Chapter 99: Yea, So …
Hello Dear Reader, you still with me? Great! I was re-reading this thing, looking for annoying typos before I sent it off to be formally published, when I decided I just had to share some more stories. Maybe not to my decomposing relative, but definitely to you. For you see, I’ve got a lot more poking fun at myself left in me. And since I couldn’t find a “theme letter” to bury these in, I just thought I’d break with tradition and add them here at the back of the book. Quite the scofflaw, ain’t I?
Let’s see, I haven’t told you about my grand hissy fit, did I? 🙂
One of the things in the first trip that Nikki really wanted to do was ride an old fashioned train through the Black Forest. So I did all sorts of research, found the stations where it traveled, and got us tickets there. Plus a rental car to press on afterwards towards several other countries. What could possibly go wrong?
Well for starters, the ticket lady, despite numerous requests from me to make sure that we were on the right train, put us on the commuter line. Instead of multi-hour ride through the forest, it was a 45 minute speed event alongside of it. Strike one. We all-too-quickly arrived at a city that I’ve already decided to forget, there to get our rental car. Nope, place closed. Had been all day. Despite our reservation. And no other options available. Strike two. So I sat down with Nikki on the station steps, beside everything we owned, to figure out what we should do. That’s when I promptly split my pants right down my ass crack. Strike three and out!
So I kinda melted down. Used lots of expletives to describe my feelings for the situation. Decided that I was going to storm into the station and buy two tickets for the next freaking train out of there. Screw this town and everyone in it!
So what was the next destination? Strasbourg France.
We had never heard of it. Thirty minutes later, we’re walking from the train station to an economy hotel that we found on the way. Checked in and asked the desk clerk if there was anything to do. Turns out, there was quite a lot.
Strasbourg is probably the most beautiful place I have ever seen. The architecture, flowers, people, water, all absolutely gorgeous. We met an incredible young couple at a wonderful outdoor cafe, right there on one of the five branches of the Rhine river flowing through the city. So many things to see and do. And after dark, they put on a music and light show against the side of the cathedral that was so powerful that both Nikki and I teared up and wept. And all of this, because I had a whiny hissy fit. 🙂
OK, I once wrote up a semi-humorous story about hiking the Inca Trail that I also want to share with you. The person with me was not Nikki, rather it was my second wife. (Yea yea, I know. Don’t judge. My sad personal history is just too much for this book). Anyway, I found it amusing, so here it is. The short version, at least.
Interviewer: Now that you’ve climbed four days on the Inca Trail, what are you thinking?
Me: Where’s the shitter?
OK, this is the real reason why we were in Peru. And it needs quite a bit of explanation. First of all, the hike was four days long, but each day was so unique, that each must be expressed in capitals, like “Day Two” for instance. The Inca Trail we hiked is 42 kilometers long, (26 miles to Americans), and has altitudes from 9k to 17k feet above sea level. It’s mostly “paved” in uneven rocks and rock steps. And it was by far the hardest physical and mental task I have ever accomplished. So let’s take each day, dissect it, and try to make sense of my feelings as the trek progressed.
Day One was labeled by our guide as Inca Flat. Which meant it undulated. Which doesn’t quite describe it. To me, undulate means a slight rise and fall. In Peruvian terms, it meant walking along a roller coaster. We started in Cusco and had a long bus ride to the trail head at KM82. All of us in the group were fairly nervous, as no one really knew what we were in for. And the first part of the trip was a fairly steep incline up into the mountains. A bit of a shock to my oxygen starved system, I honestly felt real apprehension just within the first 1/4 mile. And then to see the porters rushing by you was even worse.
Actually, I need to give that bit its own paragraph. The entire trip was spent with the word “porter” being yelled from behind you, and you dutifully stepped to the mountain side of the trail and let them by. They carried enormous packs with our tents, personal belongings, food, water, gas, chairs, lights, and everything else we thought we needed. Twenty porters in all for our little group of fourteen. And they hauled ass. While we were sucking wind, struggling to walk with our little day packs, these guys were double-timing it up and down the mountains. Without a doubt, they have my highest respect and admiration for what they can and do accomplish. A stronger group of men I will probably never meet. And I am so glad they helped us.
