Adventure & Disaster in Peru – Day 5

Day 5:  #Turning it Around

In my dreams, P2D2 had just abandoned the trekking group and, fueled by anger, set out into the wilderness alone to search for us.  Meanwhile, RohZ was kneeling in a sprawling green patch of clovers, desperately seeking the coveted four-leaf clover amid the dense vegetation.

I opened my eyes.  Somewhere, an alarm was chiming.  I jumped out of bed to retrieve my phone, only to find the alarm wasn’t mine.  That’s when I noticed that many of the bunks that had been empty the evening before were now occupied.  Strangers must have arrived at the hostel room overnight while my friends and I were asleep.  Phone in hand, I crept back into bed, and a guy soon climbed out of his bunk to shut off the alarm on his own phone.  I closed my eyes.

The next time I awoke, I heard a strange voice talking to a familiar one, along with the sounds of somebody packing.  I waited for the noises to subside, drifting in and out of sleep, until I woke up for real.  SK was sitting up in the bed next to me, checking her phone.

“Good morning!” she whispered.

“Were you talking to someone?” I asked.

“Yeah…this American guy was packing to leave for the airport.  He gave me his water bottles and some other stuff he didn’t need anymore.”

“That was nice of him.”  I rubbed my eyes and checked my own phone.

KP had sent all of us a Facebook message.  “Good morning, sunshines!  Hope you slept well, showered, and won the war :) She went on to request that SK bring her certain items from her luggage, continued to debate whether or not she should take an early flight home, and updated us on her insurance situation (she was the only one of us to buy traveler’s insurance – for like $12! – and her friends back home were helping her communicate with the insurance company about the accident).

SK had also been in contact with KP earlier this morning and broke the good news that KP had actually walked to the bathroom by herself!  Well, she had used a walker, but it was still good progress compared to yesterday.

Soon, the rest of my friends were awake, too.  Quietly, so as not to awaken the other sleeping hostel-mates, we began packing up our things because we had only booked the hostel for one night…but we still weren’t sure if we’d be able to go to Aguas Calientes today.  How the day would unfold remained a mystery.  We put our big luggage in storage again and went to the lobby to check out before we headed to O2 clinic.

Just as we were about to step out the door, two Peruvian girls burst into the hostel frantically, asking for SK by her first name.  At first I didn’t think they could mean our friend SK…how would these random girls know her?  They must have been looking for some other girl with the same first name.  But then SK began talking to them, and realized these girls were sent by Edgar, who worked at the Salkantay Trekking office.

Their English was broken, and our Spanish was worse, but we somehow managed to gather that Edgar sent the girls to help us arrange a train to Aguas Calientes, along with a van to the train station in Ollantaytambo (which none of us could pronounce correctly).  After some debate – we were thinking we’d have to wait on KP’s CT scans before making a decision – we followed the girls down the block to the PeruRail office.  Perhaps we could catch a train in the evening, after the results of the scans were in.

But the lady at the office shook her head.  “No mas.”  All of the trains to Aguas Calientes for the day were booked.  That is, all except for one – the most expensive one.  How convenient.  Oh, and this train would leave the Ollantaytambo station at 1:30 p.m., and the boarding time was even earlier.  Ollantaytambo was over an hour away from Cusco.  It was almost 10:30 a.m. now.  And we still had to visit KP at the clinic.

We looked at one another.  What should we do?

KP had told us last night that we should continue on to Aguas Calientes.  And she had walked this morning, which was promising.  But what if her CT scans revealed something serious?  What if there was some hidden threat lurking in her spine?

Time was ticking.  The PeruRail lady was looking at us expectantly.

If we waited until after we visited KP, even the tickets for this last train might be sold out.

“We’ll take them,” we said.

We still weren’t 100% sure that we’d be able to make this train, but just in case we could, at least we’d have the tickets already.

But we didn’t want to waste any more time…we had to rush over to KP.  We asked Edgar’s girls to buy the tickets on our behalf, and we would reimburse the company.  SK also emailed Edgar to see if they could send a van to O2 clinic at noon to take us to the train station.  She was confused by his multiple responses, which all repeatedly asked if she could confirm the van would take us to Ollantaytambo, so she tried to confirm her request in a new email thread.  (She later realized that Edgar’s repeated requests to confirm Ollantaytambo were due to SK’s repeated misspelled confirmations for “Ollanpampa”, which was actually similar to the name of another city.)

We made our way back outside, where SK hailed a cab – “I actually hailed it! It actually stopped!” – and we hopped in and gave the driver the address to O2.

The cab to O2 was only five soles, which came out to less than $2.00 in U.S. currency.

“Cuanto cuesta para Ollantaytambo?”  RohZ asked the driver.

“Ollantaytambo?”

“Para el estacion de tren,” I added.

“Ochenta soles,” the driver said.  His eyes gleamed in the rearview mirror…he’d likely never had such a large fare before.

“Eighty soles?”  RohZ looked at us.  “But Edgar is charging us $70 U.S. for the van – that’s like 190 soles!  We should just take this cab.”

“But the van is bigger…you know how PS gets motion sickness,” SK said.  “And I don’t know if this cab has ever gone so far before.  It usually does very short trips.”

“Plus, the van is through our trekking company, so it is guaranteed to get us to the train station on time,” PS said.  “A cab would want payment whether it makes it to the station in time or not.”

“But the cab is so much cheaper!” RohZ insisted.  “And I’m sure the cab can get us there in time.”

“Nuestra tren es a la una y media,” I told the driver.  “Cuanto tiempo para venir?”

“Dos horas.”

“It’ll take us two hours to get there…” I looked at my phone.  It was almost 11:00.  “If we leave in 30 minutes, it might be doable.”

“But those girls have our train tickets,” PS pointed out.  “They’re supposed to bring the tickets to us along with the van…”

“Damn, we should’ve just bought the tickets ourselves while we were at the office,” SK said.

On top of all this, we still had to visit KP before any of our plans could be solidified.  Everything was up in the air and subject to cancellation.

 

When we arrived at O2, the driver looked at us expectantly.

“What should we tell him?” I asked.  It was 11:00 now.

“Tell him to come back at 11:30,” RohZ said.  “Just in case.”

I relayed this message to the driver in my broken Spanish, and he smiled happily in acquiescence.

Then SK, PS, RohZ, and I burst into O2 – rushing past the front desk, again, like we owned the joint – and threw open KP’s door.

Her room was empty.

“Where is she?!” SK shrieked in a panic.  We glanced into the open bathroom, which was also empty.  “Where is KP?”

SK raced back across the hall to the front desk.  “KP! KP!  Donde esta KP?”

The lady at the desk, alarmed by SK’s distress, replied, “Tomographia!  Tomographia!”

My friends and I looked at each other.  It appeared KP had gone in for her CT scan earlier than expected.  The lady at the desk indicated that KP should be returning to the clinic soon.

“And now, we wait.”  SK sat in the waiting room chair and pulled out her phone, picking up the clinic’s Wi-Fi.  “I guess I’ll email Edgar and tell him to cancel the van, right?”

We nodded uncertainly, and she set to work.

“But we still need the train tickets,” PS reminded her.  “Ask if the girls can still bring those to us before 11:30.”

“KP’s not even here yet,” I said, nervously.  We definitely had to see her before we decided to go anywhere.

“Hey, our driver is still waiting outside,” RohZ said after peeking out the door.  It was true.  The cab was parked resolutely in front of the clinic, the driver waiting patiently for his biggest trip yet.  No pressure.

Everything was chaotic.  KP still wasn’t here.  The girls had our train tickets.  We weren’t sure if Edgar had gotten our message yet.  The cab was waiting outside.  And time was ticking…ever ticking.

“Listen,” PS said suddenly.  “Let’s look at it this way.  The van might seem to cost a lot more than the cab, but we’re splitting the cost among the four of us.  And once you convert that to U.S. dollars, we’d each be paying only $10 more for the van.  Is $10 really that big of a deal right now?”

We all looked at one another.  Well, when he put it that way…

“Let’s take the van!” we agreed.

RohZ went outside to let the cabbie know we didn’t need the ride anymore.  The cabbie was a trooper about it and smiled good-naturedly before taking off.

“At least we didn’t keep him waiting too long,” RohZ said.

“Whew!  Now we bought ourselves more time to wait for KP,” SK said, relieved.

“But you have to let Edgar know that we want the van at noon, after all…”

“Oh!  Right!”  SK whipped out her phone and set to work again.

Meanwhile, our tummies were grumbling.  We still hadn’t had breakfast.  The area around the clinic wasn’t as cute and touristy as the area near our hostel…this neighborhood was a bit more rundown and packed with locals.  And TripAdvisor didn’t have much guidance in this area.  So PS, RohZ, and I decided to venture out into the street in search of food while SK waited at the clinic in case KP returned.  We found several sketchy-looking places, including a “restaurant” with posters of naked women, before settling on a small local bakery with fresh pastries.  We stocked up on goodies and went back to the clinic.  KP was still not there.

At this point, it was past 11:30.  We ate in the waiting room, PS leaving a trail of crumbs in his wake.  Finally, the doors of the clinic flew open and KP rolled in on a gurney.  She was looking down at her phone.

“Of course she would be on her phone!” SK said.

“Hey guys!” KP said brightly when she saw us.

We greeted her and moved out of the way as the doctors conveyed KP to her room and settled her back into bed.  Then we swarmed around her and demanded to know how she was feeling.

“Still in pain, but better than yesterday,” she said.  “I won’t get the CT scan results until later, though.”

We gave her the clothing, documents, books, and other items she had requested, then sat down to chat with her for a bit before discussing the situation.  The van and train tickets were on their way, but they meant nothing to us if KP was in bad condition.  And it made us nervous that we wouldn’t learn the scan results anytime soon.

Once again, KP insisted that we go, saying that she was doing better than yesterday, repeating that there was nothing more we could do for her here, and adding that she wanted to see pictures of Machu Picchu.  Also, P2D2 would likely stress out even more if another day went by without any contact or information.  After further insistence that she would be fine, she finally convinced us.

SK, who had gotten reddish-pink bandanas for all of us at the beginning of the trip to serve as our “group accessory”, took KP’s bandana from her.

“We’ll take this to Machu Picchu with us tomorrow in your honor and take pictures with it,” SK said.  “It will be like you’re with us in spirit.”

“And as soon as we find a Wi-Fi spot, we’ll send a message to check in on you,” PS added.

“See you tomorrow!”

We said our goodbyes, leaving KP in bed raising her phone to the air in search of Wi-Fi signal, and went outside to meet the girls and our van.  Except the van turned out to be a small car.

“What!  I thought we’d at least be paying more for a van,” PS said.  “But this car is no better than the cab!”

The boys tried to negotiate with the driver for a bit, but the girl tried to explain that cabs had no idea what they were doing when it came to long drives on the highway and would not be able to get us to the station on time.  Finally, to save time – our boarding time was in almost an hour! – we let the matter drop and got into the car, train tickets in hand.

“Rapido, mas rapido, por favor,” SK said as we drove through Cusco.

The driver nodded and sped up as he zipped onto a highway.  “Que tipo de music te gusta?” he asked.

“Music,” I translated.  “He wants to know what type of music we want.”

My friends shrugged.  “Pitbull? Shakira?”

The driver popped in his personally burned CD and began to play….cumbia.  Rhythmic trumpet-heavy Latin music where the lady singer frequently shouted “Marisol!! La orchestra!!” and sang in Spanish about heartbreak, sorrow, heartbreak, being unable to get over someone, heartbreak, and drinking.  Lots of drinking.  Oh, and did I mention heartbreak?

“This is kind of depressing,” I remarked as I tried to translate the lyrics.

The driver turned up the music.  In fact, any time I talked, he turned up the music.  Was my voice that annoying?

“It sounds like this guy got dumped recently,” RohZ murmured.

We kept checking the time as the car sped down the highway.  At one point, we were stopped by the police.

My friends and I looked out the window anxiously, fearing that this would be the way we missed our train, but our driver just slipped the cop some cash.  The cop waved him on.  Easy as pie.  Ah, the perks of bribery!  In no time, we were zooming down the road again.

 

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RohZ’s picture from inside the car

 

Every fifteen minutes or so, our trekking office called the driver to ensure he was making good time.  It was comforting to see he was accountable to someone…the cabbie might not have been so concerned.  Still, SK was freaking out.

“The ticket says ‘Boarding time 12:57.  Otherwise you may not board’,”she cried.  “It’s almost our boarding time!!  They’re not going to let us board!”

“Key word, ‘May’,” I stressed.  “Not ‘cannot board’.  It’s just a possibility…like maybe, maybe not.”

This didn’t seem to comfort SK much.  And at the sound of my voice, the driver turned up the music.

“Man, I still can’t believe we’re on our way to the station,” PS said.  “Even this morning, I seriously thought our trip was over.”

“I know,” SK said.  “After all the crap that’s happened on this trip, it’s crazy to think we might actually be turning it around.”

“Turning it around!” I repeated optimistically.

“SK, it’s crazy how those girls found you,” RohZ said.  “If they had come even one minute later, we would’ve already left the hostel for O2, and they probably never would have been able to find us.  And then we probably wouldn’t have been able to buy a ticket later, even if we wanted to.”

We dwelled on that for a moment.  Life was funny, sometimes.

And then the car started to approach the city of Ollantaytambo, and the music shifted from cumbias about heartbreak to reggaeton about moving on.  We raised our eyebrows in amusement.

“It’s like his emotional progression,” RohZ said.

“It’s past our boarding time!” SK shrieked, checking the clock.  “Rapido, mas rapido!”

The driver turned his head.  “No te preocupes.”  He pointed at himself.  “Driver numero uno!  Driver number one!”

“Yeah…we’ll see about that, buddy,” SK muttered as the rest of us laughed.

By the time we were driving through Ollantaytambo, on the lookout for anything that remotely resembled a train station, the music had shifted again to full-on American party music about dancing and meeting new women.  The energy was high, and so was our anxiety.

The driver stopped at the end of the road leading to the station, where the railroad tracks were just out of sight around the corner.  We had no idea if they would let us on the train…or if our train was still there.  Our departure time was minutes away…

“Corre!  Corre!” the driver shouted to us, miming the running motion.

We jumped out, backpacks slung over our shoulders and duffle bags in hand, and ran.

Well, PS, SK, and I ran.  RohZ was walking behind us at a leisurely pace as though he had all the time in the world.  Perhaps he wanted to wait for the last minute so he could make a dramatic run for it and jump on the train just as it was taking off, Bollywood-style.

Just before the entrance to the station, a guard held his hand up.  Oh no.  Was it too late?

“Pasaporte? Billete?” he asked.

We all rummaged in our bags and whipped out our passports and tickets.  The guard studied each one at an excruciatingly slow speed.  Finally, he waved us through.

