Porters, Machu Picchu
During the evenings while on the trek, I liked to visit with the porters who were doubling as the cooks. I was curious about how they'd learned to prepare such nutritious meals, what foods did they select, how did they cook the quinoa grain, etc. I was in a position of advantage because I was the only person in the group who spoke Spanish, besides the guide. It opened up a whole world of communication and learning with these porters, and it enriched the experience for me.
Fondest memory: The first evening of the trek, I entered the "kitchen tent" and heard an old familiar tune playing on a transistor radio. I was thunderstruck by how the parallel universe operates - there I was, in the middle of the Andes, hearing a song made famous by Simon and Garfunkel. That song was "El Condor Pasa", a beautiful Andean folksong with roots dating back to the Incas. I used to contemplate the lyrics as a child (the lyrics aren't Incan, they're from Paul Simon), "I'd rather be a forest than a tree, yes I would, if I only could, I surely would...I'd rather feel the earth beneath my feet...." It's such a lovely song that even as a child - and maybe because of being a child - the words always touched my heart as much as the simple, quiet melody moved my spirit. To hear it in the stillness of dusk, up high in the Andes mountains, as these Quechua Indians were preparing our evening's meal....it really came alive, giving new dimension to lyrical poetry.
I can't convey how great the porters were - a humble, precise and very professional group of young men, primarily Quechua Indians. Many of these men spent the dry season working the Inca Trails and thus supporting their families back home in their villages. During high season, they may see their families one or two times a month, and that's in between trek groups. I thought it was a tough life. Many of them didn't have shoes - they almost all wore sandals and some even wore flip flops.
They fly like the wind over the trails - that is when you know they are true descendants of the Incas - for their speed and agility. I couldn't believe how fast they could run, loaded down with our luggage and the camp equipment. Every morning, we'd start off early, leaving them behind to break down the equipment, clean up and pack. Inevitably, two hours into the trek, we'd hear the growing sound of pounding footsteps on the ground...first from a distance and then getting closer and louder until one of us would turn around and see them galloping behind - fully loaded! They almost always laughed at us as we were struggling to step aside and let them pass - they'd fly by and wave at us, smiling and laughing. We were laughing too!
So, bring along an extra T-shirt or two, and maybe some pants - to give the porters when the trek is over. They're so grateful for anything, and can really use it. We even gave our group of porters a pair of tennis shoes - which they love to wear (but NOT for hiking - I got the feeling the shoes had more cachet back in the villages, where I am sure they must wear them with pride!) We all threw our stuff in together, and the porters divided it up between themselves later.
These guys DEFINITELY deserve a tip - please be generous. Your money goes a long way for them.
Fondest memory: I know that somewhere out in the middle of the Andes Mountains, there is a guy wearing (my) t-shirt with John Lennon on the front of it, who is also wearing a t-shirt that says "I Love New York".
Every time I think of that, it cracks me up!!
If you are going to go on the Inca trail, do the porters a favor and don't bring your big backpack with all your gear from your travels through South America. It's hard work and although they get paid, hopefully decently now that they the authorities are demanding it of the agencies, it is still useless for them to carry somethings that you know you won't absolutely need. So, if you are able to, go through your big backpack and take out stuff you know you won't need for the hike, like books for example, or big bulky sweaters, or dress clothes, or you know. You can leave your belongings (obviously all that is valuable you should carry yourself), at your hotel or with the agency that you have booked your hike.
Good luck, it's a beautiful area you are going to be in and yes, bring your rain gear although you won't encounter too much rain during this time of year. It will be cold though, so bring hat, gloves, scarf, and layer. It can get warm during the day too.
Also, please don't forget to tip (generously) your porter. Think how you would do this in your country. I think $20-30 dollars is fair, or even better 15% of what you paid for the trip if you can spare it, if not whatever you think is fair (I've seen many people give them 50-100 soles), or more if you can too.
Have a great time.
Fondest memory: Going back for the third time, but this time bringing my sixth month old daughter along. Even though she was so small, I could tell that she felt how special the place was where we were. She was happy the entire time, after a few hours of hiking around, she fell asleep with a smile. Its definitely a bit harder to hike around with a baby on you, but so worth it to bring them along. More people should travel with their small children, then my child would have some kids to play with (hahahaha).