Friday, July 30, 2010
Mountaineers and backpackers returning from arduous expeditions congregate in the town center. Getting to my dorm bed involves tripping over giant boots, ice picks, crampons, tents, sleeping bags and piles of provisions.
I am hopelessly intimidated.
I´m here for the Santa Cruz Trek, a famous four-day circuit with some of the world´s most thrilling scenery -- snowcrusted jagged mountain peaks that jut into the clouds and loom over azure lakes and golden meadows where sheep and cattle graze.
When I handed over my $100 for the excursion I innocently failed to make the connection that I was signing up for four days with no hygienic facilities, showers or running water. I blush at the memory that I packed a towel and my mesh shower sponge. I even stuffed some face powder in my backpack. At least I knew better than to bring more than one outfit as I´d be carrying all my belongings on my back.
I jolted awake at a knock, grabbed my headlamp to locate my belongings and rushed to the bathroom to get myself together. Then I went to reception bundled in my jacket with my backpack and water bottle in hand, only to find the lights out and the door locked. No bus waited for me in the street. I shined my flashlight on a clock in the office. 3:40 a.m. The groggy receptionist sat up in his mattress on the floor and rubbed his eyes. Lo siento! I hissed. Then I went back to bed still dressed, waiting for another knock.
During the drive I mentally replayed the previous day´s experience and the blow it inflicted on my confidence in my athletic ability. The saleswoman in the mountain bike agency had assured me that I´d need no experience. Yet I´d arrived to the bike warehouse to meet the New Zealand couple that would be joining me -- a pair of chiseled athletic gods. The man was seven-feet tall. A professional rugby player. They wore spandex shorts. I had on jeans. They graciously pointed out that I´d put on my cycling gloves backwards.
I couldn´t figure out my gears, but I refused to give up, huffing behind them with my hamstrings on fire up the steep, never-ending hills as we bumped by village women lugging water and children leading mules. I feared my forearms would give out on the brakes. My insides jostled on every rock. When we finished the nearly vertical 1,000 meters down in Huaraz four hours later, I was humiliated, exhilarated, exhausted and throbbing with adrenaline.
The first day we hiked past towering eucalyptus trees and boulders carpeted in moss with the Río Santa Cruz roaring along the trail. We encountered dozens of other trekkers and even more mules. I felt a pang of sympathy for the burros. They looked as cuddly as a stuffed Eeyore and heaved with exhaustion under the load of all the trekking gear -- tents, sleeping bags and food. The solid and stocky village men led them along, sometimes prodding them with sticks. Occasionally a horse would trot past, an emergency animal used to quickly transport sick trekkers.
We went on, traipsing through expansive pampa meadow and by alpine wildflowers before arriving to our campsite under menacing glacial peaks. There I peeled off my boots to inspect my new callouses and blisters.
That night the wind whipped my little one-man tent as the temperature dropped below 10 degrees. I shivered, curled up into a ball in my high-tech sleeping bag, sliding on the sloped hillside with rocks jutting into my back, wearing all the clothes I had. I coughed most of the night, sure the other campers would eventually toss my tent in the river. Tears welled in my eyes when I tried to work the jammed zipper on my tent door to use the bathroom for the second time. I swore I´d never camp again.
Edith woke us up with coca mate tea at 6 a.m. After my morning bread and hot chocolate I was ready to hit the trail again, feeling better as the sun rose overhead. We trekked along waterfalls spilling over rock walls, jade and emerald lakes and marshland. That day´s walk included a breath-stealing, two-hour ascent to Punta Union. During the entire climb I walked briskly without stopping, looking down at the ground rather than up ahead toward the torturous path. At the top we took in the goose-bump-inducing views of toothy ridges and razored peaks, all white. As we ate our sandwiches and fruit we spotted a viscacha, a rodent that looks like a rabbit with a squirrel´s tail.
The third day was a long eight hours. Edith led us on a side trip to a mirador for a sensational mountainscape panorama, and we continued up to the climber´s base camp for Alpamayo (a frozen pyramid once dubbed the most beautiful mountain in the world) and then kept climbing past lovely red quenua trees, amethyst lupins and tube-shaped cacti up to a pristine aqua lake under threateningly close glaciered crowns.
At the trail´s end in the hamlet of Vaquería our van awaited us. I tried to appreciate the mind-blowing, airplane-quality views of the countryside below during the dizzying, two-hour descent, but I dozed off in exhaustion with the sun on my face and Latin pop music in my ears, fully content in the moment and willing the bliss to stick around a few days.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
In the past 40 days I´ve learned that it´s possible to live with only two pairs of jeans and two T-shirts. I´ve gotten used to the way my face looks without make-up. My daily routine no longer includes body lotion and perfume. I´ve forgotten how my hair feels when blown out long and smooth with a hair dryer. I´ve gone days without encountering a mirror. Or checking my e-mail or logging on Facebook.
Yet through all of this I´ve never gone to bed without washing my face, brushing my teeth, and God bless my orthodontist, putting in my retainers. Sometimes that meant splashing river water on my face, getting out my toothbrush in bus station bathrooms splattered with vomit and diarrhea or scrubbing my retainers in a possibly snake-infested jungle fountain. And, may my dermatologist read this, I never stepped out into the oppressive mountain sun without lathering myself in sunblock and even donning an embarrassing safari hat I bought in the black market on the streets of La Paz before a spontaneous jungle expedition.
I can´t remember bathrooms with toilet paper and soap or with doors that even shut, besides lock. I sigh with relief if water actually flows from the faucet, always cold. I´ve accepted that sometimes baño means a hole in the ground with two footprints in front. I automatically hold my breath when I enter a bathroom and come out breathless like I´ve just finished a sprint. I´ll have to train myself to flush toilet paper again instead of tossing it in an overflowing basket.
Hot showers are a luxurious surprise. A hot shower with good pressure is an extravagance that I´ve encountered only once on this journey. I try to recall what it was like to drink water safe from the tap or buy produce from the market without fearing for my health. Or to accept change without worrying that it´s counterfeit.
I´ve learned to wash my socks and underwear in hostel sinks. I´ve discovered that almost no price is ever fixed, whether it´s a hostel, tour or earrings. I´m now wise enough to request a seat toward the front of the bus after suffering nights bouncing over the wheel on unpaved roads with cold air and exhaust fumes blowing in from the iced-over window that wouldn´t close. And I´ve found out that even if I have my bus ticket, I won´t be allowed to board unless I´ve paid for the right to access the terminal.
Every meal is served with coca tea, made from the same leaves as cocaine but sharing none of the illicit drug´s affects. (The people in this part of the world have been planting, chewing and drinking the plant for thousands of years, believing it to possess dozens of medicinal benefits essential for the hostile, high altitude conditions.)
I crossed the world´s driest desert in a jeep. I went into the jungle. I traveled down the world´s most dangerous road. I´ve seen geysers, volcanoes, lakes of every color, deadly mines, ancient ruins, pampas, some of the world´s highest mountains and deepest canyons and the world´s largest salt flat. I´ve rafted on canyon rivers, trekked in the Cordillera Blanca, canoed on tropical lakes and mountain biked in the Andes.
In six weeks I´ve had no less than five adventures of a lifetime. Please don´t think I´m bragging. I´m just in awe of my blessings. I´m fully aware that I´m utterly unworthy of any of this -- I´m not especially daring or outgoing. I wear makeup and love shopping and read fashion magazines. I don´t know East from West and bought my first big backpack on the street in Chile two days before I left.
And now I´m left the unrelenting urge to tell you all about it.