Arriving in Cusco (And How I Learned “Lack of Oxygen” is a Handy Excuse For Most Anything!)
Pressing my nose to the window, I hold my breath as the Andes rise up to greet me – lush hues of green, tear-stained and timeless. Wispy cloud fingers gently rake the peaks, growing more substantial with every passing mile. Dazzling snow-capped peaks suddenly burst through the cloud layer, making a grab for the sun in a stunning display of glittering brilliance. The plane banks sharply to the left, and just like that, these treasures become memory.
Making my way down the corridor from the plane, I hear Mo before I see her. I throw my arms around her and we laugh. Those witnessing the reunion smile warmly then look away. I step back, then hug her again, so grateful she is there, grateful I made it, grateful this is real!
We chatter excitedly as she flags down a taxi. I am surprised by her command of the language as she leans down to speak to the driver through the passenger-side window. Shoving my pack into the tiny cab, I settle in next to Mo and allow the sights, sounds, and smells of the city to assault my senses.
We walk the final block or two to Mo’s apartment, which is off a quaint cobblestone alley. Ducking through the hobbit-sized door, we enter a small courtyard dominated by bushes of red, tear-drop shaped flowers kneeling in worship of their patch of sunlight.
Mo shows me into her modest loft on the second floor. An ancient, once-golden sofa rests on the left, flanked by a few shelves built into the wall to its right. The kitchen consists of a sink, propane stove top, a small round table, and a mini-fridge. From what I can see, there are a couple of mugs, plates, and a bowl or two at our disposal.
Then come the bathroom instructions/warnings:
- Make sure you are finished showering by 10:00pm because there is generally no water between 10pm and 2am. That’s when the water tanks are re-filled.
- If you want hot water, just turn the water on to a slow dribble. If warm water is acceptable, you can run it a little more. Run it full on, and you’re in for a cold shower.
- The shower is electric (a.k.a. the shower of death). Sometimes when you first turn the water on, the lights will flicker.
- Do not touch the shower head because it will shock you. (That’s when I realized the shower, just like the door into the courtyard, was kind of hobbit-sized.)
- Never flush toilet paper down the toilet…
Mo grins and says, “Welcome to South America!”
I realize right then and there that I am not in for a typical American tourist experience. Not by a long shot. I smile to myself.
As Mo boils water for our coca tea, she explains that water must be boiled for 3-5 minutes to get rid of the “cooties”. This includes the water with which we brush our teeth. My thoughts go back to the “shower of death” and I make a mental note to keep my mouth shut at all costs while in there. Even if I get electrocuted.
Taking Mo’s laptop outside(she can’t connect to the internet when she’s in the apartment), I take a minute to e-mail home and let everyone know I arrived safely. A movement across the courtyard catches my eye and I see a lady smiling up at me. I call, “Buenos dias!” down to her and she returns the greeting as she starts up the stairs toward me.
It’s all fine until she starts talking in rapid-fire Spanish. Everything I learned, everything I studied and thought I knew, melts from my brain cells in an instant. I feel my eyes grow wide. Mo is in the apartment and here I am standing before this woman like a deaf-mute. I can tell from her smile and her tone that she is a kind person and no doubt saying something nice, but that’s about all my brain can process, especially when she gives me a big hug. Mo appears in the doorway, much to my relief, and converses with her expertly for a moment while my head continues to spin. Then the lady smiles at me. “Como se llama?”
Hold on…I know this. I do! She’s asking me…wait…oh no!!! What is she asking me? This is basic stuff! THINK!!!!
An awkward pause. Then, in perfect English, the lady asks, “What is your name?”
At this point, I’m not completely sure I know the answer to that, either! Thankfully, Mo bails me out. Sadly, it isn’t the last time. I blame it on the lack of oxygen in Cusco. We are at 11,200 feet, after all!
