It was just after the break of dawn, Christmas Eve. A group of hikers gathered at Sungate, the viewpoint overlooking the ancient city of Machu Picchu. Everybody was literally on top of the world, as if a celebration party was going on at this high altitude. That the day being Christmas Eve was a reason for the excitement, but there was more.
Sungate marks the very last bit of the Inca Trail. In about an hour, hikers would arrive at Machu Picchu, the mystic city above the clouds. All the pain and misery the hikers had endured during the four-day hike would soon become history.
Some of the people were well prepared. They rummaged through their backpacks and fished out some creased Christmas costumes they brought all the way up here. They roamed here and there for the best vantage point to pose with their funny costumes, the full view of Machu Picchu in the background.
I am not too much into taking my own photos when I travel, but I felt so much like doing it on this day. I borrowed a Christmas hat from a random hiker, and took a photo of myself in front of Machu Picchu. I wanted to keep this photo as a memento of something fantastic I had just accomplished, a journey made special by the physical hardship I was not prepared for.
It all started from the day I flew out.
I had stayed very healthy for years, not even caught a flu once. The day I left home, I had some little itch on my throat. The round-the-clock flight to the States was over, and I boarded a flight to Lima. By then a fit of coughs broke out, so terrible that my neighbour quickly found a germ mask to put on. I was embarrassed.
By the time I had the third and last leg of the flight, to Cusco, I had almost flown thirty hours. My eyes were drying out in the arid cabin air. I started taking the medication that my doctor suggested to help me better cope with altitude sickness. This was a measure just in case. I had never before had any problem coping with altitude sickness.
I had planned a three-day stay in Cusco before the start of the hike. It was to give my body enough time to adjust to the high altitude. I went right away to the travel agency to confirm my place for the hike, and chatted with a couple who would set off to the Inca Trail the following day. The woman did all the talking while the guy sat dumb and inert all along. ‘The altitude sickness is still getting on him,’ the woman explained, knowing that the scene looked awkward.
‘I must make myself adjust as soon as I can. Not a good idea to start a hike in this condition.’ I thought to myself.
While I did not want to be bound in Cusco the whole time, I arranged with the agency to join an easy day tour to see the Sacred Valley the following day.
All settled, I rushed to my hostel to take a much-needed rest. My flu symptoms were getting obvious. I coughed more violently, and I did not feel like eating. I bought a bottle of cough syrup from the pharmacy. I also bought a bag of coca leaves to make tea, as the Incans have been doing for centuries to ease altitude sickness. I golloped litres of water, hoping that the effect of altitude sickness would not come upon me. By eight that first evening, I already passed out in bed.
The next morning, I kept reminding myself to walk slowly along the way to Sacred Valley. The day was sunny and hot, but I shivered when the mild breeze occasionally blew across. My head was heavy, and I felt a bit nauseous – all symptoms of altitude sickness. I revived a little in the afternoon, but my dried eyes, running nose and hacking cough irritated me. The heat and the sun intensified the discomfort. A fellow traveler, knowing that I did not feel well due to the altitude, told me to chew a large fistful of coca leaves and stuff it in my mouth – another Incan tradition of treating altitude sickness. With the coca leaves soaked in my mouth, my cheeks swelled up like a toad.
That night, the cough did not stop, but I felt that the altitude sickness was leaving me. I realized that I might have been too harsh to my body to expect a quick recovery. After all, I had flown 30 hours.
I stayed in the hostel and took an afternoon nap the following day, an indulgence I never had while I was on the road. I must have got really tired.
My appetite revived a little. As I had yet a proper meal since I landed, I decided to give myself a treat that evening. It was just a few fat drops of rain falling down when I left the hostel. It became a torrential downpour a minute later, as if a switch was toggled by a mischievous force from above. I was soaked through and through. Sitting next to the fireplace of the restaurant, I stealthily took off my shoes and socks under the cover of a tablecloth to let dry a bit.
It was my last day in Cusco. I felt perfectly rejuvenated when I woke up. I felt great and my body seemed ready to the challenge. The only concern was the coughing. The syrup that I had taken for three days did not help. Watery phlegm pumped out incessantly from my windpipe. It was annoying.
The sky was cleared. I decided to go up to a small hill to see the historic city of Cusco. It would also be good to get my body prepared for the hike the next day. The street was steep. I stopped to catch my breath once in a while.
The narrow old street was craftily laid out in cobblestones. Some stones were so worn out that they gleamed beautifully under the sunlight. From the viewpoint high above, I saw a city sat in a valley surrounded by mountains. Houses dotted the plain to make a gorgeous panorama.
