Or...the Coca Leaves vs. Starbucks Challenge
I met my Guide Walter on Christmas Eve. He sported a cherubic face, a ready smile and a baby bump belly. Upon meeting, I exchanged a handshake, followed quickly by a bottle of beer. I thanked him for showing up to this Holy Night.
Walter then began his Cliff Notes version of our hike. He gave me estimated hiking times per day, the need for staying hydrated at altitude, the benefits of layering in inclement weather and the fact theirs less Oxygen the higher one ascends.
I smirked and shook my head as he gave his spiel. Afterwards when he was done, I summed it up this way, “Walter! This ain’t my first Rodeo! I hike a lot. You don’t have to worry about me on this Trek.”
He smirked back. We said “Goodnight!” in order to get some rest for our 5 am start. (This isn’t a siesta-in vacation).
Sleep wasn’t meant to be. In Peru, Christmas Eve is not a Silent Night. The Boom! Boom! Boom! of fireworks began promptly at 9:30 and steadily continued until 3 am. Who knew?
I estimated I scored less then 127 minutes of slumber. Needless to say I wasn’t full of vim and vigor when Walter arrived at 5. Other crew members stumbled in, except for our driver. He and the Van didn’t show up until 6. Maybe he was the one setting off the fireworks?
We piled our gear and ourselves in. All the passengers except me and our tardy driver passed out with no problemo. I sat back and took in the scenery on Christmas morning 2017.
We climbed out of Cusco, crossed some Pass and dropped down along a surging river before ascending once again. After 2 plus hours we stopped for breakfast in a sort of down trodden town. I was led to one room while the Peruvians were deposited in another. A tray of toasted flat bread and a cup of bitter coffee were placed in front of me. I assumed that was my meal. I nibbled on a few slices and downed my coffee. Not very satisfying and highly overpriced for Peruvian standards. This wouldn’t be my last time I was charged the Gringo Rate.
Forty-five minutes later along a rutted dirt road, we halted at a nondescript hairpin turn. A few skittish horses and a burro were standing by. (One could say the horseman was responsible for getting this “Ass” over the Pass). These Beasts of Burdens would be our SAG (Support and Gear) transport.
Walter and I shouldered our packs and off we went. He walked in my wake and called out directions. It didn’t take long for this old hiker to realize we were shortcutting the switchbacks. I whirled around, “Walter! We are shortcutting the main trail. These steeper grades will wear us out faster than sticking to the longer gentler switchbacks. Besides, shortcutting accelerates erosion. You love your country and this trail, don’t you?”
That was the last time he directed me to take a shortcut.
We made our camp, ate a petite lunch and headed uphill again for a few bonus kilometers. Our goal was a lagoon with a view. Walter pointed me in the general direction and said, “Follow those other hikers. I’ll catch up with you.”
However the over 14,000” view was simply amazing. See for yourself.
That evening (after a paltry dinner), my guide and I sat in a drafty see-through shed and talked. It was time for me to learn more about this Peruvian pperson I would be spending the next five days with.
Walter is 38 years old. He’s been guiding for Valencia Travel for nine years. He lives in Cusco with his Mother. He doesn’t own a car, “too expensive.” He’s never been out of Peru or on an airplane. He went to school to learn English so he would be more employable in the skyrocketing Tourism industry. This being Christmas, he spoke about his religious beliefs.
“I’m a Christian.” He then went on to talk reverently about the Inca’s ancient deities. There wasn’t any mention of the White Man on the Cross. I noticed whenever he drank a liquid, he sacrificed a few drops to the Inca God of Mother Earth. As Stevie Wonder once sang, “Very Superstitious.” But then again, who am I to judge?
The next morning dawned with more blue than gray. From our vantage point below, we could see Salkantay Mountain. In other words, the reason I came to Peru. Our day’s goal was 15,200” Salkantay Pass, where splendid close-up views of this muscular broad shouldered peak was to be had if the Goddess of Weather cooperated.
