Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sleeping with the Canadians

January 28, 2012 – Sleeping with the Canadians
By this time I want to take a vacation from Nan’s and my continuous passage from mode of transportation to other mode. Over the last 48 hours we have taken planes, trains, automobiles and hiked up a mountain. I need a moment to be still. I need a few moments to sit and enjoy where I am instead of planning the next excursion. I’m all for seeing as much as possible in a short amount of time, but I find myself craving some balance. I’m poised on the edge of exhaustion.

After we eat lunch, consult some tourist information consultants, and have a brief spat, Nan and I part ways. I head back to the hostal and she ducks into an Artisan fair.

I garner the room key from the front desk and start for the patio that leads to the stairs up to our room. At the glass table in the atrium sit two white guys with Styrofoam cups and a bottle of wine. In the three steps it takes me to come up to their table I hold an entire conference with myself. The conclusion supports my theory that a glass of wine would be just the thing to unwind.
“Did you guys buy that here?” I ask them, pointing at the bottle. I’d heard them speaking English when Nan and I’d passed by them on the way out so I don’t feel I need to start out with the Do you Speak English line.

“Yes. Right here,” they reply.
“At the hostal?”

“No, at a place like five doors down. It’s a good bottle of wine and was only like ten American dollars,” they say.
Although I’ve been pinching pennies and stressing dimes this trip, that thirty soles suddenly does not seem like an extravagant expense. And yet, at the same time, it still does. I brainstorm aloud with them.

“I don’t need a whole bottle for myself.” I’m nearly talking myself out of a drink.
“How long are you here?” the guy to the left asks.

“Until Monday.”
“Well, there you go, you could have a glass a night.”

It’s good reasoning.
“True,” I say.

“We could help you with it,” the younger guy suggests.
“That sounds even better.” I smile. “Let me go grab some money then I’ll get out and buy it. I’ll be back in a bit.” I trot up to the room to get a little bit of dinero.

“Hey,” the left side guy says as I head back by, “You want us to pitch in?”
“Really? Oh! Yeah, that’d be awesome,” I say. They both hand me ten soles and I run the errand. In no time at all I’m back with a Cabernet Sauvignon. The younger guy takes it from me and goes to get it opened for us at the front desk.

“Peter,” the left side guy says, holding out his hand.
“Amanda,” I reply, and we shake.

The younger guy, introduced as Phil, comes back with the opened bottle and another Styrofoam cup. “We do this in style,” he says. He pours us equal amounts.
“Salud,” I say. We touch cups and sip.

Phil is a recent Vancouver University grad out traveling for a couple of months before going back to Canada to look for work. Peter is his first cousin once removed on his dad’s side and has come along on their family’s South America adventure just for the heck of it. I ask Peter what he does and he says, “It’s too boring to talk about.”
Naturally, some “get to know you” questions are sprung from both sides. But it feels like I’ve just dropped in to visit friends and we’re all hanging out together, comfortable in each other’s company more than anything else. Phil tops our cups off just as a couple walks up to the table and stops.

“Hey guys,” the woman says. “How was your day?”
At first I figure they’re other hostal guests passing friendly civilities, but turns out they’re Phil’s parents-- Phil the fourth and Jane. They don’t think a thing about having another addition to their party.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Jane asks me.
“I think my friend and I are going to the Sacred Valley.”

“That’s too bad. If you decide not to go you should join us. We’re going rock climbing and zip lining.”
Zip lining! Who wants to see the Sacred Valley? “I wish I could!” I say with true regret. “That sounds really fun.”

“Well, if anything,” Phil IV says, “You should join us for dinner. Free food!”
“Give us an hour or so to clean up,” Jane says, “and then we’ll come back down. You’ve got to feed me soon!”

The sun’s gone and the night air brings a chill in with it. I’m cozy and not really minding the light goosebumps making lines up my arms.
“I’m going to run up and put on some warmer clothes before we head out,” Pete says.

Maybe it is a little chilly. I consider going to get my jacket. Laziness or inertia has set in. I’m not moving. This is perfect. Phil and I chat like old friends. Like new friends. I pour the last of the wine into our cups. When Peter returns he hands me a fleece. I’m touched by the consideration. I throw it over my head and smooth it out. Peter stands about six foot four or five inches tall and the fleece goes down to my thighs.
“It’s like a dress on you,” Peter says.

It is, but it’s warm. “Thanks!” I reply. We lean back into our chairs and I enjoy the stillness. Minutes ease by. When her exploration of painted things is over, Nan returns. I see her coming through the door into the patio area.
“Nan! How was your time?”

“It was nice,” she says.
“This is Phil and Pete,” I tell her. “If you’re interested, they’ve invited us out for dinner. Would you want to come along?”

“No, that’s okay,” she doesn’t hesitate with her answer, “I think I’m going to rest for a while and then go out and get some dinner for myself later.”
“Are you sure?” Her resting doesn’t seem to need my company, her plans don’t seem to include me, and I don’t feel any compunction about separating for a while. Maybe I should have. “If you don’t mind me going with these guys, I’ll catch up with you later.”

Soon Jane and Phil IV breeze back by, collect us up and we head to the Plaza de Armas to go to a restaurant they’d heard was good. It’s a nice place. Trendy and out of my normal price range. I feel like I’ve moved up in the world without acquiring the stereotypical snobbery. They’re down to earth people. I find a vegetarian option and get a glass of wine after hearing the guys order some Cuba Libres. I don’t want to rack up an out of proportion bill on their kindness.

Phil IV and Jane tell me about their travels since November. They’d rented a place in Ecuador for several weeks and have been traveling around since then, making time for a cruise in the Galapagos where their daughter and Pete had joined them. Their daughter had gone back home after that and the remaining four of them came to Peru. They’ve got their zip line adventure set for the next day and a four day trek down the Inca Trail planned a few days after that. Young Phil will stay in Peru a couple weeks after his family leaves to pick back up their lives in Toronto and then he’ll go back to Vancouver.

They’re easy company. The kind of family who likes each other and can have fun together. With them I feel at home.
After dinner we walk around the Plaza and then Jane and Phil IV decide to call it a night.

