Day 2: Bombs, Bulls, Bridges and Beetle Backs
"Everything you want is on the other side of fear." - Jack Canfield
I woke up at 5AM thinking we were getting bombed. The blast could have been fireworks if it weren't so close. It shook the lodge and startled me into falling out of bed. When we met up after breakfast, Edwin explained that there was always a festival dedicated to some saint or other going on in Peru, and the people liked to celebrate with cannons (at all hours of the day, apparently).
Before we set out for the morning ride, Edwin took us to the Sunday market. Far from one of the ubiquitous tourist markets in Cusco which sold alpaca sweaters and Made-in-Korea souvenirs, locals flocked here on a weekly basis to trade goods, everything from coil-bound school notebooks to squash to guinea pig grass. No one paid with cash money.
After that we visited a textile shop which doubled as a non-profit centre for women to learn the traditional craft of weaving. It was a skill they would keep for the rest of their lives, an English-speaking matron told us, as a form of financial insurance even if they went away to school, which most didn't. We were given a demonstration of how they hand-spun the wool and knitted it through the strings of primitive looms, the designs so tight they looked machine-made. Then we were shown how they mixed the dyes. I found it impossible to believe, until I saw it with my own eyes, that such vibrant colours could be extracted from lichen and herbs. The intense indigo they got from crushing the dried backs of beetles, the same technique the Incas used for thousands of years. To set the colours, they boiled the yarn in a giant cauldron over an open flame, stirring with something resembling a canoe paddle.
The day was hazy when we finally climbed back in the saddles. The mountains were cloaked in thin clouds - more of a fog, really - which the sun would burn off when it got strong enough. I relished every clear patch of sky. Knowing how quickly the weather could change, I treated every snatch of sunlight as a precious gift. I closed my eyes and raised my face to it, soaked up its warmth through the jeans on my upper thighs. The second it ducked behind the clouds again, blanketing the land in shadow, the temperature dropped at least ten degrees. The first time this happened, I thought the world was ending.
The first couple of hours were uneventful enough, besides Zorro getting reprimanded for stampeding a flock of sheep, then retaliating by diving into an irrigation ditch and paddling around up to his neck in stagnant water. We were moving across rolling, tawny farmland. With the snow-capped mountain range off to our right, we might as well have been in Montana or Wyoming.
We rode single-file toward an isolated mountain village, down through a narrow pass with sandstone walls that reached over our heads. That's when the cannons went off, close enough to feel the reverberation in our bones. One blast and the horses reeled. Two blasts and they half-reared, trying to pivot in the cramped pass. Three blasts and they backed into each other, jostling desperately for somewhere to run. Blond Mary lost a stirrup and clung to her horse's shoulder with one calf hooked over the top of the saddle. "That's what you call bomb-proofing!"
After what felt like an eternity, the explosions yielded to a ringing silence. "Okay," Edwin waved us forward. "Keep a tight rein on your horses, please!"
I swallowed hard and tried to remember how to breathe, my heart still in my throat. "Ya think!?"
The horses pranced as we moved up onto a dirt road, eager to run. Edwin made them wait until we were past the village, then opened the throttle. They burned off the adrenaline charging up a dusty hill, then settled into a quiet walk the rest of the way to lunch.
We couldn't have picked a more picturesque picnicking site. Having left the farms and villages behind, we were once again in the wild. The only sign of civilization was a crumbling colonial church in the middle of a distant field, almost swallowed by the yellow grass rippling like seaweed and dwarfed by the soaring blue-white peaks beyond. I'd never seen so much open range collectively in my entire life. There was nothing out there. Nothing and everything.
Our support vehicle and cook were there waiting for us with steaming bowls of beef stew. While we ate, Edwin took off his cowboy hat and perched it between Zorro's ears. "Who is that?" He laughed, clearly seeing some uncanny resemblance which left us mystified until he pointed it out. "Chuck Norris!"
I saw a doggy incarnation of Puss in Boots. Brunette Mary agreed and said she imagined Antonio Banderas doing a voice-over. He also starred in the Legend of Zorro movies, strangely enough.
After lunch there was an agonizing ride down a desert canyon past the Maras salt flats. Since pre-Incan times, sodium crystals have been collected as water evaporates from the thousands of shallow, terraced pools, leaving a vast plain that glistens like snow or quartz in the sun, blinding as white gold.
