The Astromaid Chronicles

Slow Travel, Creative Living, and Speculation

Category: On The Road (page 2 of 5)

A Love Affair with Toro Viejo

Oh, querida Argentina! The land of red wine, the surrogate mother of Malbec!

We’re back in Argentina visiting Jorge’s family for the month. There are a lot of things we look forward to during our yearly pilgrimage to the homeland. Things like: the bread. The meat. The melodic sing-song vos and desis. The relatives, and the chance to get back to rural roots. And perhaps, most of all (sorry parents)? THE RED WINE.

But even though Argentina is known for its delightfully fragrant varietals, not all of Argentina shares the high-browed love of the bodegas. While some Argentinians pass time discussing legginess and obscure fruity undertones, others are content with whatever legally passes as wine.

Red wine in most other places is known by it’s varietal: the merlot grape, the cabernet sauvignons, French Malbec versus Argentinian Malbec. Every bottle gleams with the proud pronunciation of what wine and what year.

But Candelaria is remote, and very rural. And in the biggest grocery store in town, there are only two options for something that isn’t just blanket-statement Red Wine.

So everyone drinks a brand called Toro Viejo down here. Let me be clear: IT IS NOT GOOD WINE. It is boxed red wine dressed up in a glass bottle. It’s passable, at best, but only because I’ve acclimated after several visits now. The first time I came, I was horrified. How could a wine not even make mention of its parent grape? How could it be packaged and sold without making mention of its birth year?

CLASSIC.

CLASSIC.

Well that’s Toro Viejo (translation: Old Bull) for you. 700 ML will run you less than $2.00.Talk about value! The cheapest bottle of wine I ever bought in the States was $5, and so disgusting I threw it away after one sip. (Note to self: Bargan Bin wine shopping is to be avoided!)

But living in wine country means even the refuse is guaranteed to be tolerable. It’s sold in 6 packs, because I guess drinking an entire bottle is equivalent to a Nati Light beer in the USA. About as cheap, at least. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a natural spring gushing Toro Viejo wine instead of water somewhere in the sierras.

But Toro Viejo has its perks.

First of all, it’s ubiquitous. You can find it everywhere, literally everywhere. There will be Toro Viejo wine available for years after the Apocalypse, I can assure you. Jorge’s family are cultural wine drinkers, so the bottle of Toro Viejo is at every meal, no matter what. You will NOT find the Avila family without their tried and trusted Toro Viejo. And it will always, always be chilled. This is a natural fact, a law of the land, as implicit as bathing or wiping your ass.

Secondly, it seems the marketing department for the Old Bull brand had a flash of inspiration, one that very well might rock the whole of Argentina. They started a campaign where on random cork bottles, you could win a chance to win millions of bottles of Toro Viejo. I don’t know if that would be wine heaven or hell – but damned if I’m not scouring each cork for the chance to win.

My relationship with this barely-tolerable red wine has grown from one of side-eyed distrust to that of family members who used to fight a lot but now mostly get along. A week and a half into our stay in Candelaria, I’m salivating for the chance to sniff a robust Malbec…but, I can stand another glass of Toro Viejo, I suppose. And come dinner time, I just might have a couple.

The Last Test of the Gaucho

As I mentioned last week, Jorge and I took a whirlwind trip into the Peruvian jungle to visit the coffee farm of our dear friends Chevi and Audrey.

This place was remote. And by remote, I mean there’s a public transportation option that passes by the front of the property once per day, at 6 AM. And there’s no bathroom. And there’s no shower. And there’s no city water. In fact…one could aruge there’s not really even a city.

We were in the Peruvian jungle, a place where insect repellent was more of an inside joke between us and the insects and less of a viable way to protect your special parts from attack.

But despite the heat, the humidity, the remoteness, and the intermittent electricity…actually, perhaps BECAUSE OF these things…Jorge felt right at home.

For those that are just joining the gaucho saga, my boyfriend is a legitimate Argentinian cowboy. He was raised on a rural farm, riding horses, slaughtering animals by hand, and living entirely off the land. He has skills that I’ve only read about in books. When the Apocalypse comes, he’s going to be my ticket to salvation.

So of course, arriving to this remote Quillabamba locale was, for him, an unexpected return to his roots.

Audrey’s mother, Magda, lives on the coffee farm most of the time. Being mostly a city girl, she had to learn the tricks of the trade to living in the jungle. And she has adapted incredibly well. Her farm is a well-oiled machine, and she maintains not only a coffee farm, but also various fruiting plants, as well as cabbage and sundry other vegetables that sustain the bellies of the family and workers there. Additionally, she takes care of dogs, cats, chicken, and guinea pigs — all of which comprise active members of the family out there.

But for someone like me? Living on a farm like that is an admirable goal, but not something I’ve ever done for any length of time. Certainly not like Audrey’s family or Jorge and his family.

I can rough it for a length of time. I like to walk barefoot and get dirty and grow my own vegetables. But I can’t, for instance, fix anything beyond a pair of leggings. Or make a dinner without the aid of a stove. Or, you now, kill a chicken with my bare hands.

These are all things Jorge did in the span of 48 hours, prompting a series of events I like to call The Gaucho Tests. Throughout our whirlwind trip in the jungle, certain situations arose that required the aid of my special cowboy and his special skills. Let’s look at each one in turn.

TEST #1: MAKE A BANDAID.

