Entry #068: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 (Cusco, Peru)

Hey now, I'm back from four days without Internet, and what's the first thing I do when I get it back? I write a blog entry for you, of course! Can't you see how much I love you all? "But Andrew," you may be asking, "Why didn't you have Internet for four days?" Well, you may remember that I mentioned I was going to be going on the Inca Trail. I, um...yeah. That's pretty much it. I was on the Inca Trail, hence no Internet. But hey, let's read about it right now!

So, on Friday morning, I had to wake up pretty damn early. The pickup window was anywhere from 5:20-6am, which was just wide enough for me to be a bit resentful. In any case, there was still someone at the desk, and I was able to check out and leave my bags for the time I'd be gone. Unfortunately, I continued to have credit card issues with my main card, and since the guy at the reception didn't seem to know how to enter in a card without swiping it (and since I didn't have enough cash), I ended up needing to use my debit card, which pains me every time (no reward points, but yes on foreign transaction fees). I then tried to la down in the lobby and rest, but before I knew it, someone came in to pick me up. It was a man and a woman, who were apparently going to be my guides. Similarly to my cycling pick-up in La Paz, this also required a bit of walking, as we had to go down to the main plaza. I got on the bus, which only had a few people to start off with. This didn't last long, though, as we ended up picking up a lot more folks, until the bus seemed rather crowded. We then drove to the town of Ollytaytambo, and during this drive, it seemed like pretty much everyone was at least getting some sleep. There was not a word to be said, though. The guides noted that we weren't smiling, though what can you expect early in the morning? Anyway, once we were here, we had our first breakfast, which we had to pay for, but at least it was a buffet (and pretty decent, to be honest). I thought it a bit amusing how light the conversation was during this meal. Barely anyone said a word. I tried starting a bit of one, but it only really got so far. After breakfast, people began buying some coca leaves, snacks, and walking sticks (which were basically large wooden dowels with a woven hand grip, but were admittedly really cheap).

We then all hustled back into the bus (this time filled with a number of our porters), and drove to the beginning of the trail, at a place called Kilometer 82 (since the trail technically starts at Cusco). The drive was a somewhat harrowing, but ultimately impressive, one since our bus had to pass by other trucks and buses on what was very clearly a one-lane road, with large rocks shooting out of the side walls. There was a lot of inching, folding of side mirrors, and backing up to be seen. However, we made it to the starting point safe and sound and without issue. Scratch that, there were two issues. First was the fact that my duffel bag, which would be carried by a hired porter, weighed approximately one kilogram more than the maximum 6k. I honestly wasn't totally surprised, as I still can't figure out weight by feel, but taking out the provided sleeping mattress (which could be carried separately and not count toward my limit for some reason) and my Kindle solved that issue. What I couldn't solve, however, was the fact that one of my trekking poles wasn't working, in that it wouldn't tighten up, and so provided absolutely no support. Basically, I now had a worthless trekking pole that I had to carry with me for all four days. Well, at least one was working.

We began moving until we reached the checkpoint, where the guards checked our permits, and then stamped our passports. I got my stamp on the same page as my Peru entry. We had the option to get a stamp for the remaining three days, but I wanted all Peru stuff to fit on a single page, so I figured I'd just get two: one from the beginning, and one from Machu Picchu proper. Then, after passing by a relatively innocuous sign, we were on our way. One thing I thought a little strange when we began is that we still had not done a dot of introduction. In both the Kili and EBC treks, we had met the night before and introduced each other. We obviously didn't meet the night previous in this case, but still, why not at breakfast? In any case, it wasn't until our second stop that the guides had us introduce ourselves and talk about any previous trekking that we'd done. Long story short, the trekking I'd done on this trip trumped pretty much what everyone else had to offer. It made me feel a bit scumbag-y from the get-go, since my first real interaction with these folks was almost a brag. But in some ways, it actually opened up some avenues for conversation, as a good number of the folks wanted to know what Kilimanjaro was like, or what the Himalayas were like, or if I was being accurate when I said I did both in the last year. All in all, I found myself telling the same basic anecdotes that I've told before, but this time with more of a trekking focus.

As for the walk itself, I think I did pretty great. To toot my own horn a bit, I am still an absolute beast when going uphill. It's like, I'm not especially better than folks on flat ground, but when walking uphill (even fairly steep uphills, like we found here), I found that I can keep a steady pace (slow, but still faster than others), and not need to take breaks. Because of this, I found myself passing people left and right going uphill. However, we did end up taking a lot of breaks, as designated by our head guide, Saul. Still, while this kind of interrupted my overall rhythm, I didn't mind too much, because Saul gave us information at pretty much every stop, be it historic, folkloric, or ecological...oric. Like, he would point out certain plants, talk about their medicinal values, how the Inca used them, etc. And we had some pretty darn nice views along the way.

