hollywood & la brea

Stuck in a traffic jam from the airport to Hollywood, our cab driver shook his head, in disdain for Oscar. “This… this is ALL Oscar… It’s crazy…”, tooting his horn and swerving around traffic (including into the wrong lane into oncoming traffic too – exciting!). Our bright yellow hotel is minutes away from where the Oscars were held last night, and craziness still abounds. We strolled along Hollywood Boulevard this morning as they were rolling up the red carpet and taking down giant gold statues – I saw two man-sized Oscars, wrapped in plastic Laura-Palmer-style, being driven around on the back of a golf buggy.

After breakfast at a 50s-style diner (because, HOLLYWOOD), we moseyed back to the hotel, checking out various ‘stars’ along the Walk of Fame, belonging to people we’ve never heard of, and those that make no sense (Amy Grant?? Michael Bolton???). We passed a homeless man, who was pacing up and down the footpath, shaking his grey dreadlocked hair. He got us in his sights and said (to Rich):

“Hey! You! With the drop (pause)… dead (pause)… gorgeous (looooong pause)… FIANCE! You better MARRY that woman and stop (another really long pause)… BULLSHITTING YOUR LIFE AWAY!!!!! Excuse my language… Can I have a nickel?”

After over 24 hours of living in the zombieland that is many, many timezones and plane travel and bad food and not enough water, I think I’m back in the land of the living. And I’m definitely ready for some hilarious adventures in the land of LA.

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day 4 – machu picchu

With the dramz of day 3 behind us, Rich and I woke bright n early on Sunday for our last day on the trail. The path to the Sun Gate, and then onto Machu Picchu. There was no faffing around this morning. Everyone was up and at ’em and in the breakfast tent by 4am, while the porters hurriedly rolled up our sleeping bags and broke down our tents. The ol’ guts were still not 100%, but the thrill of finally getting to MP and finishing the trek was too great to hold me back.

Toast, honey and tea was consumed, followed by one last trip to the (gulp) squat toilet (I’m sorry I said that word… ‘Squat’, for me, ranks up there with ‘moist’ and ‘panties’ when it comes to Worlds Worst Words – bleck!!) and then we were back on the road. Everyone who was feeling ailing certainly wasn’t showing it this morning – it was smiles all round that the end was in sight.

We marched out of camp with around 250 or so other campers, shining our torches on the path to prevent a rolled ankle on a loose rock or boulder step. The sky was just starting to lighten – pretty beautiful time of the day in this part of the world…

Five minutes out of camp, and we came to a standstill. We were at the final checkpoint before Machu Picchu. Which didn’t open until 5.30. It was 4.30. We would be here for an hour.

We rubbed our alpaca-gloved hands together and hopped from one foot to the other to keep our toes warm and our blood circulating. We reminisced about hairy parts of the journey, and hypothesised on what was to come. We high-fived Abel, while JC entertained us with ‘llama/alpaca’ gang-style hand signs.

And finally…

The gates opened and we started to move. Something rushed past my legs and I said “O gosh, I think I’m hallucinating; I think I just saw a dog” but then I realised that it was a dog. I was worried that I was still deathly ill and that my eyes playing tricks on me was the first sign of my impending doom. Over-react much? Sheebers…

Once the gates were open, the hikers were seriously like horses out of the gate at the Melbourne Cup. PEOPLE WERE RUNNING!!! Granted, the sky was light enough now for us to put away our torches, but the path was still rocky and steppy with even more steep drops, and anyway, we were still an hour and a half away from the Sun Gate. Slow down, peeps!

Rich and I strode along together, side by side. Despite being well on the way to the finish line, there were still quite a few precarious stretches of trail; one part was about 7 metres of narrow path which dropped away into the valley below. I think this is where the landslide was in 2010, but I don’t want to check because it would be too scary.

