blue ribbon

Blue Note

A sweet, blue clarinet melody slipped through Rashmi’s open window like a velvet ribbon carried in on a breeze. The sultry strain of music wrapped itself around her softly, so softly, as she sat on the sofa reading a novel. Rashmi set down the book and pressed her eyes shut as the smooth notes caressed her, a song of frosty fires and longing looks.

When the music stopped, she let out a tiny gasp, her eyelids fluttering open as though someone had shaken her awake from a pleasant dream. She waited for a few minutes, but the music did not resume. A lone teardrop shivered upon the lower rim of her right eye. After a moment, she picked up her book. But that wasn’t right; she stared at it uncomprehendingly, as though it had transformed into an assembly manual in a foreign language. She set it back down.

Rashmi’s fingers began to itch. She flexed them several times, then picked up a pen and a notebook. This was good; yes, she was on the right track.

Flipping to a fresh page, she began to write. The blue ink looped and scrawled across the page like a ribbon somersaulting on a gust of wind. The ink stained her skin like a smear of crushed berries, but this only made her feel more alive. By the time Rashmi was done, the sky had blackened, and a drafty chill from the window set her teeth chattering. Admiring her work with deep satisfaction, she tore out the word-stocked pages of her notebook.

Then she crumpled all of these notebook pages together into a big ball and hurled it out the window, not knowing where it might land. The best was the not knowing.

deadpoetssociety

The Light That Went Out

Within each of us burns a light

A force, a brightness

Pulsing and flashing

To the beat of its own drum

Along with every other soul on Earth

*

If you could see our power

If you could only see…

It would look like ten thousand diamonds glittering in the fire

Grand, sprawling oceans illuminated by sea stars

All the eyes in the world mirroring the sun

A throbbing vitality

A profound passion

A cosmic energy

 *

New lights are always emerging

Old lights are always fading

Until one day, they go out

 *

But sometimes

Sometimes

One light shines and glows with such radiance

Flashes a kaleidoscope of hues with such brilliance

Whirls like a dazzling dervish with such effervescence

And casts so much of its luster on all the other lights

Like a magnificent, blazing sun

Sharing its brightness with all the spheres in the sky

That it conceals so well

The darkness gnawing within

*

And when this spectacular light

This scintillating dynamo

This iridescent splendor

Finally goes out

Unexpectedly

The magnificent, blazing sun

Suddenly reduced to a candle

Extinguished with a pinch

Its presence is felt more deeply

By the deep, dismal darkness of the shadow

Cast by its loss

10583869_10103282559775727_652395378723011056_n
IMG_3557

Adventure & Disaster in Peru – Day 7

Day 7:  Adios, Peru

Our last day in Peru arrived with mixed emotions.  There had been some joy, adventure, and beauty, but there had also been fear, disaster, and misery.  I was truly grateful for all of the wonderful moments, but more than ready to go home.  All of us were also keen to get KP back to the safety of the U.S., where everything was familiar, the doctors spoke English, and her family would be able to take good care of her.  And, of course, she could always find good pizza back home (Peru had been beyond disappointing in its execution of Italian food).

That morning in Cusco was beautiful, with bright blue skies and creamy white clouds, just like our first morning in that lovely city.  Oh, Cusco, you never did us wrong!  It was those treacherous mountains…or perhaps the Incan gods?  Then again, PS had speculated that our bad luck may have been caused by the old ladies that cursed us that first full day in Cusco.  I had assumed they were spewing bad words in Spanish…but could it have been bad spells they were brewing?

After packing up all of our belongings, PS, SK, RohZ, P2D2, and I ventured out into the streets in search of a brunch spot.  We settled on a large, empty restaurant with signs warning us to keep an eye on our valuables, as the restaurant was not responsible for missing items.  Comforting.  Although we started to second-guess our decision, the food soon allayed our worries.  I had a delicious egg sandwich with cheese and avocado on a French-toast style bread.  When I saw a beautiful framed portrait of ice cream on the wall, I couldn’t resist…I added the chocolatey treat to my order.  The ice cream however, ended up being quite upsetting.  Though delightful to behold, it was icy, crunchy, and tasted of freezer burn.

