May 25 – There she is! What do I do?!
What do I do?!
Getting out of bed at 4:50am was surprisingly easy for being on vacation, but considering we spent the first two weeks of this trip sleeping upright in moving vehicles whose drivers more or less defied death, I shouldn’t be too surprised I could wake in a moment’s notice.
We all waited in our room till 5:30, at which time the others headed to the train station to buy new tickets and I headed towards Machu Picchu, determined to be there for the sunrise. Robert and Devon were somewhat sympathetic to my choice for the unknown while Karoline, still in Tour Mom Mode, made sure I was left in as good a condition as possible. She even made me take some of her money, which was about as ‘mom’ as a person can get. I was a little unsure myself of how the day (or following days…) were gonna turn out, so with nothing to go on but gallows humor I set them at ease by listing off the absolute worst things that could possibly happen (in my mind none of them being worse than not having any fun). Ah…to face adversity and dance with danger and unpredictability.
Not too far down the road a very drunk man saw me from across the street and approached me. I could hardly understand Spanish, much less his drunken Spanish, but he flashed two train tickets in my face. I didn’t recognize the man, nor do I know how he knew to look for me, but I was not in a position to care. I told him mis amigos were already on their way back to Cusco, but that I still wanted my ticket. I reached for one and he stumbled back to avoid my attempt. He waved his hand in the direction of the train station as if to dismiss my friends. He called them stupid. Then he invited me out for drinks, my treat.
It took ten minutes to wrestle a ticket from the drunk man who grew less coherent and more belligerent the harder I tried. He had stashed one of the tickets in his pocket and waved what I assumed was my ticket around in the air behind his back and away from me. I grabbed his nearest arm and led him toward the ticket office in town where I planned to get the ticket agent to help me extract my ticket, or at least issue a new one. He was stubborn at first but half way down the block he put his arm around me and started singing. I managed to grab the ticket while his arms were sweeping about in song and he only made a half-hearted attempt to grab back at it. Indeed, the ticket was for a train out of Aguas Calientes at 4:10, just like it was supposed to be. I said Gracias and we went in different directions, him singing and me trying to catch the sunrise before it was too late.
A shaggy, dreaklocked dog followed me from town all the way to the bottom of the mountain. Right by my side the whole time. Three locals passed me on the other side of the road in the other direction and my new amigo perro barked at them the whole time. Sadly, as soon as I got to the foot of the mountain he sat and watched me continue. A little forboding, but I had no time to kill contemplating. The boy who ran down the hill after our bus yesterday was using a trail that ran straight down the mountain. I found that trail and headed up. And up and up.
I figured on the trip taking half an hour but I was way off. At what I judged to be about 2/3 of the way up I actually had to sit down for moment. When there were stairs, they were tall and not close enough together to be able to take a rest step between them, but far enough apart that you had to really stretch with each step. It was incredibly exhausting. And in the thick of the brush and trees I had no way to judge how far I’d gone or how much farther I had to go.
The sun was starting to illuminate the sky
but I was so worn out I could not for the life of me pick up the pace.
I passed a fellow heading down who told me I was fifteen minutes from
the top, tops. Maybe thirty. He also told me to send out positive vibes
to all the people of the world at 10am sharp. He had people all over the
earth participating in this posi-experiment with 20,000 people logged
into his website alone. I told I’d save all my positive energy for 10am
and until then I was gonna be an outright bitch, just so I’d have that
extra umph! when the time came. He laughed a half-defeated chortle
and said I must be from California. "What I really must be," I said, "is
I reached the top with less than five minutes before the sun exploded over the eastern ridge of the valley. I snapped some pictures and then stripped off nearly all my clothes and hung them on a safety bar to dry. Socks included.
WHN? in Sudamerica - May 2002
0 – Please wake me for meals.
People slowly started arriving in buses. A Dutch man sat down next to me and we started talking. He hiked up here in the middle of the night and tried to sneak in but got caught. Some other travelers came over and quietly described another (free) backdoor and they were off. In their place sat a couple Norwegians. They learned Spanish on the cargo boat they stowed away on from Norway to Sudamerica. Two 80 year-olds were sitting at the table next to us and joined in our conversation. They were anti-Bush Floridians who had been married for 60 years. The group of us discussed world politics and we all agreed that the U.S. and it’s foreign policy and aggressive global commerce were to blame for most of today’s woes. But being in a foreign place and not being blamed for these problems (because I was after all a U.S. citizen) was temporarily comforting.
