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The Inca Trail… Part II

Checking an item off your bucket list sounds exciting, right? Fulfilling, dreams coming true, etc., etc. And it can be all those things, but I think it also creates a little… anxiety. What if it doesn’t live up to the expectations you’ve held in your head for so long? What happens AFTER you check it off the list?
A View of the Terraces at Machu Picchu
Friends who’d walked the Inca Trail provided varying reactions and regardless of what you read here – good and bad – I very much believe that it’s a trip worth making: different people will get different things from it.
And in that vein, I’ve been wrangling with exactly what I should write here about the trip. In the end, the initial question in the first part of this post : How does one begin to write about the experience of the Inca Trail, a journey that had been on my bucket list for more than 10 years? 
I could describe it to you in literal detail, the schedule, the terrain, give you stats about distance covered and height above sea level, but you can get all that from a thousand other sites and blogs (If you really want to know about these details, though, please feel free to get in touch). Instead, I’m opting to share with you some of my personal story – the sensations, challenges, thoughts and conclusions that formed over the days and hours of the journey. 

One of the Ruins Along the Inca Trail
Completion

If it’s physically possible (and safe), complete the trail. Our guide was quite excited that none of our group quit. You should’ve seen our reactions – part disbelief, part hilarity: we had no idea that was even an option! Apparently, it’s not uncommon at all and one girl in our group told me that her friend’s group had two individuals quit after the first hour of the trail! Hmmm… perhaps a very wise and strategically well-timed decision on our guide’s part not to impart this knowledge to us until after we’d finished.

Believe me, it’s not easy. I was not prepared for how much the altitude would affect my breathing. I’d been at higher altitudes before – base camp at Mount Everest – and hadn’t experienced any significant symptoms other than a little shortness of breath. In Peru, leading up to the beginning of the trek, I’d also not had any other symptoms, not even shortness of breath – no headaches, nausea, dizziness or loss of appetite. So, it completely caught me by surprise when very quickly after we’d started the walk, I found myself already needing to take a break to catch my breath. For me, this was the most physically difficult part of the trek: as the days and kilometres continued on, and particularly on the ascents, frequent stops were needed for me to get air into my lungs, sometimes as often as once every 10 or 15 paces. Some people advised me to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth to slow my heartbeat down, but the thing was, my heartbeat was fine. I simply couldn’t get enough oxygen in.

Pausing for a Look: The Valley Below
Psychologically, though, it never entered my thoughts to quit or to stop. I was always going to complete the trail. That was a foregone conclusion in my mind. Difficulty breathing just meant going much slower. In all honesty, this was the bigger mental challenge: I finished last for every section, every day and letting go of my embarrassment over this fact was far tougher. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s not a race, after all. But for me, it signalled a weakness – I am not used to finishing last (in fact, I work very hard not to finish last in all aspects of my life – yes, I am a Chinese-Canadian ambitious, perfectionist female… can you believe we exist? Ha!) and though I wasn’t at the peak of my fitness level, surely it was better than this… wasn’t it? Eventually, the embarrassment subsided – it’s amazing how the little things stop troubling you when something like breathing becomes a struggle – but in actuality, fitness level and susceptibility to altitude aren’t correlated. Some people just adjust better to the decrease in oxygen. I am not one of those people. 
Take it Slow

So, take it slow.
Altitude: A slower, steadier pace will make it easier on you and your lungs. Also a slower ascent overall helps your body acclimatize.
Attitude: It really isn’t a race; take the time to look around (which, coincidentally, is a very rewarding thing to do while catching your breath) and enjoy where you are and what’s around you. The ruins are amazing, in the truest sense of the word, but so are the natural aspects. 
Day 3: The ‘Easiest’ Day of the Trail Brought us a Rainbow to Enjoy

At numerous points, the four of us at the tail end of the pack would pause, thus allowing us to take in our surroundings. We looked backwards, observing our trail snaking back down the mountain and realized just how far we’d come. At other times, we would look up and ahead, suddenly aware of just how close we were to the top of the mountains. I couldn’t take my eyes of the peaks. 
I’m a sucker for mountains, valleys, dramatic skies, cloud formations… really anything and any moment that reveals to us, yet again, the beauty that Mother Nature has bestowed upon us. It’s an addiction – I fall silent in awe, so grateful that I get to see it in person and I only end up wanting to see more. Enjoy it, take it in because no matter how well you’ve captured it in a photograph, there’s nothing like being there to smell the moss, hear the waterfall, see the shades of green and feel the texture and edges of the rocks and stones. 

