The Boy Who Sees Beyond the Shadows (World Nomads Shortlisted Contest Entry)

The Boy Who Sees Beyond the Shadows (World Nomads Shortlisted Contest Entry)

This was my entry for the 2013 World Nomads’ Travel Writing Scholarship to Beijing.  I didn’t make the top three, but I did make the shortlist.  
Considering there were 1125 entries, I’m pretty excited about that!  Here is a link to the World Nomads’ Page with the winning entries and complete shortlist.



The porter’s eyes twinkle as he passes me the soap. It’s dark along the Inca Trail, but moonlight fills the campsite as hikers prepare for bed. As I wash my hands, I ask his name. He winks when he hears my Spanish.


The name slides off his tongue into a soup of Quechua vowels.

I find a grassy spot to sit nearby. He hesitates, but approaches. We gaze at the starry sky. Looming mountains split the world into light and dark.

“Did you like dinner?” he asks, bridging the silence.

I nod, and ask if the porters had carried the trout all the way from Cuzco.

“We fished while you were napping.”

I blush. A lazy tourist, was that me? I thought I was tough for tackling a four-day trek, yet I’d hired someone to carry my gear.

“How long have you been a porter?”

He brushes aside his thick, black hair, tucking it under his “chullo.”

“Two years, but I’ve worked since I left home.”

“How old were you then?”
“Seven. Now, I’m 23.”

I pull at the threads of my alpaca sweater – a gringo tourist staple. We’re the same age, but my idea of work is sitting in an office, making more an hour than he does in two days.

“Why so young?”

“All of us children were sent to Cuzco to work.”

Avoiding his stare, I let my eyes fall to our legs, which almost touch at the knees. My feet glow in the night, but his are black; dry mud cakes his knockoff Adidas sandals.

“I’m studying to be a guide,” he continues.

I ask what he’s learning and he clasps my hand eagerly.

“English and Inca culture. History is my favourite.” He glances down, dropping my hand. My fingers tingle with the imprints of his calluses.

“I studied history too, in Canada.”

Aderlin sweeps his hand across the horizon. “Here, we follow a path that’s over 500 years old. Isn’t it the most beautiful place to work?”

I smile and tilt my head back. I search for the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia but for me the southern sky is an unmarked map. Aderlin explains that Quechua people find constellations in the spaces between stars. “Urcuchillay” the llama, and “Mach’acuay” the serpent. I squint to make out these shapes but I fail to see beyond the shadows.

When a cool breeze picks up, I wish Aderlin goodnight. At five the next morning, I’m woken by a soft call at the flap of my tent. Aderlin carries a tray with cups of coca-leaf tea.

“Your mate, miss.”

He gives me a steaming cup. I don’t see him again until he hustles past on the steep Inca stairs, a 20-kg duffel bag bouncing on his back and a grin on his face.

Photo Friday: Quechua Boys in Cusco, Peru

Photo Friday: Quechua Boys in Cusco, Peru

The last two weeks have brought my friend Cory and I through a huge variety of terrains: the Peruvian highlands, the Amazon jungle, sand dunes, ocean, and now, the big city.  While all of these places offer something special, there is one place in Peru that especially resonates with me: Cusco.  Nestled high in the mountains at 3400 m, it’s a city which manages to simultaneously cater to tourists and preserve much of the indigenous Quechua culture.  I think this is what fascinates me about the city: it’s a cross between La Paz and Lima, between traditional and modern.

Although these boys may be hamming it up for a couple of soles, they still represent centuries of Quechua customs.  Over their sweaters they wear ponchos, the most important aspect of the male Quechua attire.  On their heads are chullos, the knit hats with ear-flaps that have been an emblem of the Quechua people since the pre-Hispanic era.  Finally, the llamas that they are with are one of the main sources of meat and labour (as a pack animal) for the Quechua people.

These boys will grow up learning Quechua as their first language, and then pick up Spanish in school, so they will be bilingual at an early age.

While I was on the Inca Trail, my guide taught me a few phrases in Quechua:

(Try pronouncing these with a Spanish pronunciation.  Ex: “ll” makes a “ly” sound as in the English word “million.”)

Thank You: Sulpayki

How Are You: Imaynalla (Kashanki) — The Kashanki is an optional add-on

I’m Well: Allillammi

I Love You: Kuyakuiki

On a final note, did you know that there are a lot of Quechua words in the English language?

  • Some examples: coca, condor, gaucho, Inca, jerky, llama, puma, quinine, quinoa


The Classic Inca Trail: How to Book, Pack, and Budget

The Classic Inca Trail: How to Book, Pack, and Budget

Imagine you are sitting on a grassy slope, staring up at the night sky.  The moon plays hide-and-seek, but it doesn’t matter – the heavens glow.  You count shooting stars and listen to the gurgle of the river that snakes along the belly of the valley.  The mountain gods slumber around you, blocking out everything you’ve come to escape: traffic jams, overflowing inboxes, work deadlines… life.  You trace an imaginary line up the shadowy peaks, searching for a path worn by 500-year-old footprints, a path trodden by Inca messengers, peasants, anthropologists, and now, by you.

