Nice to meet you, Machu Picchu

 (Photo cred: Sarah More)
            It was the day of our voyage to the mystical, magical, wonder of the world, Machu Picchu, and of course I was fantastically, grotesquely sick.  No sleep.  No appetite.  I figured I had better call Harol and give him my tickets because this just wasn’t going to happen.  I forgot about my aversion to medicine and desperately wished for anything, ANYTHING that would set my stomach right again.
             I picked up the phone and dialed Harol’s number.  Darn.  I forgot the phone was broken.  I pathetically knocked at Sarah’s door.  “Sarah… I have a problem.”
I pounded in the mile long number to reach Harol on Sarah’s phone.  “Hola, Tina.  Que tal?”  The sound of his kind voice triggered tears to well up in my eyes.  No, no.  Try not to sound weak, I thought.  “Harol, want to go to Machu Picchu?”  I whined.  “Que?”  “Machu Picchu.  I’ve got tickets.  I’m sick.  I can’t go.  But can you tell me where a clinic is?”  “A clinic?  Aaaah Tina.  You are sick?  Give me some time.”   Harol always knew what to do.  “You will go to Machu Picchu.  Don’t worry,” he assured me, though I was 100% certain he was wrong.
            Harol called some friends to find the best clinic and within a half hour a taxi brought me to the spot and I met Harol outside the doors to my salvation.  The sight of him triggered the tears in my eyes again.  What was wrong with me?  I was finally broken down and I didn’t care anymore.  I just wanted someone to coddle me.  I wanted to be back in my bed at home watching an America’s Next Top Model marathon where jungle parasites couldn’t possibly exist.
            “Aah Tina.  Don’t worry.  You will go to Machu Picchu,” he said again though I was less concerned with Machu Picchu and more concerned with not dying.
            The doctor was a self-possessed woman in heels.  She spoke in brisk Spanish that I understood, but which Harol translated anyway.  I didn’t care to correct him.  The English was a comfort.  I laid down on a tall, cold table and lifted my shirt so the doctor could poke around my stomach.  “What are these?” she asked, pointing to the red spots dotting my skin.  “Picaduras.  Bug bites,” I explained.  She nodded and moved on with the examination, though in retrospect, maybe I should have gotten some kind of treatment for them considering the fact that I still have them months later.
            I told the doctor my symptoms and after listening to my stomach’s gurglings, she stood up and clasped her hands.  “Parasites,” she announced.  She prescribed three different medicines to be taken over the course of the week, and sent us on our way.  Thankfully, the downstairs pharmacy had reasonable prices and speedy service so I didn’t have to leave empty-handed.
            Harol and I took a taxi back to Hotel el Rosal.  I was so grateful for his help I could’ve cried again.  “You see, you will go to Machu Picchu,” he smiled, though I still highly doubted that.
             Sarah had gotten the tickets from the travel agency and we agreed to wait and see how I felt closer to the time we were supposed to be going.  I hated the idea that she would be traveling alone, and I didn’t want to have come all that way and not seen that wonder of the world, so I sincerely hoped that my meds would kick in.
            A few hours later and our things were packed and ready to go.  My stomach had finally stopped grumbling.  It was time.  Do or die.  Or maybe both.
             We made our way to the car Claudia had hired out for us.  Sarah nodded off as we drove through the mountains, and I tried to as well, but couldn’t.  Outside my window was one of the most breathtaking landscapes I had ever seen in my entire life.  It was twilight and the mountains were infused with an orange glow.  People with colorful clothing dotted the landscape, tending to their flocks.
             My family is from the mountains of Greece, and when we visit, I always have the sense of being cradled in their sinewy embrace, but these mountains were different.  They were rugged and rounded, sharp and soft.  I couldn’t understand how with mountains so tall and clouds almost touching the ground there was this feeling of being in a plain: wide open.

             When we finally arrived at the train station, I was sad for the ride to end, and felt completely revitalized and energized.  Just like Cusco, the place was jam-packed with tourists.  Sarah pointed out to me that this was the most white people we had seen in a long time.  I nodded, saddened that I once more felt short in a sea of towering North American and European men.

