It was on the plane to Peru, where we planned our itinerary, (I hate to plan in advance!) that my half brother J and I discovered that in many parts of the country people still see traditional shamans for treatment of many physical and emotional illnesses. One of the traditional medicines Shamans continue to use is made from a plant root. It is a powerful medicine called ayahuasca, which is supposed to help you discover within yourself what may be keeping you from healing. We both thought that it would be incredibly cool if we could participate in an authentic ayahuasca ceremony. I had had the privilege of participating in traditional Lakota and Cree sweatlodges many years ago. It had been the most powerful healing I had ever experienced, and many of my life’s most important lessons were learned in the hours of sitting in those sweatlodges, listening to the beating of the drums, trying to withstand the heat, witnessing, in darkness, other people’s pain. I was eager to learn about other practices.
The day we arrived in Lima I became very ill and had to stay in bed for our first day. The illness came out of the blue and completely wiped me out. I was sure it was from the food we ate at the airport in Mexico City. I felt terrible for letting J down but was powerless to do anything except sleep. My blankets smelt moldy, which probably made it worse, but I was too sick to even get up and move to the other bed. The next day I felt better and was able to venture out. We walked along the cliffs, high above the water, and found a very hip restaurant. We went in for drinks and as we looked around at the other patrons, we suddenly noticed our very unhip Canadian garb. We definitely stood out.
In Cusco, however, we blended right in, it being the main departure point for people hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Our excitement to see a shaman waned after we arrived in Cusco. We saw notices about ayahuasca ceremonies, but they seemed designed for tourists. We couldn’t get on the Inca Trail as it was booked over a year in advance, but luckily we found two spots on the Salkantay trek, which was described as the hard-core trek, not for the inexperienced.
While we were waiting for our trek to start we took a boat trip on Lake Titicaca. It is the highest navigable lake in the world at over 12,000 feet. We stopped on various islands on our tour, the first called Reed Island.
The Uru people who lived on these floating islands had fled the mainland to escape the impact of colonization. They lived very traditionally, but tourism had definitely had an impact. They displayed their crafts to us as we trod through their island, peering into their homes.
We made our way to the larger island, where we were to stay overnight with a local family. Our boat docked on the island and I grabbed my pack and walked up the small hill to where our group was. By the time I reached them I thought I was going to pass out I was so out of breath. I knew that I was out of shape, which had worried me a bit knowing that we would be trekking in the mountains, but I hadn’t realized that I was this out of shape! There was nothing I could do to even cover it up, I was wheezing so badly. I found out much later that it was likely at least partially a symptom of altitude adjustment, which made me feel better in hindsight.
We stayed with a woman and her daughter and 4 month-old grandson. J and my Spanish was very limited, so we did a lot of gesturing and smiling. We eventually figured out that the daughter was about 15 years old, and that the men in the families fled when we tourists arrived. Their homes were made from stone and consisted of two rooms. They cooked in a wood stove and kept domestic animals like goats and chickens. The daughter carried her son in a blanket on her back. They were very friendly and gracious hosts. I took pictures of them intending to send them to them, have not even had them printed; such is the impact of computers.
We arrived back in Cusco and left for the Salkantay trek the following day. Our guide told us that because this was the hard-core trek, few old people ever signed up, which was good because we would make good time. His definition of old included me, and I started to worry that I was going to hold everyone back. I looked around and saw an American couple. The woman was wearing high-heeled fashion sneakers. I breathed a sigh of relief. At least I had actually been hiking in the mountains before and had the proper gear.
The Irish lads we hiked with were hysterical, and the hike through the Salkantay mountains were amazing. Reaching the peak was the most difficult part. We were told to pick a rock at the base of the peak and to leave it on top, but I cannot for the life of me remember why. I chewed cocoa leaves on the way up, as instructed, as it was supposed to help with stamina and the effects of the altitude. Reaching the peak was difficult. I had actually impressed myself with how well I was keeping up until that point. I fell further and further behind. My breathing was laboured; I was wheezing. I had done a fair bit of hiking in the mountains and had noticed that my internal dialogue had a tendency to go into high gear when faced with a mountain where the only way to go was up, each step a struggle. I decided that I was going to be very gentle with myself on this peak. I became my own cheerleader. “You can do it Julie! You’re doing great! Just one foot in front of the other. Don’t worry about who passes you. Just keep going. I know you can do it!” It really helped. I reached the peak and wasn’t last!
