Upstairs, Downstairs

Trip Start Oct 29, 2003
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Peru  ,
Wednesday, September 1, 2004

On my way to this internet cafe I bought 27 postcards, took 13 pictures of old women with llamas, had my sandals shined twice, acquired more finger puppets than I have fingers, and bought enough panpipes for a rather large bonfire. I feel a bit guilty after my last rant about being hassled to death by 8-year-olds in Cusco, but hopefully my business will prevent some of them becoming a porter on the Inca Trail (damn, I think Callous Westerner is going soft).

Don't get me wrong, the four-day hike along the trail is without doubt one of the highlights of my entire trip. There were nine of us on the hike, plus two guides and twelve porters to carry our food and tents. Together with Aussie Tim and Pat the Yankee drug seller - he's a pharmacist from Kentucky - we were joined by four Irish and another two Yanks (quickly dubbed the "That's Awesome!" Twins after their favourite adjective). We met a couple of nights before for a briefing at the travel agency and it seemed to be a pretty good group, with no French families in sight.

The first day was pretty easy, after driving out through the Sacred Valley to the start of the trail where of course we were met by an army of women selling walking sticks, coca leaves, toilet paper and everything else needed for the hike. After showing passports and tickets at the control point we crossed the Urubamba River on one of those rickety Indiana Jones bridges before making our way to the first night's camp 10 miles along a fairly gentle trail.

Pat the Yank had been having a tough time with the dreaded squirts over the previous week despite popping more pills than Elvis with a hangover. He decided to start the trip hoping that things would clear up but after the first night squatting over a hole it was clear that he couldn't continue. One of the guides took him back to the start and then by train to the hospital where he discovered he had amoebic dysentry. Bad news for him, but more food for us!

Day Two was billed as the toughest of the lot as we had to climb up to Warmiwa˝uska (Dead Woman's Pass) at a height 13,750 feet. After my experience in the Colca Canyon I was not looking forward to this, but it turned out not being that bad. The altitude was the hardest thing to deal with, but with a gobfull of coca leaves - and some black stuff that supposedly increased the effects - my mouth soon went numb and I was on my way. It took me about five and a half hours to reach the top, just below the snow line and with a brisk wind soon freezing the sweat on my back.

After an hour's rest at the top waiting for the rest of Team Gringo - except the "That's Awesome!" Twins as they were too far behind - we then descended steep uneven steps for another ninety minutes until we reached camp. Our porters had already arrived, put up our tents and had lunch ready in the mess tent, complete with table-cloth and chairs. This is the thing about porters: they are paid next to nothing to carry about forty pounds of equipment tied to their backs before waiting on the rich gringos hand and foot. It really was uncomfortable at first. I'm used to putting up my own tent and taking care of my own food when camping, but here everything was done for me by men who had no concept of wearing socks, let alone of what sort of world I come from. It's true that conditions for porters have improved over recent years, but it's still an incredibly hard way to make a living. They were incredibly eager to please, but they kept their distance as they didn't even know Spanish, let alone English (they speak the ancient Incan language of Quecha).
Day Three was supposed to be the most beautiful, walking high above the river valleys amongst cloud forest (like rain forest except that the trees get their moisture from the clouds instead of rain) but unfortunately all we saw was cloud - for about ten miles.

After descending through ancient agricultural terraces we saw some people kicking a football about. Two Irish lads asked if we wanted to play a game against a team of porters, and despite being absolutely knackered we agreed. For the next hour I was Irish, playing against skillfull barefoot Peruvians trying to not lose the ball over the edge of the terrace (I have to admit we did 'lose' the ball a couple of times to get our breath back, but one of the porters would just jump down through 20-or-so feet of vegetation before scrambling back up with the ball, smiling and covered in cuts and dirt). We went 4-3 up but ended up losing 6-4. If I thought I was exhausted before, I was now so tired that I couldn't get out of the way of the ball when it smacked into my face breaking my glasses.

The fourth and final day we had to get up at 4am for our last great breakfast (in fact all the food was excellent, much better than I anticipated) and mug of coca tea. We made it to Intipunku (or the Sun Gate) and crowded with all the other tour groups in time to see the sun rise but again it was too misty, so we continued our trek down to Machu Picchu itself.
That report will be along soon, as I'm now off to learn the entire Beatles catalogue on my panpipes which every shop seems to play. Oh, before I forget: anybody wanna buy a postcard?
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