Priceless

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February 23, 2013 by southerninversion

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Greeting my sister as she walked out of the airport terminal in Lima, Peru was an amusing spectacle. While I waited at the arrival gate, amongst the hoard of people, I noticed all the taxi drivers holding crudely written signs for their respective clients they were to transport. I laughed, as I was solely standing there, with a big grin on my face, waiting patiently for Heather with our driver by my side. I described her to him, in case I didn’t see her, “Long blond hair, thin frame, pretty, average height”, and I thought, probably with a smile matching mine. To be there as she arrived was something I had planned a few weeks prior, to make sure she was at ease, and that we started our trip on the right note. Yet Heather’s first words, stated jokingly, after we exchanged a brief embrace was, “John, you didn’t have a sign for me?”. I just smiled and thought to myself, “Here we go again…”.
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After getting in the cab and traversing much of Lima around the midnight hour, we chatted about various subjects, and Heather caught me up on funny stories from the holidays about all of our nieces and nephew, whom we both adore. We finally arrived to the hotel and I ended up having to pay the taxi driver 80 soles ($32), for riding with him to pick my sister up, and the transport back to the hotel, all of which was supposed to be included in our stay. Speaking of the hotel, it was more of a ‘hospedaje’ or a motel, that was surely not going to be up to par with my sisters high standards. Our outdated bedroom with mediocre linens and bedding, immediately caused Heather to ask to borrow my travel pillow to sleep on, due to the dread of her having to rest her head on the crumby one provided. She further complained about the shower and the bathroom, me cutting my fingernails, and even my blog (for me not to write about her in my ‘journal’, as she called it). Well, at least I held out for three weeks or more. At that point I realized I had fully misjudged several things in relation to our upcoming, epic trip to the ruins of Machu Picchu. First off, if my sister is unhappy or unsatisfied, she is not hesitant to voice her opinion or concern, and her complaints are not always phrased gracefully. Secondly, the difference between her tastes and mine of what is acceptable and copacetic from food, to clothes, to hotels, etc. are vastly distinct. Thirdly, she usually always gets her way, she always has, and she probably always will. Therefore all the reservations I made for hotels, and most of the preliminary planning for the trip was moot, so we had to basically start anew.

However, we ended up staying in the shitty hotel another night because I had already paid $100 for two nights in advance, based on its three star rating, nice looking photos, and good reviews on hotels.com. I later realized that I probably should have opted for the four star level! (We also determined Heather is a four star hotel person, especially in Peru, and when booked on deceiving websites). The first day in Lima, we left the hotel relatively early and went to buy some toiletries at the local megamart, big-box shopping center called ‘Wong’, which must be Peru’s version of Wal-Mart. We bought some some sunscreen, (which is really expensive in Peru, $25, perhaps because it is imported, and they don’t use it, or even need it). We were applying the sunscreen outside the store, under the shade of a small tree in the parking lot, when Heather noticed an unmistakably huge banner hanging from the store’s facade, advertising Cirque del Soleil’s, ‘Varekai’. We had no other plans so we decided to look for tickets. We walked down to Starbucks, to get our coffee fix, and to try to use the wifi, as I proceeded to make a series of phone calls attempting to purchase tickets for that nights show. After a half hour of broken Spanish, mixed with Starbucks background noise and muzak, I learned that ‘Wong’ was also the ticket vendor. So we returned to the store and bought a pair of $100 seats, the least expensive available. 20130225-134336.jpg
We then decided to head down to the beach for the afternoon. Although it turned out that the beach in Lima wasn’t so picturesque as we had imagined. It was crowded, dirty, and unappealing to either of us. So instead, we bypassed the beach for the better option of pisco sour cocktails and appetizers at three consecutive upscale, lounge type bars, that lined the beachfront. After a few drinks, we ended up going to this super tourist trap restaurant, called ‘La Rosa Nautica’, which was situated at the end of a pier, in the Miraflores beach district. It was touted as one of the top five restaurants in Lima by our taxi driver. Although, its main redeeming quality was the view of surfers catching waves, and the sunset on the horizon. After spending some time, and a little bit more money at this mediocre restaurant, we were ready to head for the Circus! 20130225-134422.jpg
Varekai‘ was super cool, and we both enjoyed it a lot. It was only the second Cirque del Soleil show I’ve seen. The first was 10 years ago in Las Vegas, also with Heather. The setup to ‘Varekai’ was maybe the most intriguing aspect, because it was actually an elaborate big top tent, similar to what you would imagine from an old historic circus, except on a grander scale. The performances themselves were very dramatic as well, although the plot of the show was somewhat hard to follow. Apparently, it was related the angel Icarus’ flight too close to the sun, but rather than falling and drowning in the sea, he falls into a forest of strangely wild creatures. He then goes through a series of events in order to prepare his return. All of the acrobatics were astounding, and each performer, virtuosically impressive. My favorite acts included: the aerial straps, speed juggling, a triple trapeze, and an aerial hoop display. When the show ended, we exited the building and ended up by the main highway. We were disoriented, so I asked a lady for directions, and we ended up sharing a taxi with her and her daughter, for only 9 soles, a quarter of the price it cost to get to the venue. I then realized how much we were being ripped off on all the taxi rides we had taken. 20130225-153453.jpg
The next morning we caught a flight to Cusco ($250 each), and checked into a much nicer hotel called La Morada suites. Heather later commented that this is the type of place she wants in Los Angeles, a modern style loft with a nice kitchen, full bathroom, and simple living space downstairs. The upstairs was complete with upscale modern wooden furniture and a large flatscreen tv hanging from the wall, opposite the plush, down comforter covered, King size bed. This was a major upgrade from the rat hole in Lima, and probably the nicest hotel I had stayed in during my trip, up to that point, all for the reasonable price of $70 per night. So with the positive hotel situation, Heather was comfortable and satisfied, yet we still needed to confirm our trek to Machu Picchu with the travel agency.

