Week 3: Did the Damn Thing

Just DOOO IT.

Shia LaBoeuf/Nike

Well folks, I did it. I hiked Machu Picchu. Which I now know is actually pronounced Machu Peek-chu. Like Pikachu without the “a.” Apparently when we say Macchu Peet-chu, we’re saying something very different to the locals. But, I digress. I’ll start from the beginning.

Cusco

I flew to Cusco from Lima on Wednesday. On the plane, I sat next to two really nice Peruvian ladies who were in their sixties and on their first flight ever!! They were going to Cusco for some R&R. We could only communicate through the Google Translate app and pantomiming as I speak very little Spanish (trying to get better!) and they spoke no English. They thanked me at the end for the nice conversation as they were both terrified and I had made the flight go by quickly and pleasantly. This was particularly nice to hear as I am someone who was petrified of planes for so long and the fact that I could pass on my recently-discovered “calm” about flying to someone else felt like such a full-circle experience. (Also as a personal victory sidenote: I flew my first non-US “budget airline” to get to Cusco, so again, new victories for my aviophobia). Also, it really made me appreciate the universality of emotion and experience– these women and I spoke not a word of one another’s language, and yet, we had an entire plane ride’s worth of conversation and really understood each other. They even took a picture with me at the end of the flight :-).

Funny enough, Cusco is actually at a really high elevation and when people talk about altitude sickness, it’s actually Cusco that gives the problem. Machu Picchu is still pretty high, but Cusco is over 11,000 feet in elevation, whereas Machu Picchu is 8,000. I started taking the altitude meds I was prescribed before leaving the US on Tuesday, and I’m not sure if these pills or the elevation itself made me crazy, but crazy I did get. As soon as I landed in Cusco, my brain started doing crazy things. I really felt so loopy and like I was having an out-of-body experience. My fellow Remoters can attest to this, as they nick-named me “Loopy,” and I was apparently providing lots of entertainment. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like my brain was at a 45 degree angle at all times, like a compass that could not find it’s way back to level north. I was feeling very goofy and could not stop laughing/being silly. It was a really strange feeling, but not entirely unpleasant, and I’m grateful that the altitude didn’t manifest as actually feeling sick or having a splitting headache like others had.

Cusco is a stunning city with so much history. It was actually the Incan capital, and even though Machu Picchu gets all the attention and glory, Cusco is where all the important things went down. Our guide told us that although they don’t know for sure, they think Machu Picchu was more like a seasonal home for the king, whereas his main residence was in Cusco. There is also some crazy Spanish architecture there from when the conquistadors conquered Cusco (although they never got to Machu Picchu, which is why it was lost for so long!) Check out some Cusco pics below (reiterating: was very loopy during this…)

Machu Picchu

In Cusco, I had an AirBNB with 6 of my fellow Remoters. Four of us were doing the MP “trek,” which was basically a two-day hike of MP with an overnight of camping in between. It goes without saying that I was anxious about the MP hike. First of all, most of the people in my group are (or at least seem to be) very athletic/in shape/outdoorsy/adventurous. Growing up in the suburbs of New York raised by nervous Soviet Jews does not make for a very outdoorsy childhood. My hiking experience is nil, my fear of heights (see prior posts) is high, and my clumsiness is ever-present. I felt like the mix of all of these and attempting to keep with a group of trekkers would make for a disaster. Second of all, I’ve never really camped or slept outside. (Or if I have, I have successfully blocked it from my memory). I’m already a finicky sleeper, so the idea of sleeping outside with bears and panthers (???) and spiders and mud and outside noises and sharing a tent with another person was definitely worrisome. Plus, I’m not a morning person.

Thursday the four of us woke up at 4 am to get on a bus to ride to a train to take us to the point to begin our hike. I had rented some hiking boots (my first ever!) and other gear from Cusco. I felt very much like an imposter. I didn’t really get why I was wearing those boots and hat and outfit and was pretending I knew what I was doing. But, this year is all about doing things that terrify me, so there we were. We took an amazing train ride up to the point where we began our trek. On the way, I taught four of my fellow Remoters my favorite Russian card game, Durak, which means “idiot” in Russian. They loved it and we played it all the way there and back. It was actually awesome to share a portion of my childhood/culture with my new friends. It also made me feel like I had a little bit of home with me and comforted/distracted me during an otherwise stressful/terrifying time.

The hike. The hike was incredible. I turned my plane on airplane mode for the two days we were up in the mountains. I committed myself to staying fully present and enjoying everything without needing to post or update. Just being focused on the once-in-a-lifetime thing I was doing. Also, I needed my phone battery to survive 3 days. Also, I didn’t want to distract myself by taking a photo and trip and fall to my death (just being honest). There were parts of the hike where we were merrily talking and laughing as a group, parts we did in total silence, and everything in between. There were times where I absolutely could not look anywhere but my feet because on the right was a straight drop off of a narrow path down the cliffs. Fear of heights, rearing its ugly head! It was exhausting, mentally and physically. The mental exhaustion itself was what shocked me the most. I felt that more than the physical. There were times of course where I really felt my legs or needed to take some breathers, but overall, it was doable. I don’t think I physically would have been able to do the hike two years ago when I was completely sedentary. I think I kept up pretty well, although there were of course those who sped along. By the end, however, I don’t know if it was the altitude again or the mental exhaustion, I again started to feel dissociated from my body. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do the last leg where we finally got to the lookout point over MP. Thankfully, my fellow remotes stepped in and supported me which was awesome.

