"Happy Birthday!" the group proclaims as I take another swig.
The bite of the tequila helps my mind drift from the ambiguity of the moment to the crisp realization of my motley crew. Complete strangers yesterday but family today. The mix of Texans, Germans, South Africans, Floridians and even a few of the local Peruvians holler playful obscenities, urging me to drink again from the crude phallic pot in my hands. The spout looks like an erection that is anatomically comical compared to the tiny ceramic man it protrudes from. It’s midnight and I have just turned 27 somewhere deep in the jungles of Peru. Tomorrow we will reach the base of Machu Picchu. Oblivious to the grueling test of will that lies ahead, I drink on to the delight of my companions and the night becomes a blur.
The view from my room in Santa Maria
The next day is a mild but long hike
with very little elevation change and aside from a few stints of hangover nausea, I feel fine. A winding railroad, traced by the powerful Urubamba River leads us to Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town at the base of the summit. I am sure it was beautiful once, but today it feels bastardized by the “eco-tourism” industry that drives millions from around the globe to visit the man-made wonder. I think of the irony as we pass the town’s waste facility and notice nearly 100 cubic feet of plastic bottles bulging the chain link fence containing them. Street peddlers and restaurant promoters pester us as we walk by but we’ve grown accustomed to it. Avoid eye contact. “No, gracias.” Repeat. The aroma of roasting meat makes my hunger apparent so, despite my better judgment, I break the rule and stop by a street vendor to quickly inhale a few kebabs before checking in to our hostel.
This was taken mere moments before eating the kebabs
The group is spry
After showering off the grunge of the long day’s hike, the obligatory room comparison is well underway. I am the exception though. I feel… off. My thoughts are cloudy and my body begins to ooze a cold sweat. There goes my feeling of cleanliness. My stomach growls like some devilish beast, but the thought of food is nauseating. There is no way this is happening. We are so close! I deny it. I will it away. I know my mind is stronger than whatever this is and I am determined to overcome it, but my body gives in as I race to the toilet and expel the waste in my bowels. Any confidence I had in making this situation just “go away” is flushed down the drain with the mess I’ve just made. Machu Picchu is tomorrow. I need to fix this. My fevered mind shifts to crisis management mode and I elect to bow out of our planned dinner and get to bed early. I layer up and get into bed just as the chills set in, astounded at finding such comfort in a shitty little twin sized mattress. I click the lamp off and shut my eyes as I drift to sleep. I shouldn’t have eaten those damn kebabs.
Mere seconds pass before the door flings open. The lights snap on as heavy feet stomp into the room, intended to disturb me. They belong to my friend, Steve, whom I’ve known nearly 17 years. He’s a tried and true traveling partner and there isn’t a chance in hell he is letting me sneak out of dinner. “What in the f*ck are you doing?!” his voice demanding an answer. I laugh to myself despite my discomfort. Did I really think it would be so easy? “It is your birthday…” he screams at me, “they bought you a cake!”. Damn. I almost forgot. “Did they really?”, I mutter. “Yes, they really did. Now get the hell out of bed. We have reservations at the nicest restaurant in town.” Now, that’s not saying much considering we are literally in The Middle of Nowhere, Peru, but my energy feeds off of his as I find my second wind. I roll up and out of bed as I triumph over the thought of disappointing my new friends and, as I step into the lobby, they all cheer for my revival. It fuels that dwindling flame of hope that I thought I had flushed earlier. I have to find a way to keep that alive.
En route to Machu Picchu’s peak
Dinner was excellent.
Or at least that’s what everyone keeps telling me as we climb Machu Picchu the next day. I would have had a love affair with that lomo saltados dish had I not spent the entire meal sprinting from my seat to the bathroom. That’s gone now though and I return to thinking of my next step. I lost count around 600 and that felt like hours ago, but the steps flatten out as the old city opens up in front of us. Steve nods to me in affirmation. He knows I’m in pain and this hike would be considered rigorous exercise for just about anyone. Quite honestly, I am surprised at myself for keeping up on an empty stomach. The sun hides behind misty clouds as we tour the ruin and I do my best to suppress my disquiet. I don’t want to ruin this moment for any of my companions but my mind feels fragile, delicately balancing being content with what I have accomplished thus far and pushing onward to the peak that overlooks the ruin. When it comes time to make the decision to keep going, they all look at me as if my vote weighed the most. F*ck it. “Let’s keep moving, we’re only in Peru once,” I say to them with a grin. They all start cracking smiles and that little flame feels like it’s burning brighter.
Stopping to get a quick photo with a new friend
The trek to up to Machu Picchu Montaña is grueling
It’s intensely steep and mildly dangerous, especially considering the wet conditions. It dwarfs the day’s earlier hike and exhausts all of us. I even manage to work up an appetite, scarfing down one of the granola bars being passed around during one of our short rests. When we finally reach the summit my woes melt away, forgotten somewhere back on the trail. There is no place for them here, high above the clouds. The misery I had thought would consume me on this day has been replaced with ecstasy. No words are spoken as we look around victoriously to each other, just authentic smiles and laughter.
A roaring blaze in each of us.
Finally, we made it
Timothy is a hospitality professional who loves to push the envelope when it comes to mindfulness and self actualization. When he’s not at work, he’s at the gym with his girlfriend Taylor or honing his competitive gaming skills on his custom PC. He strategically plans his vacation time around visiting new places, most recently Iceland with our very own Andy Santoro. You can find him on Instagram @timothy.d.thornton
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Dealing with illness is something that every traveler has to deal with at some point in their adventures. How you deal with said adversity is another story entirely. Tim’s story shows the value of persistence and not allowing illness to ruin a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
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