"We can't go to Machu Picchu," I said to Asaph, over the phone from the hospital where my mother was staying before they had given her the final diagnosis. This wasn't a whine: I didn't really want to go to Machu Picchu. I was trying to convey the seriousness of the situation to him. It was difficult for me, an eternal pessimist, to communicate with Asaph, an eternal optimist: we both always assumed that the other was misinterpreting reality.
Because my mother's illness progressed so rapidly to her death, however, we were able to go to Machu Picchu.
Asaph's business school class was doing their international project in South America, and Asaph had wanted us to walk the Inka Trail (Camino Inka) to Machu Picchu the week beforehand.
I didn't know anything about it, other than that my cousin had tried to hike the Inka Trail a few years prior with her then-husband and children, but she had come down with an extremely high fever and had had to be led off the trail on a mule after the first day. (She had a severe case of babesiosis, which was misdiagnosed as malaria for a few months thereafter; she had gotten it from a tick bite acquired in New Jersey.)
We would fly to the former Incan capital of Cusco, acclimate to the high altitude for a few days, and then hike for four days to the famous Incan site and world wonder. The Peruvian government closely regulated hikers on the Inka Trail, so we had to reserve a spot with a tour operator a few months before. We would be with a group of hikers, and porters would carry our tents and sleeping bags to each campsite. Hot meals would also be provided. It sounded luxurious to me.
A few weeks before we were to leave, Asaph started to get annoyed.
"I don't think you are taking this seriously. You need to get some hiking gear, and start wearing your hiking boots so that they are broken in."
I had some hiking boots I had bought years back and had only worn once.
One Saturday I put them on and walked the six-mile loop in Central Park, pausing only occasionally.
By the end of the walk I had huge blisters on my heels and could barely make it home.
We spent the next day at an outdoor apparel and equipment retailer, trying to get prepared. Asaph had tried to borrow supplies from people, as Israelis would do, but most Americans were reluctant to lend.
I spent part of the next week at an extremely boring work retreat.
I had tried to do everything possible to sabotage the retreat and prevent it from happening, but had failed.
The day that we were to leave, I ran back to the same outdoor apparel and equipment retailer and bought a new pair of boots. I asked for the most comfortable pair that didn't need any breaking in.
"These might fall apart sooner than some of our other pairs," said the earnest and mountaineerous young salesman.
I didn't care.
I was anxious as we waited in a mediocre airport lounge to which Asaph had access owing to a credit card. Part of the problem was that I couldn't visualize this vacation. There had been other trips that I had had trouble visualizing -- like the planned trip to Cornwall with my parents -- that had been cancelled at the last minute.
Our flight to Lima ("tearless Lima, the strangest, saddest city thou can'st see" as I had read that Herman Melville had written) was on a Latin American regional airline that had its origins as the national airline of Chile, so all of the recorded announcements were done with a Chilean accent. I had had a Chilean Spanish teacher once, and I finally realized one of the distinctive characteristics of the dialect: the letter j or the soft g was pronounced as a voiceless pharyngeal fricative, like the Arabic letter ح. I felt sad that it would be difficult to explain this realization to anyone without sounding like a real loser.
All of the flight attendants were required to have their hair pulled up into a bun, and since they were all around the same age and all had the same hair color and the same makeup applied, they were virtually indistinguishable.
They were pretty stingy with liquids of any kind, even water, but otherwise the flight was fine.
We arrived at the shockingly nice Lima Airport. Especially shocking since the view of Lima from the plane was not nice at all.
Asaph had bought our tickets to Cusco on a sketchier airline that I had read had been forced to cease operations by the Peruvian government over safety concerns shortly after we had purchased our tickets. I then read that they had been allowed to resume flying. I wasn't crazy about getting on their planes.
When we approached the counter, however, we were told that all flights to Cusco on this airline were cancelled. An attractive, pleasant and slightly robotic woman took our names, as well as the names of about eight others who arrived behind us, and told us that she would try to find spaces for us on another airline.
"The earliest flight I can put you on is at two o'clock this afternoon, but it isn't guaranteed," she said. She then disappeared for 30 minutes. It was just 7:00.
Asaph walked over to the counter of a more reliable and safer airline, the Peruvian version of the airline with which we had flown to Lima.
"They have seats on their 12:00 flight!" he reported, exasperated. "But only a few left!"
The pleasant Peruvian robot woman returned. "I don't think that we will be able to get you on the two o'clock flight," she said.
"Can we get our money back?" I asked.
"Yes, of course," she said. "Just go to one of our offices in Lima."
"We can't do that. Is there one in Cusco?"
"I will check."
She disappeared again. The check-in area was getting more and more crowded.
She returned and told us that there was an office in Cusco. Without getting her name or any guarantee that anything she said was the truth, we ran over to the counter of the more reliable airline and bought two new tickets for the noon flight.
We sat in a café. I was astounded by how nice the airport was, although I was disappointed that the electrical sockets seemed to be the same as in the United States. We charged our devices anyway.
Asaph was annoyed that we had to wait even a few hours. He kept going up to gates where flights to Cusco were boarding to see if they had any empty seats. Eventually I got him to stop this. We befriended a young British couple who were in the same situation that we were -- they were going to hike the Inka Trail and they had had tickets on our same cancelled flight. They talked about their many trips around the world, hiking and trekking and staying in hostels.
I suddenly felt too old.