We, along with a number of other groups (make no mistake, this is not a trek you do for solitude), stopped for a fairly late lunch in what seemed to be a residential area. It was here that I'd get my first impression of the food being served, to compare with what we got on my other two treks. And first up was grilled trout. A good start, I think. (On the whole, I think the food was a bit better than EBC, but a bit worse than Kili.) What surprised and annoyed me during this lunch was the fact that there were mosquitoes living at this altitude. I had to put on repellent, but ended up getting three bites, all inexplicably in unexposed areas under my shirt. Anyhoo, we continued hiking for a short while, before stopping again to try chicha, which is a traditional Incan/Peruvian corn beer. There's apparently a non-alcoholic version, but we sampled the real deal. It...it tasted like corn-based alcohol. Not sure what you'd expect. It sure didn't make me want to really get into it, I can tell ya that.

From there, it was a very short trip to camp. When we arrived, the sixteen trekkers (did I mention there were a full sixteen of us?) were paired off into tents. Most people were already a couple, but being a loner, I was matched with an Aussie dude named Tyson, who I thankfully got along with rather well. In fact, I feel I got along with everyone at least to the "pleasant acquaintance" level. There were some moments when I could tell that my particular humor style went over people's heads, but I didn't get into any tiffs with others, so no harm no foul. Oh, I should probably make a quick aside as to who was part of our group. I was the only American, there were four Canadians (three together and one solo), a British couple, a Dutch couple, a Swedish couple, a Kiwi girl traveling with the three Canucks, and four Aussies (a couple and two solos). It was a fairly young group; I don't think anyone was older than, maybe, 35. Anyway, I was talking with some of the others for a while, until enough of us decided to play cards. I knew - I knew - we would have a single card game for the entire trip (because that's always how it goes), so I tried suggested Golf, which I had ample experience with on the EBC trek. But I was overruled, and the game of the trip ended up being one that has many names, most of which aren't safe-for-work, but one of which is "President". We played outside until nightfall, at which point we played inside until dinner, which was a nice meal of chicken and potato cakes. After dinner, people pretty much immediately started prepping for bed, including myself. I didn't necessarily feel like I needed to fall asleep before 9pm, but I figured with the amount of time I didn't sleep the night before, it'd be worth it.

High Altitude Dreaming, Night 1
So, similar to the Himalayas, I had some interesting dreams at high altitude. Unlike in the Himalayas, I don't remember them quite as well. Still, for the first night, the dream was about a little girl being kidnapped, and a partner and I had to find her. At one point, the villain sent us her wisdom teeth, saying that he would hang her in a week. I don't remember the girl dying in the dream, so either I never finished the dream, or I won. I like to think it was the latter.
We were woken up at 5:30, with our assistant guide Janet opening our tents and offering us a piping hot cup of coca tea. At breakfast, some of the others spoke about how it had rained really hard in the middle of the night; I must have slept through it. The breakfast consisted of toast and pancakes with little bits of manjar squirted on top. In what could not have been a coincidence, the pattern of manjar on my pancake looked uncannily similar to how I write my initials, AS. I took it as a positive omen as we packed up our stuff and headed out for what was said to be the "Challenge Day" of the trek, as we were moving upward from 3,000 meters to 4,200 meters. This was done in a few legs. For the first leg, we were led by Janet, and she set a pace that kept the group relatively close together. There was still an overall split, but it wasn't terribly dramatic. And overall, that led wasn't too bad. We took a break for a while, during which I was amusing myself by watching a donkey (hey, you do what you can).

The second leg was through a forest. Or jungle, maybe. I don't know what the appropriate term would be here. But the important part is that the guides told us that we could go at our own pace. This was potentially dangerous, because my biggest potential issue is moving too fast, and thus running out of breath (or worse). But it was fine, since I was aware of my heartbeat and breathing, since I had a trekking pole slowing me down, and since I was mesmerized by the environment. It was lush and green, and occasionally you'd see little critters here and there. In the Andes, there is a creature called the Spectacled Bear, but it's rare to see, and we didn't in fact see it. We did, though, see a number of birds and insects, including some truly colorful caterpillars. It also featured some pretty big steps, turning the whole thing into a pretty steep and intense uphill. I was in somewhat of a mini-group with my fellow trekkers, but it only took a couple of breathing breaks for us all to split up. Because of this, I ended up at the second checkpoint somewhere between five and ten minutes before the rest of the folks (not exactly sure how long, because we somehow took different paths and I was waiting in the wrong area).