I feel like this is one of those experiences that I’m not sure I’ll have the words to describe. The views were obviously equally breathtaking, awe-inspiring, terrifying, unbelievable, etc. etc. etc. But mostly, I now understand what people discuss when they talk about “being in nature.” This kind of feeling came over me of calm and beauty and just my human worries falling away. I thought about the Incas and how they scaled these insane mountains with massive stones on their backs to build the Inca trial and all these various places in the Andes thousands of years ago. I thought about how those men and women probably had no idea that generations later there would be people trekking to see the structures they built, rendering them immortal. It really grounds you in a way that nothing else had for me before. I realized that all my trivial issues and sensitivities really meant nothing because I can’t take them with me when I leave. Sorry to get crazy introspective, and maybe this is common sense to some people, but to me it was revelatory. I want to hold on to that feeling as long as possible, the feeling that nothing really, really matters when compared to the vastness of time. It makes it so easy to just get over the daily microagressions and bumps and bruises we all experience as humans. But, I already feel the feeling fading as I’m writing this and getting caught up in the muck of daily drama. I’m hoping that somewhere I can go back to that memory and use it as a touchstone when I get too in my feelings.

We finally got to MP going through the Sun Gate, which was an amazing vantage point. It was around closing time, so there was no one there, we got to experience MP in all its majesty and beauty. I even got to take some moments to myself to enjoy.

Camping was interesting. The company we used prepared this massively elaborate meal for us, which was amazing and unexpected. They already set all the tents up and everything for us, so I didn’t have to do any of the hard labor. It was so impressive that these porters carried all this equipment for 20 people up a mountain, and this is what they do day-in and day-out. A few of us stayed up with our guide and he told us some scary mountain ghost stories, which scared the crap out of me. We eventually went to bed, which I shared with the other Abby on the trip, and let’s just say I did not sleep well. The tent was actually shockingly hot, it felt like a sauna in there, but we couldn’t really open it lest the animals and mud and other outside stuff got in. This trip has really been a master class in functioning on very little sleep, which is funny considering I thought I would be getting much more after leaving a law firm.

Anyway, the next morning, we headed back to MP to actually tour the place and get the history, which for a nerd like me, was awesome. It was very touristy this time around, but our guide was awesome and gave us a lot of detailed backstory and context for all the structures we were seeing. The thing that stuck out in my mind was how intelligent the Incas were and when the Spanish captured the last Inca king, he was able to understand Spanish within a week and converse with them. So fascinating. It’s also so sad that so much of their knowledge is lost because they were trying to avoid the Spanish conquering them and stealing their precious things. We also learned about Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and how the Incans believed in the duality of everything. The sun and the moon, Mother Earth and the Sun Father, male and female. Everything. Yin and yang, baby.

Finally, we returned to Cusco, and my body and mind were totally drained. We actually were supposed to wake up at 4 AM to do a third day the next day to see Rainbow Mountain, but when I heard the guides describe it, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. It required eight hours in the car, an even more laborious and treacherous hike, and the weather was going to be significantly colder (like in the 20s). Unfortunately, I had to tap out. I needed a good night of sleep and I wanted to have a relaxing day exploring the city of Cusco. Maybe it’s considered quitting, but I am choosing to look at it as knowing my limits and what makes me happy. And I’m so glad I did. The next day, I got to walk around the streets of Cusco, met up with my friends, and we happened upon a great day. JG, my roommate, wanted to show us the Marriott in town, and while we were looking around, I got to hold a baby alpaca (see above)!! And apparently, he has status at Marriott, and when they saw this, they let us use the spa for free! So we got a whole amazing day of sauna, steam room, hot tub, nice showers (!!!!), which after the trek we did and how my muscles were aching felt amazing. (Have I used enough exclamation marks???) We then went to a restaurant with amazing views of Cusco (see pics above) and just felt really relaxed.

That night, we went out in Cusco. Cusco is a real party town; people stay out till 6 am there. Also, I don’t know if I have mentioned this, but I heard more Hebrew than Spanish in Cusco. EVERYONE was Israeli. It was wild, I really felt like I was back in Tel Aviv. We even ate at this cafe called The Bagel, which is run by Israelis and I got to have Israeli breakfast! This was a recommendation from two Israeli girls I met with my friend Sarah when we went to Chabad for Shabbat a week ago. All the signs are in Hebrew in Cusco and they are really catering to the Israeli crowd. This was really driven home by the clubs that night. I would say over half the music they played was Israeli and in Hebrew, and when I would look around, the whole crowd knew the words. It was a really fun night– I don’t party and stay out late very often anymore — but sometimes, it’s fun to just let loose and dance with your friends and not have a care in the world. It made me realize how much I’ve been missing that.

The yin and yang of this trip will never cease to amaze me. After an amazing day/night, unfortunately, whatever I had for dinner did not agree with me, and so the food poisoning count for me is up to 2 now in less than a month. When I got home from the clurbbb, I yet again had a sleepless night of running to the bathroom. (Apologies to all my Airbnb roommates…) It’s strange what you can adjust to and consider the new normal– it frankly doesn’t even phase me at this point to have stomach issues.

We are now in our last week in Lima, which is wild. I can’t believe how fast its gone, but we’ve also packed so much into this month. On Saturday we transition to Santiago, Chile, and I am very excited. I will be living with another girl on my trip, Nandita, in Santiago. I am feeling a bit under the weather, but I am trying to keep myself present and enjoy these last few days in this amazing city before we move on. Sorry if this post was a bit stream of consciousness and not as well-thought-out as normal, I’m still digesting it all and recovering from the trip. Enjoy some more pictures of MP below and talk to you from Chile! -ATZ

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