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THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU

Posted on 20 December 2011 by Ashley Mancha

I was 39 years old when I decided to do the Inca trail.  I was not in the best of shape and had several surgeries in my ankle, knee and tailbone by then. I was no spring chicken but boy did I have a zest for adventure! I had always heard how sacred the Inca Trail was. Part of my family in Argentina had also lived in the northeast region where the Incas had once ruled. My grandfather who as an immigrant from the Middle East in Argentina had become a travelling salesman in the 40’s and spoke Quechua, the language of the Incas so he could sell his goods.
The Inca culture still has a tremendous impact in South America.  They lived mostly in the Andean mountain range which today includes Peru, and parts of Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia. It arose in the highlands of Peru in the early 13th century and its capital was in Cusco, which is where you start to acclimatize yourself if you are smart and want to do the trek without falling apart.
Here is what I mean. Doing the Inca trail requires you to climb 14,000 feet. This means you can get the “soroche” or altitude sickness. How did the Incas avoid this? They chewed coca leaves which is legal and seems to help with the lack of oxygen and whatever happens to your body when you are not used to being that close to heaven. We chose to have coca tea to lessen hunger and stayed in Cuzco for 3 days before we decided to climb.

I had always been curious about the Incas. I had studied them in middle school but being here was another story. I had always admired the Inca architects, engineers, masons and artisans.  They were detailed and precise. They worked with very heavy stones and didn’t use wheels so to this day I have no idea how they got those heavy stones around. That’s why you can imagine I was not about to complain about hiking the Inca trail.

To this day, Cuzco natives sell extraordinary goods. The Incas were great weavers. The women spin wool from alpacas and llamas into cloth so I got a great sweater while I was in Cusco.

Most hikers who do the Inca Trail hire locals to carry their backpack. It is a very tough trail which goes through cloud forests, alpine tundra, settlements, tunnels and many Inca ruins before you reach the mystic Machu Picchu, the Inca site built in the 15th century around 8,000 feet above sea level.  As you hike you also notice terraced fields, which is where the Incas once cultivated 200 types of Peruvian potatoes. I must admit I spent some of my favorite moments taking photos of the llamas that were all around us at the highest points.

This was by far the hardest trek I have ever done. We had to go up almost 14,000 feet (Dead Woman’s Pass) and back down to sea level. Two in our group had to quit. They couldn’t handle the altitude.
We were in a group of 10 people travelling together with a guide. I remember most Stephanie and her husband from Australia. They were both in their 70s but they were in the best shape you can imagine. They taught me how to go up and down so I would not hurt myself. I have no idea why but I always arrived 2 hours after everyone else. I think it might have to do with my filming and stopping to look at things and study them. (Or just maybe I am finding an excuse for being the worst hiker in the group!)
The last day I decided to get up really early because I wanted to get there first. I practically ran towards the valley of Machu Picchu and we arrived around 5 am. My first reaction was WOW! I couldn’t believe it. There was something majestic, spiritual, and peaceful about the place. It was no doubt for me a sacred site (because whoever wrote the books was not there when the Incas were there). The explanations by the guide were quite confusing. I never really felt I could trust his knowledge. I had read a few books about Machu Picchu, which was supposedly built around A.D. 1450 for about 500 to 700 people, but it didn’t much matter to me. I just knew how I felt. I felt a tremendous gratitude for the gift of arriving, seeing and enjoying it. It had not been an easy four days but it was worth every minute. Here is what I believe Machu Picchu is about.

