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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! Just waiting for the next installment now.

Uncle Dave said...

Can't wait to read your description of Machu Pichu! Be sure to include pictures!