This happened before we launched our official trip into the jungle. Prior to heading for Quillabamba, we went to the Sacred Valley for a joint birthday/goodbye cookout with friends. What fun! What deliciousness! What beautiful, sacred sights! Except as I was gutting a bell pepper with a foreign and oversized knife, I sliced my thumb — badly.

Gushing blood, we quickly realized that nobody had band-aids. Jorge came to my rescue, wrapping a folded napkin around the cleaned wound, and then sealing it with aluminum foil. It didn’t look pretty, but it got the job done!

Home made Band-aid, courtesy of the Gaucho.

Home made Band-aid, courtesy of the Gaucho.

TEST #2: KILL A CHICKEN WITH YOUR BARE HANDS.

Once we arrived to the coffee farm, the question remained of what to eat for dinner the first night. The property is quite far from town. Without a car, which Audrey’s mother doesn’t have, getting to town and back would be an all-day, and probably very difficult, affair. Turning to local resources is a necessity.

Jorge offered to make a fresh chicken stew. You know, with one of the hens running around the property. I watched as he and Chevi stalked the hen designated for our dinner. Then Jorge quietly, unceremoniously, did the deed. He didn’t blink an eye, while the rest of us watched gape-mouthed.

I’ve never seen my boyfriend kill an animal with his bare hands. Somehow, after 2 years, I’m just realizing this is a skill he possesses (though I suppose killing chickens isn’t required in places like Cusco or Valparaiso). Life on a remote farm is like that — teaches you survival skills. Within a half hour, the chicken was totally de-feathered (secret: pot of boiling water at the ready) and hanging to dry while we prepared the rest of the meal.

The stew that he went on to create was delicious, by the way. And cooked purely by fireside.

A shot of our impromptu fireside chicken stew.

A shot of our impromptu fireside chicken stew.

TEST #3: OPEN A WINE BOTTLE WITHOUT A WINE OPENER.

This one was partially my fault. We had bought a bottle of wine for the first night’s dinner and to celebrate the birthday of Audrey’s mother. However, the wine screw broke when the cork was halfway out. Luckily, Chevi (the other gaucho!) finished the job for me. But when it came time to open the second bottle of wine, we were out of luck.

I passed the broken corkscrew and the unopened bottle of wine to Jorge. He managed to fix the corkscrew, though it broke again when pressure was applied. From there, he twisted in the wine screw part by itself, and then used the corner of a coffee drying rack as leverage to coax the stubborn cork out of its home. Five minutes later — POP!

TEST #4: SHOW UP AT A RIVER AND HAVE A COOKOUT.

While we’re no strangers to having cookouts literally anywhere, showing up in the jungle and doing it on the side of an unpopulated riverbank was a new one, even by our standards. Luckily, we had purchased the food beforehand. But we had almost nothing in the way of tools, dishware, etc….just a grill, a couple of great friends, and a whole lot of good energy. It came together just fine.

Don't have a way to start a fire? Just yank some chopped wood you found on the side of the street in the next village over.

Don’t have a way to start a fire? Just yank some chopped wood you found on the side of the street in the next village over.

The gaucho swims in the river.

The gaucho swims in the river, after the impromptu jungle riverside asado.

TEST #5: FIX A BROKEN BIRTHDAY CANDLE

On the morning of our second day at the farm, we celebrated Audrey’s mother’s birthday with cake and a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday in both Spanish and English. Audrey and Chevi’s firstborn daughter accidentally broke the birthday candle as she was examining it — oops! — prior to lighting it. Instead of tossing it aside and leaving it for dead, we thought, ‘Maybe Jorge can do something with this’. A few minutes later, the candle was lit in the middle of the cake, though missing a couple centimeters. Not bad, gaucho!

I’m proud of my gaucho for a lot of reasons, as is probably evident. It’s not just a novelty that he is so handy, though sometimes his skills do double as a side show.

It’s important to have a contingency plan for the Apocalypse (or Zombie Apocalypse, or the alien invasion, whatever your preference), am I right? I feel pretty set with this guy. Besides, while he does the hard man labor, I’ll be sieving hoarded coffee grains through old leggings, and making salads in our emergency compound in the jungle. Hey, I bring what I can to the table. 

I hear Jorge can also hunt pumas, and has done so in the past. This skill, however, will be for the next round of gaucho tests…whenever they unexpectedly crop up.

A Journey to Coffeelandia

As Jorge’s and my time winds down here in Cusco, we thought we’d trigger the transition phase between “Mostly-Settled & Living Somewhere Mode” and “Full-Time Backpacking Mode” with a little trip into the Peruvian jungle.

Our friends Chevi and Audrey, a married couple with two beautiful young daughters, own a coffee farm in Quillabamba. Audrey’s mother, Magda, grew up in Peru and bought this property from her sister many years ago. In about 2007, Audrey and her mother came to visit it, after having spent nearly a lifetime in the USA — and they found not only a gorgeous 15-acre plot of heaven in the heart of the jungle, but also a ready-made coffee farm.

With the help of family members and hired workers, they’ve been working to reinvigorate production of coffee beans on the land, as well as bring other sources of income to light: things like selling the fruits that grow plentiful and abundant on the property, such as bananas, oranges, papaya, and more.

When Audrey and Chevi offered to take us on a three-day whirlwind trip into the jungle to see this property, Jorge and I said HELL YES.