 

IMG_3547

Disappointing ice cream…womp womp

 

After we finished eating, we wandered into an open-air market in a nearby courtyard to buy some last-minute souvenirs.  Most of the merchant stalls were nearly identical and offered the standard fare – llama dolls, Alpaca-wool beanies and clothing, hand-carved knick-knacks, Machu Picchu artwork and magnets, wooden pan flutes, and handmade jewelry – although some stalls specialized in a particular keepsake.  I haggled over a double-sided beanie, then went off in search of a magnet for my refrigerator.

I joined SK at another vendor stall, where the merchant tried to charge me an obscene price for a crappy magnet that looked like someone had glued a printed-out photo of Machu Picchu to a cheap magnetic strip.  I shook my head.  SK found a smaller but nicer-looking painted magnet for me.  I offered my price.

“Please, m’lady,” the merchant said.  “That is too much.”

I almost snorted with laughter.  M’lady??  I had been called senorita and amiga in Peru, but never m’lady.

She countered with a slightly lower offer, and I responded with an even lower price.

“No, m’lady,” she said sorrowfully.  I half expected her to curtsy.  What was this, Downton Abbey?

As I attempted to walk away, the merchant followed after me in desperation.  “M’lady!  Ok, m’lady!”  Not only did we settle on a decent price, but I felt like a countess to boot.

Meanwhile, another merchant was trying to sell SK a huge carved piece of wood that resembled…well…a certain “piece” of “wood” found on the male anatomy.

“No, no!” SK kept saying.  “I don’t want it!”

Yet the lady thrust the piece of wood toward SK, saying, “You can use it as a coat hanger!”

SK looked horrified.

Finally, all of us left the market and headed to Plaza de Armas to say goodbye to the heart of the city.  But, to our amazement, we found the statue had transformed.

Before, the Inca statue had stood on a faux-stone platform.  Now, the platform had vanished, and the Inca statue stood instead atop a beautiful fountain.  On the tier below the Incan, two stone geese held their wings in mid-flap, and stone flowers and creatures carved along the edge of the tier spouted water into the pool below.  Within the pool were statues of mermen trumpeting some triumphant, silent song.  Apparently, the faux platform had only been assembled for the Corpus Christi celebration.

 

IMG_3557

Inca fountain

 

My friends and I, minus the ill-fated yet good-natured KP, took a few traditional jumping pictures in front of this iconic fountain, which was so much more compelling than the boring old platform.  Then SK left us to bring KP fresh clothes at the clinic before the ambulance ride to the airport, and PS went along with her (“I can’t let her take a cab alone in Peru!”).

RohZ, P2D2, and I enjoyed the plaza for just a little bit longer.  It was such a gorgeous day.  So temperate and full of color!  I frolicked through the flowers as the boys documented my awkwardness, then we made our way back to the hostel to collect all of our luggage from storage.

 

IMG_3579

Frolicking through the flowers

 

We had our suitcases lined up in the hostel courtyard like a giant game of dominos.  And before long, just as KP had promised, our own personal ambulance arrived to escort us all to the airport!

“KP hooked us up!” SK said jubilantly into PS’s camcorder. “Hashtag O2 network.”

Inside, the ambulance was dim and had an eerie reddish glow.  I hoped this would be the first and last time I’d ever see the inside of one of these things…

 

ambulance

O2 ambulance

 

Once at the airport, the boys had to help lift KP in and out of wheelchairs (there was a different wheelchair for the airport versus the airplane), and she pressed her eyes shut in silent pain throughout this process.  As we were waiting in the terminal for our flight to Lima, we ran into Elsie, one of the NY girls from our trekking group.

“How are you feeling?” she asked KP.  At this point, KP was lying on three terminal chairs, covered by a blanket (it hurt her tailbone area to sit for too long).  Meanwhile, RohZ was sitting in her wheelchair just for kicks.

KP filled Elsie in on her situation.

“You should definitely sue,” Elsie said, shaking her head indignantly.

We said our goodbyes, but before she left, Elsie gave KP her leopard-print neck pillow to ease the pain and pressure when she sat on it.  “Here. You need this more than I do.”

“I’m almost tearing up!” SK declared as Elsie walked away.

After that unexpected act of kindness from the tough New Yorker, we felt in better spirits.  The pillow would definitely help KP through the flights.