Here comes the sun, do do do do

Up a few more stairs and around a few more corners (seriously – on the Inca Trail, the stairs just keep going. You think you’re at the end of them and then you round a bend and there are MORE!!!!) and then there it was. No, not the Sun Gate. I came face to face with The Stairs of Death!!!** These stairs weren’t even really stairs. They were more like a ladder made of ginormous rocks. Like I said in a previous post, I’m no science mathematician or anything, but my calculations tell me The Stairs of Death were on an 80 degree angle. Fo real (mebbe not actually fo real, but they were STEEP!!!!).

Rich had already scrambled his way to the top – remarkably using only his legs, feet and walking pole to get him up. I, on the other hand, took things a little more gracefully. I turned around to the Argentinian hikers behind me and said “Please excuse my elegant ascent up the stairs” and proceeded to climb up, rock-climbing-style. Yes, I used my hands (it wasn’t the first time… there was actually a set of stairs a few days earlier that I went down on my bum). It really felt like I was climbing a mountain, without a belay!! I made appropriate ‘hoik’ and ‘eek’ noises and guess what happened? I turned around, and the Argentinians were coming up in exactly the same way!!! Hurrah!! I wasn’t the only nancy nerd-burger on this hike after all!

When we got to the top (and exchanged a few more high-fives) it was just a few more steps until we made it to the Sun Gate. Yay! The sky was clear and the sun was up and the view down to Machu Picchu was poifickt and beautiful. We celebrated our arrival with some water, some chocolate (ain’t nothing wrong with having chocolate at 7.30am) and more ‘llama/alpaca’ hands.

JC breakin' out the Llama hands

And from there, it was down the hill to Machu Picchu. Along the way, we passed day trippers, struggling up the hill, red-faced and out of breath. We all exchanged looks as they lumbered past, our eyes saying everything: You think this is hard?

Machu Picchu is huge and beautiful and green and lush. Llamas roam around chowing down on grass. Kids on school excursions jumped from wall to wall (and were promptly told off by SEVERAL guides and groundskeepers). Old ladies hauled themselves up rock steps and our fellow trekkers lay on the grass, absorbing the glory of finally being here.

Abel showed us around and explained what various rooms had been used for, and gave us a bit more of a history lesson, and told us a bit more about astrology as well. After a few hours of strolling and admiring and listening and learning, we bid farewell to our final destination, stamped our passports with the Machu Picchu stamp, boarded a bus and headed down a long winding road to Aguas Calientes. We had pizza and beer. AND MINERAL WATER!!! O agua con gas, I have missed you these past few days! We laughed. We cried (no really, we did). We smelt bad. We didn’t care.

We flipping did it.

Machu Picchu, you little ripper!

** Not their official name. I name them The Stairs of Death because they are revolting. But as far as I know, no one has actually died on them.

day 3 – when i nearly died

There was more thunder and lightening and rain during the night, but I slept like a log and woke up feeling pretty great. My legs were aching and my feet were sore, but I was excited about the walk ahead. We’d spent two out of three nights in tents – the end was in sight.

Yesterday had been hard, but I had yet to experience any crazy vertigo or leg wobbles or feet refusing to move. Little did I know that today would be the day I would come FACE TO FACE WITH MY FEAR OF HEIGHTS! Duh duh DUHHH!

We left a little later than the other groups. We ate our breakfast as hikers trooped passed us, laden with backpacks and sleeping bags and sunhats. We took our time, enjoyed our tea and omelette and chattered away about the day ahead.

The path out of camp was a steep slope up the side of a mountain. It was gravelly and rocky. For the most part, the ‘drop’ side was tree-lined, so you couldn’t see how high up you were going. But every so often the trees would peter out and you would be faced with a sheer drop. I rounded one corner, feeling pretty happy-go-lucky, and was faced with a wood-slat bridge nailed into the side of the cliff with no rail. The only thing between the bridge and a drop of about a bazillionty metres was… nothing.

That’s when it started. My legs locked. My feet locked. My palms started to sweat and my head started to swim. Rich crossed the bridge – less than a metre wide – in front of me, then turned around and gently coaxed me across.

“Don’t look down”, he said, “Hold my hand and just walk”.

After a minute or so of deep breathing, my legs started moving and I made it across. Surely that would be the worst of it, right?

No. The rest of day 3 was filled with similar ridonkulous heights and sheer drops and steps leading into nothing. I was not feeling good.