Exploring Cusco (Talking To Strangers with Rocks In Our Pockets)
Before we set out to explore the city, Mo takes a rock from a small pile on the coffee table and hands it to me. Slipping one into her own pocket, she explains that it is a precautionary measure against the many wild dogs in the city. I have a hard time imagining myself ever chucking a rock at a dog, but I bury it in my pocket nevertheless.
Making our way to the Plaza de Armas, I snap pics like the tourist I am: Flowers, people, Inca walls, murals, architecture, churches, the Andes, food, and a not-so-wild-looking dog.
Mo leads me through the Mercado San Pedro, a bustling collage of color and smells. Not all of them are pleasant, however. As we make our way down the main aisle, my stomach lurches at a particularly pungent odor. Mo suggests we walk a little faster, pointing out the meat section of the market. Whole pigs and chickens, as well as myriad other unidentifiable delicacies, are lined up in a macabre, unrefrigerated display. We hurry out of the market, where I dare allow myself to inhale again.
The next day we continue exploring, making our way through a maze of streets and alleys toward a bus/van stop for the ride up to Cristo Blanco (the White Christ), which overlooks the city. Our hands ever on the rocks in our pockets, we pass a very ornate, very unusual wooden double-door along the way. Thinking it would make a cool pic, we both step back and whip out our cameras. Suddenly the door opens. A gentleman of around 60 appears, his ankle-biting black dog bolting toward us. My first instinct is to run like I stole something, but Mo smiles and explains that we were admiring the door. He smiles and invites us in to see his other work. I glance nervously at Mo. She gives a little shrug and we follow the man inside.
I should pause here and apologize to my mother. Yes, Mom, I know going into a strange man’s home in a strange city in a foreign country where I do not speak the language is reckless and stupid. And yes, you did indeed raise me better than that. What can I say? It was all Mo’s idea!
We make our way down a hallway that opens to reveal an exquisitely carved banister leading to a second floor. A woman appears, giving us a polite nod as she walks by. I wonder if she is the man’s wife. I also wonder if she is accustomed to him ushering in strange gringas from time to time.
The man shows us to a back room where enormous, elaborately carved pieces stand sentry. Armoires, tables, wall hangings – all etched with intricate detail. Pride gleams in the man’s eyes as he explains how the details go straight from his mind to the wood, with nothing planned out ahead of time. We are standing in the presence of a true craftsman. He gives each of us his business card and escorts us back to the door. My fear has been replaced by awe, and I am grateful for the experience.
We catch the crowded Cristo Blanco van and make our way to the top of the city. A little boy sits across from us, alternately smiling and burying his face in his mother’s arm. “They’re so white!” he remarked to her, which made us all laugh.
Standing next to the White Christ (Cristo Blanco), we survey the city. We snap a few tourist photos then Mo points out the cross at Saqsaywaman on a nearby cliff. To our gringa ears, Saqsaywaman sounds like “sexy woman”…and so began a bout of irreverent humor, which Mo and I share a penchant for.
Making our way back to Mo’s apartment, we wait for our Llama Path guide to arrive for our pre-trek talk. At 5:00 sharp, a very solemn, business-like, 30-something guy shows up and introduces himself as Juan José. Very methodically, he explains what we will be doing and when, asks us if we have any food allergies, explains the customary tipping practices for the porters and cook (we nearly choke when he tells us we will have four porters and a cook), then issues us each a red duffel bag with plastic bags inside. Do we have any questions? Good. He tells us he will pick us up in the morning at 7 sharp. And with that, he is gone.
Mo and I are left blinking at each other. We’d just been given our marching orders, to be sure! And what was the deal with the four porters? Weren’t they just carrying our backpacks and tents? We set to packing and decide there is one thing we know for sure: Juan José needs to smile more.
And So It Begins…
We meet our porters and cook about 7:05am the next morning. I’m pretty sure of the exact time, because Juan José showed up exactly when he told us he would, and within 5 minutes are all in the van on our way to Tambomachay, the starting point of our trek.