Still, our flight to Lima was the easiest leg of the journey; KP managed to endure the short flight fairly well as we played the childhood-era MASH game to keep her thoughts off the pain.  It was the international flights we were worried about…even a neck pillow would not be enough.

But first, we had an eight-hour layover in Lima before our 2:00 a.m. flight.  Peru still had us in its clutches.

My itinerary had some ideas on what we could do in Lima:

Take a cab into Lima, eat dinner at a restaurant, explore the town (e.g. Museo Larco, Magic Water Circuit, Parque De La Reserva, Miraflores Boardwalk, San Pedro Church).

But that had been written in a different time, in a different world. After we set up camp in the airport, none of us felt struck by a violent urge to venture out again into the Peruvian night.  KP, of course, would not be able to leave.  And since the accident, there hadn’t been many opportunities for all six of us to hang out together.  So we found a stretch of chairs for KP to lie down on and some of us to sit on, while the rest of us created a barrier of suitcases and sat on top of them across from the chairs.

And then the long wait began.  We talked for a bit, reflecting on our strange trip.  We bought dinner at a sandwich shop.  Some of us set off through the airport in search of a pack of cards…but the shops were charging a ridiculously high price (about $10 U.S.).  No bueno.

At one point, KP needed to use the restroom, but we didn’t have a wheelchair.  Our airline counter wasn’t even open yet, so we tried asking other airlines if we could borrow a wheelchair.  All of us had spread out in search of an airline that would help us.  I couldn’t believe it – most of them refused! What happened to common decency?! The first time I came across American Airlines and asked to borrow a wheelchair for my friend, they refused as well.  The wheelchairs were only for American Airline customers, they said.  But when I realized that my other friends hadn’t had any luck finding a wheelchair either, I went back to American Airlines and started pleading dramatically in my best Spanish.

“Por favor!  Mi amiga necesita usar el bano…pero no puede caminar!  Y nuestra airline es no abierto…abierta? Abierto…”

The male employees just looked at me impassively (jerks!), but the only female employee started to show some concern.

“Ella no puede caminar?” she asked.  I nodded.  She said something to her coworkers and began unfolding a wheelchair.

“Gracias!”

When we arrived at our “camp,” SK had found another man from a sister airline, and was attempting to persuade him to lend us a wheelchair, with little success.  But he did seem slightly shamefaced when he realized another airline was helping us out.  The lady from American Airlines even took KP to a private handicapped bathroom so she wouldn’t have to brave the tiny crowded stalls of the main restrooms.  And while KP was in the bathroom with her walker, the lady asked with genuine concern what had happened to KP.  As our Spanish was limited, SK and I tried our best to express the horse incident, miming a fall and the motion of a horse when language failed us.

After KP was settled back at our camp, we all began playing charades.  That kept us occupied for a while, and was particularly entertaining when we had to act out each other. We made another trip through the airport for snacks and desserts. Then PS played back some of the clips from our trip that he had captured on his camcorder.

We joked about how stressed out the cleaning crew must be; they kept throwing glances at our camp. The crew had been meticulous in their cleaning of all the airport floors, but our patch floor, within the circular boundaries of our chairs and suitcases, remained sullied for hours (in their eyes, at least…it still looked clean to us). We knew that as soon as we left, they would swoop in with brooms and mops to attack the floor like vultures eagerly devouring their prey.

Finally, the time came when we could at least make our way to the terminal. As we were trying to help KP up and into another wheelchair – KP clearly in pain at the effort – a strange lady with wild light eyes, who had been staring intensely at KP, walked over to her. We couldn’t understand what she was saying, but she invaded KP’s personal space and pressed her finger to a point on KP’s face, muttering something while the rest of us threw each other uneasy glances. I wondered if this was yet another Peruvian curse, but then we realized that the lady was trying to tell us that pressing this particular spot on her face would help ease the pain.

“Yes, thanks, I’ll try that,” KP said, taking over the spot on her face with her own finger. The lady gave us a knowing look, nodded mysteriously, and left. KP immediately removed her finger from her face.

Creepy.

