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Monday, March 26, 2012

So high, so high, I've climbed the mountains of the sky...

The next morning, another supposed-to be-early start. We'd waited a good while in the hotel reception area for our translator, whom we'd never met, Mike pacing, irritated while I was more blasé about it, assuming it was a Peruvian time sort of thing. Most nationalities aren't as time-centric as we are, after all.

After half an hour I sent an email and made a phone call, but it was too early in the day for either of those to have done any good, as we both knew full well. I did it anyway to placate him a bit.

I can't speak for Mike, but I was still smarting over our inadvertent bad behavior from the night before and was determined to be the most pleasant, culturally with-it white girl in town, to maybe restore some karma, spread some good will.

When our translator finally made it, we were surprised to shake hands with a petite blond German girl who introduced herself as  Laura. She was quite angry we'd been told the wrong time, and apologised that we'd waited. We told her never mind; to my mind, if you think everything is going to go smoothly on vacation, you should probably stay home. More predictable.

Bundled into the taxi, we were off to the bus waiting area

which wasn't a station, by any means, simply a place where dusty vehicles gathered, a bit battered, some with tires barer of tread than one might like. As I understood it, each driver arranged fares and destinations, either ahead of time or on the spot, then set off without further ado as soon as they had enough passengers to fill the two or three rows of seats, up to 8 people and the driver, more if there were kids in laps.

Chickens scuttled and clucked underfoot, stray dogs watched warily, vendors offered eggs.

Speaking of predictable, I had foolishly thought there would be a restroom; we knew the buses were too small to have them, and we were going to be on the road for hours and hours. Laura asked if it was an emergency -should she ask the bus drivers and the passengers to wait for me? I decided that would not be along the lines of my dictum to be culturally sensitive, that I would deal with it until the petrol station stop, which, she assured me, was not too long up the road.

Mike and I were settled in the middle row of the bus, Laura in the front next to the driver. Almost immediately she dropped off to sleep, her head lolling this way and that.

My spouse and I exchanged glances; for a translator, she surely didn't talk much and it would have been nice to have someone telling us about the lands we were passing through. Oh well, we thought.

The little bus had set off at good speed, climbing up and soon we were once again traversing the farmlands and rolling hills of the Sacred Valley, heading toward the Andes Mountains. In the third row behind us, two of the passengers were lustily singing with vigorous young male voices to Spanish pop songs whenever one came on that that they favored, which was often enough.

I suppose this would be a good time to explain what the heck we were doing on that little bus.

We were going to spend the night at an organic coffee, cacao and tea plantation in Huayopata on the edge of the Amazon jungle.

Was I stoked? Indescribably so.

At the petrol station  one of the young men in the last row bought an enormous plate of food and the singing petered out for awhile as they feasted with their plastic forks on some sort of spiced meat and potatoes. Then the singing began again. Festive.

Eventually the radio died as we climbed up into the mountains, to be replaced with an MP3 player, an occasional 80's song from the States,  and winding curves. The mountains were closer now. Our driver took it as a personal affront if anyone dared drive in front of us and aggressively passed each and all, heedless of the road or speed, and took corners as though we were being pursued by the hounds of hell.

Laura was either listlessly propped against his shoulder or whipped around like a rag doll while I happily discovered that I could hold onto the center console seat with right hand if we were swooping left and with my left when we careened right and keep my seat relatively well.

Suddenly Laura sat straight up and said something in rapid fire to the driver, her mouth behind her cupped hands. He screeched to a halt in the middle of the road, steep precipice dropping into nothingness to one side, cliff to the other, and blind corners in front and behind us. Everyone except me bailed out to stretch their legs and most of them gathered to watch our guide throw up repeatedly into the street.

Once I realised what was happening I decided to stay in the bus; she didn't need an audience and I wanted a metal frame around me. No other vehicles appeared while we waited, and I thanked our lucky stars. Everyone got back in, Laura looking green and spent. "I have the flu," she said, "I took pills, and I thought I would be better, but..."

Oh, marvelous.

Happily, she fell back asleep, apparently a bit better. I was torn between feeling terrible for her and wondering how we could avoid getting sick in this petri dish of a bus.

As we got higher it got colder, and damper, rocks frequently strewn across the road, the road slipping and winding enough to give me a shoulder workout as I continued to grab the seat in front of me, remaining calm, if jostled. Mike was looking a bit concerned, and both of us were well aware that there are more "Bus/ Lorry In ______ (insert random third world country, like Peru,) Plunges Off Precipice Killing _____ (insert number here) Passengers and Driver" incidents than room in a daily paper to report them all, but while there may have been reason, there was no benefit to worrying about it at this point.

Plus, the roads could have been worse, and the tires could have been balder. We could have been riding on the roof.

This having been said, I think most people I know would either have been digging their fingernails into their palms or shoving fists in their mouths to have kept themselves from screaming.

This would be because most people apparently have a better grip of reality and mortality than I do.

Denial and ignorance can be a carefully cultivated and useful skill set.