For the next two and a half hours, we rode at a forty-five-degree angle, leaning back in our saddles with our feet sticking out in front of us. I'd already told the Mary's how much I admired them taking on this trek. At twenty-three, I felt like I had arthritis after one hour on the descending ridge, only as wide as the trail itself. My knees and ankles screamed and my lower back begged for mercy. After two hours, it felt like someone had a vice grip on the base of my spine. None of this was helped by the fact that the rocks made for treacherous footing, even for a person, and on our right, opposite the cliff wall on our left, was an unguarded plunge of what had to be several hundred feet straight down into the canyon. The river at the bottom looked millimetres wide from this height. Even if we found a few steps of flat ground, relaxing any of our muscles was physically impossible.
Then the train came to an abrupt halt. I raised my eyes from the uneven ground to find the trail in front of us blocked. The bull's massive neck and shoulders filled the entire width of the narrow ridge, the flat plain of his forehead and perfectly curved horns facing us. "Okay, this is a problem," Edwin stated, as coolly as if he were pointing to a rock and telling us, "this is limestone". The beast's cloven hooves kicked up dust as he pawed the ground, huge muscles rippling beneath his hide. He had to weigh at least three times what our hardy mountain ponies did, and unlike the bulls we'd passed before, he was untied. I couldn't figure out if he was wild or escaped from some nearby farm. There were none around that I could see. Ultimately I couldn't care less one way or the other. He was here, and he didn't look too interested in letting us pass.
"Can't you flick your bullwhip at it or something?" I asked Edwin in a hushed voice, my eyes still on the bull.
He shook his head. "We don't want to antagonize him." Eventually Edwin inched forward, seeing no other option. We followed, only too happy to heed his instructions to stay on our horses. We weren't as crazy, however, about his decision to take the outside track. We were told to stay as far away from the bull as possible - about a foot - as we passed hastily between his shoulder and the sheer drop on our right. Mary's horse loosened some shale as he toed the edge, the stones tumbling to the bottom of the canyon without a sound.
By some miracle, we made it by unmolested, and came upon a young girl about fifty or so metres down the trail. She looked about seven or eight years old, and asked Edwin something in breathless, rapid-fire Spanish. He pointed back the way we'd come, and she took off, I'm guessing after her family's fugitive farm animal.
Gradually, the distance between the ridge and the canyon floor closed, until we reached a dry wash. I collapsed forward in my saddle, kicking my feet out of the stirrups and leaning on Sufa's withers as I stretched out my legs and back. I never, ever thought I would say this; I couldn't imagine getting back on a horse tomorrow. "Ready for a drink, yet?" I called over my shoulder, and Blond Mary laughed humourlessly.
"Yeah," she said. "Or cyanide."
We rode alongside the river, Zorro cannonballing in to torture geese, until we came to a crossing. "Oh, hell no!" I exclaimed aloud. And then, in a quieter voice, "You've got to be kidding." It seemed we'd fallen into the cliche set of an adventure movie. The bridge looked like something out of Indiana Jones, with its loosely-strung-together planks of rotting wood and swagged rope guardrails. Edwin didn't even dismount to lead his horse across. I'd crossed bridges like this before in Africa and Costa Rica, but always on foot. I didn't see how the flimsy boards would come close to supporting the weight of seven horses carrying riders and supplies. I tried to imagine getting our spoiled warmbloods back home to even set foot on such a thing, and couldn't. I remembered my coach telling me once that horses have special sensors in their cannon bones to help them gauge how solid the ground is. These horses, however, proceeded forward without a hint of hesitation, and held steady even as the suspension swayed under their feet. I kept my eyes straight ahead, blocking out the sights and sounds of creaking wood and rushing water, counting the beats of Sufa's stride.
We reached terra firma and I let the air flood back into my lungs. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Cannons, rogue bulls, suspension bridges? COLD SHOWERS? I didn't sign up for this! Oh, wait.
There are no roads to Machu Picchu, but I could have taken the train. Even if an old-fashioned pilgrimage was worth all this, I could have hiked the Inca Trail. I didn't have to risk life and limb countless times over the course of a day. Hadn't I taken enough risks? You've had more than enough time to straighten yourself out on this trip, I thought. Now you're just punishing yourself.
Punishing myself or not, my path was set. I'd made my bed and now I had to lay in it. And when I finally got to Machu Picchu - IF I got there - it would be all the more worth it.
Walking down a dark, dusty lane to dinner in the village of Urubamba, I tilted back my head and let the night breeze sooth my sunburned/windburned face. In the sky, billions of stars were competing for space. It was so clear you could tell which ones were close and which were far away, which were planets or satellites and which were burning balls of gas. They made me think of the gleaming salt flats in Maras. The smudge of the Milky Way was easily discernible. You won't see that at home, I told myself. Something told me nothing at home would ever be good enough again.