The train, that beautiful blue-and-yellow train, was still sitting on the tracks a few yards ahead.  We ran (except for RohZ) until a lady asked us again for our passport and ticket, and then we were on the train.

 

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Our train!

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RohZ’s picture of us running for the train as he lagged behind

 

We breathed a sigh of relief as we settled into our seats, which were two sets of chairs across from each other, with a small table in between.  Through the speakers, soothing instrumental Simon and Garfunkel music was playing on Peruvian pan pipes.

 

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Train interior

 

“I can’t believe we made it,” SK said.

“Oh, whatever.  I was never worried,” RohZ said.  “Hashtag-It-will-be-fine.”

“Come on, guys…we’re turning this trip around,” I said.  “Hashtag-Turning-it-around.”

A few minutes later, the train took off.  A waiter arrived to take our order for lunch – Oh, what?  Our ride included food?! – and soon brought us sandwiches, fruits, and sodas.  (I had almost ordered a glass of water, but my friends gave me horrified looks until I realized that probably wasn’t a safe idea.)

 

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Lunch

 

The train ride to Aguas Calientes was relaxing and scenic.  In addition to the windows on the side of the railcars, the train also had windows in the upper corners so that we could see the peaks of the mountains passing by.  Dense green trees sprouted along the tracks in some parts, while verdant pastures stretched out in other areas.  A wide river snaked along beside us for a while, and we even passed some tiered walls of ancient Inca ruins.

 

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View from the upper windows

 

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Stone walls

 

“Are you sure those walls are ancient?” SK asked.  “They just look like regular stone walls.  They can’t have been built that long ago.”

“Honey, what do you think Machu Picchu is?” PS asked SK.  “It’s all walls!”

“Ohh…right…”

We all laughed at that.

When the train finally came to a stop, we couldn’t believe almost two hours had passed.  For the first time in our trip, time seemed to fly by.

“Why didn’t we take a scenic train to Machu Picchu to begin with?” PS asked.  “And forget this whole trekking business?”

“Next vacation, we’re just staying at five star hotels,” I said.

We disembarked the train and looked around at the station in wonder.  It was the prettiest train station I had ever seen; or at least, the outside of it was.  The patio area was modern and clean, featuring tables and umbrellas on stone floors, along with sleek metal bins for organic, paper, and plastic waste.  Landscaped strips of grass and flowers imbued the site with a lush feel, and the entire area was bordered by tall, green mountains.

 

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Aguas Calientes train station

 

When we walked out into the waiting area, we found a man holding a sign with SK’s name on it, along with the name of our trekking company – Salkantay Trekking.  Finally, we were back on track!  But before the man could direct us to our hostel in Aguas Calientes, we noticed a lady holding another sign – this one with the name of some girl….and P2D2’s first and middle names, along with Salkantay Trekking.

My friends and I looked at one another.

“That can’t be our P2D2, right?” PS asked, confounded.

“No, it can’t be,” SK said.  “We would’ve noticed if he was on the train with us.  Plus, this sign doesn’t show his last name.”

“Maybe his full name didn’t fit on the board,” RohZ suggested.

“It is kind of a big coincidence that this guy has the same first and middle names as P2D2, is part of our same trekking company, and is in the area,” I said.

SK shook her head.  “But we would’ve seen him on the train, for sure.”  She told the lady we had not seen any P2D2 on our train, and the lady stopped waving the sign and walked away.

Soon we were walking through a maze of merchant stalls with tin roofing, where brightly colored geometric textiles mingled with fluffy llama dolls and glittering leaf-shaped jewelry.  When we finally left the marketplace and stepped out into the open air, we were blown away.

The town of Aguas Calientes lay before us like a quaint mountain village from a storybook.  The whole town was enclosed within the walls of huge, green mountains, which didn’t have slopes so much as sheer drop-offs.  And within the dark green confines of the mountains, the town sprouted up around the main railroad and the large, rocky river.  On either side of the railroad, shanty-like shops, restaurants, and hostels lined the curb in a variety of hues, while the river was sandwiched between these structures and the bushy mountainside before looping around to run between two rows of structures.  It was utterly charming – I immediately fell in love with Aguas Calientes.

 

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Aguas Calientes

 

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Aguas Calientes

 

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Aguas Calientes – river between structures and mountains

 

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Aguas Calientes panorama

 

But I was a bit concerned by how blasé the locals had become about the railroad.  We literally had to walk over the railroad in order to cross the “street” and – I kid you not – we saw little kids sitting right in the middle of the railroad, playing with their toys, and even a cute chubby baby crawling blithely along the railroad tracks for a while before his mother casually scooped him up.

 

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Child playing with his toys on the railroad tracks

 

“It’s like they think the railroad is their bedroom!” RohZ said, amazed.

As we walked to the hostel, we neared the part where the river curved through the town.  Against the backdrop of green mountains, a trio of bridges crossed over the river at different junctures, allowing people to traverse to the shops and restaurants on either side.  I was enchanted.

 

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Bridges

 

Finally, we checked in at our hostel and dropped off our bags.  According to the front desk, our trekking group hadn’t hiked in yet…they were expected within a couple of hours.  We would have to wait a little longer before reuniting with P2D2.

 

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Window view from the front of our hostel

 

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View of children playing below our hostel

 

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Window view of river from the back of our hostel

 

“I still feel weird about that sign with P2D2’s name on it,” PS said.  “What if he took a different train from the last town they stopped at instead of hiking?  Or what if he left the trekking group completely to look for us in Cusco and is now coming back?”

I remembered my dream; P2D2, incensed at being left behind, had abandoned the group in search of us.  Could it be possible my dream was more than just an expression of guilty feelings?  Could P2D2 have actually struck out on his own?

“Ok, let’s go back to the train station just in case he’s waiting there,” SK said.  “Since that lady with the sign left as soon as we said he wasn’t on our train.”

We walked back to the train station and searched the crowds.  No sign of P2D2.  Then we looked at the board detailing the incoming trains; there was no other train around this time he could have been on.  It really was just a coincidence that another trekker in the vicinity shared his first and middle names.  P2D2 himself must still be hiking with the trekking group.

We reminisced about the time in Cusco a few days ago – which felt like a month ago – when P2D2 had made one of his classic P2D2 remarks.  “You know,” he had said, out of the blue, “when we finish up the trek to Machu Picchu, we should all get a group massage back here in Cusco before we leave.”

The rest of us had laughed and shaken our heads in amusement, while P2D2 insisted, “I’m serious!” and expounded upon the benefits of massages.

Now we wondered if perhaps we owed him some pampering after the intense physical exertion and mental stress he’d gone through alone…although we were still hoping that he had somehow managed to have a great time.

While waiting for P2D2 and the rest of our trekking group to arrive in Aguas Calientes, we walked through town in search of a snack for PS.  We didn’t want to eat a full meal, since dinner at a restaurant tonight was included in our trek package.  So we wandered through shops and restaurants, seeking a quick bite.  We chuckled when RohZ pointed out a sign in a window stating “Se necessita una senorita”…it sounded more like an advertisement for a girlfriend than a waitress.

Somehow, we took a turn through a random alleyway and found ourselves in a beautiful courtyard with a bronze statue of an Incan standing proudly atop a stone platform in the center.  The courtyard was surrounded by a big stone church, a modern hostel, a gorgeous bellflower tree, and some more shops and restaurants.  All of this was circled, of course, by the stalwart mountains, which loomed ever-present like ancient guardians of the land.

 

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Inca statue

 

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Bellflower tree

 

Once PS had procured a snack, we walked back toward the railroad tracks and sat down on some benches near yet another Incan statue.  For a long while, we simply waited, watching the distance for any sign of P2D2 or other members of our trekking group walking up along the tracks.  We spotted a dog wearing a ridiculous purple tracksuit – he was trotting up and down the side of the railroad like he was patrolling the joint – but didn’t see anything else of interest.

 

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Another Inca statue

 

We checked the time.  It was evening, past when the hostel manager had said our group should be getting in.  Was it possible we had missed their arrival while searching for food?  Could P2D2 be in the hostel at this very moment?

After heading back to the hostel to check again – nope, they had not yet arrived; they were running late – we posted ourselves on a staircase near a restaurant and some merchant stalls.  From this higher vantage point, we would be able to see P2D2 and the group from a distance before they could see us.

 

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Waiting up the stairs near the market stalls

 

More than an hour went by.  The sky was growing dark.  A blue train rattled down the tracks.  Yet another ridiculously attired dog trotted by – this time a scruffy-looking mutt with a blond tuft of hair like a mini-mohawk; he was wearing ragged camo fatigues…clearly he was from the wrong side of the tracks.

 

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Train going by

 

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Scruffy dog from the wrong side of the tracks

 

Another half an hour went by.  To help curb my growing hunger, I bought some French fries (“papas fritas”) from the nearby restaurant.  But by the time I had finished, P2D2 was still nowhere in sight.  We continued to wait.

Meanwhile, PS and SK had tapped the local Wi-Fi to check in on KP earlier.  The CT scan results were in: Her tailbone and pelvic bone had been fractured.

Dismayed, we discussed the troubling results for a bit, although we were grateful the injuries weren’t much worse.  PS explained that though very painful, the tailbone and pelvic fractures would likely be able to heal on their own over time, with the aid of physical therapy.

As we were mulling over the situation, PS and SK suddenly spotted someone down below near the railroad tracks.

“Hey, isn’t that Roger?”

It was!  Excited to see our guide again but confused as to why he was all alone, we made our way down the stairs to flock around him.

“Hello, my friends,” Roger said when he saw us.  “How is KP?”

We explained the situation and his eyes widened with concern.  “Fractures…wow.”  He shook his head regretfully.  Then he told us that he had come alone by train, but that our trekking group was due any minute with the other guide.  “If you start walking now, you will meet them.”

And he was right.  It seemed we had only begun walking down the tracks for a few minutes before the group came into view, headlamps secured around their foreheads to light the way.

“P2D2!” we shouted when we caught sight of him.  He was in full trekking gear and looked like he had been through hell and back.

When he spotted us, his face lit up before passing through a mixture of emotions.  We all began rushing toward each other like in a reunion of long-lost siblings and grabbed him in a hug.  P2D2 smelled kind of funky from the trek, but this is how the rest of us were supposed to smell right now too…had everything gone as planned, we would all be hiking into Aguas Calientes together, happy and smelly and excited for the hostel and its amenities.  The musky scent of the wild was a mark of survival.

After the initial reunion hugs, P2D2 began to spill out all of the emotions he had held in for the past couple of days, peppered with expletives (as denoted by “eff”).

“Oh my god, I eff’in missed you guys so much!” P2D2 said.  “I was freaking out.  They kept telling me to go on after KP fell, they kept telling me that you guys would catch up at the next rest stop, and someone said that KP was fine, that she was even walking!  But you didn’t show up, and I knew something was wrong so I was like, eff this!  I kept trying to ask everybody what was going on…I asked the horse guy, but he didn’t really tell me anything…”

P2D2 was talking fast and breathlessly, his eyes bright.  “Finally I ran into the cook, and he said that if I ran downhill I might still be able to catch up with you guys.  So I eff’in ran down the hill, but halfway there, the guide told me that it was too late, that you had already left, so I had to hike all the way up the eff’in hill again!”

That didn’t seem right, though…either there was some miscommunication between the trek guides and employees, or they just wanted to keep the group moving…because it seemed a lot of time had passed before KP had been ready to get back on the horse.  P2D2 should’ve been able to catch up if they had let him.  And Roger had told us that P2D2 was too far ahead, when, in actuality, he had been trying to make his way back to us…

We updated P2D2 on KP’s condition so he didn’t have to endure any more anxiety on that point.

“Were you at least able to have a little fun once you continued with the trek?” SK asked tentatively.

“Well, I guess the view of Salktanay from the top of the mountain was nice, but it was kind of cloudy so it was hard to see at times.  And then once we ditched the horses to hike down the other side of the mountain, it started eff’in raining!  Like, full-on raining…I had to put my poncho and backpack cover on and everything!  And it was cold as eff…”

P2D2 went on to paint a dreary picture of the campsite and its barely-there bathroom stall that had little protection against the icy winds.  Unfortunately, he had seemed to have quite a miserable day following KP’s fall, with his anxiety and loneliness made all the worse by his physical struggles amidst ghastly weather.  I felt horrible for him.

But when he woke up today, the weather had improved, and he experienced a shift in attitude.  “I thought, you know what, I’m just going to try and make the best of it,”P2D2 said.  So as he made his way through the Santa Teresa Valley, he admired the wild orchids, appreciated the scenery, and spoke at length with the other members of the trekking group.  P2D2 and the group also experienced some relaxation time at the hot springs once they reached Santa Teresa and saw the gushing man-made waterfall in the town of Hidroelectrica.  Then they set off for Aguas Calientes, hiking along the railroad track until it led P2D2 right into our arms.

 

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P2D2′s photo of the hot springs

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P2D2′s photo of the hot springs

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P2D2′s photo of the waterfall

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P2D2′s photo of the railroad tracks

 

“I didn’t know for sure if you guys were going to be here…they told me different things,” P2D2 said.  “If you weren’t here, then I would’ve tried to get in touch using the Wi-Fi…and if that didn’t work, I would’ve just been like, eff Machu Picchu, and taken the first train back to Cusco.  Eff, man…”

But we were here…reunited at long last.

“If you follow me, please, we will be having dinner at the restaurant,” Roger said, appearing out of the darkness and beckoning us to follow him.  As we made our way to the restaurant, we asked P2D2 for more details about his epic journey.

“You know, man, you’re the only one of us to complete the whole trek from start to finish,” PS told P2D2 admiringly.  “That’s kind of a big accomplishment.”

It was…especially considering all of the pitfalls we had faced along the way.  Even before the devastation of the horse incident, half of us hadn’t made it to the glacial lake.  It had been a treacherous expedition.

At the restaurant, long banquet-style tables were set for our entire trekking group, plus two other girls who joined us from a different Salkantay group.  We dug into our meals and exchanged tales with the other members of our group.  Everyone wanted to know how KP was doing, as many of them had witnessed her terrifying fall off of the mountain and horse.  It was impossible to believe that the accident had taken place only yesterday…so much had happened in between that everyone felt like days had gone by.

Finally, we headed to the hostel to shower and chat for a bit as we played some music in the background.  It was good to have P2D2 back in the mix, and it wasn’t long before he returned to his happy-go-lucky state after all of the anxiety melted away.  But we couldn’t stay up too late…we had an early morning the next day.

If all went according to plan – and, at this point, we didn’t fully rely on plans – we would be on our way to the legendary Machu Picchu in the morning.

 

Stay tuned for Day 6!