It rained throughout the night and starts picking up again as we prepare to start. Mo can I pull out our rain ponchos and laugh as we snap “before” pics.
We climb steadily upward for 4.5 miles, crossing streams (or rivers, depending on who you ask) and picking our way over rocky, muddy ridges. I am captivated by the flora around me and quickly fall behind as I snap pic after pic. Tucking my camera away, I decide to catch up. Only, it’s not that easy.
The slightest incline makes my heart thud violently against my chest. I push onward, mostly out of pride. I wonder if this is how some of my students feel in my class and decide to be more sympathetic going forward. We stop for water and I am amazed at how my heart rate falls back to normal with 5-10 seconds.
Pushing on, my leg muscles feel like they are imploding from the lack of oxygen. We stop more frequently, trying at the very least to remain hydrated. I inform Mo that my newest 4-letter word is “up”. “Arriba,” she corrects me. It is the Spanish word for up. It makes me think of Speedy Gonzalez, but I don’t want to waste the oxygen laughing.
Onward we climb. Plod, stop, breathe, repeat. I think of the song Mo played as we were packing the night before, Breathe, by Ryan Star (“Breathe, just breathe; Take the world off your shoulders and put it on me; Breathe, just breathe; Let the life that you live be all that you need”). And I try. For nearly five hours.
We crest a ridge and see a group of porters setting up camp. It must be time for lunch! We’re almost giddy with excitement. Then, with a sinking feeling, I say, “I’ll bet you ten bucks that’s not ours. I’ll bet ours is over that next ridge.” I don’t think either of us wanted to ask Juan José. Maybe it was because we didn’t want him to think we were weak. Although, as I had slowed to a snail’s pace at each “arriba” the last few miles, I’m pretty sure he already doubted us.
I was right about the location of our lunch break. As it turned out, the first one we saw was for a group of five 20-somethings we kept leap-frogging with along the way. Jerks.
And so we persevere over the next ridge, past herds of llamas and sheep. Finally, we meet the smiling faces of our porters, who present us with some delicious drink made from barley. We throw down our packs and sit on a tarp as they finish making lunch for us in the tent. As if on cue, the sun comes out, and we drink in the warmth like nectar.
Juan José motions for us to enter the tent. We gawk at the spread before us, as it is nothing short of a 5-course meal. If this is what we are in for during our trek, no wonder there were four porters! Sure, they are carrying our sleeping bags and tents, but they are also hauling the lunch tent, food, cooking supplies, and their own tents on their backs! And they handily pass us without the slightest trace of labored breathing! Mo and I are humbled, to say the least.
Back on the trail, we have more “arriba” until we reach almost 14,200 feet on the Huchuy Qosqo Pass. Then we have a few more hours of descent, during which time we pass through several unique eco-regions, from warm, sunny valleys to the village of Pukamarca, from the tropical Hummingbird Canyon to the mist-covered ruins at Huchuy Qosqo. We stop in the village to give the kids some of the gifts we brought from home. They are so soft-spoken and polite, and genuinely glad to have the cookies and coloring books/crayons.
During the descent, Juan José stays closer to us. We talk about history, people, and world views. We ask him how to say some things in the Quechua language. He asked us about some English words he isn’t sure about. We discover we are kindred souls after all. And the most incredible thing happens: Juan José smiles!
It is raining again as we reach the camp. Unable to hear well with my rain gear on, I narrowly escape being trampled by a few over-anxious horses. Thankfully, Mo turned and saw them in time to warn me. The porters, of course, have been there long enough to set up our tents, and start dinner. We are presented with warm water and towels so that we can freshen up a bit before tea. (Yes, we had tea.) An hour later we meet again for another fantastic dinner. The tent is filled with laughter as we trade funny stories with JJ. (Somewhere during the course of that meal he went from being Juan José to JJ.)
The Milky Way stretches overhead as we emerge from the dinner tent. With no light pollution, the stars seem close enough to touch. I would love to sit and stare at them for hours, but the chill and exhaustion are taking its toll. Nestling down in our sleeping bags, Mo and I drift into unconsciousness.
About that time, a wild dog makes its way into the camp and starts barking and howling. I am painfully aware that I need to relieve myself one last time before going to sleep. However, I am not about to leave the safety of our tent knowing there is a wild dog prowling around. In my mind, of course, he is the size ofa puma, with red eyes and gleaming fangs. So I wait. For over twenty minutes. Nothing but silence. Surely the dog has moved on.
Grabbing my little flashlight, I slowly unzip the tent and walk a few yards away. Just as I am getting down to business, I hear it – a deep, guttural growl to my right. I flick on the flashlight and point it in that direction. Nothing. Funny, but I don’t seem to need to pee anymore. Scampering back to the tent, I zip it up and stare at the darkness until the first rays of sun emerge over the Andes.
The next day, we make a sharp 3.5 mile descent into the small town of Lamay. After another wonderful lunch, we say goodbye to our porters and cook. Picking up my pack, I feel my back go out with a sharp snap. I want to cry, but an angry resolve quickly settles in. I pitch the pack over my back and board the bus for Ollyantaytambo. The whole ride, I try to ignore the fact that the rest of my trip might very well be ruined. Once in the town, Mo and I walk around a bit. The movement loosens my muscles slightly, but I know from way too much past experience that sitting down will soon invite the spasms back.
Pain nipping at my lower back, we board the train to Aguas Calientes and the final leg of our trek – Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. I am grateful to be in a hotel that night, and a very nice one at that. Apparently we were bumped up to a 4-star resort from whatever we were supposed to be in. Indeed, it is very lovely, an oasis of perfection in the middle of a rain forest. Oddly, Mo and I both feel a bit shell-shocked, perhaps even a little disappointed. We had been unexpectedly plopped down in the middle of an elegant resort, which was, of course, all sanitized and safe for western tourists. As nice as that might sound, it is not what we signed up for. Our hearts already ache for the silence of the mountains.
Nevertheless, we are starving. Food trumps a hot shower, so we make our way to the restaurant. I feel like Grizzly Adams at the Four Seasons. Probably smell like it, too. We get a few disapproving looks, which makes the whole situation even funnier. I am grateful for the laugh – anything to take my mind off my back.
But as we cut up and giggle, we notice a long table nearby. A family vacation, it appears, with the patriarch seated at one end, dressed in designer expedition clothing that he probably never wore before. Everyone at the table is, in fact, dressed like a Ralph Lauren print ad. All have impeccable manners, their left hands resting in their laps, their right hands setting down their fork after each bite. But they aren’t talking. No one is laughing. No one looks happy. They just look…well, perfect.
Sometimes we see people in the depths of poverty and shiver, grateful we are not them. This is how I feel now, watching this family, their brand of poverty so much farther reaching than those unable to afford such meals.
I look around again. There are others. Couples, families with teenagers – all entranced by their iPhones. The air in the room suddenly feels very thin. I look down at my boots, the bottoms of which are surely covered with llama dung, and sigh. There, but for the grace of God, go I. Thankfully, having the means does not necessarily relegate one to the desire.
Mo and I retire to our room and talk a little more about the adventure in store for us tomorrow. Honestly, after all the wonders we have seen and experienced to this point, we agree that if something happened and we couldn’t make it to Machu Picchu, it wouldn’t matter. We would not leave disappointed.
Going to Machu Picchu is like going to Disney World, if you like that sort of thing. There is an endless stream of busses filled with tourists between the town of Aguas Calientes and the front gates of Machu Picchu. Once there, you push your way through the crowd, past people yelling at their kids, teenagers stopping to pose for countless selfies, young people heckling each other from atop the terraces.