Historians have claimed Machu Picchu was a defensive stronghold for one of its emperors, Pachacuti. Others suggest it was an escape for the upper echelons of the Incas. Most believe it was a sacred site and I have to agree.  A National Geographic Explorer Dr. Johna Reihnard researched it for years enough to believe Machu Picchu was built in the center of a sacred landscape. To this days, modern day Incas also revere the river that runs through Machu Picchu, the Urubamba River.  Machu Picchu is also the site of many mysterious temples.
Researchers also found the landscape especially the mountains are in alignment with key astronomical events important to the Incas. So as you can see, I have no doubt in my humble mind, Machu Picchu was a religious site.
I could go into detail about what I saw but I don’t travel so much to just see structures. I travel to feel differently, to get away from my regular existence, to enjoy the aesthetics of what I see, and most importantly, I travel because of how places like Machu Picchu allow me and invite me to feel closer to the divine.  I can’t imagine arriving at this site and not feeling awe, or curiosity or gratitude. That’s why dates, historical facts, geographical locations, or perfect details don’t matter so much to me. I care about how I feel when I see these extraordinary monuments, sites and natural landscapes.  I feel like I am part of something bigger than me. I feel connected to the people who once lived there. I feel like I am so incredibly lucky to be present, that I can’t fit all that beauty in my soul. It is just overwhelming.
Machu Picchu is becoming very crowded and undoubtedly all the visitors are impacting the site, but I can’t blame them. I would want the whole world to see this site. I would want them to feel what I felt… tremendous peace and gratitude for I could see it with my eyes, feel it with my soul and walk it with my feet. What a gift.

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MY SECOND CAMINO DE SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

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MY SECOND CAMINO DE SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

Posted on 23 November 2011 by Ashley Mancha

By Patricia Gras

MY SECOND CAMINO DE SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

After 6 years, I decided to do the Camino de Santiago or St. James Way again. The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage trail in Spain that’s been around for thousands of years. Religious pilgrims believe St. James the disciple’s bones were found in northern Spain, and interned in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. At first people would travel there to get forgiveness for their sins. Today, pilgrims do it for various motives, religious, spiritual or personal. Spain has a system of refugios like youth hostels that provide shelter for pilgrims for a minimal fee or contribution. To access them you have to get a pilgrim’s passport. There are trails from all parts of Europe.

The first time I did the camino, I had done the Portuguese Camino which was shorter and easier than the most frequented French Camino which takes about six weeks to complete.  I did the first Camino in 2004 which was a special jubilee year. I had no idea what that meant but I found that during that year  you could get a plenary indulgence just by going to the Cathedral and Tomb of James, attend mass or do some charitable work and no walking was required!    

Since I was not walking to be pardoned. It didn’t matter I wanted to walk for very personal, non religious reasons.

 At the time I was broken in many places. My life was in shambles. I had been frustrated for quite a while. I loved my job but I wanted to do more. My music band had broken up and I couldn’t eat anything without feeling sick to my stomach. A dear friend told me I should do the Camino de Santiago and I had no idea what she was talking about. I just believed her because I was desperate. I was stuck, afraid and had no idea what to do. I decided to do the Camino in the winter so I could be alone most of the time. I had no idea if I could do it and I didn’t know how my feet or body would respond.  I just knew the Camino was calling me.

I got some valuable trek information  from a friend who is a nun in Spain and who had walked it several times.  She told me not to pack more than 14 pounds or 7 kilos. I took her advise to heart and I walked around with a very heavy coat. I was walking an average of 18 to 20 km a day and that was excruciatingly difficult for someone from Houston Texas. We just don’t walk here. It felt strange to do it for so many hours. Everything starts to hurt but something inside of me kept me going.  I kept playing mind games so that I could finish the journey each day. I would tell myself if I walked another hour, I would get to eat a piece of chocolate or a croissant or drink a cappuccino! The views were stunning at times, but what I remember most is the silence, the pain and the sense that I was never alone. On the fourth day, with blisters on my feet I fell down on my knees as if I was supposed to pray or something. My knee was in excruciating pain and I could not move.  I knelt there in a daze wondering how the heck I was going to be rescued with absolutely no one around. I began to pray and in just a few minutes a car appeared on the road. I waved my hands because I couldn’t even stand and I got the strength to get up when the driver saw me. I asked him if he could please call the police. I said “I can’t walk and I don’t know where I am. “ He said don’t worry, I will send someone to fetch you. I had to trust him.  In just a few minutes two young men, volunteer emergency personnel picked me up and took me to the hospital where I was taken care of for free. (That horrible socialized medicine everyone here talks about) They did an x ray and  I had a tear in my meniscus.  I was ordered not to walk anymore. I cried out of frustration, not pain. I took a bus to the cathedral next day and I heard a voice inside me say I had to come back and finish the trek the following year. I only had about 50 km left to do so it was very doable.  The next year I returned with my friend who lives in Germany and had become my best friend in my last year of graduate school in Spain.  We finished the trek with a lot of laughter and hardly any stress.  I felt tremendous joy and I began a new life when I returned. The Camino had done its deed. The next six years would open new doors but it would not be easy. I would get a new show and it would eventually be distributed nationally but I would have to face a lot of difficult situations perpetuated by envious people who felt threatened.  My health did improve substantially but I still got cancer. Fortunately it was the kind that could be cured.

