Part 1 – ¿Cuánto Quesadilla?
I used to be an asshole when I traveled to other countries. Not your stereotypical obnoxious American asshole traveler, but a whole different breed of asshole (assholes do come in many colors and sizes, after all)…one who showed up boldly to other countries unannounced, too cool to make any plans ahead of time, expecting everything to work out in my favor. And it did for awhile. Until the hand of Peru reached out and bitch slapped me something fierce.
My husband and I arrived in Lima in April, 2009, knowing only that we wanted to visit two places – Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu. And yes, I wanted to go to Lake Titicaca for the reason you think. We headed straight for the bus station, planning to jump on a bus headed for the best-named lake in all of the land. But the buses to Titicaca were canceled on account of a farmer’s strike, and rumors circulated that if you tried to take a bus down there, angry farmers would launch giant carrots (or was it rocks?) at you from the side of the road.
So instead we hopped on an overnight bus to Cusco (jumping off point to Machu Picchu). But not before we indulged in giant bowls of the famous Peruvian ceviche and tall glasses of Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru. We gloated in our ability to go with the flow and allow things to work out as they should.
As we boarded the double decker bus and climbed up to the top level, the driver stopped each person and asked us to state our name and country of origin into a video camera. A twinge of uneasiness set in. When I asked the driver, “¿Por qué?” he said, “Requirement.” Satisfied with that explanation, we snuggled into our plush seats, covered ourselves with soft blankets, and I popped a Dramamine.
I’ve got a pretty rocky relationship with motion sickness. I’ve spent hours barfing off the sides of boats, out the windows of cars, into the breathing apparatus while scuba diving in 50 feet of water, in airplane bathrooms, and after swimming in a pool (a pool!). But 99% of the time, I’m ok so long as I take a Dramamine. So I closed my eyes and dozed off as the bus began ascending up into the Andes.
I quickly awoke feeling rather woozy. A dread-filled anxiety washed over me as I realized we were 20 minutes into a 12-hour bus ride and I was already sick. It was pitch black outside and we were on the top level of a bus whipping around sharp switchbacks at 50 miles per hour. I glanced over at Eric, whom possesses what I consider to be a superpower – the ability to read in the car, and he, too, looked green around the gills.
“Eric, are you ok?” I asked halfheartedly, consumed by my own horrible sickness. He was sweating and vurping. “Dude, go throw up in the bathroom. You’ll feel so much better. I’ll hold my barf and go next.” But when he stood up out of his seat, we began to realize we weren’t in this alone. Both toilets were Ocupado by other people who just wanted to feel so much better, too. Passengers began stirring, whispering regrets to each other about taking the bus when flights were almost just as cheap, and my ingenuity kicked in. I reached into my backpack, emptied out my Ziploc toiletries bag, and threw it at Eric.
Then I tore off my favorite pink hoodie, grateful I’d chosen to wear something with a hood (aka, bucket), barfed into it, and then held it in my lap like a hammock. We were so sick we wanted to die. I looked over at Eric, a string of ceviche and Pisco sour barf trickling down my chin, and said, “God. I hope this bus gets hijacked.” Eric, returning my hopeful sentiment, said, “I hope this bus careens off the side of this fucking mountain.” As we fantasized about dying, I told Eric I loved him, just in case our dreams came true.
Thirty minutes passed before we were rearing up to go again. This time I managed to fight my way into the bathroom, but the toilet had clogged from everyone else’s vomit, and had begun to overflow into the aisles, so every time the bus made a turn, the collective barf would slosh back and forth across the floor. When I returned to my seat, I saw Eric holding his luxury bus blanket in a wad on his lap. He’d had nowhere else to store his barf after he’d filled up the Ziploc bag.
Passengers were calling out to the bus driver, begging him to pull over for a break and to let us out to clean ourselves up and get some fresh air. But he would stop for nothing.
“¡No puedo!” he shouted back at us. “¡Sí, se puedes!” I yelled back at him. And our 12-hour bus ride continued in this way until we’d puked everything out and had only gut-wrenching dry heaves and no more fucks to give, when we finally pulled into the Cusco bus station at 7:30am. As we grabbed our backpacks, the beautiful, young Peruvian bus attendant shyly asked Eric to pay for the blanket and explained that the bus company took money out of her salary to cover the cost of “damaged blankets.”
“¿Cuánto quesadilla?” Eric asked, demonstrating his command of the Spanish language by knowing how to ask how much something costs. $20 later, we stepped off the bus and meandered around Cusco in a putrid cloud of bile stench, and for the first time in our adult lives began questioning the choices we made while traveling.