 

Or start from the beginning:

Day 1: Touchdown Cusco

Day 2: Viva Cusco

Day 3: The Trek Begins…Then Falters

Day 4: The Trek Goes Downhill

 

Adventure & Disaster in Peru – Day 4

Day 4:  The Trek Goes Downhill

Around 5:00 a.m., KP and I awoke, stiff and freezing, to a voice outside our tent calling “Coca!  Coca tea!”  Groggy with morning moodiness, I accepted the hot tea, but gave a mental “psshh” as I sipped it.  Totally overrated.  Though hailed as a local remedy for altitude sickness, coca tea had done little to quell my illness the day before.  It was only thanks to my friends that I felt better this morning.

We ventured out into the icy morning air to join the line for the bathroom and freshen up at the water spout (which was basically like splashing snow on your face).  Luckily, when I headed back to the tent, I noticed bowls of hot water that had been provided by our trekking guides.  I warmed my face with the water, only to become chilled soon afterward by a frosty breeze on my skin.  Sigh.

When KP and I entered the big green tent for breakfast, we were surprised to find half of our friends missing.  Only PS was at the table with the other trek members, staring doubtfully at a “pancake” that looked more like a sad crepe.

“Where are the others?”  KP asked him.

“SK is in the bathroom…she was feeling pretty nauseous.  RohZ was throwing up last night and is not in the mood for breakfast…he didn’t have dinner last night either.  And even P2D2 is not feeling very good.”

Damn.  Altitude sickness was like a hired gun, taking us out one by one…

“Good thing we’re taking horses up the mountain today,” PS said.  KP and I nodded in agreement.  I couldn’t imagine having to gasp for every breath, fighting nausea and headaches with each step, while hiking up the steepest slope yet.

Breakfast was a dour affair.  Although I had skipped dinner the night before, not much on the table looked appealing to me.  I had some of the thin pancake and the old standby, bread.  P2D2 joined us a little later, looking a bit sickly.

“I think SK wants you to bring her some bread,” he told PS.

“She does?” asked PS anxiously.  “But I thought she said she didn’t want any!”  He began hoarding some bread.

“Did you guys sleep ok?”  Dee asked us.

“Oh my gosh, it was freezing,” KP wailed.

“Oh really?” Elsie said.  “I was super hot.  I was stripping off layers last night, sleeping in my tank top.  My body’s just weird like that.”

“What?!” I cried.  KP and I looked at each other with shared incredulity.  I swear, these NY chicks were superhuman.

As we left the dining tent, the world outside seemed to transform into an eerie reddish-pink terrain.  We had experienced this strange phenomenon the day before at lunch and, wonderstruck, had asked our guide Roger why it suddenly looked like Mars outside.

“Because the tent is green,” Roger said, looking amused.  Duh.

So today I knew that the overcast sky and grand mountains around us were only blushing because the green glow cast by the tent was messing with my eyes.  But it still felt strange to step out into this alien world.  It awakened me to the fact that we were thousands of miles from home, in a foreign land, in the middle of the wilderness, surrounded by spectacular beauty.  Sometimes it was easy to forget that amidst our physical struggles.  Perhaps today would be the day to savor the stunning scenery.

KP and I headed to our tent and prepared the duffle bags for the pack animals to carry to the next campsite.  Then, before we knew it, we heard the guides shouting for everyone to meet up to begin the big trek.

Our trekking group was all gathered together near a cluster of horses and horse guides; these horse guides were not part of our trekking company, but independently hired by us.  In fact, I’m not sure if they actually had a company of their own; they may have been nothing more than local ranchers.  One by one, they paired man together with beast.

I turned to my friends.  The boys were discussing how their “battles” were going.  I should probably explain that “battle” was a euphemism for the attempt to go #2.  Yes, like in the bathroom.  And it was called battle for a reason.  Peru had taken our humdrum bathroom routines to a dramatic level.  Half the time we were losing…and losing the battle didn’t bode well for our tummies and moods.

A couple of horses drew near our circle.

“I’m afraid of horses,” KP revealed, tensing up a bit.

“The trick is not to let them smell your fear,” Elsie advised her.  “Look your horse in the eye and speak to it softly before getting on him.”

And then Elsie got on her horse expertly, murmuring to it in fluent Spanish.

Soon we were all saddled up on our own horses; mine was a chestnut horse named Estrella.  The horse guides were trying to line us up, when all of a sudden RohZ’s horse – whose blindfold had just been removed – took off like a shot!  His horse had been the only one blindfolded due to its tendency to kick…or some other fun problem.  Once the horse guides retrieved the horse – with a shaken-looking RohZ on top – we set off on the trail.  But perhaps the horse had been trying to warn us to escape while we still could…

The horse guides gave us zero instructions on how to direct the horses, but they walked alongside us, frequently shouting “Vamos!” and smacking the horses with lengths of rope.  Some of these horse guides, these little Peruvian men and women, seemed to have an average build – that is, some of them did not seem particularly fit.  And yet, they trotted briskly alongside the horses, even up the inclines, even despite the increasingly high altitude.  I felt a bit silly sitting on a horse when one of the horse guide ladies was jogging ahead up some rocks to shout at another horse to keep moving.  But I knew that if I got off my horse, I’d be gasping for air within five minutes.  This mountain air…it had to be in their blood.

 

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A horse guide lady

 

At first we were on a narrow trail hugging one of the mountains, but once we rode into the valley, I began to feel more comfortable and whipped out my camera, snapping photos with one hand and hanging on to Estrella with the other.  The sun had come out by now, illuminating the gorgeous valley of pale green shrubbery and rocks, bordered on three sides by mountains:  deep brown rocky mountains, grassy flaxen mountains, and the snow-capped Salkantay mountains ahead of us.  It was actually quite a pleasant ride.  Across the way, we could see some trekkers who were making a go of it by foot.  At that point, I didn’t envy them.

 

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Beautiful mountains

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Salkantay Mountain ahead

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Trekkers on the trail like little ants

 

Soon, we crossed some shimmering shallow streams.  Estrella dipped her head to sip a bit of water, but the horse guide shouted at her to keep moving.  I frowned.  Horses needed to stay hydrated too, didn’t they?  Especially when they were lugging human-backpacks through the mountains at a high altitude?  The horse guides were also paranoid about spacing.  They were bent on having the horses lined up head-to-tail, with very little space in between.  If a horse lagged behind a bit, it was rewarded with a whack of the rope and the ever-persistent shout, “Vamos!”  This would lurch Estrella into a sudden gallop to catch up, which I admit was rather startling.  RohZ’s horse, which was a bit of a renegade (its blindfold was now pushed up its head like a badass bandana), ignored the cry and fell behind for quite some time in order to…do battle.  Shortly after he caught up, we arrived at the mountain trail.

 

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Shimmering stream

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Horses in a line

 

The slope was steep, and the trail was a narrow switchback cutting sharp angles up the mountain.  At this point, P2D2, KP, and PS were at the head of the horse line while I, Edna, SK, and RohZ brought up the rear.  In between were the other members of our trekking group, along with members of another group.

Slowly, the ascent began.  As the head of the line was climbing higher up the mountain, we tail-enders had barely begun the first leg of the trail at the lower level.  Up above us, we could see P2D2, KP, and PS on a high ledge amid the dense string of horses.  I pulled out my camera and began to take a few more pictures as I waited for the horses in front of me to move forward.

And then things began to go horribly wrong.

 

Out of the corner of my eye, I detected motion on the higher ledge.  I looked up.  A horse had gotten skittish.  One was backing up.  Another one reared.  A few others began to panic and move about.  But there was no room for them to move…why were they moving?  What was going on?

 

I heard a horse whinny.

I saw PS jump off of his horse.

I saw a horse rearing…and gasped when I saw that the person on it had an alpaca beanie. It was one of my friends.

 

The horse, still rearing on its hind legs, lost its footing on the gravelly edge.

“Oh my god, that’s KP,” SK said behind me.  “That’s KP.”  Her voice sounded strange and faraway.

Before our eyes, the horse, with our friend KP still clinging desperately onto it, fell off the mountain.

 

No no no.  Nononono.

Time slowed down.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” I muttered under my breath as I watched the horse falling through the air.

 

And then terror gripped me as I saw KP fly off the horse.

“That’s KP,” SK repeated behind me, her voice eerily calm in the way that only deep shock can make it.  “That’s KP – see her big red backpack…”

This wasn’t happening.  This couldn’t be happening.

 

KP hit the ground, her big red backpack making impact.

But before I could process her fall, I saw the horse come tumbling down after her.

 

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” I said again, my whole body braced, as I prayed with all my being that this huge animal would not crush my friend.

I heard SK’s sharp intake of breath as the horse tumbled down the mountain – tumbled right over KP – but I couldn’t tell at this point if the horse’s weight had hit her or missed her.

 

There was a moment of stunned silence on the mountain.

And then everything happened at once.

 

PS, who had jumped off his horse earlier, ran down to KP.  Or maybe he had been running the whole time…I had no idea. Luckily, he had a medical background.  Some of the guides rushed over to her, too, along with a young Latino man named Walter who turned out to be a doctor in Sweden.  They were several yards away from me.

I waited breathlessly for a sign of life.  “Please please please…”

Her head moved.  And I heard a cry of pain.

But my relief was tempered by what remained to be discovered – how bad were her injuries?  The group around her tried to assess the situation, tried to figure out which body parts she was able to feel and move, but from this distance I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

Everything and everybody else had come to a standstill.

I felt powerless on my horse, like a chess piece waiting to be moved by hand to find out what the next step was.

I turned around slightly to look back at SK and RohZ.  We began to recap what we had just seen.  What had set the horses off in a panic?  Another horse had backed into her horse, right?  There was so little space between horses!  How lucky it was that KP hadn’t hit her head on a rock!  In fact, her oversized backpack, which we had teased her about earlier for being too bulky, had protected her head and back from what could have been far, far worse…  It literally saved her life.

“No tome fotos!  No tome fotos!”  The main horse guide was walking down the line of horses, shouting frantically.  “Fotos – caballos – chhh!”  He mimed a horse being frightened.

He was telling us not to take photos while on the horses…he was also implying that KP had been taking photographs, and that the sound of her camera was what spooked the horses.  Was that really what happened?

Gulping, I slipped my camera into my backpack.

“No tome fotos!”  The horseman repeated as he scampered down the mountain to the fallen horse, which was now standing upright at the bottom.  It was grazing on some grass, but seemed a bit shaken.  The horse had a big gash across the side of its face, but otherwise seemed relatively unharmed except for maybe some bruising.

Then I heard a wonderful sound – KP laughing!

“That’s a good sign, right?” SK asked.  I couldn’t agree more.

 

Meanwhile, at the top of the mountain, the other horse guides were urging the people at the front of the horse line to continue onward, including our friend P2D2.  There was nothing he could do; they wouldn’t let him hold up the line.  The middle of the pack also started to move on, but since KP was in our path, SK, RohZ, Edna, and I remained seated on our horses near the bottom.

“Is she married?” Edna asked me suddenly.

“Huh?”

“KP, is she married?”

“Um…no…”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” I said, flabbergasted.  I couldn’t understand why Edna was asking.  If she was trying to set KP up with her son, this seemed like a rather strange time to check KP’s availability…

A few of the people near KP removed her backpack and lifted her over to a flatter, more comfortable spot on the grass, bringing her closer and into clear view.  The first thought I had when she was within plain sight was a very peculiar one:  she looks like a movie star.  During the fall, her glasses and beanie had flown off, and now her dark hair was flowing gracefully down the side of her face.  A ray of sunlight shed radiance on her smile – yes, she was actually smiling – and the young doctor, Walter, was leaning over her with concern like a proper leading man.  The others looked as though they were staging things, moving her backpack here, positioning her arm there.  It was like they were all a part of some bizarre movie set.

This is surreal, I thought.  But this isn’t a movie.  And if it was, it had gone horribly off-script.

I tried to listen to what was going on.  I could hear KP complaining of severe pain in her back.  This was troubling.  But I could also hear someone saying KP had asked if her camera was ok.  This was encouraging.  Someone else mentioned that KP couldn’t feel her legs at first – oh shit – but then it turned out she was only in shock and was later able to move her toes.  Whew.  This was turning out to be a rollercoaster ride of emotions…

 

Before we could figure out the situation, however, the horse guide lady ushered me, SK, RohZ, and Edna onward.  We tried to linger, but we were forced to keep moving; we couldn’t block the trail.  The guide tried to tell us we could stop at the next flat rest area.  So with a yell from the guide, my horse began to move.  Once again, I felt like a chess piece, like a knight welded to my horse as it plodded away from KP.  Was she going to be ok?  How far was the next rest area, anyway?  Everything was such a mess…

Our horses had just started to climb up the mountain again, when RohZ began freaking out.

“I don’t want to stay on this horse!  This is crazy!” he declared.  “These horses aren’t stable!”

“I want to get off my horse, too!” SK said.  The horse guide wasn’t having it, though.  She kept trying to urge us onward in broken English.

But we had only gone up a level or two when RohZ jumped off his horse.  “These horses aren’t safe!”

With some arguing, SK also managed to have someone help her off her horse.  Only I remained.

“Natasha, get off your horse!!!” RohZ shouted at me.

I looked down at Estrella.  She was a good horse…not all these horses were unstable, right?  KP’s horse was just a fluke.  Perhaps RohZ was only overreacting.  Besides, there was no way I’d be able to hike this steepest part of the mountain…not after what I’d been through yesterday…my lungs would explode.

“I like my horse,” I said, petting Estrella fondly.

RohZ looked like he was going to murder me.

“Not all the horses are unstable,” I added defensively.  At that moment, a nearby horse without a rider – was it PS’s horse? – suddenly slipped on the gravelly trail, its knees buckling as it struggled to regain its balance.

Shit.

Screw this!

Needless to say, I allowed myself to be helped down from my horse.

Before SK, RohZ, and I could begin hiking up the rest of the mountain, however, PS called out to us from below.  We couldn’t hear what he was saying, so he tried to use Roger’s walkie-talkie to contact one of the horse guides near us.

“We need to figure out what to do!” his voice crackled through the walkie-talkie.  Unfortunately, the reception was spotty.  We couldn’t make out much else.

“Come closer,” RohZ called down to PS.

“You guys come down,” PS said.

But what if we went down to talk and then had to hike all the way up this behemoth again?

“You come closer,” RohZ insisted.

Exasperated, PS walked up a little bit, and was nearly breathless by the labor of it.  And he was only on one of the lower levels.

“Listen,” he called up to us.  “KP needs to go to the hospital in Cusco to get checked out.  Roger said one of us could come with her, so I was thinking I should.  But KP says she’ll be fine.  She says we should just continue the trek without her.”