The hills finally become mountains, and we crossed the Andes at snowy Abra Malaga Pass, 14,200 feet. About the same as Mt. Rainier. The cheerful young men in the back asked our driver to stop once again, and, surprisingly he agreed, so we all got out to look around and get some thin but blessedly fresh air.

Yes, I really love my llama hat. No, I don't care if it IS dorky.

Two boys were playing a game with a string and spool and the young South Americans from the back seat rushed over to say hello and take photos with them. You can see why.

The boys seemed shy, looking over at us now and then. I figured they'd seen their share of tourists; downhill-only cycling trips start from this pass, which, after looking at the steep and serpentine road seemed like a dumber than usual idea.

Church with carved doors (above).
Note how plain the seating area is, in contrast with the elaborate altar (below).

The journey continued, and yet, something as missing. Ah, the jolly guys in the back weren't singing any more. Perhaps they'd drifted off to sleep.

Or perhaps they had altitude sickness.

Half of people who journey to 14,000 feet, particularly a rapid ascent to that height, get altitude sickness in one form or another, most commonly headaches, but also nausea and vomiting, fatigue, or worse. Much worse, and it can strike as low as 8, 000 feet.

The  second guess was confirmed by sudden, violent vomiting sounds in the backseat from the larger of the two young men. We were having odd luck in our encounters with young men. Between the gurgling, the heaving, and the smell, the little bus was suddenly and inescapably a very unpleasant place to be. The driver rolled down his window, the only one that could roll down, which helped a little. A very little.

The vomiting continued. I couldn't believe that anyone could throw up that much, and wished, for his sake and ours, that he hadn't consumed such a large plate of food. I also started to worry about the bag capacity. To add to the good time we were having, Mike, next to me, was starting to gag, a sympathetic reflex that would do no one any good.

The woman on the other side of me dug in her bag and came up with cotton balls and a small bottle of isopropyl alcohol. She poured alcohol onto each cotton ball and passed them out to the passengers,  gesturing that we should hold them under our noses. Apparently she was old hat at this sort of thing, and we accepted them gratefully.

Would you believe they actually helped? The sharp astringency muted the sickening smell, though nothing could be done about the gruesome sound effects. We felt a bit better but he sounded really miserable.

Long miles later he was still heaving, and moaning, his eyes rolling back and his skin a sickening blue-gray color beneath the usual tan. We were getting more than a bit worried about him. Finally, and I don't remember why, the driver stopped the bus and the sick man's friend tried to help him up and out. He was literally too weak to stand and slumped to the floor, shaking so badly I thought he might have been having a seizure.

His forehead was burning hot to the touch, his breathing irregular and shallow, perspiration standing out in beads on his forehead as I tried to locate a pulse, which, when I finally found it, was thready, alarmingly rapid and weak.

We thought then that he was going to die. I put my cold hands on his face and neck and sent an informal, heartfelt little prayer to the universe for him.

the sign says place of haze
The bus driver, with what at the time seemed like shocking callousness, ordered us all back into the bus and took off down the mountain as soon as the doors were shut.

I wrenched around in my seat to encouraged the friend who was, by this time, beside himself with worry, to remove his friend's heavy coat and loosen his clothing, reducing the heat that would have made him feel lousy even under regular circumstances. Somehow the friend understood my English and crappy attempts at Spanish and got it done as we hurtled along the increasingly bad roads.

Laura told us later that she'd laid into the driver for being so uncaring. He told her, without apology, that he'd had a passenger, a woman ("sitting in the same seat as you are now!")  with babe in arms on another trip over these mountains, and the mother had gotten quite ill.

How ill? She died. And left him with a nameless corpse and a baby to deal with.

He was none too pleased to be landed in such a situation and knew that the only thing we could do to help the young man was to descend from altitude as quickly as possible, to stop fussing and fluttering so uselessly and get the hell out of there.

We careened down the mountain, around switchbacks and onto gravel and dirt and sections of pavement. Water flowed down over the road at regular intervals; apparently there was a river running straight down the mountain, whereas we had to loop back and forth, following the roads. 

Construction workers had started work to redirect it through pipes, but for most of the journey it sprayed up over the sides of the bus as we sped heedlessly through again and again, to no ill effect.

Looking around, the jungle was making its presence felt once more. The trees rose and thickened the further down the mountain we came. Also, the moaning in the backseat had stopped. I was afraid to turn around to look, but you'll be happy to hear that the descent had done miracles for our friend. He looked tired and worn, and his color wasn't what it had been before, but he managed a wan smile and you could tell, after all that, he was going to be fine.

In fact, by the time the now-filthy little bus dumped us off at the plantation, he was nearly as perky as before and gave us a hearty wave and ¡adiós!

Me? I needed a cup of coffee. Badly.

Which worked out well, since we were guests of a coffee plantation...



  1. Oh my goodness! What an adventure! I complain about traveling the roads in Ireland, I'd probably be a wreck in Peru! Hey, my current reading material made me think of you - American Chica (a memoir of a Peruvian/American woman)

    1. They drive on the left in Ireland. That makes me nuts. :) I don't mind, though, if someone else is doing the driving! :) Thank you for the cook talk, always very welcome!!!