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!

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