So off we went — in a more-than-necessary 4×4 truck. Without it, you’d have no hope of maneuvering the perilous mountain roads, crossing stream beds that look more like white-water rapids, or navigating the often-unpaved paths that still exist in place of city-maintained roads.

Our 4x4, loaded with necessary, survival, jungly things...like a grill and pool floaties

Chevi says hey! Here’s our 4×4, loaded with necessary, survival, jungly things…like a grill and pool floaties

One of our views from the road to Quillabamba

One of our views from the road to Quillabamba

Warning: hair pin curve ahead!

Warning: hair pin curve ahead!

The road to Quillabamba is the same one we took to get to Machu Picchu — the one that crosses so high into the mountains that stopping is a generally bad idea, since altitude sickness sets in swiftly. Jorge and I knew what awaited us, and the road is not easy. 6 hours of curves, constant jostling, and a distinct sensation that you might just fly off the next unexpected twist in the road. Crosses and flower arrangements dot the side of the highway, a testament to the difficulty of this road.

But all journeys come to an end; and despite many stops for nausea and motion sickness, we did in fact make it to Quillabamba. Passengers, grill and pool floaties intact.

Once you cross the mountains, the air changes from dry and cold to hot and humid. Mosquitoes instantly devoured us in Quillabamba. Suddenly, I realized the brightly colored alpaca socks were the worst decision I had made; perhaps in life. It wasn’t until after the upward jungle climb that I could take them off. I hadn’t realized ankles could sweat so much.

Freshly arrived in Quillabamba, severely regretting the alpaca socks decision from earlier that day.

Freshly arrived in Quillabamba, severely regretting the alpaca socks decision from earlier that day. Don’t let the small smirk fool you — it was hot enough that I wanted to melt.

Let me be clear on something: I consume a lot of coffee. You’d think that for consuming so much of the dark nectar that I’d have some inkling of the story behind it. But I had no idea, prior to this trip, where coffee even came from. For being such a slave to the bean, my idea was that it grew on some sort of tree (sort of correct), looking mostly like it did in the form we purchase from places like Starbucks or Krogers (very wrong).

As we began a long, uphill climb from the dirt road to their coffee farm, Audrey began to point out different varieties of coffee plants. And they didn’t look anything like I expected.

100% Arabica coffee beans, grown in Quillabamba, Peru!

100% Arabica coffee beans, grown in Quillabamba, Peru!

Each coffee bean matures at different times, meaning that machine-picking is impossible. You need a human hand to discern which beans are ready, and which ones need to stay on to mature. Once the ripe and ready red beans are picked, the green ones then begin to turn over. Several visits to the same coffee plant are needed throughout the season.

A local worker picks the ready coffee beans.

Local workers pick the ready coffee beans.

But picking the bean doesn’t mean it’s ready to roast. Oh, no, fellow coffee drinker. Hold your frappuchino horses. Once picked, the beans need to dry for up to a week. You’ll know they’re dry, Chevi told me, when you squeeze the bean between your teeth and the inside cracks instantly. Once dry, a sugary shell is formed on the outside, which is then shucked away to reveal the raw (and ready) coffee bean.

From there, the beans are perhaps sold to an interested party, or roasted and then packaged to sell at a storefront, like what Audrey and Chevi do back in Cusco. Their farm in Quillabamba employs various local growers and workers who help with the entire process. This is “direct trade” coffee.

The life of a coffee plant is not eternal, despite what our coffee addiction in the USA might suggest. After about 5 to 7 years, the plants need to be hacked to the roots. However, they regenerate on their own, sprouting (perhaps magically?) new seedlings nearby that will grow into a fully functioning coffee plant. One plant can yield about a kilo of beans in a season. Multiply that by 15 acres? Those are some sexy stats for someone thinking about raising coffee plants in a lush, humid jungle somewhere *cough*.

But the journey from mostly-wild jungle property to a fully functioning farm is a long one. Though their farm was producing coffee long before Audrey and her mother got there, it’s been years of work to get it to where they are today. Even just a few weeks of slacking means the jungle reclaims its land; vigilance and hard work is not only necessary but mandatory. Life on a coffee farm is no small feat, especially way out there in the depths of Quillabamba.

A shot of the path leading to the coffee farm.

A shot of the path leading to the coffee farm…what we might consider “the front walkway” in a suburban neighborhood in the States.

A panorama of the coffee farm -- but only a mere fraction of the 15 acres of land!

A panorama of the coffee farm — but only a mere fraction of the 15 acres of land!

Coffee beans, nearly dried after a week of sitting out.

Coffee beans, nearly dried after a week of sitting out.

The vision that Audrey and her family have for the coffee farm is exciting, admirable, and fascinating. Much work remains to be done, and ideas for improvement and expansion are never-ending. With 15 acres of gorgeous, fertile land, it seems that nearly anything could become a reality.

But more than that, the jungle of Quillabamba left Jorge and I completely enchanted. On our second day back in Cusco, we are already pining for the sweet sting of humidity, the crunch of banana leaves beneath our feet, the pleasant hum of unknown creatures in the distance.

Everything, pretty much, except the 1,472 mosquito bites that serve as the last reminder of our whirlwind trip to the Peruvian jungle.

The Difference A Few Pounds Makes

I’m approaching That Time again: the seasonal shift or moon cycle or Chinese New Year when my partner and I pack up all of our belongings into a couple backpacks and say ADIOS.

