The Inca Trail, Globalization, and What Love Is

Trip Start Sep 15, 2006
Trip End Dec 29, 2006

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Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The Inca Trail, Globalization, and What Love Is

Expecting both to be blown away by natural beauty (I was) and to struggle physically in more ways than one (I did), the most memorable story from the Inca Trail really has nothing to do with the Incas, or even really the trail. While hiking, I met maybe the most inspiring man I´ve ever met...

A Love Story

Felix is a farmer by trade but he works as a porteador (porter) on the Inca Trail for about 3-5 stints of 4 days every month. The porters are the guys that schlep all of the stuff up for the tourists who struggle enough as it is. They not only carry 60-80 pounds of materials awkwardly arrayed on their back, but they also run on the trail ahead of the tourists so that they can have camp set up by the time they arrive. The work that the porters do is so difficult, that they all have to retire after 10-15 years of work, having a lifetime of crippling back and knee problems to deal with. They are some of the strongest, most mentally tough men I have ever met.

Felix is one such porter, aged 52, who has been porting for about 7 years. Never educated himself, he lights up to shine about the four kids he has, for whom he´s busting his ass up the hill to put through college. He bragged to me about how one was going to be an engineer, another a doctor, another tourism, and the last. When I asked him, he said he hopes his kids take off and go to Canada or America for a better life, even if it means leaving him behind. I remember thinking when climbing Dead Women´s Pass, the steepest and highest part of the trail is, that I would never want to do this again. Felix does it every week, running in sandals with 80 pounds on his back! Nevertheless, Felix had a smile on his face the whole time, and was always eager to both help us out and goof around when we got back to camp. Maybe he´s smiling all the time because he knows how awesome he is. I do know that when I saw him busting up the hill, crushing his body with 80 lbs at 14,000 feet, I thought to myself, that right there is what love is.

The Inca Trail! - Gettin' Down and Dirty for Some Good Clean Fun

Anyhow, now that we´ve gotten the important stuff out of the way, let´s hit the trail! Day One started with an early 530 AM wake up call, which is really starting to feel like routine now in South America between plane flights, bus rides, and really loud roosters (stay tuned). Stephanie and I spent the gorgeous bus ride sharing music back and forth, one of my favourite pastimes. The porters were already on the bus when we got there, and they were all hanging out together and laughing it up. I can´t imagine how close you must get with a group of guys that you hike and camp 15 days a month with, schlepping 80 pounds on your back. It must be like a volleyball team x10. The bus ride was gorgeous - standard for Peru.

Before arriving at Kilometer 82, the start of the trail, we stopped in Ollantaytambo for breakfast. Before I arrived I was worried about being able to find a walking stick for the steep steps. Silly me. Upon getting off the bus we were assaulted by a barrage of street salesmen pawning off walking sticks and coca leaves, which I´ve decided I no longer like. My koala bear phase was a quick one. After another one of those ham and cheese "omelettes," with bouncy cheese and not-quite-ham, we bought a store of junk food to carry on the trip and made our way to the bus to meet our travel mates.

Dan is a financial planner, aged 42 from New York. He is a worldwide traveller with an enviable sense of humor. He didn´t run out of ways to make us laugh the whole time. His girlfriend Stephanie is also a New Yorker who runs a small specialist clothing manufacturing outfit. Our guide, Ollie, affectionately referred to her as Stephanie 1, delegating my friend Stephanie to Stephanie 2, probably because they had the premium tour. Like Stephanie 2, Stephanie 1 is a huge sweetheart and a lot of fun and they hit it off well. For a large part of the first long hike, those two bonded over romance and traditional female topics while Dan and I talked finance and politics, to completely reinforce gender stereotypes...

When we arrived at KM 82, we got the coveted Machu Picchu stamp in our passport and headed out on the trail! Within an hour, we felt to be lightyears from civilization, walking alongside and impossibly deep Inca Valley, while the cloud and fog darted between the mountain peaks. After a few hours, we arrived at our first Inca site, impressively hidden down in the valley next to the river. Ollie explained the site to us while I almost had a heart attack as a millipede about as long as my foot started to crawl on me. Stephanie 2 (my friend) being the tree-hugger that she is (and I mean that in an endearing way of course :)), wouldn´t let me kill it...or any other bugs that flew into our tent for the whole trip! I squashed a few of the biting ones when she wasn´t looking though ;).

