Seeing the world, one country at the time

Andean Trilogy Ceremony:


Inca Trail Day One

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We are up at five, hoping my body can handle it. A mini-bus picks us up, one by one, our family for the next four days: Laura, Stina and Martin. We are on our way to km. 82, the start of the trail at Pisca Cucho. Passing through Urubamba, a beautiful green valley with trees and fancy painted houses, everything seems clean. All the homes are protected by two miniature ceramic bulls and sometimes a cross, a ladder and/or chica, the local brew, which sit on top of the roof. The Chicha is for celebration, the ladder for progress, the bulls for security and the cross for their faith. Our first stop is Ollantaytambo nestled between high mountains. Its huge, ancient Incan buildings are built into the mountainsides, now abandoned but for the intrepid tourists scaling the sheer walls to reach them.

We are swarmed by women selling ponchos and walking sticks as we alight from the van. Cozy cafes and restaurants around the plaza cater to us tourists. This high, the sun is warm, even at 7:30 am. It feels like midday with the altitude. We walk to the local market full of flowers, fruits and odds and ends. Everyone is local and everyone is eating caldo de panza and caldo de cabeza, two meat broths made with tripe and head. I will try almost anything, but this challenges my limits, especially after my last experience with food. In the back, a heavy odor announces the butchers, women sawing huge sides of cattle, straining under the effort. The resulting fur-stripped flanks and fly-ridden cow heads with large eyes, teeth and their still-hairy chins protruding from a mass of red muscle. sit next to the juice and clothing vendors. Dogs are lounging everywhere. It smells strangely good, like chicken soup.

Leaving Ollantaytambo for the Inca Trail, we pass steppes and terraces and abandoned buildings on the steep mountainsides.
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We see locals everywhere; Indian women with their colorful wide hoop skirts and English-style bowler hats. I want to know where that outfit came from originally. It is an anomaly. There are bricks drying all over, made of straw and the local red earth. Little boys turn one-foot long bricks in the sun to dry. We pass both men and women carrying loads of hay and sticks that are almost as large as them, on their backs. Today is the “Dia de los muertos”, or Day of the Dead, the first of November. In a cemetery, men are whitewashing a tomb, while other families sit around several tombs chatting. There are new flowers and color draped among the graves. We are introduced to breathtaking views of the river and rapids, as the tourist train going to Machu Picchu passes us, and mountains soar above.

When we arrive at km 82 there is a lot of planning and repacking by the porters, as they break up the weight amongst themselves. We do the paperwork and pay our admission, then pass through, stop to take a photo of the sign to prove we are really there. We are really going to climb the Inca Trail, our one biggest goal on this trip and a longtime dream. Ruben, our guide, wants us to perform the Quintu ceremony with the coca leaf before starting. He takes three coca leaves and talks of the Andean Trilogy. He dedicates one leaf to each of three worlds: the upper level heavens (apus, or volcanos), middle level earth (Pachamama, or mother Earth) and lower level netherworld (humanity).

The Andean Trilogy can also be described as:
1) Hananpacha (the world of above, represented by the condor, which signifies justice and also the messenger)
2) Caipacha (the earth, represented by the puma, or Andean cougar, signifies strength or energy)
3) Uyupacha (the world within or underworld, represented by the snake who stands for wisdom and knowledge
This reminds me of the Garden of Eden and I wonder if there is a mythological parallel.
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In our ceremony, we hold the three leaves up between our fingers. The two outer leaves are for two Apus, or volcanos in the area, even if we can’t see them. The middle is for Pachamama, the earth mother. We point the leaves in each direction and blow on them, then ask for a wish and secure the leaves under a rock. Once we have shown this respect and asked permission from the mountains and Pachamama to let us pass and for everything to go well, we give thanks. Afterwards, we can leave on our trip.

Ruben assures us that we will start out slow and only climb 200 meters the first day, to avoid exhaustion. But I already am exhausted. Every step is an effort as my body grasps at the ever-diminishing oxygen. Ruben stops us to point out local flora, like the cactus flower and the eucalyptus. The hallucinogenic Floripondio flower is used for tea or to put under your pillow to sleep against insomnia. Latara pods have seeds you can extract to make a tea to help against sore throats. My favorite is the cochinilla insect, which lives on cacti and whose blood is used to make lipstick. As we hike, Ruben continues to stop and point out interesting facts.

