Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Post-Peru Post

So, rather than revising my original stream of consciousness Peru post, I've decided to add what was missing here. I left a lot out about the Inka trail and Machu Picchu, not because it wasn't incredible but because Robyn and I were on a time crunch and hungry and as we all know, I'm wordy and just couldn't get it all written in time. Robyn added some excellent points in her comment, and I'd like to address those in more depth.

First, I was remiss in not mentioning the bathroom situation on the trek. I may have left it out intentionally since it was still rather close at hand and there were some less than savory memories made on the trail. I will try to be as delicate as possible, suffice to say the facilities were lacking. First of all, during the hike, if you need to go, you just hop off the trail and, well, go. This I have no problem with since it's a pretty standard camping feature and doing #1 in the wild is not that hard. When we arrived at our actual campsites which did technically have toilets, however, I ran into problems. First, the Peruvians dont' believe in toilet bowls: the bathrooms were literally concrete squares surrounded by partial walls that you sort of hovered over. Or at least, I'm assuming that's what one did with them, since not once during the four day trek did I enter any of them; instead, I spent most of my time running past them holding my breath. I'm not sure how many people know this about me, but I am quite senstive to smell and bad smells lead to pretty severe gagging on my part. Robyn can testify that this gagging was actually debilitating and there was not a snowball's chance in hell I'd be able to make use of the "official" bathrooms. We adopted a "leave no woman behind" policy and formed some pretty lasting bonds in a variety of situations and, well, I'll leave it at that. Finally, on the last night at the most modern of all the sites, I got to them early - pre-smell - and there were actual toilet bowls, if not seats. I didn't think it was possible to enjoy teetering on the rim of a toilet so much. I will sum up this section by saying that our impressive stock of baby wipes were indispensible, and I was so grateful to Matt and Robyn for having thought of bringing them. Matt had his own internal issues what with being deathly ill and all, and I want to once again give him a shout out for never once complaining, even as he had to make use of the foul facilities for relief from, ahem, both ends, and THEN wake up and hike at 4 a.m. Truly amazing, and my own bathroom woes were nothing compared to what he must have gone through.

I can't write this post without mentioning at some length the South African girl who had an unnatural hatred for me. She was ultimately just another snobby, socially maladjusted "world traveller" who thought she had my number because I was, after all, just another idiotic, spoiled American, but the absolute highlight of my interactions with this girl revolved around a conversation about Gatorade. The Irish boys and I were all consuming said wonder elixir (for obvious reasons, we were tuckered out and needed a little boost) and Robyn mentioned that it had originally been created by a football coach in Florida. I added that this was why you often see football teams dumping coolers of Gatorade over their coach's heads after a win, to which she replied haughtily, "There are starving children in Africa." The entire group, including her friends, were stunned; eyes downcast and embarrassed for her idiocy. Robyn later commented that she had to catch herself from saying, "You better get back there and feed them then!" I wish I had been so quick on the draw because I would have actually SAID it, but I was too stupefied - it's not like I personally ever dumped gatorade over my football coach's head, after all, and even so, would Gatorade really nourish Africa's youth? I believe my response was, "There are starving children in Peru, too." Not sure what I was trying to get across with that other than there are starving children everywhere.