Moving out

A shot from our move from Lima to Cusco, November 2014. The third backpack had household goods, like cheap pots and cutting boards, things we had purchased in Lima and carried with us to Cusco — not your typical backpack contents!

We leave Peru on May 1st, where we’ll head to Argentina to spend a month visiting Jorge’s family (the yearly visit where we lounge in the rolling, rural climes and soak in every manner of melodic Argentine Spanish, cookouts, and way better bread options). The first two weeks of June we’ll be in Chile, visiting friends and that house we founded together, yet another very important stop on our Farewell, South America! Tour of 2015. I’ll be working on the road, as always, struggling to fit in my hours and convince my editors/bosses I’m serious about what I’m doing. And then…it’s the USA, baby!

I’ll be honest: there’s a lot of cool things about my lifestyle. As slow travelers, we get to experience new places in a way that isn’t jam-packed with sightseeing, tourist prices, and frenetic bus schedules that would make even the most hardy traveler weep with sorrow and exhaustion.

But for all the cool things, there are some downsides as well.

I’ll save all the downsides for a different post. But one of the most irritating, and tiring, downsides, is that of carrying your life’s possessions on your back. We both have home bases in the sense that we have a childhood home to return to. But other than that? Everything we need, in any moment, in any part of the world, is WITH us.

This reality of slow travel is made harder for me by the fact that A.) I like to travel with a literal library of books (I’M A READER AND WRITER, WHAT) and B.) I am what could be called a struggling minimalist.

Some people might look at Jorge and I and say, “Oh please, I couldn’t fit my possessions into two bags if you paid me in gold doubloons and ancient Incan pottery.”

And yes, true. I’ve been in that boat. While I couldn’t fit all the possessions that remain in Ohio in two backpacks, you COULD pay me in doubloons or pottery to accomplish it.

Prior to moving abroad in 2012, I had a month-long garage sale to shave off unnecessary shit that had been accumulating in a spare room in my childhood home for years, like an unwieldy and completely useless appendage that nobody ever looked at or needed.

What’s worse is that every year when I go home to visit, I spend at least a week paring down those remaining objects MORE.

I have inherited PACKRAT genes, and I am aware of it. That’s what counseling is for, right? Why do we SAVE so much STUFF? (That answer might be for another post, as well!)

At any rate, the packrat effect has subsided in recent history. My travel endeavors are a direct result of my attempts at non-attachment to physical items.

I realized, in my mid-20’s, that I had a lot of REALLY strong emotional attachments to a lot of really PHYSICAL objects. And that these emotional attachments were not something that had sprung up, unbidden, in my adult years, but rather it was a slow simmer of a companion, something that had grown and evolved alongside me since my formative years.

Scraps of paper, gifts, old clothes, you name it. I was afraid of getting rid of these things because I felt that, somehow, in ridding myself of the object that I would rid myself of the memory. Of the pleasant feelings. Of the better times.

That’s completely untrue, I came to find out, once I started a little task called ‘throwing things in the garbage’. Not only did I not lose my memories, or my childhood, or my school years, or any manner of personality aspects, I felt considerably BETTER.

Lighter. Freer. Able to breathe a little easier, in fact. I hadn’t realized the sheer weight of the memories I surrounded myself with, the chokehold these scraps of the past could wield.

Trying to detach and otherwise disassociate from my emotional connection to things doesn’t mean it’s a perfected art or that I’m any sort of guru. But rather, it’s a journey. Attempts, often laden with failures.

But I keep trying.

And I keep losing more and more weight.

(In my backpack, that is. I’m not physically whittling away to nothing, don’t worry.)

Our slow travel lifestyle helps me take stock of my possessions, anywhere from once a year to every couple of months. And though it can be a drag, literally, to divorce myself from my City Of The Moment, to sell off my belongings, to skim the chaff of my worldly possessions…it’s also a helpful, centering practice.

To take a hard look at what I have in my personal space and then, by default, my MENTAL space…that’s pretty important to keeping a clear head and light innards. And by innards, I mean guts and also the heart space.

Things come and go. Cars, furniture, houses, neighborhoods, clothing, books…they’re all neutral objects that can leave our lives as quickly and easily as they appear. Some are necessary, for at least a period of time. And that’s okay. The problem is not in having things, but rather, the sometimes sickly relationship we maintain with them.

The things are not me any more than I am my things. But I spent many years placing a lot of emotional stock in my possessions.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m still a little reluctant for my dad to get rid of the couch in his house, even though he’s been ready for a full five years to haul it to the dump. Why? Because I grew up with that couch, and it’s insanely comfortable, and MEMORIES! But alas, Astromaid…it is just an object.)

So, as we face yet another tide change, another country hop, another cultural shift, I look around my mini-apartment and my backpack and imagine the improbable yet inevitable ways in which these two halves will form a cohesive equation.

It starts with questions.

Do I really need to keep these 5 books I read already but didn’t really like? No. It’s okay to give them away (even though I sort of have a strict “Keep Every Book You Ever Touch” policy….I’M WORKING ON IT).

Do I really need the various Cusco advertisements and street offers that somehow remind me of living here, and I intended to paste into my journal but still haven’t, even though I am surrounded by ample amounts of evidence that I have lived here? NO. Please god, let’s just throw these away right now.

Do I need the clothes I picked up somewhere along the way but am hesitant to get rid of just in case I might need a pair of hot pink shorts? No. Give them away.