And now I suppose Ollie deserves some credit. Ollie was our 30 year old tour guide who is simultaneously boisterous, fun, knowledgeable, and caring - a really awesome guy. Later the second day, Ollie taught us how to play the card game "Shithead" (not to be confused with its close cousin "Asshole"), which provided for a lot of laughs. He has a partner and a baby girl back in Cusco for whom he is working hard. Ollie is another one of those people who make the trip so special.

After a relatively mellow flat walk the first few hours, we arrived at a river bank to eat where the porters had already set up. We were greeted with tea, hot chocolate, hot soup, and a chicken and rice lunch. Pretty tough. We then continued on a relatively easy path to round out the 11km to our first campsite.

Our first campsite was awesome - there were sheep, roosters, cats, pigs, parakeets, and puppies running around amidst our few tents. We were situated at the junction of two valleys oriented at a 90 degree angle, and it was just gorgeous. We got there pretty early and were able to just chill for a while, already a bit tired and dreading the much feared Dead Woman´s Pass that was coming up the next day. As became custom, we had tea with popcorn at 5 and then another pretty good dinner. It almost escaped us that this was our Thanksgiving dinner, although we did mention it in passing. In the Sacred Valley however, your surroundings remind you to be thankful just about all of the time because of how impressive it is.

About after dinner is when my health started to go for the trail, which seemed to be a theme in Peru (I´m writing this entry from Uruguay and feel totally fine now). My stomach started getting pretty upset, and stayed so the whole trip. When I attach a picture of what the "toilets" looked like, you´ll see why this is a problem. By day 2 we had major sleep deprivation and fatigue set in. By the start of day three, the severe back pain arrived from bad sleep on the ground and too much activity while schlepping stuff. By the middle of the day the knees were dying from the brutal downhill descents. Basically all of the old volleyball stuff coming back. In the end though, these hardships just made the trek more memorable and worth it, and really made me appreciate and want to get serious about health.

The next day we awoke to a spectacular sunrise view of the valleys. In general, I think I´m going to spare you the descriptions of just how breathtakingly gorgeous everything on the trail was. It is my hypothesis that such descriptions are just an outdated means to portray a wonderful end that digital camera technology now achieves in a richer way. Nothing will compare to standing outside, feeling dwarfed by the phenomenally steep mountains and fast-moving fog, but the photos and videos are hopefully a step in the right direction.

If you noticed, I did say SUNRISE view. Ollie gracefully decided to let us sleep until 5, but the roosters had other ideas, putting on a monotone concert at 4 in the morning. It is times like this that I question my commitment to encouraging self expression in others. Somethings are better left unsaid/unscreamed/unplayed (guy who played the loud techno freshmen year next door at all hours of the night, take note). It was time to start the brutal descent up to Dead Woman´s Pass, not feeling so hot already.

In the morning, Felix told us that the weather "parece mal," which means it appears bad. And by that, he meant rain was imminent. After a few hours of a gorgeous but extremely tough ascent up a valley and through the cloud forest, it really started coming down just in time for lunch where we huddled into the small lunch tent. Our 10 porters of course were stuck under a tree, but I´m sure they didn´t mind.

After a while without the rain letting up, we decided to go for it. We were going to hike the last thousand feet of altitude to 14,200 feet at Dead Woman´s Pass 2 miles straight uphill in the pouring rain. It was difficult. It was awesome.

After the pass, we took some pictures and began a freezing cold descent down really steep stairs. While not as taxing on your breath, these descents are brutal on your legs and especially your knees. We saw an Andean deer right by the site on the way down - pretty cool. We arrived 2 and a half hours later after the pass at our campsite exhausted and ready to do nothing but lie down. We did the tea thing and ate some dinner. Meanwhile, one of the porters was quick enough to catch a little hummingbird which was awesome. This was also the night of the legendary game of Shithead. Members of the Schwarzapel-Gladziszewski family will be proud to know that yours truly was never the Shithead. Schwarzapel-Gladziszewski rules! (but none of you are going to know what movie that´s from friends will get it though). Cousin Ian if you´re reading this, mentally substitute "poo" for "shit" at every incidence.

After the game, we retired to our tent, and Stephanie and I stayed awake talking about life and love and faith for a while. I suppose the best way to get to know someone is to live in a tent for four days. I´m glad it was Stephanie in there because there´s a lot to know. After chatting we traded massages and went to bed.

We awoke day three feeling even more special than before, especially having not gone to the bathroom since before the trail. Sorry to share the details, but you need to get as close to the full Inca Trail experience as possible. At this point pains of the stomach, back, head, and knees were all in full force, multiplied by severe sleep deprivation. After one last semi brutal hour ascent, we began a 7 hour descent that was broken up only by a short lunch. It was again DUMPING rain, and we got pretty soaked. This added to the beauty of the cloud forest that we were walking through for a lot of the trail, but also made the impossibly steep steps - or as Ollie cutely referred to them, "esteppy steps," - more brutal. We again got to stop at a few more Inca sites, which was really cool. I´ll describe more when we get to the end of the trail.