This was just one in a series of incidents with our precious South African crankypants. Another favorite involved the very tacky subject of tipping. As a group of 17, we had 18 porters, three guides, and a chef working for us. Naturally, four days of being waited on should include gratuity at the end of it, which is pointed out - rightfully so, since some people are idiots - in the trek brochure and on the company's website. The total cost of the trek was $460: if you subtract $80 for the entrance fee to Machu Picchu and another $80 for transportation, that means we each paid a whopping $300 for four days and three nights of camping in one of the most high-demand tourist destinations in the world, eating until we were blue in the face, and having cultural and architectural information provided to us at our every whim (our whims were less frequent than Hilbert's, but still). It really was quite reasonable, and yet the two South Africans, the two Irish boys, the two Brits and the obnoxious Puerto Rican were irate that on top of paying such an exorbitant amount we were also reminded to leave a tip at the end - the nerve! (Note that the recommended tip was, if I remember correctly, about $25 each.) After biting our tongues while listening to an obnoxious conversation about the injustice of it all through our thin tent walls ("They're bascially asking us to shoulder the porter's salaries/I thought this trip was all-inclusive/you get the point" Give me a break), I stepped out and said my short bit, something to the extent of: "If you knowingly go to an expensive restaurant, you don't leave a bad tip because the food was pricey." To which Irish replied, "You can't really compare the situations." And I said, "You're absolutely right, because at the restaurant you'd leave a way higher tip for an hour of service than we're being asked to leave people who spent the last four days waiting on us." Someone shot back that as Americans we're accustomed to tipping, and I said, well, lucky for you half of us are Americans, so you can leave a crappy tip and it'll all even out (I should mention we were expected to pool a 'group' tip, adding to the badness of the situation). They were trying to argue that they were on a budget - as if we weren't - and my last comment was, "If you think this trip is so expensive, why didn't you opt for a cheaper package?" I then walked away, very angry, partly at their absurd attitudes, partly for bringing us down on a trip that we all paid the same amount for and should be able to enjoy without unecessary stress, but also because I knew they'd been having the whole conversation within earshot of our English-speaking guides, who no doubt felt awkward and also underappreciated having heard it. When push came to shove (and after they had all consumed their fare share of rather expensive beers, a fact which did not go unnoticed by all us tip-happy Americans who never said Boo about the obvious notion of tipping for a service well rendered) people did dole out a reasonable amount and we gave the porters an average of 37 soles each, or about $12 - bearing in mind the legally recognized porter tip minimum (a fuzzy concept since it was technically optional to tip) is 35 soles. It's interesting how cultural divides can occur at the most unexpected times, but we were pretty much in U.S.A. and Not-U.S.A. camps on this issue, something which I found interesting (and for the first time in awhile I was proud to be on the American side). This may seem long-winded, but I'm leaving out a whole other complicated money argument regarding single-day porters, which also involved South Africa and me getting into a skirmish.

Robyn would hate for me to write this whole post without more mention of the hilarious Puerto Rican dude, so here are a few highlights: he was the most egotistical dude I think any of us had ever met. He constantly wanted pictures taken of himself, BY his girlfriend and never once WITH her. In each picture he proudly displayed a Puerto Rico flag patch he wore rubber-banded to the sleeve of his shirt, and less than proudly sucked in his gut, which he was clearly embarrassed about having developed in the last few years. He was also a complete know-it-all, and since their tent was right next to ours the last day we got to listen to him lecture her about a variety of issues on which he was just plain wrong, with her incredulous reaction being (read in a southern accent): "Now, do you KNOW this, or are you just guessing?" (On a side note, his girlfriend Michelle was one of my favorites in the group and I hope I'm as active - and as hot - as she is when I'm 50). All in all our group could have been composed of better, more interesting, less grating people, but it made for good stories and for the most part everyone was fine and got along swimmingly. No lasting friendships made, but it could have been a lot worse.

I don't want to give a negative impression of the trip, because really, it was amazing. Right before we started - as we were repacking our packs, spraying bug spray, and shooing away women trying to sell us hats and walking sticks (we were the only three not to succumb to the ridiculous practice of carrying said walking sticks, and gratefully so) - I got nervous. What had we gotten ourselves into?? But as soon as we started it melted away and I decided to just take it one step at a time. It was a nice practice in patience for me: I went very slowly, and loved taking it all in. We went through a variety of ecosystems, and we spent most of the third day in the jungle, filled with happy insect noises and beautiful flora. During the course of the trail we also passed a ton of other Inka ruins, some of which I think I enjoyed almost as much as Machu Picchu, partly because I could enjoy them ALONE. Which brings us to Machu Picchu itself: what can I say? It's an experience of a lifetime, but one you only really need to have once in that lifetime. It was hard to fully appreciate the magnitude of the site, made even more difficult by the hundreds and even thousands of other people also taking it in. I said it before, but I wish we had been more rested so we could have enjoyed it a bit more. We were more of the "thank heavens its over'"attitude by that point, and although I did appreciate the tour Hilbert gave, I found myself forcing my eyes open during a lot of it. But, yes, it was absolutely beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and not easily captured by the camera's lens.