Do I really need the six pairs of leggings? …Well…I’ll get back to you on this one.

Some long-term travelers do it way skimpier than I do. And that’s okay. They might be happy with their laptop, a phone charger, two pairs of pants, three pairs of underwear and a water bottle (AND THAT’S IT). While I will forever envy their ultra-tiny backpack and the way they never have to check a bag ever again or trudge 2 miles in the highlands of Bolivia in the freezing cold with a backpack the weight of a dead man…I also know that I am striking the best balance I can.

At the end of the day, I can fit all my things into a backpack, and still have my worldly comforts, like a small library of emerging American fiction writers at my fingertips.

Otherwise it just wouldn’t be my life, no matter where in the world, no matter how many things on my back. The important part is in remembering that I can also survive without whatever is in my backpack.

Huayna Picchu and the Mountain of Doom

My mother and stepfather visited Cusco all last week. On our To-Do list was, of course, Machu Picchu. And in the excitement of buying tickets, selecting upcharges and otherwise planning the most fantastic family vacation since England in 1999, we thought “Sure, let’s do Huayna Pichu!”

On Wednesday, my mother and I began the “vertical uphill climb” to Machu Picchu at 5am, with a 4:20 A.M. wake up call, as a way to feel triumphant and accomplished in our Sacred Valley Machu Experience. We arrived to the Machu Picchu entrance gate around 6:15 A.M., just 1.25 hours after beginning our climb. What ferocious woman power! What thighs of steel! What indomitable hiking spirit!

The never-ending staircase doesn't faze us! Bring it, Incan Trail!

The never-ending staircase doesn’t faze us! Bring it, Incan Trail!

So we met Greg and our guide, Romulus, for the tour around 7 A.M. Feeling both alert yet exhausted, the four of us made our way around the ancient city, learning about the prior uses of the temples and various buildings, discovering the interesting stonework, and…perhaps the most shocking…the fact that our guide’s GRANDFATHER was the one that discovered Machu Picchu back in 1902, one Sr. Agustin Lizarraga.

Talk about getting lucky with the guides! Romulus had basically grown up scaling Machu Picchu, and possessed an intimate knowledge of the grounds that I had never even dreamed of. He’s written some books about the area, as well, which of course we bought and begged he sign afterward.

We all took a pee break around 9:30 A.M., our only preparation for the climb that awaited us. In retrospect, it should have included some fervent prayers and emergency emails to loved ones. Bladders emptied and thighs only aching slightly, we made our way to Huayna Picchu.

Huayna, as we’ll call it, is a “special add-on” to Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed to hike it per day, as opposed to the 4000+ that are allowed to wander Machu Picchu everday. We were able to score the coveted spot on this hike because we made our booking months in advance. It’s a special mountain off to the far side of the ancient city, and typically looms, unassuming yet somehow menacing, in the background of most photos of Machu Picchu. I would know — I took one back in December.

An easy-to-understand map of Machu and Huayna Picchu

An easy-to-understand map of Machu and Huayna Picchu, courtesy of a photo I took during my first visit in December.

We arrived to Huayna Picchu’s entrance gate, at the far end of the ancient city, around 10 A.M. I had overheard other travelers throughout my stay in Peru talking about how difficult this hike was. (“Wow, it was SO hard, but I’m so glad I did it” or “Yeah, I don’t know how I made it up, but you should totally try.”) Most statements were accompanied with a flash of terror across their faces, a look I didn’t originally understand when I talked to previous hikers about the experience. I couldn’t tell how hard it might be in comparison to the hike UP to Machu Picchu, the hike of the 11,000 stairs, so I entered this tour upcharge with an open mind and an open heart.

But really, I was thinking, “It can’t be that hard”.

There was one thing I asked our tour guide, Romulus. “Are there crazy, steep, and terrifying steps?”

“You’ll be fine,” he assured me.

So I entered with a light heart that morning. After several hours of climbing stairs, wandering ruins, and beholding the sights, I was almost joyfully anticipating the wonderful breeze that this hike would be.

DEAR LORD WAS I WRONG.

We passed the control booth for Huayna Picchu, a little stand where you have to write down your name, the time of entrance, and then sign. Sort of like a waiver, I’d assume, for a place that has become known as The Mountain of Death. They assign you a number, so that at the end of the day if all numbers aren’t signed out, they know who to send the rescue team after.

Seriously.

Romulus led us through a jungly, shaded path as we wound our way toward the mountain. It seemed quite similar to the 5 A.M. path my mother and I had taken up the mountain. Sigh of relief. This thing was about to be a piece of cake.

But then we wound deeper, and the real stairs began.

Romulus had told us our hike would take about 2.5 to 3 hours total, from base to top to base again. What started out as mostly steep but manageable stairs soon turned into perilously steep and slick narrow steps that only sometimes were accompanied by a cable bolted into the rock, which served as a convenient thing to cling to.

The steps grew progressively more perilous and terrifying. And the people around me looked pretty damn freaked out too. My mom, stepfather and I took frequent breaks…which also served to remind us how FREAKING HIGH UP we were, with literally no barrier between us and cliffs at times.

And throughout it all, our guide Romulus barely broke a sweat. Obviously an Incan descendent…and a literal child of Machu Picchu. His sense of equilibrium so high in the sky is not something a mere girl from the unimpressive flatlands of Ohio could ever hope to replicate.

