Monday, June 4, 2012

Peru -- A Brief Glimpse

Somehow, two weeks have passed since returning from my trip to Peru, and it already is beginning to feel like the whole thing never really happened, that it was just this amazing dream. Perhaps it is because the whole thing seemed a bit like a figment of my imagination—who would have thought I could manage to hike for four days and camp out for three nights without finding myself completely worn out, bruised, or battered? I never dreamed that I would have a chance to explore the Amazon Basin and encounter monkeys, tarantulas, frogs, and more. (Not many mosquitos, though, which was a very pleasant surprise!) And, even more importantly, I held myself to my goal of reaching my fifth continent before turning thirty. That in itself is pretty amazing because I am not one to set goals, let alone achieve them.

But this isn't really what you want to hear about. What you are more interested in are the stories. What interesting things transpired while I was immersed in a completely different culture and landscape? What did it really feel like to hike up to a point 13,5000 feet above sea level (particularly when I normally live only at 1,026 feet sea level)? What was the food like? Would I do it again?

My history with exploring the great outdoors really isn't as rich or abundant as one may think. Outside of the occasional camp trip with my family (which rarely involved hikes over 2 or 3 miles), I didn't do a whole lot in the outdoors. I dabbled a bit more in the adventuring lifestyles while in Wales, where I took a course called Outdoor Pursuits. It encouraged me to hike, climb, and kayak my way through Wales, helping me experience the country in a way far different from your average tourist. Still, my attempts at this were a challenge.  At 20, I was out-of-shape, a bit lazy, and not in the best of condition to be trudging about in a cool, clammy climate. I also had the misfortune to experience such interesting mishaps like watching my tent fly off a cliff, being lost in a bog, and finding myself perpetually wet either by virtue of the rain or by having our self-constructed raft collapse in the middle of a freezing cold pond. I also remember being battered, bruised, and sore. Strangely, none of this would deter me a few years later from pursuing similar activities which had the potential to replicate many of the above results.

So, when I signed up to hike the Inca Trail, I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew for certain that I would immediately be put at a disadvantage because of the difference in altitude. Being that high up literally takes your breath away and makes even the slightest amount of effort feel like a gargantuan task. I also knew that there would be a lot more steep inclines, stairs, and general overall ups and downs. Kansas City has a few hills, but nothing compared to what I would encounter. Still, in a paltry effort to prepare, I walked. A lot. I figured at least I could get the distance down if I couldn't get the elevation. And, strangely, I think it helped. Really, I was surprised by how little anything ended up hurting after the hike. Outside of my poor calves (the 20,000 or so stairs were a bit much for them), I didn't feel any muscle soreness, which was a shock. I thought I would ache all over and wake up on the second morning unable to move (as was my experience when hiking in Snowdonia ten years ago). Strangely, 5:00 a.m would come around and I would be ready to begin again without any complaint. Something truly strange was happening in those mountains.

I think that the only reason I was able to make it, though, was because I had the support of a wonderful team of porters, two excellent guides, and a great group with whom I was traveling. It is amazing just how much a support system makes a difference in a situation like this. The porters worked behind the scenes, rushing ahead to beat us to our camp site, our resting points, and anywhere else it was they were needed. After a long day of hiking, we would arrive at our campsite with our tents already in place. Within the first five minutes of getting situated there, a basin of steaming hot water would be available to wash away the grime accumulated throughout the day. Some people (not me) would even soak their feet once they had finished washing. Funny how such a small thing quickly became a luxury. I mean, when you have to deal with things like squat toilets along the path (stinking cess pools of all sorts of things you do not want to think about, really. I guess it is a better solution than finding some bushes, but you quickly learn how to hold your breath for a long time when you enter), dirt, sweat, sunscreen, oily hair, dirty clothes…a small bowl of hot water is gold.

Meal times were also strangely luxurious. We would arrive at the site, and there would be a separate tent furnished with tables and stools for us to sit at. Upon sitting, we would have tea and water availble for us, and eventually, the first course of our meal. I had so many delicious soups along the trail, it was amazing (and I didn't realize that with limited supplies, you can have six different kinds of soups. And six very different kind of cooked meals, ranging from spaghetti to stir fry to potato dishes…I felt kind of bad because I asked for vegetarian meals, so I always got my own personalized dish. It felt a bit too much for me). I felt like I was eating so much all of the time that I swore I would be one of the few people who actually gained weight while hiking the Inca Trail. I know, a silly thing to worry about…I think one of my favorite things that our chefs prepared were the cheese wonton things—fried wontons with melted cheese in the middle. Like many people, I have a weakness for all things cheesy and deep-fried. Still not sure how they managed to make them, but they were delicious.  As was the freshly popped popcorn. That was amazing and impossible to stop eating even when trying to ration oneself. And there were desserts, usually fruity concoctions of some sort. If there is one thing that Peru has a lot of, it is different varieties of fruit.

Add in the support of a good group and two amazing guides, and you have everything you need for success. I did require a little more patience with myself than I normally allow. Particularly on the second day, there was not going to be any quick sprints up the stairs. After about five stairs, I was ready for a breather. While doing it, I felt rather pathetic, but looking back, it was just the kind of thing I needed to keep pace. To be honest, I would have killed myself trying to keep an unsustainable pace if it weren't for a few other group members. At the steepest part of the climb, there were six of us walking together. We would pick an object in the distance ("Okay, that boulder, right there. Let's go!"), and keep moving until we reached it. Sometimes, the climb was easier than we had anticipated, sometimes far more grueling. No matter what, though, we made it to the next part of the trail until finally we were at the summit. We didn't stay long, and really we didn't need to. Funny thing about hiking—one minute it feels like your heart is beating out of your chest, the next minute it feels like you haven't been doing anything more taxing than a casual stroll.

Along the trail, we passed through three or four different ecosystems, seeing cacti and orchids, waterfalls and arid grasslands. There were times it felt like I had been transported back in time, left to forge the trail through the jungle myself (okay, fine. I let my imagination help shape that a little bit. The trail was always clearly marked, and there was never any need to wield a machete to clear through some overgrowth or anything). It felt almost like I were in an Indiana Jones movie or something—the caves also helped add to that feeling. In many ways, this trip helped me embrace those childhood dreams of being an intrepid explorer. So, thousands of people had passed this way before and there wasn't really anything new to discover. I still was discovering it for myself, and that was what was important, right? In the end, it wasn't about what other people thought about my journey. It was how I felt about it, and in all honesty, I feel pretty darn good about the whole thing. Despite all my reservations, all my previous catastrophes in the natural world, I managed to get through this adventure wholly in tact and feeling like I could conquer the world. I am not exactly quick to repeat the endeavor again, but looking around at what is out there, I know I can do a ton more hikes in the area without a problem, and perhaps I can seek out a few in the Rockies…it is high time to explore my own country and see what else is out there.

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