You know how sometimes you anticipate one thing about an upcoming trip or event, even want it very badly, but something else entirely happens?
In 2013, Mike and I took a two-week trip of a lifetime to Peru. We had come into some unexpected money, and I had recently been obsessed with visiting Machu Picchu someday. I hate to say the desire manifested the money, but it sure seemed that way (I like thinking of it this way, that we were meant to spend all of it on this trip, rather than hear the voice of our Financial Guy, “What? You spent ALL the money on one trip?”) Anyway, it was worth it. Two weeks of heaven and hell plus a bonus five pounds lost.
I could write pages about this adventure. But the short of it is: for several days I experienced the absolute worst headache of my life due to the altitude; we did a hike that was the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done (part of the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu); and I experienced peace and euphoria in a boat traveling up the Madre de Dios river in the Amazon.
Pain is a good instructor. I don’t wish him on anyone, but one can learn a lot from Pain.
We were a little worried about altitude sickness and the lack of oxygen at the altitudes we would be, but when we got off the plane in Cusco I was like, “Breathing? No problem! This is a piece of cake.” Hmmmmm. I’ve blocked out the memory of exactly when it hit, but the headache I ended up with, for days, was brutal. Think glass shards stabbing into your brain.
I eventually begged off one of the daily excursions and just slept for a day. The relief of waking up without that headache! After experiencing great pain, you can really appreciate life lived without it. I’ve had one other recent occasion where I experienced real physical agony, and I tell ya, it puts Life and Gratitude into real, clear perspective. I feel for people who are in intense chronic pain. I had a glimpse into that abyss.
Lesson learned: I don’t take my mostly-ablebodied being for granted. While I haven’t lived completely pain-free for years, I’ll take it. I can walk, jump, and wave my arms. Each morning I wake up is a gift (Practice #6, Gratitude).
I was so very thankful that the headache subsided before our big hike on the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu. This was, afterall, the whole point of the trip.
When we got to our hotel room in Aguas Calientes (where we stayed during the Machu Picchu portion of the trip) there was a butterfly on our door. It was just hanging out, like part of the decor (included in your hotel stay is your very own butterfly greeter!)
On the day of the big hike, we took a train to our starting point on the trail (surreal side note, we sat across from Joe Lynn Turner and his wife. Lovely people, nice conversation). At the designated place, the train literally just stopped on the tracks, and our party jumped (a seemingly great distance) to the ground. No station, no people. Just the forest, a path to a bridge, and the beginning of a six-hour hike.Things started off ok, although the heat, sweating, and smell of bug spray were flies in the ointment (haha). Then the uphill part started. Hiking in that altitude is interesting (slight understatement). It makes things harder, but if you stop, you quickly regain your strength. At least for a while. The trail is paved with stone, which is awe-inspiring (people placed those stones there! on miles of trail!) but it also makes things tricky, especially when you begin to get tired.
I started to notice the butterflies. Various sizes and colors, but appearing regularly alongside the trail. Sometimes they would fly next to me, going in our direction up the path. As the thoughts of “what the hell was I thinking” floated in my head, I began to think of the butterflies as my coaches: “Come on, Julie! You can do it! Forget that your knee hurts, your clothes are soaked, you have to pee, and your backpack seems to be getting heavier! Just keep going.” They kept appearing, and I kept going.
At one point, a couple in their twenties literally bounded past us. Bastards.The butterflies kept encouraging me to keep going and to appreciate…and notice. We are in f**king PERU! On an ancient trail! Headed to an ancient city situated on an incomprehensibly precipitous piece of land 8,000 feet up in the air!
A Life Moment and More Butterflies
For the second half of the trip, we stayed at the Tambopata Research Station located on the Tambopata River in southeastern Peru. There they study macaws, and one of the highlights of our stay is a trip out to one of the clay licks where the macaws hang out (I’m sure the scientists don’t say it quite that way).
The journey to the research station was one of those big Life Moments for me. We boarded a long, low blue boat near Puerto Maldonado (where we landed after the Machu Picchu portion). It’s a four-hour ride upriver to the first stop, a stay at Refugios Amazonas (both lodges are part of Rainforest Expeditions).
I have to say, on that upriver journey I was in heaven (the cynical side of me says, “well duh, you got to sit on your ass for four hours on a river, instead of hiking for six hours in the Andes getting your ass whooped.”) Shut up, Cynical Self, it was a joy. I felt so at peace…with the world, with myself. I hadn’t felt that way, that deep contentment, for a really long time.
And again there were butterflies! Hundreds would appear at the side of the river along the clay banks. Sometimes, they would appear to be moving along the river with us. My guides were here too.
It Takes the Amazon
This trip was during the year before my 50th birthday, a year of being lost creatively. But by the very end of this adventure, I had a re-awakening of creative spirit. On the last of our daily hikes in the jungle, the last one before starting the journey home, something shifted for me. I had been looking at the same jungle for days, but that day was different. I became inspired by the many variations in patterns and textures found in the dense foliage.
The creative side of me was energized, and awake!
The whole Big Point of this trip had been to experience Machu Picchu. I was looking forward to some sort of spiritual experience up in the Peruvian mountains, but the site itself, while breathtaking and amazing, was really, well, just full of tourists (like me).
What I got though, was a rich experience full of the extremes of pain/struggle and euphoria/calm, and some great coaches and lessons that led me, eventually, back to art. It didn’t happen immediately (some ruts are really hard to get out of), but I was on my way.