Chronicles of the Wayward Moot

WELCOME TO THE MOOT, oh world-wanderers and word-whisperers. After two years of Peace Corps. After 2,200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. What. Comes. Next?


Macho Pollo, Part 1

October 25, 2007, 11:06 AM

Life is a fickle whirlwind, at times whisking me in a million directions at once, other times simply content to tease me with a subdued breeze while I stand on a hilltop pondering the weather and my temporary stationary existence.   The last few weeks have been the whisking kind, and now I encounter once again the languorous but familiar environment of Zaruma with time to reflect on life and what I'm filling mine with.


land-scape n. a view or vista of natural scenery as seen from a single point


            That comes from a cheap dictionary I have, and I don't agree with it.   A landscape is not only as it exists as seen from a single point, for that single point of view omits the majority of what is actually there.  Even a seemingly all-encompassing view, as from a satellite image, still leaves untold details UNTOLD.  There is infinite wonder to discover in every place, every face, and to think of landscape as this dictionary does, put quite plainly, is to miss the world around us.   Just about everyone is guilty of this, and I am no exception.  But I want to be one.


            (Unrelated:  This morning I witnessed something for the first time in my life … a man was walking up the steep street whistling and calling out in a nasally voice, "Chiva!  Leche de chiva!"  One hand held a black plastic bag; the other grasped a rope leading to a group of confused but optimistic goats, all tied to one another as they clattered up the slope.   Goat milk for sale, as fresh as you can handle it.  I nearly went down to get some so I could put it in the coffee I was brewing.)


            Think about an iconic landscape.   The surface of the moon.  The swamps of Louisiana.  The jungle of deepest Africa.  How about the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru?   Do they count?  Are they unnatural?  I feel that if a bird's nest made with twigs and grass is natural then a human-made settlement made of local stone must also be natural, so Machu Picchu can be considered a landscape even within the constrained definition offered by a 50 cent WalMart special dictionary.   Imagine the ruins, and you will likely envision them the way they look from one specific vantage point.  You are looking down upon them as steep slopes plunge down either side.   Behind the ruins, slightly to the right rise the famously sharp angles of a vegetation and stone outcrop, Huayna Picchu, or Wayna Picchu.  There you go - you can hold it in your mind's eye, turn it around, soar over it like a condor, maybe even pick among the terraces at ground level like a grazing llama.   But do you know it?  No.  Do I know it?  No, and I've been there.   Landscape, like the world itself, is too big to know so shallowly.  Even seen from that one single viewpoint, there are moods to what lays before us.   Characteristics of season, of weather, of time of day, of the loud and colorful flood of foreign visitors … these all continuously move and shift and combine and trickle away, and the landscape is never, ever constant.   Since it's impossible to nail down the landscape definitively, allow me to share with you the narrow sliver that I was privileged to meet.


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            The guides came to get us at our hostel in Cusco a bit past five in the morning.   The four female volunteers and I shouldered our packs and followed Victor and César around the corner, past red tile roofs and adobe brick walls to the waiting tour bus already filled with sleepy but excited travelers.   Up and out of the awakening city we drove, passing slouching mud hovels and an advertisement for bungee jumping, out into the highlands surrounding Cusco where the air is thin and the emptiness and space reaches to the sky while white mountain peaks in the distance seem to be infinitely large and small simultaneously.   We talked, we dozed, and we gaped at the scenery as a hungry person might upon first seeing the illustrated menu above a fast food counter.  Eww.  The land is should not be a product and neither should a culture, but here we were having paid more than $300 each to witness the land and culture of Peru.   The bus rumbled on, eventually picking up a contingent of 20 or so porters from an indigenous village before plunging into a sun burnt valley to reach the town of Ollantaytambo.  The porters, all men, were silent and wore a look of equal parts weariness and resignation, with perhaps a sprinkling of pride.  The bus unloaded and we scurried to eat a breakfast with the indispensable (and difficult to find in the U.S. apparently) tea prepared with coca leaves, the same that are processed to manufacture cocaine.  It's a colorful restaurant, improvised with sod floors, a view of some ruins climbing the terraced cliffs outside, no lights in the bathroom, and a swarm of vendors selling decorated hiking sticks with woven woolen grips.   The shafts are made from repurposed broom handles, as evidenced by the spiral threads left unmolested on their lower tips where they were removed from the brush heads.   At least the locals weren't using local wood.  Chocolate, Gatorade, beer, chips, cookies, and any other kind of processed vice and junk food one could desire was hawked around the square as the sun rose over the statue of an Inkan with a mean-looking spiked club.   Someone tried to rip us off so we wandered to another store where we received a fairer price, then re-board the bus.


