Where to next?
My mother had always told me “Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself.”
That’s how I found myself here, boarding a plane ready to head some place far far away. I was
ready to create myself. Life wasn’t always like this until one month ago I had an epiphany that I
needed to explore. Within the span of a week I had already booked my flight, quit my job and
packed up my confined shoebox Manhattan apartment.
As I left my apartment, I inhaled the aroma of the city and allowed the crisp winter air to overwhelm my senses for one last time. With the smoky smells of roasted chestnuts coming from corner vendors, the scent of flowers from a nearby park and the smell of coffee from a man standing nearby, I was content to say that I was
ready to move on. After waving down a cab I watched out the window as meticulously dressed
men and women hurriedly made their way to work. Bright yellow cabs zoomed past in every
direction and I suddenly realised that it was safe to say that I would miss this place a great deal. I
made my way through the crowds to my dingy $228 one way flight to South America. I slid down
into the soft material, relieved that I scored myself a window seat. I placed my sleep mask over
my tired eyes and held my breath in anticipation f
or this adventure to begin. “Still…no…bag!” A blonde haired girl exclaimed. The girl who now had a wide eyed expression flustered about looking for her ‘lost’ bag. She looked around my age or maybe even a few years older, the light layer of freckles covering her nose and the bronzing of her skin made it clear that
she had just come from a tropical climate.
“Is this your bag?” I asked heaving up a deserted bag caught in the luggage carousel. “You are a life saver.” She said looking relieved. “I have been waiting here for over an hour
watching bags be claimed. I haven’t even set foot on foreign soil and I’m already in a fluster.” She
said.”I’m Lexie” She smiled with an outstretched hand, signaling a friendly handshake.
I shook her hand in the reply of “I’m Maddy.
We had both just arrived in Jorge Chávez International Airport, Lima and had no plans whatsoever.
Lexie was Australian and had just arrived here from volunteering with students at the pathfinder
academy in Kiminini Kenya. Lexie, at 23 was a year older than me and just like me, was living out
of a backpack for several months. She had yet to decide where she was going and what she was
doing. The ten pages on Cusco and Machu Picchu in my Lonely Planet travel guide, were marked
up and wrinkled. I suggested to Lexie that I wanted to soon venture out and hike Machu Picchu.
Lexie, being a happy go lucky spirit quickly agreed to the suggestion and started asking the trip
advisors where we could get the cheapest bus to the centre of Cusco. The trip was planned and I
was ready… or so I hoped.
The bus trip from Lima to Cusco takes about 21 hours. We payed $163 soles which is about $50
US dollars for a comfortable seat in the confined space. We boarded the bus at exactly 2pm,
which meant that we would arrive in Cusco around 11amthe next day. The bus ride was long but completely fulfilled with the true essence of nature. Towards the end of our bus trip whilst winding through the mountains, I was awoken by a strange heavy jolt throughout the bus which threw people off their seats and sprawled them out on the floor scurrying to get back up. In this moment a thump of anxiety struck my chest and I frantically searched for Lexie. “llanta pinchada, llanta pinchada,” yelled the people on the bus. The muffled noises on the bus made it extremely hard for me to hear what was going on, and being a foreigner with little to no idea of the Spanish language was not much help either.
“Maddy, over here,” waved Lexie.
“What in the world is going on?” I said utterly confused.
“llanta pinchada, which means the old bus got a flat tyre, now some local guys are intensely
yelling in Spanish towards the bus driver.” She said gesturing towards the small group of men. I
watched as the men threw multiple hand gestures and frowned fiercely at the driver.
A small indigenous man ordered us all to get off the bus. Within seconds of grabbing our
backpacks, the bus accelerated vigorously down the small road, only fit for one car but generally
jammed with several. It is common in Peru for drivers to try and squeeze their vehicles through
the small road, I once read that two vehicles drive off the cliff every two weeks. So, there we were,
watching as our now ex bus driver jaggered down the road with a flat tyre, piling mountains of
dust on us as he drove away. It’s not a good feeling being stranded on the side of a highway, in a
town which had a name I couldn’t pronounce and that was a million miles away from anyone I
knew. But of course we carried on and decided that the only way was up.
We had now been walking for more than two hours and my feet were starting to blister.