“Let’s go to Paddy’s,” Phil the younger says, “They’ve got this great IPA.”
Pete looks my way and I shrug. “Sounds fun to me.”
Paddy’s is on the opposite side of the square. It’s one of the hot spots for tourists, calls itself the highest Irish Pub in the world and is packed with people from all places and backgrounds. We squeeze in and Phil orders us some drinks. He gets Peter and me Cusqueñas and orders himself an India Pale Ale.

Phil is a social creature and he works the room while Pete and I talk about life and dreams and work and travel. Making his circuit back our way, Phil brings along a couple guys who are doing volunteer work in the area. The taller one is from some small Canadian Province and the guys compare notes from home. His name is Thor, he pronounces it Tor, and he looks the part. He’s tall and blonde as all Thor’s should be. He entertains us with stories, many of which relate the instances he’s either been victim of or been in the vicinity of someone who’d been robbed. These stories all start with, “I was walking a girl home--” and end with the girl’s purse being snatched.
Pete leans down and whispers, “He walks a lot of girls home.”

I laugh. “I’m not letting him walk me home ever,” I say. “I don’t want my purse taken.”

“There was this one time,” Thor starts.
“Don’t tell me,” Pete says. “You were walking a girl home.”

Thor looks nonplussed. “No, not me, one of my buddies was.”
The laughter hangs between Pete and me with a secret friendliness.

“How about tequila shots?” Phil asks.
Thor’s dark headed friend looks unsure. “I’m buying,” Phil clarifies and goes to order us all shots.

I lean over in the semi-darkness to write some stolen words in my book.
“What are you writing?” Pete asks. I show him.

“What you should write is, ‘It was Tequila,’ that way tomorrow you’ll know what happened.”
So I write it down.

We call it quits soon after and walk back up the San Blas Road hill. We get our room keys from the front desk and I slide quietly into room 212. The lights are out and I hope that Nan is fast asleep and happy in her dreams in the bed upstairs. I grab my pajamas and realize I still have on Pete’s fleece. I strip it off and quickly go out. Pete and Phil share a room two doors down. I knock gently on the glass pane. Phil answers. “I forgot to give Pete his jacket back. Tell him thank you for me.”
“Will do,” Phil says. “Goodnight.”

Back in my room, in the queen sized bed I’ve got all to myself, I fall into a happy and comfortable sleep.
The next morning, Nan and I are both up but running on different breakfast times, so I go to the dining room alone. Pete and Phil are nearly done with their breakfast. They motion to the open chair at their table and I go over and join them.

“We’ll probably be done with our stuff around three,” Pete says. “What time are you guys getting back from the Sacred Valley?”
“I’m not sure,” I say.

“Well, if you’re around later we should go out again,” Phil says.
“Sounds great. I’ll catch you guys later, have fun!”

I pack up the extra bread I’d gotten with my breakfast and stuff it in my bag. Back in our room, Nan and I smear on sunscreen and tuck water bottles into our packs. Then we walk to the bus station. We buy our tickets and get on the bus that’ll drop us off at the road to Maras where we can get a taxi or walk to the sites of Moray and Salinas.
The Sacred Valley is so beautiful it’s almost heartbreaking. I look past Nan’s shoulder out the window and appreciate the mountains, the sunshine, and the colorful displays of both crops and flowers along the way.

At Maras we get off the bus along with two other light skinned girls who are obviously gringas like us. One of the waiting taxi drivers crosses over to us and starts his sales pitch before any of the other drivers can get to us. The other girls, Annemarie and Laura, are from Holland. They’re in Cusco doing an internship as a part of the medical program they’re working through. They want to rent bikes and tour the area. The driver tells them there are no bikes but that he’d be glad to tour us for a very good price. They don’t believe him. The guidebook had said there were bike rental places in Maras. I’m not sure if he’s telling the truth either. So many of these drivers will say anything to get you to agree to ride with them and I can’t always read a lie. I want to believe people are honest and good. He takes us into Maras at a group rate of one sol apiece and agrees to wait for ten minutes while the girls check for bikes and Nan and I decide what we want to do.
The bike rental shop is nonexistent and I retain my trust in the overall good of humanity.

After a long and multi-languaged discussion from all sides, the four of us agree to share the taxi for the day. The deal includes a ride to the amphitheaters of Moray and forty minutes to tour and then a ride to the salt pans of Salinas and another forty minutes to tour there before our taxista brings us back to the bus stop. “The waiting is free,” he says as a selling point.
Our taxista is eighteen years old and named Elvis. He tells us facts about the sites as we pass them. Over the course of the day he warms up to me. I share part of my bread with him and later on some fruit.

“How old are you?” Annemarie or Laura asks him.
“Eighteen,” Elvis replies.

“How old do you have to be to lead tours?”
“Eighteen,” he says with a smile.

Moray holds an air of peace. I see a girl meditating alone in the center of one of the giant circles and I’m jealous. I find a moment or two to sit myself and close my eyes and breath in the majesty. The forty minutes is up too quickly. We pile into the heat-filled taxi and Elvis takes us on to the next place.

The salt pans of Salinas are extensive. Our guide pulls over to the side of the narrow rode at a spot high above the site so we can trundle out and take pictures. “In August,” Elvis tells us. “The salt is clean and as white as that,” he points to the back of the entry ticket I’m holding in my hand. The white of the paper is glossy and bright. Brilliant. The salt in August must be blinding to look at then. We all pause to imagine it. The recent rains have dirtied the salt and the people of Maras who own shares of the site come to clean it and process it over the course of the year. “Salinas provided salt to all of Peru,” Elvis tells us proudly.

At the site, we get to walk along the salt beds. We even dip our fingers in the water that trickles out of a hole in the side of the rock and taste the salt in it. Where does the salt come from? Who made the terraced salt pans? How often do people come and harvest the salt? How do they clean it? We get some answers to our questions, but not to all of them.
I’m the first one back. I sit and wait with Elvis. We eat some fruit and talk about the area. When the other girls arrive we get back in and Elvis delivers us to the bus stop. A bus heading back to Cusco rolls up at the same instant and I flag it down while we pay Elvis and bid him a hasty goodbye.

