June 18, 2006

Day 9: Q’ente / Machu Picchu

Students took a short train trip to Chachabamba and hiked to the famous Inca ruins at Winay Wayna. Here, they joined the standard Inca Trail which cuts across the ridge to Intipunku (“the door of the sun”)—a major entry point for Machu Picchu. After touring the famous ruins, students spent the night in Aguas Calientes.

Live field report

Day 9 // June 18, 2006 // Jill Millkey

Today began with shouts from Casey and Dave, who seemed to be way too awake given that it was only 6 am. As Este and I gingerly sat up (wondering whether or not it was safe to venture from our sleeping bags) we heard the lines ‘Give me an “M”. Give me an “A”. Give me a “C” … Dave … how do you spell the rest of Machu Picchu?’. Never fear though, Dave was on top of things and supplied the rest of the cheer. Believe it or not, watching this from the safety of the tent while drinking coca tea actually DID get me in the mood for hiking up a mountain, again. As you probably know, today was the Supers big day. It was our equivalent of summit day—it was a day for excitement, enthusiasm, and swift hiking. Today was the day to reach Machu Picchu, the glory of Peru, the destination of a years worth of preparation.

At first, I must admit, our hike seemed to be a rather easy one. “Over the rock, into a gulley, step left, steep drop right” I found myself repeating to the girl I was guiding. It was a hike through a jungle—greenery everywhere … the types of things you imagine to be within the reaches of the Amazon. There were exotic pink four-petaled flowers, rosebud shaped cacti over 5 feet tall, and even snakes slithering around (according to our guide at least)

I am personally used to trails which are at a relatively low elevation engulfed by looming pines trees, so in a way, I felt right at home on the first part of the path. Boy, I was in for a big reality check as soon as we headed up the mountain. In my mind, reality hit me immediately after crossing the first stream. From that stream the path wound its way up over a series of switchbacks going up, up, up to a checkpoint where we apparently had to reach in 3 hours (or be “turned back” by officials. Never fear, we made it with an hour and a half to spare).

As I led my partner up the switchbacks of the mountain using the backpack method—the blind person hooks a hand onto the backpack in front of them, I thought back to yesterday when I played the role of a blind person and used the backpack method on a flat trail. I dare you to try it and see how long you can go without tripping or opening your eyes or just feeling so lost without the sense many of us rely so heavily on and therefore don’t quite know how to grasp the art of scanning the ground ahead with a trekking pole for ankle-breaking rocks. It is absolutely baffling to me to think about what these blind people, now some of my best friends, are able to do because of their years of practice.

The seconds turned to minutes and the minutes to hours as we trudged up the mountain—lunch flew by as well as the changing scenery going from jungle/mosquitos to open mountain shrubbery then back to a damp, high altitude, rainforest setting with uneven Incan rocky paths. All of a sudden, I found my group ascending, actually more like crawling up, a steep set of stairs. Looking up (and almost falling backwards as a result), I saw the excited faces of our faster hiking group peering down poised with cameras to record that moment in time. In my opinion, the fact that this group wanted to record something as simple as ascending a flight of steps, even if they did mark 10 minutes away from the Machu Picchu entrance, says a lot about this group—you could tell that everyone was rooting for each other to succeed. In fact, we didn’t want to leave for the Sungate, the entrance to Machu Picchu perched atop a ridgeline, until everyone had arrived.

Sure enough, the step over the Sungate’s threshold proved as dramatic (equipped with several video cameras) and mystical as I had expected. But surprisingly, it wasn’t the stunning view of Machu Picchu that blew my mind way. What blew me away stared me right back in the face—it was the sight of the faces of the people, my friends, who had battled through knee injuries, altitude sickness, and lack of sleep to reach this treasure of land. I saw the joy of just existing in the moment, relief the climb up was over, and then peace amidst the chaos of whooping and grinning—the deep inner peace in which you know you have achieved your goal successfully … and the peace in knowing that you did not do it alone, but with the help of people who have pooled their different characteristics to make the 30 mile hiking/camping trek seem as natural as being at home.

It was on this note that we took our first step onto the sacred grounds of Machu Picchu.

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Letters of Support

Wow! Your first two days sound wonderful. We are envious of all of you having this terrific experience. Keep up the great teamwork and have many exciting adventures. Great picture of you, Alysha, on day two report.

Alysha's great aunt Jane and great uncle David

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