5/15/10: Inca Trail, Peru
Yo soy porter. I’m a porter.
My name is Roman, I’m 22, and I don’t speak any English. (At least that’s what I want the tourists to believe – I actually speak mucho Ingles and I serve as the informant to the other porters. How else do you think I’m writing this post in English?) I’m the head of this Llama Path team of 17 which will guide 11 bumbling tourists through the Inca Trail over the next four days. I’m here to tell you a little about what I do.
For 25 days a month, 11 months a year, I walk over steep terrain for very little pay with 25 kilos (over 55 pounds) on my back. At least that’s what I’m supposed to tell you. You see, they have checkpoints set up along the trail which are supposed to make sure us porters aren’t carrying more than 25 kilos, but they’re all for show. Me and my team have carried much heavier loads than that. My friend, Wilfredo – he’s 48 and has been a porter for over 12 years now – says he’s carried loads pushing 40 kilos before. His 30 plus the packs of tourists who couldn’t handle the trail with any weight on their backs. Turistas estupidos.
Let’s use today as an example. I’d spent the last three days hiking the trail with one group of 16. Then after they ate breakfast at 4am this morning before heading off to see Machu Picchu, I took all their stuff on the shortcut path to the train station and dropped it off there for them to pick up later. I then hopped on the train, got an hour of sleep and showed up at km 82 to meet a new group of 11 tourists ready to start their hike. After some hikes I get a day off, but not this time.
I could tell when I met the new group that this would be a fairly easy hike. There are eight young, fit Asian kids and one older gentleman who I wouldn’t have been so sure about but he showed up in a cowboy hat, so I know he can hack it. There’s one suspect British couple, but I’ll hope for the best there. The group dropped off their stuff and the two guides led them away. Let me paint you a picture: the 13 people carrying either nothing or very little (except for that one good-looking guy – I think he said his name was Kevin – he was carrying quite a large pack, but he had the muscles that could get it done) marched down the path toward the start of the trail. They were full of energy, practically prancing, ready to start what would be one of the best four-day periods of their life. Why will it be so good? Us porters.
We carefully apportioned out all the ridiculous crap we carry in order to make their experience “as memorable as possible” – four person tents that will sleep two people, unnecessary sleeping mats, a huge tent for eating under, copious amounts of popcorn for the small Chinese girl – then strapped it onto our backs. Here I must confess. I’m glad our packs have waist straps and other gadgets to distribute the weight. I’ve heard of the Nepalese porters who carry even more weight than us using straps on their forehead. I won’t be moving to Nepal anytime soon.
Anyway, once everything is packed and ready, we each strap on our load and fall into line like a team of army rangers. (The tourists actually call us the “Red Army.” Is it just me, or was that name taken a long time ago?) From this point on, we are never allowed to wander off on our own again. We will hike in this line at all times, and if someone gets sick they must deal with it and keep up. It is in this line that we will one-by-one overtake all tourists on the trail – most importantly though our own group of 11.
We hike non-stop – up steep slopes, over high hills, down dangerous inclines – and use frequent tourist breaks to help us pass them. Usually we’ll see them sucking water, taking pictures of animals, begging for mercy from the trail. But when a group isn’t taking enough breaks – this group being an example (I told you this group would be relatively easy) – their guides will sit them down for long talks like this one.
The reason that we need to overtake the tourists is the less-appreciated part of our job – the setting up of things. As soon as we arrive to the lunch site, we take off the packs and get to work pitching tents, setting up tables, hanging towels, filling basins of water, putting together a makeshift kitchen, etc. Our resident porter-who-doubles-as-a-chef, Jorge (who’s completed three years of culinary school and could cook on Iron Chef if ever asked), goes to work whipping up food not only for the 11 tourists and their guides, but also for the 17 of us. By the time the tourists show up, all they need to do is put their non-existent packs down, wash their hands in the basins and sit down for lunch. We bring them the feast that Jorge cooked, they eat, then they nap and leave.
I bet you can guess what happens when they leave. We pack up, strap everything on again and then hustle down the trail to set up the overnight campsite. There we pitch the tents, boil more drinking water and Jorge not only makes dinner, but happy hour snacks and desert as well. Come on! We’re hiking the Inca Trail! You don’t need happy hour snacks and a desert! But the tourists love it – they eat happily for two hours then shuffle away to their tents for the night. We wait around to clean up and tear down the table and kitchen, because we sleep in the tents they eat in. Then tomorrow morning we’ll get up long before them and do it all over again.
[Editor’s note: Roman wanted me to tell everyone that he’s not this jaded about his job. He actually enjoys it a lot of time – the camaraderie between everyone and the beautiful hike – but he felt it was important he write angrily for effect. Perhaps it will encourage the next group to give bigger tips. He sure caught on to the concept of blogging quickly.
Me, I loved day 1 of the trail, and I agree with Roman that the porters had a lot to do with it. I can’t wait to get back out for day 2.]
Pictures of the Day: Roman didn’t allow me any room for pictures in this post, so I’ll have to stuff mine into the PotD section. First, my family: the “Black Army.”
Second, I’ve forgotten the thrill of getting new passport stamps as we did on the trail. Steve hasn’t.
Third, walking stick handles.