It took me another 6 years to decide to start the 800 miles  French Camino which usually takes 6 weeks to finish.. Why did it take me so long to decide? I had no desire to do it again until I felt the Camino calling me again. People ask me all the time, why did you feel you had to do this pilgrimage? I said I don’t know except that I feel I have to. There is an inner voice telling me I need to do it because there are major changes that will take place in my life and the Camino will prepare me for them.

I had no expectations. I wanted to start in the French Pyrenees at St. Jean de Pied. I knew I would need to walk about 25 km a day and that it would not be easy so my friends and I planned to walk for 7 days. Again I had no idea if my body would be able to take this kind of beating. I trained by doing yoga, pilates, dancing and some walking but nothing like 25 km a day. I have arthritis after two ankle and knee surgeries on the right side.  I suspected I might have some troubles but I trusted God and my intense desire to do it! Whether we like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and my body was not the most important element of this journey.

The first day would most likely be the toughest. We would have to hike up 1400 meters in the Pyrenees and then go down to Roncesvalles in Spain. It didn’t take long at all to realize the difference between my physical shape and that of my friends who live in Europe and walk or run a few hours daily. They were a bit frustrated with me and it was understandable. I had come totally unprepared in their eyes.  My backpack was the wrong type.  I was carrying too much weight and they weren’t so sure my shoe size was the right one for the hike. They suggested I buy a new backpack and send off the old one with half the weight. When they met me my backpack weighed 20 pounds. I had no idea. We were forced to start the day late, which is a real no no in this Camino because your body needs to be in the best shape possible to withstand 6 to 9 hours of walking and that’s only doable if you start early in my view.  It took us hours to get through the French bureaucracy to send off the old pack with the extra weight. We started walking at 10 am instead of 7.  I was going at such slow pace my friends said they would have to leave me behind because they didn’t want to risk their lives which I totally understood because they walked twice as fast as I did and as much as I may have tried I didn’t feel I had the stamina they had to continue at their pace. I bid them farewell and told them not to worry. I knew I was running a risk. If you end up walking in the mountains at night, it can be very dangerous, but I also knew this was my journey and I didn’t have children like they did. I also had a cell phone, flashlight and no fear.  I figured if I was no supposed to make it, this was not a bad place to cross over to the other side!

The next few hours were grueling to say the least. I would have to pace myself because I could tell I wasn’t used to the altitude either. However, in the heavy fog, I felt like I was in heaven. I was carrying a holy spirit cross with me which I held tight in my hand every time I felt I was having a hard time moving forward and the message that I kept hearing was have faith, have faith and don’t give up now.

I also forced myself to smile every now and then so I would feel better and it worked! After about 7 hours, I saw a car driving towards me. When I looked in the back seat, my two friends were sitting there and invited me to join them. They explained they could not see a thing and they were not about to go down the mountains without proper vision. I totally understood and was glad they had made that decision. They were two kilometers ahead of me and we needed another 9 km to finish but we called it a day.  When I arrived my ankle was throbbing and I asked for ice. I knew this was not going to be an easy task and I told me friends as I had said the day before.  ‘This is my journey; please by all means go ahead of me. “ My goal is to finish each day even if it takes me 3 or 4 extra hours.”