At this second checkpoint, we had our "second breakfast". This mostly involved tea, coffee, hot chocolate, popcorn (my favorite part of any trek!), and cheese sandwiches. The sandwiches were pretty bland, so one of the folks in the group, an Australian lass named Aya, jokingly suggested we put the popcorn inside. Believe it or not, it made the sandwiches fantastic, both from a texture perspective and flavor one (since the popcorn was pretty salty). We waited there until the remainder of the group showed up (and the people in the back could be classified into two groups: the folks who were dealing with injuries, and the people who had pretty negative attitudes towards the difficulties of the trek; I had sympathy for one of these groups; try to guess which), and then we made our way up the third leg. This was a lot more uphill steps; it's difficult to say if it was more or less difficult than the second leg. In any case, the guides told us that it would take us anywhere from one-and-a-half to two hours to make it to the top. It took me 55 minutes. Again, like I mentioned earlier, this was because I was able to go slow and steady and never needed to take breaks longer than a minute. And even at my speed, I passed by a lot of people. As it was, I was the first person at the top, about five minutes before the next-fastest trekker, an Englishman named Nick. And so, we had made it to the highest point on the trail, called Dead Woman's Pass (not named because the Incas were misogynistic regarding hiking abilities, but because the outline of the area looks like a lying down woman with a pretty prominent breast). While here, we took some pictures, and waited for the a good portion of the rest of the group, which meant we were up there for about an hour. A good break, no doubt.

Eventually, it got pretty cold and misty, so we kinda wanted to go down. Our guide Saul understood this, and also knew that it would be some time before the remainder of the group would arrive, so he again let us go down at our own pace. And in this case, even though we were going down a relatively steep set of stairs (a 500-meter descent), that pace for me was fast. Here's the thing: going downhill can be hard on your knees. When you go down slowly and deliberately, this can actually make the pain on your knees worse. So, being fast and light on my feet actually helped keep my legs feeling good. Plus, it was fun! Instead of being a trudging experience, it was like playing a game, making sure that you landed on the right rock. I had a couple little slips, but nothing that actually got me off my balance (which is to say, I didn't need my pole to keep from falling). Along the way, I had a good chat with fellow fast guy Nick, which was nice. You sometimes like to be alone and experience your surroundings with no distractions, but sometimes it's nice to have another person to talk to. Anyway, the two of us made it to camp in about 40 minutes, instead of the one-point-five hours we were told it would take. In fact, the camp wasn't even totally set up yet. Thankfully, my tent was up, so I threw my gear inside, took off my shoes, and just relaxed.

Eventually, more people showed up. It wasn't even 2pm at this point, and we had the rest of the day to ourselves, so some people took it as an opportunity to take a nap in on the baggage tarp (I didn't, as I felt it would come back to bit me when I was actually trying to sleep). The weather was doing one of those things where you got a nice warm sun, and yet it was still raining. And the rain drops were cold enough that I went back inside my tent to read (I'm going back to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I had stopped reading back in Southeast Asia). In the middle of my reading, it suddenly started raining super hard, forcing people into their respective tents. I was worried that some folks hadn't been able to make it back to camp in time, and these concerns were validated when we were called for lunch (which I had totally forgotten was a thing) and there were four people missing. In fact, it wasn't until the rest of us were done that they arrived to have their own meals, completely soaked (and again, some of them had decent attitudes about it, while others...less so). We finished lunch about 3:30 or 4pm, and were informed that dinner was at 7pm (yeesh!). We were free in the meantime. So, people went about their business. Some napped more, some chatted, and I read some more for a while before joining the conversation myself. However, it didn't take long before a cold snap rushed through, prompting us all to put on more layers. To give ourselves some more warmth, we went into the dining tent, where a gas-powered lantern was burning (not much warmth out of that, but better than nothing). We then played some more cards. We even tried to bring in a couple of the porters into our game. I paired myself up with a guy named Santos, and tried my best to explain the flow of the game to him in Spanish. We continued this until dinner, which was again good (chicken wings, or as it was presented, baby condor wings), but more rice. Ugh. We had rice with every meal; I realize its role, but I'd have loved at least a single meal with quinoa as the main grain. After dinner, Saul told us some...I guess you could call them ghost stories. One was about a forest spirit who would call women into the forests, which would eventually lead to their death (or, more specifically, disappearance). The spirit is said to have one human leg and one deer leg, but unfortunately I can't find any information about such a thing online, so I can't point you anywhere. The other story is about Camp 17 at the site we were staying at (we were in Camp 18). Nobody usually stays in 17, because people who stay there say they have dreams of a beautiful blonde woman calling to them, and they can feel their body unable to move. The next morning, they find their tent unzipped and their legs pulled outside. Saul even said this happened to him when he was a rookie. Whether he made up that last part or not, the details were sufficiently creepy. With that, it was time for bed! So, with minds full of ghost stories and a veritable orchestra of frogs and birds performing for us, we all went to sleep.