We sense a change in JJ’s demeanor while we are there. He endures this all the time, for the sake of his customers – the noise, the shoving, the irreverence. I feel sad. I don’t want to be a part of this. I want to be part of the Andes, the night sky, the clouds, the flowers, the streams, Pachamama…everything we saw until now. But I see myself as JJ must…another foreign tourist jockeying for that “classic Machu Picchu” shot. I got the shot. We all did. But it is cheapened in my heart.
We say goodbye to JJ after our tour of Machu Picchu. On our own now, Mo and I make our way to Huayna Picchu. I am nervous after all I have heard and read about it. 1,000 feet straight up…but it’s the coming down that wrecks the nerves. JJ even admitted he didn’t like doing it, which did nothing for my confidence. By the time we start our ascent, the mountain is swathed in clouds. My back is holding up, thanks to 800mg of ibuprofen.
We make our way through a couple of rocky bottlenecks with people coming back down the mountain. I find myself regretting ever getting on this overcrowded “amusement park ride”. Thankfully, we do not encounter any more on our way up.
Before long, we reach a dark cave that must be passed through in order to reach the highest part of the mountain. Fear starts to grip me. What if my back gives out in the cave? What if I get stuck here? Shaking it off, I ask Mo to snap my picture, then I push myself into the darkness.
I walk on my knees, pressing my hands against the cold, wet stone ceiling as it slopes downward. There is daylight just ahead and I scramble in a belly-crawl toward it. From the top, the shroud of white mist obscures our view, yet we all know what lies below us, just a footstep away.
A guy proposes to his girlfriend at the very top and everyone claps. Pausing to snap a few more pics, Mo and I start the descent. The stone stairs narrow, the mist swirls around us. I sit down and scoot from step to step. Some people are turning around and crawling down as if on a ladder. I keep waiting for it to get really scary, really difficult, but it never does. It’s true, what they say – there are no handrails or ropes, but I don’t need them. I chalk the hullabaloo surrounding the descent to melodramatic past tourists in need of “death-defying” tales. Puh-lease.
We make it down without incident, and I keep snapping pics of the orchids and other flora that catch my attention. Toward the end, two employees rush past us with a stretcher. Apparently someone broke their leg or something. Ought to make for a great story back home!
Time to Think, To Be, and To Transform
I knew I would be different after this trip. I found out what I was made of and I came back with a clearer understanding of my strengths, as well as my weaknesses. I have a better idea of who I am, and who I am not. I caught a glimpse of what is possible. And I learned a lot about trust and choice.
Up to this point in my life, I have tried to stay one step ahead of the game, always grabbing and clawing for control. When that doesn’t work, which it most certainly will not 100% of the time, I become reactive…and angry.
To be both controlling and reactive is a perfectly horrible dichotomy, especially when they are roommates within one soul. Frustration. Impatience. Failure to focus. Anger. And what is anger but a manifestation of fear?
What am I afraid of?
That is what changed on this trip. Everything I was afraid of before, I left in the Andes. Fear of failure. Fear of disappointing people. Fear that I might fall apart when things got rough. Fear I wasn’t good enough.
I am still afraid, but I’m afraid of things like whether or not my loved ones feel cherished, of not being fully present during the most precious moments of life, of wasting my time.
So I am making some changes. This is what they look like:
When I am introduced to people, I want to remember their name.
When I speak with someone, I want to remember their eye color when we part company.
I never want to start a conversation with a complaint again, even if it’s about the weather.
When I do something as simple as walking to my car in a parking lot, I want to be aware of the cloud formations above me, be able to name the trees around me, and hear which birds are singing nearby.
I want to listen without formulating my next reply, without judging, and with respect for the journey we each face, as well as where we are in it.
I want to ask questions that make people think.
I want to trust and believe in the perfect timing of the universe; to know that I am part of it, not a victim of it.
And so, in the end, I am mindful. And grateful. And unhurried.
Because that’s how I roll now…
Let go of the fear, let go of the doubt,
Let go of the ones who try to bring you down
You’re gonna be fine, don’t hold it inside
And if you hurt right now
Let it all come out
(From “Breathe” by Ryan Star)