Nan dozes on the trip back. I stare out the window and think about happiness and simplicity and life. I wonder if the Canadians had a good day and if they’ve gone on to have fun without me. It’s way after three o’clock when Nan and I return to our room. I take a much appreciated shower. When I get out Nan is upstairs taking it easy.
I hear voices out on the balcony and open my door. Pete and Phil are just back and deciding who gets the shower first. Peter tells me all about their zip line adventure while Phil cleans up. I lean up against the balcony rail and stare out over the view we’ve got. When Pete heads inside to start his clean up, I go back into my room, leaving the door ajar. A few minutes later there’s a tap on the glass and Phil sticks his head in. “You should come check this,” he says, pointing out beyond him with the Cusqueña in his hand. I go stand next to him. There’s a thunderstorm gathering over the mountain. The clouds shift and change. From each end of the mountain dueling flashes of lightning compete for glory. Phil IV and Jane join us to watch the lightning show.

I put my head inside our room, “Nan, if you have a second you should come check out this storm. It’s amazing.” I don’t know if she hears me, but she must have since in a bit she comes and joins us. Everyone gets introduced and a passing couple visiting Peru from Denver, Colorado stops to join the impromptu party. When the conversation hits a lull, Nan goes back inside and the Coloradans leave shortly after.
“If you and your friend want to join us for dinner,” Phil IV and Jane say, “We’re just going down around the corner to Jack’s Pub. It got great reviews in the guidebook and several other people have recommended it. We’ll leave in like twenty minutes?”

I go in and confer with Nan. She declines the invitation. “I think I’ll rest for a bit and then maybe go get dinner on my own,” she tells me. I’m a little disappointed. I’m enjoying the company of my new friends and want to share that with her too. We’d had a fun day together in the Sacred Valley, but there have been times in this trip where I felt she and I were traveling on different dimensional planes.
“You don’t mind if I go, do you?” I ask.

She says she doesn’t and I believe her. “Okay, rest well. If you decide to go to sleep before I’m back just leave the key at the front that way I don’t have to bug you when I get in. Catch you later on.”
The Canadians and I have a fun night at Jack’s Pub. The food tastes great and served in humongous portions. I get a veggie burger and eat every last bite. They regale me with the histories of past parties and fun times. “I remember the ping-pong table,” Pete says at one point of one story, “I remember Jeff coming in with the Russians.” There’s a world of stories in that one phrase so I stick my notebook under the table and write it down.

“Tequila shots, anyone?” Phil asks when we’re getting ready to leave. “Or at least an IPA. Who wants to go to Paddy’s?”
Pete and Jane opt out. Phil, Phil and I go for it.

“What’ll you have?” Phil the younger asks when we’re inside and pressed up next to the bar “I’m buying.”
“I’ll take an IPA if that’s what you’re getting,” I tell him.

“You’re my kind of girl,” he tells me.

We take our drinks to a corner table and sit. Phil and his sister have been living in Vancouver away from their parents who recently moved outside of Toronto into a house on an island, so they have some catching up to do. I sit back and enjoy their father/son talk. Every now and then I jump in with a thought of my own. I feel a part of something sweet and new and familiar. Later, Phil the elder tells me that he’s often thought about writing a book.

“You should,” I say. Then I get passionate about the joys and sorrows of writing. I get carried away. But they listen to me carry on. “I love words. It’d be a dream come true to have my books published once I get them edited up.”
“You’ll make it,” Phil the younger tells me. He squeezes out to go get us another beer.

“After this one I’m going to call it a night,” Phil the elder says.
When those beers are gone, Phil IV bids us goodnight. Phil goes away once more and comes back with vodka and tonics. “I figured we could use something besides beer,” he says. We drink in companionable comfort. Talking about this or that and enjoying the night.

“Wanna bounce?” he asks when we’ve sipped the last.

We bounce.
The key isn’t at the front desk when I get back. So I have to knock on the door, waking Nan to get in. I feel bad about having had to wake her, and whisper an apology after her retreating back. I’ve had a good day and I fall into bed and look forward to sleeping in and having an easy next day.

The next morning, as a matter of the high altitude and some bad food Nan gets sick. I perform nurse duties badly, only meeting the external food and liquid needs and falling short on the comfort and care. Once I feel she’s okay enough on her own and might be able to sleep it off, I head out. But I stick close by, just going outside to sit on a bench in the patio below our balcony. The sun feels good and I alternate between the bench and a chair in the shade. I’ve got a fun book and a fantastic view. What more could I want except for Nan to feel better?
“Do you have sunscreen on?” Pete calls down to me from the balcony.
“I’m just coming to put more on,” I assure him.

They’re heading out to run some errands and do some shopping. “You’re more than welcome to join in,” they tell me.

“I’m gonna stick around here, I think. Thanks for the invitation though.”
When I go to put the sunscreen on, Nan is awake and feeling a bit better.

“It’s really nice outside if you feel up to moving,” I tell her.
She comes out and we sit on opposite ends of the patio in together-solitude. It’s pleasant. Later, she’s feeling well enough so we go eat lunch at Jack’s Pub. It’s a slower paced day and I’m grateful for it. When we return from lunch Nan heads back to the room to rest up more and I go check my email. This easy day is just what I’ve been needing to recharge a bit. The Canadians--who I find myself thinking of as My Canadians--return from their day on the town. They pass me where I’m sitting at the computer in the common area. Phil and Pete have beers in hand. We catch up on the day and they head towards their room.

A bit later, Phil goes by. “We’re trying to decide what to do,” he says.
“A bottle of wine?” I suggest. A quiet night at the hostal wouldn’t be bad.

“That’s a good idea,” Phil says and goes out to buy one. “If you want to join us in ten minutes, downstairs,” he tells me on his return trip, “we’re going to play cards.”
In the allotted time I join all four of them. Phil pours me a Styrofoam cup of red wine and hands it to me. They teach me the rules of the game and then beat me soundly at it.

“I’m going to need dinner soon,” Jane tells them then turns to me. “Do you and your friend want to come?”
“I’ll go find out,” I say. After a quick conference, I return to where they’re milling about on the balcony. “If we go to Jack’s again,” I tell them. “Nan says she’ll join us.”