Asaph drank the Peruvian national soft drink as we flew into the Andes.
Cusco looked very Third World from the plane as we landed. The minute we walked into the airport, I realized that I had not taken the question of altitude seriously enough. I was already feeling dizzy and short of breath.
I walked over to the restroom.
I felt very strange. I had a sudden pain in my side and then got very light-headed. I had to sit down for a few minutes. This isn't good, I thought.
We waited for our luggage. It was a rinky-dink airport. There were vendors loudly offering accommodation right in the baggage claim area. I tried to ignore them and focused on the signs posted on the wall.
Asaph called the place where we would be staying -- a hostel for backpackers. "They said that someone is going to be waiting to drive us there," he said.
We went outside. Taxi drivers kept coming up to us to offer us rides. It was dry and dusty, and the sun seemed too bright.
Asaph handed me the phone. "Ask her where our driver is."
I thought of myself as speaking Spanish relatively well, but I couldn't understand what the woman at the hostel was saying. We kept walking around the barren plaza in front of the terminal, dodging the men calling out "taxi, amigo" and looking for someone holding a sign with our name.
Eventually, a man who didn't seem to be a taxi driver asked us if he could call our hostel. He dialed the number -- I was worried that he was just pretending to dial the right number -- and spoke to someone.
He then told me that the hostel would pay one of these taxi drivers to take us. He spoke to a driver, and we got in the car.
I assumed that we were being kidnapped, but I supposed we didn't have a choice.
We drove through the outskirts of Cusco. It looked poor, but not horribly destitute. There were several large amusement parks featuring giant slides instead of roller coasters. No need for electricity, I assumed.
We entered the historic part of Cusco and found our hostel quite quickly. We got out of the car, and the driver, with a worried expression, asked how he would get paid. If this was a scam, it wasn't going very well for the scammer, I thought. I told him to come inside with us.
We checked in, the driver was paid, and we made our way to the room. We had the "matrimonial suite", and our names had been written with little hearts drawn next to them on a whiteboard in the office. We walked by some kitchens where dreadlocked young persons were preparing food. I thought I heard the Hebrew language being spoken in the distance.
Our room was very basic. Tea made of coca leaves was provided.
Despite exhaustion and dizziness, we got up to walk around the town.
I was slightly startled by the city flag.
It had one more stripe than a similar flag I of which I was weary and wary.
The central square -- Plaza de Armas -- was mostly filled with locals, enjoying the sunny, airless Sunday. I took a photo of a statue of an Inca, totally ignorant of the fact that it was new, made of fiberglass, not representing any specific historical personage, and the source of great controversy in Cusco.
How weird to be here, I thought.
In spite of my recent irritation and dissatisfaction with Christianity, I decided to visit the cathedral.
Asaph decided to go to a bar.
I paid the entry fee, which included an audio guide. I examined several ornate altarpieces covered with small pieces of mirror. "In Europe, the mirror represented vanity," my audio guide said. Evidently the locals disagreed.
The cathedral was beautiful, but I was exhausted and short of breath. I had to sit down in the pews for a while to rest. I started to get a bit worried about the Inka Trail hike.
I had read about the painting of the Last Supper with the guinea pig in the center of the table.
I left to meet Asaph at the bar he had selected, "the highest Irish-owned pub in the world". I drank a cola. After a visit to the toilet, I realized that they had no running water. Asaph had eaten food there.
We walked around a bit more, admiring the fusion of Hispanic and Amerindian culture.
There were some clear references to Castile and Leon.
It was a Spanish colonial town built on top of the former Incan capital.
The city still tried to brandish its roots.
I had bought a travelogue about trekking around the area, and I was already worried about puma wakachi "the bug that makes the puma cry".
I guessed that all cultures respected and feared giant cats.
The Spanish loved lions, but I didn't think that there had ever been lions in Spain. But what did I know? There were definitely pumas and jaguars in Peru.
The Quechua language was used for several street names.
Some were more challenging than others.
I could hear that the way they spoke Spanish in Peru was very clear and deliberate. Peru struck me as a good place to study Spanish for that reason -- the language didn't have any of the corruption of Mexico, the brutality of Spain, the absurdity of Argentina, or the filthiness of the Caribbean.
We ate some potato chips purchased at a grocery story and went to bed early.
Our room was freezing.
The next morning, Asaph was overjoyed by what he saw at breakfast.
She was a female named Manu.
We went to the office of our tour operator to give them our payment.
I counted out the American currency that they had requested.
"Amigo, I am going to tell you something you will not like," said an employee named Marcos whom Asaph had already tried to befriend.
"We cannot accept money that is ripped here in Peru," he said. He handed me back five $20 bills. I looked closely at them. They had some barely visible tears along the edges.
"Really?" I said. "You know you could spend these with no problem in New York." Ever since the presidency of George W. Bush, I always said that I was from "New York" and pretended that it counted as a country.
We had other unblemished bills. As an gesture of goodwill to the people of Peru, we offered to exchange other torn bills with them.
Someone emerged from the back with a $100 bill.
"Banks won't accept a $100 from the CB-B2 series here in Peru, amigo, but this one is real," said Marcos. He handed us a $100 that pre-dated the 1996 redesign. I didn't think it was a good idea to take it. I did some internet research using my smartphone, and Asaph concurred.
"We won't take this, but we will take some of your torn twenties," said Asaph.
I didn't trust these foreigners. They weren't really my amigos.