We checked in with our airline and managed to secure three seats in a row for KP to lay on.  By the time we made it to the terminal, I was dead tired. I fell asleep on my chair until boarding time. Once again, the boys helped KP out of her airport wheelchair and into the airplane wheelchair. Then they helped her lie down in her airplane seats and covered her with blankets.

Finally, it was time to leave Peru for real. The plane took off in a rough, guttural rumble, with me holding on to my armrests for dear life (takeoffs and landings scare me).

And then we were up in the dark night air, home free and homeward bound.

I glanced out the window and into the abyss for a moment before closing my eyes and succumbing to sleep. What a trip!

Adios, Peru.  We came, we saw, we…fell…we got up, we dusted ourselves off, we managed.  You tested us, you rewarded us, you mystified us.  Our trip was at times an adventure, and at times a disaster. But one thing was for certain – it was unforgettable.

IMG_5515

Adventure & Disaster in Peru – Day 6

Day 6:  The Wonders of Machu Picchu

 

“Fall out of bed and catch a fading star…fancy I woke up before my alarm.  Rubbed my mind through my eyes, it’s the best I can do…”

I awoke in the pre-dawn gloom to the sweet sound of Jason Mraz crooning on my phone alarm.  Sleep had been a fickle bedfellow last night; I’d been startled by the thunderous rattling of a train right next to our hostel, along with a few other jarring noises.  Still, though drowsy, I felt more peaceful than I had on other mornings of the trip.

“And I know, I know, it’s gonna be a good day…Hello, hello, you beautiful thing…”

I reached for my phone and turned off the alarm.  Perhaps today would be a good day.  Perhaps we would actually be able to say hello to the beautiful Machu Picchu, if all went well.  If only KP was here!

After getting ready, my friends and I met in the hostel’s dining area for a quick breakfast of hollow bread.  We were getting pretty sick of bread by this point.  Soon, we joined up with Roger and the rest of our trekking group to make our way to the bus stop, where Peruvian ladies were selling freshly made tomato-and-avocado sandwiches on croissants.  We purchased some sandwiches for later before boarding our bus.  I promptly dozed off.

When I opened my eyes again, we were pulling into the dropoff area near a big, fancy restaurant and the entrance to Machu Picchu.  The bus ride had only been about 30 minutes, though filled with twists and turns up the dangerous mountain pass.  We got out and joined the line for the entrance, passports and tickets in hand.

And then we were in!

The sun was just beginning to make its ascent over the silhouetted mountains of the Andes, inflaming the clouds to set the sky ablaze.

 

sky

Sunrise over the Andes

 

Because we had spent the night in Aguas Calientes, we were able to arrive at sunrise, when the grounds remained relatively empty of crowds.  We had a few hours of near-isolation before swarms of people would rush in from Aguas Calientes, fresh off their morning trains from Ollantaytambo.  Filled with anticipation, I followed the group down the path that led to the pristine relic of the past…

Our first view of Machu Picchu was breathtaking.  Beneath the veil of silvery clouds, the ancient Incan city sprawled before us in tiers of stone and grass, nestled against the towering Wayna Picchu peak and other guardian mountains.  It was a vision in green, a glimpse of history, an architectural marvel.  We paused for a moment to drink in the magnificent sight before further exploration.

 

MP pan

Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu

 

As we followed Roger down some stone steps, we passed a herd of friendly llamas.  They must have grown very comfortable with tourists by now because these llamas were pros at posing for photos.  In particular, they seemed to enjoy selfies with humans.  Still, I didn’t want to get too close…llamas were notorious for spitting.  My boyfriend had advised me to take the initiative and spit in a llama’s face first in order to assert my dominance…but either I’m not an alpha, or the threat of retaliation spit was just too tangible.

 

llama3

Something is not quite right…

 

llama2

But first…llama take a selfie ;)

 

llama1

Baby llama and its mama!

 

As we wandered down the grassy terraces that had once been used to grow crops, Roger explained the history behind Machu Picchu.  In the 15th century, the site served as a royal estate for the Inca king, and included plazas and roofless dwellings for the Inca people, as well as special chambers for religious purposes.