To get a better idea of Huayna Picchu and the perils therein, I’ve quoted a blog below.

 The Huayna Picchu hike is sometimes referred to as the “Hike of Death”, and only those who have done it can truly understand why.  At times, trails are only a foot wide, with a sheer vertical drop on your side, and no hand rails.  Terraces near the top have no tree cover or safety nets, and a misplaced foot means certain death.  At one point, the only way forward is to scoot down a sheer rock face, with no steps or ropes to help.  If you do manage to make it to the top of this 2,720m (8,920 ft) “Young Mountain”, you will be rewarded with a view and sense of accomplishment that few people in this world achieve. –“Visiting Machu Picchu” blog

There were multiple moments throughout the climb that I thought, “OK, there is NO way I am making it back down.” At times, people who had made it to the top were coming back down our way, and these steps were NOT fit for two lanes. I clung to the rock face while they somehow scooted beyond me. Sorry, not letting go of this cable for ANYTHING, folks!

And then, towards the top, there was a tunnel. A natural rock tunnel…and the only way to continue along to the top. People above a certain weight and stature cannot make it through this tunnel. So, you know, tough luck if you’re taller than 6 foot.

Disappearing into the tunnel

Disappearing into the tunnel, backpack strapped to my front as Romulus had instructed me.

Making our way up Huayna Picchu

Making our way up Huayna Picchu…masking our terror with small grins. Behind us, you can see the road leading up from the river, and the miniature Machu Picchu.

I think the narrow, slippery steps wouldn’t have been so bad if there were some manner of barrier between us and the 1,000 foot drop to our side. Just looking at others along the path gave me a heart palpitation, as the awe-inspiring background put into sharp relief the sheer altitude of our hike.

When there’s only about 6 inches separating you and  1,000 foot drop, it’s sort of, well, I don’t know…heart wrenching. Makes you pine for flat surfaces and the regulation-heavy, insurance-minded attitude of America.

But we continued upward. And finally…FINALLY...we reached the top.

Finally, perched on the uppermost boulder of the Mountain of Doom. We can see by my smile I'm mostly just waiting to get off the precipice and back to something less exposed to free fall potentials.

Perched on the uppermost boulder of the Mountain of Doom. We can see by my smile I’m mostly just waiting to get off the precipice and back to something less exposed to free-fall potentials.

Romulus took this picture on top of a boulder across from the boulder pictured here, his back facing open air and nothingness. I told him after this picture, “OK, Romulo. Please get down from there, since just looking at you scares the shit out of me.”

He stood there, unfazed, enjoying the whipping breezes of the summit, which was inexplicably full of buzzing, beetle-like insects. Is that the prize we get for making it up the mountain? Clouds of random high-altitude mosquitoes?

I’ll admit that by this point, I wasn’t feeling very triumphant or victorious, because I knew one very important and difficult task remained: getting off the damn mountain. 

De-scaling Huayna Picchu seemed to be an almost more difficult task than climbing. Mostly because know we knew exactly what awaited us on the way down. 

We began the climb down reluctantly. In the distance, a helicopter buzzed. I wished it would come pick us up. Throw an emergency rope down, something I could clench with all my worth until it slowly lowered me to a walled, protected, sea-level point, preferably with a recliner chair and a complex assortment of cheeses and crackers. Help me, Rescue Squad! I can’t make it down!

I jest about this, but panic attacks and sometimes even heart attacks are par for the course at Huayna Picchu (at least one person has died from a heart attack on this climb). Again, quoting the blog:

 Once the tree cover breaks, there are no guard rails or ropes to save you if you lose your footing, and edges are sheer drops down the mountain.  Guides wander the Huayna Picchu trail regularly to help any hikers who have panic attacks or become too physically exhausted to continue- both occur often enough to keep the guides busy.  At one point, it is necessary to climb a small wooden ladder to get to the summit.  Many people find the way down too scary, as it is steeper and the steps are narrower, and instead they go back down the way they came up. –“Visiting Machu Picchu” blog

At the summit, we saw at least one woman crying from sheer terror.

(And no, it wasn’t me!)

Our way down was certainly as perilous as the way up, but in a different way. Going up, we could sometimes bypass extremely narrow steps. But going down, I felt compelled to use each step given to me, and often times there weren’t enough things to cling to. And gravity pulls HARD.

Climbing down

One of the first staircases leading down from the summit. Not pictured here: sheer vertical drop to the left.

De-scaling Huayna Pichu

Just so we can get a closer look at me hugging this wall FOR ALL I AM WORTH, FOR GOD’S SAKE. The woman behind me is gleeful and unfazed. I bet she bungee jumps in her free time.

Additionally, the steps were sometimes so steep during the descent that leaning back onto the steps behind you was necessary. My backpack often interfered with this task, which lent an additional air of intrigue and terror to my hike downward. Images of losing my balance — that split-second free fall and the accompanying realization that this is it, this is the end — tortured me during the descent.

During our hike, the Rescue Squad had to come for at least two different people. One fell and hurt her spine; the other had a panic attack and couldn’t continue, and had to be taken down on a stretcher. (How they managed that on those stairs, I dare not question.)

What the hell had we gotten ourselves into?!

Jaw-dropping views. Almost makes it worth it.

Jaw-dropping views. Almost makes it worth it.

