From Salkantay to Machupicchu

CUSCO, PERU __ I arrived at Machupicchu just before dawn on Friday, winning my race with the sun but tired and dripping with sweat. The steep stairs from Aguas Calientes capped an epic five day trek: we hiked 80 kilometers through a wide variety of conditions and terrain, over a cold and beautiful pass next to tower Salkantay mountain one day, through the rain on muddy jungle trails the next, finally ending the journey at this ancient Inca city that is one of the seven wonders of the world. And as I gazed at sprawling Machupicchu in the soft and fresh sunlight, I was even more awestruck than I anticipated. There really is something uniquely magical about this place.

I think that I’ll need more time to fully process the experience, so for now let me just describe the high points of the journey that brought me there. It began on Monday at 5 a.m. when Marc (my Belgian buddy that I met on Isle del Sol) and I were picked up at our hostel, about an hour later than we’d been told. Then came one of those crazy South American bus trips, with colorful people (including cholitas and a guy with a bag of live chickens) getting on and off in random remote spots and the bus flying along a rutty dirt road past hairpin turns on the sides of steep cliffs with no railing.

Arriving in Mollepata, I met our group over a sparse breakfast, the last meal we would have to pay for until Friday. The group of 11 of us included two young guys from Chicago and two from Southern California, an attractive 28-year-old single woman from New Jersey, Marc from Belgium, and couple from the Czech Republic (although we called them Germans all week, an initial mistake that later seemed to fit their personalities so it stuck) and one from Australia (although Leo lived in his native Bogota, Columbia until six years ago). Five horses carried our supplies and we were guided and cared for by four tough and knowledgable Peruvianos.

We hiked about six hours the first day on fairly easy terrain, except for the steep shortcuts that guide Jose Luis led us through. But it was cold and windy when we arrived at the exposed camp below towering, snow-covered Salkantay. We slept and ate in tents and endured a frigid night that ended mercifully at 5 a.m. to begin our longest and hardest day of trekking: more than 10 hours starting with a climb of about 3,000 vertical feet (which I powered despite being the oldest person — 39 — on the trek) and then a drop of about 6,000 vertical feet over rocky and unstable terrain. Our knees and bodies were worked by the time we arrived at the charming and remote campout, pitching our tents on the lawn of a riverside subsistence farm — albeit one with outdoor bar and snack shack for the visiting turistas. Our meals were always great (tea and soup followed by a complete main course, always with a meat and the two starches that are standard in South American meals) and always prepared by our cooks, whether we were in the middle of nowhere or coopting a room in a farmhouse or restaurant).

That night, we had our first rain, which continued into the next day, making the trail along a roaring river muddy and nearly impassable in some sections. We also had to contend with nearly a dozen creek crossing, some quite treacherous on rickety bridges or hopping along slippery rocks (I and two other fell into the creeks at different points). Yet Jose Luis and the other Peruvians took in all in stride, the porters wearing sandals evne in the cold or rain. But the experience was really fun, made all the more exciting by its difficulty.

After the hike, the horseman (who always had a big wad of coca in his cheek) took the animals all the back back to the start, doing in a day and a half what it took us three to complete. Tough hombres! Because we were pretty well worked by the time we arrived at the hostel in Santa Theresa where we camped on the lawn, quickly changes into our swim clothes for the much anticipated visit to a natural hot springs a short microbus trip away.

This place was fantastic, a must do for anyone visiting the area and better than any resort I’ve visited in the states. For just 10 soles, we soaked for hours in a series of pools of varying temperatures and went under two cool waterfalls. All the stresses and aches were washed away and we came together as a group before a late supper followed by campfire that were used to catalyze conversation and dry our shoes.

The next day’s hike began with a fun ride over the river in a two-person cart suspended by a cable. The six-hour hike was fairly easy by comparison of the previous three hikes, with the first part along a dirt road (where we encountered many other groups making the pilgrammage to Machupicchu), the second part along the railroad tracks that ended at Aguas Caliente.

Despite being panned in the guidebooks as a dumpy and expensive tourist town through which all Machupicchu visitors must pass, I liked how it was built along a section of river with raging whitewater. In fact, we all liked the river so much that most of the group stayed up until 1 a.m. drinking Cuba Libres on a balcony of the hostel (yes, we stayed in actual rooms and got our first showers of the week) despite needing to get up at 4:30 a.m.

But lack of sleep didn’t deter our enthusiasm, desire to hike the final leg of our journey rather than take the bus, or appreciation of Machupicchu and the higher Waynapicchu, both of which I’ll write more about later.

P.S. My trip ends on Wednesday, so at most I’ll do one more post from down here and some reflections when I get back. Thanks for reading.

Flying into the future

At the end of perhaps the most eventful week of my life, I leave the country tonight for the longest journey of my life: five weeks in Peru and Bolivia. Yes, these are heady days and the future seems filled with infinite possibilities.

