Peru, as a country and culture, is so geographically and culturally distant to me, as an Indian, that to imagine exploring it, as a traveler, is beyond my everyday imagination. Even as a tourist, when one plans vacations and holidays, one doesn’t think of Latin America as an instant holiday destination—not because it isn’t worthy of being a relaxing spot, but simply because of the fact that it is so far away and situated in the other end corner of the world. The mind is often unable to wander that far, let alone our bodies and spirits. It is only after I came back that I Google-d just how far it is and the number speaks for itself: 16,762 kilometers. So, no, under usual circumstances, one wouldn’t plan or imagine a tour in the far-off Peruvian nation. Neither did I, until I learned I have to be there for work.
I am thankful to my job that lets me travel to different places. Peru, by far, has been the farthest I have ever travelled in my life. I also had zero idea about the country and its culture. The only tiny bell that rang in my head was that of Machu Picchu. It made sense to visit it, given that I was travelling over 16,000 kilometres away from home and it was entirely legitimate to push for seeing one of the “wonders of the world”. (it’s #100 on my to-do list). It is also quite a wonder to reach there, by the way. The nearest airport is Cuzco, from where you travel to the nearest train station, Ollantaytambo in the Urubamba valley, and take a train to Aguas Calientes—the last train station to the wonder. From Aguas Calientes starts a bus that takes you to the montana, from where you can enter the world heritage site and explore by walking and climbing. This is just ONE of the many ways of reaching the wonder. Here’s a link that will give you more ideas, especially if you are into hiking and trekking.
Cuzco will awaken the dead shopper in you, especially if you are a fan of colorful woollen. It is not a very big city, so a lot of the exploring and discovery happens on foot. And you cannot miss the countless stores on the streets that sell souvenirs, llama and alpaca wool and more. On one particularly sunny morning, I decided to walk alone on the street. Sometimes, all it takes is a bright red lip color and a pair of cool sunglasses. All I had was an engrossing book, some cash and a desire to soak up the sun. It was a memorable 2 hour walk, as I roamed around the lanes and corners, sat on benches, eavesdropped on a few couples, tried to make sense of the Spanish being spoken around me, observed the school uniform of young girls with neatly plaited hair, kept an eye out for (spitting) llamas and ogled at the skirts worn by some old, indigenous women. It was quite a satiating experience—to be the Indian woman (often the only one for miles ahead) trying to be an insider in an outside space.
I decided to enter a brightly colorful store that had a beautiful red muffler hanging at its entrance. With the desire to look around initially, I ended up buying two pullovers, one poncho, two mufflers and a sweatshirt for myself. My pockets felt empty, my heart felt full. As I raced my mind about how to negotiate the price of so many purchases, the storeowner who happened to be a lady gave me a small girl toy. “She looks you, Senorita,” she said. I don’t know if this was a marketing gimmick or a genuine friendly gesture but I thought it deserved a reciprocation. I gave her a warm hug and she Namaste-d me. The Senorita, today, sits proudly in my home in India today.
Cuzco reminded me of Manali very much–a small, quaint town in Himachal Pradesh in North India that also boasts of colorful woollen all over town. But Cuzco wins extra points for being friendly to non Spanish speakers. Also, Cuzco is situated around 3,400 meters above sea level (11,200 feet). So it is normal to feel dizzy and heavy on the day you arrive, because the human body take time to get acclimatised to the high elevation. My girlfriends and I did experience some dizziness, although drowning it in coca tea felt like the most appropriate thing to do. It’s also good practise before climbing montana Machu Picchu, in case you are thinking of climbing up till the peak. It is only after you reach the peak, when it hits you that walking in Cuzco town, in comparison, is a cakewalk.
Our journey towards the montana started in the most traditional way. We utilised Inca Rail and were happy to be on a train in the Latin America. It felt comfortable and as touristy as it could possibly get. Not a morning person at all, the excitement to go to Machu Picchu helped me get up on the day of my visit at 5.30 am. The bus ride from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the site is not more than 20 minutes, but that time period is enough for you to understand just how far and high you are traveling. A look at the window and the view around you could either give an adrenalin rush or poke the worst height fears buried deep inside you. There is literally just one route that the bus follows; everything else around you is wilderness. Tall trees, breath of fresh air and after a few minutes, low-lying clouds. I was made aware of my insignificance in such a surrounding. It felt strangely blissful.