We then went to the address we had been given for the Cusco office of the sketchy airline. It was shuttered. I went to the store next door to ask about it. They said it had been closed for weeks.
I felt even worse about these Peruvians.
Asaph said he was taking me to a restaurant he had selected for lunch.
Good grief, I thought.
We went in and Asaph spoke in Hebrew to the waitress.
They were showing a popular Israeli television show whose name meant "traffic light".
We ordered the standard food we ate every day back home in New York or Israel.
It was tasty enough.
I had seen signs in several restrooms warning patrons not to flush the toilet paper. I had had a terrible problem when I worked at a Chinese restaurant while in college in rural Ohio trying to convince the Mexican kitchen staff that they could flush the toilet paper. I didn't speak Spanish back then and the one Mexican staff member who spoke English was too embarrassed to discuss this issue with his compatriots. Eventually I had to humiliate everyone by dragging a trash can out of the restaurant restroom and creating a scene. It was not very culturally sensitive of me.
Anyway, I knew that the plumbing in most of Latin America couldn't tolerate toilet paper. There was a sign in this place informing patrons just off the plane from Lod (לוד) of this fact.
A picture of a llama reminded me that I was still in the Andes.
It turned out that the Hebrew-speaking waitress was actually from Lima. She had dated an Israeli guy, and then moved with him to Israel. After moving to Israel, his personality had changed and he had become a terrible person.
I looked at Asaph with trepidation.
She had moved back to Peru and now made a living using her Hebrew language skills.
When Asaph informed her that he and I were together, in the Biblical sense, she started to gasp in disbelief. She got very excited and expressed interest in going out with us that night.
I wasn't very interested in that activity.
We headed to an artisanal market where we bought many gifts. Asaph was a brutal bargainer. I felt bad for many of the vendors whom we plundered.
We hesitated about the purchase of a hat for my nephews. The woman running the booth ran over to a small child who was playing nearby and shoved the hat over his head, to show us that it was the right size.
We had to buy it.
Asaph expressed interest in going to somewhere called the counterfeit market. We asked the hat-shoving woman about it. She expressed alarm, saying that it was very dangerous and that we should make sure that we were very careful there. I didn't want to go. I saw no need for counterfeit goods. Asaph, however, in a major setback for world Jewry, couldn't resist a bargain.
We decided to head back to the hostel to drop off our things.
I noticed all of the historical sites we were passing, without explanation.
Asaph spoke to an outgoing woman from Lima who worked at the hostel's equivalent of a concierge desk. She arranged for a tour guide to both show us around the city and take us to the counterfeit market. She spoke perfect, bubbly English.
We sat and waited with Manu.
Time passed. It started to rain.
A lot of time passed.
"I guess the guide isn't going to come!" said the bouncy woman from Lima. "I feel bad. I will take you around myself, and then we can go to the counterfeit market together."
A chain-smoking young non-heterosexual from Barcelona who had an unclear position at the hostel was brought along with us. As we walked towards the Mercado San Pedro, it became clear that this vivacious woman was the type who liked the company of non-heterosexual men, in an almost central-casting manner.
The market was impressive, with indigenous persons selling all sorts of meats, vegetables, fruits, and cheeses.
We went and examined a bucket full of live frogs.
"They grind these up and you drink them," said the effervescent woman from Lima.
A man in his 50s started to follow behind us as the zingy woman from Lima explained what we were seeing at the different stalls. He then started asking her questions directly, as if we were all on a tour together. He was Australian.
This is awkward, I thought.
He turned directly to me.
"Haven't I seen you on the internet?" he said.
"I don't think so," I said.
"I'm pretty sure I have," he said.
"It must be someone else. I have a very common look." Good grief, I thought.
The jaunty Limeña showed us the stall staffed by some sort of indigenous Amerindian shaman.
"This is ayahuasca," she said, pointing at a bottle full of brown liquid. "This is used for psychedelic spiritual experiences. You have to be guided by the shaman to drink this."
I knew all about ayahuasca from the website of my former hero Alistair Appleton. He had traveled to Brazil on numerous occasions to drink this drug during week-long spiritual retreats in the jungle that generally involved a lot of vomiting and deep revelations. He wasn't my hero anymore, however.
I looked around the stall but didn't see any shaman. I thought it was weird that all of these psychoactive substances had been left unattended. The unwanted older Australian man kept asking questions about things. He wanted a friend.
I hope I don't end up like that, I thought.
"Let's get some juice!" said the sprightly Limean.
We went to an area of the market where there were several identical stalls selling fresh juices. Identical old women worked at each one. Each stall had the same menu of juice drinks.
"They are safe to drink?" I asked.
"Yes, of course," said the gay non-homosexual woman.
I heard the old woman behind the counter say "agua hervida".
We drank juices. We said very clear goodbyes to the unwanted Australian as we left he market.
I saw an indigenous woman walking with a lamb.
We caught a cab to the counterfeit market, which was called El Molino. The sun was setting and the whole sky was a bright pinkish-orange color. Actually, everything had an pinkish-orange tint to it, as if we were being filmed through a colored filter.
"Just make sure that your wallet is safe," the effervescent woman said. The Barcelonan had barely uttered one word.
We walked around the market, looking at counterfeit sunglasses and sneakers and products from China that were simply cheap.
"I will show you the guinea pigs, the cuy," the zesty Limean said.
I didn't feel very hungry.