Of course we decided to walk up the 2500 feet to Machu Picchu from the town of Aguas Calientes, a path made up of thousands of stairs. We left at 4:00 in the morning so that we would arrive in time to receive a special ticket to climb one of the viewpoints. I was determined to keep up with the boys despite the fact that they were literally racing up. I was terrified of losing them. There were so many people climbing these stairs. It was like a pilgrimage. We reached the top in time to get the tickets, but we were all so tired that we didn’t even use them as it involved even more climbing. Machu Picchu is not built for the out of shape. Even if you take a bus or train to the base of Machu Picchu itself, the site consists of hundreds of staircases. We saw a family who were quite overweight and really struggling. They stopped climbing and I heard them say they would get a DVD to see the rest of it. They could not make it up the rest of the stairs. I’m glad they didn’t push themselves. If one of them had a heart attack up there, getting help would be next to impossible.
Machu Picchu, without a doubt, was one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. I didn’t feel a mystical presence that I had read about others experiencing. I simply basked in the magnificence of the landscape. It was truly breathtaking.
After our trip ended, we were booked to do another tour, this one of the amazon jungle in Manu National Park. After such an incredible trip hiking through Salkantay to see Machu Picchu, I couldn’t imagine that anything else could compare to its splendour.
Much of our jungle tour felt incredibly luxurious after hiking in the mountains. We travelled by riverboat and lounged, enjoying the scenery. Our food was prepared for us; we had very little walking to do. It was quite relaxing. The jungle itself, however, was incredibly challenging. The air was so damp that it had weight, and the mosquitoes were relentless. Luckily I found 10 year old 100% deet in my pack. I thanked god that it still worked, as I would have been eaten alive without it.
We did several walks at night, as that was the best time to see interesting insects and spiders. I love walking in the forest at night, and these walks were my favourite activity after a long day of relaxing on the boat.
On one of our nightly walks we smelt a stench I can only describe as primal. It stuck in my nostrils and was so distinct that I knew I would never smell it in my lifetime once I left the jungle. It smelt of wildness; of depravity. Our guide told us to stay still and not to make a sound. I had no idea what it was that was coming. Suddenly we heard hundreds of feet stampeding towards us, interspersed with a kind of clicking sound that each animal made. It was a herd of wild pigs. They ran right past us, trampling through the brush of the jungle. I could feel my heart race, but what left the greatest impression on me was the smell. It was so strong that we couldn’t eat one night because a herd of them had roamed through our campsite. The smell was simply too powerful. It deposited itself in your nostrils and prevented you from tasting your food.
On our last day, we picked up a man we had dropped off several days prior. Our guide told us that he was a shaman who was being trained by an elder. He had made several mixes of ayuhuasca and had offered to do a ceremony for us. Our guide, our cook and other local people were going to be a part of it. J and I couldn’t believe our luck. We had totally abandoned our hope of doing an ayuhuasca ceremony and here was an authentic experience being offered to us. We eagerly accepted. We couldn’t eat dinner that night as fasting was a part of the preparation. Technically we should have fasted for the entire day, but we had only been invited that afternoon. The two Australian young women in our group were going to participate too: one to support the other, who would take the ayuhuasca. She was nervous, as she had heard that it would force you to see your own dark side. I thought about that, and realized that I had so fully explored my own dark side that I couldn’t imagine meeting anything I hadn’t already befriended years previously.
I tried to prepare for the experience. I remembered the sweat lodges I had been in, but nothing I had ever done in my life could ever have prepared me for this.
Stay tuned for the next instalment!