I blinked with surprise and looked at SK and RohZ.  Did this mean KP didn’t have very serious injuries?  Could it be possible that she was only badly bruised and in need of a day or two of R&R?  I hoped for her sake that this was the case…

PS retreated for a moment to check on KP while we talked it over.  When he returned, a shadow had passed over his face.

“Guys,” he called.  “Change of plans.”

Uh oh.

“I went to confirm with her, but she just looked really sad, guys.  I think she was just trying to act strong before.  I think she is actually in a lot of pain and really needs someone with her.  So at least I’m going to go with her.  But maybe you guys can go on ahead…”

“Well if you’re going, then I’m coming, too,” SK called down to her husband.

“Ok, there’s a van we can hire back at the camp that could take us.  So then you two can just go on ahead…”

RohZ and I looked at one another.  Everything was falling apart.  Perhaps KP’s brave face and good nature had masked the severity of the situation.  If KP really wasn’t doing as well as we’d hoped, then she’d need all the help she could get.

“No, screw that,” RohZ said.  “We’re coming with you.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Hopefully we can get P2D2 to come back, too.”  I wondered how far ahead he was.  The rest of our trekking group had left about 20 minutes before.

Edna continued on with the horse guide and the riderless horses as SK, RohZ, and I walked down to join PS and KP.  It felt good to have made a decision for ourselves instead of continuing on this treacherous chessboard.

 

“How are you feeling?” I asked KP as we approached her.  Stupid question.  She just fell off a mountain and got rolled over by a horse…

But KP smiled.  “Eh.”

“You took a tumble,” SK said, shaking her head in awe.  “Were you taking a picture at the time?”

“No,” KP said.  “I had been a while before.  But at that moment, I was just sitting on the horse, sipping my water.  I have no idea why it freaked out.”

Aha.  So it hadn’t been the camera that triggered the horses’ panic.  And to think, the horseman had been trying to put the blame on KP!

After fussing over KP for a bit, we explained to Roger that we were all going back to Cusco with her.  We asked him to have P2D2 sent down to join us.

Roger corresponded with someone through his scratchy walkie-talkie, then shook his head at us.  “Sorry, my friends.  P2D2 is too far ahead, now.  He will not be able to make it back in time.”

“Are you sure?”

“Can you try again?”

“Can we talk to him?”

Roger shook his head.  “Sorry, it is too late.  But no worries.  Maybe you’ll take KP to the hospital today, and she will be just fine.  Maybe after rest, you all can come back tomorrow and join him.”  His optimism was heartening…could that be possible?  Could we all be back on track tomorrow, KP included?

Still, it felt wrong to leave P2D2 behind.

But it soon became evident that KP really did need all the help she could get.

“To return to the camp, where the van is waiting, she must get back on the horse,” Roger said.

Terror flashed in KP’s eyes.

“Are you kidding me?” RohZ cried.

“There is no other way,” Roger said.  “The horseman and I will be right next to her the whole time.”

So we gathered up KP’s belongings, which were strewn haphazardly down the mountain.  Her backpack was dented and deformed from the impact her body had made on it.  Her glasses were nowhere to be found.

“Can you see ok?”  I asked KP.

“I can see that you’re you and RohZ’s RohZ,” KP said cheerfully.  But I remained unconvinced.

Then it was time for KP to get back in the saddle.  Literally.  That’s when it became clear that she could not move much on her own without acute pain.  The boys lifted her onto the horse (this was a brand new horse, not the old fallen horse), while SK and I steadied the horse and supported KP as she settled into the saddle.  The valiant smile on her face wavered and melted away into a grimace, her eyes pressed shut in agony.

SK gave KP some Excedrin to help with the pain.  We thanked Walter, that good Samaritan, and said our goodbyes to him.  And then the trek back to camp began.

 

While KP braved the horse again, the rest of us hiked the terrain we had just ridden that morning.  All of a sudden, SK started to sniffle.

“Why are you crying, honey?” PS asked in alarm.

“It’s all just hitting me now,” SK said, tears slipping down her face.  “It was all so unreal…but now…I can’t believe this happened to KP!”

And as soon as she said it, the reality struck me too.  This was madness, all of it.  PS comforted his wife while I reflected on how crazy life was.  Still, I felt grateful that KP was alive and in a surprisingly decent mood.

As we walked, we recapped the series of events that had just transpired, sharing our perspectives of the harrowing fall.  Halfway back to the camp, we met up with the pack animals and grabbed our duffle sacks and sleeping bags.

KP and her horse mostly trotted on ahead of us, but she tried to let us catch up a few times.

“When I tell the guide to wait for you to catch up, he says, ‘No, we have to get to the van as soon as we can’,” she murmured to us.  “But when I tell him to stop because I’m in pain, he stops right away.  So I just keep telling him I’m in pain.”

She said that like she wasn’t actually hurting.  Which, of course, was simply not true.  Every time she quietly, discreetly, squeezed her eyes shut, I could tell that she had just felt a stab of pain.

“Have you been drinking water?” I asked her, remembering how she forced me to hydrate the night before.  Gosh, was that really only the night before?  It felt like days ago…

KP shook her head, and RohZ handed her a bottle of water.

Finally, after nearly two hours, we made it back to the camp…and past the camp…to where a van was parked near a mountain road.  Although we pleaded with Roger to have the trekking company pay for the van, given all that had happened that day, he informed us the van was not owned by the trekking company.  Like the horses, the van was another third-party service that we would have to pay for ourselves.

To his credit, though, Roger negotiated in Spanish with the driver on our behalf.  With our permission, he brought the original price down by agreeing for the van to pick up and transport a couple other riders to their destinations while on the way to the hospital.  And then Roger offered to pay half of that amount with his own money.

My little bout of altitude sickness may not have fazed him, but KP falling off a horse down a mountain sure seemed to do the trick.  It was probably the worst incident the trekking company had experienced.

KP was lying down in the van, stretched out over one row of seats.  We filled the gaps around her with our backpacks and sleeping bags so that she was securely barricaded.  Then the long, incredibly bumpy ride back to Cusco began.

 

Once again, it felt like a whole day had passed, but it was only noon!  I realized that we would be missing lunch…P2D2 and the rest of the trekking group must be over the mountain – well past the mountain, now, actually – leaving their horses behind as they hiked to the rest stop for their meal.  My stomach grumbled.  Then I remembered that RohZ and I had both barely had any breakfast that morning, and both of us had skipped dinner the night before…we had also vomited up much of the contents of our stomachs.  I searched my duffle for some snack bars but couldn’t find any, so RohZ gave me one of his, and I made him eat one, too.

“We have reception now,” Roger announced to us about an hour into the drive.  “You want to call the hostel?”

SK took Roger’s cell phone and asked EcoPacker hostel if there was a room available tonight.  But it was clear that the lady on the other end of the phone could not understand English very well…or perhaps the reception was bad.  Either way, SK repeated herself several times, then tried to spell out KP’s name.  By the time she hung up, SK looked worried.  “I think I booked a room…or I tried to, anyhow.  I really hope she understood me…”

For the majority of the drive, we slept.  PS experienced motion sickness at one point and asked “George” if we could pull over the van for a bit (for some reason, PS kept calling Roger “George,” but we didn’t bother to correct him until later that night).  My stomach felt hollow and was periodically pierced by hunger pangs.  Each time the van lurched over a massive bump or screeched around a hairpin bend, I winced on behalf of KP, who must be hurting all the worse for it.

Finally – finally – after almost three hours, and after dropping off random passengers at their destinations, the van rolled up in front of the hostel.

 

RohZ and I unloaded all of our baggage and lugged them to the hostel lobby, where we were supposed to secure our room while PS, SK, and Roger took KP to the hospital.

“How far is the hospital from here?” I asked Roger.

“Oh, not far.  A couple blocks.  It’s called O2 Hospital.”

I turned to RohZ.  “Great…after we settle in here, we can walk over to the hospital.”

As the van set off for O2, RohZ and I wrangled with the lady at the front desk of the hostel…she seemed to be unaware of our reservation.

“KP,” RohZ repeated yet again, spelling out her name for the umpteenth time.  “We called this afternoon!  You said you had a room.”

I looked at the whiteboard behind the desk, where all of the reservation names were scribbled in dry-erase marker.  A name similar to KP was listed…could it be that the lady had misheard it or written it down incorrectly?

“That must be her,” I told the lady.  “I think you just heard the name wrong.  We booked a room.”

The lady shook her head in confusion and picked up the phone to call someone else.  She had a long conversation in Spanish over the matter, while RohZ and I waited impatiently.  The last thing we needed right now was to find a new hostel.  EcoPackers was our home in Peru; it felt safe here.  We didn’t want any more surprises.

Finally, the lady nodded to us, and we began to fill out the necessary paperwork.  Then we hauled all of the backpacks, duffel bags, and sleeping bags into our room, which turned out to be a huge shared space with a loft.  Some guests were stirring up in the loft area, but I couldn’t really see them, and they didn’t speak to us when we entered the room.

Once we had organized all the baggage, RohZ and I looked at each other.

“What next?”  I asked.  “Hospital, shower, food?  Or a different order?”  Another hunger pang speared my stomach.  I clutched my tummy and winced.

“Shower, hospital, food,” RohZ said.

I looked down at myself and realized we were filthy, and probably smelly, from the past few days in the wilderness without washing.  Might as well clean up while we were here.  I nodded and headed next door to the women’s bathrooms with my things.

When I returned to the room, a winner of battle and squeaky clean to boot, a couple of guys were staring down at me from the loft.

“Oh, hello,” I said awkwardly, and we exchanged basic introductions.  One of the guys was from Austria, the other from France.  They had just met.  “Well, nice to meet you,” I said, then ducked out of view onto a bottom-bunk bed before they could ask me any more questions.

A few minutes later, RohZ walked in, still wearing his old dirty clothes.

“You didn’t shower yet?” I asked, incredulously.  “What have you been doing all this time?!”

RohZ looked sheepish.  “Uhh…”

“Oh!”  I said, realization dawning.  “Battle?”  A long, difficult battle…

RohZ nodded.  “I hate these eco-friendly bathrooms.  The lights kept turning off by themselves while I was trying to do battle, so I was sitting in the dark waving my arms frantically to get them to turn on again!”

I laughed.  RohZ grabbed his things and headed back to the bathroom to shower.  In the meantime, I used the Wi-Fi to check my phone.  I hadn’t received any Facebook messages from PS or SK yet, and we didn’t have texting or calling service in Peru, so I still wasn’t sure how things were going over at the hospital.  Feeling anxious, I wrote a FB message to my boyfriend back home, relaying the shocking turn of events.

Then I sorted through my bags in search of lotion.  My fingers closed around a crumpled paper, which turned out to be the itinerary I had created in such elaborate detail before the trip.  What had been on the docket for Day 4?

 

  • 7:00 a.m. – Continue trek with the hardest part…hiking uphill to the highest point at 15,160 ft. (you can do it!). 

 

False.  We didn’t even hike uphill; we took horses.  And we still couldn’t do it.

 

  • 11:00ish a.m. – Reach the highest point and enjoy magnificent views, sing “Started from the Bottom, Now We’re Here,” then head downhill.

 

Never made it to the highest point.  Started from the bottom, now we’re… in Cusco.

 

  • 1:00ish p.m. – Reach Huayracmachay, eat lunch, then continue hike

 

Nope, nope, nope.

 

  • 4:30ish p.m. – Arrive at Chaullay camp; hang out or nap

 

Well, I guess we did nap in the van.  And we arrived in Cusco, which starts with the same letter as Chaullay.

 

  • 7:00ish p.m. – Dinner at the camp

 

Dinner…yes, dinner sounded good.  P2D2 must be finishing up dinner at the camp right about now…he was the only one who had even remotely followed today’s itinerary.  I wondered how he was doing.  Was he worried, or had Walter or a guide told him what happened?  Did he hate us?  It must be awful to be alone in this type of situation.  I hoped he had made friends with the other trek members…

RohZ soon returned to the room, ready to roll.  We headed to the lobby and asked the lady at the front desk for the address of O2 hospital.  This was the same lady who fumbled our hostel booking.  She seemed equally confused by this simple request.  After a few google searches on my phone (which turned up nothing…did O2 hospital even exist?!) and a perusal of the hostel’s map of Cusco, we finally located O2, which was actually a clinic.  The lady called the clinic for us, then handed RohZ the phone.

“Is KP there?  KP?” RohZ asked, spelling out her name.  We seemed to be doing a lot of spelling around here. “No? Are you sure?”

He looked at me in panic.  I raised my eyebrows…if this wasn’t the right O2, then I didn’t know what was.

RohZ tried a different tack.  “Can you check again, please?  KP.  Horse.  She fell off a horse.”

After a pause, RohZ thanked them and hung up. “That worked…they were like, ‘Oh yeah, the horse girl!’  So she’s there.  It’s the right place.”

But then we realized that the O2 clinic was not within short walking distance after all.  It was way across town; we would have to take a cab.

At this point, I felt like I was going to faint from hunger.  We had been pretty active these past couple of days, what with all the hiking and horseback riding.  But since lunch time yesterday, I had only eaten crackers last night, some bread this morning, and snack bars this afternoon.  Now, it was dark outside.

“Can we eat first?” I asked, clutching my stomach miserably.  RohZ nodded. He must have been in a similar boat, though he claimed he couldn’t tell if he was hungry or nauseous.

We found an Italian place nearby where we could carb-load.  RohZ had bad pasta and I had mediocre gnocchi.  We obtained the Wi-Fi password, and RohZ discovered that SK had been trying to message us from the hospital via WhatsApp and Facebook just minutes before!  RohZ immediately began to type back, asking about KP’s status.  But we got no response.

“She must be out of Wi-Fi range now,” RohZ said gloomily.  “Damnit, I should’ve asked the O2 lady about KP’s condition while I had her on the phone!”

We tried to decide if we should take a cab to O2 from the restaurant, or if we should go back to the hostel first.

“Since we can’t get ahold of SK and PS, let’s stop by the hostel real quick in case they’re there,” I said.  “And if they’re not, we can leave a note for them at the front desk, just in case they’re on their way back while we’re heading to O2.”

But as we made our way to our hostel room, discussing the situation, a voice called out from the window of the women’s bathrooms.

“RohZ?  Natasha? Is that you?”

RohZ and I halted in our tracks.

“SK?”

“I thought I heard your voices!” she shouted.  “We were afraid that you had already left for O2!  KP’s just getting some rest now.  We can all go back and visit in a couple of hours.”

Relieved to be on the same page as our friends – communication was hard in Peru! – RohZ and I went to meet PS in the hostel room, and SK joined us soon after.  PS and SK filled us in on what had happened over at O2.

“They did x-rays on KP,” SK told us.  “But they started at the ankle and worked their way up.”

“The ankle!” PS repeated in disgust.  “When the whole time, she had been complaining of pain in her back!”

“And then after the first batch of x-rays, they were like, ‘Good news!  Her ankle is fine!’”  SK shook her head.  “No duh, geniuses, she fell on her back!”

“The x-rays didn’t show much, though they did show the foot fracture she had from years ago,” PS said.  “But if KP’s condition doesn’t improve by tomorrow, the doctor will give her a CT scan in the afternoon just to be sure.”

“Roger was actually really helpful, though.  He stayed with us through the x-rays and helped translate.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t sure about Roger yesterday when he didn’t check on people during the hike, and he seemed unconcerned about everyone’s altitude sickness.  But Roger really redeemed himself today.”

“You mean ‘George’?” we teased PS.

Roger was taking an early train the next morning to meet up with the rest of our trekking group.  Now the question was, what was our plan for tomorrow?

We discussed our options at Morena Café as PS and SK ate their dinner…although SK barely touched her sandwich.  Her tummy wasn’t feeling so good.

At first, things looked pretty bleak.  It was clear now that KP needed to stay put at the clinic until her flight home; she definitely was not well enough to see Machu Picchu.  PS and SK thought their trip was also effectively over.  But they encouraged RohZ and me to take the train tomorrow into Aguas Calientes, where a paid hostel awaited us for the night before Machu Picchu, so that we could meet up with P2D2 at the end of his trek.  Then PS thought that it depended on the CT scan…if the scan didn’t show any serious injuries, maybe PS and SK could come to Aguas Calientes with me and RohZ.  But the CT scan wouldn’t be until the afternoon, so we would have to take a late train.  Finally, we decided that we couldn’t come to any decision until we talked to KP.

After a 15-minute cab ride, we arrived at O2.  It was a small clinic with strange, psychedelic artwork depicting half-naked people and random animals.  What kind of hippies ran this place?

We barged into KP’s room as though we owned the joint and settled into some seats.  KP was in good spirits – she had some powerful drugs flowing through her veins to help kill the pain.  She had also learned how to get the nurses to do her bidding – namely, taking her phone out into the hallway (where the Wi-Fi was strongest) and pressing ‘send’ to transmit her emails.

Once again, we all recapped the day – had the horse incident really only been this morning? – and we were even able to crack some jokes.  KP looked at us with a loopy grin and asked us to take a selfie with her in the hospital bed.  Ok, these drugs were officially awesome.

We speculated for a bit on P2D2’s situation.

“P2D2 is pretty happy-go-lucky; I’m hoping he’s ok,” SK said.

“He is pretty happy-go lucky…” KP mused.

I nodded.  “But still…he has no idea what’s going on with KP.  And he’s alone with strangers in the middle of nowhere…”

“Maybe he became really close with those NY girls, if you know what I mean,” PS said, and we all chuckled.

“I really hope those girls took him under their wing,” SK said seriously.  “What if he got sick?  We have all the meds with us – the altitude pills, the Excedrin, the Neosporin!”

“Watch, the next time we see P2D2, he’ll be like, ‘Mannnn, you guys missed out.  This trek was sooo awesome’,” RohZ said, doing his best P2D2 impression, which was actually pretty good.

“I really hope so,” I said, guilt still gnawing at my gut.

After SK ducked into the bathroom (her turbulent tummy got the better of her), it was time to discuss details.  Having consulted with friends in the U.S. via email, KP was considering taking an early flight home, but we tried to convince her to rest and just wait until our scheduled flight so that we could all be there to support her.  Then we addressed the plan for the next day.

“You guys should go meet P2D2 in Aguas Calientes tomorrow and see Machu Picchu on Friday,” KP said.  “What are you going to do here?  I’m just going to be resting.  And I’m surrounded by doctors.”

“I don’t know…” PS said.  “You told us this morning to continue the trek without you, but you didn’t really mean it.  And you really did need us.  Don’t try to act strong, KP!  We want to be here if you need us.”

“I’ll be fine,” KP said.  “I promise!”

We looked at her skeptically.

“I promise!” she insisted again.

But we weren’t completely convinced.

“We’ll see how you feel tomorrow morning,” SK said.

There was a soft knock at the door, and a clinic staffer poked his head in timidly.  “Everything is ok?” he asked.  “Shall I call you a cab?”

We looked at the time; it was almost 11:30.

“Yes, please,” we agreed.

“That was a gentle way of kicking us out,” SK remarked.

We said our goodbyes to KP, who gave us a list of things to bring her in the morning.  Then we headed back home to the hostel.

As I tucked myself into bed that night, a wave of exhaustion washed over me, and I became submerged in hazy images of horses and mountains…and a cloud, a big cloud of uncertainty looming in the distance.  Who knew what tomorrow would bring?

Stay tuned for Day 5!

Or start from the beginning:

Day 1: Touchdown Cusco

Day 2: Viva Cusco

Day 3: The Trek Begins…Then Falters

Adventure & Disaster in Peru – Day 3

Day 3:  The Trek Begins…Then Falters

I’m not a morning person.  At 3:00 a.m., my friends woke up and began getting ready for our 4:00 a.m. pickup.  They tried to awaken me too, but I grumbled, “3:30! I’ll wake up at 3:30!”before turning on my side and catching a few more z’s, leaving my friends to wonder if they dare poke the bear.  Did I mention I’m not a morning person?  Luckily, I was still ready to roll by 4:00 a.m.…and by ready to roll I mean dressed and packed and sleeping upright, poised to fall and roll over in a deep state of slumber at any moment.

We left our big luggage behind at the hostel’s storage room, taking with us only our backpack for the hikes and a small duffle bag for the porters to convey to the campsites.  When the Salkantay Trek van arrived, we clambered inside, and I immediately fell asleep in my seat, completely ignoring the new trek-mates already in the van (two girls from New York plus a mother and son from Brazil).  I mean, who has the energy to make introductions at such an obscene hour?  Not me.

The van drove for a few hours while I dozed, blind to the beautiful scenery passing me by.  We stopped for a while at one point where the road was under construction, then at another point for my motion-sick friend, PS, to get out and catch some fresh air.  Finally, the van pulled over for breakfast at a countrified restaurant in Mollepata, where we consumed a sensible breakfast of eggs, bread and jam, yogurt with cereal, bananas, a fruit cup, and coca tea.  For some odd reason, the restaurant featured a poster of Bollywood superstar (and the 1994 Miss World) Aishwarya Rai in full dazzling Indian garb.  This poster seemed out of place amid the traditional Peruvian décor adorning the rest of the place (pan flutes, woven Alpaca-wool textiles, Inca dolls, etc.).  But it was still a bit comforting for me and my friends, who are no strangers to Bollywood.

 

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After using the restrooms, we were on the road again.  This time, feeling slightly more awake and friendly after my meal, I introduced myself to the New York girls sitting next to me and talked to them for a few minutes.  Then I promptly shut my eyes again.  Granted, this was harder to do now that the van had embarked on an extremely bumpy and twisty mountain road.  But somehow I managed.

When we finally arrived at the starting point of our trek, my friends and I attempted to summon the energy for the journey ahead.  I took a deep breath of thin air and looked around at the pastoral scenery surrounding us.  For now, the mountains were shrouded in mist, but there were pigs and cows lounging in the green grass.  A ribbon of dirt up a slight slope marked the beginning of the trail.  It was go time.

 

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Roger, our guide, led the way, followed closely by the NY girls (Elsie and Dee) and the Brazilian guy (Eduardo).  My friends PS, SK, P2D2, and RohZ were somewhere in the middle, while my friend KP and I brought up the rear with Eduardo’s mom, Elma.  Even this basic-seeming trail, which would have caused me no trouble in California, was rendered somewhat challenging by the high altitude.  KP and I took numerous breaks just to catch our breath and sip some water.

“Breathe like you’re having a baby,” Elma advised us.  And then she demonstrated the rapid open-mouthed breaths for us.  “Take in more oxygen.”  It felt kind of silly, but we gave it a try.

Meanwhile, the views were gorgeous.  The misty, billowy white clouds were floating around Salkantay Mountain, a majestic snow-capped peak, offering glimpses of the blue sky above.  And we kept running into cows, who graced us with dull, uninterested stares.

 

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Once we finally reached the top of the first incline, the rest of the group was waiting for us.  Somehow Elsie and Dee, city girls who claimed to never really hike, and who were wearing cute tights and tanks instead of hardcore hiking gear like the rest of us, had arrived first.  They were putting us “outdoorsy” Californians to shame. We took some altitude pills that P2D2 had procured, hoping they would help with our breathing and budding headaches (though we would soon learn that they had the side effect of frequent urination urges).

“Group picture,” Roger said, ushering the group to lean in together for the camera.  “Say, Sexy Llama!”

“Sexy Llama!” we all said dutifully as he snapped some shots.

“Say chichawata!” Roger said (or something like that).

“Huh?”

“It means ‘player,’” Roger explained.

“Chichawata!” we shouted as Roger took more photos.

After the photos had been taken, we continued onward.  The trail to camp, though a few hours long, was thankfully relatively flat.  We enjoyed a leisurely pace, stopping often to catch our breath, take pictures, and greet cows. The path followed a narrow canal of glacial runoff water and occasionally crossed a bridge near a small, trickling waterfall.  Bright yellow and pale purple flowers dotted the trail like dollops of paint on canvas. Overall, it was a relatively pleasant, though tiring, hike. The only hiccup was when PS thought he had dropped his sunglasses and doubled back with SK to search for them, only to learn later that RohZ and P2D2 had found and kept them all along. Silly boys.

 

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By the time we reached the second rest stop, we were – once again – the last of the group to arrive. In fact, Elsie and Dee had been napping for quite some time as they waited for us to catch up with the group. What kind of New Yorkers are this good at hiking?! Anyhow, the rest area was a rocky, pebbly spot with the cloud-cushioned Salkantay Mountain as a beautiful backdrop.

 

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We took some more photos there, and the NY girls took an awesome group photo of me and my friends that would become rather iconic for our trip:  The six of us were posed on a slope in order of height, all pointing up toward the top of the mountain. Well, first we were pointing in the opposite direction, at nothing in particular, but then SK shouted, “Hey, geniuses! Let’s point this way, toward the actual mountain!”  Smart move.

 

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At this point, we were not too far away from our campsite. Still, the way there was hilly and exhausting; I was quite ready for a nap myself. On the way to the campsite we passed a ranch with a huge, luxurious-looking house. It appeared to have satellite.

“We should’ve stayed there,” KP gasped as we trudged by.

“It’s like 10,000 solés per week to rent,” said Dee.

KP and I looked at each other. Then we looked back at the house. It seemed awfully nice…I bet there were some comfy beds and a lovely shower in there too… and maybe a big squashy sofa and a fully stocked kitchen…

But we were urged onwards. And soon we came upon our campsite in Soraypampa, which was shared by a few other Salkantay Trekking groups.  There were rows of yellow and red camping tents, a big green dining tent, and – gods be good – actual bathrooms! Well, if you could call them that. There were two independent stalls out there in the wilderness, no toilet seats, and an unpleasant stench. Did I forget to mention the plumbing situation in Peru? Well, let me fill you in real quick – due to the unsophisticated plumbing system, toilet paper is not supposed to be flushed down the toilet, but tossed instead into a trash bin next to the toilet. This is true even for modern places like the airport and fancy restaurants! But at least the nice places clean their bathrooms and empty the trash bins frequently in order to stave off any potential stink. Bathrooms in the middle of nowhere? Not so much. Still, we were grateful to have actual toilets instead of having to dig a hole behind a tree or something.

 

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And we were abundantly relieved to have arrived at the campsite. It felt like an entire day had passed, but it was only lunchtime. We dropped off our things at our tents and headed to the dining tent for some grub. We were rewarded with delicious chips and guacamole, beef in a yummy sauce, rice, potatoes, a slimy but flavorful soup, salad, and perhaps a few other things. As soon as we were done eating, KP and I headed to our tent to remove extra items from our backpacks and lighten our load for the after-lunch hike. Then we tried to take a nap during the “siesta” time, but it seemed like our eyes were only shut for a minute before Roger was calling for us to come out for the hike to the Umantay Lake, a glacial lake at the top of a hill.

“This hike is a practice hike for tomorrow,” Roger warned us before our group began the ascent. “Tomorrow will be the most difficult part of the trek; we will be reaching the highest point. If you have trouble with this hike to the lake, then you may want to hire a horse for the mountain hike tomorrow.”

To say we had trouble with this hike to the lake might be an understatement. The hill had the highest incline we’d experienced all day, and the altitude was starting to affect us more severely. KP and I were stopping to gasp for breath every few steps, while RohZ complained of stomach pains. In the distance, magnificent snowy mountains beckoned us onward. So did our friends, PS, SK, and P2D2. But KP, RohZ and I were struggling, and so we shooed our other friends on, claiming we would catch up. Several times we almost gave up, but one of us would always try to motivate the others.

 

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“Even if we have to take a break every few minutes, it’s ok!”

“We can do this!”

“Slow and steady!”

More like virtually motionless and highly unstable.

At one point, the three of us were taking yet another much-needed break and having a bit of a pity party, when a random lady from a whole different trekking group appeared out of nowhere and attempted to give us a pep talk.

“You’re halfway there! Y’all can do this; I have faith in you!” she said. “Have you ever heard the story about the man who tried to swim across the ocean?

KP and I shook our heads politely, while RohZ turned a strange greenish color.

“Well,” the lady continued, “the man was swimming across the ocean, but halfway there he got tired and discouraged. So instead, he turned around and headed back.”

Right in the middle of this riveting allegorical tale, RohZ walked away from the conversation and puked into some rocks.

Oblivious, the woman finished her pep talk, and then continued hiking up the air-deprived hill like it was a walk in the park. KP and I made sure RohZ was ok, supplying him with wet wipes and Tic-Tacs. And then suddenly RohZ claimed he felt much better and began marching ahead of us at a brisk pace! Great…yet another person to catch up to.  I started playing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song to try to whip up some momentum, but KP and I were still lagging compared to RohZ, who now was trying to get us closer to the rest of our amigos. By now they were on the second leg of the hike, on a separate mountain trail that climbed up to the lake.

When a man walking back down the hill told us (in Spanish) that we were more than halfway to the lake, we decided to try to make it happen. We just had to figure out exactly how to get from our current trail to the mountain trail, since there seemed to be a bit of a no-man’s-land in between.

“I think I can hear SK’s voice!” RohZ claimed, as we watched the line of ant-like people way up above us on the mountain trail.

“It is a pretty distinct voice,” KP agreed, trying to listen closer.

