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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine July/August 2007
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Blind Students Hike to Machu Picchu

Why Hike to Something You Can’t See?

Bells jingling in our hands, we continued to climb away from the Andean town of Chilipahua (elevation 14,300 feet). After painting a school together, singing songs, playing soccer, engaging in a traditional meal of lamb and potatoes (called “pachamanca”), and sharing stories in Quechua, it was not easy to leave behind the warm friendships that the residents of Chilipahua shared with us. Especially knowing what lay ahead.

That day would be our hardest—a 1,000-foot-plus ascent at high elevation where the effects of the altitude were already being felt by many. If the team could summit Wayana Pass, it would give us confidence that we could reach the ancient city of Machu Picchu. We knew from our many months of preparation prior to the experience that this mountain pass would be our most telling climb.

By then, seven days into our expedition, our nine blind and visually-impaired high school students and their sighted partners had developed a good system of working together—thanks, in large part, to the guidance provided by Global Explorers, the nonprofit organizing the trip, and co-trip leader Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind athlete to summit Mt. Everest.

Most of the sighted students had little experience leading blind students and many assumed it was going to be a lot more work than it was. What surprised the sighted students about guiding was how quickly they forgot that their partners were blind. Most blind students could walk for hours on relatively uneven terrain with little or no guidance. With changes in environment—such as rocks, cliffs, and rivers—guides and their partners would buckle down and focus, making sure each word and step counted.

But as Jill Millkey, age 15, and Weihenmayer describe, it is the independence of blind people that is often most surprising to a sighted person on an expedition like this.

To be honest in the month leading up to the trip, I was rather worried that I would lead someone off a cliff on the trip. But I realized how seldom that could happen because whenever I said “right” instead of “left,” the blind student would say, “Are you sure?” and proceed to feel around with his or her pole and step left anyway.

And Weihenmayer, in response: When my friends are guiding me, I can hear how their voice(s) are projecting. So you’re not just blindly following and doing what someone says; you have to be responsible for yourself. You have to know the risks because it is you who is stepping out there, not other people. That relationship and that communication between the blind and sighted person is really awesome, and it builds up a lot of trust.

With this in mind the entire team, both overjoyed and exhausted, reached the Wayana Pass summit. We each added a rock to the cairn marking the point. Smiles were as wide as the Andean sky.

Two days later, we arrived at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. Kyle Coon, age 14, noted the following in his voice recorder, “I can feel this huge wide open space in front of me and this wall behind me. Wow. I don’t even have words to describe it. I am feeling so proud of this entire team—we made it to the Sun Gate. It’s unbelievable!”

Standing there with tears in my eyes, I finally had a more complete answer to the most common question we received prior to this expedition: “Why would a blind student want to go all the way to Machu Picchu if she can’t see it?”

The truth is, whether blind or sighted, most of us traveled to Machu Picchu for the same reasons. For the adventure and challenge; to meet, interact, and work side by side with people of a different culture; to experience the hustle and bustle of a local market; to feel the spiritual energy of an ancient land by touching the rocks that were laid by the Quechua hundreds of years ago; and to work together as a team toward a common goal. There is so much more to the experience along this trail than vision alone can capture.

Millkey put it this way: “Surprisingly, it wasn’t the stunning view of Machu Picchu that blew my mind away. What blew me away stared me right back in the face—it was the sight of the faces of the people, my friends, who had battled through knee injuries, altitude sickness, and lack of sleep to reach this treasure. I saw the joy of just existing in the moment, relief the climb up was over, and then peace amidst the chaos of whooping and grinning—the deep inner peace in which you know you have achieved your goal successfully…and the peace in knowing that you did not do it alone, but with the help of people who have pooled their different characteristics to make the 30-mile hiking and camping trek seem as natural as being at home.”

We had set out to remind the world of the endless potential within each of us. We came away touched by the palpable landscape of the Quechua, moved by the relationships we had built with our Peruvian friends and forever inspired by the passion and determination of each other.

Andrew Johnson (age 16), a blind high school participant, summed up our experience perfectly when he said, “Lots of people visit Machu Picchu. Some go for the history, some for the hiking, others because they feel a spiritual connection to the city. We went for those reasons. But I think on the trek, we discovered something deeper. We learned about working as a team and pushing through barriers and perceptions, and we learned about the importance of service and giving back to society.

For More Info

Global Explorers’ Leading the Way Expedition to Peru for blind and sighted high school students will be offered with world-renown climber Erik Weihenmayer again in summer 2007. In addition, there will be a Sounds of the Amazon Expedition to Peru, on which blind and sighted high school students will study bio-acoustics as the Amazon Rainforest comes to life in surround sound.

For application information contact: 877-627-1425 (toll free in U.S. and Canada) or 970-484-3633; info@global explorers.org; www.globalexplorers.org.

Adult participants can contact Global Explorers for information about volunteering. Or, to organize an adult trip to Peru, contact Global Explorers or visit ExplorAndes (www.explorandes.com).

For information on traveling internationally with a guide dog or referrals to blind organizations in Peru, contact the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange at www.miusa.org.

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