The next four days I would walk, my friends would join me at different points, talk to me, entertain me and make sure I was alright. I was grateful. I didn’t feel they had to do that. After all I was not in shape and would have slowed them down considerably.  Every day was physically more demanding. I began to have blisters and my right foot would get more swollen each day. I had no idea what was going on with it but I just knew I was in pain. I did find this out about myself. I never stopped.People would all walk faster than me, but they would also rest and stop more. I knew I couldn’t do that. I knew if I did, I would not be able to finish the daily trek.  At one point I overheard a large family say (yes, in Europe, some families walk together for fun for few hours on the weekend!) “This poor lady walks real slow” They kind of felt sorry for me and I would just smile inside. I knew I was walking real slowly but I also knew I would get to my next destination. On the same day, the patriarch of the family said to me. “You are a champion. You never give up.” This would give me hope to continue the rest of the days I would be walking. I felt his was a clear message I was doing it my way and that I would be okay.  That day I arrived at the same time the family did. When they saw me, they smiled right back!

On the fifth day, my foot began cramping and I knew that was not a good sign. I decided to stop and see if I could rub it down so I could finish the next 9 km I had left. We stopped at a bridge and I overheard this man quoting a bible verse real loudly. He had a Mexican accent and I just said. Hey, I live in Texasand I can hear you are from Mexico. He agreed. I was in so much pain I was practically in tears. I said, “I have to stop. I am in too much pain.” He said it is no coincidence you are here. My friend and I are osteopaths and I am here to take care of your ankle. For the next hour he rubbed my ankle and we both prayed I would make it. I then asked him what I should do. He said you have no solution because you’ve had surgery. I said should I quit? He said, “This is your journey, only you can answer that. “

Those five days, I had seen some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen in my life. I had spent countless hours alone, thinking, praying, smiling and also crying. I had moments of despair and moments of joy. I overcame the pain and just kept going. Once in Estella, a small town in Navarra (the Basque country) I knew I had to quit.  I asked myself why I was killing myself. God would not want me to hurt myself. I had no idea if my injury would be irreversible and I was certain I wanted to finish this trek eventually and get to Santiago over the years.  I knew it would take time. There was no reason why I needed to hurt myself to do the pilgrimage. I told my friends I was sorry but I had to turn back. They both agreed and I could tell they were relieved.

The most important lesson I learned in this particular part of the journey was that expectations make us unhappy. I did not have any expectations for myself except to do the best I could.  I was not disappointed. I did what I could do.  I also learned what I didn’t want to do next time and what was possible for me. I achieved my goal. I walked as far as I could and I listened to my inner voice. It was loud when it told me to have faith, to trust and it was also loud when it told me to quit.

 I spent the next three days with my best friend from grade school. She a director of a schoolin Madrid. She is one of the most intelligent women I have ever met.  She is a happy religious sister with a very loving disposition. She let me sleep for two days. I only got up to eat.  I got myself together, went to the doctor, the hairdresser and was able to relax and recoup before going back to work. I knew something major would happen after this Camino when I returned.  My inner voice told me so. The voice kept telling me. “Trust me, Trust me, Trust me.” I knew it could be painful, but I also knew there was light at the end of the tunnel, just as there was light at the end of this journey. I was surrounded by love, compassion and understanding.  I couldn’t ask for more. I also knew I would return to the next phase of the Camino, just as I would return to the next phase of my life.  I knew the Camino would call me again and challenge me to take the next step without knowing how or when. I just had to trust.

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Adventure Living Now: Turkey

Posted on 10 October 2011 by Patricia Gras

ADVENTURE LIVING NOW/TURKEY
When I travel I can only remember moments. I have been to over 50 countries and I do get frustrated I can’t remember more. I do know my trip to Turkey was one of the most extraordinary, exotic and relaxing trips I have ever made. I was there when there were hardly any Americans visiting. It was right after 9/11, in May of 2002. I remember the Turkish merchants; well known for their charm and ability to convince you to drink tea and eventually buy the whole store, were frustrated to say the least. They kept saying we love America. Why don’t they come? That happened when I spoke in English. At the time I was afraid to do so because of the Iraq war. I also choose to speak Spanish often on my trips so the locals won’t over charge me. Yes, they overcharge Americans almost everywhere I have been in the world. They think we are rich and we deserve to pay more.

