It's taken me awhile to write about my trek to Machupicchu for a couple of reasons... and not just because I've been fairly busy since then. In fact that's hardly even one of the reasons. It has more to do with my inability to find the right words to write about it, plus my fear of writing one of those cliché articles about how magical and life-changing my trip to Machupicchu was.
The truth is, it wasn't life changing. Magical, absolutely, but not life changing.
Was it magnificent? Yes! Spectacular, gorgeous, worth every minute, etcetera, etcetera... but it was not life changing. I'm not trying to down play it; Peru is one of my favorite countries in the world and trekking to Machupicchu was one of the most wonderful travel experiences of my life. But it's not like I reached the peak and had some aha moment where everything in life suddenly fit together, all my worries and fears disappeared, and I knew where I was supposed to go from there. That's just not how life works.
I'm still a confused 20-something with no idea where her life is headed.
But I did learn a lot. Kind of. That's the weird thing about travel. Everyone wants you to be able to point to one place (i.e. Machupicchu) and one lesson and explain the direct correlation. The thing is, it's cumulative. So all these lessons I'm about to talk about... I started learning them the day I boarded my first flight. But my trek to Machupicchu definitely highlighted some of these lessons and helped me put words to the things I've been contemplating for years. So, without further ado, here are those lessons:
My body is way more capable than I ever knew
I already started to learn this when hiking barefoot in Huaraz, but it's a lesson that always shocks me. In four days we made our way from Cusco to Machupicchu. We rode mountain bikes, hiked (a lot), zip-lined, river rafted, rode on a tiny wooden platform across a rushing river, climbed over a road that had been destroyed by flooding, hiked some more, climbed thousands of steps, and did not eat enough food.
To be honest, the hiking was hard, but I knew I could do it. The elevation and mileage were less than the day hikes I'd done in Huaraz and my blistered feet were finally healing. The other activities were mostly fun and not too demanding, but there was one big challenge for me... the mountain biking.
Something not a lot of people know about me (I prefer not to talk about it) is that I have an irrational fear of riding bicycles. I know, it's ridiculous. I've bungee jumped off a bridge in Africa, I've crossed a crocodile-infested river, I've been to dozens of countries as a solo female traveler... and yet put me on a bike and I will start hyperventilating. But there was only one hour of mountain biking in a 4-day adventure trek that sounded otherwise spectacular, so I told myself to suck it up and push through.
Well, I did. But I also totally lost my mind. We were on a mountain road that had rocks looming over us that looked as if they could cause an avalanche any second on one side and a steep, steep cliff on the other side. It twisted and turned so much that you could never know when a bus was going to come flying up the other direction and thanks to the rain we frequently had to bike through streams of mud and water rushing across the road.
I don't think I breathed for the entire ride. Okay, of course I did, but it was a hyperventilating breath that only made me dizzy and more panicked. I yelled and swore... a lot. I cried. I thought I was going to die. I knew I was going to die.
But then I didn't die. Tear-and-rain-soaked though I was, I had survived. It took the rest of the day for my lungs to stop hurting from my labored breathing and the panic didn't subside for hours, but there was something else mixed in there. Was it pride? Maybe. Or maybe it was just the warm knowledge that my body would carry me on, no matter what I threw at it.
Adventure means something different to everyone
For me, mountain biking was not an adventure. It was a torturous sport that was designed to create panic and pain. But when they pushed me onto a little wooden platform and started pulling a rope to send me across a rushing river that lay nearly a hundred feet below, I smiled and accepted the new adventure with joy. Meanwhile, one of our fellow trekkers had a mini panic attack at the sight of our shaky mode of transportation.
This was a common theme during our trek. One person would jump at the opportunity to partake in the next "adventure" while another would shrink back and wonder who in their right mind would want to do that.
That's the thing about adventure. We all love a little adventure, we just all define it differently. Of course that definition changes over time. Staying in a hostel in a strange city used to be a huge adventure for me. Now it's just life. Your comfort zone can grow and shrink as you live, depending on how you live. And as your comfort zone expands, so does your definition of adventure. I saw living examples of this throughout the trek and it made me realize how important it is to respect other people's definitions and let them decided how much adventure is too much.
You can only travel for yourself
Of course, that's not always easy for me. I often find I want to drag people into these crazy adventures that are calling to me, insisting that it will be fun. But the truth is, for many people what is fun for me will just be plain terrifying for them (re: my feelings about mountain biking).
This is a lesson that comes up frequently on my travels, and it has been one of the hardest to learn. I love a lot of people and I want to share what I love with the people I love. I often find myself begging them to travel with me, adventure with me, or just see the world as the beautiful, thrilling place I see it as. But all I've gotten from that is a broken heart. Because they rarely travel with me, they hardly adventure with me, and they definitely don't see the world the way I see it.
I experienced this over and over again on my trek. I wanted people to be excited about the things I was excited about. But they had their own priorities and their own emotions and I had to stop making my trip about how they felt. It was my trip and it needed to be about me.
I say this is a travel lesson; travel for yourself and only yourself, but the truth is, it's a life lesson too. We can never be truly happy if we're busy living for other people. It's your life. So live it for you.
Morality only gets more confusing on the road
My friend took the above photo, and it made me furious. Ever since volunteering with the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand I have been adamantly against using animals in the tourism industry. It's cruel and narcissistic and cruel. But...
What was I going to do? Free this little guy into the wild where, thanks to being domesticated, he would probably die in a day? Try to find some Peruvian animal rights group to go save him? But what about his owners? They were a very poor family living in the hills on the way to Machupicchu and their livelihood depended on people stopping to see their animals.
This is just one example, but it's a problem I face whenever I travel. We are all raised to have a strict understanding of right and wrong, but when we start traveling we start to realize everyone has a moral compass and they all point in different directions. So which direction is north? What is right and what is wrong? It gets murkier and murkier the more you see of the world, and somewhere along the journey you realize you can't look for a hard and fast definition anymore.
We have to define morality for ourselves and stand up for that morality however we can, but we also have to be respectful of other people, their cultures, and their beliefs. And we have to realize that we could be wrong and carry a willingness to change our definitions if need be. It sounds simple enough, but I would dare say it's one of the hardest things about living as a global citizen. But as long as we try, that's something...
There are certain things that exist beyond where words can go
In the end I finally reached Machupicchu, stood with the rising sun to my back, and gazed at the above view. I took pictures, I wrote in my journal, I contemplated how to express the feelings this magical site gave me... and I came up short. Because all the most powerful moments in my travels (like the fog clearing at the crater in Vesuvias, my students in Ethiopia hugging me goodbye, seeing the stars over a quiet African savannah, diving into a glacier lake in Peru, watching the red sun set over the ocean on the coast of Mykonos...) are impossible to put into words. Even photos won't do.
So why do I write about it? I guess partly because I have this intense warmth in my heart whenever I think about those experiences and I like to call it back by writing about the memories. But more than that, I guess I'm hoping I'll inspire people. Maybe in my writing they'll realize that no words or photos can compare to the real thing, and I'll spark that longing to know the magical feeling I'm talking about, and so they'll go. They'll see it. They'll feel it. And they'll learn all the things traveling has taught me... and so much more.