One of our amazing porters chugging up the hill, as Rich looks on, in his cool hat

In addition to this, as the hot sun beat down on our faces as we marched along, my tummy started to turn itself inside out. Not literally (I hope – that could be an expensive operation), but by the time we made it to our lunch stop it was aching and I wasn’t hungry. For me, that’s pretty crazy. I can ALWAYS eat. Abel and JC (our assistant guide) gave me tea and asked if I was OK. I drank the tea and it seemed to help, and we continued on up the hill.

“It gets easier once we get through this next pass”, JC assured me, as I lumbered along.

But the further we walked, the sorer it got. At each rest stop I lay on the ground, clutching my stomach and wishing time would speed up so we could make it to the next campsite.

Looking amazing...

The scenery was indeed beautiful. When we arrived at the third pass, we turned a corner and were greeted by four llamas, happily munching away on a grassy patch of land. Bamboo surrounded us. If I’d been feeling in higher spirits, this would have been amazing.

“From here, it’s all downhill”, Abel announced, “but be careful. The first hour is very steep – they don’t call these steps the ‘Gringo Killer’ for nothing”.

Very reassuring. This was going to be a long, hard slog.

The rest of our group powered ahead while Rich and I slowly made our way down. One part of the stairway looked more like a riverbed, and I imagine that, in the rain, several gringos could be killed on their way through… Eek.

The pain in my tummy was now agonising, and I was moving very slowly. Veeeerrrryyyyy slowly. Rich was getting worried about making it to camp before the sun went down, but at this point I was in so much pain I could have slept on the path. In the freezing cold. With the pumas.

Abel appeared out of nowhere, put my arm through his, and said “I’m going to help you down. Trust in your steps and your shoes and trust that I won’t let you fall”. We moved at a slightly faster pace, but he, like Rich, was worried about the fading light.

By the time we made it to the next meeting point, I was on the verge of collapse. I put my head on my walking stick and sobbed like I have never cried before. I have never felt so sick and exhausted and useless in my whole entire life.

Abel gave me a tablet, on the proviso I ate an energy bar, and assured me that there would be special tea and dehydration salts for me when we got to camp. The energy bar (actually a superfoods QUINOA bar!!) was sweet and crumbly and tricky to eat with a sore tum and a dry mouth. Bits of quinoa crumbled off and stuck to my t-shirt and puffy, tear-stained cheeks, so really, I was looking my best at this point. Nothing like a bit (read: a lot) of food on your face to make you look amazing. Yes.

We started down the last leg of the trek before our camp spot for the night. The sun had almost set, but I still couldn’t walk properly. It would take a while for that tablet to kick in.

Down steps and around corners I hobbled, with Abel and JC shadowing me. I tried to be an intrepid warrior lady, but it was hard work… And as they say at the Oscars, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. Again.

Around another corner, and there were two smiling porters, holding a tablecloth.

Abel looked around and said “Taxi? Did anyone call a taxi?” and gave me a wink and a grin.

It shames me to say it, but I let the porters carry me down the rest of the hill. They fashioned the tablecloth into a sling, tied it around my back and bum, and piggy-backed me down the hill at breakneck speed. Like I said before, these guys are amazing. The porter carrying me would have weighed about 50kgs, so to move at a pace like that with a non-waif like myself on his back was really quite an achievement.

We arrived at camp in about 5 minutes. It would have taken me another half hour to get there at the snails pace I was going. Sheesh-burger.

And guess what? The porters still clapped me in. I felt like a big idiot, but so glad to be there.

I fell into my tent and had a big cry on Rich’s shoulder. My tummy was slowly starting to feel better, and the salts and Gatorade from Abel helped too. Double wah – what a baby.

By dinnertime, about an hour after I was hauled into camp, I was feeling OK enough to have a bowl of soup and a cup of tea. We had a ceremony to thank the porters for their incredible work, and I cried again when thanking them for the taxi ride. There had been a couple of other illnesses and handicaps along the way; a few fairly severe bouts of gastro, and some close-to-blowing-kneecaps, so I wasn’t the only one in the wars.

