29 March 2011

an epic adventure of self-discovery

Once we had climbed up to the main set of tracks, we turned left and walked along a worn path to the side of them. I could see shoe prints in the mud, as well as a few paw prints. The river was down the valley to my left, and the jungle grew more dense over the tracks to my right.

The uninterrupted quiet was almost suffocating, and it made every innocent sound seem threatening. The sound of water dripping onto fallen leaves might as well have been footsteps behind me, and the breeze through the trees might as well have been a whisper. Although I had originally intended to do my mini-trek all on my own, I have to admit that having Loki with me made me feel much more relaxed.

Loki's presence still didn't stop me from getting a little nervous as we approached an underpass. Essentially, it looked as though a bridge had once run perpendicular to the train's route, but all that remained was the enormous concrete structure directly over the tracks. With several moss-covered columns and an interior I couldn't see all the way into, it seemed to me to be a perfect hiding spot for a psychotic serial killer to lay in wait.

But as nervous as that bridge made me, Loki seemed to have no problem with it, so I imagined myself in the trailer of a movie about my life, with Don LaFontaine doing voice-over work: "One girl. . . on an epic adventure of self-discovery. . ." and I walked right through that tunnel, emerging totally unscathed on the other side.

That voice-over sort of became my mantra for the journey. When I had to hike past the eerily quiet shacks that were infrequently located right beside the tracks, I repeated those lines in my head. When a skinny chicken burst out of the jungle, squawking frantically, I repeated them again--and walked a little faster.

I stopped to get my water bottle out of my backpack after about an hour. Loki seemed annoyed by the delay. Feeling extremely grateful for his company, and not having ruled out the possibility that he might be some kind of spirit guide, I found a fairly concave rock on the ground and poured a little water in it for my friend. He was completely uninterested, so I took a long drink from the bottle and returned it to my bag.

For that first hour or two, the river was on my left. We had drifted away from it for a bit, but eventually we joined it again, and finally it came time to cross it. Now, I'm not sure if you've ever heard of the Urubamba River, but it's pretty massive. All those angry floodwaters coming down from the mountains, pushing buses and cars off the roads and eroding the hillsides, were joining this river. It had become an angry, wide, greyish-brown behemoth, and its width made it seem deceptively sluggish. There was one way across it, and that was a rusted and rickety iron bridge. Because I was approaching from the left, I found myself standing right below a sign that said in Spanish, "Crossing of the bridge by pedestrians is prohibited."

What else was I supposed to think but that I'd taken a wrong turn? I looked up and down the river, but saw no other route. Moreover, the sign had some graffiti on it, which indicated that other English-speaking travelers had been there. And looking down, I saw dozens of recent footprints in the mud. Maybe this was the only way.

Luckily, I noticed a railing to the right of the main bridge. There was a walkway of rusted and cracked iron plates along the bridge, with a thin rail about the size of the fenceposts at my grandparents' farm for support. This pedestrian bridge looked slick, and little puddles had formed upon it where the iron had bowed under the weight of travelers like myself.

I looked to Loki. Surely there was another way? Maybe I should go back to the station and take a train instead? That sad bridge, fifteen feet above a raging river, seemed like the worst idea in the world at the moment. But I checked the time and decided I couldn't waste any time if I wanted to arrive in Aguas Calientes before dark. I took my camera out of my hoodie pouch and put it in my backpack instead, and made sure that was securely fastened. (I have a tendency to worry neurotically about losing things permanently, and having a camera fall into a river and never be seen again would certainly qualify.) Placing my hand onto the dark orange railing, I took a deep breath and my first step onto the bridge.

Did I mention that I also have a fear of heights, and a fear of open water? Yep, being a lifeguard has made me extremely uneasy about water I can't see the bottom of. I think I realized that when I swam out to the buoys in the ocean at Nice a year and a half ago. It just makes me think about sinking down and down and not being able to push off of the bottom, and not knowing what your feet will come into contact with, and that terrifies me. Anyway.