If Only….

As the attempted (and ultimately successful) conquest by Spain of the Incan Empire wore on, the Incas living at Machu Picchu were instructed to take their belongings and abandon the site and to make their way to Vilcabamba, the last capital of the empire and the last refuge of its people.

The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, though, and you can’t help but wonder what might have happened if those who lived there had never left. Would some of the Incans have survived? Would there be individuals today with 100% Incan blood and ancestry? Would there be fewer legends and more facts?

Mountain View from Machu Picchu
Achievement
The Incan Empire was, in a word, impressive. 
Geographically, it stretched through 6 countries of western South America: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. Despite the numerous nations that were enfolded (by force or otherwise) into the empire, there was one language and one religion. At its core were the Andes mountains and a 14,000 mile long network of trails/roads was constructed in and amongst the range to link all its inhabitants together, thereby allowing for efficient communication and travel. Much of this network still exists today and is in relatively good condition, some of which we traveled on during our 3.5 days on the trail. 
The Incans were also well known for their architectural achievements, their legacy evident in the structures that still stand today. The blocks that were used to construct buildings were finely cut into precise shapes and angles, perfectly fitted and held to one another without mortar, so close to each other that a knife cannot be passed in between. Their construction methods also essentially made buildings “earthquake proof”, with small occurrences having no effect, while larger events caused the stones to jiggle, for lack of a better word, and then fall back into place once the earthquake ended. 
Perhaps it is the fact that so much of its existence endures, that we can still touch, walk on and see the work produced by this remarkable people, in spite of the long span of time that has passed since their disappearance, which we find simultaneously so sad and yet so alluring, that lead thousands to visit Machu Picchu a day. 
Machu Picchu, Another Look
After
For me, walking the Inca Trail was an achievement. Knowing what’s involved – the sleepless nights, the physical challenges, three days without showering, less than ideal bathroom conditions (by the way, there are way worse) – I would happily do it all again and then some. 
The memories of that trail will stay with me: the ‘gringo killer’ sections where you forbid yourself from assessing the degree of steepness and how easily your momentum could carry you forward into a tumble; the closeness of the rainforest, the weight of the humidity bearing down on your sweat and your shoulders while its thickness made you feel like you were trying to breathe in something solid; the rare quiet moment where it was only me and the sound of the birds and a distant waterfall; the realization that you had so much farther to go and the immediate impulse to just continue putting one foot in front of the other; the consummate satisfaction and happiness of arriving at Machu Picchu, the ‘end goal’; the admiration for the scale of the site and learning that it was not even the biggest Incan settlement. 
Machu Picchu did not disappoint: its magnitude and its endurance, an embodiment of the lost empire. 
The Inca Trail was not what I expected. In fact, I’m not sure that in all my imaginings of this trip, I ever gave due consideration to the trail itself, but rather only thought of the ‘end goal’. In this sense, the trail was much more than I expected, a true experience, one that taught me lessons and challenged me. 
So what happens now? 
Well, I suppose I should find another experience to add to the bucket list. 
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Athens: So Much to Say and See, So Little Time – Part II

Apologies for the lack of posts the last week – I was felled by the cold/flu that seems to be making its way quite well through the population of Toronto. At least, that’s how it seems. And now, back to Greece – yay! 

Athens & Total Touristic Embarrassment

My previous post about Athens was more an overview – what you see if you’re only passing through, what you begin to notice while walking around, and what grabs hold of your curiosity and imagination and makes you want to come back as you begin to absorb the city.

This post is about what I actually did during my short stay in the city so be forewarned that this is going to be a slightly longer post.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, travel always brings with it the unpredictable. And yet, for all the stress, frustration and worry that can accompany it, these will be the experiences that are told and retold a hundred times, the memories that remain with you far longer than the typical museum visit or landmark sighting.

