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Monday, December 5, 2011

You're as cold as ice....

Up, up into the mountains, we began to notice the altitude. While it was getting colder by increments, more interesting was the change in pressure.

With apologies to the nice man who lent us the truck we were in, (erm, sorry John!) we'd already had several somewhat explosive incidents en route. It wasn't deliberate. In Peru you have to choose between two types of bottled water: "sin gas" (without carbonation) or "con gas" (with).

Now, obviously it makes sense to bring the sin gas ones on a road trip, but somehow, every liter bottle Mike opened was con gas, and it sprayed everywhere. He began to suspect April, the purchaser of said water, of a setup.

April did have a mischievous grin. Or was openly laughing. But then, she could have been wholly innocent and merely enjoying the irony. I was laughing pretty hard and I know I didn't do anything.

It could never be proven one way or the other.

And yes, of course Mike could have checked the label before opening. This, of course, is far too obvious and simple of a solution to be employed.

More unexpected, and in the category of "don't want THAT in the eye," was hand sanitizer. An indispensable item for travel, to be sure, but going up into the mountains, every single darned time I popped open the top the alcohol gel shot out at a seemingly random angle. Splat.

More giggles.

Admittedly it was a sanitary mess, as messes go, but still.

All along the highway were car washes, often with the additional allure of a baño.

The baños were marked with spraypaint, and apparently they would (literally) boot the sheep away from them for you without any additional fee. All roadside carwashes were easy to spot, hoses propped up so they sprayed an arch of water up into the air.

child and roadside car wash

We stopped to photograph some especially interesting bridges, Royce taking his life into his own hands by dashing across the street for a better angle, and Mike wandering over to peer down a gully to the river -look at all the garbage:

Keep in mind this is in the middle of nowhere, in truly beautiful country. It's not the garbage, however, that tells the real tale of pollution.

La Oroya, a heavy metals mining town on the other side of the mountain pass, has the dubious distinction of falling at #5 on the Blacksmith Institute's list of the 10 most polluted places in the world. To give you perspective, that's 3 places worse than Chernobyl which comes in at at #8.

So when we drove past the water bottling plant, Mike and I decided we had chosen well to not move our kids to Peru, and we also gave Royce a hard time over his love of eating the Peruvian "mountain stream" trout. Eeyach.

Of course, we kept drinking our bottled water.
Water is one of those things. Have to have it.

We came upon another bad accident, this one without any sort of humor about it, no escapee produce this time. Instead, the scene was of an upside down diesel tanker truck with its many wheels in the air. The cab must have been at least partially crushed, though it was hard to tell from our perspective.

Once again, the crashed vehicle was on the wrong side of the road. I suppose if these trucks go off on the other side they go off cliffs, more often than not? Best to crash into the hillside and oncoming traffic?

Best not to think about it.

The air was colder and colder, and...sparser. You could actually feel it when you got out of the car. A funny sort of weakness, a unsettling sensation that there was something Not. Quite. Right.

I found it easy to ignore, but April got quieter and quieter once we were above 10,000 feet. Hiking in the Himalayas (I told you they have good stories!) she discovered that 10,000 is about where she starts to feel ill. We were watching the altimeter go higher and higher with a strange, almost giddy sense of accomplishment. The truck was still running well, which was nice. We'd wondered.

At about 13,000 feet we were driving past Casapalca, a mining town where silver, zinc, lead and copper are pulled from the ground. It looked like a cold, hard place to live. I tracked down a newspaper article that claimed the men there commonly labored for 12 hours a day to earn $116 a month in 2008. A disheartening figure. Miners have it bad everywhere, don't they?

There were miners in their hard hats, but it didn't seem to be a man camp. There were sweet-looking children with little dirty faces, playing or watching cars go by and women in the traditional garb which, suddenly, made good sense. I'll bet that a brimmed hat crowning colorful layers, skirts and thick socks and knits, offers some pretty darned good triangle-shaped protection from the cold.

A compelling, if brief, peek into a very different sort of life.

14,000 feet above sea level, then 14,500, we watched the altimeter and the scenery with almost equal fascination.

You might think this was becoming a miserable trip. Not in the least. We were driving up into the Andes! I mean, how great is that?

It was beautiful up there.

We got out of the truck one last time at Ticlio Pass, the highest railroad crossing in the world, at 15,807 feet. Bloody cold!

Briefest of brief posing for photos, then the heck back into the warm truck and descending down the road from there.

Now that the thrill of the summit had passed, I was feeling more than a bit off, and, judging by the lack of conversation in the truck, so was everyone else. Headachy, queasy, just bad.

The sun deserted us as well, and we fled back down all 15,000 feet to temperate, misty Lima. It turned out to be completely true that by simply returning to lower altitudes, altitude sickness goes away and you feel much, much better.

Ironically, many miles later, there was a train near our turn-off, now with its brilliant headlamp blazing. Points to Royce for choosing a good landmark after all.

A long and amazing day, crowned with cocktails and good Italian comfort food when we got back to the coast. We were exhausted.

But what a well-earned exhaustion it was.

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