Loki could have opted to take the pedestrian bridge, but he was way more adventuresome than me, and chose to trot across the railroad ties instead. I tried telling him that it was forbidden, but I figured he had the supernatural ability to sense the vibrations created by an approaching train, or he'd at least be able to hear the whistle, so I wasn't too worried about him. However, I was annoyed because I felt like he was setting a pace that I needed to keep up with. Every step I took seemed dangerous, because the thin iron sheets buckled and creaked when I put my weight on them, and some were rusted through. My feet seemed unsteady and slippery, and my entire body was trembling, so I pulled myself along the rail hand over hand.

When I reached what seemed to be the halfway mark, I celebrated silently, but the overwhelming thought in my mind was that I was probably standing over the deepest part of the river. On top of that, I couldn't help but think of how quickly I would sink if I fell into the water with my backpack on. Great attitude, right?

But finally my feet touched land once again, and gradually the shaking subsided and my eyes dried. I continued on with the river directly to my right, so loud that I could barely hear anything else, and that made me uneasy. The path also seemed lower here, and as a result, there was more standing water along it. In some places I had to walk right on the tracks to avoid sinking. I was passed by a couple of boys, but other than that, it was pretty lonely.

At this point, the path and the train tracks were hugging the mountains pretty tightly, and we broke away from the river for a little bit. During one of these stretches, I noticed fencing and a few shabby structures to the right, obscured by foliage. Loki became uneasy, and I heard a few barks from within the fences. Suddenly, two dark dogs tore out of the farm and towards Loki.

He ran away from me and the two dogs, both of which were a little bit smaller than him, followed him. One pinned Loki and clamped down on the scruff of his neck while the other growled. Everything was happening so quickly, but I worried that the dogs would seriously hurt Loki or come after me next. I screamed for help, before remembering what country I was in and yelling for auxilio instead. Within seconds, a short, barefoot Peruvian woman had emerged from the complex, shouting at the dogs. She picked up a couple of rocks and threw them at the black and brown dogs, and that was enough to make them retreat. Although I tried to thank the woman, she kept her head down and shuffled back into her home without saying a word to me.

I picked up a few rocks of my own and put them in the pocket of my hoodie, and then started walking as fast as I could away from Loki and the other dogs. My mama taught me a few important things when I was a little girl, and one of the most important was to never run away from a dog you don't know. So I walked away, and although I didn't discourage Loki from following me, I didn't encourage him, either. Of course, he stayed by my side, and I noticed that he had a little blood marring the white fur on the back of his neck. I started to worry about things like rabies, remembering that things like that can be spread through saliva and can get into your system through your eyeballs as well. So if one of those dogs had had rabies, and had given it to Loki, and then he shook his head like dogs sometimes do, and his spit flew into my eye. . . well, I was screwed.

Obviously, my overactive imagination was running wild, so I was more than relieved when I arrived at a makeshift picnic area which was labeled as a restaurant. An old woman and her son sat on a bench with baskets filled with sodas, waters, and sports drinks. After that scare with
the two strange dogs, I was glad to have a little human company in what seemed to be a relatively safe spot, so I sat down and shelled out a few of my very last soles for a bottle of yellow Gatorade.

The woman smiled when she saw the dog, and asked me if he'd gotten in another fight. I explained what had happened and asked her if they knew him. They actually told me that they see Loki sometimes a couple of times a day--he will find a lone person at whatever end of the trail he's at and walk to the other end with them, and once he gets there, he'll go back the other way. He just does that over and over again. This reassured me a bit, because he was well-known and even though he was still a strange dog, that somehow made him seem more trustworthy, but it also made me feel a little less special because it meant that Loki probably wasn't a real spirit guide.

When I told them that I didn't think there was anybody else behind me on the trail, the two packed up their goods, wished me good luck and reminded me that I was only halfway to Aguas Calientes, and headed down a trail behind the restaurant to their home. I finished my drink and resumed my trek.

So this is when it started to drizzle. I pulled out my umbrella and trudged along, thinking that I must have been the most pitiful-looking person there had ever been. (See? Actually, this picture makes me look even worse, like my eyes were all wonky or something, which I totally don't think they were.) I just trekked along, like Charlie Brown, dragging my feet with my head hanging down, until a boy on a bicycle passed me.