They go for it and we all trudge slowly down the hill and around the corner once again to Jack’s Pub. This inclusion is what travel to Cusco is to me. It’s meeting new people and being able to call them Friends instantly. It’s feeling part of something bigger than my own, simple life. It’s seeing the world through other people’s eyes. It’s breaking out of my North American mindset to understand what another culture is about. It’s hearing stories and being included in these brand new stories that are in the making. I’m glad Nan is a part of this with me. It feels like we’re on the same page again.
We pay for our dinners and go back to the hostal. Nan heads into the room just ahead of me.

The Canadians leave in the morning for their Inca Trail trek and they still have to pack up and prepare. They’ve also got to be up before five AM so they all plan on making it a little bit of an earlier night.
“We’ve got to pack up now, but do you want to go out in a bit?” Phil and Pete ask me.

“Yeah, sure,” I say. They leave in the morning and Nan and I leave in the afternoon. I like the idea of one more night out before this Cusco time is over. We set a meet up and then go our separate ways.
“Would you mind if I sleep on the downstairs bed tonight?” Nan asks me.

“No, that’s fine,” I tell her. “No problem. I’ll move my stuff upstairs. The guys are going out and I think I’ll go with them. You’re welcome to come.”
She’s not up for it understandably.

“If it’s alright, I’ll leave the key at the front that way I won’t bug you when I come in.”
I move my stuff upstairs. When I’m halfway down the steps and getting ready to head out, she asks, “What time do you think you’ll get back?”
“I’m not really sure, not too late,” I say, “They have to be up really early tomorrow. Why?”

“I'm a light sleeper and the last two nights you’ve woken me up when you came in. I was wondering if you’d stay in tonight.”
I open my mouth and close it again. I hadn’t come in in any drunken stupor, but being a light sleeper myself I understand her frustration. “Okay. Sure. Let me just go out and tell these guys.”

I slip out and poke my head into Pete and Phil’s room. “Hey, I’m not going to go out with you guys tonight after all.”
“What?” they ask. “Why not?”

I explain.
“Really?” they ask.

“Yeah. I think it’s better if I stay in tonight unless you’ve got room for me here,” I say, joking.
“Of course you can stay with us,” they say in all seriousness.

“Well, okay then.” I go let Nan know I’ll be going out after all and not coming back until the morning. “Maybe you’ll get a really great night’s sleep if I’m not around.”
After I get my things together and leave them in front of their door, I go meet the gang, minus Jane, at the patio table downstairs. Between the lot of us, we finish off yet another bottle of wine and after a while Phil the elder leaves us to go catch some sleep.  

“Anyone up for Paddy’s?” Phil asks, jokingly.
“Sure,” Pete says.

“Seriously?” Phil asks. His eyebrows shoot up in an expressive mixture of hope and disbelief.
“Sure,” Pete says again.

“I don’t have to be up at four thirty, so I’m game,” I tell them.
So we go and get a drink. We don’t stay out too terribly late by partying standards, but it’s nearly midnight when we’ve finished our beers and are headed back to the room. We get ready for bed. Pete and I take distant sides on the queen sized mattress while Phil goes upstairs to crash in the smaller loft bed. I find it both strange and strangely comfortable to be sharing a bed with someone I’ve only known a few days. With our heads turned in toward each other, we chitchat like kids at a slumber party for a minute. Phil joins the conversation too, his voice drifting down the stairs. Then there’s that drowsy silence.

“We’ll leave the key at the front when we check out in the morning,” Pete says. “But feel free to sleep in as long as you’d like.”
“Thanks,” I say. Goodnights hover in the darkness. I turn over on my side. The distance between Pete and me is like the border between the United States and Canada; separating, friendly, and safe. I sleep with the Canadians and when their alarms go off in the morning, I sit up to hug them goodbye and wish them happy travels. When the door clicks shut behind them and I’m left alone, I turn over, spread out and sleep the heck in.   

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Brits Who Saved My Life Part II

January 23, 2012 – The Brits Who Saved My Life Part II

I’ve almost got my legs back and the dizziness that had smeared the edges of my eyesight is sounding a retreat, but I sit still against the tree limb bars that make the pavilion a rest area and not just a jumble of twigs. The clouds have moved overhead and some tentative raindrops slap the rocks around me. There’s a handful of trekkers resting, taking pictures, eating snacks, meditating and bounding about as if height means nothing. The mountain top guard is keeping an eye on a girl suffering from vertigo and watching the rest of us surreptitiously. He climbs up Machu Picchu Mountain every day to sit there and make sure climbers don’t faint from altitude sickness and fall off, or deface the property. He’s also there to ensure that everyone comes down at the end of the day. He’s given this girl some coca leaves. When she gets up to move, he takes her by the arm and guides her safely to sit down again. Another guy is also feeling a little dizzy and we all share coca leaves to help combat any onset of altitude sickness.
When I’ve recovered enough to move I go check out the edge. The young guy I’d been inadvertent trail buddies with is resting down a level in the rocks and grass.

“Perdón (I’m so sorry),” I call down at him. “I didn’t mean to mislead you. I know I said it was ten minutes, but, I tell you what, that was the longest ten minutes of my life.” I laugh. He looks at me blankly as if he doesn’t get my joke. I wonder if he even speaks Spanish or if maybe I said things the wrong way. I wave at him and go across the path to spot overlooking the world. I eat a snack and rest some more. My energy charges up and I almost don’t remember my exhaustion of earlier. I scoff at my weakness. What a baby. Water, bah. Who needs it? Shoot, the baby says, I do. I will never climb a mountain without the proper amount of water again. I’d rather my obituary didn’t say, “She fell off a mountain and died, the idiot, and it was all her own fault.”
The world is different from so high up. I try to keep from singing “I’m on top of the world, looking down on creation,” but I can only just keep the words from coming out of my mouth out loud. The lyrics run on repeat inside my head. There’s something about mountain tops that inspire full-lunged singing. Fortunately, for my fellow trekkers, “Climb Every Mountain” doesn’t come to mind right away.