A week ago, my sweetie Alix and I culminated a loving and supportive breakup and I moved out, housesitting for vacationing Guardian writer Amanda Witherell in her lovely little cottage house in the Mission District. It was hard and weird, but Alix had already left the country and Amanda’s place was quite homey and nurturing.

I’ve been working diligently on final trip preparations, including seeking an interview with Bolivian President Evo Morales (which is probably a longshot, but we’ll see) and a million other details, as well as writing a 5,000-word Guardian cover story about the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War (which is also my fifth anniversary at the Guardian and of my arrest for being a part of the protests).

Last Wednesday, just as I finally hunkered down at Amanda’s place to be able to focus on writing, I got the call from Guardian Executive Editor Tim Redmond that the jury was back with a verdict in our unfair competition lawsuit against SF Weekly and the chain corporation that owns it.

More than three years after filing the suit, and pouring a ton of staff time and emotional energy into working on it, particularly in the last few months, we got a $15.6 million verdict in our favor. It was huge, a vindication of an independent newspaper against a big chain, even though we probably won’t see any money until after years worth of appeals.

It was also a setback on my story as we celebrated the victory, but I managed to finish it amid adventures in the Mission, adjusting to my new solo life, storing all my stuff, studying Spanish, visiting my daughters in Modesto, and readying my backpack and mind for the journey.

And tonight, I strap on the pack, walk to the BART station, raise a glass with friends at The Attic next door, and then fly away, arriving into Lima tomorrow afternoon and La Paz on Friday night. Beyond that, the future is uncertain, and that’s OK with me. But I’ll be doing periodic posts on this blog, so you can follow along on my adventure with me.

P.S. When I return on April 16, I’ll be couch-surfing and looking for a place to live. So if you hear about anything good, drop me a line at steventhejones@yahoo.com.

Finding focus

Seeing the world through new eyes is a powerful metaphor. And in my case, there’s also some literal truth to it as I gaze out upon San Francisco with 20-15 vision unaided by glasses or contact lenses. Last Friday, lasers zapped away the bit of corneal tissue that was blurring my vision, bringing the world sharply into focus. But my outlook was already undergoing some nonsurgical adjustments.

The decision to break up with my sweetie has been more painful and drawn out than the one to get LASIK surgery, which was an unexpected Christmas gift from my mother. Compared with the intense contemplation of whether to leave a wonderfully sustaining four-year relationship to pursue uncertain adventures, letting someone shave my eyeballs was no big deal.

Alix and I have been doomed for months, maybe even years, but we loved each other too much to face it. Love doesn’t really conquer all, as we all eventually realize, often around the time when couples talk about whether to have babies. I love my daughters, who are now 18 and almost 14 years old, but as I approach my 40th birthday, I can clearly see that my child rearing days are nearing their sunset.

We’re doing a good job of loving and supporting each other as we untangle our lives, but the future is a blur. The horizon ends at the end of the month when Alix flies to Bali for a six-week trip to southeast Asia and I move out, couch-surfing with friends until I fly to South America 12 days later and worrying about where to live next after my return.

My five-week trip to Peru and Bolivia will be part vacation and part journalistic exploration, as I’ve discussed in some earlier posts. It’s by far the most time I’ve had off from 17 years worth of daily and weekly newspaper deadlines, a chance to really reflect on my life, gaze upon the world, and just be.

Yet there’s really no respite for a restless soul. I’m brimming with writing projects right now, all of which exhibit serendipitous cross currents and flashes of interconnection that seem to be painting a picture that I can’t yet see.

As the war started five years ago, I was arrested for helping block the intersection in front of Bechtel, our homegrown multinational corporation that helped spark Bolivia’s latest revolutionary cycle by privatizing the water system in Cochabamba. And for some reason, I feel compelled to fly down there and learn more.

I regularly cover San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s well-packaged yet hollow approach to politics and civic governance, often recalling his stylistic mentor Bill Clinton as I watch Newsom in action, using the right liberal rhetoric (and even some of the same hand gestures and intonation) but selling out those values to maintain his personal popularity, over and over. So now I cover the presidential race, and the upcoming Democratic National Convention, where we’ll see whether we’re really ready to turn a new political page or whether it’s back to that soulless Clintonian triangulation.

Are Americans ready to see with new eyes?

Barack Obama’s campaign has tapped into a deep well of unfocused human energy, those who have been so disconnected from corrupted and ineffectual political systems that they choose to create new worlds, from Black Rock City to Second Life to untold other deliberately created communities. But I believe they yearn to apply their energies to the real challenges our country and the world faces, if they can only see how to do so. 

“There’s a real idealism out there, but they haven’t had an outlet,” Burning Man founder Larry Harvey told me on Monday as we chatted in his apartment, speaking simultaneously about Obama supporters and the burners that are branching out into the world, from Pisco to Gerlach (soon I’ll do a post focused on my conversation with Larry and his American Dreams).

I’m also inspired and idealistic, and I too am looking for an outlet for my energies. For now, that’s how I intend to use this blog, to explore the connections among my many current writing projects. And just maybe, at some key moment, it will all snap into clear focus.