Seeing someone on a bike just reminded me of how futile hiking was. At the rate I was going, there was a chance it would be dark before I reached my destination, and that idea did not appeal to me at all. I buckled down and started walking faster. The combination of my power-walking and a not so bike-friendly path meant that I caught up to the biker within a few minutes. It was the boy from the restaurant, and his name was Walter.

Sometimes we spoke in Spanish, and less often we spoke in English (but even Walter's basic knowledge of English was impressive in an area where many people don't even speak Spanish, just Quechua). Walter was able to give me tips on the area that I would never have found in a guidebook, and he was also able to point out the lower ruins of Machu Picchu on the side of a mountain as we walked farther.

"See?" he asked, pointing. "Machu Picchu."

"Um. . . not really," I said, squinting. I couldn't even tell what I was supposed to be looking at.

"There," he said patiently. "Machu Picchu. And over there, Huayna Picchu." He pointed at a peak looming over the ruins. I nodded, finally able to make sense of it.

He told me that his family had lived along the river for a long time, and he had many brothers and sisters. Although he was around my age, he still lived with his family, but he was going into town that night to meet a friend.

After an hour and a half, we came to the last fork in the road, and followed a path up towards the main road, full of tour buses. Walter pointed up and announced that there was Machu Picchu, then pointed below us to a campground and butterfly garden, and finally directed me towards Aguas Calientes to the left. He had to wait there for a friend. I thanked him and continued on towards Aguas Calientes with Loki by my side as the rain picked up once again.

10 March 2011

a girl and her dog

It's a classic, time-honored Hollywood storyline: a timid, uncertain girl sets off on an epic journey of self-discovery, with only her faithful dog to accompany her. The dog remains by her side through thick and thin, and helps her overcome trials and tribulations. By the end of the movie, the aforementioned girl has grown as a person, and become stronger and more self-assured.

Examples of this plot line can be found in the Wizard of Oz, in which young Dorothy must undergo a perilous journey to find her way home, accompanied by her dog Toto. It is also featured in Anastasia, which is a fine family film about a young woman who travels to Moscow in order to uncover her true identity. Her constant companion is a small dog whom she names Pooka. They're both fantastic films, but I think I'm going to choose to self-identify a little bit more with Dorothy, for several reasons.
What does this have to do with me, you ask? Well, in the last post, I had just mentioned my journey to Santa Teresa, and my encounter with a large, shaggy, white dog. Let me please stress that I am NOT a dog person. So when the dog
started following me, I was not thrilled. I did not make eye contact with the dog, nor did I give him any indication that his presence was welcome. Nevertheless, he continued to keep pace with me, with a wide dog smile on his dog face.

And suddenly it occurred to me that maybe he wasn't just a dog. I'm familiar with stories of spirit animal guides, but more importantly, I've seen Anastasia. Little Pooka appears out of nowhere, and leads Anastasia down the right path. . . and maybe that's what this dog was here to do. As Anastasia says after Pooka points her in the direction of Moscow, "Okay. . . I can take a hint. . ."

So I decided I was okay with this dog following me. And even though I refrained from petting him, I did give him a name: Loki. He could be our hostel's mascot, plus Loki was originally the name of a mischievous Norse god who could be helpful or troublesome, depending on his attitude. And the name Loki also sounds a little bit like Lucky, which is just a classic dog name.

We walked. I was under the impression that the hydroelectric plant was nearby, but it ended up being over an hour. Along the way, my trail led me right beside the river, over massive boulders, and across thin bridges made of wooden boards. I passed a few other trekkers, but not as many as I'd expected.

When I arrived at the hydroelectric plant, I wrote my name and information in the register book. With the approval of the ranger manning the book, I whistled to Loki, and we officially entered the Machu Picchu region. The two guards standing before the entrance to the train station asked me if I wanted to buy tickets or water, but I declined. I knew I had about three and a half hours before the sun set, and I had two liters of water in my backpack, weighing me down.

