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.


  1. What in the fweek just happened? Oh the majesticy of Peru!

  2. Wow. Just wow. I wish I could have been there with you to share the majesty of the moment and the clarity of thought that must have come with the end of the climb and the beautiful views from that altitude. Congrats on climbing the mountain. I'm impressed!

  3. BTW: Your mist-covered shot of Machu Picchu is my new desktop background. It's an amazing photo!