It must have been the rain the night before. My eyes greedily took in the view for one last glance when getting down, and my feet slipped and slid on the shiny cobblestones. A step hit right on my lower back, so painful I could hardly get up. I was badly bruised. Lucky enough, I felt no broken bone.
When I saw the van coming to pick me up to the start of the trail early next morning, I felt more anxiety than excitement. I could have chosen the easy way to see Machu Picchu by taking a train up. Right from the start I decided against doing it because I wanted to give myself a challenge while I was still young enough and physically capable. People said a lot about how easy or how difficult it was to hike the Inca Trail. It was all nonsense unless I did it by myself. I wanted this experience to be a keepsake in my memory for the rest of my life. The decision made much sense as long as I were my normal self in a normal physical condition. Now that a series of unforeseen and unfortunate events had befallen my body, I was no longer so sure.
But there was no time for self-doubt. I was at the start. I had to get ready.
Hikers of my group were hastily doing their last-minute packing. Those who had hired porters left the heavy items to the porters, keeping only the essentials to bring along in daypacks. I would not have a porter, so I would carry everything I brought with me. I managed to pack things to a bare minimal, but I needed an extra few litres of water. I also had a sleeping bag and mat. Adding these together, my burden was not so light after all. I lost balance and almost fell over when I swung my backpack against my injured lower back.
I was the only Asian among the 15 hikers in the group. Five young Australians stood out with their fittest physique. The rest of the group was a good mix of South Africans and Irish of all ages. A veteran hiker from the Isle of Man came alone. As the only two hikers travelling solo, we were granted the exclusive perk of each having our own little tents to ourselves.
The first hard day ended with a sweet finish. We pitched camp at a site overlooking a range of snow-capped mountains. I did not wait to unload my backpack before I shook off my hefty hiking boots. My eyes took in the serene view while I sat on the soft grass, resting my tired feet. I reviewed what I had gone through during the day, and felt thankful and proud. With a 12kg load on my back, the strenuous uphill walk had been a drudgery. My legs were wobbling at every step. But I managed to recuperate during the intermittent downhill sections, and gathered my strengths to go on. Being the smallest in size in the group, I shuffled my short legs on the dirt and rocky paths. At the end of the day, I reached the campsite in reasonably good time. Not bad at all.
All went well except for the worrying signs my body had been signaling me. My coughs became uncontrollable. The bouts lasted for minutes, stopped a while and came back all over again. My feet tried not to slow down, but the fits were so violent that my abs muscles hurt. My chest felt like exploding. Something also went very wrong with my eyes. Thick yellow discharge kept coming out. It might be some self-regulatory reaction to the dry cabin air in the previous days, but with that frequency I was worried. Hygiene facilities were effectively non-existent along the trail. All I could do was to wipe off the discharge with paper towels from time to time. I had been so disturbed by the coughs and the eye irritation that the pain of my lower back was insignificant, almost negligible now.
In spite of these bothering problems, I still considered this first day a very blessed one. I was so unsure of my physical capabilities at the start of the trail. Now that the first day was over, I was fairly confident that I would be able to finish the trail as long as my health conditions did not get worse. It was not an easy hike, but I could cope.
The hiking guide briefed us the plan of the following day. The most challenging part of the trail came in the next morning. We would cross the Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the trail, at 4,200 metres. It would also be a long day. Everybody was excited, and returned to their tents early for a good sleep.
I zipped the tent cover, laid out my sleeping mat and took off my clothes dampened by sweat during the day. I fell into a deep slump seconds later.
I felt something very very wrong the first instance I woke up early next morning – I could barely open my eyes. Thick sticky discharge gathered and crusted around my eyes during the night that my eyelids stuck shut. I fumbled about for my glass bottle like a blind man. I could only see properly when the crusted discharge was rinsed off, my eyes thoroughly cleansed. I got an eye inflammation, I was sure about it. But what could I do now that I was deep in the mountains? There was no doctor. There was no medication. It would be absurd if I returned to the starting point to look for help, as the walking alone would take a day. While there was no immediate sign that my eyesight was affected, all I could do was to continue the walk until I reached Machu Picchu, and I would decide what to do when I got back to Cusco. I just had to stay very clean though to make sure things would not worsen.
I rolled up my sleeping mat, then hurriedly put on the same damp clothes from the day before and started the hike. In view of my current health conditions, I had to ask for a porter’s help to share out some of my load.
