Christmas Eve I was curled in the fetal position inside a tent in the mountain village of Santa Teresa throwing up into a zip lock bag. I was wallowing in my own misery while the sounds of festive joy from an international entourage of Dutch, Israelis, Australians, New Zealanders, Peruvians and Americans provided my background theme. And then there was that damn “Feliz Navidad” song that played on loop all night. In between some dry heaves, I began to laugh hysterically. The irony was overpowering. Here I was again evoking the ghost of Christmas past. The only difference was this time the culprit was not some all-night bender with the jump teammates of yesteryear crushing shots of spirits to the lines of “A Christmas Story”, but some bad food or perhaps bad water. I wondered if this is what people thought about when traveling. Surely not. Everyone loves to look at cool pictures and think– “I want to do that”. But sometimes it cost a little blood, sweat, and stomach acids to get there. Everything has a price. And now I was paying mine.
The trouble with telling good stories is knowing exactly how much truth to tell. I tend to fall in the category of just putting it all out there and letting the reader decide how to interpret it. The truth is just about everything in life is never as romantic as it seems. But once you accept that fact the experiences add to the overall meaning of the moments you spend doing the things you always dreamed about. Every experience I have had abroad or in the military have had some rough patches. This was no different. And besides, what was my alternative? I could be sitting at home, on a couch, watching bowl games and eating Christmas dinner like the rest of the world. But where is the fun in that? Would there be a story to tell? Even the worse travel experiences seem to produce a memory worth telling. And while this was a far cry from being anywhere near the top of my list of worst experiences– I can say I did not wish for a second I was anywhere else.
Two days earlier I embarked on the Salcantay Trek through the Peruvian Andes. My second real trek ever, behind my 2007 slog up to the Base Camp of Mt. Everest. The Camino Salcantay is the alternative to the more popular Inca Trail. It is 5 days and 4 nights of hiking up to about 14,000 feet and back down again. National Geographic’s Adventure Magazine calls it the “Cool Way” to get to Machu Picchu. During the trek we crossed through 5 different “micro-climates” ranging from temperate farmlands, to snowy mountain passes, to overgrown jungles. The landscape was truly amazing. But it made for a layering nightmare: rain jacket on, rain jacket off, back on. At times I was soaked in sweat, other times soaked in water, and still other times my feet were frozen stiff by snow and ice.
Day 2 was by far the most physically challenging. We started hiking at 7 am and did not finish until around 7 pm that night. We ascended up to about 14,000 feet across the Salcantay pass and back down again. By Day 3 we were down in the jungle and made it to Santa Teresa for Christmas Eve. (When my traveler’s revenge caught up to me.) By Day 4 we were on the trail again to Aguas Calientes– the major town at the base of Machu Picchu. The final day we arrived at the fabled “Lost City of the Incas”. I found myself wondering how they might feel about so many tourist visiting such a sacred place. It really had been turned into a Peruvian version of Disneyland– complete with buses shuttling tourist up and down, souvenir shops, gates etc. Nevertheless, Machu Picchu was a remarkable site to behold. The architecture and stone work of the place was nothing short of amazing. Still I am more appreciative of the journey we took to get there (we could have simply taken a train) and the fellow travelers we had the opportunity to meet and share more than a few laughs with.