After dinner, Rich and I crawled into our tent for the last time on our Inca Trail adventure. Tomorrow we’d be getting up at 3.30am, in order to be at the Sun Gate in time to watch the sunrise. And from there, it was only a stones throw (well, a bit further than that, but anything less than an hours walk felt like child’s play at this point) to Machu Picchu.

What. A. Day.

day 2 – dead womans pass

Tents are not very comfortable, are they? Our first night in a tent was a bit restless – there was lots of thunder and rain during the night, and dogs barking and howling, and loud snoring from our neighbours, and then roosters crowing and tent zips unzipping and then…. it was time to get up. We were greeted at our tent door by a smiling porter bearing cups of coca tea and a bucket of hot water to wash our faces. After a sleepless night, it was a pretty nice way to start the day.

Breakfast consisted of bread and jam and… PANCAKES!! With mountains and ‘Machu Picchu’ scrawled across in a squeezy nutella-type spread! Yummo!

We bundled up our things, and Abel gave us a briefing on what to expect today. We were headed up to Dead Womans Pass. It was going to be hard. We were to take things at our own pace. There would be a lot of steps and we would be going up very, VERY high. It would be hard to breathe. We had to chew coca leaves (it helps with the altitude) and drink plenty of water and take plenty of rest stops.

So. Up we went. I’m not gonna get all technical and talk about angles and gradients and what-not. Sometimes the path was steep, sometimes it had steps, sometimes the steps were small and narrow, like they’d been laid for a gnome, and sometimes the steps were huge, like they’d been laid for a giant. As I struggled up, hobbling along with my walking stick through moss-covered trees and great big bushes, the porters rushed past me with their backs laden with our belongings. I felt awful – seeing them lugging our stuff with such seeming ease while I laboured along with next to nothing in my backpack.

The higher we went, the harder it got. Rich and I took several stops for water and jubes. At one point, we took an extended stop and handed out jubes to everyone who huffed and puffed by. I think this could be one of my favourite parts of the trek (apart from finishing it, of course); it was mostly porters who took us up on our jube offer, and seeing them smile as they munched on sugary treats, sweat pouring off their faces, on their way up the hill made me feel pretty happy.

llamas llama-ing about

We had a snack stop with our group at a flat plateau halfway up the mountain, where llamas roamed freely munching on grass and leaves, and dogs ran around in search of cheese sandwiches and discarded biscuits.

From here, the top – which is referred to as The Big Nipple, because, well, it looks like a big nipple – didn’t look too far away. I could see the path the whole way up. It didn’t disappear behind any mountain bends or behind any trees or anything like that – it looked fine. It looked easy.

Ha!

Once we started up the hill after our snack, things took a turn for the muy difícil! Rich and I shuffled along at a pensioners pace, looking even more elderly with our walking sticks. Strategically placed boulders along the path made for excellent rest stops, which we took every ten metres or so. When we finally made it close enough to the top to make out the guys from our group and hear snippets of conversation – when the end to this leg of the trek would be over – it still took another hour or so to actually make it to the summit. Even getting up the last few steps was a major struggle. When we finally made it, we both guzzled water, high-fived our team-mates, and collapsed at the edge.

Hooray!! We did it!!

Good job gang! This is the hardest bit OVER!

O Wembolina, how wrong can you be?

With the clouds rolling in around us and a chilly wind gusting in, we made our way down the other side. One would think it would be much easier heading down a mountain than it is going up, but they’re kind of on par with each other. While it’s easier to maintain a conversation and keep your breath steady on the way down, your knees lock and your ankles jar and your toes ram into the top of your shoes. It’s easier to make the wrong step and fall. It’s easier to lose your balance. It’s easier to sustain an injury. Ouch.

We took it slowly, chatting with Carmel and Jim about music and politics (like why is it that it’s always the Premier’s son who seems to get into trouble and/or become a model?) and travelling. We took breaks. We admired the scenery. It was a tricky business at times but twas a nice way to end day two of the trek.