“I have to pee,” I said as the urge suddenly came over me. Stupid altitude pills. My friends helped direct me toward a thick bush several yards away and assured me they would keep a lookout for passersby. I was still a bit squeamish about “going” out in nature…I don’t think I’d ever done it before, or if I had, I’d blocked it from my memory. But I managed to get through it alright, with the help of some biodegradable wipes. By the time I made my way back toward my friends, however, I felt a rush of vertigo sweep over me. I sat down on a rock and bowed my head, trying to find my bearings.

In the meantime, RohZ and KP were calling out to PS, SK, and P2D2 up on the mountain trail. They couldn’t tell if the tiny people on the trail were, in fact, our friends, but the tiny people halted twice when they heard the cries and then suddenly began making their way back down the mountain. “Do you need help?!” they asked as they scrambled down.

RohZ and KP then realized that these people were actually not our friends, but kindhearted people who thought we were in need of help…especially once they spotted me sitting down with my head in my hands.

“No, we’re fine!” KP called.

“Sorry! We thought you were our friends!” RohZ added.

The tiny people on the mountain stopped.

“That’s alright!” one of them called.

The other shouted, “THIS…IS…SPARTA!!!!!”

Nice. I probably would have laughed if I wasn’t suddenly swept up in a whirlwind of nausea and ripped apart by a splitting headache.

KP and RohZ made their way down to me. “You ok?”

“I don’t feel so good…nauseous…”

“Just throw up,” said RohZ. “You’ll feel so much better.”

I grunted in agreement and rose unsteadily to my feet, trying to find the perfect spot to vomit. Some places were too dirty to kneel, others were not hidden enough. Soon, my stomach didn’t give me any more time to be choosy, and I began to puke just as the rest of our trekking group was making its way down to us.

Once I’d spewed the contents of my stomach onto the grass, including the slimy soup from lunch (which did not come up very well), my stomach did feel much better. And my sweet friends were on hand with wipes and water. But overall, I still felt pretty crappy. In fact, I began to feel a bit lightheaded. By this time, PS, SK, and P2D2 had rejoined us. They had successfully made it up to the glacial lake (the photos below were taken by P2D2) with only a few minutes to spare before they had to head back in order to return to camp by sundown.

 

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As we made our way downhill back to the camp, the guys took turns carrying my backpack, and KP insisted I keep drinking water from my Camelback. Downhill was certainly easier to handle than uphill, but even with frequent breaks, I still wasn’t feeling so hot. My mind started turning into pudding. My eyes became glassy. My insides froze into icicles, numbing any emotion into oblivion. I felt like a zombie.

“I don’t like your color,” said SK with concern (she wasn’t being racist; she just noticed that I had become unnaturally pale, especially for my standard mocha skin tone).

Evening was approaching. I felt cold. Very cold. Even though I was wearing at least three layers of clothing, including a puffy winter jacket, a double-layer Alpaca-wool beanie, and gloves. When we finally made it back to camp, there was nothing in the world I wanted to do more than tuck myself into my sleeping bag and fall asleep. And that’s just what I tried to do. But I was shivering violently; even in my 0°F mummy sleeping bag, I was freezing.

SK and KP came into my tent to make sure I was ok. It was dinner time in the dining tent, but I had absolutely no desire to eat. The memory of nausea still lingered. But they could see I was cold. They managed to hustle up some extra blankets from Roger, who seemed fairly unconcerned about my condition, claiming the altitude sickness should pass by morning. KP, who is a children’s doctor, went on duty and commanded me – in soothing, chiding tones – to drink more water.

“I’m going to dinner now; by the time I come back to the tent, I want to see that water bladder completely empty, ok?

“Mmhm.”

“You promise? You’ll finish the water bladder by the time I’m back?”

“Yes.”   And I did. Plus another water bottle.

When SK and KP returned from dinner, they informed me that after the struggles we endured today (even those who didn’t get sick felt drained after pushing themselves so hard), our trekking group collectively decided to hire horses to take us up the big mountain tomorrow. I breathed a sigh of relief. SK and KP also brought me back crackers, coca tea, and a hot water bottle. Those girls healed me, because soon I was deep asleep.

Of course, after all the water I’d consumed, I had to wake up to go to the bathroom three times that night. And it was so awful to venture out into the freezing air in the middle of the night, headlamp strapped around my forehead and a pack of wet wipes in hand. But when I did have the impulse to look up while walking, the star-dazzled night sky was breathtaking. I could have stared up at the sky for hours if it wasn’t so damn frigid outside. When my bladder was finally empty, I drifted off into a cold but restful sleep, feeling so much better, but unaware that the next day would get so much worse…

 

Continue reading:

Day 4: The Trek Goes Downhill

 

Or start from the beginning:

Day 1: Touchdown Cusco

Day 2: Viva Cusco

Adventure & Disaster in Peru – Day 2

Day 2: Viva Cusco

After enjoying a sweet little taste of the city on the evening of Day 1, my friends and I awoke the next morning to a beautiful, glorious day in Cusco.  The sun was shining in the bold azure sky, and everything looked different in the bright, cheery daylight than in the mysterious lamp-glow of night.  We started the day with a simple breakfast of bread, meat (for some of us), and coca tea at the hostel.  Then, traipsing down the cobblestone streets, we admired the colonial buildings surrounding us, especially the brilliant blue doors, rails, and trimmings that enlivened the architecture like splashes of cool water.  When we returned to Plaza de Arma, we could make out some of the more exquisite detailing on the cathedral, along with the beautiful lawn area with its profusion of pink and yellow flowers.  Rainbow-striped flags were flapping in the breeze throughout the city – and no, they did not signify gay pride; apparently, the Inca people just happen to share the same flag as the gay community!

 

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Two of my friends (PS and SK, who are married) and I decided to tour the interior of the cathedral while our other friends (RohZ, P2D2, and KP) checked out some nearby streets.  Unfortunately, photographs were not permitted in the interior of the cathedral, so I’ll try to describe it as best as I can.  Just to give you some background information, the Catedral de Cusco was completed in 1654, after nearly 100 years of construction, in the Spanish Gothic Renaissance style.

 

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The cathedral was magnificent.  There were several separate spaces ensconced by stone walls and incredible domed ceilings adorned with white filigree.  Each space featured intricate golden carvings and small arched alcoves holding a number of sacred relics, including life-sized figures of various saints and –of course- Jesus.  The sight of the lifelike Jesus was unsettling; there were so many figures of him, every direction you turned, all of them with dark rivulets of blood weeping down the skin and a prickly crown of thorns atop his head.  Gilded columns and ornate framework also surrounded massive allegorical paintings.  Stairs led down into silent, eerie crypts where the bishops were buried.  In the pews, a few locals were bowing their heads, praying into their steepled hands; there were also people standing along the walls, praying directly to the figure of their patron saint.

As I’m not religious, I was surprised to feel a sense of deep reverence as I wandered through the Catholic structure; the feeling of sanctity permeated the entire space…it could not be ignored…it was nearly palpable.  I wondered if I’d had too much coca tea that morning.

Once PS, SK, and I were done with our tour of the cathedral, we met up with the rest of the crew and climbed an inclining road to reach a high point with a wonderful overlook. From this vantage point, big billowy clouds floated above us like white ship sails, while Cusco sprawled below us in a blanket of red-tiled rooftops.  In the distance, we could also make out a mountainside etched with the words “VIVA EL PERU”.  It was a gorgeous spot, and the perfect place for an impromptu photo shoot.

 

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After a quick stop back at the hostel, we tried out the highly rated Morena Café for lunch.  The café was a bright, clean space with a very modern, trendy feel to it.  Light bulbs glowed within large plastic teardrops suspended from the ceiling, like fireflies in jars, and flower boxes hung from the walls to lend an air of freshness.  One wall was painted with the face of a beautiful “morena” (brown-skinned girl).  Our silverware was presented on carved rocks.  Pretty much 100% of the clientele was comprised of tourists.

 

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We all ordered sandwiches, which were huge, mostly tasty, and served with a fresh flower on top.  With the exception of PS, who ordered a delicious chocolate milkshake, we also tried Inca Kola, the official soda of Peru.  Inca Kola is a neon lime-yellow color and tastes like carbonated liquid bubble gum.  While most of us were satisfied to never taste another drop of Inca Kola after the first saccharine sample, P2D2 took a strong fancy to it and was soon volunteering to down our remaining colas!  After our filling meals, we tucked the flowers into our hair and set off in search of new discoveries.

 

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We decided to check out San Pedro Market.  On the way, we ducked through a random archway into a courtyard filled with abandoned parade floats (some of which were quite terrifying).  Then, back on the road, we watched as a couple danced what looked like the tango.  In order to get to the marketplace, we had to pass through a beautiful stone gateway topped with what appeared to be winged sentinels and some sort of religious figure.  I love passing through gateways; they offer a sense of transformation, like portals into a whole other world.

 

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Once we passed through this particular portal, we soon arrived at San Pedro Market, a large indoor marketplace where merchants were selling everything from traditional clothing and touristy souvenirs to pig heads and live leeches.  We perused the wares for quite some time, but worked to steer clear of slaughtered animals still in possession of their eyes.  At one point, PS claimed that an old Peruvian lady tried to curse him.  So, you know, just a normal day at the market.

 

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With our newly purchased items secure in brown paper bags, we continued on our merry way through the town.  Before long, we came upon another marketplace, this time in the open air.  The outdoor market was far less crowded than the San Pedro Market, focused mostly on clothing and accessories, and featured delightful Peruvian music.  The market was bordered on one side by yet another lovely stone church, and on the other by Colegio Nacional de Ciencias (National College of Sciences…although RohZ initially got excited when he mistook the sign to mean National College of Cinema).  Our bags expanded with our additional souvenirs.

 

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As we made our way back to the hostel, we snuck in some photographs with the beautiful blue doors.  I was looking up at the blue balconies above, musing that it would be another ideal spot for a photo (leaning over the balcony all Juliet-like and whatnot), when we noticed the sign above us:  Choco Museo.  Que?  Como?  Chocolate Museum?  Si, por favor! What a stroke of serendipity to be loitering idly in front of a building that turned out to be a shrine to my favorite treat!  First we barged into the gift shop, where the lady directed us to the entrance around the corner.  And then we barged into the museum itself, where the sweet, divine scent of chocolate embraced us.

 

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Immediately, a man shuffled over to us with a plate of assorted chocolate samples, and he didn’t have to ask us twice before we began trying them out like seasoned chocolate connoisseurs.  Later, other museum employees offered us samples of chocolate tea and more chocolaty goodies.  Our exploration of the small museum revealed a kitchen where fresh chocolate was created from scratch (the kitchen offered lessons, but alas, we didn’t have enough time to make our own batch of chocolates), an upstairs area devoted to information about the cacao plant and its products, and shelves stocked with chocolate in every form imaginable – chocolate bars, chocolate syrup, chocolate liquor, chocolate jams, chocolate tea, etc.  I feel like the Bubba Gump of chocolate just trying to name them all.

 

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Once we exhausted our examination of the museum, my friends and I headed for the balcony to take some pictures.  At one point, SK and I were alone on the balcony, attempting to take a selfie, when one of the museum employees offered to take a photo of us.

“You are two special flavors on the balcony,” he said in his rich Peruvian accent, gazing at us like we were newly discovered types of chocolate.  SK and I glanced at each other, trying not to laugh, when SK’s husband PS suddenly appeared behind the employee.

“I can take the photo,” PS said sternly, holding his palm out to take the camera.  Reluctantly, the employee handed him the camera and slowly melted away into the shadows.

When we had all added various chocolate products to our souvenir bags, it was time to head “home” to the hostel and chill for a bit after gallivanting about all day.  We lingered in the beautiful courtyard, taking turns playing some competitive ping pong (and by competitive, I mean our trash-talking level, not our skill level), while the others lounged in the reclined chairs.

Finally, our grumbling stomachs signaled that it was time for another meal.  At first we made our way to Cicciolina, which had garnered good reviews, but the restaurant had no tables for us unless we wanted to split up our party.  So we decided to stop by the Salkantay Trekking office, which was nearby, and attend our trek orientation before trying again at Cicciolina.  The orientation was incredibly detailed and somewhat daunting, to say the least.  We felt nervous but also excited as our guide, Roger, described our route, timing, and activities.  I tried to follow our stops on the map provided to us while also frantically jotting down notes.  By the end of the orientation, Roger reminded us we would be picked up from our hostel at 4:00 a.m. the next morning.  Ouch.  He also advised us to buy ponchos, as the weather tended to change often, “like Peruvian girls.”

After the orientation, we tried Cicciolina again, but no dice.  So we settled for a nearby restaurant called Café de la Paz, which was a large upstairs space that was almost entirely empty.  The food was decent, but nothing to write home about, and we all had the opportunity to practice our Spanish with the waitress.  We all paid our separate checks with 100 sole bills in order to make change, which the waitress thought was hilarious.

 

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As we left the restaurant, we passed through a spooky hallway where a partially open door led to shadowy stairs and strange noises.  RohZ got the chills from the haunted aura and was too creeped out to explore beyond the door, so when we all walked outside, I tried to hang back for a moment and then jump forward and shout in order to scare him.  Unfortunately, a little old Peruvian lady somehow crossed my path in the midst of this plan, and I ended up accidentally jumping/shouting in her face.  The lady was understandably startled, and then, assuming I was some sort of hooligan, she began cursing at me while I ran to catch up with my friends, my head hanging in shame.  This was the second time that day one of us had been cursed by a Peruvian lady!

We made one more stop to buy ponchos and exchange money before heading home to shower and sleep early.  After all, we had to wake up before dawn the next day.  And then our trek, and the misadventures, would begin…

Continue reading:

Day 3: The Trek Begins…and Falters

Day 4: The Trek Goes Downhill

 

Or start from the beginning and read Day 1 – Touchdown Cusco!

Adventure & Disaster in Peru – Day 1

What I thought would be a pleasant trip to Peru turned out to be a wild roller-coaster ride of exhilarating highs and terrifying lows.  The idea was for me and my friends to spend a day and a half in Cusco to explore the town and acclimate to the higher altitude before heading out on an intense trek to Machu Picchu via the majestic Salkantay mountain pass.  But our meticulously planned itinerary soon unraveled in a way that none of us could have foreseen…

Day 1: Touchdown Cusco

After hours upon hours cooped up on planes, it was a welcome reprieve to step out into the arid, temperate air of Cusco, Peru in the late afternoon. Our cab drove through modern paved roads, occasionally halting at fairly sophisticated and surprisingly ornate stoplights, as my friends and I peered through the windows at the cityscape whizzing by. We spied walls adorned with vivid murals, impressive stone churches and municipal buildings, and awesome playgrounds equipped with climbable full-sized trains and gigantic, sky-high slides that never would have passed muster with U.S. safety regulations. Although we vowed to return to the playgrounds after our trek to experience the thrill of Peruvian childhood, alas, it was not mean to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

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The cab soon left behind the more modern parts of the city; as we approached the heart of Cusco, the roads transformed from smooth pavement to charming cobblestones, and the urban scenery gave way to grand cathedrals, beautiful plazas, and cute little avenues of shops and restaurants.  We couldn’t wait to explore!  By the time the cab rolled up in front of EcoPackers Hostel, wanderlust had seized us full force.  But first we had to check in.