It is amazing how many people one can meet when traveling by themselves. In a group, rather than multiplying your chances at outside exchange you limit them. Your social needs are largely met by your immediate group and you don’t seek out (or feel the need to seek out) more interaction.
I kept an eye out for the beautiful woman I saw here last night but to no avail. Once my clothes were dry I hiked back down the mountain. Towards the bottom I saw the running boy running to beat the bus at the next pass. I ran beside him and made the howls with him as the bus passed. We ran to the next juncture and I got to ask him about his profession. The eleven year-old runs down the hill ten to twelve times a day and earns enough money "to eat good dinners." And put his family through college, I speculated.
I made it into town and found the door to our room open. The beds were made, the filth in the bathroom mopped up, the smell replaced by something sterile and burning to the eyes, and my only piece of remaining luggage – a bag with bread, peanut butter and jelly – was gone. There was no office to return the key to (or demand my breakfast, lunch and dinner back from) so I left the key on a hook in the bathroom and set out to wander the town.
I found lots of hills and knick-knack shops and another vegetarian Govinda restaurant we surely would have visited last night instead of pizza had we known about it. I also found the hot springs which gave the city its name. At noon half the city was using it to bathe and do their laundry in.
I followed a marching band through the streets and wound up in a large, city-central courtyard. I sat on a bench and took in the surroundings and gave my aching ribs a rest. I noticed none of the locals smoked. There were no cigarette butts on the ground and nobody but tourists were smoking in the outdoor bars and cafes. Aside from it probably being too expensive, I can’t imagine how short a life would be if they added emphysema to the physical hardship of living at such high altitudes. The life expectancy would be around 12 or 15 years.
Another interesting observation was that the cops seemed to be the sauciest, most suave folks about town. They did not have the standard coffee-and-donut gut and mustache, but were instead trim and sporting pencil-tin Wayne Newton mustaches. Plus, their hair was always greased into perfect pompadours perfectly complimenting their tight black ensembles and thick, white belts – all staples of today’s tragically hip.
I pulled out a book and started reading, which somehow prompted three different backpackers to sit next to me over the course of an hour. All were mellow and happy to be here, despite every one of them having a comparably difficult time arranging this leg of their trip with a travel agency. Our conversations were short and all of the travelers eventually moved on in the direction of the train station, presumably to insure their seat on the afternoon train outta here. With only a few hours sleep and an incredibly laborious hike under my belt I eventually drifted off to sleep.
When I woke up it took me a few seconds to realize I wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating. There, less than 50 feet in front of me, sitting in an outdoor café, facing me with a bashful smile, was the girl from last night. I’d like to think it was a smile but it very well could have been a laugh because I had just done one of those violent twitch-yourself-awake shudders that probably looked pretty silly. I picked my book up off the ground and started stuffing it in my backpack when two more girls took what I was hoping would be my next seat. I waited to see if they were joining her for good or just passing by. After ten minutes I came to assume they were joining her. She continued to eye me but I had lost my nerve. I was ready to handle a one-on-one conversation with her and even had some Spanish lined up ["Penso que esta muy hermosa. Como se llama?" though I wasn’t sure if I could say it without mixing it up and calling her hermana (sister) instead of hermosa (beautiful)]. But now that she had friends sitting in either side of her I just couldn’t bring myself to try.
A gentleman who sat next to Devon on the train ride up here recognized me and introduced himself. His name was Jose and he was from Spain. He spoke perfect English (been living in London for a few years) and was friendly and easy to talk to. We went and had some breadsticks across town. He explained that he was waiting for some unknown guy to deliver him a ticket for the afternoon train, but in the last 24 hours three other guys had already sought him out and, instead of bearing a ticket, said another guy would meet him at some other pre-determined time and place. How this industry maintains itself is beyond me. I can imagine some weary travelers at the end of their rope before trying to get to Machu Picchu but then absolutely losing it once they went through all this. A smooth trip would be the obvious exception in the case of Machu Picchu. In fact, I have yet to hear of anyone reaching this place without exceptional hardships.
