Friday, April 27, 2007

The Road To Machu Picchu is littered with rockfall (pt2)

Upon arriving in Ollantaytambo ("Ollantay's warehouse"), we were treated with spectacular views of large ruins on the hillsides above. The ruins we'd seen up until now were peanuts compared to this mountain fortress. The story goes that this particular spot was where one of the last Incan generals retreated from the Spanish in the 1500's. Here, they repelled the Spaniards for about 40 years, including using tricky irrigation techniques to flood them, until they were finally overrun by a massive cavalry attack in the end. The ruins all over the hills were food storage sites, so they say.

Anyway, we explored that area for a while, assured it was bigger or better than Machu Picchu by the friendly local juice squisher, and then settled down for a longish wait in the city square, where there was an Andean weaving contest going on. It's neat to see how plain old wool off an alpaca is twirled into woolen yarn, then taken somewhere to be dyed, then woven through a laptop loom into the bright red and orange scarves and blankets you see everywhere here. The town was overrun with gringos, but we found a tasty café to hang out in which donates its profits to local women's funds in the mountains around us. We read that the women were given a choice of programs to fund with the café's profits, and they picked all children's programs – basically giving away the funding they could have taken for themselves and choosing programs for the kids of their villages. Anyway, this café had the most amazing hot chocolate we've ever seen. Ali drank 3 pots of tea (ginger-lime, coca, and ginger-lime) to make up for her recent dehydration at 10,500' in Cuzco.

We paired up with a pair of friendly Dutch gringos for the walk to the train station, swapping stories and talking about travel. Nic was inspired by the long-term travel many of the Europeans find themselves able to do. 2-month tours are easier to do when you've a holiday tradition of getting the summer off from work, and 6 to 12-month tours are not atypical. Dollars and the Euro go a long way in South America. Still, the Dutch weren't staying at $30 hotels, but truly backpacking it and bargaining.

The train was packed exclusively with tourists; there was another train called the "tren local" for the local residents right in back of us which costs less than half (but still $20, exorbitant for most people). It was quite nice, except our seats faced another pair, and Nic's legs were politely intertwined with a pair of Argentinean legs. But it was OK, as the ride was only supposed to be about 2 hours long and it was already dark. Since we'd gotten on about half way to Machu Picchu, everyone was sleepy and the train was pretty quiet. Nic and the Argentineans contorted themselves into amazing shapes in order to snooze, while Ali flirted with decapitation by craning out the window to see through the dark into the emerging river jungle.

Suddenly….CRUNCH, BONK, CHUNK, BANG, CHUNK, BANG, CHUNK…SIZZLE!!!! We lurched to a rapid stop. "¡Como!" was heard from the sleepy Argentineans. We started going again, slowly, only to hear the Crunching and Banging and Chunking again. Over and over. It felt like the train was ramming something on the tracks, which it turned out, was exactly what it was doing.

An amazing amount of communication can happen between people who don't speak the same language in situations like this. We're all sleeping, when suddenly the train feels like it's just about to derail in the dark, in the jungle, and nobody knows what's going on, and nobody's there to tell us, and it's scary. But somehow, within 2 minutes, through sign language and pidgin Esfranglish and charades, we all knew that huge rocks had fallen from the cliffs we were traveling under and landed on the tracks in front of us. Indeed, we all fathomed that the train driver had attempted to bludgeon his or her way through them. By the time the conductor came and told us about "las rocas," we already knew.

A mesmerizing cycle of banging our way through, backing up, then waiting began. We could stick our heads out the windows and see big lights in front of the train, hear people with crowbars trying to lift the rocks off the track. One couldn't help thinking it was like modern Incas moving huge rocks to build something, except with the help of a massive train to pulverize some of the pieces. We couldn't actually see the process from our car, but we felt each little boulder as we either rammed it or subsequently ran over it. An hour or so passed, and we kept slowly moving forward, encountering more rocas along the way.

We finally got through the rocks. There was something really magical about this part of the journey. There are only two ways to enter Machu Picchu, by foot along the 2 or 4-day Inca Trail, or by train. The trains only run at night, and this time of year, you arrive long after dark. You leave light somewhere up in the highlands of the Sacred Valley and travel through dark and moonlight into the unknown. Peering out the open windows of the brightly lit train only faintly reveals a roaring, whitewater river and looming, shadowy trees. The smell of the air is your best indication of the terrain, as you roll down through the dusty highland foothills into a steamy, verdant, tropical gorge.

The passengers had reached that hazy state of exhausted, crammed in familiarity that you get on long journeys, where you stopped worrying about touching thighs and nudging for extra space a long time ago. Everyone drifted between sleep and one-eye-open consciousness. Nic found position #35 to snooze in, while Ali hovered out the Argentineans' window (the conductor had stopped worrying about her decapitation a while back). The front of the train belched flames and smoke from the smokestack in front when it rounded curves in the gorge. Every now and then, a face in the dark would rush by underneath, barely 3 feet away, evidence of a tiny local train station for that person's 1-hut village. There are no roads out here.

Finally, there were lights in the fog around the gorge's corner up ahead. Machu Picchu station! Altitude: 6,800'.

We had booked a "hostal" from Ollantaytambo. In the sleepy, mesmerized, and very late state we were in, we weren't sure where it was or how to get there. So we were carried along in the dark in the quickly dispersing tide of lemming tourists until Nic overheard a man mumbling "Rita Poche" behind us somewhere in the crowd, and we were escorted to a woman holding a sign with the same printed on it in the small town square. Soon thereafter, we were met by an older lady who encouraged us to start walking up a steep hill with her. I don't think we really knew where we were going, but we weren't about to argue if it meant a place to sleep.

After a brisk 3-minute walk that felt like hours, we spotted a cat! (2nd one in Peru, to Ali's knowledge.) Soon, we turned down a dark alley towards the sound of the river, and were taken inside a really nice, small hotel that was completely dark and deserted. This part of the trip is hazy, as we were sleep walking at this point, and we had no idea where we were. But as soon as our heads touched the pillows, we fell fast asleep to the sounds of a roaring whitewater river.
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