Our hostel was not what I was expecting at all. To me, the word “hostel” evoked images of dreary, run-down sardine-tin spaces with an aura akin to an Oliver Twist-style boarding school.  EcoPackers Hostel was more like a small, vibrant independent college campus set in a two-story Spanish colonial manor.  The walls were painted a vivid tangerine, and the outdoor hallways were lined with yellow railings and arching stone architecture, green plants spilling over the sides of the framework.  Atop the traditional stone flooring of the main courtyard stood new-fangled furnishings, including chic lounge chairs, tables made of doors, hammocks, a ping-pong table, and a DJ booth (which inexplicably blasted cheesy songs from the 80’s and 90’s).  The secondary courtyard held long dining tables bedecked in colorful tablecloths and fresh flowers, and boasted a gorgeous three-dimensional textured mural of Machu Picchu engulfed in other live flora.  The inner common area also included a dining room, bar, and TV room.  The bedrooms and bathrooms were clean, relatively modern dorm-style spaces.  Oh, and of course, there was free Wi-Fi.

 

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After we’d settled in at what would soon feel like our home in Peru, we bundled up in warmer clothes that better suited the sudden drop in temperature that came with the twilight, and stepped out into the streets of Cusco with giddy hearts.  The cobblestone roads gleamed golden beneath the lampposts that illuminated our path through town – a yellow-brick road of sorts.

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Our rumbling tummies demanded to be fed – but how were we to choose from the dozens of restaurants around us?  Especially when a representative of each restaurant ventured out into the streets and called out to us, attempting to lure us in, ensuring us his food was the best or the cheapest.  That’s some pretty direct marketing.

After browsing a few options, we decided on Ama Lur.  We were rewarded with delicious food and complimentary wine.  I enjoyed a tasty fish dish and one of my friends had a great chicken and Andean cheese dish, while another played it safe with pasta. But my three guy friends were adventurous enough to try Alpaca.  I had a bite – and it was actually quite sumptuous!  The meat tasted like something between chicken and beef, with perhaps a hint of lambiness, and the sauce was rich and flavorful.

 

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For dessert, we strolled a few blocks down to the adorable Café y Chocolate, which drew us in with its glass cases of gorgeous confections, cozy upholstered chairs, and walls painted with sly cherubs holding plates of cake.  Unfortunately, although the passion-fruit cheesecake was quite good (just ok at first, but better with each bite), the other desserts were more disappointing for us.  The hot chocolate in particular was very bitter and required manual sweetening.

 

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Once our tummies were full, we wandered about Plaza de Arma for a bit.  As soon as we approached the plaza, little old Peruvian ladies accosted us with their wares.  Since the night had gotten colder, we all bought ourselves a reversible double-sided beanie (made of Alpaca wool and featuring Alpaca prints), to warm our heads.  After that, more merchants suddenly appeared out of the woodwork, thrusting their gloves and jewelry and dolls in our faces until we had rejected their advances enough times.  Sporting our hip new headwear, we took photographs near the grand Catedral de Cusco, as well as the golden statue of an Incan standing on a faux-stone platform and pointing toward the mountains.  Amidst the dark backdrop of night, the mountainsides glittered with blue and yellow jewels of light.  And at the apex, an illuminated white statue of Jesus (known as “Cristo Blanco”) overlooked the city with his arms spread wide like falcon wings.

 

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As the hour grew late, our eyelids grew heavy, and we made our way back to the hostel to enjoy free pisco sours for first-night guests at the bar, a hot shower, and some shuteye before more thoroughly exploring the city the next day.

Continue reading:

Day 2: Viva Cusco

Day 3: The Trek Begins…Then Falters

Day 4: The Trek Goes Downhill

SoCal Hikes – Machu Picchu Prep

In almost a week, I will be on a plane to Peru! My friends and I are doing the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu (a hardcore, off-the-beaten-path alternative to the Inca Trail). The scenery will be spectacular, the sites rich with cultural history…and of course, Machu Picchu is considered one of the seven wonders of the world. Needless to say, I’m psyched.

When I was first invited on this trip to Machu Picchu, however, my friend failed to mention some of the more extreme aspects of the trek. But once I agreed to the trip and the planning began, some concerning information came to light. For starters, there are no bathrooms on the Salkantay Trek, while there is at least one along the Inca Trail – for four days and three nights, when you need to relieve yourself for #1 or #2, we can literally say “nature calls” because there is nowhere else to go. At the end of each day’s arduous hike, a mere bowl of water will be provided each night to wash ourselves. We will be hiking for four days, and camping three nights, in high elevations that could cause altitude sickness. We will be carrying heavy backpacks that contain any supplies we may need for the day’s hike. Ahhhh!

I’d like to think of myself as an outdoorsy person. I mean, I truly do appreciate the beauty of nature and enjoy being outside. I’ve been on a few camping trips…but there was usually a bathroom or port-a-potty nearby. I’ve been hiking…about once a month for one to two hours, usually with nice views of – the city, and no backpack to weigh me down.

But this trek…this is a llama of a different color. I started freaking out once I realized what I signed up for. Then I stopped freaking out and started preparing. I raided my local REI, started taking iron and ginko baloba supplements to prepare my blood for the high altitude, joined a Meetup group for hiking (in addition to doing hikes with friends and family), and started carrying a backpack.  I thought I’d share some of the more beautiful interesting hikes with y’all.

 

Bridge to Nowhere

The Bridge to Nowhere hike is a beautiful, dynamic, and lengthy hike located in the Azusa area. Clocking in at 10 miles, roundtrip, it begins with some delightful river action. My balance skills were tested as we stepped on precarious stones and logs to cross the river at multiple junctures (My skills failed…I had to rely on my trekking pole to keep me out of the water. Although falling into cool, shallow river currents wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world on a hot summer’s day).

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After hiking along the shady, peaceful river path, the terrain suddenly changed into a dry but beautiful desert-like  area filled with towering spears of strange flowers. This part was hot, to be sure…but there was always something interesting to look at. Beware of the spiky bushes, though! They hurt!

 

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The terrain shifted yet again at the Sheep Mountain Wilderness are. The going got tougher as we hiked up the mountain a bit on a dry, dusty path that  was at times slippery. But we were rewarded with some nice views of the river below us, although in many spots the riverbeds had run dry. And there is always the possibility of catching a glimpse of some mountain sheep. We got lucky and were rewarded with a view of a bold ram on a higher ledge of the mountain, surveying us like an apathetic god.

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The final stretch to the bridge was a killer. We were high above the river, beaten down by the sun, scavenging for pockets of shade. Although we were hungry, we wanted to wait to reach the bridge to enjoy lunch down at the river. But when the Bridge to Nowhere finally came into view, relief washed over us like…a river? Haha, too easy. Anyway, there were people jumping off of the bridge. And I don’t mean they were suicidal…they were bungee jumping! (Though some people think bungee jumpers are suicidal).

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We watched the jumpers with horror for a while…they kept bouncing around on their cords, and I kept fearing that they would crack their skull on one of the bridge’s pillars. Finally, our stomachs got the better of us. We crossed the bridge, which does indeed lead nowhere. To be more precise, it hits a mountain…but there was a little trail that led down that mountain to the beginning (or end?) of the river, where the water pooled into certain areas that then spilled down into other pools. Tons of people were swimming and frolicking in the water, and plenty others found a niche in the surrounding rock walls and were eating their lunches. We followed suit. We came, we saw, we conquered. We ate, frolicked, we napped. And then it was time to head back.

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The hike back felt brutal to me. The afternoon sun was at its peak, and my poor feet were weak and weary. But as difficult as it was, the Bridge to Nowhere hike is so interesting that it remains one of my favorite hikes.

 

Mt. Baldy

At 10,000 ft. elevation, Mt. Baldy was a toughie. I endured a lot of difficult uphill hiking, with many mini-breaks along the way. But it still felt amazing to be up so high, with lovely foresty trees waving you onward and upward. The very top, however, was treeless (hence Mt. Baldy). There were some nice white patches of snow, though. It felt amazing to cool my hot, swollen hands with a summer snowball. And I enjoyed a sense of accomplishment to reach the peak…started from the bottom, now we’re here!

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Elephant emerging from the woodwork!

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Cave of Munits and Castle Peak

I live in the vast wasteland known as the Valley (the San Fernando Valley, if you want to get technical). Yes, I am a Valley Girl (like, totally). But although I’ve lived in or near the valley for much of my life, until recently I was woefully unaware of the variety of gorgeous hikes that were a mere hop, skip, and jump away. Sure, I’d been on some plain mountain trails in the Valley. But I never knew there were caves…and places where I could channel my inner rock climber as I hoisted myself up craggy rockfaces.

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The Cave of Munits is pretty frickin’ cool…except that some annoying Valley teens thought the same thing. The cave is marked with a bit o’ graffitti and littered with a sprinkling of candy wrappers and cigarette butts. But it’s still awesome.

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Castle Peak, which is a lookout point above the cave and down a ways, offers a great view of the Valley.

 

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And if you hike down the hill at sunset….foggettaboutit. Gorgeousness.

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Eagle Rock

My brother exposed me to yet another Valley gem. Burrowed within the Topanga Canyon pass are small roads that lead up to various trailheads. Once such trailhead leads to Eagle Rock. The trail itself is fairly simple; it’s basically a fireroad that goes uphill. But as simple as it may seem, this hike still offered many little pleasures. For example, some deer grazing in the fields nearby!

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And once you reach Eagle Rock, you can survey the lands below like a queen observing her kingdom from the castle tower. Eagle Rock itself is pretty epic…it calls to mind Pride Rock from The Lion King.

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My bro watching the clouds roll in and contemplating the universe

 

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The sunsets are also quite lovely!

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Charmlee Wilderness Park

The drive to Charmlee Wilderness Park is a splendor in itself. It is a beautiful and relaxing drive, especially as you pass the vineyards adorning the mountainsides. The park has many good options for trails, and there are some nice wildflowers sprinkled about, although there is probably an even more colorful profusion in the springtime. And I took a liking to the grand, sprawling trees whose leaves bowed down to create a sheltered circle of absolute shade, like a self-contained tent; I of course was compelled to climb one of these trees.

But my favorite thing about this hike is the spectacular ocean view. For most of our hike, we were accompanied by views of the deep blue sea, twinkling and beckoning to us as we sweated above it in the unforgiving sun. There was a path that did actually go down to Pacific Coast Highway, but tempting though it was, we did not dare venture it…for then we would have to climb all the way back up. We settled for driving home and jumping in the pool instead, which wasn’t a bad alternative!

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Well, Peru is coming up in almost a week! I probably won’t have time for another big hike, what with all the packing and last-minute shopping and full-time freaking out. But perhaps I will sneak in at least one short local hike.

Update: Check out my account of my crazy trip to Peru, starting at Adventure and Disaster in Peru – Day 1

The Isla Vista Tragedy – My Thoughts as a UCSB Alum, American, and Human

You may not have expected to find a post about The Isla Vista mass murder on Cup of Whimsy, where my posts typically express the more beautiful and whimsical aspects of life.  However, I am a Gaucho, UCSB Class of 2007, who lived in Isla Vista for four years.  Isla Vista had its fair share of beauty and whimsy, which have now paled beneath the cold shroud of fear and grief.  And my mind is spilling over with so many thoughts and sentiments that I can’t help but siphon them into a more coherent statement to clear a bit of space in my mind.

This horrific tragedy has had an astounding impact on the nation, sparking discussions on a wide range of hotly debated issues ranging from gun control and mental health to Hollywood materialism and the objectification of women.  I have my two cents to contribute about these issues, but I would like to begin first and foremost with the place I called home during some of the best times of my life, and the fallen Gauchos who, like myself, considered it a sunny slice of student utopia.

The IV Factor

Isla Vista, known to current, former, and pseudo locals as “IV”, is not just a college town.  It is a community.  It is an oasis.  In IV, I pedaled my bike in my flip flops, a backpack slung across my shoulders, a mocha balanced in one hand, as I threaded through the traffic (of pedestrians, not vehicles) to make my way to class.  I walked to the beach and lay on a blanket to do some reading for my Comparative Literature class while surfers rode the waves that swelled before me.  My friends and I would head in packs to Freebirds for nachos, to Java Jones for a study group, to the video store to rent a movie.  We made our way to Embarcadero Del Mar to hang out at a friend’s apartment, then headed to DP for a dance party.  Usually, the closest friend was no more than a block away.

We felt safe.  We felt connected.  We felt happy.

Now, 7 years after I graduated, I feel shock and deep sadness at the thought of IV being desecrated by tragic and senseless violence.  I feel grief for the fallen Gauchos, though I did not know them personally.  And all throughout my social media, I notice that one by one, my fellow Gauchos of various classes and generations are also rising up in solidarity, like so many candles being lit.  We are drawn like magnets to news of the victims and the campus and the town.  Their pain is our pain.

The victims were not strangers to us, not really; they were our classmates, our roommates, our friends, our significant others.  They were us.  Because though we may be from different generations, we all shared a common experience.  UCSB and IV are not just places; they are feelings.  They are sunshine and beer and ocean breeze and textbooks and nachos and bicycles all rolled into one.

And so together, we mourn.

 

The Dark Mind Rises - Mental Health

The killer (whom I shall not deign to name) was clearly a disturbed young man (henceforth referred to in this post as “DYM”). The reason for his violence was not that women rejected him, but that his mind processed his emotions and rationalized his actions in an extreme, abnormal, and unhealthy manner.  Women were his particular scapegoat, but other killers have blamed bullies, hypocrisy, religion, and a whole host of other perceived villains.  But where those with stronger minds are able to cope with their negative emotions in a healthy and peaceful manner, unstable minds gravitate toward much darker paths.

I have known older male virgins who were late bloomers…yes, they wanted love and sex; yes, they sometimes felt lonely.  But no – they did not harbor any violent feelings toward the women who rejected them.  They understood that their emotions were in their own control.  They focused on doing other things that made them happy and experienced growth in other areas of their lives, all the while continuing to treat women with respect and understanding.  And eventually, they found girlfriends…probably better ones than if they had tried too hard to gain the affections of someone who just wasn’t right for them.

The DYM had been receiving psychological treatment for years.  Not only that, there were multiple warning signs that he had the potential to be a danger to himself and/or others.  And yet, even when his own mother alerted his counselor – who then alerted the police -  to the potential threat, the police were convinced by the smooth-talking DYM that he was nothing more than a polite but shy young man who posed no risk.

