Sunday, January 31, 2010
Spring break 2008: 10,800 feet above sea level
Ten days later I hike up Wayna Picchu, gasping for air and peeling layers. At the peak I gaze down at Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, inducing a wave of vertigo. I recognize the view from advertisements and postcards and sit on a rock near the ledge just long enough for a stranger to take my picture. The rush of having made it on my own and the conflicting urge to share the experience with someone overwhelms me.
It's spring break my senior year of college, and I've booked a $450 flight to Lima on a whim. At the airport gate I wait in a crowd of brown Latinos in scruffy clothes who whisper in Spanish and cradle small children on their laps. I feel like a lone Caucasian diva and start to worry about more than the two days of classes I'll miss.
That night at the Lima airport my friend Julia, ultra-tanned and wearing teeny shorts, waits for me. "You need some sun!" she squeals and hugs me. "This is Pedro," she introduces a short guy dressed like a Hollister model. Of course she’d try to set me up with one of her friends. On the one-hour drive to Julia's house her Mazda speeds around sand mountains looming over deserted beaches. She's the only one of her friends with a car, and they say she thinks she's the Paris Hilton of Lima. "Hola niñas," her family’s live-in maid, a tiny woman in a nightgown, greets us from the kitchen where she watches a telenovela.
“You should talk to Pedro,” Julia winks a few days later when I tell her I want to travel outside of Lima before I leave. “He studies turismo.” We both know I should go to Machu Picchu, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, a remote archaeological masterpiece 8,000 feet above sea level. But with only four days left I don’t have time for the 24-hour, cliff-hugging bus ride through the Andes.
Julia touches her heart whenever she mentions Cuzco, the entry city to Machu Picchu and the capital of the ancient Inca Empire. It combines her two favorite things – a perpetual party scene with lots of foreign men. "Tienes que ir," Julia says. “You can’t come to Peru and not go."
At 3 a.m. the next morning Julia shakes me awake. My taxi is here to take me to the airport for my 5 a.m. flight. As the plane descends in Cuzco the majestic peaks of the Andes jut above the clouds. We’ve gone from about 1,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level in 45 minutes.
On the ride into town my taxi driver asks where I’m staying. “That place is full of drug dealers,” he says when I name the hostel. He suggests I stay at another pensión instead and parks in front of an office. I’m confused until I realize we’re at a travel agency. His friend has a deal on a trip to Machu Picchu for me, he says. “No necesito un paquete,” I try to explain. I’ll get to the pre-Columbian enigma on my own.
That afternoon I give a taxi driver the bus station address. He drops me off on a gritty side of town in front of a crowded dirt yard littered with trash. This can’t be it. I’m the only tourist. Everyone is Quechua. The indigenous women have braided hair and bowler hats and carry babies wrapped on their backs in colorful shawls. The word baños is spray painted on a cinder block wall where men urinate, barely concealed by a low ledge. “Éste es la estación de autobus?” I ask.
“Si, Si,” everyone says. Still I’m sure there’s a mistake. I run down the street looking for a taxi, but there are none in this part of town. Half an hour later a bus pulls in. I wait in the long line, panicking as the sun lowers. The little man in front of me, Luis, assures me that this bus will take me to Ollantaytambo. "You just have to change líneas once," he says. “What? Change buses?” I ask. I pay the 20-cent fare and squish my way on. I feel suffocated under the backpack in my lap, inhaling the stench of unwashed bodies. Passengers stand crammed in the aisles, hugging their belongings in garbage bags.
What seems like hours later it’s pitch black, and we’re deep in the Sacred Valley of Urubamba. Finally, we come to a town. “Vamos! Rapido!” Luis nudges me. The last bus to Ollantaytambo is leaving. He pushes aside his wife and baby and jumps off the bus while clutching my arm. He runs with me across the dark parking lot to a white van ready to pull away. Inside sit an old man and a couple with a baby who gawk at me. It feels like midnight when the driver pulls down steep gravel driveways to let passengers off in front of what look like shanties in the darkness.
"Are there no attractive men in Peru?" I'd said to Julia at a dance club. When Pedro glanced toward me and walked away I knew he’d heard.
My alarm goes off at 4 a.m. I look in the mirror and see that my eyes have nearly swollen shut. I imagine I've been bitten by an exotic bed bug. Outside I get disoriented in the rainy night. My train leaves in 10 minutes. I’m panicking. I see headlights ahead and wave. “Dónde está la estación del tren?” I ask the handsome driver with a mustache. He nods to the teenage boy in the backseat and says he’s dropping him off there. He tells me to hop in, and I do.
On the four-hour train ride into the Amazon basin my exhausted head throbs to the blaring laughter and German conversation of the women beside me. We hear the violent Urubamba River rushing down the mountains in the darkness as the train climbs up the steep tracks. Finally dawn breaks, revealing the Andes in all their mystic glory. My classmates are sitting listening to a Media Law lecture right now, and here I am in deep in the South American jungle.
Back at the counter the toothless man presents me with my sewn-up backpack. "Mil gracias. Un milagro," I say and offer him a few soles, but he flashes his gums and shakes his head. I run to the station in a rainstorm of Biblical proportions.
I join middle-aged American couples wearing designer hiking boots who’ve just trekked the Inca Trail on the tourist train this time. I notice the big diamond rings on the fingers of the women and wonder how they’ve maintained manicured nails. "Why do the parents allow this?" they say when village children chase our train. "They're as bad as the suicidal bus drivers."
I catch my overnight flight home to the States from Lima two days later, arriving so discombobulated that I circled the long-term lot almost an hour before I find my car. I nod my way through the three-hour drive home. A nasty waterborne bacteria keeps me in bed the next day.
Still, for weeks I walk around campus glowing with my big secret: Who’d believe that the shy girl with the lip gloss and pink scarf just got back from backpacking in the Andes?