The Real Peru Story

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I’ve spoken often of my hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. As well as shared many a story about the week before in the Amazon Basin. But all have either been to inform or entertain. Never really about what I learned. And yes, I learned more than I could have ever imagined.

First and foremost, let’s set the stage. The trip was in 2012. I was 50 years old and in fairly decent shape. And we had scheduled a two week group adventure into both the lowest and highest portions of Peru. A group trip in which no one had ever met before it started.

I learned a lot about myself those two weeks. What I’m made of, both inside and out. And looking back, it was in many ways the start of something different in me. Because I failed, and failed often.

Despite everything I’ve ever thought about myself, I was not yet a traveler. All of my journeys up until that point had been pretty basic. See a city, visit a place, eat some food. Never before had I strayed so far off the beaten path. For instance, in the ecolodge down on the Tambopata river, it was hot. And humid. And lacked amenities like constant power and a restaurant. And at first, I was miserable. Not so much on the outside … although sleeping in 90+ degree heat under a mosquito net next to another human being was not the greatest pleasure ever. But rather in my mind. I had decided that this part of the trip sucked. That existing in an insect-filled outdoor sauna was a serious mistake. Struggling up muddy inclines from the river to the camp was … well, you get the idea.

But it wasn’t until near the end of that week that I started to see my fallacy. That there was more to the place than just mind-numbing climate. It was alive.

The sounds of a jungle are something you need to experience, and there are two distinct sounds. Daytime and night. And they couldn’t be more distinct. There are these cusps in each day when the sounds of one fade before the roar of the other takes over. And nighttime is way more alive. Somehow, more enticing.

As we took the two hour boat trip back to “civilization”, my outlook had started to change. There is this small city/town right on the far eastern edge of Peru called Puerto Maldonado, which is where you transfer from wheeled transportation to floating. The portion of the town where our guides were … well, think dirt roads and poverty. On the way out, I was somewhere between saddened and disgusted by the place. It was certainly not up to first world standards. But when we passed through again on our return, I saw it with new eyes. Yes, the roads were still dirt and most people were on motorbikes (because it’s cheaper than cars). But the people were … happy? That’s not the right word. They were living in a place that provided for them, and there was an aliveness here as well. I was actually more enthralled with Puerto Maldonado at that moment than I was when we entered the country in the capital city of Lima. There was something about a lifestyle so far outside of my experience that was pleasing to be a small part of. And it only took a week and a jungle to jettison my previous monovision.

But the biggest lesson I took away was from the hike on the Inca Trail. It was hard. And I mean, damn hard. The physical aspect, yes. But there is also half the oxygen up there as at sea level. You can’t breathe. When you land at the airport in Cusco and walk off the plane, you immediately notice it. There are O2 cylinders for sale in the airport. It’s a shock to the system.

When we started the hike, it was a maybe a 50 foot climb up a fairly steep set of steps. And I just about quit that very moment. Less than five minutes into the trek and I was already mentally defeated. That entire first day was sheer will power, of which I barely possessed. And DAY TWO was worse. It was up and over a 14 thousand foot peak, which our guides told us was the point of no return. Once over, the only way out was to continue. I was seriously considering turning back at that point. Incredibly close to that decision. But I did go forward in the end.

The physical, emotional, and mental struggles I had those two days were simply unbelievable. It had been raining and sleeting. We were soaked and cold. Struggling to put one foot in front of the other, doing so only because there was no other option. But then day three hit, and somehow everything changed.

That day saw us in front of a 12 thousand foot mountain peak, but on this day I was joyful and eager. Giddy even. Something had clicked inside me. I had done the hardest part and couldn’t go back. So inside I decided to start enjoying, and enjoy I did. I was laughing and running. Where the day before I was dead last into camp, on day three I was well in the lead. Everything was wonderous to see and experience. And with that mental switch, everything changed … and not just with the trip.

There are moments in your life where you are miserable. Where everything is a great big ball of suck. And yet when you look back on them, they were incredible times. Some of the best times of your life. Those two weeks in Peru taught me so much about myself. My inner strength. My capacity to see beauty. They helped set the stage for the way I live my life now. And for the support and friendship of those 12 strangers, I am eternally grateful.

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