It was not to be. A foggy, damp cloud bank roared up the valley. The Sacred Mountain of the Incas had now gone missing. Bye! Bye!
My breakfast was calorie and protein deficient. A few slices of toasted flat bread, (my leftovers from the morning before?) and a single crepe with a squirt of gooey Nutella on top. Yech. It was too late to say anything. It was time to go. Fortunately, I had my secret liquid weapon in me. Two shots of Starbucks Instant Pikes Market Blend.
Immediately, I went into my tried and true hiking style. AKA. Don’t stop until you reach the top. OR: A short step is better than no step. Because of the low lying fog, there wasn’t much to see. I passed a covey of hikers, lots of boulders and a few local stranglers. A steady flow of Salkantay glacier water was my one constant companion. The stream was good company.
When I made the Pass, I realized I was standing on the Continental Divide of South America. Water flowing east would make its way to the Amazon and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. The creek which had been my constant neighbor on the way up would become a larger waterway bound for the Pacific Ocean.
I pondered all this as I donned dry clothes and a poncho. I inhaled a snack or three and waited. A Local Hombre sat a few rocks away from me. Every now and then, I’d hear him performing a melodic chant. It was all so fitting for the scene.
Walter showed up twenty minutes later. We exchanged High-Fives, shot some pictures for posterity and Facebook and exchanged some words. Then I announced, “I’m getting cold. I’m heading down.” With that, I took off at a trot.
After a few kilometers downhill, it was noticeably warmer. I was also very hungry. I ate my emergency fuel supply, a 240 calorie Clif Bar. I decided to wait for Walter. I didn’t know the where or when of lunch. While I sat on a soft rock the “Boys” went by. That is the Cook, Assistant Cook and the Horseman with his four-legged menagerie. They told me Walter was a kilometer away “Mas o menos.”
When he made the scene, I got to the point.
“Walter, I’m going to speak to you Hombre a Hombre. You guys have to start feeding me more than what’s been showing up on my plate.That breakfast wasn’t enough to get me around a city block, let alone up a Pass and more.”
Walter thought about this a moment and gently asked, “What do you normally eat for breakfast?”
“Three eggs with veggies, a potato and some toast ought to work.”
From that moment on, all the meals were plentiful, hardy and delicioso. See? There are times the trickle down effect works.
After this brief interlude, Walter and I continued downhill in a steady rain. At the end of a 14 mile day, we waded through a muddy lane to access “Camp Florintina.” We’d be staying within the confines of the Florintina Family Compound. Skinny chickens and dirty dogs loitered around. Dried mud covered most surfaces. The buildings were in need of repair. This was no KOA.
Now a word about hygiene in Peru. If you are germaphobic or a clean freak, Peru might stress your comfort zone. In a country as poor as Peru (20.7% poverty rate, more than double that in the rural areas), things many take for granted in other Nations are sadly lacking. Many WC’s have no hand soap, no toilet paper and no toilet seats. There won’t be warm water to wash up in even if a sliver of soap is available. Potable water must be bought or local water boiled. Don’t think too much about the fact all your eating utensils are washed in the same water you aren’t supposed to drink. Of course, money is the issue. The average yearly salary in Lima, Peru is $590. It’s no wonder all those above mentioned items are considered a luxury. Let’s just say, I made an extra effort to stay as clean as possible.
Even the Natives aren’t immune to whatever germs are lurking in this moist, warm climate. That night, both Walter and the Assistant Cook had a bout of Montezuma’s Revenge. Walter claimed it was the “Bad Wind” on the Pass that brought about this malady.
My reply, “Walter, I was in the same wind longer than you. I’m fine. Stop touching all the animals you come in contact with along the way. They are filthy!”
After a REAL breakfast, we packed our gear said goodbye to our Horseman and his charges, and hit the road. Walter led me to a trail off the dirt byway, “Stay on this until you get to a parking lot. Please wait for me there. See you later, Mi Amigo.”
