Sunday, March 30, 2014

Travel as a Form of Pushing Your Limits or Why I'm a Glutton for Punishment

Luis and Simone still looking perky on the first day of the five day hike from hell, Inca Trail, Peru   

I stuck my head through the tent flap one last time, trying not to wake my snoring husband. The sky was jet black, filled with more brilliant stars and asteroids than I'd ever seen in one place. The sharply jagged, snow-capped Andes Mountains surrounded our encampment; tomorrow's climb would be steep. The frigid air cut the viewing short and, shivering, I quickly returned to the relative warmth of my sleeping bag, still fully clothed. I hadn't been able to bring myself to remove my sweat-stained clothes in the sub-zero temperatures, much less bathe, even after eight hours of strenuous hiking the previous day. I felt terrible. I was still suffering from the effects of altitude sickness, my feet had already developed several blisters, every muscle ached, my head pounded and I was dirty and (no doubt) smelly. And I couldn't sleep because of the giant pit in my stomach. This was only the first night; we had four more days and nights to go. How would I ever be able to traverse the Andes? The Andes! Planes crashed here and people were forced to eat fellow passengers. I thought of my buff traveling companions; they would barely make a snack, much less a meal. The terrain had defeated hundreds of steely Spanish Conquistadors in their normally unstoppable quest for gold. I was a 45-year old out-of-shape woman who had never attempted anything like this in her life. On top of that, the travel agency in Cuzco had, for some insane reason, placed us in a group of 20-somethings from Spain, all of whom were in spectacular shape, including one triathlete and one professional mountain guide. How could I possibly keep up? Well, nothing for it, really. I had three choices: keep up with them, turn back without a guide or move to this encampment permanently. Sigh...

Hikers and horses taking a break on the Inca Trail (photo by Luis Bastardo)   

It remains, to this day, one of the hardest things that I've ever done. It far surpasses other endeavors that I've more or less successfully completed: a 240-foot bungee jump over Miami Beach, a stint learning to swing on a circus trapeze, being awoken at 5 a.m. on an overnight bus through Bolivia by drug police dressed in black ski masks and jackboots and carrying semi-automatic weapons. All of those things were nerve-racking, but they were also over in less than three hours, not five days. Hiking the Peruvian Inca Trail from Cuzco to the ancient city of Machu Picchu was something that I'd wanted to do for a long time in order to check another box on my travel bucket list, but I never gave much thought to the actual logistics of the trip. Keep in mind that I am not what anyone would describe as even remotely athletic, or even coordinated. I have no interest in sports, I fall off bicycles regularly, I can't dance, and I trip over my own feet at least once a month (I have the scarred knees to prove it). The one thing that I do have going for me, though, is tenacity. I refuse to give up once I've committed to something. This isn't always a strength; sometimes it's wiser to walk away from a situation, but often it is the force that pushes me ahead and lets me accomplish things that I never thought were possible.  

A well-deserved siesta after lunch, Inca Trail, Peru (photo by Simone Cannon) 

For me, experiences such as this are one of the main reasons that I travel and will continue to travel for as long as I am able. Pushing myself past the boundaries of my perceived limits is much more likely to happen far away from home for several reasons: it is much more adventurous and exotic to challenge myself in other countries, I'm not able to easily quit and return to my comfy bed, and I have my husband, fellow travelers and guides to offer much-needed support and to push me along. Let's face it, very few accomplishments are completed without assistance in one form or another. But at the end of the day, I am the one who has to cross the finish line alone.

A refreshing cup of coca leaf tea, Peru (photo by Simone Cannon)

After five days of hiking on average, 10 hours a day, we arrived at the town of Aguas Calientes exhausted, but exhilarated. Luis and I had spent most of our time on the trail lagging far behind the younger hikers, with the guide running back to us a few times a day to make sure that we hadn't collapsed. In truth, my uber-fit husband could have kept up with them but he kindly stayed back with me. The deeply inclined downhill hikes would turn out to be much more damaging to my knees than the feared upward paths, my extensive blisters forced me to wear no other shoes than flip-flops for a month afterwards and, even after many cups of coca tea, my altitude sickness would linger for another week. But none of that mattered, sitting on a precipice at Machu Picchu , watching the sun rise and staring out at the breathtaking views of a real-life Shangri-La. Would I do it again? In a second.

Yes! We made it! 

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