Tiring climb up Huayna Picchu

Certainly wasn’t the easy breezy hike I was hoping for.

But alas, we made it poco a poco to the halfway point…then to the regular stairs…and then, thankfully, to the control booth. Where I signed my name with a FLOURISH.

Rescue Squad, you won’t need to search for this Astromaid anytime soon. Because she is ON HER WAY TO HORIZONTAL CLIMES.

In hindsight, my family and I laugh about the terror of the climb. About that time we almost shit our pants going down the staircase. About the moment of panic when a fellow climber threw himself off a ledge, only to realize it was a prank because there was a terrace immediately below that ledge (STUPID JOKE, MAN). We comment on the differences between safety regulations between countries (this climb wouldn’t be allowed ANYWHERE in the USA, that’s for sure), and we recall fondly the gorgeous eagle eye view of Machu (though really, in my PTSD I can scarcely recall any moments on the summit). We’re happy to have done this together — the family that climbs together, stays together! — and it has created many powerful and vivid memories.

But more than any of that, we know one thing for certain. If we had read any of the warnings or reviews of this climb prior to attempting it, we might not have opted for it in the first place.

While we’re glad we did it, we will NEVER do it again.

Oh, look, an eagle eye view of Machu Picchu! Wow! Great, now get me the hell off this mountain.

Oh, look, an eagle eye view of Machu Picchu! Wow! Great, now get me the hell off this mountain.

One of the most interesting things we found out about this hike after completing it? It’s rated as one of the 20 Most Dangerous Hikes In The World.

Pisac: The Doorway to the Sacred Valley

Last Sunday, Jorge and I set out for Pisac.

It sits only a half hour to 45 minutes away from our house in Cusco, depending on what type of transportation you use, and yet it was our first time visiting the mystical getaway spot. At just a 5 sol ($1.50) ride from Cusco, it’s the easiest weekend trip in the area. It’s known as the doorway to the Sacred Valley, and the energy of the valley is truly felt here.

Beginning the descent into Pisac town.

Beginning the descent into Pisac town.

The town is bordered by the Willkanuta River, which you can see in the photo above. Pisac isn’t very big — I think we accidentally walked most of it during our two day trip. It seemed the artisan market in Pisac took up nearly half the town! Tons of tapestries, murals, alpaca figurines, semi-precious stones, and more were available for sale. Typical vibrant, Peruvian market with tons of things vying for your dollars and attention.

Another draw to Pisac is the Incan ruins here. Ruins are all around the Sacred Valley, but Pisac is especially impressive. We took a taxi up the mountain to reach the site, because in typical Incan fashion, the city has to be at the TOP of the highest peak around.

Climbing Pisac Ruins

Climbing Pisac Ruins

Jorge is victorious in Pisac Ruins.

Jorge is victorious in Pisac Ruins.

IncaShan

Inca Shan, in the flesh

Jorge in Pisac

The air up here is crisp and fresh. And the views are spectacular!

Shannon in Pisac

Taking a breather — at 11,000 feet, mild exertion tends to require a break!

Looking down over Pisac Ruins

Looking down over Pisac Ruins. Check out the agricultural steps. Typical Incans!

Don't climb the Incan ruins, please. The ghosts of Incans past will haunt you if you do.

Don’t climb the Incan ruins, please. The ghosts of Incans past will haunt you if you do.

Instead of taxi’ing back down the mountain, we decided to follow a path back to Pisac. We joined up with some Peruvians who were making the trek as well, and wound our way down the mountainside. It was a pleasant, sunny hike that lasted about an hour and a half. The only down side: Major sun burn!

Hiking in Pisac

This was probably moments before I discovered my arms and back were burnt to a crisp. Followed by the grim realization that the sunscreen is in the hostel, and not in my purse like I thought.

Wildlife in Pisac

Wildlife in the Sacred Valley. Photo by Jorge.

A view during the hike down from the ruins

A view during the hike down from the ruins

Flowers in Pisac

More dainty flowers in the Sacred Valley. GOD IT’S SO PRETTY HERE. Photo by Jorge.

We bought a couple tapestries that represent the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Incan cross, which will serve as a potent reminder for us down the road of our time spent in the Sacred Valley. The energy of Pisac was palpable; there’s a reason so many people flock to this area! It boasts tons of art galleries, shamanic stores, opportunities for ceremonies and more. Lots of ex-pats land here, completely captivated by the environs. Jorge and I could barely leave, either!

Sacred Valley Views

Sacred Valley views, during a walk on the outskirts of town. As we can see here, modern agriculture takes places in lower levels. Though there are enough of those agriculture steps around that I’m sure they could still be used if anybody felt like CLIMBING THAT MUCH.

Yet, return to Cusco we must. I don’t know if we’ll make it back to Pisac before we leave Peru for good in early May. But I am so thankful that places like this are literally “right in our neighborhood”. Living in the Sacred Valley has been a true honor and blessing…an experience that we will cherish forever.

Leaving Pisac

Farewell, Pisac!

“Hey Fatty!” and Other Affectionately Offensive Commentary

In the same vein as my last post about the plethora of identical nicknames, I have to bring up the tradition of totally direct and mildly offensive commentary throughout Latin America.

It’s not that anybody intends for it to be direct and offensive — it just is. To me. Because I’m from MURRICA and up there, you don’t comment on someone’s weight under penalty of death (stares). 