“I…really…need…to…sit…down,” I said in between deep breaths.
“Agreed!” Exclaimed Lexi, resting her hands on her hips.
The walk was longer and more arduous than what we had anticipated. The good news, the daily
traffic had finally started to pass through. The bad news, this was only one car every 20 minutes.
So when we finally spotted a small red car barreling down the deserted road, we knew that there
was only one choice, and walking was not going to be it.
We climbed into the small car and were greeted by Renzo, our chubby driver. His bushy, grey
moustache looked as if it has eaten away half of his face and his eyes pierced a turquoise green
Once we finally arrived at Cusco we thanked Renzo for his generosity and payed him 20 soles for
petrol. We then made our way to the train station located at Poroy, just 20 minutes away from
Cusco and payed $77 USD for a budget seat.
Once boarding the train we sunk into our seats, thankful for being provided with comfort.
After travelling for 3 and a half hours we arrived in Aguas Calientes and stopped by a local hostel
for $88 soles a night.
The first light of the day was starting to appear and we started to pack our backpacks for our 4
day Machu Picchu trail. We caught the 7:30 bus to Machu Picchu and introduced ourselves to our
group leader, Reuben.
Reuben was a short middle aged man who’s face showed signs that he had spent too much time
in the sun over the years. He was missing two bottom teeth and smiled admiringly at the group
standing before his eyes.
“Can you believe that the Ancient Inca’s built this place by hand?” Whispered Lexi as Reuben
thoroughly read through the guidelines one more time.
I shook my head in response as I tried to take everything in, I didn’t want to close my eyes, not
even for one second, just incase I missed something extraordinary that happened along the way.
As the first rays peeked out behind the sprawling ruins over Machu Picchu, the centuries old city
changed shape right before our eyes and the intricate designs of the beautiful architecture
There were eight people including us in the group. Reece and Debbie, a couple from Los Angeles
were travelling for eight weeks straight throughout South America, Pip, a journalist major believed
that the best way to write a story is to experience it for yourself, Carlo and Pete were two Italians
for-filling their lifelong dream of selling up and taking on the world step by step. Then there was
Sarah, who just like us, was fretting the idea of returning home and having to pick up the pieces
she left behind.
Reuben, our tour guide stopped the group to ask a question about the Ancient Incas.
“What is the Quechua spiritual law of ayni?”
“Reciprocity” I belted out, excited to finally be able to answer a trivia question.
“Kind of like, give and you shall receive.” I said impressed by my knowledge.
“Senora,” a Quenchuan women tugged hard on Lexi’s sleeve.
“Thanks, but I don’t need anything else,” replied Lexi who was now not paying any attention to
what she thought were sales people. We had encountered many poor women and children along
the trip who have tried to sell us anything, from shoes to coca colas, these people were extremely
desperate and the poverty we had encountered was brutal. By the time we had reached Machu
Picchu, we finally learnt to say no and move on. But this was different.
“Is that your money belt?” I asked the women in amazement, bringing Lexi down to reality.
The little woman persisted. Standing her ground at only five foot tall. She gestured at the money
belt and kindly placed it into Lexi’s hands.
Lexi took it from her outstretched hand with a wide eyed expression. A bundle of valuables rested
inside the small pouch and Lexi knew that this woman probably made less money in a year than
the amount of money Lexi had just tied around her waste.
Lexi reached down into her pocket and tried to place a tip in the ladies hand.
She was quick to refuse and Lexi and I finally realised that this was the law of ayni. This was the
indigenous Quenchuan version of karma. They believed that if you give you shall receive and that
one day the person who you gave your valuables to will come back and do the same for you one
day. Lexi squeezed the woman in a tight hug and stared down admiringly at her new jewels.
It was day two of our trip and so far everything was heading in the right direction. Day by day we
became closer with Sarah and our travel group. We were quick to learn that Sarah was studying
medicine and had already achieved three degrees at the age of 24. Machu Picchu was beautiful,
the mountains surrounding the ancient inca trail felt unrealistic. I almost felt as if this was all some
dream and that tomorrow morning I would wake up and have to face reality. As we walked
through the the highest point of the site we stopped to share fruit and nuts with our guide and
admire the amazingly preserved buildings and terraces. The breath taking jungle and mountain
views were infused by clouds drifting through the mountain peaks.
