Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Playing with others

Ben and I are driving across Wyoming, the night sky already glittering at 5:30 in what would normally be labeled ‘afternoon’. Though it is not snowing, the daze of grey skies and an unending, khaki landscape is a far cry from the blooming Chilean springtime we called home for the past month. Being on the road seems like a bit of a blessing though, able to stretch our legs at will and go at the beat of our own drum…slightly. The journey home is not complete yet; 6 plane rides in the past week brought us to Kansas City last night, where we packed up Forest (our blue Subaru, for those of you who haven’t met) and headed west this morning, in order to arrive in Montana tomorrow, have a quick sleep, and open the mountain on Saturday. Crazy? Maybe. Willing to make use of every vacation day? Absolutely.

I stopped blogging so long ago, I don’t even know where to begin. When in doubt, begin at the end.

In elementary school, we were graded, literally, on our interactions with others. In high school and college, the dreaded ‘group project’ forced us to compile papers and presentations with our peers, seemingly selected at random, but somehow never involving people we actually trusted had a brain in their head. Meant to encourage acceptance, teach life-long cooperation and negotiation skills, and prepare us for a life in the ‘real world’ where things aren’t always going to go according to our specific plans- working with a group as an adult is sometimes fun, often trying, and always good for a laugh and some stories afterward. Let’s face it, every other one dreads working as a group, except those slackers out to do less because they someone else will do more.


The night before beginning our hike on the Inca Trail, we had a ‘briefing’ session at our hotel. Unclear as to what exactly we needed to be briefed about, we were met at 7:00pm by a small Peruvian man who, immediately upon meeting us, stated that he was not our guide. He actually had no idea who our guide was. Whoever it was would pick us up at 5:30 the next morning, he assured. In order to hike the Inca Trail, you must have a guide, meaning you must book through a tour agency. Completely against Ben and my natures, going with a group, especially on a hike, sounded like the perfect way to commit annoyance-induced homicide.


Perhaps our fear stemmed from working with tour groups throughout the greater part of the year at our hotel jobs, or perhaps it stems from our independent traveling nature. Either way, we were on a tour now and we’d have to deal. But we had one question for our non-tour-guide, “Can we hike at our own speed each day?” Completely mortified that we would have to walk at the speed of our slowest link, this was a crucial element of the $600 hike. He assured us that we would be able to carry our own pace, while waiting to meet the group at the designated rest areas.


We awoke the next morning, groggy but excited, and headed out to pick up the remaining 17 in our group. The tour ended up being massive, with 19 hikers, 2 guides, and 20 porters. We hardly paid attention to those getting on the bus around the city of Cuzco, or the porters who leapt onto the bus from a hillside about an hour outside of Cuzco. As we ate breakfast and got on the trail, however, we slowly realized that we had a really young group- everyone in their 20s and early 30s, save for an Indian couple from San Francisco who were scarcely older than that.


Thrilled that we would be with an active group, I started chatting with a gal from Toronto. “So, have you ever done anything like this before?” I prodded. “Actually, no. I’ve never done anything like this. I mean, I walk my dog around the park sometimes,” she responded with a chuckle. That being said, we had an amazing group. Ben and I took turns leading the pack with a Norwegian couple and an Israeli couple, the Norwegian couple usually a half mile ahead of us because they, evidently, weren’t as into the scenery as myself and my new camera.


Though our guide, Raul, insisted we walk as a group, he could never keep up with any of us and consequently gave up telling us what to do. We couldn’t get lost, as there was only one trail, and there was no way in hell any of us was going to linger near him, as he proved to be thoroughly annoying. By day we puffed up thousands of Andean feet, the second day to the notorious ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ at over 14,000 feet. The Incas were known for their excellent craftsmanship in the working of stone, and the passage to Dead Woman’s Pass was just one ridiculously long and steep stone staircase. Winding through dense rainforest, skirting desert-like hills and hanging above Inca temples and terraces, the trail itself was ever-changing and amazing. By night we collapsed in tents set up by our porters, and ate massive amounts of food prepared by our camp chef.


The bonus about being on a group tour is that everything is included. Three overstuffed square meals were provided for us by our chef and porters every day, who constructed a beautifully ornate spread involving multiple courses. They never all fit on the table all at once. Often a completely unexpected course would appear after we thought we had finished; at breakfast on our third day, a fully-frosted sheet cake materialized after we had finished our bread, jam and pancakes. Nibbling bits of moist banana cake at a table with a tablecloth, I thought, Hm, this must be why the Inca Trail was so expensive. Ah well, better eat another piece of cake!


Copious amounts of coca were also part of our all-inclusive trek to Maccu Piccu, which we chewed, drank, and sucked on as though it were going out of style. In a way, I believe it was a go-to for our guides when they encountered resistance or slow hikers. Feeling the altitude? Just chew some coca, you’ll be fine. Can’t relax? Have some coca tea. Not energetic today? Coca candy. Haven’t gone to the bathroom in a few? Coca. Want to feel like an Inca? Coca.


As I said before, our group turned out to be fantastic- a bunch of liberal-minded and interesting young travelers from around the world with which we shared stories and good humor. We loved them. Couldn’t have asked for a better group. Our guide, on the other hand, was horrible. Our tour actually had two guides, Raul and Jose Luis, but Jose Luis was the ‘Spanish’ guide, exclusively for 6 Argentinians who were sharing our campsites, porters, and food. However, it was Jose Luis who actually had excellent English and knowledge of the Incas, not Raul. Raul repeated the same ten-or-so facts about the Incas (‘facts’ used very loosely here), every time asking us if we knew what he meant (which we didn’t), and repeatedly addressed the group as ‘Senores’ (really, we weren’t). Thus, nearly all spoken interludes headed by Raul went something like this: “Hola Senores, Senores attention please, Senores. Here we have an Inca outpost, you know what I mean? An outpost. You know what I mean? The outpost was used by the runners. The runners, you know what I mean? The runners, Senores.” We usually did not know what he meant, but were fearful of more conversation if we objected. So we didn’t. I am definitely buying some books about the Incas from Amazon when I get home.


The final day of hiking on the Inca Trail is very minimal, only about an hour and a half, followed by a comprehensive tour of Macchu Picchu with your guide. When booking the trail, Ben and I jumped on the opportunity to also purchase permits to climb Huyana Picchu, the peak overlooking Macchu Picchu. This meant we had to be fast in our last day of hiking, so as not to miss our entrance time of 7:30am. Ridiculously enough, all hikers are to wake at 3:30am on their final morning, only to wait in line until 5:30 at the next permit outpost. We waited, and then forged through the masses (of course, our group was one of the last in line at the permit outpost), turning our bodies up a notch and, admittedly,racing to The Sun Gate. We were able to witness a cloud-free sunrise on Macchu Picchu before we made the final summit to Huyana Picchu, where we spent a glorious hour crawling and climbing over the nearly vertical ruins of the Inca temple.


When we returned to meet the group below (no one had Huyana Picchu permits but us) we were exhausted, sweaty, and exhilarated. Our group, on the other hand, looked as though they were ready to strangle Raul.
Stay tuned for the next quip on 'playing with others'...about Chile!