It was clear that I'd picked a good trekking partner when I came to the first fork in the path. I could go up a dirt road that curved to the right and then possibly curved back to the left (which was the direction I wanted), or I could go up a steep set of stairs, the rails of which were wrapped with caution tape. Vaguely I remembered reading something online about needing to go up a set of stairs shortly after the hydroelectric plant, but I couldn't tell if the tape on the rails was meant to keep me from straying off the stairs, or meant to keep me from taking the stairs at all. I looked to Loki, who bounded straight up the stairs without a second thought. I followed at a slightly slower pace.

06 March 2011

back to me

"They will tell you you can't sleep alone in a strange place
Then they'll tell you you can't sleep with somebody else
Oh, but sooner or later you sleep in your own space
Either way, it's okay to wake up to yourself."
-Billy Joel, 'My Life'

"Jamie," I asked my boss last Saturday night, "how much would you make fun of me if I spent six weeks in Cusco and never visited Machu Picchu?"

He took a few minutes to think about it as he counted up the till, and then he got back to me. "Um, A LOT."

I knew I had to do it. Jamie wouldn't be the only one who mocked me if I didn't--I would be the object of ridicule throughout Loki--throughout all Lokis: the girl who never went to Machu Picchu. I had certainly never heard of anyone coming to Cusco for any reason other than to see the Lost City of the Incas, let alone spend six weeks there. Yet my time in Cusco was coming to an end, and I kept finding reasons to put it off. I wanted to wait until after Chris, Les, and Uly left, so I could see them off. Then I got an eye infection--and Heaven forbid I should be unable to appreciate the full visual majesty of this new wonder of the world. Then there was the expense, and the fact that apparently half the walking trail from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes was u
nderwater. All of these seemed like fantastic reasons not to go--but then I thought of the
ridicule I would incur if I didn't go.

I waited until the boys had left and got the heck over my eye infection. I wrote out a master plan based on internet advice, nicked a Lonely Planet guide from the staff room (as well as Temple Grandin's book Animals in Translation, packed a small backpack with the most rugged clothes and gear I could find, and called for a taxi.

Most people who come to Cusco head to Machu Picchu by way of the Inca Trail, which is a three to five day trek through the jungle along the original roads of the Incas. It's difficult, but you have porters carrying tents and food and all of your stuff for you. It also costs several hundreds of dollars, and the route is closed the entire month of February due to rain, so that wasn't really an option for me.

You can still find tour companies that will take you to Machu Picchu for a hefty fee, but I chose a less conventional route. To get to Machu Picchu my way, you have to first take a bus in the direction of the town of Quillabamba, get off in Santa Maria, then take another bus or van to the also tiny town of Santa Teresa. Next you must cross the wild Urubamba River by pulling yourself across on a suspended platform, hand over hand. Then you walk four or five hours beside some train tracks through the jungle until you reach Aguas Calientes, which is located
near the base of the mountain, buy a ticket to see the ruins, find a place to stay, and get some food.

Despite all the reasons I'd given myself not to go, I was relieved to finally embark on this journey. I'd been feeling restless and a little lost lately, and I knew I could use the alone time to figure some things out and just get back to me. A recurring theme in my travels is people's amazement that I'm a girl exploring the world alone, but it works for me. I can do things on my own time and in my own way. My friend Kaela mentioned that a big part of her study abroad experience was learning how to be alone, but I'm pretty sure I've always known how to do that. I'm just gradually learning how to do it in ways that alienate other people less.

So I didn't mind settling into my bus seat alone, putting in my earbuds, and losing myself in some tunes. I'd bought my ticket for S/.20, which is about $7, and double-checked with the ticket lady what time the bus should be arriving in Santa Maria. She insisted that it would arrive at seven the next morning, and seemed annoyed that I'd asked twice. With this reassurance fresh in my mind, I put on my hoodie and a wool cap and tried to sleep.

Apparently I underestimated the fury of the rainy season. I woke up in the middle of the night with the bus stalling in foot-high floodwaters, later when we blew out a tire, and a third time
when the battery died and we had to get a jump (is it even possible to jump a bus? That's at least what I think happened). Anyway, the floods were scary, and they were powerful. We had to back up and get a running start to get through them. In a few places, rocks and mud were washed
over the road as well, which can't have been good for the undercarriage of the bus. I'm also pretty sure people had to get out of the bus and push at one point, although I couldn't be bothered.

I was rudely awakened at 6:30. . . when we arrived at the bus' final destination of Quillabamba. I explained to the bus driver that it wasn't my fault because the girl who sold me the ticket told me we wouldn't get to Santa Maria until 7:00, but there wasn't really anything he could do besides point me in the direction of the next bus back. Then people where that bus was supposed to be sent me back to the other side of the street instead. I crossed the street about four times before someone sent me a few blocks down to hop in a combi, which is basically just a van that someone has decided to drive around, picking up randos who pay a few coins to get wherever they need to go. I noted a girl who said she was going to Santa Maria as well and kept an eye on her. When she got out of the combi, I got out as well.

For some reason, I didn't realize until after I had paid the driver S/.3 that she had lied. I was in Maranura instead of Santa Maria, and I had to pee. I asked a shopkeeper how I should get to Santa Teresa, and they told me to jump on the next bus headed in that direction. It was two
hours until a bus arrived, but the one that picked me up was driven by some really nice guys. They let me sit up front on the oversized glove box thing that sits between the driver's seat and the jump seat, and they offered me some soda, telling me it would cure my diabetes, if I had it.

We drove around mountains on unpaved jungle roads, which seemed a lot less scary in the sunlight than they had six hours before in the dark. A bus ahead of us blew out a tire, so we stopped to help (probably mostly because the road wasn't wide enough for us to drive around them). When they weren't sipping on soda or honking at the female construction workers along the road, the guys asked me about myself. Peruvian men are pretty straightforward, and will ask you if you have a boyfriend within the first couple of moments of conversation (usually
right after they ask you your name). I had to explain to them why not, and why I chose to travel alone, and where I was going, and where I'd been. They tried to teach me a little Quechua, but I didn't really pick it up well. I know it can be really useful, and I totally meant to learn a few words, because I've heard stories of gringo travelers being offered food and a bed for the night in the home of locals after they spoke just a few words of the native language.

It wasn't long before we arrived in Santa Maria, where I immediately found a car to take me to Santa Teresa. . . and had to wait for an hour for other passengers. Then we were off on a dizzying drive over dirt roads into the jungle, through floodwaters, over fallen trees, along the sides of
mountains, and down five minutes of winding driveway to the driver's house to pick something up. (I'm not really sure what that was about or why it was necessary.)

After a lot of detours, we finally made it to Santa Teresa, and I hopped in another combi immediately. Now, if you recall, my original plan was to pull myself across a river and start walking from Santa Teresa, but it was almost two in the afternoon, and I knew I needed to hurry if I wanted to be in Aguas Calientes before dark. As we drove out of the city, I realized I'd made the right choice when I saw the river crossing: the high flood waters had washed away the platform, and only the steel cable remained.

The driver had told me that he would take me to the hydroelectric plant, where the train stopped and my trail really started, but he could only take me less than halfway. He dropped me off where the road had been blocked off and a security guard/construction worker stood. She asked me to wait ten minutes, so I talked with a few girls who were waiting for cars to take them back. At this point, my impression was that the hydroelectric plant was just up ahead, so I felt pretty optimistic when I started walking. And really, who wouldn't feel chipper with a Rambo headband, snazzy alpaca socks, and knockoff Wayfarer sunnies?

I passed a few people, including some randos who tried to sell me drugs. Then, up ahead, I saw a dog approaching. There was no one else around, no owner, but the dog kept trotting along at a steady pace. If you know me, you know I'm not really a dog person, so I made sure to give him a little space as he walked by.

But he didn't walk by. He sauntered right up to me, sniffed the side of my leg, and looked up at me, waiting for some direction. I started walking away from him, and he followed me. Having a big, fluffy, white dog with brown spots following me made me a little nervous, even though his tongue was out and his tail was wagging gently, but there wasn't really anything I could do. When two creepers with a motorcycle hurried by me instead of making awkward small talk, I began to see the advantages of keeping the dog by my side.