This is the completely true story of how, after three and a half days of trekking, it came to be that I, a self-possessed, emotionally stable 30-year-old, could be found standing in the middle of a crowded trail, bawling my eyes out on Craig’s shoulder and sobbing uncontrollably, “I just want to go home!”
As Craig explained in an earlier post, our revised plan for Machu Picchu, one of the “new seven wonders of the world”, was to do a four-day trek to Aguas Calientes, the entry point for the national park.
There are only two ways to arrive in Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo, a town outside of Cusco. The first option is a 1.5 hour train ride (lowest price is $54 USD one-way). The second option is to first take a 6-hour bus ride along narrow cliff roads to Santa Teresa, followed by a 30-minute taxi ride to Hydro Electrico, and then hike 7.5 miles to Aguas Calientes along the Rio Urubamba (as low as $8-12 USD). The Salkantay trek would end in Santa Teresa, where we could then combine it with this second option to enter Aguas Calientes. Our plan was to also hike and bus our way back to Ollanta after Machu Picchu, in order to avoid paying for even a one-way ticket on the ridiculously high-priced train.
I was very excited to do the trek since in its preceding days, as we were volunteering for the SAE, we got to see a lot of people come back from it, and they all had extremely positive things to say. It seemed within the range of difficulty that was acceptable to me, and we would be “glamping” again; staying in cabins along the way and having our meals provided to us, instead of having to carry tent, gear, and food. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Our first misstep was to agree to a third person joining us on the trek. We will call her Bob, since an apt analogy would be to compare her to the titular character of the classic Bill Murray film, “What About Bob?” I don’t remember much about that movie except for the unrelenting frustration and annoyance that Richard Dreyfuss felt, so that’s really the heart of the comparison… it obviously wasn’t physical!
Bob was female, an American, and a recent college grad traveling on her own who was going to do the trek through the same company as us. Since she didn’t want to do the hike by herself, she asked if she could join us and we, being nice, sympathetic people, agreed (to our ultimate regret… why do we Americans have to be so polite??). Unfortunately, Bob turned out to be one of that miserable variety of people who don’t appreciate the beauty of silence. No matter what was happening, she had to fill in the moment with conversation and pesky questions. “What do you think about this?” “Why are you doing that?” And my very least favorite of all: “What are you reading?”
Now, normally, a very talkative person is not a huge bother. They can usually be dismissed in some casual way or other. But on a hike of this nature, we were forced to spend nearly every minute of the day together–walking together, eating meals together, and sometimes, sharing a room together. You can’t very well relegate one person out of a group of only three to her own solitude, no matter how annoying she is. Because, after all, there is such a thing as manners (ugh!).
And so, because climbing thousands of feet in elevation while gasping for breath due to the thin air was not bad enough, we had to also endure Bob’s inane musings throughout the long miles. Another black mark against Bob was that she thought she knew all there was to know about everything. If there’s anything that makes a Chatty Cathy worse, it’s if she’s also condescending, patronizing and eight years younger than you.
Woe is us!
We managed to make it through the hardest bits of the hike, but arrived in Santa Teresa with a distinct feeling of disappointment. It had rained or was foggy for pretty much the entire time, and although the pass went through two glaciers, we unfortunately saw neither as our views were blocked by clouds. Aside from the wet and muddy conditions, the weather was also quite cold due to the elevation, despite moving closer to the equator… our first night I’m sure was in the 30s F. Brrr!
The only good things about doing the trek the way we did were 1) it was cheap, 2) mules and horses didn’t have to carry our gear (there were so many overburdened beasts on the trail… very sad), 3) the food was delicious and plentiful, and 4) we never had to pack up a wet tent.
I was really looking forward to the hot springs outside of Santa Teresa, but they were sadly tepid, and full of biting insects–yet another disappointment! I woke up on our fourth morning, muscles sore from the previous three days of difficult hiking, with several welts from whatever found my blood particularly delicious the day before, a tweaked ankle, and a swollen foot. Not having yet resigned myself to my fate as the holy grail of flesh for all insects, I resentfully reached for my pile of clothes only to shriek and drop them on the floor. Peering over the side of the bed, I ascertained that what I thought I saw was, in fact, real: they were covered in a swarm of tiny ants. There have been moments in my life, thankfully few, where I have felt that life is flat, stale, and unprofitable. That morning can be added to the short list.
Therefore, I was not in a good frame of mind for the 7.5 mile walk from Hydro Electrico to Aguas Calientes. In light of my fragile mental state, Craig braved the gods of etiquette and asked Bob if we could separate for the day. She, not being so thick-headed as to be ignorant of my black mood, graciously agreed. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was grateful for the escape! I’ll admit I was not a pleasant person to be around that day.
Of course, it takes all kinds and I don’t usually feel the need to judge people too harshly, but after four days of incessant chattering, I was more than happy to send her on her way. So it was with extreme dismay that an hour into our hike, she somehow met up with us again, and in our subsequent five minute exchange, managed to make me feel even worse.
It’s hard to describe how and why emotions manage to overwhelm us. It was as if 72 hours of pent-up anger suddenly exploded out of me, which then unleashed a watershed of homesickness. I was tired, sore, and in pain. My already tenuous control over my feelings broke, and I found myself wishing for all sorts of impossible things: the hike to be over, to be by myself, to be comfortable…. in short, to be at home. But I don’t have a home anymore, and the estrangement I felt over that realization has still not quite dissipated.
I know that I can go back to the States at any time, but I don’t think I want to. I don’t want to give up on this adventure that was in the making for so long. So I’m crossing my fingers that it’s just a phase that will soon pass and allow me to rediscover the joys of traveling. After all, there will be Bobs and there will be rain and there will be mosquitos. I just hope they don’t all come at once again!
But we are now back in Cusco, settling in comfortably in our old digs at the SAE, laughing with our volunteer friends, and having a tiny bit of that feeling of coming back to something familiar and welcoming. It’s as close to home as I’ll get in a very long time, so for now at least, I’m appreciating life and the small pleasures it can give.