High Altitude Dreaming, Night 2
I actually had a pretty terrible night sleep that night, mostly due to the thinness of the mattress and the unevenness of the ground (also, I think I might have been sleeping on my trekking pole). However, this allowed me to have two dreams in the night. The first I remember quite vividly: I had 45 minutes to get a Halloween costume. So, I first went to a store to buy a wig and a fake mustache that made me look like a bad 80's rock star. The I took a photo of myself and went to a place that offered "T-Shirt Screen Printings in Minutes". I took the picture of my face and put it on my t-shirt, and that was the costume. The second dream I'm not as clear on, but it involved fast food and war-torn places. Or maybe fast food in war-torn places. Also, my dad was driving a pickup truck.
The next morning, we woke up at 5:20, and were treated to the exciting breakfast of porridge and a weird sandwich that was more bread than anything. I was at least able to make the porridge tolerable my mixing in some hot chocolate powder. But after finished, there was no time to waste: we were off! This was to be the longest of the four days, at 15km of hiking, going up and down hills. In fact, we started with about an hour and some change of walking up a big hill of stairs, which took us to the second-highest pass on the trail, at 4,000 meters. There we waited for the majority of the group to show up, at which point Saul taught us about a ritual for making requests to one of the great gods of the Inca, Pachamama. It involved taking three of the best coca leaves you had available to you, and blowing in the directions of the most prominent mountains in the area while having the request on your mind; you then follow this by placing a rock which we were earlier told to find and place it, along with the leaves, as a sacrifice to Pachamama. While I, like everyone else, wished for good weather upon reaching Machu Picchu while blowing the leaves, I'll abstain from divulging my rock wish, as it still has time to pass.

We then went down from the pass, where we stopped at the first of three Inca ruins for the day. This one was a home/headquarters to a group of chaskis, which were the messengers of the Inca (similar to Pheidippides and his ilk). Interestingly, "chaski" is also the term used in Quechua to refer to porters. In any case, we learned a bit about the architecture of the Inca, such as how they built the walls slightly inward as a preventative measure against earthquakes. After spending some time here, we continued on until we reached another Inca ruin (of which I cannot remember anything of interest), and after spending some time there, continued on until we reached our lunch spot. (Along this way, I was completely alone in a forested area where it was almost stone silent, save for the occasional flowing water and my own footsteps. The serenity there was nearly palpable.) Here we had a huge lunch, featuring at least three types of meat an a whole lot else, and was even topped off with a lovely frosted cake. After this, we were officially introduced to all of our porters and other helpers, and we introduced ourselves to them. It was a nice little moment.

After lunch, we were able to continue on until we got to the third-highest point on the trail. It was about an hour of up and down, up and down, up and down. I was speaking again with Nick, mostly going off on some of the humorous elements of politics (like the potential of Prince Harry becoming a despotic, Medieval-style king), when one of the Canadian folks named Joe came up. He was an interesting guy (he's one of those types who says, "I'm weird, but I can guarantee I'm having more fun than anyone else you know." I know this because he's actually said that), but when I jokingly mentioned we were talking about politics. He then asked me, "[my] opinion as an American", whether I thought the US was going to be facing another revolution/civil war within our lifetime. Because 8 of 10 Americans he had met at music festivals felt that it was. And then the conversation just got a lot weirder. I'll leave it at that. Anyway, it pretty much ended when we got to the third-highest pass (at 3,700 meters), and then waited there for the rest of the group. This may have been the first time I did any stretches on the trek, though it was more because I thought that maybe I should do it, rather than really feeling that I needed it. I felt amazingly good for all the hiking I was doing; no blisters, no sore muscles, nothing.

When most of the rest of the group showed up, we continued together until we got to the third Inca ruin, which was likely a place lived in by high priests who did ritual worship of water and used the spot for the study of astronomy. After (and admittedly, slightly before) this was what is known as the "Gringo Killer", a set of 3,000 steps. I personally feel the number is a bit dubious, as there are moments when you're going down on things that are clearly not steps, so I don't know what's counted and what isn't. After the ruin, though, we were allowed to go at our own pace, so naturally I went quickly ahead. There ended up being four of us in the front: Nick the Englishman, Joe the Canuck, Tyson the Aussie, and myself. How fast were we moving down the steps? Let me put it this way: not only were we passing by other trekkers, we were regularly passing by porters. That means we were going at a pretty speedy, and potentially unsafe, rate downhill. Even I had a couple near-slips, but my long-suffering guardian angel kept me on my feet. One particular moment that will have to remain only in our memories is when we got to a beautiful spiral staircase carved into the rock. Once we reached the bottom, we each had wished we had taken a picture when higher up. It seemed especially weird to me, since I take pictures of damn near everything. But truth be told, when I approached the spiral staircase, I was too wrapped up in the moment, and was cruising down them with my arms extended, as though I were an airplane.