Cusco sits at an elevation of 3,400 meters, (10,200 feet), and we really started feeling the affects of the altitude immediately after arriving. We were having trouble breathing, exhausted, just walking up and down a simple flight of stairs. So we drank ‘mate de coca’, (coca leaf tea), and got some Soraichi pills, (altitude sickness), to cope with the change, and relieve our throbbing headaches. The second day in Cusco, we eventually made our way down to the tour company and found out the trip to Machu Picchu via the ‘Salkantay route’, (the route I originally planned on because it was ‘less touristy and more adventourous’), was unavailable, as they lacked enough participants. Instead we opted for the ‘traditional Inca trail’ trek, which ended up being more expensive ($335), but we were quite lucky to book the trip. Many tourists sit on waiting lists and sign up months in advance for this same trip. However, the trip was available because it was the rainy season, and many people avoid the Inca trail during this time of year. Also, the trail is closed for maintenance during the entire month of February. So the trip was set and we were due to leave before dawn two days later, thus giving us more time for our bodies to acclimatize. 20130225-140641.jpg
We left the tour office to get lunch at a ‘cheaper’ place, per my request, because I felt like I was hemorrhaging money left and right. After only four days with Heather in town, I had already spent close to $1500 (including plane tickets, hotels, food, taxi’s, and other trip costs). A bit later, Heather and I ended up getting in an argument at lunch, as we were both feeling ill and irritable and probably giving each other a hard time. Our relationship as siblings has not always been easy and we have definitely had our moments, but our relationship has improved dramatically, especially in recent years, as we have matured. Growing up together, only 20 months apart in age, we had a typical brother and sister relationship. We got along really well for the most part, but we also fought and argued over the petty things kids argue over, such as crossing an imaginary line of personal space on family road trips, sharing things, or if either one of us got something the other wanted. As we aged, we went through junior high and high school together, evolving from riding on the same bus, to me riding in her car, when she got her license. Although the habits in our relationship from our youth carried through to later years, often with us sinking back into familiar roles. Even still, it is a fine line with her sometimes, as we both try to rise above our old interactions, and try to treat each other with the respect and love we deserve.