The morning passed with a wearily long climb of stairs. The discharge now turned greenish, thickened and blocked my sight every twenty minutes. Rust-colored mucus run out from my windpipe after each bout of coughs. I was busy clearing up my own mess while my legs kept trudging upward. When I felt tired, experiencing those moments of weakness, I told myself that moving on was the only option. I focused on each step ahead, one step at a time. I stopped often to catch my breath. Once I regained some strengths, I gritted my teeth and clomped up a step again.
The much lighter weight on my back must have helped a lot. I was surprised to find myself in reasonably good shape when I got to the highest point. On either side where I stood, the valleys beneath stretched out in a refreshing green under the morning sunlight. The breeze brushed my body gently. My muscle pain and tiredness seemed to go away with the wind.
I was the fifth to arrive at the Dead Woman’s Pass. Three of the Australians and the great hiker from the Isle of Man had already made it there effortlessly. As if bored by the lack of challenge, one of the dashing young Australian climbed further up to one of the smaller mountains and stood gallantly by the edge of a cliff. I could just look up to him from down below in amazement, taking my time to recover from the exhaustion of reaching this far.
When I made it at last to the campsite after the second day’s hike, dense moisture saturated the air. I could almost smell rain. The sleeping mat and sleeping bag were moisture-laden and clammy. I shuddered when I crept into my dank sleeping bag, my damp clothes on. I had no more change of clothes. Learnt by experience from the night before, I took care to put a water bottle next to my pillow before I hit the sack so that I could handily find water to cleanse my crusted eyelids the next morning.
The third day was the longest, and rain arrived, as anticipated. It was like fine mist at first. The walk was a bit challenging, and the view of the mountains, covered in mist, set a mood of somberness all around. It became a torrential downpour after lunch. I was alone on the path most of the day. I took a step, pondered my next step, and made another one gingerly to avoid slippage. Between steps, I had to take time to rub off the tacky coating of my eyes, or to spit out the slimy greenish fluid. There were times when I started to feel that my energy and spirit were plunging, and I seemed to see a figure beckon me between the misty clouds. It was Death. He wanted to make me fall into the obscurity beyond. But I also saw my cat Codzilla. I had a vision of her waiting for me at home. My good senses returned. Death was still far and remote. There was absolutely nothing unsafe on the road except for the fear I created by myself and my own weaknesses. I stomped my feet again, making one careful step after another.
It was cold and wet that night. I gave up the idea of even taking off my clammy outfit as there was no hope of drying. I smelt bad, to the degree of revolting. But I slept sweet and sound in my little tent. I woke up at 3:30 a.m., ready to start out the final part of the hike. We would soon be at Machu Picchu.
We set off at dusk. The rain was over and the walk was easy. Soon dusk subsided, and there came the first light of dawn. I bumped into that strong Australian, the bold and the energetic, who stood proudly on top of the cliff the other day. His face was ashen, his body drooping. His feet dragged along the dirt as if with great difficulty. He looked very sick. I stopped to give him water and sugary food for replenishment, but I could not stay with him for too long. I had to leave him there.
When I saw him again, it was at Sungate. Everybody had reached there for some while, taking pictures and having fun in celebration of their recent accomplishment. The young man lost all the charm and sparkles in his eyes.
The day when he stood on the cliff with that air of loftiness, he must have forgotten the two formidable giants that possess great powers over us – nature and sickness. They made him fall from heaven to earth.
As for me, I felt incredibly blessed to have survived the changing weather along the road, and sustained until the last minute in spite of the persistent indispositions of my health.
The hike was over. In a village town at the foot of Machu Picchu, I waited for the next train to take me back to Cusco. I tried to assemble the bits and pieces of my memories of the past few days on the Inca Trail. Strangely, the scenery I had seen, the many factual details of the things happened had quickly slipped away. What clung strong were the senses that made impressions on my memories at certain moments on the road – the throbbing pain of my thigh muscles, the weight that stuck against my back, the tearing ache of my chest, the stickiness of the discharge around my eyes, the humid air creeping through the fabric of my clothing, the stench of sweat and body odour everywhere, the chill of the damp clothes clinging against my skin, the moisture of the soil penetrating through my sleeping mat – those sensory memories. These memories recounted my journey – a pilgrimage of my very own.
It was already late evening of Christmas Eve when I arrived safe in Cusco. I googled and found that my eyes had probably contracted conjunctivitis caused by bacterial infection. All the pharmacies were closed for Christmas. I was only able to find eye drops two days later when I arrived at La Paz, Bolivia. My eyes got well in no time. As for the cough, it refused to go away and kept me company for the rest of the trip. It stopped eventually on exactly the same day when I was home again.