            Along the Inka Trail the Peruvian government tries to keep a tight watch, which makes sense considering that Machu Picchu is supposedly the number one tourist attraction on the continent of South America.   There are several checkpoints along the route, which used to be open for anyone to use on their own personal pilgrimage to the ruins.  In those days people would bring drugs and alcohol along to enhance the experience, and so our guide said that the route was full of "hippies," which the government sought to put and end to, as hippies are generally against people making a ridiculous profit off of them.   (I only brought a box of wine with me, so there!)  In the 1980s the agency in charge of the protected area where Machu Picchu is located completed a large restoration project along significant sections of the trail, and today these sections are fairly obvious.   Non-original stretches have stones with sharp, angular edges put together like bricks while the original sections feature softer, rounder angles on stones that fit together like pillows or bubbles all squished among themselves in an irregular puzzle that flows across the surface of the ground or slips around mountain ridges and through the occasional tunnel or cave.   Before crossing the Urubamba River on a suspension bridge and meeting the first mile of the trail, we had to present our passports to prove we were the same folks who made the reservations months ahead of time, as is now the norm on the route.   Cattle in our sties, mooing and chattering as we trundled along the assembly line, we advanced.

            High mountainous desert.  We passed spiny cacti with lipstick-red blooms and broad agave plants trying to hug the glaring blue sky.  Fourteen trekkers, all white but for one humorous man of Indian descent, we climbed the 1500 feet slowly while the porters carrying our tents, dining shelters, chairs, tables, cookware, flatware, stoves and fuel, as well as food for nine meals and countless cups of tea and coffee ran by.   Ran!  In our packs we carried our sleeping bags and pads, water, snacks, and the warm and waterproof clothes we "needed" to be comfortable in the high Andes, although some among the group of 14 opted for personal porters to lighten their loads even more, leaving them with just a bit of water, a snack, and a jacket or two.   We wore thick leather boots, Gore-Tex sheathed trekking footwear, and space-age running shoes.  They wore leather sandals that exhibited the rot of their toenails and the sores where the leather chafed their ankles.   While Victor had us stopped to explain a plant or describe the theoretical purpose of a ruin far below, the porters scrambled ahead to construct a tent city in a clearing where they threw together - with the two cooks' leadership - a fantastic three course lunch complete with a selection of hot teas.   Eager to get to know our fellow trekkers better, the Peace Corps volunteers asked to do an ice breaker game where everyone chooses an animal.  Sipping coca tea in the green tent while lunch digests and porters talk amongst themselves outside, I am chosen to try and repeat all of the names first, and nearly succeed except that the "Turtle" escapes me.   We are:  Bobcat, Cat, Kingfisher, Liger, Zebra, Tarantula, Raccoon, Squid, Mongoose, Chipmunk, Elephant, Giraffe, Meercat, and of course that pesky but friendly Turtle.


Camp that night lay up one side at the bottom of a v-shaped valley, a snowy pyramid peak visible in the distance to the north.   The trekkers arrived to the applause of the porters, guides, and cooks, who themselves deserved the applause, having set up all of the tents and the dining shelter with tables and chairs and silver sugar bowls.   We were above all of the other trekking groups that night and once the light failed the valley below was a soup of black illuminated by the warm orange-yellow of gas lanterns and the piercing white of LED headlamps.   I joked with Elephant that the scene reminded me of a dark battlefield with armies camped before a dawn attack.  With roughly 3,500 feet to climb the next day, an assault of sorts was certainly on the minds of many in the valley at Wayllabamba.   Thunder and electric flashes ripped across the sky for some of the night but we slept well after dinner, which the porters prepared and cleaned up while dodging a cold rain.


Whatever words one uses to describe the landscape around Machu Picchu and the Valle Sagrado, "dramatic" belongs somewhere in the account.  Commercialized, commoditized, and perhaps even deliberately misrepresented as it is, the classic four day Inka Trail still winds through some striking scenery.   When the weather cooperates, there are views of glaciated peaks above golden alpine grasses rippling on their high slopes, those in turn above matte green forests of paper-barked trees teeming with hummingbirds and orchids sharing space with waterfalls and the ageless stone thread of the trail as it winds among them to connect ancient pastures and local residents selling the latest energy soft drinks next to the bored but charming donkeys that hauled such garbage up in the first place.   Whether the place exists more for the superficial enjoyment of tourists or the lasting subsistence of Peruvians (or a combination of both, or neither), there can be little debate about its beauty.   This part of Peru is good for the soul, even if the abundant trash outside of the shack containing the porcelain Asian-style squat toilet is not.  I'm a sucker for mountains, so I freely admit my bias.  Up we go, deeper into the mountains and towards the highest point on the trail, 4200 meter "Dead Woman's Pass."   Named not for an overexerted gringa but for the shape of the mountain's relief as witnessed by someone under the effects of way too much coca tea.  


