Exercise for the Week

June 1

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The alarm went off at 5:20. A quick look out of the window showed a nicely dense fog, oh what a joy of the photographer. We were the first at the breakfast buffet where we inhaled a few bites, and ran out in full gear right before 6, when the gate opens. We needed to buy new tickets, $20 / piece. When confronted with a $50 bill the gate keeper took it in trade for two tickets, saying that he has no change. I am usually generous, but this was too much of a tip. After much digging I came up with exactly 144 Soles, the equivalent in local currency. With this we were allowed in, rushing up the steps to the usual overlook, only to see dense fog. Out there, somewhere, was Machu Picchu, hard to tell. Only the exposure was really easy to get - hard to miss with uniform gray. We waited and waited, and pieces of the ruins came to view, and disappeared. Then the fog decided to be a real cloud and it started to rain. Once we realized that the weather was being serious about it, we sought shelter in a shed which was part of the ruins - coincidentally the only one with a roof. There we found a couple from New Zealand, clearly more rugged than us, who are on a 14-month trip from Alaska to Brazil. Very soon it felt like the whole population of Machu Picchu was in this hut, as we were joined by two groups of Inca Trail hikers who just came down from the Sun Gate, and were desperate for shelter; by now, it was raining quite hard, and it didn't seem to take an end. Eventually, it did: around 7:30 the clouds started to part, the rain stopped, and we were greeted by a marvelous view of the ruins. Low contrast, too, which is good in my book - and especially only very few people with yellow or orange jackets, which don't help the image composition much.

Click on the first image to start a slide show for this day (69 pictures)
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With 2GB filled we went briefly to the hotel to pack and check out. We bagged the tripod and all other optional things, and said goodbye to the bag, to be picked up at the train station, courtesy the hotel. What a nice touch. Off we were again to the ruins, shaping more bits and bytes. Essan was fully in her creative zone with her little "baby camera", a Canon G3, taking pictures and movies. I have learned to be more careful around her when she's taking a movie, since the sound gets recorded, and not everything I say would get a "PG" rating. We enjoyed this beautiful light and lack of people and proceeded towards the Wayna Picchu mountain, which so majestically towers at the back of the ruins. People suggested that we climb it; Holber said it would be a great experience. A look at the so called trail suggested otherwise, for two reasons: first, it's long and steep. Second, it's right by the edge of the steep mountain (where else), which is not so good for people like me who have a serious fear of heights. Essan suggested a compromise - let's climb halfway before it gets really steep, so that I don't panic. How could I turn it down?

At the gate to the trail everyone needs to sign in and out, I guess so that they can make sure they aren't missing anyone in the evening. The gate keeper was a nice young man who was deeply mesmerized by my camera, and loved to play with it while I was signing in. I didn't understand a word of what he said (and vice versa) but it felt like he did get the idea, as he requested that on the way back I show him some pictures from above. He even marked my name in the book so that he doesn't forget when we sign out. And off we were.

It would be a gross overstatement to say that I am an athlete. I am OK with endurance at a steady pace, on land and in the water. But the days that I had to bike up a hill twice per day to go to school are long gone, and let's face it, even then I sucked at it. Ten years of Californian lifestyle with an S4 in the garage sure didn't help. And my belt pack with the very heavy 1DS + 24-70L combo bouncing around my neck was the nail in the coffin. Let's say that thanks to me we were the slower ones on the hill, using any possible excuse for a break ("look, people on the way down need to cross", "oh, what a nice view" etc). All in all with our leasurely pace we took about twice as long as the no-luggage lightweight athletes, or about an hour. My only real excuse was a serious pain in my left knee, which would of course get worse on the way back. And the last part of the ascent was actually more of a rock climbing exercise, during which the lens hood came as a welcome savior of the lens. I already see the eBay description of my lens: "great overall condition, lens hood cracked from climbing Wayna Picchu".

We made it, and have the pictures to prove it. Not many, though, because I stayed remarkably close to the ground, purposefully not looking around. Let's say I had better moments in life. But in a way, it felt good. Essan sure did feel good and happy, which counts for most.

