February 1, 2006

The Pain of Pilgrimage

So, I've been off the radar for the last 4 or 5 days. I´m in a serious amount of pain - PAIN!! My legs wont work and my body is in a general state of shock. What the hell just happened? I survived the Inka Trail!! HURRAYY!!! God, there were some pretty hairy moments where I thought I was dying but I made it.
Pain aside, I will never forget the last four days - I think they have been the most amazing of my life so far. I have never had to push myself so hard before, and I have never had so much fun. It was worth every agonising step and every Peruvian sole. We arrived back to Aguas Calientes yesterday (which is also known as Machu PIccu Pueblo), and after saying goodbye to my group I booked into a hostal which promised hot water 24 hrs a day and my own bathroom. All I could think about was the relief that hot water would provide to my aching body and the comfort of an actual mattress! Things didnt go quite as planned...
First of all, my lack of Spanish let me down as I tried to tell the "nice lady" that I didnt want the 3rd floor room she was giving me because I couldnt actually make it up there. I was met with a blank face. I took the room, only to realise 10 mins later that there was no glass in the window and the room was bloody FRIO!! SO I dragged myself back down three flights to try and explain my predicament to her. More blank stares. So I had to wayleigh a passing stranger who was able to speak Spanish. I was then told to wait 30 mins while "Christian", the local Jim´ll Fix It, went up to put in a window!! After sitting freezing for an hour with my muscles completely seizing up, I lost my cool and tried to cancel the booking. More blank stares. In my state of exhaustion, I couldnt argue any further and collapsed into a chair in reception with my poor head in my hands. Another hour later, I was roused from a deep sleep and was ushered into a different bedroom complete with real glass panes! I´m still baffled as to why they couldnt have just done that to begin with.
Dreaming of a shower, I peeled off my mudsoaked clothes and ran the water. Ten minutes later it was still ice cold. Tears were beginning to well at this stage. I couldnt face going back out to the plank at reception so I crawled into bed at 7 oclock and slept until 11 this morning.
I´m heading back to Cuzco on the train today so I have a few hours to spend here in Aguas Calientes now. There doesnt seem to be much here - it is really just a base for people visiting Machu Piccu.
Anyway, back to the Inka Trail. Every morning was a really early start. The first day I was picked up by the tour company at 4 in the morning. We had a longish drive through the Sacred Valley to Ollyantaytambo where we had breakfast and a chance to buy any remaining provisions for the trail. After another hours´drive we reached the foot of the trail. It was a beautiful sunny morning and everyone was in great spirits setting off! But it wasnt long before people started to really feel the difficulty of the climb. One girl from AUstralia got particularly bad altitude sickness, her nose started bleeding and her heart rate was very high. When the giude realised that he didnt have enough oxygen for her, she had to turn back. (We actually met her in Machu Piccu yesterday, as she got the train up to meet her boyfriend who had continued on, and she told us that she had been lying in bed sick for the three days.) Other people started throwing up and had very bad headaches but managed to keep going.
The first day was a huge shock to everybody! Even the fittest people found it really really difficult. We climbed 1100m, sometimes almost vertical climbs, and you just had to set your own pace and take it easy. The scenery really helped to distract you from the pain in your limbs and the tightness in your chest. We passed the most beautiful mountain scenery I have ever seen. So, that night we camped at 1100m - the tour company gave us a fantastic dinner and, despite everyone´s exhaustion, we had a great laugh just sitting around chatting.
Day 2 - up at 5 a.m. The guides woke us with coca tea in bed. After breakfast we had to climb another 400m which was really difficult. It was constant steep steps all the way to the top. What really takes your breath away is the speed at which the porters move. They carry huge weight on their backs (which is probably illegal in most countries!) Once we reached the top, Hamilton (our leader) gave us all a shot of rum, which is tradition when you reach the highest point on the Inka Trail. Before we could drikn it, we also had to give some to the Pachamama by pouring a drop on the earth. The next few hours involved a steep descent to the floor of the valley, which was very hard on the knees. Torrential rain started to come down which made things even more difficult but it was infinitely preferable to climbing up! After lunch we climbed up again, and then down, down, down. At this stage, your body is in complete exhaustion but I was finding breathing much easier.
Day 3 - this was more like a half day. 5a.m start again and it was a constant descent. Despite the fact that we werent on the go for as long on Day 3, this was the day that really took an effect on people´s bodies. By that evening we were all in severe pain, and any movement was absolutely excruciting. But we were able to forget about our troubles because Camp 3 had proper facilities, such as showers and a bar, and once everyone had a beer and washed the dirt off spirits were high again. The dinner on the last night was a great laugh and we were introduced to all 22 of our porters and had to show our appreciation.
On the final morning we had to get up at a quarter to four, everyone was DYING. We walked (or limped, in my case) for one hour to the Sungate. From here, you can catch the first view of Machu PIccu, but because it is the rainy season the valley was covered in a thick fog and we had to move on. After anohter half an hour the sun started to come out and the mist slowly started to clear. The first glimpse of Machu Piccu takes your breath away. There is something totally surreal about it. Once you have seen it, you just want to get there as quickyl as you can! We were very lucky with the weather - the mist was gone by about 7 oclock and the whole valley was bathed in sunlight. The next few hours were spent with Hamilton giving us a tour of the fortress, although it really was difficult to take it all in - everyone was shattered! What was really funny were the looks we were getting from the lazy tourists who had trained it up from Aguas Calientes. We had been walking for four days, some wihtout any showers, and all our clothes were COVERED in mud! Two Americans, who saw how much effort it was for me to walk, beamed at me and said "Oh we were just like that yesterday!" I had to hold my tongue!
In total, over the four days, we climbed to 4,200m above sea level, 35km of walking, got soaking wet and sunburnt. When we finished the trail we all went to the local thermal baths for an hour which was bliss! but overall hasnt provided long-term relief! I think it´s going to be a few weeks befoire I can walk properly again!!! I had planned to move on to Bolivia tomorrow but I dont see that happening for a few days. My shoulders are destroyed as well, so hauling 75litres around is probably physically impossible at this point.
It has been a very rewarding experience, something I think Im really proud of! You dont realise what you are capable of achieving until yuo really push yourself. Yes, it was the most difficult thing i have ever done physically but we had a great time. I ended up with a brilliant group and great guides and we spent most of the four days in tears laughing. Ive eevn met a few ppl that I might travel with for a while.
We´re all meeting in Cuzco tonight for a meal and a few drinks afterwards.

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