On this descent, I had another one of those global World is Flat type moments. At one point, a Peruvian porter passed us carrying Chinese Made Luggage for European travellers while listening to American Radio Content on a radio made in Taiwan. Crazy place our world is.

The last part of the descent was spectacular. The sun came out for us just about the time of the prettiest part of the day. He we had a stunning overlook of the jagged Andean peaks, the Machu Picchu river, cotton ball clouds, and the cloud forest from thousands of feet up. We also could see the backside of Machu Picchu mountain which was a reward in and of itself. We could begin to feel how close we were getting. We descended into the camp that night, where there was actually a restaurant with showers set up for campers. I passed on the shower though, preferring the authentic route. Besides, all my clothes smelled like locker room or worse at this point anyhow.

The Unforgettably Sacred Machu Picchu Ruins

The next day arrived with a pleasant 4 AM wake up call, although we probably woke up at 2:30 and couldn´t fall back asleep. As it turns out, the 0 degrees of incline was not an engineering accident in your typical household bed, as sleeping on a slant is less than ideal. As soon as you wake up, you find your feet smooshed into the bottom of the tent. Unless of course you sleep the other way, in which case it´s your head. Either way, you find yourself cold and awake with lots of bodily pains (pains only if you´ve been hiking uphill in the rain for three days).

The morning was wraught with anticipation despite our physical woes. After scarfing down a breakfast of mystery food, we eagerly set ablaze to the trail, with an army of other excited Inca Trekkers. The atmosphere was buzzing and we were all stoked.

After a relatively mild* 2 hour hike, we got to the impossibly steep steps to the Puerta Del Sol (Sun Gate). Climbing these 50 or so steps was basically rock climbing, and an exciting end to the pre-Machu Picchu phase of my life. Upon walking through the Sun Gate, we were greeted by an energetic crowd of about 100 Inca Trekkers, sitting atop Inca Ruins waiting for the enigmatic fog to move out just enough to provide a view of Machu Picchu. The atmosphere was quite energetic and fun, and after about 20 minutes or so of waiting, we were treated when the clouds moved away for about 2 minutes, revealing the ruins a half mile below and the massive Waynapicchu mountain, the tall and skinny mountain that is always next to MP in the pictures. It was quite amazing.
* Mild by the standard set from hiking up 50 km the three days before hungry and tired in altitude

After this glorious sneak peak, we began the final descent to the ruins, stopping at some more look out points along the way. When we arrived, Ollie began his 2 hour guided tour of the ruins. Despite the fact that he´s probably given this thing 200 times, he was masterful at telling the stories in engaging fascination - he could be a great salesman! Ollie told us about how MP was divided into every sector you might find in a modern metropolis - an urban section, a religious section, an agricultural section, a residential section, and an astronomical observatory - although only 500 people probably lived in the ruins. He also told us some of the impressive architecture and about some of the Inca Gods and what they represented, which was generally a holiness of the earth. Some of our jockeyed politicians and energy CEOs could use a little bit of Inca theology as our ecological debt** speeds up! Finally, he told us about the history of discovery and some of the different theories for the abandonment of Machu Picchu. These theories however are largely unsubstantiated and highly contested, primarily because the Incas had no written language to conserve their history, and the Spaniards certainly had no interest in doing so. After the tour, we sadly bid Ollie farewell, hoping to see him again one day but eagerly releasing him to his waiting family
** See

After the tour, we had a gut check and mustered up our last bit of strength to climb the phenomenally steep Waynapicchu mountain, providing the most impressive view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding valley. Following, we had a much needed lunch at the Machu Picchu café, and then set out to wander the ruins for a few more hours as the afternoon sun made an appearance. We spent the last hour just lying on the grass, taking in the scenery and wondering what it might have been like to live here so many years ago.