We kept going through the rain forest (I should note, we're pretty much in the Amazon at this point) until we reached a power line running through. Here, we had a choice of taking the left path, which was a shortcut to the campsite, or the right path, which was longer, but would take us to the Inca terraces of WiƱay Wayna. Saul had told everyone he wanted them to go through the terraces, but even if he hadn't, we were fast enough that we could probably make it through in the time it took most people to use the shortcut. And man, either way, what a good decision it was. We had an absolutely amazing view of the valley, the nearby mountains, the winding river below, and a small train chugging through. What's more, the 250 themselves (used for agriculture but looked as though they could have easily been a military structure) were both impressive and empty. Like, we were the only people there for a while, and for that short time, the terraces pretty much belonged to us and us alone. It was a pretty awesome feeling. Unfortunately, that feeling past when we heard some voices behind us. And not just any voices. Now, I hadn't mentioned any of the other groups yet, but there was one in particular that ground our collective gears. It was a group comprised completely of Canadian kids, either late high school or university, and they were loud, brash, arrogant, and annoying. When they passed us occasionally on the trek (usually because we had our guide in front keeping us at pace), they referred to us as "Team Slowpoke". Whenever I passed one of them, they became visibly upset. And they just talked really loudly. So when I heard some hooting and hollering, I knew it was them. One of them ran out of the forest and said, "Am I dead or did we make it?" As if on cue, he slipped and fell onto his hands. I quipped, "Almost both, I suppose," and the four of us decided it was time to move on. We got to the bottom, and enjoyed the solitude once more, when we looked into the valley and saw some storm clouds coming in. We decided it was time to book it to camp. So we basically started running down this path (which was fairly flat at this point). However, along the way we saw a group of llamas, and we had to stop. I mean, how can you not stop for a group of llamas. We spent about ten minutes taking pictures and admiring their llama-ness. That ten minutes proved crucial, as the storm actually hit us, so we just hauled ass to keep ourselves from being in the rain too long. Within five minutes, we were at the camp, but it took us an additional five or so to find our actual site, thanks to the confusing design of the camp and the unhelpful instructions of the other groups. Still, we made it, and only found ourselves partially soaked.

After finding some initial cover, we converged in the dining tent to dry off a bit (and not have to deal with the overwhelming humidity produced inside our little tents). We basically just chatted inside there until more people showed up. When we had a majority of the group, out came the tea, the hot chocolate, and the popcorn. After people finished up trying to create origami t-shirts out of the tea-bag containers (something that Saul showed us), we again played cards until dinner. Sometime during all of this, I went out to get some fresh air, and apparently everyone used this opportunity about the tips for the porters (which is a bit ironic, seeing as I was the one bringing it up earlier in the day). They then decided - while I was gone, mind you - that since I had the strongest Spanish in the group, I should be the one to give the speech to the porters. However, I wasn't informed about this until dinner was finished and the porters were coming in. So, I had to make up something really quick, and deliver it in Spanish. I think I did a decent job in terms of not screwing up the translation, but it was unfortunately a very simple speech (basically along the lines of "This money doesn't accurately reflect our gratitude; we wouldn't be able to do this without you"). I then figured that if I really wanted to give something heartfelt, I would do so in English (and have Saul translate). And according to everyone else, I did a pretty good job. I guess that's one of my strengths: coming up with speeches on the spot. Afterwards, everyone went to bed.

High Altitude Dreaming, Night 3
Okay, I can't remember the exact plot of this dream, but it involved a number of my friends/coworkers from Capcom, as well as alien video games, as well as actual aliens. There was one moment in particular that I remember where a random dude in a shirt and tie was stabbed through the chest by an alien.
 We were supposed to be woken up at 3:30, but I found myself waking up at 2am, partially because the rain was again coming down, and really hard this time. I then found it difficult to fall back asleep. When we were officially woken up, the rain was still going, and so I had to rearrange all my stuff in case it never let up. This involved a lot of garbage bags wrapped over more garbage bags, and my Oruro Carnaval poncho over everything (see, I knew that would come in handy). Because of all this rearrangement, I was the last at the breakfast table, where we ate a very quick breakfast and then were on our way. However, we didn't get very far before stopping. See, we could only go as far as the entrance to this portion of the trail, which we reached at 4:30. We wouldn't be able to go further until 5:30. Why did we bother? Because apparently, now we were technically the third, maybe, fourth group, allowed to start walking on the path, and would remain like that all the way to Machu Picchu. This turned out to be moot for several reasons (as we'll soon see), but it did make me feel a bit better about the fact that we now had to stand here in the dark for an hour.