 

IMG_3490

Grassy terraces

 

IMG_5550

Structures viewed through the foliage

 

IMG_5524

Chambers

 

IMG_5533

Window with a view

 

All of the structures were built from cut and shaped stones fitted together like puzzle pieces, or from carved bedrock.  How did the Inca manage to make stones out of huge boulders before the industrial era?  One theory is that they used bronze tools or a sharp rock tool (Anthracite, was it?  I don’t remember…) to create a hole through boulders, slipped a wooden pole through this hole, and added water to expand the wood until it cracked the boulder into smaller fragments that could then be shaped.

 

IMG_3463

Structure

 

IMG_3465

Roofless dwelling

 

One big slab of rock in particular was known to have special powers and imbued those who touched it with magical energy.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to touch the rock.  Apparently our natural body oils could create a sort of fungal cancer that compromised the integrity of the rock.  So much for magical energy :(

 

IMG_5535

Magic rock

 

The religious buildings were used to perform rituals and ceremonies to honor the Incan gods, many of which represented different aspects of nature (the sun, moon, rain, etc.).  Although the Incas mostly made offerings of food, animals, coca leaves, and other items, desperate times occasionally called for human sacrifices, typically virgin girls raised for this specific purpose.  According to Roger, to help suppress attraction between these girls and handsome fellows, young men who were particularly good looking had their faces deformed (for example, a chunk of their nose might be cut off…ah, the price of beauty).  In addition, any man (usually from another village) who even attempted to rape one of these special virgins would experience the King’s wrath…not only would this man be killed, but his family and village would also be massacred.

 

20140704_050143

Roger explaining the history of Machu Picchu

 

The King himself enjoyed the company of numerous concubines.  He had hundreds of children, although only the children of his wife the Queen were royally legitimate.  He also had hundreds of brothers and sisters.  One day, a jealous brother who felt he had better claim to the throne acted out against the King…or so the story goes.  As the King worked to expand his empire beyond what is now southern Peru, his treacherous brother conspired with the Spanish conquistadors to foil his plans.  While this led to much damage in battle, thankfully the Spaniards never discovered Machu Picchu.  If they had, they would have plundered and destroyed the sacred site, just as they had done with so many other temples and cities.

“The moral of the story is…stay away from Spaniards,” Roger said.  “I am only joking!  No, but really…”

Through some miracle, not only was Machu Picchu undiscovered by the Spaniards, but after it had been abandoned by the Incas it remained virtually untouched until American researcher Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911.  The locals had known of the site for a long time, but it was not until Hiram “rediscovered” it and published his findings that Machu Picchu begin to emerge in the outside world as an incredible, culturally and historically significant treasure.

After Roger completed his tour of Machu Picchu, our trekking group was free to roam the site on our own.  My friends and I made our way through the grounds, snapping numerous photos (including shots with KP’s bandana, since she was here in spirit).  Some trekkers from a different group who had seen KP’s fall recognized SK and PS, and entangled them in a conversation to learn how KP was doing.

Once we continued on our way, we climbed up stone steps until we reached a little hut at a high point that offered a great view of Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu.  We took several pictures with this spectacular background before deciding to take pictures of ourselves jumping in the air in front of it – this pose was somewhat of a tradition for us.

 

IMG_5553

Making our way to the hut

 

However, the security guard didn’t seem too fond of our traditions.  He kept scowling at us as, one by one, we leaped into the air several times, hoping for the camera to capture the perfect airborne moment.  Finally, he indicated that we were not permitted to disturb the site in such a manner.  By this point, PS, P2D2, and I had gotten decent pictures, but SK and RohZ hadn’t.  So we tried to take their pictures while the guard was looking the other way.  SK managed to get a stellar shot, but RohZ was still unsatisfied.  We tried to move to another area that wasn’t as visible, but the suspicious guard still managed to keep us within his view.

“Quick, go distract him!” RohZ said.  So P2D2 and PS went off to ask the guard some inane question while SK and I furiously snapped a series of photographs as his back was turned, hoping that RohZ would be content with at least one of them.

After we had secured our traditional midair shots, my friends and I exited the site for a bit to use the restrooms.  Then we headed back inside to find a nice, green terrace where we could enjoy our sandwiches.  Once our tummies were sated, it was time to take on Wayna Picchu.