At one point we enter a village with humble mud homes and I hear a horrific inhuman squealing. A suckling pig is being disposed of via tourniquet method by a couple behind their home. They are twisting a big log tied on its back and tightening the ropes to strangle the pig as it attempts to run away, dragging them along. I may have nightmares for months. Might there not be quicker methods? We stop for drinks at a rest spot where the locals have set up their stalls and all drinks are over-inflated. As our water runs out, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and forced to pay up. Others are testing the strong local corn beer chichi. They scoop it up out of a large barrel and pass it around. Ruben and I talk about the Incas and their history as I ask him questions relating to the books I am reading. He is a wealth of knowledge and his English is solid.

Thankfully, we finally arrive at Miscay, our lunch spot. I am nervous about my tummy, but any excuse for a rest is good enough for me. The porters went ahead and set up tents, with plastic buckets and soap outside to wash our hands. It feels truly decadent. We take off our shoes and lie in the burning sun with a cool breeze to lick the heat away. We are next to farmhouses and surrounded by mountains. It is a gorgeous view, very green, unlike most of Peru. Hens and chickens are fighting over a discarded potato. One picks it up and tosses it away from the others. This feels like luxurious camping by our standards and we are impressed by how organized the porters are. We have soup, then fried chicken, rice and vegetables, always with mate de coca. The food tastes great because we’ve been outside using our bodies. It’s an easy hike by most measures, but with the thin air, we are tired.

After lunch a short detour from the trail takes us to an overlook of Llactapata, an Incan ruin carved into mountainside below. The sun is setting and casting shadows over this serpentine city, with a temple of the sun where the snake’s head would be. Llactapata was an Incan city where only nobles lived. Further up on the trail are more ruins of what was probably a tambo, a place where the Inca runners (chasquis) would stop every 8-10 km. for a replacement runner, and rest. It was like a hostel for these messengers. I walk into the ruins and lose my group when they take another direction. It is breathtaking with a view of the city and ancient stones with their untold stories. When I find my group again, they are tasting munya, a mint-like leaf that you rub with alcohol between your fingers and sniff to make you feel better. It smells delicious! I find myself wanting seconds and thirds, but we finally have to move on. Around three pm., the trail becomes a traffic jam between villages, as strings of children and teenagers coming from school or going out with friends run or skip lightly on their feet past us as we struggle to put one foot in front of the other.

We arrive at our camping site Wayllabamba around five, just before sunset. It is a beautiful setting in a small village. It must belong to a local farmer, for our campground features a horse tied to tree, pigs feeding, a rooster and chickens. Our tents are already set up. As we rest and get settled, we are brought hot water in bowls and clean up, then take a footbath. It feels like a scene straight out of the movie “Back to Africa”. High tea is a choice of anis chamomile or coca and biscuits with margarine or jam and POPCORN! I was in seventh heaven! After tea we rest and two hours later, are served dinner, but we are still full. I’m just so glad I’m not sick anymore! Though I am very weak from the day before. Sitting around our tent table gives us the chance to get to know each other better.

Laura is the quintessential Irish lass, with red hair, green eyes and a mouth that won’t quit She smokes Marlboro religiously, kicking the day off with a drag and celebrating a climb with one after. She talks incessantly, so it’s not long before we know her story. She’s from the south side of Dublin, but only dates northern boys, although now she has fallen for a Brazilian, Douglas. She loathes the fact that 75% of people she runs into while traveling are Irish. She plans to work in Argentina and then go on to Brazil with Douglas. She is confident and competitive and hates to lose at “Shithead”, a card game she teaches us. She’s an art/tech geek who studied AV and now she lives on her last dime, with five months of travel to go. Martin is a quiet white-blond Swedish poster child who says little, but is smart and good at languages. He is also competitive, but subtle about it, like when he keeps winning card games. He races us on the trails and is always first at camp, as if that were the goal. At home he plays soccer. He seems steady. He is traveling “as friends” with cute Stina. (Anna) Stina, also Swedish, always wears tight jeans. She is pretty, a blonde with green eyes who is perfectly nice and pleasant. She and Martin finished high school together a year ago. They and their friends decided to do the trip together ages ago, but everyone else bailed. After having lived in France for a year, she may want to return. Unlike steady Martin, she’s adrift, without any plans. She hasn’t gone to college yet and doesn’t know what she wants to do. Still young at 20, she is nevertheless very sociable and confident. We have the feeling that she will be fine. They all will.

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After dinner, we are all exhausted and head to bed. We take our headlamps outside to brush our teeth and really upset the horse by shining our lights in its eyes. It whinnies disapprovingly. It is so dark, black as black but with a million stars above. Tomorrow we have been warned, is the toughest day for most, and the highest, longest climb. For now we are too tired and satisfied to worry about this much, though there isn’t much we can do about it. The worst we can imagine now will be nowhere as hard as the reality of it.