The entrance to Machu Picchu felt like any other heritage site–a long line at the entrance, tourists flouting and speaking in multiple languages trying to catch your attention and a horde of tourists taking selfies and photographs at every spot. I could hear crowds speaking so many languages–German, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, English, French and Telugu (surprise! surprise!). The Telugu group and I exchanged a “we-know-each-other” glance, although we didn’t and neither did I speak or understood Telugu. It made me smile, to feel a sense of strange belonging and solidarity despite not knowing the language at all. As the walk inside the heritage site began, we spotted a few llamas minding their own business. The animal was the ultimate exotic species for many travellers and I could only silently pray that they don’t spit on irritating humans.
The climb to the montana is not something everyone undertakes–it is entirely optional and something to pursue for only those who have the strength and will power to climb. At that point, as I stood at the start of this climb, all I considered was the fact that my home lay several miles away. If I have come this far, I have to go for it. And I did, mentally making a note of boosting my will power and confidence as the climb elevates. We were told it will take 2 hours to climb, which I nonchalantly dismissed looking at the trail. It looked like a bunch of steps and I couldn’t fathom why it would take 120 minutes to climb them. The steps had a different story waiting for me, of course.
The climb, honestly, can only be described as endless. It felt like I have been climbing and walking forever, with no sight of the end of the tunnel. Interestingly though, since the route to climb up and down was the same, I encountered several climbers who were on their way back after finishing their climb up. Each one of them had a distinct smile on their face, perhaps that of accomplishment or even a sense of harmless superiority of having conquered the peak. Each one of them gave us a look of pity mixed with encouragement. Their faces seemed to suggest that they sympathised with our panting breaths, with promising eyes about the end of the journey being all worth it.
As I panted my way up, I started thinking about climbing down. It suddenly felt like an impossible thing to do, because I had already been climbing for more than 90 minutes and the thought of climbing down exhausted me more. As the climb escalates, so does the level of steep in the mountain. It starts to feel more difficult, as you have sweated and climbed enough while you reach that level of sharp and edgy heights. One small misjudgment and you are bound to fall on the rocky terrain.
I had started this mammoth climb with my girlfriends, but we had separated since owing to our varying climb speeds. Approximately ten minutes before reaching the peak, when my dying legs had almost convinced my brain to give up, a lady, who looked as old as my mother, looked at me from atop and screamed Vamos! Vamos! (C’mon! C’mon!) , clapping her hands rigorously to snap my brain out of demotivation. She didn’t speak English but spoke the language of determination and that was enough for me to not give up.
Exactly ten minutes later (truly, after 120 minutes of starting the climb), I reached the coveted spot. My sweaty eyes spotted a bunch of people of different nationalities and ethnicities. Some sat on the spot there, some were laughing and grinning, most were engaged in different selfie poses. I felt the world go deaf. I couldn’t hear anyone or anything, except the roaring wind. I could no longer smell my own sweating body. All I sniffed were clouds, whose dance around me reminded me of the smell of impending rain. The world stood still as I let the wind and clouds devour me. My legs had stopped, my heart was racing. I found a giant rock at the peak spot and sat there sipping the last few drops of water I carried in my flask.
I shut my eyes and sat there for several minutes, fighting tears leaking from the corner of my eye. In the middle of that crowd of 10-12 people, every one saw me wiping tears running down my cheeks. Yet, no one asked why. They seemed to know. They looked like they all had a similar experience when they reached the peak. They smiled approvingly–as if the tears were needed to cleanse me in some strange way. I smiled back at them.
An Irish couple kindly offered to click a photographic evidence of my achievement. They asked me if I was alone, and I replied yes. I knew my girlfriends were around, had probably climbed up already or were on the way. But it felt right to say yes.
Yes, I was alone, and I had never been happier.