We arrived at camp at about 2, had lunch, and collapsed into our tents. I’d been told that day two was the hardest day and we’d done it. Woot! Tomorrow would be smooth sailing. Andean flats were ahead, as Abel was wont to say. Beautiful scenery. And we were more than halfway to Machu Picchu.

day 1 on the trail

As predicted, the sun DID come up on Thursday morning. I got up early to take advantage of the limited hot water, and had my last shower (and hairwash) for four days. Muchos yuckness. To say that I had butterflies is an understatement. Those butterflies felt like they were wearing brick-filled backpacks and spiky stilettos and were having a party in my tummy. Ouch.

At breakfast, everyone was looking a little nervous and anxious. People seemed to be avoiding coffee and not eating a huge amount. Why? One word. Toilets. After breakfast, there was a mass exodus, to take advantage of that one word. In the peace and privacy of ones own room. Fun times.

Our bus arrived at about 7.30am and we piled on, headed for Km 82, the starting point for the trail. We met our porters and they bundled up our duffle bags with sleeping mats and bags and food and chairs and tents and pretty much EVERYTHING. These guys are flipping amazing. They’re all tiny, nuggety little men who carry about 20kgs on their backs. And. They run most of the way along the trail. There was one porter who did the entire Inca Trail in just under 4 hours a few years ago. He was 57.

We collected our walking poles, and went through the first checkpoint. Our passports were stamped, and a group picture was snapped under the notorious (to me) Km 82 sign. This was it. We were doing it.

Here we go...

The first few hours were beautiful. We strolled along flat grassy land, donkeys grazing by the path, cacti and trees and flowers all over the place. We passed ladies in traditional dress selling water and Gatorade and Inca Kola and chocolate. We passed clean toilets. The last we’d see for a few days…

Most of the stroll for the first few hours was pretty gentle. There was one looooong, steep incline up the side of a hill, with a lovely view at the top, followed by a loooooong, steep decline down the other side. Rich and I huffed and puffed quite a bit at the top. And again at the bottom.

I call this one... Donkey eating grass.

At about midday we steered off the path, across a bridge and onto a farm for lunch. When we arrived, the porters all stood around clapping and cheering, welcoming us with cups of purple cordial. A tent was set up with a long table down the middle (set with tablecloth, cutlery and cups – sheesh!!) and we sat down to vegie soup, followed by fish and rice and vegetables. All delicious. Ridiculous!!

Unfortunately during lunch, a wild eee-aww-ing from a nearby donkey started up. One of the boys asked “I wonder what makes a donkey eee-aww like that?”. At that exact moment I stood up to take my empty plate out, and espied two donkeys COPULATING right outside the tent. I was at the worst possible angle you can imagine (don’t even try to imagine it – please), and I fear I will be forever scarred by the sight. Ew. Donkeys.

On we went. A herd of llamas passed us on the path. Followed by some non-sexing donkeys carrying heavy loads. Followed by some horses. The rider at the back of the horses said “Taxi?” and if I knew then how hard the trail would become the next day, I reckon I would have taken him up on it.

After lunch the path got significantly steeper, and higher. By the time we made it to camp at 5pm that afternoon, my legs were starting to burn and my lungs were starting to scream a little. Everything had been manageable and fine, but something told me (ie. guidebooks and the internetz) that tomorrow would be very different.

the inca trail – it begins…

If someone had told me how hard, scary and puff-inducing the Inca Trail was going to be, I’m honestly not sure I would have done it. Rich and I had several moments along the trail where we would stop to catch our breath, look at each other, and shake our heads in a ‘What the crap are we doing??’ fashion. It was a tough slog – the toughest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I’m so glad I did it. I’m feeling pretty chuffed, in all honesty.

Our Inca adventure started a week ago. On Monday night we met half of our tour group – a Canadian army fella, a luvverly couple from Sydney, and two Danish chaps – in a Lima hotel for briefing, got our plane tickets for our flight to Cusco the next day, that sorta thing.

