The Andes Mountains are by far the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Last week I traveled to Peru, where I embarked on my first real adventure – a four-day hike that started in dry, sandy mountains and ended in the jungle at the “Lost City of the Incas,” Machu Picchu.
After a challenging 6-hour first-day hike over what our guide called “Peruvian flat,” my girlfriend and I decided to carry our own rucksacks on the second, most difficult day, rather than hire an extra porter like everyone else in our tour group.
Carrying 45 pounds on your back for 7 hours as you ascend 10,000 meters straight up stone steps – huge stairs built into the mountainside -to reach a summit ironically called “Dead Woman’s Pass,” is harder than it sounds. It made basic training in the Air Force seem like a breeze, according to my veteran girlfriend.
I won’t lie: I cried when we reached the top, about an hour and a half after shallow breathing caused by altitude sickness set in as we walked through cloud forests, hail and freezing rain. I was soaking wet, congested, sore and starving. Then came a 2-hour descent down steep, slippery stones to camp.
There were times I looked over the side of the narrow path and imagined slipping and plummeting down to the valley below, and the idea actually seemed like a relief compared to what I was enduring.
All the while, the porters were running by, each with more than 100 pounds of tents, food and bags on their backs. Many of them were wearing sandals. Many come from mountains villages without running water or electricity. Many speak only Quechua, not the foreign language of Spanish.
In this remote area jobs as porters are coveted, because porters make a little bit more than Peruvian minimum wage, and tourists usually tip them at the end of the hike. They slept on mats in the big dining tent they set up for us twice a day and ate our leftovers. These guys would have a serious class action labor suit back in the U.S.A. But I never sensed any complaints. They were gracious and kind. They brought me soup in my tent on that dreaded second day after I finally reached camp.
Sleeping on uneven ground in freezing cold, with a sore back, stiff neck and swollen feet didn’t make things easier when it was time to get up at the crack of dawn, without a shower or a clean (never mind private) restroom, and start trekking again. I would climb 100 more mountains, barefoot if I had to, if I could recapture the feeling that came with that first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate on the fourth day.
Our guide said the Incas who built Machu Picchu, which is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the New World, lived by three laws: love, work and knowledge.
Many people think the three laws were “Don’t lie, don’t be lazy and don’t steal,” but this was not so. The Incas did not lie, nor did they steal and if you’ve ever seen a picture of Machu Picchu, you know they were not lazy.
The original three laws were simply love, work and knowledge. They were replaced by “Don’t lie, don’t be lazy and don’t steal” after the conquistadors arrived and corruption set in.
If you are ever lucky enough to visit Machu Picchu, you will understand just how well this system of love, work and knowledge worked, because a feat like building Machu Picchu, built from huge boulders, smoothed into perfect rectangles and stacked in place without mortar and without help of the wheel, in an earthquake-proof design, could only be accomplished through hard work, knowledge and a whole lot of different kinds of love.
The culture shock hit me on my first day back to work while driving to my courts. As I merged onto the freeway, I surprised myself with an onset of tears.
I used to complain about the roads.
It struck me as ironic that in the moment I was realizing how lucky I am, I was on my way to read a stack of complaints from other people who are, more or less, just as lucky.
After a quarter of a lifetime on this Earth, I realized I have nothing to complain about. And it only took me four days.
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