From balls to buckets. Inca Jungle Trip (Part 3 of 3)

What do you do when you’re thirsty and footsore after ten hours of walking, relaxed after watching the sunset in the hot springs, and surrounded by new and brilliant friends?

You drink chicha!

Taken off google, cuz it's awesome

Taken off google, cuz it’s awesome

Chicha is a family of corn-based drinks found throughout Central America, as alcoholic as you want them to be, that date back at least a thousand years, brewed in ancient Machu Picchu. In Peru families make it, marking its presence with a bamboo pole jutting out the front door, wrapped with red ribbons, a red plastic bag, or in the case of the gap-toothed old woman Abi knew in Santa Teresa, half a red plastic jug.

“Hola mami, tiene chicha?” Abi asked. The woman didn’t look away from her telenovela as she nodded the affirmative. Abi asked how old it was, “Not very old” the distracted reply. Abi ordered a round. When the novela went to commercials, the woman put a chalice-sized glass of murky liquid on the table. An Austrian asked “Is that for everyone to share?” Abi found that funny.

“No, boludo! We each get that!” When a cityscape of giant glasses had been assembled, we toasted Pachamama, the Inca Earth Mother, blew our offering to her into the wind, and drank. Given the size of the glass, it’s a good thing the stuff is generally only 1-3% alcohol (hence the question as to its age, as the older it is, the longer it’s had to ferment). Abi told us of her grandmother, drinking several glasses of chicha every day until she died at age 100.

Machu Picchu walk on the train tracks, PeruAs I may have mentioned, I don’t love bars or clubs, but that night, with those people, the dive bar with a stripper pole and loud music was just where I wanted to be. I talked with the Austrians, peripherally relearning empathy for cute girls as I watched the chain of dudes hit on the Argentinas. I can imagine that would be fun…for the first hour.

The first other American I’d met on the trip was a guy from the Marina in San Francisco, who I couldn’t help but mentally dub The Flea, as he hopped parasitically around the girls. I admit to a certain schadenfreude when he smashed his ahuacatls while showing off on the pole.

Urubamba River, Peru, cable car and zip-line(Did you research ahuacatl and discover that it comes from the Nahuatl word for testicles? How do you feel about the fact that you will never again heft, inspect, squeeze and generally fondle an avocado in the supermarket without remembering that factoid? You’re welcome.)

The next morning brought flight, nothing but wind and the whirring sound of metal wheels on the zip-line cables across the Urubamba River gorge. Cables half a kilometer long, 80 kilometers an hour, and face-down into 290 meters of pure Andean air until the ferocious water far below. God, Pachamama, Shiva, whatever, THAT is a sensation worth having, and whatever divinities were nearby heard my amazed laughter every time.

At the end of each ride I welcomed conversation with whoever was nearby, whatever their nation, language, or body odor, and was terribly proud of my Argentinians when they tried the face-down method for the last cable. As they flew past overhead I was sharing a mango just harvested with some Australians, and if there were mango strings in my teeth when I smiled upwards, the Aussies didn’t seem to care.

Inca Jungle Trek, PeruFrom there it was the iconic last stretch along the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu mountain. Sand fleas lurked below avocado trees for resting ankles, but that didn’t matter as we went for one more swim in the river, crossed rusting railroad trestles above the chicha-colored water that always has something to talk about, and in among the striated faces of the godly peaks surrounding the hidden city of the Inca.

That place is rife with divinity.

Machu Picchu morning, Aguas Calientes, PeruThe Austrians and I shared a room with more sand fleas, who were delighted to crawl into bed with us, and we all woke up scratching our calves. That still didn’t matter though, as we walked through the 4:00 AM murk to the stairs to Machu Picchu, other backpackers emerging from alleys in silence like the most polite zombie apocalypse ever.

What do you say about Machu Picchu? You don’t say anything I guess, you go there. I’ve been blessed to see many historic sites, a sprawl of tourist destinations, and several ancient holy places, and Machu Picchu will forever occupy a place of honor on those lists.

Machu Picchu, Peru, backpackingA couple hundred backpackers with sore feet boarded the train that night, boisterous as a discoteca until the train started, then slumberous as the sandman’s station wagon. The end of the line was Ollantaytambo, and everyone piled out into the name-shouting chaos of bus drivers, as tours fulfilled the last step of their bargains, each backpacker looking for their name in erasable marker on a laminated page held in a driver’s fist. My cadre found our driver.

Except my name wasn’t on the list.

I’d switched to an earlier train, but my name hadn’t made the logistical transfer. This meant an abrupt goodbye to my new Argentinian and Austrian friends, a disappointment I could handle, armored in gratitude.

Llama at misty Machu Picchu, Peru, backpackingBut negotiations around the back of the van and a hurried payment of 20 soles secured me a spot on an overturned bucket in the aisle, just wide enough that when I nodded off, my shoulders could curl forward and I would wedge in the gap between benches like the van had swallowed its own tongue.

We arrived back in Cuzco, where the dogs browsing the night’s garbage in the Plaza de San Francisco didn’t pay our parting much mind, the intimacy of travel companions evolving on schedule to the irresistible anonymity of forward progress. They see it every night.

Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu, Peru, backpackingI’ve seen more than my share of it too, but I still mean it when I say “Of course we’ll keep in touch.” Hell, maybe it’ll even be true this time. But whether the facebook “likes” peter out in a week or not, I will still blow a grateful offering to Pachamama for my four days on the Inca Jungle Trek, which I’d signed up for under the impression that it was the Incallungula, or some such romantic thing, but which surpassed my expectations anyway.

You should go, I’m glad I did.