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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

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
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
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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The Singing Monk – Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto

A chunk of time ago, I got to spend 5 weeks in the Kansai region of Japan. Friends were teaching English in Kobe and Osaka and generously offered me a space to lay my head at night. During the days I’d wander – a particular favourite was Kyoto – and do my best to figure out the transportation system and in the evenings I’d make my way back to enjoy dinner with my friends – the perfect combination really for a solo traveler: new and adventurous in the morning, “old” and familiar in the evenings. 

If we’re lucky enough through our travels, we’re rewarded with memories that remain alive far longer than all the others. A sight, a smell, a noise or a piece of music that takes us back to that moment when they first occurred. For me, in Kyoto, Japan, that place was the Ryoan-ji Temple and that item, a scented bookmark.


I bent down on one knee, lacing up the hiking shoes that I’d removed before entering the temple. The day-pack on my back slid to the right, a distraction. I stood, reflexively stretching my back out. 

A quiet voice behind me queried politely, “You’re Canadian?”

The head monk stood lightly behind me, very much in the demeanour with which you would expect a head monk to stand. I’d forgotten about the Canadian flag stitched to my pack. 

“Yes”, I replied. “Have you ever been to Canada?” How does one carry on a conversation with a head Zen monk? 

He shook his head and chuckled softly. “No, no”, he breathed, lowering his head as if the idea struck him as worth consideration. 

The Japanese tour group that had arrived ahead of me and gathered on the temple’s veranda had slowly drifted away. I’d almost not come to see this small temple known most for its beautiful zen garden. 

Perusing the Lonely Planet Kyoto guidebook, I’d come across a brief mention of a small temple, Ryoanji, with a highly acclaimed Japanese rock garden. It wasn’t highlighted as one of the main temples to see in Kyoto – and there are many, many temples to choose from in that city – but the description of the garden as one of the finest examples of its kind had intrigued me. 

I made my way through the building as soundlessly and as gingerly as I could, as if one heavy or misplaced step might traumatize the monks or this structure they lived within, a Zen temple that had existed since the 1400s. Every creaking floorboard made me feel like a boorish interloper. 

Stepping out onto the veranda, I was confronted with a group of 20 – 30 middle-aged Japanese visitors. I could try to admire the garden with them or I could return inside and wait for their tour group to move on. It was an easy choice. My time was my own – it’s one of the big reasons I love roaming solo. I wanted the chance to sit in silence on the veranda and absorb whatever lesson or wisp of wisdom I could from those who created the kare-sansui – the zen garden – and from those who’d sat in contemplation before me. Perhaps I could learn something from sitting, observing, watching. 

But what was I watching? Nothing changes or moves in a rock garden, not in minutes or hours. 15 boulders were placed purposefully and meticulously, only 14 of which can be seen from the veranda – it is said that achieving enlightenment is the only way to see all at the same time. A calmness really did settle over me as I sat and stared, my gaze slow and calm, floating from one to the next. It was like I was studying them, but for what purpose, I didn’t know. 

I can’t remember the sounds – in my memory it’s quiet – although I imagine instances of  floorboards creaking, intervals of hushed Japanese voices and lulls of rustling leaves in the breeze. I do remember the smell of incense, a scent I’ve known almost my whole life. Weekend visits with my grandmother to the Chinese Buddhist temple…. It’s a dark and rich aroma that brings with it a warmth and acceptance. I’ve always felt safe and quieted within the walls of that temple and there, in Kyoto, seated on the Ryoanji’s terrace, the sharp, pungent incense comforts me, lending this place and this city that is so very far from my home, a familiarity. 

I wanted to sit longer, hypnotized by the stones, the gravel, the safe enclosed space of a hundreds-year old structure that stood behind, below and before me. There is a release in the need to do nothing more than sit and observe. 

Eventually, it was time for me to leave. I made my way to the small gift counter near the main door. I wanted something that would always remind me of this temple, where I’d done nothing momentous or remarkable, but rather, was stilled. A package of 3 bookmarks caught my glance, paper envelopes roughly 3 inches in height by 1 inch in width, wrapped around a scented object, a straw length knotted at the top with faint printed images and calligraphy on the surface. To this day, almost 12 years later, the fragrance remains: soft, powdery and slightly floral. 

The head monk continued to chuckle softly at my question. As I pondered what to say next, he looked up, smiled and began to sing the first few bars of the Canadian national anthem. “Oh Canada! Our home and native land!….”

What do you do but listen, smile and say thank you. 


No pics for this entry at the moment: I was shooting in film those days and can’t find the negatives just yet (what comes from living out of a storage unit and boxes), but for more information on the temple, have a look at its website: http://www.ryoanji.jp/smph/eng/index.html.

What places still have a special hold on your heart and mind? 

‘Til next time…. 

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