After bidding our goodbyes to the ruins, we took the bus ride down to Aguas Calientes, which provided one more interesting story. We were in for one more entertaining surprise. When we got about a quarter of the way down the zig-zagging road - it has to zig zag because the mountainside is far too steep - we saw a little indigenous boy dressed like an Indian, yelling for the bus to stop. It didn´t stop to pick him up, and we thought it a bit unjust but figured it was just business. At the next zig zag, the boy was there again, screaming to get picked up - he had run down the stairs and beat the bus - but again the bus wouldn't stop, peaking our sense of injustice along with most of the bus. Two zig zags later, he was there again yelling, along with two white people. The bus driver picked up the white people and didn´t pick up the boy, which all but outraged us and others on the bus. The pattern continued at every zig zag, with the boy yelling for a ride and the bus driver ignoring it, peaking everyone´s interest and hatred for the bus driver. Finally, when we got to the bottom of the massive hill, the boy was there again, and the bus driver stopped. As it turns out, the two are colleagues! The boy runs down the hill and collects tips from everyone on the bus. It was a feel good end to the story.

After this, Stephanie and I arrived at our hotel, each taking the longest hottest showers ever taken. We had a great dinner and then crashed at 9, feeling sick, tired, and sore but happy to be in a bed. We awoke at 450 the next day to catch our train back to Cusco, and basically just chilled for that whole day before our flight, exhausted and ready for a glorious trip back home.

Conclusion and A Lesson for Globalization 2.0

At the end of the day, the Inca Trail turned out to be one of those cliché metaphors for so many journeys in life - the roads most worth travelling are arduous and difficult, but phenomenally rewarding at the same time. And comfort is the enemy of development. However to switch gears, as I´ve eluded to in my posts from Peru, I experienced a valuable lesson and metaphor for the world today in my studies and experiences with the Inca culture...

If you want to look at it simply, the Spanish connection with the Americas was Globalization 1.0. The world doubled in size and shot up in population. There were no standards, treaties, or best practices at this point to govern global development, so the Spaniards were going to make history regardless of their actions - either setting a precedent of positive and mutual global development or self-fulfilling imperialism. Sadly, they chose the latter.

If you read the histories, the Spanish expansion into Latin America was about one thing: natural resource extraction to build wealth and power development back home. This goal was so hard and fast that they would go as far to stain the ground with blood and demolish entire cultures and civilizations as these became obstacles to growth. Although the numbers are largely contested, historians estimate that the Spanish genocide in Latin America accounted for the death of 50-100 MILLION indigenous people, which makes this genocide between 5 and 10 times as large as the Hollocaust and the undisputed largest genocide in history.

As unspeakably awful as this is from a humanitarian standpoint, there´s more to learn from the history besides man´s tragic inhumanity. From a socioeconomic perspective, the repercussions of the selfish extraction motives of the Spaniards are still being felt globally, most powerfully in Latin America. It would have been in everyone´s best interest to empower the Latin American cultures, preparing them for global trade and a networked world where everyone benefits. Not only would this have cut down the exploitation and murder, but it would also have benefited the world economy because it would have created an incredibly large mass of people contributing to global innovation and economic well being. Instead, the Spaniards utterly destroyed all social and technological structure in Latin America, and exploited their populations for resources instead of empowering them. Many sociologists and historians argue that the economic woes, and resulting social and political problems, are a direct outgrowth of this exploitation.

This history is important now because a parallel situation has arisen with Africa and the West in Globalization 2.0. Metaphorically speaking, as far as advancement is concerned, the West are the Spaniards and the Africans are the indigenous of Latin America. Sadly, the same patterns of Globalization 1.0 are manifesting, beginning with British imperial rule in the early part of the 20th century, and continuing on today as companies and countries support inhumane governments in order to extract resources - the most famous example being China threatening to veto a Security Council amendment that chastened the Sudanese government about allowing the Darfurian genocide, simply because of China´s large oil interests there. While the governments in Africa have to do their part, we must each take it upon ourselves personally to make sure that a global paradigm arises where we empower the African nations (and other developing states) rather than simply exploit them. Not only is this the only humane thing to do, we´ll all be better off if 2 billion people are a fully functioning economic force.

One lesson to be learned here is actually from the Incas. Although they were conquerors and had their own brutish tendencies, they made it a point to fully assimilate, preserve, learn from, and pay homage to all of the cultures that they conquered. Thus they combined their own organizational and technological advancement with the wisdom, culture, and best practices of all whom they conquered. The same situation arises today, where the economic superpowers have somewhat "conquered" Africa and rural Asia, yet will we empower them and unlock the secrets of their cultures and customs? Or simply crush them and steal their resources to fuel our development? Sadly, we´ve done far more of the latter...

That´s all for now. Bravo to you if you made it all the way through this entry! You are a true friend in that case...I hope you all enjoy these postings and know that I do them in the hopes that the benefit of the treasures and secrets of life that I´m discovering are in some way passed along to you.

With Love,

El Josh
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