Sunday, January 31, 2010

Spring break 2008: 10,800 feet above sea level

My roommates in Charleston don't get it. Fly to South America alone? Am I out of my mind? “She's always locking herself out of the house. She can’t even drive off the peninsula without getting lost,” one of the Southern belles says. “Now she announces that she's flying off to the Third World.”

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.

The next day we lounge on the beach before lunch in the bohemian Barranco neighborhood. We sit on a terraza and eat fresh ceviche, chunks of fish marinated in lime juice, anticuchos, grilled marinated beef heart, and papas a la huancaína, boiled potatoes with creamy spiced cheese sauce.

“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.

I arrive to the main Plaza de Armas at 7 a.m. It’s 40 degrees and empty. I feel like death and circle the square until I find an open kiosk selling Diamox, altitude sickness pills. I head to the train station to get a ticket to Machu Picchu for the next morning, praying they're not sold out. I snag a departure trip on the budget Backpackers train. The agent tells me that it leaves at 5 a.m. from Ollantaytambo, a village on the way to Machu Picchu. That means I’ll have to go there tonight. Bussing to a remote village without a map or hostel reservation terrifies me. A wave of nausea strikes again as she writes the address of the bus station.

As the sun rises and warms the air I start to feel better. I go on to visit to a colonial church built over an Inca sun temple and watch a parade of Quechua women in colorful traditional costumes break into song and dance. I wonder if it’s a performance for tourists or if life in Cuzco is like a real-life musical.

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.

We curve up into the mountains. We’re flying along the cliffs, winding through peaks and valleys of gargantuan proportions. Luis in the seat beside me senses my fear and occasionally makes reassuring comments on our progress. I’m having a minor nervous breakdown, imagining that I’ll freeze in the mountains or bandits will kidnap me. No one in the world knows where I am right now. I am alone in the Andes with a backpack.

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.

Eventually we turn on a road guarded by an original Inca stonewall. I climb up the hill to Ollantaytambo to a plaza where children play tag and teenagers flirt. Adults chat outside storefronts. Relieved, I find a hostel listed in my Lonely Planet. I’m the only one in the cold, dark, two-story building. I wash my face with the icy water but skip a shower. I try to sleep in the silence but think about Julia and Pedro back in Lima. Pedro showed me around Lima all week, but it doesn't matter now. "You've already ruined it," Julia told me before I left. I replay the scene in my mind.

"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.

Our train journey ends at the little town of Aguas Calientes where I join a bus with a group of perky visor-wearing and Nikon-toting Japanese tourists. We ziz-zag for 30 minutes up a narrow dirt road to Machu Picchu. I shiver in the dense fog that shrouds the mysterious city. Its isolation protected it from invaders until a British historian rediscovered it in 1911. It lies between two mountains, with its edges dropping down a cliff into the surrounding Urubamba River 1,500 feet below. The self-contained city is invisible from beneath and guarded by a formidable mountain from behind. The fading fog reveals the Indiana Jones-worthy ruins -- houses, temples, and staircases. Llamas graze between the agricultural terraces and aqueducts. Crowning the city is the Intihuatana stone, an astronomic timepiece that aligns with the sun during equinoxes.
Back in Aguas Calientes I follow the signs to the eponymous hot springs when a hole rips in my backpack. My things spill so I hold everything to my chest like a giant baby. When I pay to enter the thermal pools the toothless man wearing a fitted gray cap at the counter offers to sew my backpack. I ask him how much he’ll charge. "Nada," he says. I hesitate, unsure if I should trust him but hand over my backpack.

The pools have a muddy look and the faintest sulfur smell but are soothing and warm. South American women wearing T-shirts and shorts in the water whisper among themselves. “Que bonitas y bronceadas,” one says, admiring a gaggle of bronzed French girls in bikinis.

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."

At dawn the next morning a taxi drops me off at Sacsayhuamán, a prehistoric walled fortress forming the head of a jaguar overlooking Cuzco. No one is there. When it starts raining I wrap my pink scarf around my hair and wander the ruins alone in the wet silence. From Sacsayhuamán I walk along a deserted, muddy roadside and imagine Pedro and Julia lazing on the beach in Lima and my friends in Charleston hustling to class. I veer off the road to a maze of unmarked ruins in a valley. Then I ask the clerk at a desolate orange store how to get to Puku Pukara and Tambomachay. He points across the road and tells me to wait there for a bombi. While I wait a shepherdess in colorful indigenous dress leads her herd and two dogs up the road. Soon I realize that bombi means another Volkswagen van like the one I rode to Olllantaytambo. This time, I climb in with confidence.

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?


  1. Rachel,

    This is absolutely beautiful. I'm 110 percent envious of your adventure into the Andes. Since I've returned from a semester in Spain in 2008, all I can think about is leaving Charleston again.

    As long as I've got the clothes on my back and an open road ahead of me, I dream about leaving without any reservation whatsoever and finding myself among natives of some foreign land. I will graduate in May and am constantly pondering what it will take to get me out there once again.


    Nathan Frandino

  2. Nathan, I love your attitude. My trip to Peru made me believe anything is possible. If I could do this, ANYONE can. The only thing holding us back is fear (and responsibility). My adventure over there inspired me to apply for the scholarship that's taking me to Chile. I wish you the best after graduation!


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