OK, back to Day One and Inca Flat. It really wasn’t all that difficult, but the uphills were definitely challenging because of the altitude. The general lay of the land for this day is a slight rise from start to finish, with some pretty wild variances in altitude along the way. But it’s also another day to acclimate and get used to the logistics of camping, eating, hiking, defecating, etc. And it also gave the clan a chance to bond together. By the end of Day One, we were all a little tired, but felt we had accomplished something. Like we were real hikers perhaps. Little did we know that our mindsets would change fairly drastically over the next three days. So with that, we all piled in our tents after dinner and slept, perhaps dreaming of what we had heard was the hardest day of all. The one we were about to wake up to.
Day Two started early, with the guides shaking us awake just after 5am. I had slept pretty well that night, but I was still very apprehensive about what we were about to do. And with good reason. Day Two is a killer. There is no undulate. It’s simply up. A vertical rise of 8,000 feet in just about three miles. Mostly steps that averaged a foot high, and were made of uneven rocks. Brutal doesn’t describe it. In fact, I have no words for what I experienced. I will tell you that of the fourteen of us who were hiking the trail, I was dead last to the top of the highest peak on this day. And I was so exhausted that I didn’t care. “Baby Steps” they kept telling me. And my slow shuffling as the hike wore on looked more like a Parkinson’s patient than a hiker. As I neared the top of Dead Womans Pass (at 17k feet), I kept wondering how I was going to tell my wife that I wasn’t going to make the hike. I couldn’t breathe. Period. There was no oxygen getting to my lungs. My legs were shot, and my confidence gone. But somehow I trudged along and finally made the peak … and the view was glorious. And not just the scenery. But also the trail we had just walked up, for you could see it almost in its entirety. And to realize just what you accomplished was almost magical.
So, photos, water, and rest for a few minutes. Then the guides tell us to bundle up because the downhill trip we’re about to take was very cold at the beginning. Not completely sure what they meant, we dutifully wrapped up and stepped to the back side of the peak. What did we see? Steps. Very steep steps heading straight down. For about as long a hike as we had going up. They call it Gringo Killer, because your rubber legs now have to take a pounding as you reverse your way down. The steps are not only steep, but are built for eight foot tall humans. Each one just slams your knees. The wind is blowing and it’s misting/raining, so the rocks are slippery. And since you are above the tree line, you have a great view … downward … of the entire steep descent. And all of the huzzahs go out of you. For this is the dangerous part. We had several folks slip and fall … but not me. I fell and injured myself in the shower, just a few days later. But that’s another story.
Finally, after 8-9 hours of constant agony, I made it in last place to the camp site, which was again, freaking uphill. Sigh. I fell to the ground in my tent, didn’t even bother to look for a mat or a sleeping bag, and huffed for a solid 15 minutes. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, and was sure that I was dying. I have never in my entire life been that drained. I had physically run out of energy hours earlier, and whatever adrenaline I had been using was also kaput. I made it to camp by sheer willpower, and honestly, the second I fell into the tent, I couldn’t have walked another foot. Had someone said I needed to go another 50 yards, I would have just laid there and refused to move. I simply couldn’t have gone another step.
Obviously I slept well that night. More like being unconscious. And Day Three promised to be something more than Day One, but far less than Day Two. So the optimistic mindset, that turned into the “please let me die” mentality, had to figure out what it should be on this day. I think we were all relieved that we had passed “the big one”, but we also all realized that there was no turning back. Moving forward was the only option. We were all feeling a little better about ourselves, both individually and as a group. We were accomplishing things that we had not imagined. And we had two more days to go.
Day Three started with a lot of up again, over two separate peaks. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as what we had done. So morale was building, and we were able to look around more. On Day Two, my view was of the ten feet in front of me. I couldn’t tell you what scenery was around me. I couldn’t afford the energy to look. But on Day Three, look I did. And the views were out of this world. And with every step I felt more and more like someone who deserved to be there. By the time we stopped for lunch (at 2pm, as this was the longest distance day we were going to have), I was really feeling great about the hike, almost to the point of starting to forget the horrors of the previous day.
And then the sleet and rain came.
