Saturday #15: A Day of Ups and Downs, Highs and Lows

I’m running down the soccer field, demonstrating amazing control of the ball, and with one swift kick I launch the ball high into the top right corner of the net. Tens of thousands of fans are instantly on their feet, cheering wildly. All I can think of is how hopeless that goalkeeper must be. I try to catch a glimpse of his face but he is hanging his head in shame. I actually feel badly for him.

Knock-knock-knock!

“Señor, is your get up call.”

It was Saturday morning and I was in the Peruvian town of Aguas Calientes. I had been sleeping like a baby to the sound of the mighty Aguas Calientes and Urubamba Rivers which come together just outside my window. Realizing what was in store for me on Saturday #15, I wasn’t the least bit perturbed that the front desk clerk had roused me from dreams of soccer glory. Within the hour I would be one of the first 100 people of the day to enter the sacred Inca site of Machu Picchu.

Before retiring shortly after at 8:00 p.m. on Friday I spent two hours at the bar of the local clay-oven pizza restaurant. It poured rain the entire time and only two other customers showed up so the owner, busboy, cook, the cook’s wife, three teenaged boys, the owner’s wife and baby daughter, three docile dogs and myself all huddled around the bar’s lone TV set to watch an epic soccer (football) showdown between arch-rivals Peru and Chile.

The game was billed as a “friendly” but in reality no game between Peru and Chile is anything close to friendly. Mind you, this wasn’t really a game as much as a bloodbath. Even several Peruvians admitted to me that la Blanquirroja (“the white-and-red”) is a truly horrible team. They currently occupy 47th spot on the FIFA rankings, just behind Montenegro, Iran, Albania and Bulgaria. They last went to the World Cup finals in 1982 and haven’t won a single major tournament since.

After watching Chile score three goals in the first half, it was clear the Peruvian team was having more than a little bad luck. On one occasion the goalkeeper dove halfway across the net, missing a ball that was aimed almost squarely at him and ending up with his arm entangled in the side of the net. He seemed to hang awkwardly for a few seconds before slumping to the ground. I’m sure that was the basis of my dream.

At this point you may be wondering what happened to my planned trek of the Inca Trail. The answer is quite simple: reality set in.

A few days ago I came to the conclusion that four days of trekking and thousands upon thousands of almost vertical stone steps, both up and down, would not be a good idea for someone with my level of fitness and a recently re-injured knee. At one point I figured that I could take my time and at worst I might have to turn back and take the train. After an email exchange with the tour operator (the phenomenal Toronto-based company Out Adventures) I learned that should I have to turn back, the group leader would have to accompany me to one of two communities along the way and wait there with me while the rest of the group carried on with the porters but without the knowledgeable local guide they had paid for and were expecting.

Brennon at Out Adventures came up with an alternate plan but I rejected it and decided to make my own way to Machu Picchu. This way I arrive at Machu Picchu a full week before the group, I can see the ruins at my own pace, then squeeze in a one-week side trip to Puno (Lake Titicaca), Copacabana and La Paz before flying back to Lima and continuing with my previously booked flight to Hangaroa. If I did the trek I would not be able to visit Lake Titicaca, etc. In all honesty, Plan B seems pretty good.

Shortly after 5:30 on Saturday morning I was on a mini-bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. It was a 2 km drive from the main square to the base of the mountain. Then the fun began. After 13 dusty, bumpy switchbacks of about 0.5 km each, the bus arrived at the entrance to the “lost city” of Machu Picchu. I was so happy not to have had to walk up that mountain, much less countless others over four days that I let out a sigh of relief. Others might look at this as a cop-out and they’d have a point. I consoled myself with the fact that I’ve done a lot in 14 weeks and still have a year and nine months worth of adventures ahead of me. Blowing out a knee at this point would not bode well for the rest of the adventure.

There are certainly plenty of stone steps once you get to the ancient city but at least here I can take my time and I’m not a burden to anyone. If my knee does give me grief, I can limp back to the bus and they won’t have to send for horses or a mule or worse … like burying me somewhere along the Inca Trail.

The clouds were beginning to burn off when I arrived just before 6:00. It was clear this was going to be a very special day.

Magical and surreal are the two words most often used to describe the 500 year-old Inca citadel. I don’t think either does it justice. I also know that I won’t be able to do any better so I’ve decided to simply post a gallery of photos and hope that you get the same sense of wonderment that I did.

BACKGROUNDER
• Considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in the world
• Built approximately 500 years ago at the height of the Inca Empire and abandoned in the 1600s
• A vast complex of palaces, plazas, temples, homes and 700+ agricultural terraces
• Possibly built as a ceremonial site, a military stronghold, or a retreat for ruling elites
• Constructed of cut stone fit together without mortar so tightly that its cracks still can’t be penetrated by a knife blade
• Hidden for centuries, overlooked by the Spanish, but “rediscovered” in 1911 by Yale professor Hiram Bingham
• Bingham later wrote the bestseller Lost City of the Incas, published in 1948, and is said to be the basis for the “Indiana Jones” character

By 7:30 the crowds were noticeably larger and I struggled to find a view that didn’t include other camera-toting tourists. The Germans arrived around 9:00. The Brits began filing in at 10:00.  Machu Picchu didn’t feel quite as magical at 10:30 when a woman of unidentifiable nationality showed up in Crocs and sweatpants with “Chanel” written in stick-on letters across her rather ample butt. I don’t think Coco would have approved. I know I didn’t. I said farewell to Machu Picchu at 11:00 and headed back to the base.

When I got back to the hotel there were still a few more ups and downs to tackle. I uploaded a collection of photos to Facebook and downloaded my e-mail. One message was from new friends Marcel and Stephanie. The Swiss couple were inviting me to join them for dinner at Indio Feliz at 7:00.

When I arrived at 6:57 there was a line-up so I waited in the vestibule. Marcel and Stephanie showed up 3 minutes later. Marcel looked at his watch and with a wry smile he proclaimed, “Ah, seven o’clock… Swiss Time.”

I’ve had Rocoto Relleno (stuffed peppers) once and two wildly different experiences with Alpaca meat, so this time I opted for onion soup with cheese from The Altiplano (Elevation: 4000m) and skewers of beef tenderloin that proved to be every bit as good as my sister’s; that is to say phenomenal. I’m still working up the courage to try guinea pig, which is generally served with head on. Maybe next week.

DSCN0919

After a day of many incredible ups and downs – literally and figuratively – I sank to an all-time low when I returned to the Kantu Inn. I fell asleep watching South Beach Tow. If you haven’t seen the show – and there is absolutely no reason to have – it chronicles the day-to-day lives of a crew of rough-and-tumble tow truck drivers who repossess vehicles from even trashier South Floridians. I don’t see the point of dubbing it into Spanish when the dialogue is 90% screaming, swearing, and hysterical shrieking.

Any thoughts I once had of someday retiring to South Beach are now on hold. Lima and Aguas Calientes are out too. For the record, Vancouver, Vancouver Island, San Francisco, Cusco and Arequipa are still on the long list. The hunt continues.

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