashion, “Does it bother you that in 2 months you’ll be back home working your ass off while I’m still traveling the world with Eden?”  It was all perfect.

About that time, a lady walked through handing out teas and snacks like we were on an airplane.  Eden said, “Is this real life?”  It was surreal to be back in the world off the mountain.  And as for mountain talk, and after talking about which songs we all sang in our heads along our way, Scott said, “I kept on thinking about that lady that sang ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’, and I wanna write that bitch a letter and tell her ‘yes, there is.  I found it and climbed that thing.”  Others turned in their seats to see what we were laughing at, but they missed it.  It was perfect.

The bumpy trained stopped and it was another round of Love Actually airport moments of crowds of taxi cab drivers begging for our fares.  We had a driver with a sign waiting for us from Pachamama Exploreres.  After one last taxi ride together as a group, the foursome got out at the centro on the hill and said our quick goodbyes.  It felt as if they left us as soon as we just met them all, but the adventure in between those moments was something that a million words couldn’t describe.  You literally had to be there.  The hugs felt good enough for closure this round, until we meet again.

As fate would have it, our showers were fairly broken at the Picaflor Tamba.  It was either cold as ice or scorching hot, nothing in between.  I believe it was a curse and that I could hear Scott’s laugh from the taxi ride back to Cusco loud and clear.  But, like people who called the mountains home, we managed.  Like people who live off the mountains, we had a laundry service clean our stinky clothes.

Refreshed, with clean clothes to spare, it was this time, after nobody got sick the entire trek in the woods, when several of the foursome started rolling downhill at a rapid rate.  Emily stayed in the bed, bypassing dinner, the first night.  The second day it was passed along to Doshi (who bypassed a massage that I scooped up instead … an hour for $6) with his stomach issues.  Maggie seemed to be spared, but it hit me like a ton of bricks on the plane ride back the to the States the day after.

Before the plane departure back across the equator, we managed to slip back into Cusco for a second to buy some last gifts.  We met some more local artists, managed to barter with the artist’s wife who was breastfeeding her toddler in the open as she settled on a sufficient price for the deal, and then there was the last supper and taxi ride from hell in Lima.

To set the fine Peruvian dinner and taxi adventure up, I’ll be quick.  We had about 6 hours to spare in Lima, before our flights to Florida.  We had heard that it was wise for your health and safety to only ride with taxi drivers with official government tags because of thieves and hoodlums.  The problem for us was that we only had enough Peru cash to get a steal of a deal to the fancy restaurant and back where Doshi had planned for us (He was pulling out the Platinum card for dinner, but the taxis don’t take Platinum).  I dove back into my Spanish-speaking skills and did my best to get what amounted to a $12 for a 45 minute drive one-way for four people.  Not many people with government tags gave me a second or two after my one and only offer.  I did manage to get one guy outside to go for it until he found out it was $12 total instead of each person in our group.  I also had one guy say yes, after we had walked away from him twice saying we didn’t want his counter offer, but when we walked to the taxi he had us going to, the taxi driver walked away after hearing the price.

Just then, we saw another guy with his pass in shirt pocket, a larger than average Peruvian, who accepted our rate right off the bat.  It was that easy.  Although I did ask to see his tags when we he opened his trunk, and he did smirk when he realized that we meant $12 total instead of for each, we got in the car after he agreed to his original acceptance of our trip.  He went out of sight for a minute, as we took our seats (Doshi in front and me in the back center), and then came back quickly to start the car in a hurry and turn on the digital mapquest on the dashboard.  We saw where we were going, but we were still skeptic as to getting there alive.  Nobody said anything.

I think all of us had seen way too many movies and news reports about American tourists dying while abroad, so needless to say that the all American pop radio hits station that he put on loudly didn’t really quiet our current emotional, death ride  of a taxi drive we were all experiencing together.  We weaved in and out of lanes, missing other cars and buses by inches, at top speeds, and I’m pretty sure he never used a rearview mirror once.  He also weaved in and out of the course on the mapquest so many times that I thought he was taking us to another crew off the map to where we would eventually be stripped of all vital organs in a reasonable time table.  We were going to miss dinner, our flights, and our lives.  Not even the sweet sounds of Adam Levine over the airwaves seemed to relax Maggie and Emily too much.