             By nightfall we had arrived at Aguas Calientes, the place where we would be spending the night.  Two young women met us at the station with a sign bearing our names.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that our thirty-dollar stay included a private bathroom, flatscreen TV, and a complementary breakfast.  Not sure why I got excited over that last bit though when I couldn’t eat a thing.
            4:30 am: the time we got up the next morning.  Not having slept the night before, I could feel the tiredness in my bones.  We made our way to the bus station.  A long line of white people had formed which we promptly joined.  We waited, tourists among many, for half an hour before we got to the front.  “Tickets?” the bus driver asked.  “Yes.  Wait-what?”  We had been waiting in the line to get on the bus, not the line to buy bus tickets.  Oh, no.  We hurriedly left the line and headed down the road.  Directionally savvy Sarah figured we were close to the Machu Picchu ticket place and that it would be a better to move to buy those tickets first before they ran out, so we headed in that direction.
             “Solo estas cartas,” the ticket seller said when we reached his counter, huffing and puffing.  He pointed to the poster with the student cards that were accepted.  Ours weren’t on the list.  “Solo soles,” he groaned when we took out our dollars.  It might sound strange to use dollars in another country, but it’s quite common in Peru, and we had done so several times, but this man looked at us as if we had asked to live in his house.  “Solo soles,” I sighed, drawing out my dwindling supply.  “Cuanto cuesta?  How much?” I asked.  “130,” he grunted.  One hundred thirty soles?  50 bucks?  “This world wonder better be pretty wonderful,” I thought as we payed our entry fee.
             It was pretty wonderful.  After we finally got our bus tickets and made the short drive to Machu Picchu everything- the illness, tiredness, altitude sickness, and jacked-up prices- became worth it.  A postcard had come to life.  Since we came so early there were only a few tourists blighting the site, and we saw the ancient Incan city in all its glory.
            We were in the clouds.  Blue sparrows like I’d never seen before flitted from rock to rock.  Grown and baby llamas lined the terraces, some refusing to pose for pictures with tourists, turning around and showing them their rumps.
This is Dalai.  Dalai llama.
(Photo cred: Sarah More)
            And then of course, there were the ruins themselves.  Rising up seamlessly from the mountains, this sky city is at once inconspicuous-blending in with its surroundings- and a prominent, eye-cathing emblem of the landscape.
            Small and large stones fit perfectly together without a trace of mortar sullying their close embrace.  Machu Picchu has been around for so long (around 600 years) because of this expert craftsmanship that withstood the test of time and many an earthquake.  And it didn’t hurt that the Spanish never knew it existed.  As for its exact purpose and why it was abandoned so quickly remain a mystery, and archeologists can only speculate on the possibilities.
            As an aspiring archeologist, Sarah was more than a little excited to be at the heart of an ancient Incan civilization.  She told me all she knew about the site, which was terribly helpful considering that I didn’t know crap.  What she didn’t know, we picked up from bits and pieces of what was said by passing tour guides in Spanish, French, and English.  “This is the sacrificial altar,” we heard.  “They escaped to rainforest to avoid the Spanish,” one said.  “They probably grew corn on the terraces to make chicha,” said another.
Sarah was right at home.
             Even though no food was allowed at the site, I saw a couple having a picnic on one of the terraces, out of view from any officials.  I laughed to think that the employee who took our tickets had singled me out and almost accusingly demanded that I not eat inside the grounds.  Considering I only had a pack of stomach-settling crackers, she’d been barking up the wrong tree…
             After a few hours of investigating the scenery and taking many an altitude break, Sarah and I separated for a bit.  She went to a lookout spot some distance away, and I went to hang out with the llamas.
Llama meditations.
(Photo cred: Sarah More)
              I saw an angry chinchilla.  That was cool.  Wish I could show it to you, but sadly, my camera was stolen.  Yep.  With all my Machu Picchu pictures.  Thankfully I had another card that had my older pictures, but these particular ones- especially the ones where I was making peace signs- are probably being laughed at as we speak by a Peruvian drug lord with a brand-new digital camera.
              When we finally left Machu Picchu, I was sad to go (I hadn’t yet discovered my camera was missing), but I was ready as well, because frankly, I was about to pass out.  Another bus ride, train ride, and bus ride later, and we were back in Cusco.  It was poor Sarah’s turn to feel ill, and the babies crying in unison on the bus did little to help her condition, so she rested as I went off to have my first meal in two days.  Harol went with me, and tested me on different Spanish words and told me about his twin brother.
This was my last day in Peru.  I couldn’t wrap my head around the thought.  I still can’t wrap my head around it because, even though I’m back in the US now, it didn’t feel like goodbye.  Hopefully because it’s not.
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