You have to realize that we were in the clouds at this point. You know, those fluffy things that you see from the ground? We were in and above them. Ever look down at a cloud bank without the aid of an airplane? It’s kinda cool. But weather changes fast. And we had another huge downhill in front of us. Even longer and steeper than Day Two. And water was just pouring down. Slippery as hell. The sleet stung like the dickens. And it was the absolute best day I had on the trail. I loved it. I had found my trail feet and just tore down those tall steps. Where I was in dead last the day before, I was in the lead here. It felt like I was flying, and nothing could stop me. I was actually laughing out loud, I was having such a good time. I don’t think everyone else had this same moment in this same place, but for me, it was the absolute best part of the entire two weeks.
Near the bottom of the trail on this day, you come to a fork. Right takes you directly to camp, maybe 15 minutes away. Left takes you 30 minutes longer. I went left, and am so happy I did. For the best ruins of the trail are here. Inipata. Smaller than Machu Picchu, they are nonetheless magnificent. As soon as I rounded the corner to see them, I was stopped in my tracks. I actually probably took a full hour longer to reach camp, because every two steps brought the place into a different focus and I had no choice but to stop and stare. And best of all — I had it all to myself. It was exactly what I had come for.
Day Four. The shortest day. And we wanted to be first. So up we were at 3am to eat a cold breakfast of bread and water, just to get in line at the gates of the check point before everyone else. They open the gates at 5:30 and let groups through in a staggered way. I guess they realize it’s a race at that point. But we were indeed first in line, so after two hours of freezing our cajones off, we had the opportunity to get there before anyone else, as long as we moved our tushies.
The final hike was only two hours long, but it went by in a flash. Fairly flat, and the weather was cooperating. And then came the Monkey Stairs. Or as our guide called them, the “Oh God” stairs. You turn the corner, just near the end of the trail, and see a wall in front of you maybe 30′ tall. Then you realize it’s not a wall. It’s steps. Extremely steep steps. Steps you don’t walk up because the rocks have no depth. You put aside your poles and climb them on all fours. And laugh all the way. Because at this point, there is nothing more the trail can do to you. You feel invincible, and this final insult just needs to be batted away.
After that, it’s just a short walk to the Sun Gate and the postcard view of Machu Picchu. We had made it!
OK, some additional thoughts on the trail. Besides exhaustion, we as a group concerned ourselves with three things. Food, water, and toilets. The food was excellent, as we had two cooks along with us. The water was also always available, and safe to drink. But the toilets! You have to realize that we were off the polite grid of society. All dignity and modesty gone after Day One. And the facilities we had available were beyond nasty. Squat toilets, with nary a maid in sight to clean them. I had never used them before, and after a day of hiking, the last thing your thighs want to do is squat. It seems silly and childish, but as a group we spent a lot of time discussing toilets. Other topics too, of course. But toilets and bodily functions seemed to hold a high place on our collective topic lists. You need to remember that as we start discussing the remainder of the final day, later in this report.
We also became far closer to each other as the trek progressed. Small talk ceased, and we became as family. Words of encouragement were freely passed, and I felt that the group dynamic was just a constant feedback loop. As individuals, we needed the group, and the group grew stronger as the individuals poured more of themselves into it. I knew everyone’s strengths and weaknesses as well as they knew mine. And we all knew how to support each other and celebrate ourselves. By the time Day Four started, I had twelve new people in my life that I completely trusted and cared for.
So, why didn’t I include this in the “Tale of the Trail”? Because it was a completely, shockingly, different beast. And one I didn’t like. Not at all. As I was walking down from the Sun Gate into the lost city, it was all I could do not to turn around and walk back. But they had a flush toilet, and that was something we were all obsessed with, so down we went. I actually kept my “MP Time” to a minimum, just walking though the crowds, waiting for it to be over.