In reality, Turks love everyone who buys their wares, but besides that, they are genuinely generous, welcoming and friendly. I never had any troubles. They were hospitable and respectful. Some of the merchants were obnoxious. They chase you around and it is hard to turn them away because they can be very charming, but when I would look at them perplexed and said I only spoke Check, They would back down. You see, Turkish merchants speak at least 5 to 10 languages. They make a living selling to tourists so they have to.

Some of the best moments I remember about Turkey happened in Cappadocia. The landscapes there are bizarre. They look like a conglomeration of phallic symbols! They are so extraordinary; these terrains make this place the most visited in the region. It was a kingdom 600 years before Christ, probably made out of a number of tribes. The exotic terrain allowed them to protect themselves, especially from the Persians. The Romans took it over in 17AD after Christ and Tiberius made it a Roman province. St. Paul visited here and apparently the Christians were so devoted in the region, it became a sort of capital for Monks of the Eastern rites. There are more than 1000 churches, sanctuaries and chapels here. The history of Cappadocia began about 30 million years ago, when three active volcanoes erupted and created these strange rock formations. Many say Star War producers got their ideas for many of their set designs from Cappadocia.

I also remember a subterranean city known as Derinkuyu, which at at time served as a hiding place for thousands of people. It was connected by tunnels and was built most probably by the Romans and later used by Christians.

Another memorable moment I had in Turkey happened when we were aboard a Gullet, unique boats which sail around the ancient sites of the Turkish coast, and they were playing Arabic dance music. I love to dance it so I was showing off to the group. Most of them were Australian and Kiwis (New Zealanders) I sure acted like I knew what I was doing until I met Didri, a Tunisian woman who lived in Italy and was travelling in Turkey on her own. She watched humbly as I made a fool of myself and then told me she taught Arabic dancing and showed me and everyone else the real dancing steps (nothing like mine, mind you). We laughed a lot. I must say, one of the things I love most about travelling is meeting strangers who become friends. She only spoke Italian and Arabic. My Italian is not very good but I sure can get my ideas across in almost any language when I want to.
I would probably never see her again, but the few days we were together, sharing the beauty, mystery and cuisine of Turkey, we really enjoyed each other’s company.

Another special moment took place in a carpet shop. I met a sales guy who would later become a friend and visit me with hundreds of rugs and goods on a van a year later in Houston. I loved learning the history of carpet weaving and the meaning of the colors, patterns and designs. I bought two wonderful rugs which I still show off today!

Then there was the visit to the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus. I am not a practicing Catholic but I am very devoted to the Virgin so this meant a lot to me. St John and St. Paul also walked these ancient city’s streets. Almost everyone has been through this city, the Ionians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Goths etc. That’s what happens when you last this long.

Turkey offered me a lot of lifetime memories besides these. I remember rafting
down a pristine river on tubes surrounded by beauty and laughter and filled with adventure. Walking inside one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim World, the Blue Mosque or the 1400-year-old Hagia Sophia, The church of sacred wisdom, A Byzantine jewel.

I can’t remember dates or specific historical facts. I just remember how I felt when I walked into these sacred spaces. I felt peace and gratitude these monuments were made. The beliefs in the divine had motivated, enlightened and empowered artists, architects, artisans, philanthropists and believers to create these wonders the rest of us can enjoy, hopefully, for eternity.

I give Turkey a thumbs up if you enjoy exotic, mysterious and an adventurous travel experience. Almost everyone speaks English and they are eagerly waiting for you to visit. Whatever you do, don’t try dance steps you don’t know. I learned that the hard way!