As we drove back to the hostel, the ebullient Peruana detailed her many feuds with prominent members of the non-heterosexual community of Cusco and also outlined her own tastes in men, who were mostly foreign backpackers visiting the area. The silent Spaniard snickered sporadically.
Asaph and I went out to dinner at a very expensive restaurant.
I wasn't feeling so hungry.
We tried to find a bar that Asaph had read about, but we almost collapsed after climbing some stairs.
I wasn't feeling well when we got home. A few hours after falling asleep, I woke up with a terrible headache. I didn't get headaches often, so this was upsetting enough, but it was one of the worst headaches I had ever experienced.
Shortly thereafter, I ran to the bathroom to render.
Asaph was alarmed. I was too, of course. I had prepared for different digestive disturbances.
I got up a few more times to give myself over into the toilet. I was not happy. I took some aspirin for my headache, hoping it would stay down.
As I lay there in bed, feeling miserable, I thought about my mother, and how she had felt in the hospital, before she had been diagnosed and we were able to focus on making her feel better. This made me sad, in addition to feeling so sick.
I felt like I hated Cusco. I hated Peru. I hated all of Amerindian Latin America. The bright, clashing colors, the clear and deliberately proper Spanish, the murals, the weird little hats, the sad music -- it all made me nauseated. I couldn't even stand to look at the wall of our room.
I decided that I hated Tibet and Nepal too, because they reminded me of Peru. All the mountain peoples sickened me.
Asaph came back from a trip to get me something sweet to drink. He had brought a doctor.
Oh no! I thought.
The doctor was a young man, wearing jeans with a large belt buckle.
"He rode here on his Harley," said Asaph.
The doctor asked me a series of questions about what I had been doing since arriving in Cusco.
I told him everything I had eaten.
"You had juice from the market?" he asked in disbelief.
He asked if I was taking medicine for altitude sickness. I said that I was.
I told him that I was taking aspirin for my headache.
"You can't take aspirin with [acetazolamide]!" he said. "That is very dangerous!"
Asaph had been in charge of the bottle of the altitude sickness pills, so I hadn't had a chance to examine it. Later I looked and saw that it was labeled: DO NOT TAKE WITH ASPIRIN. I had taken a lot of aspirin with it, since I thought that aspirin was the healthiest of the analgesics.
"I think you just have an acute case of altitude sickness," he said. The headache made me think that it wasn't a gastrointestinal problem, but I was worried that it was something more severe. I assumed that we would have to cancel our hike on the Inka Trail, which began the next day.
"Do you have any antibiotics to take in case you get diarrhea?" he asked. I told him that I had been given some ciprofloxacin by my primary care physician.
"You can't take [ciprofloxacin] with [acetazolamide]! Crystals can form in your kidneys!"
Oh, boy, I thought.
I showed him another antibiotic that a gastroenterologist friend had given me.
"No, this only works in the intestinal lumen. Our infections in Peru are much more aggressive. It would be better if you took the [ciprofloxacin]."
I'm not doing very well, I thought.
He wrote me a prescription for another antibiotic, but he told me that he didn't think I had an infection, since I had no fever or diarrhea.
Yet, I thought.
"Do you see a lot of Israelis?" asked Asaph, trying to make conversation.
"Oh yes," he said and smiled. "שלשול." This was the Hebrew word for diarrhea.
"I would think that they would have strong stomachs," said Asaph.
"No, they try to make their money go as far as possible, so they eat the cheapest food, including lots of bad stuff from the street."
Asaph nodded in agreement with what sounded like an anti-Semitic slur to me.
The doctor drove off on this motorcycle. I was sick one more time but then slowly started to feel better.
Asaph went off to get me a few more things recommended by the doctor.
Eventually I emerged from the room.
There was a lot of anguish about how I would feel the next morning, when we were to begin the hike.
We headed down the the office of the tour operator, where we were to have our orientation.
We had a small dispute over a charge.
"Amigo, I'm sorry," said the guy at the front desk.
The other members of our group arrived. We were offered a selection of teas. The coca tea just consisted of wrinkling up some coca leaves and putting them in a cup of hot water. I was afraid that a coca leaf would fall into some crevice of clothing and be discovered by a drug-sniffing dog upon arrival back in New York. I would then be put in prison for life.
I was considerably older than anyone in our group. The next oldest person was Asaph. Everyone else was from Britain: there was a couple from Scotland, a couple from London, and two singles: one woman from the North who lived in London, and a guy from Shrewsbury.
"Don't worry, we don't know where that is either," joked the Scottish guy to me. Apparently it was in Shropshire, wherever that was.
"I grew up near a town called Dewsbury," said the Northern woman. Except I heard "Jewsbury".
Our guide introduced himself and gave us a bit of a description of each day of the hike. I was feeling better, but I was still a bit anxious.
I asked about toilets. I had assumed that we would be able to just use the wilderness for that purpose, but apparently the Peruvian government did not allow that anymore.
"There are squat toilets located every few hours. They are not very clean sometimes."
Wonderful, I thought. In the opposite sense of that word.
Asaph asked about how much we were to tip the porters.
"They are great, our ninja porters!" said our guide. "You will be amazed!" He mentioned that the hike that would take us nearly four days had been done in around four hours by some of the indigenous persons. That made me feel better. Or worse.
We were told to return the next morning at 4:30 and wait in the nearby Plaza Regocijo for the bus that would take us to the beginning of the trek.