The mountain top guard starts packing his stuff up and we all rally together and head down. He does a final check and follows us.
I feel like a new person. Refreshed. Going down will be a piece of cake. I join into the group of girls travelling from somewhere else in South America and the young guy I’d followed up who is from Argentina.

“The guide comes up here every day,” one girl says. “Can you imagine?”
I imagine it. After a while the views would become landmarks, the path would seem easy even, the view from the top amazing yet familiar.

Maman at Machu Picchu
“It’s nothing to him,” the Argentinean says. “This is his house. We’re in his house when we’re up here.”

What a home.

The guard at the sign in sheet had said essentially the same thing when I asked him if he liked working there.
“What’s not to like?” he’d parried. “I get to be out in the open every day, breathing fresh air, seeing new people, walking these paths. What’s not to like?”

I work my way to the front of the group. The Argentinean’s already disappeared. About five minutes down, I round a bend and there is Nan.
“Hey! You made it really far!” I tell her. “The top is about five minutes or so up. But the guard just packed everything up and is heading down.”

“I’m going to see if he’ll let me go all the way,” Nan says.
We part ways and I trot down. I feel as if I’m trying to best some time. I curse the competitive nature that roils in my soul. Why can’t you be normal? When I get to the checkout point I thank the guard for letting me go up, and sign out on the sheet.

“And your friend?” he asks.
“She was almost to the top when I passed her. She should be heading down by now.”

I decide to wait for Nan at the final foot of the path. I settle on a rock just out of the way of the passerbys. I have a full view of the site below me. It’s all but empty. When I’d come in June the place had seeped with people like ants on a disturbed hill. Now I feel the silence, the majesty, the solitude. It’s the perfect place to be. The occasional other visitors pass in front of me to go stand on the edge of the scenic overlook and take pictures. We exchange companionable smiles and courteous greetings.  
When no one is watching, I rub my hands together and hold my palms over the rock next to me. I feel nothing. I try again. And then a third time. It’s probably the friction that creates the electricity feeling, but I still get nothing from this rock. I rub my hands again and test another larger stone. Either the energy of these rocks sleeps or there is something to the Inti Huatana after all. I don’t need to believe that the Sun Dial is alive and charged, but I like the idea of it. This isn’t quite the same as clapping my hands and saying, “I do believe in fairies,” but it’s close. I shake my head at myself, hide a smile and hunch down over my notebook.

A tour guide passes me by, “Contemplando (contemplating)?” she asks.
“Sí,” I tell her, smiling.

“Qué bueno (that’s great),” she replies.
I take the time to write some, to stare off into the past, to think, to just be. An hour goes by and then another. No Nan.

A group of older people trundles by and I watch them. “Do I know you?” one of the men asks when our gazes catch and I smile at him.
I look up, checking his features to see if there’s recognition. He’s tall, Asian, not someone I know. “I don’t think so,” I say. 

He shrugs and an apology flashes across his face. “It’s difficult for us to recognize European faces,” he says.
I choke back a chortle. I can’t believe he just said that. All white people look alike and all that. I don’t know how to respond so I just give him a new, weak smile and watch him walk away. It brings to mind a conversation I’d heard at a party I went to with my parents. My dad’s coworker Rahul had invited a bunch of his friends over for dinner at his apartment. There were us Native Texans, a Russian, a Mexican, Indians from India, a Korean, a few other North Americans, and a Vietnamese guy. The Korean and the Russian were talking about the Russian community in Dallas and the Korean asked her, “Oh, do you know this guy named Ivan?” She had been put aback and answered, “I’m not sure, Ivan is a pretty common Russian name.” The Korean’s friend, David, had jumped in. “I can’t believe you’re giving her that treatment,” he said with a laugh and proceeded to rub it in, “Do you know a Korean guy? Last name Kim?”

It’s a funny joke because it happens all the time. But despite the stereotypical simplicity of the error, we have this need to find the familiar, to make connections between race and color and culture, and, in the end just between you and me.
In an echo of that party joke, I can’t believe this guy gave me that treatment, but I’m oddly flattered that he assumes I’m European. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s nice to not be obvious.

Two hours later Nan still has not come by. I’m starting to get worried. Especially when the mountain top guard walks past.
“Did my friend come down?” I ask him.

“The girl in the yellow rain jacket?” he asks.

“She came down ages ago.”
Blast. I must have been looking the opposite way and she snuck past me. The site closes in about an hour and I wonder if maybe she went back to town without me or is waiting at the front entrance. What if I lost her? Then what will I do? I squelch my worry and head toward the front of the park.

I’m wandering the front path when I hear an enthusiastic, “Hey!” I turn to see my much loved water-giving friends. “You made it!” they say.
“Thanks to you guys!” I reply. “That water truly saved my life. It was fantastic. What a view! What an experience.”

“We hoped you were okay,” they say kindly. Our pleasantries exchanged, they move off out of the site and I park myself near the front squinting across the way for any sight of Nan. Finally I see her. She’s alive. I’m alive. We’re mountain climbing survivors. What a day.
We get on a bus and go back to Aguas Calientes. The night goes by with the sound of trains. In the morning we climb aboard and head back to Ollantaytambo. We have the entire car to ourselves and the attendant treats us first like queens then like friends and then like family. Before we know it, the train grinds to a stop and we disembark.

At the train station we’re greeted as usual by the parroted calls of, “Taxi. Taxi? Taxi.”
I want to get back to Cusco, settle in to our hostal and then plan our next excursion without having to cart my bag around with me. So I start to haggle a price with the first driver I can. I turn to ask Nan what she thinks and she’s not there next to me. I scan the area. Streams of people are exiting the train and walking past me through the gates. I can’t see her. The taxi driver is trying to seal the deal and I’m not in the position to make an executive decision just yet.

Just as I’m about to abandon my dealing, who should walk by but my new friends.

“Hey!” they reply.
“Well met!” I say. “How are you guys?”

“Great! How are you?”
“Good. You heading back to Cusco?” I ask.

“Yeah, you too? Would you like to share a taxi?” they ask.
“Definitely.” Shared taxis usually cut the price per person tremendously. We’ve all agreed on a price just as Nan returns. “The conductor says that a bus ride back is only ten soles,” she tells me. “You have to change in one town to a different bus though.” The idea of changing buses or having to try and wheel and deal again in another town makes me shiver. I just want to get to Cusco. And I’ve already agreed to this ride with my friends and the taxi driver.