Speaking of, I should mention now that Matt took a ton of pictures, and pretty early on I started neglecting my own camera since I figured whatever he was getting was 10 times better than what I would snap. So, eventually I will get those pictures from him and make them available to all of you, and until then, you'll have to make do with the few I did take. (On a side note, I am happy to report that Matt cunningly talked his delinquent airline into buying him a ticket on a more reputed one, and he made it to the wedding in Brasil in time.)

In the hopes of making you forget all the badness I've just discussed, here's a brief photo tour of our four days on the Inka Trail (note that comments come after each picture, not before).

Here are Hilbert, Matt, and Robyn standing in front of the train to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. This is about 5 minutes after we started walking. Don't worry, the train is stopped. The first day was warm but Robyn didn't shed any layers for fear of ruthless bug bites.

These are the first ruins we stopped to discuss - a.k.a. the first time long-winded Hilbert made a few people fall asleep. It's tough to wake up so early, force your body to go up and down hill, and then STOP for an hour to get a cultural lesson. I think the wind kept us up more than Hilbert did.

This is the start of our second day of walking, also the most difficult day. In a few short hours we'll be several thousand feet higher, crossing the tallest peak of the trail.

This is the several hours later I mentioned... as far down as you can see is where we started the day. Yikes. We were lucky it was cloudy; on a hot, sunny day it would have been 100 times worse.

Some ruins from day 2 or possibly day 3... these days sort of blur together.
Day 3 ruins - the Inkas are famous for being able to "bend" rocks and this is a perfect example.

Going downhill was in many ways worse than going up. Our knees were definitely hollering by the time we reached the bottom of each set of stairs (only to go straight back up).

An eerily sea-scape-seeming landscape from day 3 in the jungle. Matt took a lot of flora pictures this day.

These were the ruins near where we stopped on day 3, by far my favorite of the trail mostly because I was able to enjoy them in solitude (after poor Oscar gave a very awkward, borderline painful lecture on them in his nervous, broken English). For a sense of scale, check out the people in the upper righthand corner. This was HUGE. Each individual terrace has a slightly different temperature, and the Inkas grew different crops on each terrace based on those fine-tuned temperatures. They were really smart, ok?

Our faithful porters the last night of the trek. They were so great! Other people were embarrassed when a porter would scurry past them carrying 2-3 times the weight, but they were raised here and they are paid to do it, so I mostly just enjoyed watching them go.

6:00 a.m. and we reach Machu Picchu. Hooray! Can you tell just how badly we need to shower? The shower that night will be, without a doubt, the best shower I've ever taken in my life.
The money shot, as they say, and also the famous image you've all seen before, only this time taken from my own point and click. We were lucky to get a clear day; often it's clouded over and you have to rely on your imagination more than your camera for memories.

More pictures pending - I'm in the process of switching from Flickr (bad) to Picassa (good) and once I get that squared away I'll have all my photos from the past 6 weeks to share. I'm also working on a new Buenos Aires post, so don't go too far!


Robyn said...

Archie, nice work my friend. i hearted the "additional MP post", especially the rubberband and patch portion. That guy is such an a$$. Plus the bathroom tutorial was money. I'm sure people wondered how that whole thing worked, I remember we were wondering....then we found out...LOL.

Momma Archer said...

Wow, if Matt's pictures are even better than those shown ,I can't wait to see them. What an incredible journey. You guys should be proud of yourselves for making it...and also for sticking up for the poor guides and porters' rightful tips!

Sara said...

YES!!! My email is sarbk86@yahoo.com I will be staying at the Tango Backpackers in (where else?) Palermo. I believe I am going shopping with some friends on Saturday the 13th.
Beautiful pics, by the way!

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