Tag Archives: high altitude

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.

Busco Cusco

(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Cusco.  I woke up that first morning back with the altitude singing in my veins.  I looked over at Sarah and sighed as I got up from bed, knowing that our stay would soon be coming to an end.  I took inventory of my body.  I was covered, I mean covered, in bug bites, my hair looked like Chico had just given me a noogie, and it seemed that I still had part of a thorn lodged in my arm.  Basically, I looked amazing.  On the bright side, my stomach felt surprisingly settled.  And now, I was hungry.
Before we could go for lunch, Harol, one of the coordinators, picked us up with a taxi to go to tie up any loose strings at the office.  Side note: Harol is arguably the nicest person I’ve ever met.
When we got to Jack’s cafe I decided to make up for lost time and ordered the nachos loaded with meat, beans, and cheese.  Sarah and I reminisced over MLC memories and chatted with a couple of British tourists about their South American adventures while I cleared my plate for the first time in days.  Looked like the worst was over.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
After lunch, Sarah and I tried to find the travel agency Harol recommended, but when we reached the address there was a different agency there.  Tired and hot, we decided to take a look at what sorts of deals they had.  The woman helping us, Claudia, spoke great English and unfortunately for her, did not realize that I spoke Spanish.  “Where did I put my pen?  Oh my, what do I do next?  What do these people need now?” she said in Spanish to herself, not realizing that I understood everything she was saying.  Despite her confusion, she booked the train tickets, found us hired cars and buses, and made us a reservation at a cheap hostel.  It seemed that everything was in order, and after paying the bill, we arranged to pick up all of our tickets later that day.
On the way back, Sarah and I were bombarded with masseuses.  “Massage?  Masaje?  Pedicure?  Manicure?  Shine shoes?”  If I had any doubts about looking rough, they suddenly vanished.
Staying cool in the shade.  Notice the man with the
backward baseball cap.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
An old man peddling instruments asked if we wanted any pan flutes.  We said our no thank you’s, but as he turned to leave, I remembered the mouth harp that Juvenal had in the jungle.  “Do you have an icarro?” I asked him, not knowing at the time that the instrument was called a dan moi.   I described the instrument, and he nodded.  “Aaaa si. I think I have some at my shop.  Which hotel are you staying at?  I can meet you there with the instrument,” he said.  Erm.  No.  “How about we meet here at 6:00?” I offered.  “No problem,” he responded.  We shook on it, and the man went his merry way.
Sarah rested up in the room as I did some shopping at an outdoor market.  Beautiful tapestries and alpaca textiles, pottery and hand-sewn dolls, and jewelry and pan flutes decorated the myriad of stands.  “Señorita, mira aquí,” the vendors would say, trying to get me to stop and buy their wares.
A plump woman smiled at me and motioned toward her goods.  A gourd with a decorated nativity scene caught my eye.  “Do you have a smaller one of these?” I asked her in Spanish.  “No, no, señorita.  No smaller.  But I give you a special price,” she said temptingly.  From past experience I knew that every price was a “special price.”  Still, this knick knack was too nice to pass up.  She gave me a jacked up price that was still a reasonable one by US standards, so I didn’t bother haggling.
 “How do you like Peru?” she asked me.  “Oh, I love it,” I replied and went into the details of my stay.  “The jungle?  Dios mio.  I’ve never been,” she divulged.  “You’re not afraid to travel alone?”  “Not particularly,” I shrugged as she whipped out the day’s newspaper.  “Mira,” she said pointing to a young man’s picture on the front page.  “This boy, que guapo, so good looking, missing!  From the states!  Yes, yes, he looks dark, I know.  He’s Peruvian, but he lives in the U.S.  And now they’re bringing dogs to look for him.  Yes, dogs!  They can find people by smelling at things.  Can you believe it?  I hope they find him.  So guapo, so good looking.  And from the U.S.!  Que triste.  So sad.  So guapo.  So good looking.”  “Que triste,” I agreed, trying to make my exit after a good ten minutes of hearing the sad tale on repeat.
“Wait, come look in my shop!” she said as I headed toward another stand.  There was more?  We walked in the store behind her stand.  Oh, there was more.  I looked at the first row of shelves and much to my dismay, saw several smaller nativity scenes.  I sighed.  Lies, lies, lies.  I turned toward the jewelry case and saw some earrings my mother might have liked.  “Ah, you like earrings?” the woman asked.  “Mira, look at these,” she said, pulling out a pair bearing a condor, a puma, and a serpent.  “The symbols of the city,” she smiled proudly.  I smiled back.  She wasn’t going to let me leave.  I quickly bought the earrings and left the shop.  I looked at my watch.  Wow.  Twenty minutes had passed.  I shook my head and moved to a stand out of her field of vision.  I knew she was liable to chase me down.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.
The pigeons in Cusco are a bit handsy.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Finally it was time to make our way back to the travel agency.  “Um, Claudia’s not back,” another travel agent told us when we got there.  “Come back in 45 minutes, yes?”  When we returned another woman was sitting at Claudia’s desk.  “Here,” she said passing me her cell phone.  “Hi,” said Claudia on the other line.  “We have a problem,” she blurted.  Uh-oh.  “I made a mistake and bought the train tickets for a week from now,” she confessed.  “But I’m buying tickets for tomorrow now.  They will be for the middle of the day, yes?  But the thing is, I will have to give you the tickets tomorrow morning, okay?”  I agreed, not really having a choice.  Sarah and I hoped for the best and left.
We stopped in the Plaza de Armas to meet up with the instrument seller.  No mouth harps, but he offered up beautifully painted ocarina flutes.  They were so lovely, and I hated the idea that he went through all that trouble for nothing, so… I let guilt and consumerism get the better of me, broke down, and bought two.  One for me.  One for Sarah.
Fried Guinea pig, anyone?
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Later that night Sarah and I ate dinner with Harol at the fanciest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen.  My stomach was still feeling fine, and my appetite was alive and well, so once again, I stuffed my face.  A big mac.  Large order of fries.  A chocolate shake.  I was unstoppable.
After we had gorged ourselves, we made our way to a place Harol told us about called Inkateam that had salsa dancing.  After about 11:00, the dj started playing club music and locals and tourists started pouring through the doors.  The music was fun and upbeat, but- I can’t believe I’m saying this- lacking in hip hop.  Hmm was this homesickness I detected?
On the way home my stomach started churning.  Oooooh, no.  Oh.  No.  We took a break and sat on a bench.  Did I really eat nachos and a big mac?  Fries and a shake?  What was I thinking?  The plague doesn’t just disappear in one day!  Back in the hotel things got… worse.  I finally accepted the bitter, stomach turning truth I had been denying for so long: I had parasites.  Jungle parasites.