While Macchu Picchu means “Old Mountain,” Wayna Picchu is translated as “Young Mountain.”  Instead of a dirt trail, stone steps embedded in the mountainside led up to the peak 8,924 feet high, where one could enjoy the stunning view of Machu Picchu below.  But were my friends and I ready for such a steep climb after the mishaps that had befallen us on our trek?

 

IMG_5549

This way!

 

IMG_5555

Approaching Wayna Picchu

 

At the base of the mountain, we offered high-fives to those who had already reached the peak and were making their way back down.  Since it was the fourth of July, we bonded a bit with the other Americans we ran into.  “Yeah, America!!!”  Ah, to be obnoxiously patriotic :) .

 

high5

High-fiving those who made it

 

Then the climb began.  Luckily, the altitude was lower than it had been on the Salkantay trek, so sickness wasn’t an issue.  But climbing the steps wasn’t easy.  I definitely should’ve spent more time on the Stairmaster at the gym…

 

20140704_082850

Stairway to heaven?

 

Every time we reached a small clearing that preceded the next flight of stairs, we stopped to catch our breath, hydrate, and let the impatient people behind us pass.  Above us, more stone-clad grass terraces stretched up into the sky in tiers.  Apparently, during the time of the Incas, Wayna Picchu had been the residence of the high priest.  Every morning, the priest and his entourage would walk down the steps before dawn to herald the arrival of the new day…and every evening they would climb back up the mountain.  Damn, these Incans must have had buns of steel!

 

IMG_5563

More terraces

 

Climbing was exhausting work.  Sweat drenched the back of my tank top, and I could smell the earthy stench of everyone on the path, ourselves included.  Each step became a struggle; my thighs were screaming.  As we approached the platform before the highest peak, we switched on my portable speaker and began playing music from my Peru playlist to help motivate us.  The first song that came on was Carmina Burana (Mozart techno mix), which I had included at P2D2’s request.  It was a pretty epic soundtrack.  The other hikers we ran into laughed appreciatively when they heard the dramatic harmonies that spurred us onward.

 

 

By the time we reached the platform, the song had shifted to the delightfully exuberant “Say Hey,” and our mood was soaring.  We began dancing on the platform, and made the other hikers dance, too, if they wanted to pass.  Smiles abounded as we danced thousands of feet high, surrounded by the gorgeous panorama of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains, swirly white clouds drifting above.  If only KP had been with us, it would have been a perfect moment.

 

IMG_5562

The view of Machu Picchu wayyy down below

 

IMG_5572

The Andes

 

An Indian couple, who looked straight out of a Bollywood movie with their brightly colored outfits and charismatic faces, frolicked their way onto the platform and began dancing with us.  We had seen them before at several points that day, and we would see them several more times before the end of our trip (in Aguas Calientes, in the bathrooms, in the airport) until RohZ found them again, back in the U.S., on his Facebook newsfeed.  Apparently, they were friends of friends, and they lived in RohZ’s town.  Go figure.  It’s a small world, after all!

 

 

After the song and dance ended, we turned off the music so that we could properly appreciate the amazing view.  Then, of course, it was time for more jumping pictures.  A random hiker took a picture of us with our cameras…but then he took another on his own camera.  “This one’s for me.”

Uh, yeah…that’s not creepy at all…

Finally, we charged ahead, crawling through tunnel space in a rocky cave before emerging on the other side to climb the last stretch of steps to the peak.

“Be careful, Trippy!” my friends kept warning me.  They had nicknamed me Trippy due to my innate clumsiness.  Such clumsiness could prove fatal at a height such as this, where a small stumble could send me toppling over the edge to my death…

But, barring a relatively harmless stumble (which nevertheless scared my friends, who immediately reached out to steady me), I was able to make my way to the top!  It felt like a true accomplishment for me, especially since P2D2 was the only one of us who completed the Salkantay trek, and I hadn’t even made it to the lake.

 

top

My disembodied arm with the sign at the top…2,693 meters!

 

After enjoying the view from the top for a bit, it was time to make our way down.  Little did we know the descent would be far more treacherous than the climb.  We had to take a separate set of stairs down the first leg of the descent before it converged with the same path we had used to climb up.  That first set of stairs down was terrifying; on one side was the rocky mountain wall that offered little support, and on the other was…a sheer drop.

 

20140704_100239

Ahhh!