On the way down the first part was by far the worst. Rock climbing up is bad enough, down is worse - especially because you need to look down a lot - which we know is a no-no with me. With the camera now securely attached on my back using the harness and a carabiner it was bearable, and if nothing else, easier on the camera. We were frequently asked by those on the way up how much more pain and suffering was involved, so we gave some encouraging words and especially climbing tips for the final, most difficult section. My Apple T-shirt was also a conversation starter, especially with a young British man who openly admitted to be using any excuse for a break, just like us before.

To increase our frustration, about halfway down we crossed path with two local boys, maybe 10 years old, wearing sandals, running up the mountain, accompanied by their father. Running. About 15 minutes later we crossed paths again, when they passed us on the way back. Let's say we had no reason to doubt that they went all the way up.

Finally, we made it all the way back to the gate. We signed out and I explained to the nice guy at the other side of the table that I don't have many pictures to show him, which was true: I don't need no stinkin' pictures, the memories will be all too vivid for the rest of my life. But now, safely in the flat, and completely out of water, we headed out of the sanctuary and out to the refreshments booth, where we bought a very overpriced bottle of water, and joined the scores of other people, most of them equally sweaty, panting, and happy.

Famished, we decided to take an earlier bus down to the village. We didn't really feel like paying $20 / person at the all you can eat buffet at the lodge; while filling, it was not all what it's cracked up to be, based on our experience yesterday when the lunch was included. On the bus was a colorful mixture of people - ranging from locals, seniors, to people who hiked the Inca Trail. Two of these hikers were mesmerized by my camera and played with it for a bit, but concluded that it's no suitable for their travel style, showing me their super tiny 1MP counterpart. Truly, nothing to argue about there.

Down in the village we found a place to eat. Indeed, there are many restaurants, and just like in Cusco each restaurant had its own recruiters - people with menus standing in the street, or in this case on the train tracks, competing for guests. Yes, even though not very frequented, the train tracks were the street here, lined mostly with stores and restaurants, with dogs fighting and barking, kids playing with simple toys, and - well the occasional train coming through. I was once again complimented on my choice of T-shirt - and it's really not all that fashionable...

After a good and filling lunch we started our stroll uphill on the tracks to the train station. On the way we bought a nice colorful backpack for my mom - mom definitely loves colors, almost too much so. At the train station we found our bag as expected, full with tripod, Powerbook, and some lighter things. On the bench next to us was an older couple most likely traveling with their college age granddaughter, who were staying at the same lodge as we did. The man picked up and started talking, that apparently I am in computer technology, based on my T-shirt. He mentioned he used to work at Bell Labs for some 35 years, yes, the very same people who brought us C++. In my today's job, plagued to no end with C++ wishing it was never born, it could not have been more ironic to be sitting next to an Ur-C++ person.

The train departed on Swiss time and was packed. Coming up there was almost nobody on board, and our bag was the only one on the rack. Today, the rack was flowing over. The two British guys from last night at the overlook were in the first row of the car, in a most enviable seating position as you could see on the tracks in front of the train. It was pretty easy for me to walk up to them, chat about hiking and photography, and of course shoot some pictures. Among other things that I learned from conversation with them was that the record for the Inca Trail, the 45km hike up and down two 4000+m passes that quite rugged people take four days to complete, is 3:45 hours. Less than four hours, people! That's more than 10 km/h. You don't RUN much faster than this, and that in the flat...

We arrived in Cusco around seven in the evening, got dropped off at the hotel, and went for dinner. We followed the recommendation of the travel guide and went to the Tunupa restaurant. Our advice would be to stay as far away from this restaurant as you can. The service was bad, and the food was prepared by a chef who must have hated his job. So far, Peruvian food was excellent without any exceptions. At Tunupa the pork and alpaka were as tough as leather, to name only two disappointments. Once back at the hotel we did some badly needed washing of socks and went to sleep. Let's say we were very, very tired.

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