“I’m so sorry, Nan, I just agreed to this taxi. It’s a great price, it’ll be the four of us together.” And in this way, poor Nan gets bullied into the taxi even though she had her heart set on a bus ride through the Sacred Valley. “We’ll take a bus to Pisaq or something,” I promise her.

The next two hours is one of joy for me. The view out the windows is like postcards from heaven, the fresh air breezing through the open windows like salvation, the conversation like being in the company of angels.

Rob and Charlotte are on vacation from England to celebrate Charlotte’s birthday in true style.  Rob had lived in Argentina at one point in his life and he and the driver chat it up in Spanish the whole way back. In the back seat, Charlotte, Nan and I talk of life, travel, dogs, politics, religion, teaching, writing, and adventure. I feel like Charlotte and I have been friends forever and I catch myself having to hold back a British accent when I talk. Silly me. Someone once said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but I try not to make a fool of myself. She and Rob both have a joie de vivre that I connect with, that I can understand. I enjoy hearing about their life, their country, and their perception of both North America and South America. She and Rob had just moved out of London to a smaller town when the recent London riots happened and Nan asks her what that was like and if it was frightening.
“It was mental,” Charlotte says.

Brilliant, I think. And I record the words to use later on as my own.
Our driver lets us off at the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. Nan and I only have to walk a few blocks up to our hostal on San Blas. Charlotte and Rob are going to wander around and find a place they’d like to stay. We pause to record our time together with some photos, hug each other bye, and wish good luck and safe travels to us all.

I may never see them again in my life or theirs. But I’m grateful that our paths intersected, that they saved my life on Montaña Machu Picchu and that they shared a part of this day with me and Nan on the road from Ollantaytambo to Cusco.
Well met, friends, may you find joy and adventure no matter where you are.

Vive la vida!

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Brits Who Save My Life Part I

January 23, 2012 – The Brits Who Saved My Life Part I

You know those dumbass idiots who go climb a mountain without any gear or prep training? Yeah, well, I just added my name to that list of fools. But that’s not the beginning of the story. The Tuesday before the abandonment of my senses, I fly from Dallas into Lima and encounter my friend Nan in the customs line. We’d met in college (much too long ago) and when she’d found out I was in Peru she decided it’d be the perfect time to come visit. I’d timed my return trip to coincide with her arrival. It seemed like a logistically good idea and it’s a bit serendipitous that we find each other so easily. We’ve both had a full day of travel and I know I’m ready for a good night’s sleep. We grab our luggage, snag a taxi and head back to my apartment. I hurriedly unpack everything I’d taken for my month long stay in the States and the things I’d brought back to make the next half a year slightly more decadent then hastily repack a week’s worth of clothes, snacks and necessities.
We sleep a few solid hours and the next morning we take a taxi back to the airport and catch a flight to Cusco.  

As we exit the Cusco airport we’re accosted by a persistent barrage of “Taxi. Taxi? Taxi.” For once, I want one. I select a driver and start bargaining for a deal. Nan and I have to go from Cusco to Ollantaytambo where we’ll take the train into Aguas Calientes which is the town that lies beneath Machu Picchu. These airport drivers are charging outrageous amounts. All of them. I’d already asked some of the tour guide booths inside the airport how much it’d cost to go, and the prices these guys are quoting are either the same or just a bit lower. We could get a taxi into the center of Cusco and then find a cheaper one from there, but it seems like a lot of trouble. This time, I’m willing to pay a little more if just to get Nan and I safely to our end point. Sometimes the destination sounds better than the journey. Sometimes. Our driver is an officially licensed driver and boasts a secure taxi. It makes a difference. There are many taxistas who throw a taxi sign on their door and just go with it. Who knows if they even completed the Peruvian equivalent to Driver’s Ed. There are other people who pose as taxi drivers and then kidnap their fares. Or rob them. I’ve heard horror stories. Here and now I’ve got more than just my own safety to consider. This guy shows me his laminated neck tag with his credentials. Impressive. Official. Overpriced. The price I talk him down to is still high. But we all agree. Nan and I throw our bags into the trunk and take our seats in the back of the taxi.
“Can you give us a discount?” Nan asks after she and I discuss the price and mentally calculate it into dollars and then back to soles.

“It’s a good price,” the driver tells us. “It’s a two hour trip to Ollantaytambo. It’s a good price.” He starts the car and heads out of the airport parking lot. “But my brother has to go to Ollantaytambo to pick some people up this afternoon. If he hasn’t already left you can ride with him and I’ll knock off ten soles for you. A special discount.” He makes a phone call as he weaves us through the streets of Cusco. We’re heading down a busy side street when he pulls over and stops the car. “One minute, please,” he says, getting out.
“What’s going on?” Nan asks.

“We might be going with his brother,” I say, unsure.
Our driver returns and opens Nan’s door. “This is my brother Guillermo,” he says. “He’s going to take you. He wants you to pay me just as if I took you and then I’ll settle with him later.”

We fork over the money for the ride. Then we all shake hands and the brothers help us transfer our bags from car to car. In a last minute thought for our safety I ask, “Is your brother a secure driver too?”
Our first driver looks shocked. “Of course.” He gives me his card and assures us that we can call him if we need anything at all, especially guided and paid tours of the city.

The brothers bid each other farewell. Nan and I buckle our seatbelts and Guillermo gets us going. We make some small talk about the weather and then ease into a traveling silence. We’re heading through the Sacred Valley and it’s as amazing as I remember from when I came in July. I crack my window, breathing in the crisp, thin, dry, high altitude mountain air.
We reach a small little town and Guillermo slows down to navigate his car through the narrow street. Just ahead, a line of police officers are standing in the middle of the road. One grim looking officer motions the car in front of us over and then motions us over as well. Guillermo obeys. The cop leans in.

“Papers,” he says. Actually I don’t think he really said that, but Guillermo does hand over his secure taxi information and tourism license. The officer looks it over and mumbles something. In response to whatever was said, Guillermo gets out of the car and goes into the building next to us.
“What’s going on?” Nan asks.