The “Classic Inca Trail,” or “Camino Inca,” is the most famous section of a network of Inca highways that once stretched a total of 40,000 km between modern Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.  The four-day, 43 km trek is open to the general public, and many travelers consider it an essential rite of passage on their way to visit Machu Picchu.  Here is what you should know before embarking on the Inca Trail.

Booking Your Trek

With several hundred tour operators in Cusco, choosing a reputable agency can be overwhelming.  Here are some things to consider:

Day One
Day One
  • Booking in Advance: If you want to hike the “classic” trail, you will need to book three to six months in advance, during low and high season, respectively.  Did you arrive in Peru without a reservation?  Don’t panic – there are other last-minute (and much cheaper) multi-day treks to Machu Picchu, such as Lares, Salkantay, and Inca Jungle.
  • Time of Year:  High season is June-August.  This is the most expensive and busy time of year, but it’s also dry season, offering good trekking conditions.  Prepare for cold nights.  Low season is the rainy period.  The trails are quieter, but heavy rainfall can leave some parts of the trail damaged, and slightly dangerous.  The trail is closed each February for maintenance. 
  • Reputable Agencies: I highly recommend either Chaska Tours or Camping Tours.  I booked with Chaska, but, because our group was so small, we ended up merging with a Camping Tours group, so I’ve experienced the excellent, professional service of both.  Our combined group consisted of seven people.  If you are looking for a bigger group dynamic with a young demographic, I’ve heard great things about G Adventures, a Canadian-run company.  (Although it is a much more expensive option).
  • Environmental sustainability and Treatment of Porters: Government regulations are constantly improving the conditions for the porters, who are each responsible for carrying 20 kg of weight on their backs.  However, it is still important to check out your company’s policies with respect to the treatment of both the porters and the environment before booking anything.  Here is a list of licensed Inca Trail tour operators to get you started.


Packing Tips

What you pack will vary depending on the season, but there are a few staples you will need year-round.

  • Layers: During peak season, nights are freezing and mornings are crisp.  Bring one or two heavy sweaters, a couple of light, long-sleeve shirts (a base layer, like this), and some t-shirts or tank tops.  Don’t forget a pair of gloves (even those thin, stretchy ones would do), and a toque.
  • Large Poncho: A raincoat/windbreaker are useful, but one of the most important things to carry is an extra-large poncho, one that can fit over both you and your daypack.
  • Footwear: Although sturdy footwear is important, I did the hike in running shoes and was comfortable.  Hiking boots would be great, but aren’t essential.
  • Camera Batteries:  You will not have any electricity during the four days, so make sure you bring an extra camera battery.  You can find most brands in the camera shops in Cusco (however, I couldn’t find an extra for my Sony).
  • Headlamp:  I found out the hard way that a headlamp is much more useful than a flashlight, especially when trying to change in the dark.
  • Altitude Sickness Remedies: Altitude Sickness, or soroche, affects many (non-acclimatized) travelers who arrive in Cusco, a city 3400 m above sea level.  To be safe, try taking a preventative altitude sickness pill such as Diamox in the 24 hours prior to arrival and then keep taking these pills for another 48 hours.  A natural remedy for soroche is the coca leaf, so bring some to suck on.  You will also be offered coca tea with every meal.

Budgeting Your Trek

The Inca Trail is not cheap.  It’s more than double the price of some of the alternative treks, and there are still some additional costs you need to keep in mind.  Here is how my budget looked:  (Prices in $USD)

  • Chaska Tours 4-Day Trek: $550.  Expect to pay at least $500.  This includes three breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks.
  • Personal Porter: $130.  I was a bit embarrassed about this, but I soon realized that 85% of the trekkers I passed on the trail had hired one too.  Because of the heavy camera and lens I carry, a personal porter was a worthwhile investment.  The porter carries your sleeping bag and up to 7 kg of luggage.
  • Sleeping Bag Rental:  $18.  You can find cheaper ones in the rental shops by the Plaza de Armas.  Make sure it is good to -15°C.
  • Walking Sticks: I couldn’t decide whether or not to rent these, and used them intermittently.  However, most people in my group used them constantly.  I rented mine from Speedy Gonzalez for around $6.
  • Tips:  On the final night, your guides will remind you about a tip for the porters.  Our guides recommended a total of 30 soles ($10) per porter, and a bit more for the head porter, cook, and assistant cook.  We also included a $50 tip for each guide.  After pooling our resources, each of the seven people in my group paid around $80 in tips.  Of course, the amount you tip is ultimately up to the members of each group.  Just remember, the porters work extremely hard for you!

In total, my trek cost around $780, not including some extra snacks and supplies that I bought specifically for it.  It seems like a lot – so was it worth it?  Before I left for the trek, I was almost regretting choosing the most expensive route, but that changed completely once I began it.  On the Inca Trail, the scenery is stunning, the food is delicious, the trek is rewarding, and the memories are some of the best you will ever make.

To get an even better idea of what to expect, take a look at some of my photos below: