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.

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