A View From the Andes

The F word, and how turning fifty was a little less painful when spent hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu!

When my husband asked me, what I wanted for my fiftieth birthday, without hesitation I blurted out, “I want to go to Machu Picchu … in Peru.” I know he was thinking more along the lines of a piece of jewelry or some such tangible goody, but honestly that no longer held any interest for me. “I don’t want things, I want experiences,” I told him. “I want some new perspectives.”

So, last spring, I went on a trek with my husband and two of my three college aged sons, to explore the ancient Incan ruins at Machu Picchu. This journey had been on my travel “to do” list for awhile, after having read several inspiring articles. The occasion of my birthday was just the right excuse to bring it to fruition.

The sights were breathtaking; the trek was extremely challenging, and the experience as a whole, is etched forever in my memory. But what I believe left the deepest impression upon me, were the unsung heroes of the trip, the porters; the native Andean men who accompanied us trekkers, throughout our high altitude adventure.

Accompany is not really an accurate depiction of what these bronzed supermen did. They were not hiking alongside of us looking for hummingbirds and digitally capturing the orchid laden vistas. But rather, these perennially pleasant men, carried unwieldy, hundred pound bundles of supplies on their backs, from campsite to campsite. They cooked three meals a day, cleaned up, dealt with all kinds of waste removal, broke camp and attended to any and all needs that we had; and most remarkably, with an ever present smile.

How sobering it was to see their bruised and battered toes peeking out of their well worn leather sandals as they ran at astonishing speeds, up and down the treacherous, rocky mountain paths; the very same paths that took me and my fellow trekkers, hours and hours to negotiate … in our costly, brand named hiking boots.

There were about fifteen men in all, and whether they cooked the food, set up the camp or tended to the bathrooms, they did their jobs with great integrity and an obvious sense of pride; despite the hard work and meager wages. Each man earned what was equivalent to about $35.00 (plus tips), for their four days of service.

I looked upon these men with a great deal of respect and admiration and yet an undeniable feeling of compassion. Their physical abilities were incredible and the simplistically happy approach they brought to their jobs was stunning; but how could they be so happy, when they worked so hard for so little?

I reflected on this many times throughout the days we spent together. I considered the possibility that maybe my empathy was misplaced and that perhaps these gentle men with the easy smiles were truly content with their situation; maybe I was confusing my definition of happiness with theirs. The kind look in their eyes made me wonder if they actually felt sorry for me, since I was the one trying to take a bite out of their world in my own unavoidably American way. The more I considered their plight, the more I realized that I needed to rid myself of the notion that they aspired to my lifestyle when in reality, I was embracing theirs.

After all, I was the one who chose to fly thirty-seven hundred miles to walk in their footsteps; to see the sacred llamas grazing amidst their ancestral ruins and to savor the sweet delight of their native cuisine. It was I who sought out the challenge of trudging up their steep mountain passes … out of my element and gasping for air.

By trips end, I came to realize that the porters, actually enjoyed the greatest gift of all; the pleasure of sharing their world and their customs with me and my companions. I was reminded of this each morning at six AM, when I would awake to the sound of a faint “knock” on my tent. A voice would cheerfully sing, “Good morning Miss. You want coca tea?” I would jump out of my cozy sleeping bag and scramble to open the zipper on my tent flap. “Good morning, good morning,” I would sing back. “Yes… please, coca tea!”

As much as I adored this morning ritual, I can say with confidence that the pleasure was truly a shared one. This delightful way of greeting the glorious Andean sunrise became a daily celebration; one that joyfully connected us to one another, if only, for one brief moment in time.