But down here? Everyone from abuelitas to acquaintances comment on my weight or appearance (“You look really swollen”, “Ah, you’ve gained weight since the last time I saw you”). It’s not done so out of ill-will or an attempt to make me feel bad about myself; it’s just how the culture is.

It’s normal to state blatantly obvious facts about weight, physical appearance, and changes since the last time they saw you.

When I first was introduced to the Latin American Honesty Policy, there was a fair degree of shock, horror and recoil.   But dealing with these comments made me realize that I was actually fighting a battle against my own culture – it showed me just how obsessed we are with weight, image and prettiness in the USA. And that my own foundation and cultural construct have been formed by these ideals, even though I’d never consciously agreed to it.

And it’s not that Latin American countries don’t have their own particular and peculiar battles with image, prettiness and femininity. It’s just that every country does it a little differently. And the Latin flair, in this case, does not necessarily hold ‘thinness’ above all other categories.

Despite my awesome mother counseling me at a young age (I think around 7, if not younger) that all the pictures I saw of women in magazines were photoshopped to look more perfect –that real women didn’t necessarily look like that, even though our senses are saturated with the ideals — it’s hard to escape the sweeping radar of Image Obsession in America.

But rationally knowing about my cultural construct and the presence of rampant photoshopping in advertising doesn’t mean that it acts as any less of an influence in the unspoken undertones of my home country.

Even though I’ve lived in and out of various Latin American countries since 2006, these direct, weight-focused comments still sometimes surprise me.

Let’s use a recent trip to Argentina to visit Jorge’s buddies as an example. We arrive to his friend’s house, and within thirty seconds there is ample commentary about how much weight Pablo* has gained. “Man, look at this stomach! You’re such a fatty!” Everyone proceeds to pat it and otherwise jostle him about his belly. “Dude, you’re losing all your hair and gaining all the gut!”

Hold up a minute. Where I come from, this is totally offensive and pretty rude as well. Granted, my partner and his friends have a certain style of humor that only long-term, intimate friends can access. Even still, where I come from the only acceptable form of weight commentary is when you’ve lost it. Any gain is usually commented on behind the person’s back, or in worried whispers from across the room.

And any reference to loss of hair or weight gain is usually only acceptable in a self-deprecating approach, as in, if Pablo were from the USA, only he would be able to joke about his hair loss or weight gain. He’s the only one allowed to mention it, bring it into the conversational sphere, or otherwise put it on the table.

The other acceptable way of commenting on weight? When it’s animals! (“GOSH, what a fat kitty!” “Your dog is a beast, he needs to lose weight stat”)

Otherwise, in the USA it tends to be used as a comparative or degrading tool (“Did you see how much weight Suzie gained? Ugh, what a cow” or “I’m so much skinnier than him, I eat way better”).

Which is why I have countless memories of those record-stopping moments throughout my travels in Latin America: where someone commented on my weight, past or present, and my jaw dropped a little and I watched them for a moment just completely shocked by their brazen commentary. The reaction cycle went something like Shock, Offense, Self-Criticism, Embarrassment, Self-Counseling, Ruminating, and then finally Getting Over It.

It takes some time to get used to.

But in Latin American culture, it’s just a commentary expressing a physical fact.

You are fat, or you’re skinny, or you’re pale, or you’re losing hair, or you’re dark-skinned, or you’re extremely hairy, etc.

It doesn’t carry the same weight (no pun intended) as it does in my home country. Calling someone fat isn’t an insult. 

Some of these characteristics are culturally subjective and change over time — like what was ‘skinny’ in the 1700’s is now considered ‘slightly overweight’. Or what is ‘overweight’ in one country nowadays is seen as ‘healthy’ in another culture.

Skinny was a thing to avoid, in another time and place!

Despite the way these comments can sometimes sting, whether directed at me or I overhear them and feel stung on their behalf, like Jorge’s friend Pablo….I think they’ve got it right.

They’re just physical qualities, some of which change over time, some of which are interpreted differently according to culture.

Fatness is a loaded term in the USA. We equate ‘fat’ with any multitude of things, and a lot of people internalize secret beliefs they have linked with characteristics they deem undesirable. Commentary on a physical quality can mean anything from “ugly”, or “undesireable”, or “unloveable”, etc. Someone who has freckles and desperately wants to not have freckles can take a comment about the existence of her freckles to mean that she’s never going to be able to find a worthwhile partner.

Logically speaking, it’s ridiculous. But I’m willing to bet every human being has harbored some secret belief like this at one point in their life. Though our human intellect has discovered distant galaxies and is capable of high-level reasoning on a daily basis, we’re stunningly adept at holding ourselves prisoners to illogical beliefs and fallacies.

Physical characteristics have nothing to do with any of these secret beliefs we may hold about ourselves. Really, the commentary is just serving to highlight what it is that we need to address on the inside. The way it makes us feel is a good clue about where our insecurities lie…and WHY.

Being fat, tall, thin, balding, hairy, too-dark or too-white…These things don’t actually say anything about your worth, your intellect, your contributions, or who you are on the inside.

And that’s something we really tend to confuse in the USA.

We are so much more than the sum of our physical qualities. In fact, the physical has nothing to do with the pure, spectacular perfection that exists on the inside.

 

*Name has been changed because nobody except for Jorge has really ever agreed to appear in this blog. And really, now that I think about it, Jorge hasn’t agreed to be in this blog either. I better go ask him real quick.

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