Part 2 – I don’t think my brakes work
Because we were cocky dicks (ha!), we’d falsely assumed we didn’t need to book the hike to Machu Picchu ahead of time. We reckoned we could weasel our way into an already established group. Not only was this impossible, it was rude and presumptuous. But Cusco has a backup plan for people like us, and it’s called the “Hike & Bike,” the “More funner way to get to Machu Picchu!” They told us they only used top of the line bicycles – Treks.
And the bike ride through the mountains was absolutely stunning. We were deep into the Andes on a well-paved road, flanked by emerald green valleys on both sides, along with the occasional view of a waterfall. The sun was warm, there were big, puffy clouds in the sky, birds chirping in the trees, Incan mamas toting babies on their backs alongside the road, and a cool breeze in our faces as we sped downhill on our bikes.
And speaking of speeding downhill on our bikes, I couldn’t help but notice I was going quite fast. “Eric!!!” I shouted. “I don’t think my brakes are working!!”
“You gotta squeeze them harder, baby. You’re not squeezing hard enough.” he yelled into the wind as he peddled frantically to keep up with me. I glanced down at my white knuckles, which had begun to cramp from squeezing so hard, and wondered how much harder I could possibly squeeze. After I flew past Eric, I knew I was fucked. I had been humming that song from Wizard of Oz the naughty witch cackles when she’s driving her bicycle through the sky….do do do do do doodoo, do do do do do doodooh shit..
The guy in front of me braked suddenly, and I crashed directly into his back tire at full speed, flew over my handlebars, and landed on my back in a ditch. In a thick bed of daisies. I smiled as I gazed up at the clouds, knowing I was dead, and that heaven was indeed beautiful.
Eric scrambled over to me, thinking my serene smile was the result of head trauma. I lazily turned my head toward his and said, “Told you my brakes didn’t work.” I stood up, unharmed, and moved to climb back onto the horse, as they say, but Eric stopped me. He picked up my bike, shook it, and the back tire dropped onto the pavement. The guide was kind enough to give me his bike while he rode in the backup van.
The next leg of our Hike & Bike was a taxi, driven by a 12-year-old boy without shoes. By this point we were at 12,000 feet, and the road, more like a poorly maintained trail, was fraught with cavernous potholes and giant boulders that continually tumbled down the mountain wall from above us. We stopped several times to get out of the car and push these enormous boulders out of the way so our car could pass. And every time the window fogged up, the driver reached down under the passenger seat and ripped off little squares from a roll of toilet paper to wipe the condensation off the window and smear wet chunks of toilet paper onto the window. We again said our goodbyes to each other; certain that taxi was a one-way ride to the river thousands of feet below us.
Part 3 – Are you on cocaine, or are you just happy to see me?
We finally made it to the last leg of our journey – the 12-mile hike to Machu Picchu. We were experienced hikers on a clearly marked trail, so we finally relaxed, knowing the rest of the way would be easy. But our guide, Elmer, kept veering off the trail into tiny, remote villages and telling us to continue without him. When the otherwise grumpy, sluggish Elmer would catch up with us an hour later, he was euphorically happy, eyes red, pupils dilated, enthusiastic, and chatty. And with every disappearance and reappearance, he’d have a different backpack on. That’s when one of the members of the group, who’d been living in Peru for a few years said, “Oh, this is just how the guides make extra money. They run cocaine through the mountains.” “That’s cool,” I said, feeling utterly defeated after the previous days’ adventures.
When we got up the next morning at 4 a.m. to climb the primitive, treacherous staircase to Machu Picchu, it was dark and raining. It had become apparent that our tour operator maybe wouldn’t get all 5 stars on TripAdvisor, and as such, hadn’t told anybody to bring headlamps. “Don’t worry,” Elmer reassured us. “I have light.” So he lit the way with the dull, purple light of his tiny flip phone, while the members of our group slipped and fell and crawled on hands and knees up the mile-long staircase. We never saw Elmer again after we entered Machu Picchu, and I was actually a little sad because I kind of really love ridiculous assholes like him.
But Eric and I were just getting started, and we had ourselves a magical time in Peru, making it not only to Lake Titicaca, one of the most unique and incredible places I’ve ever seen, but also to the beautiful colonial town of Arequipa, where we drank delicious cafés con leche on our hotel balcony with a view of a volcano in the background, not letting our severe, 5-day-long, diarrhea deter us one bit. Nothing a little Immodium can’t handle. And we promised each other next time would be different. We’d plan everything ahead of time. Traveling like this was ok in our 20s, but we’re in our 30s now, and we’re too old for this shit.
Six months later, we boarded a plane for Japan, without a hotel room, transportation, or plan in sight…