 

Even more alarming was the shrinking size of the steps.  They seemed only a few feet wide, and only half the length of my foot!  These Inca people must’ve been tiny…

“So, we’re making our way down Wayna Pichu,” I heard PS say.  He was narrating for his camcorder, which was filming the descent.  “SK has adopted the butt-down method of coming down the stairs, while P2D2 is crawling down backwards…”

I looked down in front of me.  SK was indeed using the butt-down method, which involved sitting and scooting down each step.  That seemed a lot safer than what I was doing (standing and tottering down in fear, clinging to the wall while contemplating the devastating drop on my other side), so I also adopted the butt-down method.

I looked up behind me.  P2D2 was crawling down backwards on his hands and knees, and had to look over his shoulder to see where he was going!  Now, that didn’t seem like a good idea at all… My friends and I called out to tell him so.

“I’m fine!  It’s actually easier this way,” P2D2 said, unfazed, as he reached down with a foot to feel for the next step behind him.

I couldn’t see what RohZ was doing; I think he was still trying to walk down the stairs.

But, as I said, PS was filming.  We could hear his narration, and began to fear that it was distracting him from this dangerous downward path.

“Put the camera away!” SK called to him.  “Watch where you’re going!”

The rest of us shouted similar words of caution until PS finally put his camcorder away.  “Ok, ok…”

“The ancient Inca people probably ran down these stairs like it was no big deal,” RohZ said as we inched our way down at a snail’s pace.  “And if somebody happens to fall off the edge, it’s just like the equivalent of a traffic accident for us.”

Needless to say, it was a relief when we finally converged with the main stairway.  Now out of immediate danger, I began to play music on the little speaker again.  On the way down, we met an old man with a cane whom we had seen climbing earlier before he hurt his ankle.  As we approached him, the song playing on my speaker (a modern rendition of Shake Senora by Pitbull and T-Pain) suddenly switched from its melodic chorus to an awful breakdown where Pitbull basically just repeats “My girl’s got a big ole booty (oh yeah)…your girl’s got a little booty  (oh no).”

“Turn it off!  Turn it off!” RohZ shouted in a panic as we got closer to the elderly gentleman, afraid to be judged as a hooligan.

At this point SK and PS, who were slightly ahead of us, had already greeted the old man.  I scrambled to stop the song on my phone, but I couldn’t find the right button…

“My girl’s got a big ole booty (oh yeah)…you girl’s gotta little booty  (oh no)…”

“What are you doing?!” RohZ grabbed the speaker and turned it off just as we were passing the old man.

“Hello,” I said, smiling at him politely.  The old man nodded and continued on his way.

After that, I changed the music to Jason Mraz.

Our descent was going a little bit faster now that we were on safer ground.  On our way down, we kept spotting Leaf Face.  Some hiker had poked holes in large heart-shaped leaves, creating a face reminiscent of The Scream.  Every few yards, we would see another Leaf Face on the ground.  We kept hoping to run into the creator of Leaf Face, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

By the time my friends and I made it back to the bottom of the mountain, we were starving.  It was past noon, and the grounds had become much more crowded with tourists.  We threaded our way through them to reach the exit.

“Goodbye, Machu Picchu,” I said, reveling in its mystic splendor one last time.

We caught a bus back to Aguas Calientes, where we had lunch at a cute Mexican restaurant I’d had my eye on since yesterday…and we had to cross a bridge to get there.  Win.

 

20140703_141158

That one!

 

Some good old Mexican food would definitely hit the spot right about now…but the food we received was nothing like the Mexican food we were used to in California.  This Mexican food had a distinct Peruvian twist, which entailed floppy pancake-like tortillas, rubbery Andean cheese, and the generous usage of basil.  But once I stopped expecting it to taste like Mexicali food and accepted it for what it was, my lunch was actually quite good.

We also took advantage of the Wi-Fi at the restaurant to check in on KP again.  She had messaged us: Hope you guys had an amazing day and took lots of pictures!  Back at the clinic, she was trying to contact the airlines to get an upgraded flight, but to no avail.  She also recounted her food drama for us.  Since KP was a vegetarian, she had mostly been eating bread.  So the nurse complained about it on her behalf, leading the doctor to promise pizza.  When the pizza arrived, however, it had…pepperoni.  Fail.  But KP later received her vegetarian pizza and was back in good spirits.