Throughout the last couple trips I’ve taken with Heather, to Napa Valley in California this past August 2012, and this trip to Peru, I have learned a few tricks in dealing with my sister. I know that she gets extremely irritable when hungry, she needs coffee to properly function in the early morning, and if I’m starting to annoy her it is best to just back off. In general however, I would say that we get along pretty well, enough that two grown adult siblings can travel together. Most people we meet first think we are dating or married, because we look nothing alike, then they are surprised to learn that a brother and sister are taking a trip together. A lot of friends and acquaintances I’ve met in the past couple of years don’t have that type of relationship with their siblings and I think we are lucky in that regard. 20130225-153347.jpg
Anyways, after the disagreement at lunch, we decided to either head back to the hotel to get some rest, as we were both groggy and agitated, or to try to catch a yoga class, if the teacher decided to show up. (Our first attempt that morning was a bust). As luck would have it, we barely made it in time for yoga and it was just what the doctor ordered. We both left the class feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, and we even ended up meeting a new friend, Linda from Germany, who was going to be on our same trip to Machu Picchu. I invited her to dinner with us at ‘Pacha Mama’, (Mother Earth), the same restaurant we had gone to the night before, because the food was great. The following morning we enjoyed ‘breakfast in bed’ room service at the hotel, including fried eggs and fresh fruit, which was apparently complimentary, but we had neglected it up until then. The rest of our time spent in Cuzco consisted of another yoga session, per Heather’s request, an interesting trip to the Chocolate museum, shopping at the local black market for counterfeit goods (DVD’s, fake outdoor apparel, shoes, clothing, & electronics), and finally a local bus ride to the ‘Sacred Valley’.
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This bus ride was one of the highlights of my time spent with Heather in Peru. The distressed expression on her face as we got on this small, overcrowded, smelly transport, that eventually broke down before we even got to our destination, was hilarious, to say the least. Immediately after sitting down we were bombarded by old women, and children selling everything from sliced watermelon, to sweet bread, mixed nuts, ice cream, and a variety of other snacks and artisan crafts before we had even left the roadside terminal. Soon after, this innocent old lady comes over to Heather and asks her sweetly in Spanish to get up out of her seat. To which Heather replied, “No, no… No gracias”, thinking she was also selling something. I then overheard her, after the second or third time she had asked us to get up. I translated her request and we realized we were in her seats. We were both dying laughing at the miscommunication, and swiftly changed seats. This became our ongoing joke of the trip, “No, no… No gracias”. When we finally arrived to the ‘Sacred Valley’, we had a nice vegetarian meal as the sun set, and were able to buy a few artisan handicrafts, scarfs, etc., at exceptionally cheap prices, from this lady at the crafts market, just as they were closing. 20130225-135430.jpg
We woke early en la madrugada, (at dawn), the following day to meet one of our guides, Jorge, in the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square. He came to gather us just as the sun was cresting over the old Cathedral and the other well preserved,15th century, Spanish colonial buildings in the plaza. After another incredibly foul smelling, cramped, three hour bus ride we arrived just shy of the start of the Inca trail. From there we prepared our packs; basically clothing, personal items, and water. (The porters carried everything else; cooking and camping gear, and all the food). My sister was the only person in our entire group to hire a porter to carry her personal pack as well. To her credit, it was only an additional $100, or $25 per day, and she said it was the best money she has ever spent. Shortly thereafter, we made our generic introductions, “Hi, my name is, I’m from, etc.”, at the insistence of our guide, Alvaro, who stated, “Ok champions, ahora, somos una familia, y nos cuidamos”, (that since we are a family we needed to get to know each other and look out for one another). The group was incredibly diverse, with multiple nationalities represented. The USA was present with us and a couple of other guys from California. There was a particularly boisterous crew from England, three cousins from Chile, and their gay friend Luis, two Brazilian guys, our German friend, Linda, a Spanish girl, Patricia, and lastly a disparate group of ‘Frenchies’, who chose to isolate themselves from the group overall, and were not altogether friendly. 20130225-135546.jpg 20130225-135632.jpg
The Inca trail was all it was hyped up to be and extremely well maintained. It was free from trash and debris, in contrast to what I had read online, that described it as a ‘tourist highway littered with trash’. Just before we started, little Peruvian women were aggressively selling last minute ‘survival’ items for the trail, including hats, bandanas, and ponchos. Heather and I each bought a bandana, blue and red respectively. Although I got the feeling, not only then, but multiple times in Peru, that I was simply a dollar sign, and that Peruvians were simply out to get as much money from us as they possibly could. This is in part because so much of their economy depends on tourism and the cash flow from tourists. Anyways, to start the trail we had to cross bridge over the raging Urubamba river, that lead all the way to Aguas Calientes, the basecamp town for the national park. The first day was moderately easy hiking, allowing for all of us to acclimatize our bodies to exerting energy at high altitude. We also stopped relatively frequently for water breaks, and additionally at every snack kiosk, selling Gatorade and candy, that were conveniently located along the trail. After an hour lunch consisting of a brothy soup, and small fried trout filets, accompanied with powdered potatoes, we got back to it. A few more kilometers of hiking up a moderate incline brought us to the first camp site, which overlooked the majestic valley below, and the 6000 meter high, cragged peaks in the distance, snow capped with glaciers.