Just like that I was off. It was a beautiful trail. I passed waterfalls, rain forests and oh-so-many pretty flowers. A thundering coffee colored river was on my right. I had some of my most memorable views along this stretch. The Salkantay Trail isn’t always Wilderness. It trespasses through many family compounds. Most are selling or offering something in return for a few precious Sols. It’s a hard life here in Peru.
Walter caught up with me in the parking lot. He arranged a Taxi pickup to take us to the campground. The CCapacnan Family compound was immediately different than the rest. In lieu of mud there was grass and landscaping. There was a poultry-free porch to relax upon. Best of all, the WC was clean AND there was a toilet seat. I’ll admit it, I had to fight back the tears.
By 1:00 we were done with our day’s hike and lunch. “Walter! Please take the rest of the day off. I’m just going to relax and read.” Translation: Leave me alone. I need some quiet time.
By 4ish, I was ready for a pre-dinner beer. “Walter! If you see the owner, can you ask her if I can buy a beer?” A few minutes later, I had a cold brew in my paws and was about to resume my position of sloth. That’s when the International Incident began.
“Jeff! She would like to show you her coffee making process.” Trapped! I saw trouble brewing.
Next thing, she was showing me the coffee beans from her small plantation. I smiled appreciatively. Then she began to grind a few handfuls of copper-colored caffeine. She poured the fresh ground into a bag. She wanted to make a sale.
“Walter, please tell her I’m traveling light. I don’t have anyway of making the coffee either. Please tell her the coffee looks and smells great!” (The real reason: I did not want to cross Borders with coffee in my backpack. Drug smugglers stuff cocaine in coffee sacks to fool the drug sniffing dogs. I wanted to avoid a body cavity search!)
Her feelings were obviously hurt, and I felt like the Ugly American. We made a compromise that I would have a pre-hike cup in the early morning. (It was the strongest cup of Java I ever drank. I paid her well to ease the International tensions.)
That evening, I had another Hombre a Hombre chat with Walter.
“Please don’t put me in these awkward situations anymore. Couldn’t you tell, I just wanted to hang out?”
He shook his head, and went into his Guide speaking to a Gringo pre-hike speech. In other words, like many times before, he wasn’t listening.
“Jeff! Tomorrow’s hike is very long and steep. We need to start walking earlier. You should bring extra clothes and layer if you need to...” ETC. ETC.
I let out a frustrated sigh. “Walter! Haven’t you figured out by now, I know what I’m doing. You don’t have to babysit me. You are preaching to the choir.”
The next morning, I set off at a brisk hyper-caffeinated pace. The climb wasn’t steep or long. It was quite scenic. I scored smoke ring views of the Machu Picchu site. Walter barely looked around. He was too busy texting his girlfriend.
We covered the seventeen miles to Aguas Caliente in short order. Walter led me to my hotel.
“Jeff! Later on, I’ll meet you for dinner at the pizza place. You already paid for your meal.”
“No Walter. You won’t see me for dinner. Take one of your buddies there instead of me. I’m going to find a quiet place to have a beer and meal. Where and when should I meet you for the Machu Picchu Tour?”
At that moment, the Guided Gringo became the Guide.
It was a drizzly early morning when I met Walter at the Machu Picchu bus stop. We were both more relaxed and jovial with each other. The awkward moments were gone for now. It was quite apparent we both needed a Time Out.
We did a quick lap of Machu Picchu. Fog and clouds obscured the iconic views. For me, it was never about Machu Picchu, it was all about getting to Machu Picchu. Just like it had been in February 2016.
We took a deserted bus down.
On a busy street corner, I tipped Walter well. We said our Goodbyes (Adios) and parted ways.
Sometimes the gap in cultures, age and life experiences can keep people from becoming true “Mi Amigos.”
Happy New Year from the Hilton in Quito, Ecuador. That’s how I roll.
May there be Peace on Earth and less awkward moments for all.