After lunch, my friends and I did some souvenir shopping at the market stalls, then grabbed our things from the hostel and caught the train to Ollantaytambo (I slept the whole way).  From the Ollantaytambo station, a Salkantay Trekking van picked up our trekking group, along with members of another group.  This time the rest of my friends knocked out, while P2D2 conversed with the trekkers from the other group.  Still feeling a bit sluggish, I chipped in every now and then.

What struck me about this other group of trekkers, who seemed to get along so well and even had their own inside jokes, was that they had only just met each one another on the trek.  They were all solo travelers.  I wondered if I would ever be able to do that…hop on a plane alone to a foreign land, and make friends along the way.  The thought was both thrilling and frightening.

Finally, after every other rider had been dropped off, my friends and I were taken “home.”  Comfortable once more in our dear, sweet hostel, we showered (hot, relaxing showers that were a luxury after the spotty coldish showers at the hostel in Aguas Calientes) and got ready for dinner at a delicious Chinese-Peruvian restaurant across the street.  Then we took a cab to O2 clinic, this time with P2D2 in tow, and visited KP.

This was the first time all six of us had been together in days.  We recounted all that had happened while we were apart.  Then KP got down to business.

“So, I’ve arranged for the ambulance to take all of us to the airport tomorrow,” she said.  “You don’t have to take a cab.”

“Wow, you’ve got connections,” I said.

But for some reason, PS seemed reluctant to take the ambulance, musing that KP could ride in the ambulance while the rest of us took a cab.

“Come on!  How often can you say you’ve ridden in an ambulance?” KP demanded.  “And in Peru?”

PS didn’t seem to have an answer to that.

“Ok, then, it’s settled.”

We all chatted some more before sleepiness began to sap our energy. SK promised to return in the morning with a fresh outfit for KP.  Then we left KP in the clinic and returned to the hostel, back to our very own room – no sharing with random strangers this time.

As we got ready for bed, I remembered again that it was the fourth of July.

“Does anyone want to sing the national anthem with me?” I asked.  The boys just looked at me blankly.  When SK came back from the bathroom, I asked her, “SK!  Will you sing the national anthem with me?”

I didn’t have to ask her twice.

“Ohhh say, can you seeee?”  She and I began our soulful, melodic rendition of the anthem…just kidding; we were awful.  We began our off-key, dissonant rendition of the anthem, but at least we sang it all the way through, with passion and patriotism.

It wouldn’t be too long before we were back in America.  Tonight was our last night in Cusco.  Our trip was nearing an end.  After all that had happened on our trip, it was incredible to think that at least five of us had made it to Machu Picchu today, although KP’s absence was keenly felt.  But KP had said she would definitely return to Peru one day to visit Machu Picchu…next time, however, she would be travelling by train.

I went to bed scratching the scattering of bright pink bug bites that had popped up all over my body.  These Peruvian mosquitos seemed to find me delicious.

America, the beautiful, I thought, and drifted into a deep sleep.

 

Continue reading Day 7: Adios, Peru

 

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

Day 5: #Turning It Around

IMG_3396

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.

 

20140703_102719

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.

 

20140703_125428

Our train!

20140703_111139

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.

 

20140703_123611

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.)

 

20140703_113854

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.

 

20140703_120105

View from the upper windows

 

20140703_120307

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.

 

IMG_3385

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.

 

IMG_3392

Aguas Calientes

 

IMG_3391

Aguas Calientes

 

20140703_140501

Aguas Calientes – river between structures and mountains

 

IMG_3422

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.

 

IMG_3387

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.

 

IMG_3398

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.

 

IMG_3393

Window view from the front of our hostel

 

IMG_3435

View of children playing below our hostel

 

IMG_3425

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.

 

IMG_3409

Inca statue

 

IMG_3412

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.

 

IMG_3424

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.

 

IMG_3437

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.

 

IMG_3441

Train going by

 

rough

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.

 

MP146

P2D2’s photo of the hot springs

MP150

P2D2’s photo of the hot springs

MP157

P2D2’s photo of the waterfall

MP160

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.

 

Continue reading Day 6: Wonders of Machu Picchu

 

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