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Each morning we were startled awake by the porters, who kindly brought us coca tea after rattling the zippers of our tent entrance. This morning happened to be particularly special because it was my sister Heather’s 35th birthday. She had wanted to arrive at Machu Picchu on this day, but the timing didn’t quite work out with our plan. Regardless, everyone knew it was her birthday, due to her timely introduction the day before. As she struggled to get her things together and join everyone in the breakfast tent, I wondered what was taking her so long. Eventually she appeared at the far side of the oblong shaped tent and was instantly showered with attention, and serenaded with the ‘birthday song’ in three different languages, first English (prompted by me), then Spanish, and finally a broken chorus in French. After eating cold pancakes with dulce de leche (a South American staple, considered an extravagant breakfast), we were on our way to the second day of the trek, often considered the most physically grueling, due to 1500 meter gain in elevation over the mountain pass.
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It was cool to see my sister interacting with the other people in the group and making bonds, if only temporary, they were still meaningful, especially during such a memorable experience. She really got along well with several people on the trip, including Linda, our yoga buddy, Patricia, the Spaniard, Luis, the friendly Chilean, and the Brits, Helen, Nathan, and the incredibly boisterous, and somewhat obnoxious, Olivia. I on the other hand was laying low, making connections with a few of the aforementioned people, in addition to the two Brazilian guys. As the trip wore on, I enjoyed the solitary moments away from the ‘group’ experience whenever I could get it. I wanted to really experience the feel of the mighty ‘Inca trail’ and attempt to tap into their ancient spirit, if it still existed. For me, traveling in large groups can be frustrating and somewhat annoying at times because you are only as fast as the slowest member, and you have no choice as to who will be joining you on your trip. This can be an amazing thing if surrounded by like minds and personalities that mesh well, or in contrast it can be burdensome and negatively shape your experience. Moreover, It also teaches patience, sharpens communication skills, and shapes the discipline to handle situations that don’t go as well as expected. I have taken part in so many ‘group’ tours over the past few months during my trip, that I have almost become immune to the ‘group’ experience. I often find myself more interested in the place, retreating somewhat from the people in the group, seeking solace.20130225-140227.jpg
Midway through the second day came the big challenge of the ascent to the pass. A vertical climb up a series of switchback-like staircases, to reach the bridge toward to next valley. Thanks to the additional ‘Soraichi’ pills I had purchased in Cusco, to handle the elevation, I was clear headed and breathing normally, despite the steep pitch. Additionally, Heather and I had rented trekking poles to assist our knees in the repetitive ascents and descents, relative to the nature of the trail. These poles came in especially handy this day and allowed me to get to the summit of the pass much easier. Heather celebrated her birthday in style, huffing it up the mountain, yet taking her time enjoying the views, resting intermittently, and also encouraging some of the other guys who were not doing as well. She commented jokingly later that night that she “might have died”, without the porter’s assistance, carrying the weight of her pack. Once at the pass we took a group picture, minus a few stragglers and then headed down to the second day’s camp, arriving just after 3pm in the afternoon, with everyone exhausted.
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Heather and I enjoyed the two small bottles (375 ml) of Chilean vino tinto, (red wine), that the porters had carried for us, as we sat on the hillside overlooking the rain clouds hovering above the mountainous jungle landscape below. I decided to lead some of the people in the group through an impromptu yoga class in the space beside the tents. Although I am by no means an expert, it was nice to relax and stretch after the intense hike. Before dinner I learned a new card game called ‘Shithead’, that was really fun, with the object being to be the first person to relinquish their cards. The third day required traversing up and down a series of hills and past several other ancient Incan ruins. Some of the ruins consisted of several religious sites where sacrificial ceremonies were performed, while others were ‘security controls’, that the Incas had in place to monitor the trail, and to keep invaders from trespassing. It was fascinating to learn about their communication methods using woven fabrics and particular weaves to account for agricultural production tallies, due to their lack of a written language. The end of the third day brought us to a cliffside overlook camp spot with a 360 degree, panoramic view of the tropical valley. We also were fortunate to have several other Inca ruin sites within a five minute walk, down or across the adjoining mountain. The ruins at the bottom of an extensive stone staircase below was spectacular. For both Heather and I, it held the most spirit and feel of the Inca culture, even more so than Machu Picchu, because it was devoid of tourists, it was solitary, and also incredibly well preserved. The ancient aqueduct systems were still functional and even provided the water for that night’s dinner and a refill for the final day. 20130225-140315.jpg