Asaph was hungry, although I was afraid to eat. We went to a small, mostly empty restaurant specializing in potatoes. I ordered a soup that was labeled dieta. I had hoped that it would just be broth, but it was full of large pieces of chicken and thin noodles. I drank the broth and then put some of the pieces of chicken in my napkin, since I thought it was insensitive to appear to waste food in a Third World country. But then I just left the napkin next to the bowl.
The night passed without incident. We awoke shortly after going to sleep and walked over to the plaza.
I was exhausted but nervous.
The bus arrived on time.
We were served coca tea.
After a small amount of small talk, we boarded the bus. I tried to sleep as the bus drove along bumpy roads and turned and twisted. We stopped to pick up the porters. They were all wearing matching red tracksuits.
The sun came up.
Finally we stopped at a small town. We disgorged the porters in the central square and then drove to a back street.
"Breakfast!" yelled our guide.
It was freezing.
There was a small pen or hutch or complex where guinea pigs were being raised as food. They all ran and hid when I walked over.
I enjoyed every toilet as if it were my last.
I was starving after a day of no solid food. There was a large buffet of eggs and pancakes and meat and rolls and pastries that seemed delicious, although Asaph was slightly annoyed that we were being forced to eat there, since the tour company was obviously getting a kickback.
The restaurant was empty, but a couple at the beginning of old age came in and sat at the table with us. At first I thought that they were Americans, but their unsettling and vaguely foreign way of speaking made me suspect that they were Canadians. Sure enough, they were.
They were nice enough, as those people tend to be.
After another drive on a road that was more Fourth World than Third, we disembarked. I couldn't believe that we were actually going to embark on this voyage.
There were local women selling sodas and other random products. We walked through a tiny, sloppy town to the official entrance to the trail.
Our guide took our passports and showed all of the documentation to a guard.
I saw that there was a great need for English-language copy editors in Peru.
We crossed the Urubamba River and began the hike. I became winded almost immediately.
The scenery was pleasing, but not overwhelming.
We arrived at our first stop.
I was covered in sweat.
We were passed by the ninja porters.
We arrived at our first Incan site: Patallacta.
Our guide gave us some information about the Incan civilization. I already knew that Inca meant "king" and was not proper to apply to the entire civilization, unless one wanted to think only about the time of the Incan Empire.
The Scottish couple and the two singletons walked much more quickly than the London couple, Asaph and I. Our guide kept alternating between the two groups.
The London couple were on their honeymoon. The woman was named Sarah; her young husband was named Chris. They spoke in what I knew to be a slightly posh accent. Sarah kept calling her young husband "darling", so whereas at first she reminded me a bit of businesswoman and thin person Victoria Beckham, eventually I saw her as a younger version of Jennifer Saunders's character Edina Monsoon from a popular British situation comedy, even though she was nothing like this character.
"Does anyone remember the name of our guide?" I asked our small foursome.
"I don't," said Asaph.
"I think it's Casino," said Sarah, poshly.
"I don't think that's a name," I said. But maybe it was in Quechua.
We arrived at our lunch spot. Our porters were removing the skin from a pile of fish at an outdoor sink while cats, chickens, and guinea pigs looked on from the mud.
Oh well, I thought.
I went to the toilet.
It started to rain. We sat and waited for our lunch.
There was plenty of tea.
The food arrived. Because of Asaph's vegetarian demands, we started with a vegetable broth soup that was relatively tasteless, but this was followed by a plate of fresh avocado covered in a spicy tomato sauce, cheesy polenta, plates of rice and potatoes, and the fish, which was actually quite tasty.
Despite an elevated level of nausea, I ate ravenously.
As we continued on our way, the landscape got more humid. There were epiphytes everywhere.
I felt far away from New York. Sarah wanted to ask our guide a question.
"Casino," she said.
"That's not my name," he said. I held my breath.
"No?" she said.
"No." I started to get dizzy with anticipation. "You are missing a letter."
"Am I?" she said.
"Yes. It's Casiano."
There wasn't much fauna to see, and the flora was subtle but beautiful.
I kept falling further behind.
Some plants were less subtle than others.
We arrived at our camp for the night. Asaph and I, and the Londoners, were panting and sweating. The Scotspersons (Linda and Andrew), the Northern woman (Louise), and the Salopian (Adam) had all arrived long before us. Louise was smoking! I wanted to mention that this was forbidden. I resented the fact that she was a smoker and also the fastest hiker at such an altitude, but I thought that maybe those were related.
The porters had left out bowls of warm water for us to wash our hands and faces, or whatever.
We settled in. It was cold.
It was a little awkward with the porters standing around watching us. A young man hovered near our tent. At one point he said, "Marihuana." I couldn't tell if it was an offer or a request. I just smiled and ignored him.
Asaph wasn't feeling well. Before dinner there was something called "happy hour", which involved everyone sitting around the dinner table drinking hot chocolate and malt or coca tea and eating popcorn and crackers with margarine. I wanted to make a comment about how these foods and drinks probably didn't stimulate the appetite, especially in a population already mildly nauseated from the altitude, but I just kept quiet. Asaph stayed in the tent until dinner. I ran back out into the cold to get him.