Welcome to Peru, I think. It alarms me that this doesn’t seem so odd. “I’m not exactly sure,” I tell her, unreassuringly. “The cops here pull people over all the time to fine them and get money for whatever reason. Don’t worry. It’s normal.” I hope.
We wait. A policeman approaches my side of the car. “Where are you going?” he asks in Spanish.

“To Ollantaytambo,” I reply. It’s apparently the right answer because he leaves without another word.
Nan gets out to see if the little bodega across the street sells fruit and while she’s gone Guillermo returns.

“What was that about?” I ask him. His answer is something about checking licenses or taking bribes or checking for spies. I don’t really understand what he tells me. What does it matter? We’re all still together as one happy riding family. Once Nan is back, we drive on. The ride is uneventful until we hit roadwork and have to sit for half an hour until our side of traffic is allowed to inch over the single file lane. Waiting is Peru. Waiting is South America.
Finally we arrive in Ollantaytambo. Guillermo drops us off in the Plaza de Armas. “You’ve got several hours to kill,” he says. “I figure there will be more for you to look at while you wait here than at the train station. To get there, just walk fifteen minutes up that road,” he says, pointing up the road.

“Thanks,” we tell him. His duty done, he leaves us there.

We eat lunch, tour the square, walk up and down the town streets and at the appropriate time head towards the train station. Eventually we board, ride for two hours and arrive in Aguas Calientes, check into the hostal, secure a wake-up “call”, and head to bed.

Before dawn the next morning, we’re up and headed towards the Machu Picchu ticket office. It’s the off season for tourism here, but neither of us wants to miss the chance to get in. We buy our tickets and the guy upsells us the ticket needed to climb la Montaña Machu Picchu. There are two mountains that bookend the Machu Picchu site. The smaller one is called Huayna Picchu and the bigger one is called Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu Mountain is not Machu Picchu the site though it’s on the site. It gets confusing.
We buy our tickets for the bus that’ll take us to Machu Picchu and then take the bus up.

The time I’d been to Cusco and Machu Picchu in July had been so amazing and so fantastic that I’m afraid when I enter Machu Picchu for the second time the magic I’d found there before will vanish. I don’t know what to expect this go round. I don’t want to lose that sense of awe I’d had. I don’t want to just think this place is Old Hat. I hold my breath as I go through the turnstiles.
I’m not disappointed. Mist covers everything. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. It’s ethereal, mystical, and new.

It’s Nan’s first time. As soon as she’s through the gates, she’s captivated. That’s just what happens. So in order to give her time to find the magic for herself we split up and agree to meet in a couple hours.
I have a couple areas I want to revisit. I also want some time to just sit and absorb the sense of the place. When I came before I’d rushed through it all and felt I’d missed out on tapping into the tranquility. This time, I won’t miss out.

I head up the stairs to the Inti Huatana. I want to see if I can feel the energy from the Sun Dial or if it was just my imagination the last time I came. I walk around the stone. I people watch and listen in to the tour guides talking to their groups. When the area clears out some, I rub my hands together and place my palms to hover over the surface of the rock. I might feel something. I rub my hands again. It’s probably my imagination. I walk to the other side and repeat my actions. Tiny pinpricks of electricity spark up my arm all the way to my elbow. I don’t care if it is my imagination, a pinched nerve that tweaks my synapses into sparks, or whatever, I don’t care, it’s still magical. 
“Don’t touch,” the security guard reprimands me in Spanish.
Inti Huatana
“I’m not touching,” I tell him. I meet his gaze. He looks at me with that held-in-check despising of touchy-feeling tourists. He’s a little grouchy, but I’m not. “Have you ever felt the energy?”

“No.” He turns his full attention to me. His tone is serious and scientific. “It’s the same kind of rock as everywhere else.” He point to the rocks that make up the ledge behind us, to the steps that lead downwards, to the quarry stones just across the way. “It’s all made up of the same stuff. Quartz, gray rock…” He lists the ingredients and I get lost in the dust. “It’s misinformation to say that this stone has special energy. I think it’s bad. I don’t like it. It makes people look silly. It’s bad.”

Oh ye of little faith. I don’t contradict him. I don’t even care that he basically called me silly. I’ve been called worse. So I make small talk with him. And he warms up to me. Soon enough we’re like the best of friends.
“Cualquiera cosa (anything you need), cualquier informacion necessitas (any information you need),” he tells me. “Just ask. I’ll be happy to help you.” I say thank you, shake hands with him and head back down.

Peacefully wandering, I go find an out of the way spot and sit on the rocks. I watch the mist evaporate off the old city below me and off the mountains. The tendrils wisp like smoke, build into cloudy shapes and then vanish into the atmosphere. A little family of birds dart in and out of the brush next to me, coming up close to my spot on the rock, looking for breakfast or simply coming out to see this strange human thing.

When the time is up, I go to the rendezvous point. Nan and I take a break to eat. I snack on stuff I’d brought along and on the avocado sandwich Nan had bought for me from a street vendor in Aguas Calientes. I go to the restaurant counter to see how much a bottle of water costs and bite my tongue from telling the woman she’s out of her mind when she tells me how much it is. A bottle of water costs eight soles here as opposed to 1.50 in most other places. I’ve got nearly a full bottle and I’ll make it last. I’m not paying eight soles. Sheesh. Once we’re done and rested up some, Nan and I decide to cash in on our climb the mountain ticket.

“You have your tickets?” the two guards at the first check point ask.
I hand mine over and Nan does the same.

“Why are you here so late?” one of them asks us. “What happened?”
“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You were supposed to be here no later than eleven,” he says. It’s nearly twelve now.
“We didn’t know.” I translate what he said to Nan and she agrees.

“We didn’t know we were supposed to be here by a certain time.”
The guards shrug and let us go through.

I climb up and upwards until I reach a wooden gate. I pass through and stand in front of the desk.
“It’s too late,” the guard tells me. Nan is a few tens of feet behind me.

“I can’t go up? I can’t climb? Are you serious?” I ask.
“You were supposed to be here by eleven,” he tells me.