Why was I so distressed with Machu Picchu? The train people. The place was packed with tourists who smelled washed and anointed with fragrance. People who had on clean clothes, shiny backpacks, and walking poles that were purely for show. And I felt immersed in falseness. Like I earned something special, only to be shoved into a swarm of impostors who took the cheap way to the same goal. These folks would go home and say “I did Machu Picchu”, just like me. But their only hardship was to … well, hell … they didn’t have any hardship. Don’t get me wrong, MP was impressive as all get-out. How they built something like that is beyond me. It was awe inspiring. Yet the smaller ruins I saw along the trail were more precious to me. So after four days, essentially alone with your small clan, the mind-jarring re-entry into the crowds was more than I could easily absorb.
But the toilets! Ahhh! Every single one of us was talking about them throughout the previous night. On the trail, it’s the simple things that take up your thoughts and conversations. Food. Shelter. And shitters. And after four days of open-air bowel expulsions and squat toilets that left us all dreaming about thrones of porcelain with the power of flushing water, we were so close. We had planned on how we would enjoy the simple pleasure and we shared openly our thoughts. And together, we paid our fee to enter the johns, and thus our trek was complete. Four days of hiking in the Andes to the most wonderful of conclusions.
I had mentioned in one of my letters our trip to Venice. We had been sitting in our apartment in Barcelona, wondering where we could go for a weekend. I was just looking over options on some random booking site when I saw a link to explore countries. I clicked Italy. Up popped a list, and viola, Venice was on it. We hadn’t even thought of it as an option.
Well, it only took three metro trains, an airport shuttle, a flight, a taxi, a private car, and a regional train … but we finally made it to that city. As we were walking from the train, wondering if we were even in the right station, we started heading towards an information kiosk to find out where we were. And then I looked to our right. “Ummm, Nikki?”. And right there, outside a huge wall of glass, was the Grand Canal.
We stayed in Treviso, a forty minute train ride away, in a very lovely bed and breakfast that was run by a wonderful family. Treviso itself is a beautiful town, but it wasn’t our goal. We just wanted inexpensive, and staying in Venice wasn’t. But it’s an easy bus ride to the train station, and a quick ride right into the heart. We initially didn’t know which of the two stations called Venice we should head towards. We got lucky and picked the right one. It’s Venice-Santa Lucia and that line takes you to the island. The other one is on the mainland.
I honestly have difficultly forming words for Venice. It’s too incredible. Everything, yet more. But soon you realize it’s not just a Disney-town full of tourists. People live there. Work there. Only instead of having their furniture delivered by a truck (no cars on the island at all), it comes by boat. Everything comes by boat. Then by cart. Then by foot. School lets out and kids stream through the streets. And water is everywhere. Plus alleys. And dead ends. In Barcelona (and in Fes), the mazes all seem to connect. In Venice, not so much. It’s a constant game of walking, turning, reversing because a canal is in the way, backtracking, finding a bridge … it’s actually really fun. But like Miami neighborhoods, you can’t always get there from here.
The food (except for the pizza maybe) was nothing like what I thought of as Italian. It was incredible. Simply delicious. I really need to do an Italian Food Tour one day, and dig myself and my belly into that world.
In general, the Italian people seem less outwardly friendly than say Spaniards. But one on one, they’re great. We met a young couple after we discovered a hidden spot where the locals watch the sun set each night. (We’re suckers for sunsets). Got to chatting and learned so much about their city. Both of them were natives and were obviously quite proud of their home. We truly enjoyed those hours.
We found out that the number of gondola licenses has been limited for ages, and they stay in families. No one just “becomes one”. Back in the 1980s, Venice wasn’t the same and a lot of families switched over to getting fishing boat licenses instead. Now a single gondola can make over 1000 euros a day with ease.
Again, I’m at a loss as to how to describe this place. Crowded as hell in spots, desolate in others. No sales pressure from the markets or restaurants. So much to see. And turning every corner is an adventure. We missed so much because of time, so another place I would gladly go back to. And one we never intended to visit in the first place. Gotta love serendipity.
I tell ya, I could probably write an encyclopedia-length set about all the hijinks that have happened. But, then you’d have to pay more to Amazon for the damn thing, probably by the pound. So let’s leave it right here. Sadly.
I would absolutely love to hear from you. Listen to your stories. And share some ideas. Please go to ThePirateWanderer.com, find my contact info, and let’s talk about being pirates. I’m sure your tales are as wacky as mine.
LETTERS TO A DEAD UNCLE
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