The pounding drums of Quechuan music playing in the background couldn’t keep up with my heartbeat as our little minibus rolled towards Km 82 – the marker which meant the start of an arduous four day hike to Machu Picchu which I was now looking upon with utter dread.
Sure, I’d started out elated but a trial run around Písac and the surrounding Sacred Valley the previous day had deflated me – punctured that emotional parachute as it were – and promptly brought me back to earth.
“Phew! We must have done like what? Ten kilometers?” I had asked Aly, panting to catch my breath as we explored ruins around the town of Písac an hour or so from Cusco. A quick fitness check before we started the trail the next day. Aly – a charismatic Urubamba native who switched between Quechua, Spanish, and English with ease – was my guide.
“Just 3.5 kilometers,” he’d snickered back. The realization that I might be a tad bit in over my head began to dawn on me.
I’d flown into Cusco two days earlier to acclimatize myself; popping Soroche pills like candy and chugging mate de coca tea. I added raw coca leaves to my ritual; chewing them like an alpaca. I kept running out of breath just chewing the darn leaves. I struggled with the altitude those first 48 hours.
By the time I hit Písac and Ollantaytambo the next day to test out my Coca-Soroche filled lungs and still felt incredibly winded, my decision to hike seemed like pure madness and taking the train up to Machu Picchu instead seemed so darn sexy.
So by the time we kicked off the hike at Km 82, I’d already started waging a mental war. Barely five kilometers into our 40-kilometer Inca Trail hike, and my water bottle was already empty. Chugging water at every sign of discomfort, I wasn’t as ready for the high altitude as I’d initially thought and I hadn’t paced myself.
With hands on my knees catching my breath, an older lady clearly in her seventies in nothing more than Nike sneakers strolled past me. In a sense, drinking became a subconscious need to mentally nourish my body for the grueling stony path ahead and to keep me from hyperventilating frankly.
We were a couple more kilometers from our first lunch camp of the trek. Relatively new, group members weren’t ready to share water bottles with me quite yet so I was on my own.
After our first ascent, which in hindsight felt more like a quick dash up two easy flights of stairs, we stopped to rest, panting to collect our breath.
Local Quechua women rushed up to us with snacks and water for sale. Nothing at the moment seemed sexier than the cool beads of water trailing down the side of a large plastic bottle one of the ladies was holding in a teasing fashion.
I searched frantically for loose change in my backpack.
“Un agua, por favor!” I finally asked, pitching a few soles I’d found to the woman who reached me first. She trotted over joyfully with a wide welcoming grin across her suntanned face. A traditional Montera hat was balancing sideways on her head and she was dressed in a colorful handwoven wool skirt; a “melkkhay” as they call it in Quechua.
She smiled and handed me an ice-cold bottle of spring water which I grabbed hungrily. This bottle was going to be enough to tide me over till our next pit-stop which was also our camp for the night. She stared down to count the worn-out Peruvian coins I’d handed over.
In what felt like a split second, an angry scowl replaced her smile and dark eyes like pools of obsidian stared back up at me, offended.
She reached back for her water, grabbing it forcefully out of my hand before I could lift it to my lips.
Okay? Had I shortchanged her? I wasn’t sure what had just happened except that she didn’t want me to have that bottle of water. Confusion set in.
“How much? Cuanto?!” I asked again.
She wasn’t bargaining anymore. Shaking her head vigorously as if she’d just witnessed an abomination, she poured the coins back into my sweaty open palm that had originally held her water.
She just kept shaking her head, backing away. Rudimentary Spanish wasn’t going to quench my thirst at this point. I yelled for my guide, Aly.
“Do I owe her more money? What’s wrong?” I explained my plight to him.
He grabbed shiny silver coins from me and examined it closely. He furrowed his eyebrows intently as he studied them. Then, “Ha!” escaped him and his brows relaxed into arches of amusement.
“You see this?” he pointed to a little etch of a bird on one of the soles – the Peruvian coins. “This bird is fake”.
I leaned in closer with squinted eyes, trying to play along.
“Okay?” I responded in agreement, still uncertain of what it was I was agreeing to.
“You see this line? The mouth of the bird? It is very different from this one”. He pulled out a supposedly genuine equivalent of the coin. I squinted harder.
Maybe with stronger glasses, I could have made out such a microscopic detail, but somehow with almost supernatural abilities, the Quechua woman had been able to detect the difference while staring at the coin at arm’s length.
“Mouth of this bird straighter than this one. It is a fake. They give you fake soles in Lima”. I wasn’t sure who was teasing who at this point. Somehow in Peru, I needed to inherently know the difference between a fake and valid coin based on the curve of the beak of a silver bird.
Aly called her back, mediating in Quechua. She wasn’t ready to break any of the larger bills I was carrying. In a sense, I felt she wanted nothing more to do with me.
Maybe carrying fake birds was also an omen around these parts. I wasn’t sure. Maybe Peru was trying to tell me something. To get out of this mental funk I was gleefully swimming in and to truly notice her microscopic details. That was how I was going to survive along the trail, she seemed to say. Peru was imploring me to seek out details that would not only distract me from my physical discomfort – you know, the mind over matter deal - but would also move me to a transcendent place of spiritual awareness of what it was I was trying to accomplish.
Right now though, I just needed some agua – water – badly.
“It’s okay”, my guide Aly finally offered. “I buy you one. You can tip me later.”