“No one told us there was a time. Are you serious that I can’t climb up?” Suddenly, there’s nothing more in this world that I want than to climb to the top of this mountain.
The guard shuffles a bit and smiles. “Well, for someone as pretty as you.”

Oh my god. As if that has anything to do with the ability to make it safely up and down. But I’ll take it.
“Are you by yourself?”

“No, my friend is right behind me. But I don’t know if she will want to go all the way up.”
“Sign the register that you started at 11:20,” he tells me, handing me the pen. “It takes about an hour and a half to climb up and an hour and some change to come down. Try not to come down any later than 3:30. Have fun, be careful.” Nan comes up and I catch her up on the guard talk and have her sign it at 11:20 as well.

“You go on ahead,” she tells me. “You’re faster.”
“Are you sure?” I ask.

She says yes and I take off for the trail. It’s all uphill. Literally. Most of the climb is stairs. The elevation is killer. I’ve been at sea level for the past eight months and I’m definitely feeling it. I’ve also been off my exercise routine for the past month and my legs are letting me know this in no uncertain terms. Screw you all, I tell my legs and my lungs. We’re going to the top.
Up and up and up and up I go. I’m booking it. I give myself small goals; that rock eight steps up, the small platform just ahead, the tree that looks like a gnome. When I’ve achieved a handful of these goals I bend over, sweating, and gasp for breath. Then I go at it again.

The occasional hikers pass me as they come down.

“How much farther do I have?” I ask each group.

“About forty minutes.”
“Thirty minutes more,” the next group tells me.

“Maybe twenty-five minutes. The last twenty is the hardest,” one woman tells me. Her daughter waits for her a few steps below. “The view is worth it from the top though.”
There’s a young guy just ahead of me on the trail. When I have a successful burst of climbing he’s there before me. When I stop too long to breathe, I lose him. I’ve been going strong for over an hour and I’m tired. I’m rationing my water and I only have about an inch left. I’m thirsty. I let myself have just enough liquid to rinse my mouth. My limbs feel shaky and I can’t tell if it’s from sleep exhaustion, energy deficiency, thirst, altitude, or plain stupidity.

I suck in a couple breaths and get to the top of yet another incline. I know better than to sit down mid hike, but I’m done. I sit down, settling on a smooth rock to the side of the trail, pull out my bottle and look at the remaining water. It’d be stupid to keep going up without water. You’re an idiot, I tell myself. You should have paid that eight soles for the bottle of water earlier. Paying out the nose is better than dying. Maybe.
I’m still arguing with myself when two hikers round the corner above me, descend a few paces then pass me by.

“You can do it,” they cheer me on in English. “You’re not far from the top.”
“I’m not sure if it’s smart for me to keep going,” I confess. I’m feeling a little light headed. “I only have this much water left.” I show them my bottle. I feel stupid. I’ve never quit anything so close to the end before in my life. The lazy part of me is whispering that quitting is okay. Why push yourself? What are you trying to prove? Who would ever know?

I would! my overachieving, Do or Die attitude shouts. You know better than to sit down now. Get up and get a move on. Your legs are sore? Cry baby, your legs have been much more sore than this before. You’re still breathing, right? Well, get moving.
The lazy side comes back with, You’re pretty fatigued. You’re probably suffering from heat exhaustion. That tremor in your thighs? Not normal.

Shut up, overachiever says.
It’s a good fight. I’m nearly content to just sit here and let the two sides of my mind duke it out.

“I’m an idiot,” I tell the couple. “Who climbs up a mountain with only one bottle of water? I know better.” I grin at them.
The man, already well down the path, stops and turns to the lady. “How much water do you have left?”

“I still have some,” she says. “Here,” she extends her bottle my way. “You can have some of mine.” She pours a few inches of blessed water from her bottle into mine. I’m shocked by kindness and can only sputter my grateful disbelief and thanks. “You’re not far,” she encourages. “Are you sure that’s enough?”
“You’ve saved my life!” I exclaim. “Thank you so much. You guys are amazing.”

They wave off my effusion and wish me luck. “I wish I could give you more,” the lady says, “There’s still a large group of people at the top and I’m sure they’ll share if you need water when you get up to the top. Good luck!”
I watch them retreat, sending blessing on their heads. With renewed vigor, hope and water I bound up the mountain.

I pass a few more people. “It’s only twenty minutes more,” they say. “You’re getting close.”
Ten more minutes go by. I see the peak. It does look close. I’m gonna make it. I pass the guy I’d seen earlier. He’s stopped to tie his shirt around his head and to eat a snack. “We’re only ten minutes away,” I tell him.

“Really?” he asks.
“Pretty sure.”

When I’ve stopped to collect my rasping breath some time later he passes me by and disappears from sight. When ten minutes had gone by and then twenty I realize I’d inadvertently lied to him. Then I begin to think that the top is a lie. There is no top and I’ll be walking upwards for the rest of my life. Or I’ll quit and just go back down. Yeah, right.  
A group of young people come tripping down.

“Is that the top?” I ask them. Obssessed.
“No,” one of the boys tells me. “You’re still about thirty minutes away. And it’s straight up hill.”

One of the girls shakes her head to let me in on the joke. I don’t even crack a smile. “That is not funny at all,” I say, and go on by. Up and up and up and up. My mouth is sticky from dryness and my legs feel disembodied. I make some very small goals. That rock. That flower. That ledge.

And then. Finally. When I’d thought I’d never make it. I make it! I’m at the top of Machu Picchu Mountain. My throat closes up and I almost burst into tears. Instead I hold my fingers together and sing, “I did it, I weelly weelly did it, I weelly weelly did it,” in parody of a Kid History line (viewed at minute 6:56 of this video) my family and I had watched ad infinitum when I’d been home.

I’ve never been prouder in my life. I go sit under the pavilion on the bench for a while because I’m afraid if I move around I’ll accidently topple over the edge. Even that might not matter now that I’ve made it to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain.
I tell myself it's only dumb-fool luck that my poor planning hasn't killed me, and simply the generosity of strangers that's worked to save me. Let this be a lesson to you, I say. Yeah, yeah, I know.
I gaze down into the beauty below me. I still have the whole way down to go. But for now, being here is enough.