I hiked the first part of day two with Mongoose and Elephant, then a bit by myself, then with Kingfisher and Liger until we finally stood, sweating but strong, on the pass.   A shaggy burro tried to eat my NZ warden's hat during a windy break along the way, and though the trail, all uphill, resembled an interstate incline with the cars (regular trekkers) getting continually passed in both lanes by the big rigs (over-laden porters), it was not too crowded to enjoy the scent and color of the high altitude flora and the indifferent jewel-like hummingbirds who sampled trailside nectar.   Maybe these were descendants of the same birds who inspired the ancient Peruvians to create those amazing works of art high on the plains at Nazca.  Sitting at the top catching our breath and staving off hypothermia we waited for Cat to make it up and in the meantime observed the other trekkers not in our group.  Germans.   They laughed at just about anything, including those of us still laboring to reach the pass where they sat resting.  Russians.  Among them was a girl in her twenties fantastically skinny, fantastically blonde, fantastically fashionably dressed, and fantastically slow.   British.  A varied bunch, some were lean and mean and breezed by with their tiny packs and trekking poles and impatiently grit teeth without a word while others huffed and puffed and were most gracious for an encouraging word from us, would probably have offered a spot of tea if we weren't all already tanked up silly on the stuff.  


Past more surprisingly large restroom facilities and picking up trailside trash along the way, the team of Bobcat (me), Kingfisher, Liger, and Cat descended for an hour to reach the next camp, where Zebra had already and inexplicably arrived three and a half hours before.   "Twenty questions" and the living landscape of the mountains were our companions.  More lightning rocked the night sky as we waited for dinner, briefly outlining the anvil-like crags surrounding us, forging memories and impressions in our tiny human minds the same way they must have in the days when the Kichwas and the Inkas lived in this part of the world and built the structures we were here to see.


Day three was the longest distance-wise and also included the most stimulating scenery and attractions along the way.   Our amicable group of animals had by now gotten the hang of the backpacker's daily routine (except for the part about cooking your own food and packing and carrying your own equipment, etc) and we hit the trail pretty early, climbing immediately to a semi-circular ruin clinging to the slope of a ridge where we could then, squinting and tilting, see the "dead woman" in the pass from the previous day.   Runkuraqay, Victor explained, was supposedly a way station or checkpoint or resting house for the chasquis, the legendary Inkan messengers who dashed along the mountain roads and trails linking the Inkan Empire, taking news and orders and supplies to and from the distant outposts, working in a relay system where one person would run for roughly 20 kilometers before passing off the news or items to the next runner, day and night, until the proverbial fish from the coast was on the plate of the emperor in Cusco.   Faster than the news could travel by horse once the Spanish arrived!  Supposedly.  Please don't ask me how anyone today knows how this all worked centuries ago since the Inka did not seem to have a written language or even hieroglyphics or pictograms.   Sure sounds good to tell the tourists though, eh?  Now all that exists at Runkuraqay are mosses, lichens, and a daily regimen of ballistic nylon packs, carbon fiber trekking poles, and foreigners with unflattering hats and little hydration hoses draped over their shoulders … and cameras to take in the view, which fortunately still is as wonderful as it must have been long ago.


The climb took us higher still, around a lonely pond mirroring the golden honey hues of rock and grass, up to the second pass of the trail.   Here, after we crunched through our apples and unwrapped the chocolate-coated crackers we'd been given, Victor and César took us above the clearing for a special ceremony.   César removed a portable CD player and a set of tiny speakers while Victor prepared a sack of coca leaves.  He then explained some of the Inkan worldview:   There were three levels - the heavens or sky world, the physical world of Earth, and the underworld, each represented by an animal.  Condor for sky, Puma for Earth, and the Serpent for the underworld.   With much ceremony, he chose the best leaves from his bag and gave each of us three of them to hold.  The ancients, he said, would carry these same leaves up to the alpine regions and perform rituals of thanks and gratitude for being allowed to pass among the great mountains which they worshipped.   César found the right track on the CD and a new-agey bit of haunting Andean music began playing.  We blew on our leaves as Victor chanted in Kichwa and had us face the four cardinal directions (Read Dance of the Four Winds – Secrets of the Incan Medicine Wheel by Alberto Villoldo for more on this, especially if you plan to go to Machu Picchu yourself some day) before directing each of us to make a silent wish and then to place a stone atop our leaves.   A small pile formed as the music stopped, and we descended the twenty feet to our packs, careful not to disturb our rock pile or the dozens of others scattered around the pass signifying the dreams and hopes of countless serious pilgrims and package tour prisoners alike.