The food was tasty, despite the background nausea and belly full of margarine and malt. I ate gluttonously anyway. We had a fun conversation. The topic of the recent economic crisis and the riots in London came up. Surprisingly to me, the Scots and the Northerners were more conservative and expressed no sympathy for the rioters and considerable sympathy for the bankers, while the posh London couple kept defending the angry youths of the Thames estuary.
We headed out to our tents to sleep after a very long day. I looked up into the sky. There were more stars than I had ever seen! In the space of a few seconds I saw two shooting meteors! The last time I had been in an isolated place where I had hoped to engage in star viewing -- near the southern border of Lebanon -- the stars had been shadowed by a bright spotlight from an Israeli Defense Forces outpost.
"My God! It's full of stars!" I exclaimed.
But it was freezing and I was exhausted, so we just got in the tent.
I slept poorly, in spite of exhaustion. My feet and hands were tingling in a painful fashion. I assumed it was from the altitude. The tingling actually woke me up at one point.
We were roused very early.
It was cloudy in the morning.
My hands and feet began to tingle again during breakfast.
"Are anyone else's hands and feet tingling in a painful manner?" I asked.
It's the [acetazolamide]," said Louise, calmly.
Oh! I thought. Yet another thing I didn't know about this medication because Asaph had been controlling the pills.
We began our day. We would soon be reaching the highest point of the trek: Warmiwañusca or "Dead Woman's Pass" at 4,215 meters above sea level.
"My stepfather said that we need to remember to spit to the side when we get there," said Asaph.
"Your stepfather did this?" I asked. I hadn't remembered that. "When?"
"A few years ago," he said.
I felt even worse that I was having so much difficulty.
It got colder.
"Look out! Llamas!" I screamed. No one got the joke.
It was very difficult for us to ascend.
We had to stop every 20 steps or so.
We were passed by the porters.
I was too winded to enjoy the dramatic vistas.
Asaf and I arrived last, just after the London couple. We were offered congratulations.
People from other groups were hooting and hollering. There was a child in one of the groups. The landscape was a bit bleak.
Asaph ordered all of us over to a flat area to take a photograph. After we all posed, he said my name, and then, "Will you come over here, please?"
Good grief, I thought. I knew what this was. I had said that this wasn't necessary, based on my reading of an etiquette book by Judith Martin, but Asaph insisted on all of the conventional American practices of the time.
He kneeled or knelt on the ground. Sarah came over and produced a candy ring from a package. He then asked if I would marry him, based on the new laws of the State of New York, and then gave the exact date, time, and location that we had already agreed upon.
"Sure," I said. I got teary-eyed.
I was then given another candy ring to place on his finger. We then hugged, but didn't kiss. We were offered congratulations again. I was surprised at my tears of joy, to be honest.
I wondered what Casiano, or anyone, thought about all of this, but I knew that I was entering a time when I would have to stop wondering what anyone thought about anything I was involved with.
We posed with the rings.
Asaph proceeded to eat his. I just wrapped mine in a tissue and put it in my pocket.
As I descended with my spouse-elect, I thought about all of the etiquette violations I would be forced to make in the name of marital harmony.
Linda, one of the Scotspersons, was feeling sick from the altitude so she descended as fast as she could.
We had been told that we would be entering a cloud forest.
We could see where we would be having lunch.
After a considerable descent, we began to ascend again.
The porters passed us soon after lunch.
We noticed that Sarah and Chris had a little system. They would identify a spot in the distance above to which they vowed to walk; only once they reached that spot -- which they called a "checkpoint" -- did they allow themselves to rest.
My spouse-elect and I asked if we could participate in their checkpoint system.
"Israelis love checkpoints," I said.
Several times we had trouble making it to the designated checkpoint without resting.
We arrived at an Incan ruin, this one called Runkuraqay.
I admired the diagonal doorways.
There was a quiet beauty at the site.
After a short lecture about the Incas, we ascended again.
I kept encountering Spanish words I hadn't know. I asked Casiano. "I thought ciervo was the word for deer."
"Maybe in Europe," he replied.
Chris, Sarah, my spouse-elect, and I started to get a little giddy as we lagged behind everyone else. Every time she would say "darling" I chuckled a bit.
"You two are quite photogenic," I said. They thanked me in their posh British way.
There were signs announcing every minute change in ecosystem.
I tried to record every flower I saw, for no clear reason.
Casiano had described some sort of flower used to drug the victims of human sacrifice under the Incas, which I then tried to locate. He had clarified that human sacrifice among the Incas had not been as brutal as under the Mayans.
"But many young virgins wanted to be sacrificed, since it was such an honor," he said. My head started to spin with moral relativism.
We approached another ruin.
I examined it up close.
Possibly too close.
I thought about how nature's reconquest of contemporary buildings would not produce similarly beautiful results.
Many stones in the corners had round holes.
And also near the roofs.
Later Casiano explained that wooden beams were placed in these holes.
There were niches for various objects, both sacred and mundane.
Casiano gave a long lecture about Incan spirituality. He kept using the word "mystical". We learned about Pachamama, or "mother world", and Inti, the sun god. We learned that the mountains were often deified and called apu.
He talked for quite a while. Some took advantage to rest.
He often began sentences with a word that sounded like "pada". Later I realized it was the word "but" with a Quechuan accent.
After a long time there, we headed to our campsite.
As we arrived and made our way to our tents, we noticed that we were being attacked by swarms of small bugs. The porters had wrapped their heads in their jackets to escape. We got into our tents as quickly as possible. I looked down at one of my legs. There was something that looked like a tick, but it was just a blister filled with blood. Was this from "the bug that makes the puma cry"?