If you haven’t read my earlier post about making my way to Athens (click here for that post), suffice it to say that I got quite lost trying to find my hotel (despite the GPS on my smartphone), experienced some moments of panic and all that this entails in terms of imagined disaster scenarios, reminded myself to breathe, and then, finally, luckily, managed to make my way back towards the city and my destination.

What I left out of the last post – probably because I was still trying to live down the embarrassment of my actions – is that while I was turning this way and that, attempting desperately to get back on to the main road, I ended up driving onto the Dionysiou Areopagitou pedestrian walkway. Yes, you read that right: I ended up driving onto a path that was for people only!! The walkway is the main thoroughfare leading to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum, so there were plenty of locals AND fellow tourists to stare at the very out of place sight that was me and my rental car.

As I slunk out of the car in hopes of finding someone who could point me in the right direction, a very young guard strode over to me from his booth and promptly informed me that I could not stop the car here. Flustered, I blurted out: “And I don’t want to.” Yes, that surely made things better. I asked for directions to the hotel and while I’m sure he really wanted to help me, his response didn’t quite succeed: “It’s on the other side.” Um… the other side of what? The other side of the Acropolis? The other side of the road where I’d come from?

Realizing that the gaping language barrier was not about to suddenly crumble and seeing as I was parked, er, illegally in front of the Acropolis, I felt like the smarter move was to just take my chances with Athens’ streets, as narrow and meandering as they were. I made it. Eventually.

The New Acropolis Museum

Whatever the criticisms and complaints about the new museum (location, style, the supplanting of existing heritage buildings), it simply took my breath away.

The museum was built to hold all the items found during excavations on the Acropolis site. An original museum existed on the grounds itself, but at 800 square meters, space quickly proved to be a problem. The new museum has 14,000 square meters of exhibition space and they take full advantage of that area to show off the truly amazing findings.

As you walk towards the entrance, a see-through floor gives you a glimpse of the ongoing excavations. It’s a powerful and effective reminder of the site and city’s scale of history. Upon full and proper entry to the museum (i.e. once your ticket has been scanned), you’re directed up a long, slightly inclining walkway. On either side of you, glass-fronted, lighted shelves hold pottery, art, jewellery and other items found on the slopes of the Acropolis.
Standing at the beginning of that walkway, seeing the length of it, spying the number of fragments, shards and items on the shelves, with those few steps, I was awestruck by the scale of what was found on the Acropolis.

The exterior of the museum is modern and looks, well, fine (I’m sure there’s a far more appropriate architectural description for it), but from the inside, it’s the top floor with its high ceilings and use of large windows to make up the walls that literally made me gasp.

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I was at the museum around sunset and the shades of orange and blue, the warm glow cast on the city rooftops and the Acropolis itself left quite an impression. The idea was to always be able to see the site from the museum, I suppose, thereby, creating an abiding link that gave the objects within the walls more life.

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Total tourist side notes: On this floor, there is also a great video that provides you with the history of the Parthenon, including its different transformations, methods and styles of destruction and reconstruction and the current plans for restoring the temple to its former structural and artistic glory. Also, on Fridays the museum and its restaurant are open late; while on certain days of the year, entry is free.

The Acropolis and the Parthenon

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First, some advice about visiting, which you’ll probably have heard before and will hear again if you ask. Go early. You can enter beginning at 8am. I was there by no later than 9am and already there were tons of tour groups at the top of the hill, more so than at any other site or landmark I’d been to during my month in Greece.

Second, some advice about photos. Don’t expect to capture too many pictures of the Parthenon without people. Or construction equipment: while the scaffolding’s finally been removed, the construction equipment is still very clear and present. All l I could do was try and make the most of what was in front of me. The other ruins on the hill though do see far less foot traffic and interest and are good representations of style, material and design on an obviously smaller scale. But it’s nice to step away from the crowds and take in a structure slowly, leisurely, quietly.

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For me, stopping off at the museum first gave my subsequent visit to the Acropolis and, in particular, the Parthenon, context and energy: standing before and walking around the famous monument, I could visualize the rooms, the interior columns, the friezes, the sculptural decorations – I could imagine what it once looked like and not just see what remained.