And just like that, we arrived at the fancy restaurant beside the ruins faster than we thought.  I thanked him profusely, and we planned to meet him back at the same spot in 4 hours to get the same rated ride back to the airport.  We walked to the closest cafe we could and all downed a Pisco or two to discuss the cab ride experience.

Maggie and Emily had envisioned me punching the driver from behind as soon as he pulled into a dark alley, but Doshi was the most creative.  He had envisioned the driver stabbing Doshi in the side while weaving through traffic, but then I was going to punch the driver from behind as soon as I saw that happen … and we’d somehow take control of the vehicle and be safe.  Either that, or Doshi thought we’d pull into a dark alley, with his crew waiting, and the girls would be taken away and raped while he and I would be stripped of our organs in a manner in which Doshi, being the doctor with excellent standards that he is, would ask them if he could take out his own kidney so he knew that someone was doing it correctly.  At least we were all pretty much on the same page.  That poor cab driver, he was probably thinking we were just as crazy for keeping an eagle eye on him and every single turn we took the entire ride.

The drinks tasted so much better with the overwhelming sense that we were ALIVE!  They tasted great too because Doshi was buying the rounds, as he does.  We then skipped over to the fancy restaurant where they put us and our backpacks on the opposite end of the outdoor patio as the other fancy dressed high rolling customers, as they should have.  We ate the famous Peruvian ceviche, because we were now close to the ocean shore and we were told never to eat the ceviche unless you could see/smell the ocean.  We had a little bit of everything good on the menu, and tapped it off with some major desserts.

We paid the bill and walked outside earlier than we had originally planned.  Our cab driver was already there!  We all knew that he had called his crew this time and so our stomachs were instantly in knots even though nobody said anything about it (we didn’t want to jinx it or make it real).  The ride to the airport was just as quick, crazy, and filled with other cars getting mad at us for not letting them in lanes or cutting us off.  We were all pretty tipsy at this point from dinner and drinks so we joined in to vocalizing our complaints to other drivers while backing up our own driver.  He laughed and I think we were all on the same team by the time we arrived at the airport safely and on time.  Point being, nobody was going to lose their kidneys and we even had a little bit of extra cash than expected so we gave it to Jhonny the cab driver for saving our lives instead of taking them away.  Everyone smiled, relieved.

We got to our gate on time, with a two hour flight delay, but the stomach bug returned in epic fashion on my end.  I spent more seconds in the bathroom than I waiting to board the plane.  On the flight, I felt as though I was the only one besides the attendants who didn’t sleep. I’m pretty sure I spent more time in the bathroom than I did in my seat.  But, in the end, the stomach bugs vanished when we made it home safe.  Emily and I didn’t really mind the hellacious line for security at Fort Lauderdale that resembled the Santa line in A Christmas Story (literally 45 minutes to go through and still didn’t feel safe), or the 8 more hours we spent getting stand-by’ed for flights to Nsahville via Baltimore, Austin, and Jacksonville that never happened.  Actually, Emily did mind.  She was exhausted and on the edge of tears and a breakdown because of the terrible service at that airport and from everything that we’d been through since Jhonny the cab ride hours before.

But. in the end, a nice little lady at Southwest showed extreme pity on us and bookmarked us on the last direct flight to Nashville for the day.  I still couldn’t sleep, going on about an hour’s rest the last 40 prior, and with a lot less liquid weight, but there was something to be said about being on two plane rides, one leaving a country over the ocean at sunrise and the other flying HOME at sunset, on the same day.  We had been on 4 planes 24 hours actually.  Needless to say, we didn’t mind the freezing temperatures or the jumping dogs when we arrived in Nashville.  We were home.

We were tired, cold, hungry, kinda sick, and shaking (possibly from sleep deprivation or traveling nerves more so than the temps).  But, most of all, we were happy, accomplished, smiling, and so very blessed to be together, to have a home, and to feel so loved with everyone who cared to contact us any way they could while away.

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This reminded our friend at the airport that this had been no vacation or holiday.  This was an adventure!  We were able to live a dream.  Now it was time to go to bed and dream another one.

“ … así fué la vida de este hombre, que a su familia le dío mucho amor, a sus amigos y conocidos siempre una frase amable una una alegría.”

 

-excerpt from a mural at the Don Estaban Don Pancho café in Cuzco, Peru

And, as promised, here is Emily’s video recap of the adventure:

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