The time was mostly spent talking, and then at 5:30, we were finally allowed in, so we got moving through the rain forest. At this point, the rain had stopped, but the residual moisture everywhere still made it a slippery deal. And because we were traveling as a group (which to be fair, was the right decision), I was beholden to the speeds/stops of everyone else, and so when people wanted to stop for a break, we all had to stop. And in those moments, other groups passed us. This was a bit frustrating, but seeing those loud Canadian kids pass us? The concept that they'd see Machu Picchu before us just irked me like nobody's business. Anyway, as we continued, Saul said there was one last surprise for us - an Inca surprise - and this turned out to be one final staircase, with a hundred of some of the steepest steps you'd ever seen. After getting past that, we reached the Sun Gate (called as such because the sun shines directly through it during the solstices). At this point, we were supposed to have our first view of Machu Picchu. Instead, we had a view of pure white. For that matter, there was no sun either. It was just a fog so thick that once the cliff fell, it seemed as through the world ended. It didn't seem very promising, but I still had hope that it would get better.

We waited by the sun gate for a while (mostly watching birds and trying to have the eat seeds from our hands), before moving on. On the last little leg of this trip, Tyson slipped on a rock and almost ate it. Thankfully, there was quite a bit of shoulder for him to stumble on, because there was nothing to grab onto in case he fell off the edge. (I actually heard that the day prior, a guy slipped on a rock and did fall off the edge of what would be a thousand-foot-plus drop, but managed to grab onto a piece of bamboo that saved his life. When I saw the guy, he was limping quite a bit, so I guess he was a bit worse for wear.) We made a couple of stops at some ceremonial sites, but part of me was still antsy to make it to the main viewpoints before other groups, particularly the loudmouth kids. And we did. But, as it turned out, it made no difference, because the fog was still in full effect, and from the traditional "best view of Machu Picchu" there was absolutely no view of Machu Picchu. Strangely, while a couple of the other folks (particularly the ones who had a dour attitude the whole time) bemoaned this fact, I was strangely okay with it. It was what it was, is what I figured. A shame, but not the end of the world.

We tried waiting to see if the fog would clear up, but when it was clear that it was going nowhere quick, we decided to go down to the main entrance of the park, where all the tourists who didn't hike the trail came through on. Here, we presented our permits and had our passports checked, and then had to store our backpacks and trekking poles (although I noticed that a number of old and/or overweight were able to use canes which were conceivably much more damaging to the environment than our rubber-tipped poles). It was then that I realized my money was in my duffel bag, so I had to scum it off some of the others to store my stuff. Once we all got inside, Saul took us on a tour around the city. Now, I've been debating if I should describe the city in detail, or just give some basic impressions. At this point, I think it would be difficult, if near impossible, to really paint an accurate visual picture of the city, so I'll just be a bit more brief and paint an emotional one. Basically, the place was powerful. In multiple ways. First of all, you had amazing views of the valleys and nearby mountains, including the somewhat-less-famous Huayna Picchu. But then there was just the place itself, where everything seemed to have a purpose.You walked to one building, and it was perfectly aligned with the sun on the solstices. Go to another building, and it was built to have great acoustics. Look at all the buildings, and they're designed to withstand numerous earthquakes. To think that fewer than a thousand people lived there at any time is crazy. But yeah, with every aspect of the city we learned of, the more impressive it became.

It also had more llamas. And more llamas are always good.

By the time the tour was finished up (after about two hours), the sky had cleared up, so we figured we'd walk back up to the main viewpoint. It was during this that we really saw all the people around. I had been warned that Machu Picchu was at this point a very touristy place, and I was prepared to accept that (because my options were "accept it" or "don't go"), but man, you could not look anywhere without seeing people walking around the place like little multicolored ants. And then you had people trying to take pictures on stairways who became indignant when anyone walked by. And then you had the multitudinous groups, many of which had a tour leader waving around a flag (or in one case, a yellow rubber fist on a stick). This was part of the reason you try to come as early as possible, to beat all of this. And while I know I'm contributing to the problem in my very presence there, I have to admit it does take away from the mystique. In any case, we made our way to the top, and got in a line to take our pictures from the famous lookout rock. When it was my turn, I decided to take a jumping shot. I knew I wasn't technically allowed to, but GODDAMMIT, I WALKED FOUR DAYS FOR THIS, YOU BET I'M GONNA GET MY JUMPING SHOT. So I did it, and was immediately yelled at by one of the guards. Part of me wanted to sass back, but I decided I could get more (non-jumping) shots if I just went the "dumb tourist" route (and I was right).