We had only minutes before the train was to board when a man waving a train ticket in the air walked by us and yelled out a name. Jose walked up to him and came back with a ticket. He looked at it and saw that it was for the later train. He had a bus to catch in Cusco and this would not arrive in time. He went back to find the man and bumped into another guide who said "Jose?" and handed him yet another ticket. Jose grabbed the ticket and we both ran to the train station.
We both checked our tickets one last time on the way and noticed two minor details – both tickets were for different people and both stopped in Ollantaytambo, two hours short of Cusco. (But oddly, we were both in car B, seats 51 and 52.) There was no time to argue and hopefully Lorie Oveellet (me) and Yuka Miyake (Jose) were not asked to flash their passports when boarding the train. (And hopefully the real Lorie and Yuka had our tickets, or at least someone’s tickets!)
We hopped in the train with seconds to spare and took the first seats we could find. Two attendants rushed us and asked to see our tickets. Trying to play it cool, we handed them our tickets while engaging in pretend conversation. They escorted us off the train to where we assumed was the gonna be the start of our long walk home. The attendant pointed to the car number on the ticket and told us to board the correct car. We ran from car E past cars C, F, and D (in that order) and found our seats on car B. The seats were taken of course (by Los Policias Nationales no less) but after a little re-shuffling (and an offering of chips and chocolate bars) we were set.
Jose was full of stories that he never finished and engaged with everyone within earshot. He knew when to be quiet and he knew when he had an audience. He was the perfect day companion.
I got up to use the baño but it was locked. I waited for a few minutes and the porter, spotting my distinctly black metal t-shirt, started up a conversation about heavy metal. As we talked the line for the baño grew longer. I checked the door again and it was still locked. We continued talking and the door mysteriously swung open but no one stepped out. The porter and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows before I trepidatiously looked inside. No one there. The window was too small to crawl through. I stepped in and closed the door. I slid the lock and started to pee when the door flung open again. I realized the lock was susceptible to the vibrations of the train and warned the next person in line.
Just after dusk the train came to a stop in the middle of a field. I looked out the windows and saw men with flashlights running alongside the train. My first thought was ‘bandits’ but the porter told me a telephone poll had fallen over the tracks. A half hour passed and I went back to the porter to ask what was taking so long. He said when one pole falls, it takes many other poles with it. Jose says that even in Spain they use the phrase ‘Peruvian Time.’ The train picked up shortly thereafter and I was relieved that at least we stopped before plowing into the poles.
In Ollantaytambo Jose and I, and at least a hundred other passengers with short-ended tickets, were forced off the train while the rest of the passengers (unaware of their good fortune) stayed on the train all the way to Cusco. There were many buses and vans ready to drive us to Cusco and with Jose’s quick Spanish tongue we found one for less than two bucks a head. The parking lot was small and narrow and crammed with potential passengers and vehicles all vying for a way out. We helped recruit more people so we could get going (Jose had a bus to catch) but just as we were leaving the bus driver said under his breath that the fare had jumped to a price equivalent to ten bucks. I would not have caught it but Jose was right on top of it. They argued and Jose led a revolt right off that bus and onto another one. We all piled in and our bus pulled right into traffic. A one-lane road with fifteen buses all trying to leave. Every one of them honking like the guy in front was asleep or something…
Our bus made it to the Cusco train station well before our train did. Just before walking home I overheard that our train was still just outside of Ollantaytambo waiting for debris to be cleared from the tracks. I said adios to Jose, we exchanged addresses, and I headed back to the Royal Frankenstein.
Before turning in I walked through town and discovered a homemade firework presentation on the church steps. This turned out to be perhaps the most dangerous thing I’ve seen since I’ve been to Sudamerica. Hundreds of people gathered around while homespun apparatus exploded into different shapes and colors, more than once shooting projectiles directly into the crowd. I saw an old man get hit in the face by one of these rockets, and I saw another man patting down his buddy’s smoldering jacket. One of the more dangerous inventions I saw was supposed to be either a peeing or masturbating monkey. After it was lit it peed or ejaculated itself onto the church roof. Yet another contraption shot flaming hoops into the air which landed, still flaming, on cars in the road. Dogs, who have a natural aversion to fireworks and other loud, explosive noises were going absolutely crazy in the streets. Packs were running in all directions through traffic and into stores and knocking people over. It was an amazing sight seeing all the chaos and neglect for safety or property.
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