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From the summit, Athens radiates out. As a tourist in a major city, sometimes you can forget that the core section where you sleep or spend your time is actually a tiny fraction of the real place; that daily life – shopping, working, sleeping, eating – occurs in places, spaces and ways that you don’t even get an inkling of as a tourist; that your perspective of the city you visit is, quite possibly, more than a little skewed. Circling the Acropolis gave me a very visual and physical reminder of exactly how little I’d seen and how little I really knew about all that lay outside of the city center, culturally or historically.

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My Time in Greece is Up

And so, my time in Greece (for 2013) came to an end. Personally, I can’t wait to go back. There are so many other places to see – including, of course, the islands – but there’s so much more I want to learn and absorb about Athens and the rest of Greece. For a history buff like me, there are few places that hold as much significance and have as many literal and physical examples of the ancient world from which we evolved into who and what we are today.

What places have stayed with you, always tempting you to return?

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Athens: So much to Say and See, So Little Time – Part I

As it turns out, I’m not the best at posting regularly, but I’m making a promise – here for anyone and everyone to read – that I will do better. And with that said, on with the post! 

Athens

Determining how much time to spend in Athens engendered quite a bit of debate. Some said 2 to 3 days was enough; others, a minimum of 10 days. So, why the rather considerable difference?

Having now been to the city in question, I think it has a lot to do with what your interests are and how you like to travel.

My first foray into Athens city centre involved a short hop-on, hop-off bus tour around the city. I find that these types of bus tours can be a great way to orient yourself upon first arrival and, in some of the more spread out locations, they can be a cheaper way (versus regular transit) to get around to the different areas and sites that you’re interested in seeing, particularly if you’re short on time.

Make no mistake about it, Athens is a City with a capital ‘C’. What do I mean by that? It’s a hub; it’s packed with people and cars; it’s old which means layers upon layers of different architectural styles, urban development decisions and social/cultural evolution. Thus, where one person will see an amazing, if, at certain times, gritty place ripe for exploration – neighbourhoods, restaurants, cafes, neo-classicial architecture… oh yeah, and all the temples, museums and sculptures – others will see an old, crowded and rather rough-and-tumble-looking destination meant for a quick trip with visits to only the major ‘must-see’ items.

Now this is where I think the limitation of hop-on, hop-off bus tours, or the mainly stay-on-the-large-bus tours presents itself. From the bus, Athens can appear dishevelled: graffiti on every corner; old buildings, some completely boarded up; crowded, narrow and rambling streets; stuff and people everywhere.The major tourist sites are quite clean and open by comparison and I can see how people might become discouraged or less enthusiastic about wandering about on their own, especially if one’s own home city is new-ish and built from much more modern ideas like grid structure streets; broad roadways; concrete, steel and/or glass buildings; and very well maintained gardens and lawns. Nothing wrong with the latter, but neither the former nor the latter is proof positive of what a place is really about.

A little reading and walking around though tells you that Athens is actually a very safe city and, except for the skilled pickpockets, crime is fairly minimal and certainly mostly non-violent. There are definitely areas to avoid at night, but during the day these very same locations can take on a very different (and safe) personality. The people in Athens are amazingly friendly and very eager to let you know that all those international news reports about the troubles, protests and rallies brought on by the economic challenges they’re currently facing don’t properly represent them or the city.

I only managed to get in two days in Athens – not counting the hop-on, hop-off bus day – but I can tell you that I’m very much looking forward to a return trip and to spending much more time there checking out all the cafes, shops, restaurants and neighbourhoods I missed out on during my first foray to Greece. I, however, am also a major history and architecture buff, so I say bring on all the temples and museums too!!

That’s all good and fine, you say, but what did you actually see while you were there? Next post, the ‘new’ Acropolis Museum and the Parthenon. Of course it had to be the Parthenon!

  View from the Parthenon: Athens spread out in the background, the Acropolis Museum (modern, multi-story building) in the middle and the Theatre of Dionysus in the foreground.
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Have you been to Athens? What are your thoughts? Love it, hate it or meh?

 

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