We ran to the food tent for "happy hour" and dinner. There was much laughing. I asked Casiano to teach me some Quechua words.
"How do you say water?" I asked.
"Unu," he said.
Oh, I thought. I was disappointed.
We ran back to our tents to go to sleep. It was cloudy, so there were no stars.
I woke up a bit later and thought that the sun was rising. I lay there waiting to hear the porters stirring and another early wake-up announcement. But it didn't come.
I fell back asleep.
When we finally were told to get up, I realized that I had mistaken the moon for the sun.
My spouse-elect wasn't happy about our early departures.
I drank some delicious hot chocolate filled with cinnamon and bugs.
We were in the cloud forest.
Many of the porters, and some in our group, chewed on raw coca leaves to help with the altitude.
I didn't want to put my fingers in my mouth, even though I had plenty of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Shortly after we started out, Chris dropped one of his trekking poles off of a ledge.
My spouse-elect managed to retrieve it, using two other trekking poles and some adhesive tape. He was our hero!
We continued on our way. Linda the Scotsperson had joined our group of slowpokes. She wasn't interested in our checkpoint system, however. We could tell her Scottish pride was hurt by not being able to keep up with the other Northerners.
We arrived at a tunnel.
We came to a useless lookout point.
At least there was a clean toilet, I thought.
We arrived at another site: Phuyupatamarka. It was shrouded in mist. I wondered if Casiano had been confusing "misty" with "mystical".
He explained the Chakana, or Incan Cross, and its relation to the Southern Cross constellation.
We examined an altar where llamas or others had been sacrificed.
Casiano explained the Incan cosmological model, and the important Incan commandments: don't lie, don't steal, don't be lazy.
"Killing is fine?" asked Adam.
We kept seeing a guy who was travelling with a guide but without group. He was limping from an injury, so it took him a lot of extra time. He was often seen smoking. I noticed that he had a Canadian flag on his backpack, but he didn't seem Canadian to me.
"Who is that guy?" I asked some of our group who I had seen speaking to him.
"He's some guy from Canada. He hurt himself rafting, so he is having to do the trek alone."
"He looks Israeli to me. He seems Israeli." I was very good at detecting Israelis. I wasn't fooled by this "Canadian" cover.
We continued a descent.
The landscape got quite lush.
We could see a town in the distance, if I used the zoom feature on my camera.
We could see the Incan flag as well. Casiano said that this was visible from the Machu Picchu site.
I never had a problem spelling Machu Picchu again, since Casiano clearly said Ma-chu Pic-chu.
We were excited to think that we were so near.
Down we went.
My toes really started to hurt. I had anticipated having blisters on my ankles, not my toes. It was so easy to anticipate the wrong things, I thought.
There was some kind of begonia.
We had some dramatic views of lushly forested mountains.
I was grateful for any flatness.
The Urubamba was now visible again.
The sun came out as we entered another climate.
Sarah was inspired. We arrived at Intipata.
Adam started to slather his Salopian skin with sunscreen.
More stairs! I thought.
We didn't climb them all.
They were beautiful, however.
It was a short day of walking. We had lunch at our campsite.
After resting a bit, we had a small ceremony where we expressed our appreciation for the porters and the chef, and gave them their tips.
They seemed a tad uncomfortable.
This was the last campsite before Machu Picchu, right next to a real checkpoint through which one had to pass to walk the rest of the way. It was quite crowded.
The toilets were among the filthiest we had experienced. It was distressing. There were often smeared handprints on the walls.
There was a freezing cold shower available. Sarah, my spouse-elect, and I all took showers (separately). It was a challenge, but I needed to feel slightly clean.
We headed to the Wiñay Wayna ("forever young") ruins, which Casiano kept calling "mini Machu Picchu".
He started with more of his "mystical" talk.
"Listen to the wind: it is speaking. Listen to the river: it is speaking. Listen to the trees: they are speaking. Listen to the birds: they are speaking."
At least the last one is sort of correct, I thought. I was amazed that the spirituality of this Quechua-speaking individual who had never lived outside of Peru was so close to the New Age claptrap I routinely mocked back in the United States. I realized that I needed to reconsider things.
We walked around as night fell. The "Canadian" was limping around too.
At happy hour that night we were served a cake.
How inappropriately timed and unappetizing, I thought.
Our main course included pizza.
In a low voice, I mentioned something I had noticed about the porters and the toilets and the lack of toilet paper and soap.
We had a very funny dinner, with much laughing. I fell off my chair at one point, for no reason. Since we had no prior history and knew no one in common, our humor was very basic and primitive, but no less satisfying. There was something encouraging about how quickly one could become comfortable with new persons.
We had to wake up at 3:30, to go sit in line at the checkpoint.
We played twenty questions for several hours in the dark.
The "Canadian" was the only person ahead of our group. He and Louise, both smokers, started chatting.
I overheard: "Well, I grew up in Israel..."
I KNEW IT! I KNEW IT! I KNEW IT! I thought.
The sun came up, but it was cloudy and gray.
Once the checkpoint opened, we started running as fast as we could. It seemed like it would be easy to accidentally die.
"Keep up, will you, darling?" said Sarah to her young husband.
After an hour of running, our slow group arrived at a steep set of steps with a silly name.
We were at the Sun Gate!