At this point, I felt like Machu Picchu had given me everything it could, especially now that it was overrun with people, so myself and a couple others went down to the entrance, got our passports stamped, grabbed our gear, and then hopped on a bus that would take us to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. When we arrived, we walked to the restaurant where we were going to have our last group lunch. However, it was important to note that we had to pay for this ourselves; it wasn't included. This is an important point, because the prices were outrageously expensive. Before I had to worry about this, I went to the back of the restaurant where my duffel bag was waiting, and began moving the stuff in to my backpack. While doing this, the porter who had been carrying my duffel bag came up to me, basically hinting that I should give him his tip. I did so (and actually think that I may have been the only one to give a tip to my personal porter, because for everyone else, the contents of their duffel bags were just put into a large rice bag, and they never saw their porter). We talked until more people came, and then it was time to order lunch. I decided to split two pizzas with five other folks, but when it turned out that the pizzas weren't that big, the others decided to get another. I told them I'd abstain from the third pizza, and suggested we pay our contributions per slice eaten, but they basically ignored this, and we split for the three pizzas evenly. They were about 50 soles each, and my cost, for three slices that were about the size of, generously, a medium Papa John's, I payed 25 soles, or about $9. It was easily the worst use of money I've ever seen (and I didn't even get any drinks). After lunch was finished, we filled out some evaluation forms, and then gave a tip to our guides. I was again asked to make a speech on the spot, and apparently - and by this I mean by the evaluations of others - I again did pretty well at expressing the group's feelings. The guides then left to catch their early train.

As for the rest of us, we still had four hours before our train. So, we needed to decide what to do with ourselves. One option presented to us was to go to the local hot springs, but I've heard tell that they're lukewarm at best. Also, it was raining pretty heavily on-and-off. (Oh, and I should note, I feel it really lucky that we got that couple-hour window of clear skies at Machu Picchu, because I can only imagine it being even worse there for people who just arrived. Always on the sunny side, I say!) Anyway, some folks decided to go to the train station to see if they could bump themselves up to an earlier departure, others decided to go get drinks at a local bar, and the Aussie couple and I decided that we'll only be in this town probably once in our lives, so, we might as well explore it in the time we have. As it turned out, we didn't even need that much time, because it was a really small town, filled with restaurants and bars calling out to you to enjoy their 4-for-1 happy hours (which seems more like a desperation hour to me). We ended up following the river out of town - talking all the while - until it started raining pretty hard again, and we rushed back to a place where our heads were covered. We eventually ran into the Canadians and the New Zealand girl, and decided as a group to find the bar the others were at. This proved to be exceptionally difficult, and so after about 45 minutes of valiant search efforts, I decided to give up. The Aussies and I walked through the market briefly, and then went back to the restaurant, where we continued talking. The Canadian couple and the Kiwi then joined us, and it may have been the liter bottles of alcohol they were currently consuming, or the liter bottle they each said they had previously consumed, but they seemed a bit...off.

At around 6pm, everyone showed up (they were apparently at a very nearby bar, but you had to go upstairs to see them), and we grabbed all our stuff and headed to the train station whilst there was a reprieve in the rain. We got on, and then took off at 6:45. Along the way, five of us played the same card game we'd been playing the whole time, while another group who were sharing the car with us decided that it would be cute to sing loudly. And admittedly, it was pretty funny...for the first five minutes. Then it got really annoying. Now, I have no issue with fun, and I have absolutely no issue with singing, but to think that you don't need to have respect for anyone else in a shared space (and one that isn't a bar) is just being a jackass. Still, these guys saw that it was St. Patrick's Day, and so filled with alcohol (and in one guy's case, I swear he was high on cocaine), they literally spent two hours belting out random, out-of-tune song choruses (because they couldn't be bothered to remember the rest of the songs). And while most of our group wanted them to shut up, Joe stood up and said, "I think most of my group wants you to shut up, but I think you should give it your all!" at which point he joined in. So much for solidarity, eh? And unfortunately, we couldn't get rid of them at Ollytaytambo, because they were on the same bus as us returning to Cusco. Thankfully, though, this time I was able to get out my earbuds and drown them out. This allowed me to get some rest on the long ride back. When we arrived in Cusco, I got out at a place that was...eh, generally near my hotel, and walked the rest of the way. It was pretty tricky finding it at first, but I finally made it at about 11pm. (Remember, I was woken up at 3:30, and really woke up at 2am). I checked in, took a shower, and went to bed.