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Adventure Living Now

Posted on 14 September 2011 by Patricia Gras

TODAY september 13th 2011, I will start a new category on my blog. Adventure Living, is exactly what the title means. Living a life of adventure, a life of risk, a life out of the box. I never thought of myself as a risk taker. I still don’t but I have found over the years that I do love adventure. I like going off the beaten path, experiencing new people, new cultures, new ideas. I go to new places all the time. I have been to over 50 countries and though I like to read about a place before I go there, I don’t like to see it and know it all. I want to imagine it and my hope is that it will be completely different from what I expected. I would like to share a bit of many of my travels. I am fortunate that over the years, I have kept diaries for most of the places I have visited so I will share some of that with you. I have found that in the times we are living, we must start to think of how we can “adventure” ourselves out of our misery. You might think you have to go far to find adventures but you really don’t. anything outside of your routine can be considered an adventure and that is what I would like to share with you so together we can experience different places, people, situations  in our lives.  Since I am going to be doing a pilgrimmage in Spain I would like to start with that.

I already did the Camino Portugues, but first let me tell you a bit about the Camino de Santiago or St. James Way. It is a pilgrimage journey to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where many believe has the remains of the apostle St. James.

There are many roads to Santiago. The one I did a few years ago is the Portuguese route which is only 118 km., but this november I am going to start the longest, most popular and most ancient road, The French Camino. It is 778 km long. It starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port (St. John at the Foot of the Pass). The camino goes to Rocenvalles in Spain 27 km later and then it passes through Pamplona, Puente la Reina, Estella, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga, Ponferrada and Sarria before it reaches the “City of the Apostle” in the western reaches of Galicia.  The route takes, on average, 4 – 6 weeks to walk.

I will only be walking 7 days at a time in stages every year. The reason is that as an American, I can’t take more than 2 or 3 weeks off. The other reason is that I don’t know if my body can handle walking for that long. After all, we don’t walk much in America and much less in Houston. There is no way to train for this really unless you are a runner or a climber. I certainly don’t have 8 hours to walk a day with a full time job.

The Way of St. James has existed for thousands of years. During medieval times, pilgrims in this Christian pilgrimage, together with Jerusalem and Rome, did it to be  forgiven for their sins. People ask me all the time. Are you doing this for religious purposes? I always respond. No. I am doing it for spiritual purposes, but if you ask me specifically why I do the camino, I don’t have an exact answer. I do it because I am grateful. I do it because it changes me. I do it because I love meeting the people along the way who teach me life lessons.  I do it because I have a desire to do it, something inside of me, something that pulls me to do it. The first time I did it I fractured my knee. I wasn’t used to walking but I believe in miracles. I have two ankle surgeries, two knee surgeries and a very unfriendly bunion, but I don’t care. One of the reason I do the camino is that I have faith that I can do it no matter what. I am not silly or irresponsible either. I work out. I prepare mentally and physically but I also believe that one of the reasons I do the camino is to understand that I am pushing myself mentally, physically and emotionally to become a better person, to find my authentic self, to find God in other people, in nature, in sounds, smells and spirits.

On the way there you see cathedrals, churches, monuments, mountains, rivers, flowers, vineyards, all sorts of animals and people. I like to do it in the winter so I don’t have trouble finding lodging and I don’t run into crowds. Last year about 65,000 pilgrims from all over the world did the camino. If you get a passport at the beginning of the route, as a declared pilgrim you can stay at the old hostels and you will pay minimum fees.

Doing the camino is tough. Your feet will never experience anything like it. You will get extremely tired. You are pushed to your limit, but every day you finish it. You feel renewed, fulfilled and most importantly connected to something. I felt more connected to God but everyone’s experience is different and unique.  If you have ever done the camino please let me know and share your experiences with us.

 

Every month I will also share local adventures I have close to home. I like to walk the Arboretum with friends and I do so often. This place amazes me. It is hardly ever crowded. It is quiet and it feels like I am not in Houston. I need this spot to be close to nature and to be in touch with who I am. I suggest you come here as often as you can to relax, meditate, and be grateful.

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