The Machu Picchu complex lay below us. We posed for sweaty photographs.
Clouds soon arrived to obscure the ruins. We were thankful that we had gotten there when we did, although I was sure the clouds would burn off and re-form over and over throughout the day.
Here the llamas had tags on their ears.
We looked back up at the Sun Gate, where something important happened at the time of the winter solstice in June.
As we arrived at Machu Picchu, we could hear the sound of hundreds of people taking photos.
We all had to pose for one.
There was an immaculately clean and fashionably dressed young couple standing right by us. They had fancy trekking poles and designer trekking clothes. They looked like Miami Cubans, I thought. I assumed I was right, since I had proved myself so good at guessing that sort of thing.
"Did you two just finish hiking the Inca Trail?" asked Sarah.
"Yes, we did," said the immaculately dressed young woman.
"How do you look so tidy?" Sarah continued.
"Well, we had a really great group of porters, and they would heat water for us to take showers... It was just the two of us... We're on our honeymoon."
"So are we," Sarah said, glancing angrily at Chris. "Darling, take note."
As we walked away, Louise said, "When you asked her how they looked so tidy, the husband muttered quietly: because we have a lot of money."
Everyone was shocked.
We were anxious to get to the terminus of our pilgrimage.
Our trip coincided with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu by the West.
Our guide told us to meet at the entrance to the complex in 30 minutes. He was still holding our tickets. There was a snack bar, and a real restroom. I was overjoyed.
I paid one nuevo sol and went in. The toilet didn't even have a seat. I was disappointed.
We entered the complex.
It was very impressive.
We sat and listened to Casiano talk for 30 or so minutes. The setting was extremely dramatic.
He finally began to show us around.
He described each building.
And each feature.
He went over the history. I couldn't really keep it straight.
We were momentarily trapped in a room when the fake Canadian/real Israeli appeared and awkwardly asked Louise out for a "pisco sour" later that night back in Cusco while we all listened.
The Torreón or Temple of the Sun had been cleaned to its original condition.
There was a small garden of native plants.
I couldn't keep all of the temples straight.
It was hard to feel spiritual around so many people engaged in tourism.
We went up to the famous Intihuatana, the "hitching post of the sun", damaged during the filming of a beer commercial.
My spouse-elect had bought tickets in advance to allow us to hike up the Huayna Picchu peak.
In spite of the non-refundable expense, we decided we were too tired and sore. I was having trouble walking.
I thought that it was unfortunate to reach our destination in such an exhausted state.
We decided to sit for a while and just enjoy the beauty of the location.
It was incredible.
There were other earthy visitors doing the same.
Two crunchy upper-class Latin American women with beatific expressions sitting near us began to meditate. I looked down at my bite-covered leg.
We had to catch an expensive train back in a few hours. We took a bus along a winding road. We were obligated to eat a meal together in a touristy restaurant in the shabby town of Aguas Calientes (whose real name was evidently "Machu Picchu town"). The food was mediocre, and the waitress had trouble calculating our bill.
We wandered around the tacky town, stopping in an internet cafe and doing some last minute bargaining for souvenirs. My spouse-elect made me complete the final stage in a lengthy transaction that had gone on while I was on the phone with my father. We got a stone Incan cross for our inter-religious altar.
We made our way to the expensive train.
It was full of tourists, naturally.
There was one Peruvian passenger, sitting next to me.
A simple snack was served, along with a plastic cup of the soda of our choice.
I looked lovingly at my spouse-elect, who had made all of this happen.
He made everything happen, really. I never did anything.
We approached the town where we would transfer to a bus back to Cusco.
Everyone fell asleep except for me. As we wound our way back up barren hills, I could feel myself becoming short of breath again.
When we got back to our hostel, I thought: civilization!
The damage on my legs was worse than I had thought. It was like I had smallpox.
I took a shower for around 30 minutes. Then we arranged to go out and meet our trekking companions at a bar.
It wasn't the same. Outside of the artificial environment of the trek, all of the weird British class and regional differences emerged quite strongly. Everyone seemed uncomfortable. We had a brief laugh when Louise arrived: she had been stood up by the fake Canadian/actual Israeli.
There were lots of North-American/European/Oceanic young admirers of Che Guevara at the bar, dressed in the revolutionary manner that had been popular at my college. Annoying, I thought. Also, we were freezing, since we had dropped most of our clothes off at a laundry, so I was a bit envious of all the vintage military jackets and hats and thick, bulky -- if stained and partially unraveled -- indigenous Maoist sweaters.
We woke up at 4:00 to get to the Cusco airport. I was excited to return to sea level; I would never take air pressure for granted again.
There was a giant entourage of Koreans in the airport wearing matching jumpsuits.
We emerged into the fancy Lima airport. I took several deep breaths.
There was a huge mob of teenage girls waiting for a Korean pop group to arrive as we entered the check-in area.
We went to check in for our next flight. I noticed the woman from the shuttered airline who had told us to get a refund at the Cusco office working at a nearby counter.
I walked over, waited in line, and then confronted her in surprisingly fluent Spanish. She gave me the name of someone else to contact.
We spent some time in a fancy lounge, eating pastries, drinking fresh orange juice from a juicing machine, and using the internet.
We boarded our flight. Complexions had lightened dramatically. As a flight attendant walked through the plane as if she were on a different kind of runway, spraying us with disinfectant, I felt that we were about to fly into the future.