I can’t remember exactly when I made Machu Picchu my desktop wallpaper on my PC but it was before I stopped drinking. It was in a time of my life when places like Machu Picchu were fantasy destinations. Places that others were destined to visit but not me. I was destined to prop up a bar somewhere, bemoaning the fact I couldn’t visit places like Machu Picchu.
That was, of course, until I quit drinking. Now, after four and a half years of sobriety, I was crossing the Urubamba River and making my way along the Inca trail which winds its way to Machu Picchu. The excitement I felt was a welcome relief after having spent a few days on a cold hotel bathroom floor, cuddling the toilet, vomiting, shivering and questioning my life choices. Thankfully, it was due to altitude sickness and not a hangover. It was a great reminder of those drinking days, though. Where praying to the porcelain God was an all too often occurrence.
The guides with us were beginning to unravel their tales about the Incas. They must have told those stories thousands of times but their words still crackled with energy and excitement. I guess it’s difficult to get bored of work when your office is the Inca Trail. I was hanging on their every word, whilst trying to take in as much of the scenery as I could.
These are the experiences I got sober for. Sobriety allowed me to be present and grateful.
Eventually, we came upon Patallacta. I had seen numerous terraces whilst we were in Peru but standing looking over the ruins was my first real experience of how efficient the style of living was. It looked as though everything the residents of the Town needed would be made or grown there. We stood for a while and I tried to imagine what it would have been like when it was a living and breathing place. I had seen what they wore and imagined the place bustling with life but I could not even begin to imagine what day to today living was like.
We carried on walking until we reached Wayllabamba camp where we would be stopping for the night. When we arrived at the camp, the porters, these miracles of men, had set up everything for us. This was after carrying all of the equipment to start with. I have to admit it’s a little shameful as someone who professes to have a reasonable level of physical fitness to be passed walking up a hill by a man carrying a full rucksack that he could probably fit inside.
The porters had even provided some warm water to wash our faces and some drinking water for us on arrival. The food that was prepared by the chef was of high quality considering we were camping and his equipment was minimal.
After dinner, we sat chatting and drinking tea. It was a welcome return to simplicity. Being present without the addictive pull of technology as a distraction was also a nice change. Although, I have to admit I felt a slight withdrawal from the addictive tech that fills my life. I was asleep early and slept soundly thanks to the silence that surrounded us.
The following day we were woken by the porters for breakfast which was waiting for us. The camaraderie between them was evident and I’m sure that’s what helps get them through. That and the cocoa leaves.
A few members of the group were concerned about this day due to the 4,198m altitude and the climb to get the peak affectionately known as Dead Woman’s Pass, due to its resemblance. I was looking forward to the challenge. Quietly confident that I would be okay. That was until we started the climb and every step felt like a flight of stairs due to the lack of oxygen. Again being passed by a man carrying a massive bag is somewhat disheartening.
Eventually, we made it to the top and were greeted with fantastic views… of clouds. But it was so peaceful. I would have liked to have sat a little longer but the cold began to seep into my bones, so I had to keep moving.
When we got to the camp the porters were just setting up the tents so we hadn’t done too bad for time. We tried to help but they refused and made us a cup of tea instead. Which I drank gratefully whilst looking at the wonderful views and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere. I began to feel a sense of calm by this point of the trail. The manic, hustle and bustle of city living faded away to leave me feeling serene.
Again, we enjoyed a fantastic meal, whilst chatting and taking in the stories from the guides. Another early night as my body clock found some sort of normality in the naturally dark and serene surroundings.
After breakfast and refilling our drinks canisters we started our hike for the day. After a couple of climbs, we entered the delightfully named Cloud Forest. Which was densely grown and filled with a variety of plants and trees. Thankfully, there were two botanists in our group so I was firing questions at them like an inquisitive child.
We passed through a tunnel that was carved through the solid rock. It demonstrated the lengths that the builders went to to ensure that their path made it to the destination. A wonderful metaphor for the obstacles we encounter on our journey through life.
We were soon greeted with the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the city above the clouds. Which unfortunately was the city IN the clouds when we arrived but at the altitude we were at it was to be expected.
We continued until the trail opened up to reveal another ruin, Winay Wayna. Sitting on a steep hillside and looking out over the Urubamba Valley, the ruins demonstrated how the Incas made the mountain their own whilst also harmonising with it. Like most of the Inca trail, I found it peaceful and spellbinding.
We sat for a while as the guide shared his stories about the history of the Incas and how the history we are told is created by western culture. “How can those people tell me how my people lived?” It was a welcome relief to hear someone say “We don’t know how a lot of things happened.” The guide explained about the Incan Goddess, Pachamama, the embodiment of Earth, Water, Sun and Moon. Which made sense to worship as those things are visible and bring life. The guide talked about the Spanish invasion and the end of many indigenous ways.
Due to a combination of the scenery, the days without technology and the stories the guide was telling about Pachamama my mind began to wander. Thinking about how we are raised in certainty. The stories we are told in school are absolutes. Our way of living is the right way. It dawned on me that the egocentric nature of certain cultures throughout history has had a devastating impact on the planet and each other. The cultures that showed gratitude and sorrow for the things they took from the planet were destroyed for not wanting to adopt the “Right” ways. Now, hundreds of years later we reflect on our childlike approach and realise that it has had a huge impact. Almost as if our technological advancement outweighed our emotional advancement. Just children with weapons. It dawned on me that just because I believe something doesn’t make it true. Although we will fight people to protect our beliefs purely on the basis that we believe them to be true. The same arrogance that kept me in denial. Shackled to addiction. Chained to the bar. Refusing to admit my problem even though it was killing me. It wasn’t until I’d lost everything that I was prepared to try another approach and open my eyes. Maybe that’s the depths humanity will have to reach before changes are made.
The guide made an offering of a few of his best Cocoa leaves to Pachamama to ask for good luck on our journey to Machu Picchu.
Deep in thought, I made my way to Winay Wayna camp.
After dinner, we were presented with a delightful cake that the chef had baked as it was the last night, which was a remarkable achievement.
I went to bed that night deep in thought about what the guide had said. Every place I have visited in sobriety has taught me a new lesson. Each new experience has knocked the sharp edges off me and broadened my world view.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”Mark Twain
We were up at dawn to make the final journey to Machu Picchu. After we said goodbye to the porters, who wouldn’t be making the journey with us, we proceeded onward. The journey to this point had been mind-expanding and so calming but Machu Picchu was the place I used to dream of. Soon I would be there.
Arriving at the sun gate, I climbed the steep steps fuelled by the excitement of seeing Machu Picchu for the first time. To be greeted at the top with a view of nothing but clouds was a big disappointment. All that distance travelled and now I wouldn’t see the famed site from this perfect vantage point. I had heard that many people saw the same thing, so it was partly expected. I sat and reflected for a while, as I tried to catch my breath after those monstrous steps. Suddenly, there was a slight cheer and applause that grew in volume.
I looked across to see that the clouds above Machu Picchu had cleared just enough to see the iconic city in the sky. It was like a gift from Pachamama. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and had to fight back the tears, as awe sent a tingle down my spine.
I have tried to write many times the feeling I got being there. How the energy created by the people around me felt. A dream. A gift from sobriety. The best explanation I could come up with:
If you stared at perfection would perfection describe it?
Would there be words in the entirety of known language to be able to articulate it?
Wouldn’t the moment constrict your throat and demand to be appreciated?
Words dancing on your tongue mockingly; knowing their own limitations.
Emotions demanding to be expressed but bubbling and dying as the moment consumes all facalties.
The brain manages to force a inhalation, a single breath… A gasp. This is the sound that expresses what words cannot. That is the sound of the brain forcing itself to not be starved of oxygen and to force survival. Because the moment you are experiencing becomes so overwhelming that survival becomes secondary. Consumed by beauty, debilitated by wonder, no words can express that feeling.
I said thank you. To who? I don’t know. Pachamama? God? The universe? Myself? The porters? The guides? The Incas? The weather? The people who have helped me along the way? Probably a combination of them all. It is all those things combined that made it possible. Life is a journey we walk together but experience alone.
We continued towards Machu Picchu. This was “Pinch me” time. I had climbed down from a barstool and made a journey back from hell. I was now being rewarded with my dreams.
As we got closer the crowds grew larger, which was something I hadn’t accounted for. A small percentage of visitors walk the Inca Trail. So there had been times where we hadn’t seen anyone outside of our group for a couple of hours. The crowds were an unwelcome return. Especially after not showering for four days but the stillness of the Inca trail resided within, so patience was abundant and necessary.
The guide explained the various theories of who built Machu Picchu, how it was built and why. Whoever built it, it is a remarkable achievement of engineering achievement and demonstrates what humans are capable of when they work together on a common goal. I wandered around for a few hours, just looking at the brickwork and the views. The builders certainly knew how to pick a location.
I stayed for as long as possible and didn’t want to leave when it was time to go. I noticed a variety of stonework that was created to a different quality. Almost as if created by different builders. Some of the finishes were of unbelievable quality and the tolerances they worked to were minuscule. It is either a site built by a lost technology or we are doing ourselves a great disservice as we have far more potential than we are using. Potential that is diminishing all the time as our dependence on technology replaces our natural ability.
I would have loved to go back the following day and have another look but our tour pressed on.
Even though it was only a few days hike and a day visiting Machu Picchu, the experience will stay with me. It was a profoundly spiritual experience and my view of the world has been changed because of it. Which are the reasons why I travel and the reason why I got sober. In the five years since quitting drinking, I have learned so much about myself and the world. It has been a great journey and the Inca trail was a fantastic part of that. It confirmed that my decision to quit drinking was the right one.
Alcohol stole my freedom. Sobriety gifted it back.
Thanks for reading,
I walked the Inca Trail as part of a larger tour called Absolute Peru which I booked through GAdventures. The tour was very good but the Inca Trail was mind blowing.