Monday, March 10, 2008

The Main Event?

Last night I boarded the train to Cusco in Aguas Calientes at 5 p.m. My day was complete. My trip was complete. I had finally made it to Machu Picchu.

Nothing could take away from this day. I had woken up at 5 a.m. to the voice of my hotel concierge knocking at my door, "Señorita, Señorita!" Not that it didn´t piss me off because I hate being woken up when its still dark outside... in this case, from the first deep sleep I´ve had all trip. It was the first time in a month that I´d had my very own private hotel room to sleep in, rather than a mixed hostel dorm with drunk people running in and out and loud music blaring outside.

Either way, I had a reason to get out of bed, and by 6 a.m. I was headed up to Machu Picchu. At 7 in the morning, after a winding bus ride 1000 meters up a mountainside, I made my way into the site with the other busloads of tourists I don´t like to associate myself with, only to find the entire site was shrouded in a deep fog. The Inca Trail hiker groups, (who I respect more than the bus and train group) seemed dejected, after 4 full painstaking days scrambling up rocks at a high altitude to reach Machu Picchu, only to arrive to what one hiker sarcastically proclaimed as "Braveheart...enough said."

But by 8 a.m. the fog started to fade, revealing the rocky outlines of the ancient ruins and the tall jagged mountains surrounding them on all sides. When the fog had cleared by 9:30 a.m., it was a sight to behold...this ancient city perched high upon a mountain-top. I began to wonder how the Inca´s did it.

By 10 a.m. I found myself in conversation with a Peruvian trail guide who had led an Inka Trail hike to Machu Picchu, but was not allowed to give tours in Machu Picchu itself. He suggested we climb Wayna Pichu, the tall mountain directly behind Machu Picchu that served as a lookout point over the city, and he would give me a bit of "off the records" info. "Great," I thought, not knowing what I was getting myself into.

At 2,720 Meters high, Wayna Picchu was no walk in the park. The most suitable comparison for climbing this behemoth would be climbing up a 6000 Ft ladder. The trails, cut directly into the rock face were one heck of a workout on the thighs, but even worse was the humidity and altitude, which left me gasping for air and water after every 5 or 10 steps, while my Peruvian guide literally went running up the face of the mountain ahead of me, stopping only to ask if I was ok. That, of course, pissed me off.

The view, however, was worth it. From the top of Wayna Pichu, you can look down on Machu Picchu to see that the city was built in the shape of a Condor (one of three religious symbols of Inca Culture--the other two are Snake and Puma). You are also at eye level with the tops of all the other surrounding mountains which from ground level, seem impossibly high. The feeling is incredible...but the descent, while less physically exhausting, is more life threatening (imagine climbing 6000 feet back down that same ladder with nothing but air and gravity on all sides)

In addition, our Machu Picchu guide had told a story about a Japanese tourist who had thrown a coin into the sacred temple some years back and then fallen while climbing Wayna Picchu. He had survived, but I suppose its a lesson in not upsetting the aura of this place.

Well, someone that day must have messed up in a similar fashion, because, when I thought the day couldn´t possibly get any more eventful than a trip to Machu Picchu, our train back to Cusco stopped in its tracks.

First it was the engine that had given out. Surrounded on 3 sides by mid-20´s male Japanese tourists who were all speaking in Japanese to one another, I had nothing to do except stare idly around the train as we waited 45 minutes before the engine started up again. The whole train cheered when we started moving, but our cheers came too soon. No more than 20 minutes later, we stopped again.

Of course in Peru, no one makes announcements as to why things are happening or what measures are being taken to deal with a situation, so after 5 more minutes of painstaking silence amongst my Japanese seatmates, I got up to talk to a train employee.

"Que esta pasando, Señor?" I asked.

"Hay un derrumbe," he answered.

What is a "derrumbe"? My spanish was failing me and I was tired from my day of hiking. Then it clicked. A landslide. Yes, a landslide of boulders has fallen down from the mountains and covered up the train tracks. We were stranded in the dark in the middle of the Peruvian jungle alongside a river somewhere between Cusco and Machu Picchu until the "machines" came to clean up the boulders. That could take hours.

And it did. Two and a half hours to be exact, by which point people were angry, hungry, restless... At some point, out of boredom, I struck up a conversation with the biggest gringo on the train, a boistrous, loud, overweight american man wearing a Brett Favre jersey and drinking beers. Oh, what was happening, and would this ever end?

An angry Taiwanese man spent at least 45 minutes of that time yelling at the Peruvian employees in broken English, while two angry Columbian girls played the role of "angry in agreement," arms crossed, nodding their heads, eyes fixated with the look of death as the Taiwanese man continued his tirade.

As for me, I accepted the "South American-ness" of the situation, and hung out with some English folk at the "bar," listening to stories of small critters in the Amazonian jungle that can swim up your urine stream and get inside your body, are extremely painful, and can only be removed by surgery.

And on the topic of piss, I wondered, who on this train had pissed off the spirits at Machu Picchu and sent the landslide down the mountain. My vote was for the "Angry Taiwanese man", as a group of English boys deemed him.

We arrived to Cusco at midnight, 3 hours later than schedule, and of course there was no one waiting for me at the station, as my tour company said there would be. So I took a taxi back to my hostel and passed out.

Today is my last day in Cusco. I am getting a massage for 25 Soles--about $8 USD...not only because its cheap, but because with yesterday´s events, I´ve earned it.

Machu Picchu and a landslide in one day? You can´t make this stuff up!

Also, just a picture preview from my trip to San Pedro de Atacama. More to come when I get home:

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