My hands gripped the podium to catch my balance. It was a typical day for my 5th period World History class; to torment their teacher. I had almost just passed out once more from the dark pull of anxiety that had been plaguing me since school started. My husband refused to leave the house. He had been sleeping on the couch since August, knowing if he gave me the separation I so desired, it would surely lead to our divorce.
Mix dealing a doomed marriage with a class you wanted to put over your knee and illegally beat everyday, and anxiety was bound to attack. I remember Christmas break approaching, and not soon enough. But, to my soul’s much needed delight, a friend just by chance wanted a car companion for a wedding in Florida. This convenient excuse to leave town for a week, I gratefully grabbed with no twisting of the arm. He finally agreed to separate, once I was gone. Funny how that worked. Those two weeks of calm, reading, counsel, and no anxiety, led me to one of the biggest decisions I had ever made in my life; saying yes to ending my marriage. By January, I filed. By the end of the school year, I was divorced. What I did next would lead me on a course that would change my life, and lead to the slow bloom of the sunflower I was meant to be and am still becoming.
What it meant to be divorced and my first summer of freedom were on full display in front of me. To me, this seemed like a perfect moment in life to stand up and be brave. So, I did what any newly divorced and drained first year teacher would do. I booked a flight to Peru. This sunflower was about to spread her wings!
I bravely booked nothing but my flight and my stay with a family, which included two weeks of volunteering. I must note this was all organized through International Volunteer HQ, and locally through Maximo Nivel, which I might add proved to be wonderful on many occasions for this freshman traveler.
All started off beautifully. The local volunteer headquarters were wonderfully organized, accommidating, made it easy to transition to your home stay, and to your volunteer site. They even had weekly social events so you could get to know all of the other volunteers.
Before you know it, I was bussing out of Cusco with the locals and their chickens, volunteering each day at a children’s school, and making friends from all around the world. Slowly but surely these new friends and I were laughing our way through adobe brick filled days, eating and frequenting the best spots at night along the main plaza in Cusco, and going on sightseeing adventures together.
Then it happened…A wine bar, our not a care in the world selves sitting down at our table, me reaching down, and my bag being gone. I still remember the shock, like a punch to the stomach. You can imagine the confusion, the fear, the anger, the I just wanted to get on a plane and go home. My bag had been stolen in a matter of two seconds.
But, just as I was about to throw in the towel of solo travel, one of my new friends was very quick to ask if I was going to let just losing “stuff” ruin my trip. Yes, important stuff including my wallet, camera and passport, but, was I going to let it ruin my three weeks left in Peru? I cried my way to positivity, and said screw it. This little bulb of a sunflower, just learned a hard lesson in a third world country. But, he was right. I had to rise above or go home.
The next week proved to me that this world and its inhabitants still have compassion, as my new companions and the volunteer headquarters all loaned me money until my new credit card arrived. I bought a local handmade Peruvian bag, which I religiously kept around my shoulder the rest of my trip, a cheap camera, and the adventure continued. As the weeks passed, we adventured to Pisack, Moray, the Salt Flats, and then we started talking about the big kahuna, one of the main reasons I had wanted to come to Peru in the first place, Machu Picchu.
Two positives were on my side when it came to Machu Picchu. One, my friends were just as adventurous as me. Two, we had befriended two locals from there in Cusco. Yes, maybe one’s agenda had originally been to get the attention of a certain red headed cutey in my group. But, as the days passed, they truly became wonderful confidantes. This friendship would prove to be a fantastic scenario for my friends and I, as we ended up gathered in a Peruvian Excursions business right there on the main plaza in Cusco. As we listened to a cousin tell us our choices of adventure, the excitement was building. We were about to get the deal of a lifetime and didn’t even know it.
Before we could close our mouths from the ridiculous deal the seven of us had just received for the 5 day/4 night Salkantay Hike and Camp Excursion to Machu Picchu, we were packed and waiting for the bus to pick us up. I had no expectations with the journey to come. Who knew how it would turn out with the amount of money we paid? But, let me say this. All was included and I was not dissapointed. From our bus rides, to our camp sites, and to our daily prepared food. To the much needed side excursion to the relaxing hot springs. To the music and feast night, where all of the hiking groups merged to eat and be merry; bonfire and dancing included. To our bags being carried on two donkeys each day. You don’t even realize the awesome of this inclusion until you have hiked for four days straight. Our goal was simple. We were to hike to our meeting points daily, which were lunch and dinner. Then we would appropriately crash into our already set up tents from exhaustion. We had two fantastic guides, who were a splendid mix of knowledge and humor. Then to top it off, we stayed in a hostel/hotel the last night at the village, Agua Calientes, right below Machu Picchu. That hostel meant two highly anticipated events for us weary adventurers; a hot shower and a comfy bed. The adventure had truly been an all-inclusive wonder, that would change my whole mindset on how I traveled from then on.