We didn’t get much sleep that night as torrential rains and powerful thunderstorms showered our campsite and shook the tent throughout the night. We were awoken at 2am by the porters in order to start the final day’s trek toward Machu Picchu, with the goal to arrive at sunrise. Heather and I started the early morning hike in the front of the pack, directly behind Jorge, the guide. We were soon overtaken by the seven aggressively fast hiking ‘Frenchies’, who seemed to view the trip as a competition, always eager to be in the lead. We couldn’t stand them treading on our heels in the dark much longer, so we let them pass. Soon after, we realized we were all alone, Heather and I, as Luis, the Chilean, had twisted his ankle a kilometer or more up the trail, and was being attended to. An hour later we were all at the overlook for the quintessential view we had all been waiting for. As the foggy mist slowly lifted we could just barely see the first images of the ruins of Machu Picchu, in all its glory. After literally a hundred pictures, we continued to snake our way down to the site and prepare for our guided tour. 20130225-140404.jpg 20130225-140425.jpg
Machu Picchu was grand. It was immaculate and the construction amazingly precise. It was built on a 60 degree slope with a river on both sides of the impending valley, several thousand meters below. Each polished, dry stone was carefully extracted, each slightly different, and all custom fit to match its corresponding neighbor. The stones were convex and concave respectively, cut in this fashion to resist the seismic activity in the area. Our guide Alvaro lead the tour and explained repeatedly that the Incas never wasted any resources and they incorporated all the knowledge learned from past civilizations and conquered tribes into theirs. Machu Picchu was believed to have been built around 1450, then abandoned less than a century later, during the Spanish conquest. Although it was never discovered by the Spanish, it lay dormant and unknown to the world until 1911. During an expedition trying to find ‘El Dorado’, or the fictitious ‘Lost City of Gold’, Hiram Bingham, a Yale University professor, was shown the ruins by a young Peruvian boy. We saw the most important aspects of the ruins, including the religious sites where rituals were performed, the meeting rooms, and the astronomically significant platforms located along the highest ridge. After the tour we stayed around several hours to take a couple hundred more photos and relish the experience as much as possible in our depleted state. 20130225-140839.jpg 20130225-140940.jpg
The bus ride down from the mountain for $10, was a worthwhile expense as our bodies were already taxed at that point and virtually incapable of another 3 hour hike down to Aguas Calientes. Once in town, we had a couple beers and decided to check out the ‘aguas termales’ (hot springs), from which the town derives its name. Heather forgot a towel and flip flops, so she bought them just down the street from the ‘pool’. When we got to the entrance gate about 20 people were walking up the hill toward the springs and I asked the guard a few questions, namely how many other people were in the ‘pool’. He told me only 20, which wasn’t accurate, and based on Heather’s comments and facial expressions in relation to the photos of the springs we decided against entering. The photos showed dozens of people in close quarters, wading, through concrete pools of apparently dirty, brown water. This was not appealing. 20130225-140958.jpg
Instead of going to the hot springs we opted for a massage. This ended up being probably the worst massage I’ve ever had. Not only was it 30 minutes short of the hour we paid for, but my sister and I shared the same room, on two different tables, separated by a thin sheet curtain hanging from the ceiling. We laid on the tables and heard each other’s therapist mimicking the same karate chop maneuvers in succession. My therapist managed to give me rug burn on my thigh, to the extent that each of my hair follicles were red, inflamed, and then scabbed over the next day. After the ‘massage’, if you could call it that, we walked through the town, had a beer, and then decided to look for another place to eat, prior to our train leaving the station. At this point, we got into another fight, as I was again wanting to save some money, and avoid an overpriced, low quality tourist trap type restaurant. However, being exhausted and slightly brain dead from the trip, I was unable to explain the fact that I just wanted to buy some empanadas for the train ride. Therefore Heather made some snappy comments to which I overreacted and stormed off upset and frustrated. We eventually worked it out on the train ride back and ended up laughing with Patricia and Linda as we played a memory counting game called ’21’, that consists of respective hand gestures for each number as you count towards 21.
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Overall, the trip with Heather was extremely memorable, and despite a few minor tiffs we got along approximately 90 percent of the time. Also, despite spending almost as much money in two weeks as I had the previous three months, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I continue to learn that ‘the spirit is the journey’, and that the destination is just that. Usually the most important and interesting things happen along the way. A trip to Machu Picchu with my sister on her 35th birthday will always be a high point in my memory and despite the cost, for me, it was priceless.

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One thought on “Priceless

  1. Heather says:

    Love this John! My favorite part is when you mention that “the spirit is in the journey and the destination is just that”. Could not have said it better myself. Was an amazing experience to share with you and something I will always cherish!

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