The remainder of the day took us past more ruins, each well integrated with the surrounding landscape, some with still-functioning water channels feeding ceremonial fountains.   The organic shapes of the outposts were fascinatingly different from conventional modern architectural cues of right angles and uniform symmetry.  They included straight lines with square and rectangular windows right next to sweeping round walls and perfectly incorporated natural stone surfaces complete with window openings to let in light and allow the occupants to see out upon the vast valleys and steep mountains which lay beyond the rock and forest.   Raccoon and I goofed off taking pictures and exploring, still unsure how much to trust or believe of the explanation outlining the purpose of the site and the organizational hierarchy of the Inkan Empire.   Moving on, our group lunched in yet another cleared and regimented area used as a campsite to accommodate the 500 people (that includes porters, cooks, and guides) per day who are granted permits to hike the trail.   After lunch lay the third and final pass of the trail, reached by following the largely original stone pathway for an hour and a half or so.  I started out from the camp with Elephant and Mongoose, but soon got ahead and feasted on the experience of hiking alone for a while, winding around the slope where the trail clung to it and passing spongy wet moss, countless mountain flowers, and unexpectedly threading shadows in the first of the Incan caves where the trail passes through a natural keyhole in the stone mountainside.   At the third pass (and another trampled campsite with an enviable view), the group reunited once again and began the descent to our final camp, stopping at more ruins for more discussion of Inkan mythology and construction techniques.   We descended past another cave, an intestinally abused ruins site we named "Poo Alley," and the sickest games of "Twenty Questions" ever played … we were tired and getting a bit antsy to see the big ruins the next morning.   Victor joked of the "Inkan Power Lines" swooping and buzzing overhead (nothing to do with the lines at Nazca) and we could now see the Urubamba valley again, complete with the intermittent rumble of the Aguas Calientes tourist train.   Getting close.


That night, after reaching camp, Victor led us around the corner of the mountainside to the last large ruin site we would see before Machu Picchu itself, called Wiñaywayna.  While much on the trail had been impressive, coming out of the jungle foliage and seeing this site spread our below us in the failing dusk was worthy of exclamation.   The whole animal pack crawled, fluttered, waddled and squirted its way along the terraces and crept down the stairs to explore the ritual fountains and multilayered chambers of this incredible place, made more incredible perhaps by the sharing of the wine previously mentioned.   It was here that a few of us also ran into someone who would prove especially important to the final portion of our Inka Trail trek:  Nigel Doogood.   Nigel (not his real name, we presume) was a long-haired Brit with an unusually large ego and a need to tell other travelers what to do and how to behave when visiting centuries-old ruins.   Nigel, incidentally, did NOT want any of the wine we were passing around.  (His loss, it was good stuff, Clos de Pirque!)  Wiñaywayna patiently allowed us to wander its secretive stone rooms and multiple concave terraces as the dark sank down over the Sacred Valley, and Victor regaled us once again with tales of the agriculture of the region and the supposed significance of having two lintel stones above a doorway as opposed to just one.  Hiking back to camp by the light of our headlamps, dinner was a drawn-out affair as we followed it by ceremoniously tipping the porters and cooks and passing around an email contact list, complete with animal names.   Turtle took over that mission graciously.


The following, final morning we awoke to a light rain, the remnants of a downpour that had lasted all night.   After a quick breakfast, we saddled uinto our packs and then lined up by the last checkpoint, where NOONE is allowed through before 5:20 am or thereabouts.   When the gates finally opened, the race was on.  Victor had correctly warned us that some people seem to lose the courteous bit of their minds on this last stretch of the trail before the BIG ONE, and while we swiftly made our way over the wet stones drawn forward by anticipation of ruins, of riches, of GLORY (and of getting that famous postcard picture view of the site before the trillion tourists file out of their air-conditioned tour buses and waddle out into the shot) we were indeed passed by fellow trekkers who suffered the common problems of not getting up as early as we had and of just being plain rude, like that one driver who insists on passing just you even though you're last in line behind eight or ten cars all going slow.   The valley dropped off to our right, and across it were lush green-carpeted slopes with 60 and 70 degree angles flying all the way down to the train tracks.   A drizzle surrounded us as we sweated and huffed along, swept by the collective momentum of excitement that prompted me to remove my jacket without even stopping.  Soon enough, we were at the "Sun Gate," and so were all of those impatient types who just had to jump past us while we moseyed along.   Ahead, another forty minute's hike or so away, was Machu Picchu.  We had reached the landscape we had come to see.


More soon.


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