We were to meet at 4:30 am at the fountain in the middle of the village. Once all there, we were given a choice. We could take the bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu, or we could climb the ancient Incan steps to get there. I think you know what we chose. Thank goodness it was still dark, so fellow climbers could not see the torment on my face for the next hour as I tried to breath and climb at the same time. I still consider those Incan steps one of the best workouts I have ever done in my life. Did I beam with joy once the stairmaster on steriods was done? Oh, you know I did. I had just climbed the steps that the Inca had climbed five-hundred years ago on a normal, maybe even daily basis. I felt like a beast. Let me just say, their legs and hearts must have been Olympian athlete worthy.
Once at the top, with the majestic valley before me, I immediately forgot about my hour of affliction. This deserving wonder of the world had just become my playground for the day. As the sun made its way across the magical valley, tears of spiritual emotion joined me throughout the morning as I explored the grounds. I hadn’t realized how this would effect me; mind, body and soul. The bucket list occassion must have given me a momentary lapse of judgement as I climbed yet another mountain, Huana Picchu. Knowing this climb might give me the best views of what lay before me, I went without question. With another climb conquered, I sat in amazement atop the mountain side. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. My soul and my spirit, bowed to the moment. I took in every last drop of this once in a lifetime view.
At the end of the day, we lounged among the ancient ruins, eating snacks, crying and laughing with our guides and new friends. Our weeks of friendship, volunteering together, daily excursions, and becoming emmerced in Peruvian culture had all led to this precious moment. But, as you know, good things must always end. The bus awaited, as we all said our goodbyes and boarded, elated but exhausted from this unforgettable five day trip of a lifetime. But, getting back to Cusco meant one thing. My trip was about to end, and I had to get back to a hard truth that had existed since the night my bag was stolen weeks before. I couldn’t go home. Oh yes. It all came back to me very quickly. I now, like it or not, had to focus on getting back to Texas.
There were a few things I had to do before I could get home. Most importantly, I had to get to Lima to get an emergency passport. But comically, of course, a little problem arose to stop me in my tracks. The July 4th Holiday just happened to be a Peruvian excuse for their passport offices to be closed in Lima for several days. Yes, go ahead and laugh. Why not? I did. So, not only did I have to get my emergency passport dealt with, now I also had to change all my flight details for after the 4th. I think it was at this point that nothing bothered me anymore. This freshman traveler had offically graduated to the next level. I did what I had to do. I scheduled my driver to take me to Lima, cha-ching, and after a long phone conversation, cha-ching, my flights home were booked. There was nothing left to do now but enjoy the last few moments of my stay. I mean, if I was now going to be there for July 4th, I might as well make the most of it right? I gathered my friends.
We quickly hatched a plan, gathered our ammunition of Coscuena beers and Peruvian make shift s’mores, and started our last hike together up the mountain side. The campfire crackled, our brews in hand, and our emotions a stir. A silence seemed to fall upon us, with smiles on our faces, but tears in our eyes. As we reminisced about our great adventures and snapped our last pictures, we knew this was it. We were all about to say goodbye. We had spent over a month together as partners in crime across the valleys and mountains of Cusco and what was once the great Incan Empire.
Always one to be reflective, it’s still easy for me to look back and see how much I learned from my adventures in Peru. That monumental moment in my life gave me a huge, humbling, growing boost of confidence as a woman. So many Americans do not travel, especially solo, especially women. I am told, more often than not, that I am a little bonkers to travel alone across the world, no matter how many times I’ve done it. It seems intangible to most that I seem giddily motivated to travel alone, and sometimes with no agenda at all. But, Peru was just the beginning for me.
I don’t wait around for someone to travel with me. I just go. I don’t plan out my whole trip before I pack my bags. I just go. I don’t carry a lot of luggage or even my camera anymore when I travel. I just pack my backpack and I go. You get the point. And to this day, if an excited soon to be adventurer is about to pack their own bags for Peru, I always say the same thing. Don’t book your excursions until you get there, because sometimes not having a plan can lead you to a one-hundred and sixty-five dollar, 5day/4 night all-inclusive adventure to Machu Picchu.