Ever since returning from Peru there had been something wrong with my morning porridge. I couldn't put my finger on it. It was the right time of year for porridge – early November in Edinburgh – and I'd made it the same as always. Now, though, it was missing something. I looked up from my breakfast table, out through the window at the end of my kitchen, and over to the grey slate peaks of the tenement roofline opposite.
A previous breakfast
My mind drifted back to another breakfast a couple of weeks earlier. I was up early that morning, eyes alert to the High Andean dawn's crisp chill. It had rained heavily overnight but by now, our little mountain plateau was cool and clear. Around and beneath us the mountains had been strewn with filigree swathes of cotton-wool, gently parting as if teased by some invisible giant.
Although I'd grown accustomed to the scanty air at 3,500-odd metres above sea level, still I gasped at the thought that this place could be a campsite. We'd arrived the evening before, tired and happy to have made it to our final night's rest. This was the smallest site we'd camped at, but visually, the most impressive, no mean feat after three days trekking through scenery that at every turn took away what breath I had left. We were perched atop a rounded sandy flat, or rather a series of tiny ones, surrounded on all sides by steep drops into oceans of space. It was almost as if we'd established some sort of temporary fortress of our own in this unassailable spot. The day ahead promised great excitement as we headed for Phuyupatamarca and thence to Machu Picchu on the final day of the Inca Trail.
Be sure to check out the trips we offer that involve trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Despite the habitation around me, I had a moment to myself in the turning light. I made my way up to the topmost point of our campsite, in which spare pieces of level ground were at a premium, where tents were dotted where they could be, as if on the treads of some extravagant spiral staircase. I stood alone surrounded by an utterly majestic panorama. In the distance and first to welcome the sun, the second highest peak in southern Peru, Salcantay, was clear, full of snow and ice. It sparkled like a leviathan gemstone in the rough, as if daring the cutter. In that moment perspective was no longer simply a word. So far from home, I had unexpectedly become connected to the world as never before. I felt peaceful, grounded, happy, and, I noticed, peckish.
A rather grey-looking porridge
I hopped down the slope and went to take a seat for the first order of the day: breakfast. A notorious tea-drinker, I'd quickly developed a fondness for maté de coca and settled down to my first cup of the day. Then breakfast arrived. I wondered for a guilty moment whether we'd run down to the last of the supplies. I'd prepared myself, reasonably I thought, for a few days' basic but hearty fare, as we were starting the trek three days earlier at Chilca, but had been very pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of the food. Our cook was clearly a man to be reckoned with. To our general and utter astonishment the night before, our guide, José, had produced, apparently from thin air, two boxes of red wine for our final dinner. It seemed an absurd luxury and tasted all the better for it. Having been so spoiled by men who not only cooked for us, but carried everything we ate, ate from, in and off, as well as the fuel to cook it with, here we were with – what? – a rather grey-looking porridge.
"Our" porters – a tough way to make a living
I chided myself. "Our" porters – for we'd grown fond of them, as everyone probably does who comes this way – had borne what seemed large loads, despite the fact that, over recent years especially, regulations had become increasingly tight in ongoing attempts to safeguard their welfare. Not only that, but they'd jogged, run past us wheezing, pasty lowlanders, uphill or down, in sandals or trainers, as if they carried less than we did. They were aided by little more than a bag of coca leaves, a healthy dose of stoicism and big, barrel chests with lungs to match, calf muscles forged from iron.
I was as impressed with the athleticism as I was with the catering. How quaint they must find the Gringo's "challenge". They did this for weeks at a time. It's a tough way to make a living. The pay isn't great. The hours are long. The work is hard. While I'd done my best to ensure that the company we'd booked with treated their porters well, I was aware that for some, the conditions are not all they could be. Yet, these jobs are sought after and competition is fierce. I made a mental note to tip well.
Anyway, I was hungry. As I dunked my spoon my eyes swung right to gaze out of the open end of our mess tent, perched rather close to the edge of a slope, as the morning light had revealed. Framed by the triangular tent roof, I could now see the grand Peruvian peaks losing their grey to the morning sun which, as it expanded the scene far and wide, illuminating the mountains and shooing away the clouds, rendered a scene such that it almost removed the ability of my jaw to move in both the directions required for eating. Almost. I moved my spoon mouthwards and bit down upon – what was this – oats, milk – mashed banana. Oh wow. A simple idea, I grant you, but at that moment, the perfect food. All things considered, a divine way to start the day.
As the light gathered strength, those distant Andean peaks sharpened back into Edinburgh slate. The tent flaps reshaped themselves into timber sash and casement. Now wearing a grin unusual for that hour of a working day, I reached over to the fruit bowl and chopped a banana into my porridge.
I knew there'd been something.