Next morning we were up bright n early for a tres borink breakfast (cold toast and jam) and  bad coffee, and we were off to the airport. The flight to Cusco was pretty hair-raising. Cusco itself is at an altitude of around 3,400m above sea level. It’s surrounded by mountains that are even taller (I’ll tell you about those) and it’s windy and it makes landing aeroplanes a leetle beet tricky. Our plane came in, the wheels lowered, we were about to hit the runway and then suddenly… The plane sped up and we were up in the air again. We did another circle of a mountain and a valley and came in again for take 2. This time the plane dropped suddenly. Sheesh! I gasped (loudly) and clutched my armrest and the man next to me said “That’s the trouble with these winds”.

After a bit more lurching and bumping and dropping, we landed. Safely. A little shaky, but OK. Phewf!!

Our leader for the next six days – Abel – met us at the airport and took us to our hotel in a mattress-lined street in the city, then the eight of us went on a tour of the old part of town and then to lunch. Ingredients for Pisco Sours were brought to the table, and we each shook up our own lemon and egg white cocktails. Delicious, yes, but probably not the wisest move. Drinking alcohol on day one at such high altitude is kind of a recipe for disaster. Later in the day, Rich and I were both afflicted with monster headaches, nausea and squashy lungs that made breathing a little tricky… It was a fairly unpleasant night.

The next day we packed up our bags – 3kgs of clothing, toiletries, ponchos into a duffle bag carried by a porter, and whatever else we needed we carried in backpacks – and got into our little tourbus, bound for Ollantaytambo. We were a full group now. Along with the five peeps we met on Monday in Lima, we were joined in Cusco by a family of four from Castlemaine, a mom/daughter duo from Canada, and three uni lads from Melbourne/Perth.

Along the way to Ollantaytambo we stopped at an artisan village where, after receiving hugs from three Peruvian ladies as we stepped off the bus, we watched as wool was spun and blankets were weaved (or is it wove?) and deft hands knitted socks and hats and miniature llamas. That’s right – MINIATURE LLAMAS!!! With aloof llamas faces!!! Needless to say, I bought four. Don’t even get me started on the llamas and alpacas just milling about in the carpark. THERE WAS A BABY!!! WHO HAD A BIG FREAKOUT BECAUSE HE COULDN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO USE HIS LEGS!!! Clearly, I almost collapsed from the cuteness. Sigh.

Big alpaca, little alpaca

Peruvian ladies, doing their thang

After lunch (where the speakers blared a panpipe band covering Guns N Roses and Bryan Adams as we ate) we headed to a chicheria, where chicha is made. Chicha is a fermented fruit beer that has an alcohol content of about 2%, is served in ENORMOUS glasses and smells revolting. We weren’t allowed to taste it, because it would almost certainly have made us ill. I’m kinda glad. It really didn’t look good. The chicheria also housed a (gulp) guinea pig farm. I won’t go into details – I’m sure you can guess what they were fattening them up for. Wah!

The Guinea Pig farm. O dear...

We arrived in Ollantaytambo at about 4 o’clock and took a stroll around some Incan ruins. They were quite beautiful, but the steps to the top were very steep and narrow and did nothing for my fear of heights. I was starting to get a little bit worried about the Inca Trail… What if it was gonna be like this? All stairs and steepness? Surely not. I googled ‘Inca trail fear of heights’ not long ago, and everything came up roses. Things would be OK. This was just a particularly vertigo-inducing site. Nothing to worry about.

I hobbled slowly down the stairs, as Rich helpfully guided me along, and admitted to a few others in our group that I was a little scared of heights. More than a little. Quite terrified.

Carmel – the mum from Castlemaine – looked a little surprised and said “Well, good on you for facing your fears and doing the Inca Trail!! By the time we climb all the stairs at Machu Picchu I’m sure you’ll be right as rain!”

Super gulp.

I went to sleep early that night. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay awake forever so tomorrow wouldn’t come. But as Annie once sang: “The sun’ll come out tomorrow”. And as Silverchair once sang: “Yooooooooou way-ait, til tomorrooowwwww”. And as The Eurythmics once sang: “When tomorrow comes!!” So I guess there’s no escaping it. Whatever time I went to sleep, the next day was going to come and I was going to hike the Inca Trail. May as well rest up.