And today, I was quite thankful that I had the extra day in Cusco. Not that I like Cusco now; I still don't. It just allowed me to catch up on everything. But because of that, it was a fairly uneventful day, at least in comparison to hiking the Inca Trail. I woke up, had an okay breakfast, and then headed out at about 8:30. I had a few things I needed to take care of. First was to go to the camping store and return my backpack and trekking poles. Except, oops, they weren't open yet. So instead, I went back to the other hotel to pick up my actual bags. When I got in, I showed them my tickets, and the owner got me my bags. He then said (in Spanish), "Are you going to pay for your stay now?" I was confused. I told him I already paid, but he told me I didn't. I tried reminding him how I had difficulty with one card, and then had to use another, but he still didn't remember. I then showed him the card I used, which he grabbed and attempted to run through his card reader. I literally grabbed it out of his hand before he could do any such thing. I told him with great frustration that I had paid, and he said that there was no evidence of that, unless I could provide a receipt. So, I dug through the pockets of the vest I had shoved in my backpack, and indeed found the receipt, which I then showed to him. A small glint in his eye and a "Oh" later, he took the receipt, photocopied it, and gave the original back to me, smiling. I'll assume it was an honest mistake, but still, I didn't care for that at all.

There's a lesson here, kids: Keep your receipts! Always keep your receipts!

I then went to the bank to get some more cash, hoping that would eat some time, and then walked back to the camping store. It was nearly 9am, so I just sat on the curb and waited until the lady showed up. When she did, I traded the backpack and poles for my driver's license. I contemplated complaining about the fact that one of the poles didn't work, opening up the slight possibility, but the fact is, she might have turned it around and said that it was working when she tested it, and that I must have broken it, and thus would have to pay more. So I just decided to let the issue drop and leave. I then went back to the hotel, where I asked if I could now pay with my newly-gotten cash. My bill was approximately $65, but when I tried to pay with 200 soles, the guy at the desk only took s100 and asked if I had smaller bills. I then realized he thought I owed only s65, or $23. If I were smart, I would have given it to him, because then he would have marked me down as paid, and I would have saved a nice chunk of change. But my desire to break bills was too great, so I said the s100 bill was all I had. He said he'd have to get change, which I was worried would give him time to realize his error.

I then went back to my room, brought out my computer, and started getting to work. I began transferring photos from my camera, checking emails, and generally getting caught up on stuff online (thankfully, the WiFi in this place is awesome). This ended up taking me until 1pm, when I decided to head out for lunch. When I passed by the lobby, my fears were confirmed, and I was asked to pay the remaining balance of the hotel bill. Oh, well, I have nobody but myself to blame for that (and really, I'm not paying any more than I owe). I made up for this by going back to that cheap "meal of the day" hole-in-the-wall restaurant that I'd discovered before. How I was able to remember where it was is a miracle, but I went in much more comfortably this time, and got a nice soup and grilled soy sauce chicken, all for s4.50. Seriously, I could get used to sub-$2 lunches like that. On the way back to the hotel, I decided to stop in a nearby grocery store to get a couple of items. However, I think I meandered in there a bit too long, because when I stepped outside, there was a torrent of rain coming down. (And I wouldn't say that it was clear skies when I went in, but it wasn't that bad.) I didn't have much in the way of options, though, so I just hustled back up a big set of stairs to the alley where my hotel was (and after all the stairs I'd been going up, my quadriceps felt like engines). I have to say, and I think I mentioned this back in Kenya, but even though my hat is meant for sun, it works good in the rain, too.

When I got to the hotel, I had to ring the doorbell about five times before someone opened the door. I got inside, dried off as best I could, and then began writing, listening to the sound of rain and thunder out my window. Unfortunately, I found myself easily distracted through the day, which is a rough combination to go with writing, but hey, it happens sometimes. Anyway, nothing of note happened; I was just doing my things. For dinner, I was contemplating pizza delivery, but there was a slight break in the rain, so I asked the reception if there was a nearby cheap pizza place. In fact, there was, just down the big staircase, so I walked down there and ordered a medium chicken pizza (while everyone in there was watching some weird Spanish game show where sexy contestants were dancing around in bathing suits, answering questions, and getting what looked like molasses dumped on them). This medium pizza was about the same size as one of the large pizzas at the place in Aguas Calientes. The price for the whole shebang? 20 soles. Those other people should be ashamed of themselves. Anyway, I brought the pizza back to the hotel, took it up to the dining room (since I guess they didn't want me eating in my room, and it's a good thing I didn't try it, because I had an accurate feeling that the guy would come to check on me), and ate while making a phone call home. I then went back to my room and continued writing, and here we are now.

I should also note, as of today, March 18, I am officially and exactly one month away from my return trip to the US (on April 18). So that's definitely coming up. But before that, I still have lots to do. Like, tomorrow, I hop on a bus that's going to be driving me all the way to Lima, a nearly one-day drive. So that's cool, I guess? Anyway, I'll see you there, possibly with a belly full of ceviche.

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