For those of you who are not up on your geography or world heritage sites, that is Machu Picchu, an ancient Inca city built into the Andes mountains. You may recognise it from Lonely PLanet guidebooks, National Geographic calendars or any of the 1001 travel shows being broadcast around the globe. It is, undeniably, a popular tourist destination - and the best way to get there ? On foot. Yes - foot: a four day trek through the Andes, starting at an outpost known as KM88 and finishing at Machu Picchu ( hopefully at either sunrise or sunset, if you time it right ... ). So that's we're i'll start my story - on the Inca Trail, on the 2nd day of the trek.
I'm not going to lie - the Inca Trail is no easy slog. Its not like i was some kind of ultra-fit, athletic superwoman . I was a slightly-larger-than-I-am-now trekking novice who'd never done anything at altitude before. But it promised to be the adventure of a lifetime, and who was i to turn that down ( even if it did feel like my lungs were going to explode ) ? Just making it into camp on the first day - accompanied by my all-male encouragement troupe, 3 guys i'd only known a few days before who insisted that singing " Eye of the Tiger " would motivate us up the mountain - was a Godsend. Day two promised to be harder. By mid mornng we would be ( slowly, painfully ) making our way to Warminwayusca, or Dead Womans Pass. This pass is 4500m above sea level and, as the highest point on the trek, is considered the toughest part of the journey. With the whole group having reached the summit, we stopped for a snack and a photo opportunity. It was from here that everything went downhill- both literally and figuratively.
When our guide said it was time to pack ourselves up and get on the move, i tired sitting up but i felt all lightheaded and lethargic - it was like all the energy had been completely drained out of my body. I took a minute and tired to gather myself together but, when i looked a little wobbly on my feet, my guide and one of the other guys volunteered to walk at the back with me. Within a half an our, not only was i wobbly on my feet but i could barely seem to lift my arms - rather than walking with my walking sick, i was dragging it behind me in the dirt. My trekking buddy, Lachlan, said he'd carry my pack for me and my guide Jugo supported me on one side. I'd been drinking water and we'd only just eaten, so i should have all the energy in the world, but within another half hour, my vision had gone blurry and i was now being supported on both sides. I wasnt so much as walking, as being slowly dragged up the mountain side by an ex-Army recruit and a small Incan man. Mind you, all the guides are trained in first aid and a nurse in our group mentioned she thought i might be dehydrated or could possibly have altitude sickness.
And so we stopped. Jugo radioed ahead for one of the porters to come back with some blankets and he sat me down on a very comfy rock on the side of the trail. He gave me me water and put me on an oxygen tank for 20 minutes. He also made me inhale some foul smelling yuck, which apprently alleviates the symptoms of altitude sickness. All of that and - nada. I could barely breath, by this time could barely see, and felt like both my arms and legs were being weighed down by concrete. To be quite honest, i wuld have been perfectly happy to curl up on that there rock and die. Obviously, leaving me to die on a barren hillside isnt wasnt exactly part of Jugo's job description so... they carried me. Yes, you read that right - Jugo, Lachlan and Alejandro, the young guide who came back with the blankets, carried me. On their backs, They tied me on with the blankets, just like Peruvian women do with their babies.Hell, they even ran! Lachlan was a big guy, but Jugo and Alejandro were typically short, small, Incan men, and they ran with my whole 60kg/150lb of weight on their backs. I was slipping in and out of conscious - the only thing i do clealy remember is catching up to the rest of our group and Jugo telling them they had to get me immediately to camp.
Which is where i woke up. I woke up with Jugo leaning over me, stroking my head, telling me i was going to be okay, not to worry, he was sending someone into see me. Yep, no worries - zzzzzzzzz. Next thing i know there is a " Hola, senorita ? Hola ? " at the opening to my tent and in comes this really old guy. Here comes the cool part - he props my head up and starts muttering, kind of chanting, in the local Incan language. I was already almost completely out of it, too far gone to make any objection to what he was doing anyway. So the old guy keeps up the muttering and then he lights up something a bowl until it starts smoking. Once he had his smoke going, he blew it all over me: directly into my face, over the top of my head, down the front of my shirt, everywhere. He rubbed whatever he'd crushed up in his bowl over my face and arms, finished up with his chanting, said " Buenos noches, senorita ", and disappeared. Two of my female trekking companions them came in and helped me put on more clothing layers and then - blackness. I passed out or fell asleep for a while and then rested very fitfully ( i;d say slept, but i dont think i really did ) for the rest of the night.
Morning comes and .... i feel awesome. I wake up feeling great, go out and eat breakfast with everyone - albeit while copping some very strange looks from my trek buddies. Everyone wants to know how i feel and Jugo takes me aside to make sure i'm feeling okay. And that was it, we set off for the day. No-one rally talks much about the day before, except to say that i looked terrible, all limp like a rag doll and one of our older members thought i might have been dead. No-one bothers to tell me what may or may not have been wrong with me, but it didnt really matter because i was doing fine. It wasnt until our first snack break that anyone decided to let me in on what went on the previous night. So, take a deep breath people, here it comes : I WAS POSSESSED. Don't re-red that to see if it makes more sense, it wont. Apparently, whilst i had been laid up in my tent, delirious, Jugo had taken everyone else aside and told them what was going to happen, because he didnt want them to think i was being taken advantage of or anything. He, and the other porters - all Peruvian indian men - thought i had been taken over by a mountain spirit, spirits that the Incan people believed kept guard over their trail. The elderly gentleman, who turned out to be one of our porters, was also a kind of Incan medecine man, was going to go in an perform some kind of exorcism ritual, and expel whatever spirit it was that had taken me over.
And there you have it - when all the scientific medecines didnt work, when i only continued to get worse, it was decided that i must have been possessed and only pagan magic could save me. And you know what ? It did. The oxygen, the foul smelling inhalant, the water and pills, none of that worked but the chanting and the smoke blowing had me feeling as fresh as a daisy. Not only did i not struggle with the rest of the trek, but i was the second person to make it to the gateway to Machu Pichhu. It was like i'd been suddenly blessed or something. When we had finished our tek and met back up in town with our other tour guide, Jonathon, he told me in full what had gone on. He said he had only heard of two other women in 15 years of leading tours who had got so sick, so suddenly, and in the same spot on the trek ( straight after Dead Womans Pass ), and the same smoke blowing, chanting, praying-whatever worked on them too. You can believe what you want but, having lived the experience and being of a hippie-dippie spiritual mind anyway, i'm like 95% sure something otherworldly happened to me up there.
Either way, it sure beats the hell out of most peoples vacation stories....