I looked up and thought what an amazing feat it must have been building this huge, beautiful
temple in such a deserted place.
“I don’t feel so good.” I said feeling nauseated.
I grabbed onto the railing as my head began to swoosh around in circular motions. My
surroundings were starting to confuse me as colours and sounds collaborated into one big
swirling motion. It was clear now that the altitude of Machu Picchu was not agreeing with me and
being 3,600 metres above sea level had hit me like a truck, and I sure was feeling it.
I woke up surrounded by three older indigenous women recording my temperature and delivering
thermal clothing. Where was I? What time was it? Where is everybody? Thoughts ushered
through my head as I tried to piece together what was going on. I propped myself up onto my
elbows and squeezed my eyes shut as a dizzy spell washed over my head.
“How are you feeling?” Asked Sarah who was sitting at the end of the mattress.
“Right now…I need a bucket,” I swallowed hard but the thump in my throat was just to big and I
felt to sick to even calculate what was about to happen.
After 3 more hours of restless sleeping and bucket breaks I was starting to adapt to the altitude.
I was greeted by two Quenchuan women who were holding a steaming mug that continued to
release a sweet scented smell every few seconds.
“Mate de Coca, for you,” said one of the woman smiling kindly as she handed over the mug.
“This is Cocoa Tea,” said Sarah, “The Quenchuan people believe that it cures all headaches and
illnesses, this will cure your altitude sickness.”
I sipped the tea allowing the sweetness to line the inside of my mouth.
The next morning I awoke to what sounded like, Lexie, shooing away some sort of animal. I
rubbed at my eyes, relieved that the altitude sickness had run its course. I stepped out side of the
tent to see Lexie frantically whipping a t-shirt around in the air.
“Go on shoo, get out of here,” yelled Lexie at a flock of wild geese.
Before I even had the chance to piece together what was happening a bundle of white wings and
loud honking hisses created a bizarre scene around me.
“Help, Maddy do something.” Lexie screeched as I watched in hysterics as a large angry goose
tried to uncontrollably peck at her harem pants.
I ran quickly back into our tiny tent and fetched a load of half eaten bread, ripping off a large
“Here little guy, come have a snack,” I waved the bread around slowly until the goose completely
changed direction and started heading straight towards me, that’s when I realised it probably
wasn’t the best idea.
“Run, run, run!” Screamed Lexi.
I squealed as I released the piece bread and watched as it fell to the ground a few metres in front
of me. The goose hurriedly ran for the bread as we hurriedly ran for the tent.
“My oh my, what in the world is going on?” Said Sarah, her hair a mess from just previously
“We just went on a wild goose chase,” I said.
“Literally,” laughed Lexie.
Today was the last day of our trip and Reuben had just given us all a small stone each, saying
that each stone comes with luck and that we shall forever remember our trip in Machu Picchu as
not only a trip, but as an adventure.
Lexi and I said our goodbyes and traded emails with Sarah, before catching a bus back to Aguas
Calientes. The bus ride went by quickly and I tried to soak up the scenery one last time, but deep
down I knew that this wouldn’t be the last time I would visit Machu Picchu.
Freshly showered, I sat by my hostel window, inhaling the cool breeze flowing in from the open
window. The sound of rain drops pouncing off the roof next door and the soft chirps of nearby
birds created some sort of serenity, a sound that made everything stop in its tracks and for once I
realised I was no longer stressed about my career or things that happened months ago but I was
thinking about the present. I was finally okay with where I was and what was happening in the
moment. I was content. The wind softly blew my open blind before caressing my skin.
Goosebumps flicked on the outside of my arms, but I didn’t mind, the freshness of the air and the
new sounds and smells were comforting. This trip made me realise that life isn’t only about
creating yourself, it’s about the people your with, the places you go and the things you do and as
I sit by my hostel window I think about how different this trip would have been without the friends I
had made, without Lexie and Sarah, without the kind Quenchuan women and without the warm
welcoming I was greeted with within my time in Machu Picchu. Sure there were many alarming
events, the bus leaving us stranded, altitude sickness and a wild goose chase but now that I think
about it, that’s what made this trip a true adventure.
As I looked over to the other side of the room, there was Lexie staring at me directly in the eye.
“So where to next?” She asked smirking.