Why did everyone keep ignoring the red flags?  Because they didn’t know better…or if they did (like his mother), they didn’t have the power to do anything about it.

I believe that the public at large, and the authorities in particular, need to have a deeper knowledge of mental health issues.  We as a nation need to educate ourselves about the mental illnesses that plague so many of our people.  Most of us have very little understanding of such issues unless we personally know someone with a mental illness or are studying psychology.  Many people with mental health issues are relatively harmless, but we need to know the best way to care for them as a matter of compassion, just as we need to know how to care for an aging parent with Alzheimer’s.  And now that crimes committed by disturbed minds have forced their way into the limelight, it is even more imperative that we learn how to identify those who are potentially dangerous; we need to build a system that will protect others and themselves from…themselves.

Of course there is more than can be done in the field of psychology…more research to be conducted, further refinements to be made to treatments. But change is a force propagated by the public, first through their awareness, and then through their passion to make a difference once they realize that the difference will create a better world for themselves and their loved ones.

 

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang – Gun Control

Yes, I know – 2nd amendment and all that.  We have the right to bear arms.  Great.  Well guess what?  We’re bearing them.  We’re bearing them to the tune of nearly two mass shootings per month since 2009, according to a report by a coalition of the nation’s mayors.  If you’re a responsible gun-owning citizen who practices gun safety and uses a weapon appropriate to your reasonable needs (e.g. a rifle for hunting, a pistol for defending your property), well, that’s fine by me.

But is it such a ridiculous request to keep guns out of the hands of unstable and violent people, especially semi-automatic weapons no average citizen would have need for in everyday life?  Is it so unpatriotic to want to keep our citizens alive so that they may continue their pursuit of happiness? At the very least, perhaps we can establish a system that flags people with serious mental health or criminal history and makes it illegal for them to secure deadly weapons.

The Constitution is in some respects a living document.  As society has progressed, we have abolished slavery, allowed African Americans and women to vote, and otherwise amended or interpreted the Constitution in such a manner as to uphold its core principles while shedding the outdated vestiges of the 18th century.

This is how the Constitution begins:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Isn’t it time we insure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare?  How many must die before we take common-sense measures that help keep weapons out of dangerous hands without impacting the liberty of the masses?

Not one more.

 

Mr. Misogyny – Objectification of Women

It should be abundantly clear by now that the DYM did not respect women.  He did not see women as individuals who have ownership of their own hearts and bodies. He did not try to understand why women would reject him; in fact he viewed their rejections as a crime, because he felt entitled to their bodies and affections by virtue of his appearance, possessions, and cheap charade of “gentlemanly” manners. We’ve already established the fact that the DYM had a mental illness, which likely exacerbated an underlying tendency to objectify women.

I know that there are guys out there who refer to women as pieces of meat or conquests, who think women should dress “femininely” because they believe we exist for the pleasure of men. But what I am astounded to learn is that there are actually guys out there – many of whom presumably do not have mental health issues – who sympathize with the DYM’s highly antagonistic feelings toward women.  Guys who not only think of women as sex objects, but that women who fail to fulfill this role are to blame for somebody else’s violent actions!

Guys who said things like “Well, girls, keep that in mind the next time you friendzone somebody!” and “See girls, this is what you get for treating nice guys like shit.”

W.T.F.  Even if these statements were made in jest, they are incredibly offensive and reflect an alarming thought process. Rejecting somebody is NOT the equivalent of treating them like shit (unless it was an intentionally cruel and humiliating rejection). You are NOT entitled to someone else’s body or affections.

Everybody experiences rejection at some point in their lives, whether romantically or professionally or otherwise. All rejection means is that there is something about yourself that you need to improve, you’re not right for each other, or the timing is wrong. If you have been rejected, try to understand why…then move on!

Every woman has the right to reject a guy they are not comfortable with.  “Friendzoning” may have negative connotations to insecure men who have never been beyond this zone, but for women it is our right to stop intimacy from going past a level we are comfortable with, for whatever reason, and men have this same right (though it’s not our fault that they rarely choose to exercise it).

STOP THE OBJECTIFICATION. We are living, breathing, feeling, thinking humans, dammit.

 

Celebrity Materialism and Hollywood Sex-sationalism

Let’s face it, materialism is rampant among celebrities. Rappers flaunt their fancy cars, high-end brand-name attire, and luxury lifestyles. Hollywood celebrities stay forever young through expensive beauty regimens, plastic surgeries, and a never-ending wardrobe of perfectly tailored clothing.  The lifestyles of the rich and the famous have thoroughly permeated American culture, leaving many impressionable young minds with a craving for fame, riches, and glory. Pop culture is everywhere…and it focuses not on the brilliant scientists and literary authors and generous philanthropists…no, it focuses on musicians and actors and reality stars.

At the same time, pop culture perpetuates the idea that sex is a commodity. Many teen movies portray a frantic race against the dreaded virginity, as though it is something to be ashamed of and quickly disposed of, rather than a respected state of existence maintained until one feels emotionally/physically/mentally ready to have sex and has found a partner that they feel truly comfortable with. 40 Year Old Virgin is one of the few movies that treats virginity with the thoughtfulness it deserves…but my point is still made by the other characters in the movie who try to help Steve Carell’s character to get rid of his virginity as quickly and easily as possible, without considering his emotional state.

Is it necessary for every teen/young adult movie to portray sex in this manner when, in reality, there are plenty of late bloomers in real life who feel there is something wrong with them because their lives don’t match the ones on the screen?

Pop culture has an inordinate amount of power in shaping the consciousness of our youth…why can’t those involved in creating this culture recognize their power and use it for good? What if pop culture broadened its appeal beyond the arts to include other subjects that would promote a more educated and informed society? What if Hollywood became more thoughtful and sensitive in its portrayal of sex, virginity, dating, and relationships instead of just using what works well for entertainment value?

Look, I’m not blaming the materialism and Hollywood sexualization for the IV murders. Many of us are subject to the same influences of pop culture and we don’t go around shooting people…but then again, many of us have been raised with strong values or some sort of moral guidance that helps us navigate the murky waters of pop culture and determine for ourselves what is reflective of real life, what is truly valuable, and what is only used for entertainment purposes.  However, if somebody lacks such moral guidance, if somebody loses their way, or if somebody’s mind is twisted by mental health issues…then they become much more susceptible to the dark pull of pop culture.

 

Come Together

Wow, I can’t believe I’ve rambled on for so long! Clearly I had a lot of thoughts to get out of my system. The Isla Vista incident was truly an unconscionable tragedy that should never be repeated again in any shape or form. It should not have happened in the first place.

In keeping with the theme of my blog, however, I will try to end on a note of hope. Despite recent horrors, I still have faith in the human spirit. I am distressed that innocent lives were lost or wounded, that my former carefree home of IV no longer feels safe to many, that a disturbed young man’s cries for help (in the form of public videos, posts, and strange behavior) were ignored. But so many voices have risen from the rubble; so many important discussions are springing up as we come together to seek  how best to protect our communities and improve our society.

My hope is that these discussions will not fade away as they so often do when the next big news story hits the waves. My hope is that by finding common ground, these discussions will give rise to action, that we will finally begin taking concrete steps toward a better tomorrow. I believe that if we stay committed to our vision of a safe, informed, healthy, and happy society, we can all do our part to make this vision a reality.

The Sorcerer

On her 30th birthday, Nimali met a sorcerer.  This was quite unexpected, as she had stopped believing in magic – like many – in childhood, once Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy turned out to be elaborate hoaxes.  And she had discarded her cherished fantasy novels back in high school, when the real world began to intrude upon her imagination and make more demands on her time.

Since then, Nimali had dutifully followed the path of pragmatism.  She focused her attention on excelling in her law career, managing her personal finances, and making the necessary doctor and dentist appointments in a timely manner.  There had once been a time when she had focused on being a good daughter, friend, and wife.  But then her parents had died, her friends had gotten married and lost touch or moved away, and her husband had had an affair with their real estate agent when he was supposed to be looking for a new home to build a family with Nimali.

Staring at her round, olive-toned face in the mirror, Nimali locked eyes with herself and said, “Here we are.  The earth didn’t shake; the walls didn’t crumble.  I am simply 30 now, that’s all.  Today will be just the same as yesterday, and not so different from tomorrow.”  But the thought didn’t comfort her much.

Nimali went to work as usual, settling into the desk in her 24th floor office and began reading tedious legal briefs.  After a few hours, she began to feel stifled by the canned air-conditioning and sickly fluorescent lighting. In a spark of uncharacteristic spontaneity, she switched off the lights and swept open the window blinds to let the sunshine flood in like melted butter.  Once that was done, however, Nimali had no end of distractions.  She could not help but gaze out the window at the skyline of haughty bank buildings huddled against the topaz sky, then down below at the endless array of people strolling down sidewalks, scurrying across streets, loitering outside shop windows.

And then she felt the sharp, distinct compulsion that she must be one of them.  She could not remain in the office a moment longer; no – she would take an early lunch and venture into the open air to enjoy a sandwich and slice of cake from the Dutch bakery down the street.  It was her birthday, after all.  Why not treat herself to a meal away from her desk for once?

It was at the corner of 45th and Main that Nimali encountered the sorcerer.  He was about four feet tall, with deep violet robes, a matching conical hat imprinted with silver stars, and a goatee scribbled on his smooth little face in black marker.

He stood on a bus stop bench, which boosted him a little above Nimali’s height, and raised his arms over his head in an imposing, grandiose gesture.

“I am Richie, THE MOST POWERFUL SORCERER IN THE WORLD!” he bellowed.  A few passersby looked over and smiled fondly at the boy before continuing on their way.  One elderly woman shook her head at him disapprovingly. Only Nimali slowed to a halt in front of the bus stop bench, watching.  “My magic can do anything…ANYTHING!”

“Can it find me love?” Nimali whispered under her breath.  Aloud, she asked, “Where is your mother?”

The little sorcerer raised his arms even higher and lifted his face to the heavens above.  “There.”

Nimali felt her heart squeeze as she watched the boy’s upturned face soak in the golden rays of sunlight.  Poor, motherless child.  “And where is your father?” she asked, more tenderly.

The sorcerer looked sadly at her.  “He’s sleeping with the fishes.”

Nimali was so taken aback by this morbid, noir euphemism for death that she had to sit down on the bench.  From this vantage point, the sorcerer was a dark figure haloed by shimmering sunlight, making him appear to indeed possess some extraordinary power.

Both parents dead…how awful!  Nimali didn’t know what to do.  Perhaps she should take him to the police station?  Yes, the authorities would know what to do, who to contact.  Maybe he had foster parents, or lived in an orphanage.  But what if he had run away?  What if he wasn’t happy?

“What kind of powers do you have?”  Nimali asked, stalling for time.  Part of her wanted to take him home with her and cook up a proper meal.  It had been ages since she had cooked for anyone other than herself.

The sorcerer stooped down and pulled a quarter out of Nimali’s ear.  She gasped with astonishment and delight.  Of course, she knew the trick…but she still remembered how she had felt when her father pulled a Susan B. Anthony coin from her ear when she was six years old, the thrill of wondering if her daddy was secretly a wizard.

“That was amazing!” Nimali said, clapping her hands.  “What other powers do you have?”

“I can grant you your wish,” said the sorcerer.  And he pressed his eyes shut with such earnest concentration that Nimali found herself grinning broadly.  But then his eyes snapped open and he was looking with glee at a man walking towards them.

The man was not very tall, but he had a kind face with dancing honey drop eyes, and his groomed brown beard gave him the appearance of a rugged lumberjack adapting to city life.

“Happy Birthday!” the man said as he approached.  He pulled out a bag he had been holding behind his back and thrust it toward the bench.

Nimali grasped it in confusion.  “Th-thank you,” she said.  “But how did you know?  Who are you?”

The man knitted his eyebrows together in surprise.  “Sorry, Miss, but that was actually for my son.”

The sorcerer grabbed the bag from Nimali, giggling at the hilarity of the situation, and pulled out a second plastic bag filled with water and a lone goldfish.

Nimali looked from the sorcerer to the man.  “Oh!  I’m so sorry! It’s my birthday, too…I just got mixed up for a moment. And I thought he said his father was dead?”

The sorcerer looked at her with indignation.  “No, that’s not what I said!  I said he was sleeping with the fishes!”

The man roared with laughter.  “Richie, that phrase doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“But you were,” the sorcerer insisted. “In the pet shop, you were sitting in front of the fish tanks, and then you closed your eyes.  So I got bored and came out here.”

“Which you should not have done,” the man scolded.  “You could have been kidnapped by this scary woman here.”  He grinned at Nimali.

“Nuh-uh,” said the sorcerer.  “I could see you through the window, daddy, so I knew you would see me when you opened your eyes.  And my magic powers showed me that this woman is not scary.”

“Is your mother in the shop, too?”Nimali asked, trying to make sure she fully understood the situation.

“No!  I told you…she’s in heaven.”

“Right.  I’m so sorry…”  Nimali glanced at the man again, then back at the sorcerer, and decided she had embarrassed herself enough for the day.  She stood up.  “Well, happy birthday, Richie the Sorcerer.  Thank you for showing me your magic!”

“You’re leaving?” the sorcerer asked, distressed.

“Thanks for humoring my kid,” the man said, extending a hand.  “My name’s Finn, by the way.”

“Nimali.”  She shook Finn’s hand, and the warm pressure of his flesh filled her with a sense of comfort.

“Nice to meet you, Nimali.  Listen, Richie and I are going to have some lunch and birthday cake at a bakery down the street.  We’d be so happy if you would join us.”

“Oh, I don’t know…” Nimali said, growing flustered.  She tried to think of a believable excuse.

“You have to come,” said the sorcerer.  “It’s your birthday.  And this is the wish you made.”

“Wish?  But I didn’t make a wish.”

“Not out loud.  But you did.”  The sorcerer looked Nimali in the eyes, and all at once she felt his enchantment swirl around the three of them, sweeping them into an invisible cyclone of pure, breathtaking magic.

And so she yielded to the powers of the little sorcerer and walked with him and Finn down to the bakery, the three of them laughing all the way, and she wondered if she would recognize herself if she were to look down from her office window now.

The Elegant Web

The universe

In its scintillation of stars

Threads together webs

Of dazzling fates

Karmic forces

Like the lofty laws of physics

Perpetuate and transform

The motion of our lives

Every Action

Has an Equal and Opposite

Reaction

Every Faction

Has an Equal and Opposite

Attraction

The forces of the universe

Manifest in mysterious ways

Due rewards

And punishments

May be delayed

May be amassing

May be perfecting

Waiting for the right time

The right place

For an elegant way

To hit you in the face