Breathless

It’s a known fact that every flight has a crying baby, at least one mouthy complainer and a small flock of anxious worriers. They have to, I’m pretty sure it’s obligatory. Nevertheless, I’m always a bit peeved to find them on board, and there is something about me that draws the aforementioned to my general vicinity. Every. Single. Time. Leah and I made our way down to Lima, Peru via Chicago, Atlanta & Miami, with two of the three flights getting delayed. It takes more than a flight delay to get our feathers rustled, yet for some it’s all the fodder they need for a full-fledged and full-bodied rant. We weren’t more than 5 minutes into our first delay before a young women reared up and let loose on the poor flight crew. “I’m going on a hike in Peru and I’m going to miss my connecting flights! I was on the phone ALL night with reservations trying to book back-up flights,” yada, yada, yada. Turns out this charming woman was on all three of our flights, and she made sure to piss off each and every flight attendant while filling the cabin with her high-pitched and irrational complaints.

Once we arrived in Lima we hailed a cab, and he barreled through the streets like a man who just broke out of prison towards our AirBnB in the Lince neighborhood. It was dark when we arrived so it was hard to get a feel for the city, but we did see some large and imposing things (that we assumed were some sort of bird or very large bat) darting through the air. In the light of day Lima, or at least Lince, proved to be a bustling and vibrant area.

No matter where we were in South America, be it a shop, a restaurant, or the remote mountains, there was always a rooster screaming at all hours of the day like the car horn that is stuck in honk-mode as it barrels down the highway. It was incessant and nerve-wracking. The worst part was, that we never spotted the damn birds, just cringed a little every time they let out a shriek. The AirBnB we stayed at in Lima was in a fairly quiet neighborhood, which allowed for a pleasant night’s rest. The roosters, however, woke us up along with a rogue parrot who had lungs like Freddy Mercury but the pitch and timing of an angry mule. Thanks to the drought that Lima is currently in, the water didn’t come on until 7AM so we wiped the sleep from our eyes got dressed and went out to find some breakfast.

I find it fascinating to learn what people eat at certain times of the day. In Finland they ate beans and sausage in the mornings with tomato and cucumbers. In Africa it was fruit and oatmeal. In America, most often or stereotypically, it’s eggs and bacon. I love food, all kinds – at all times. Yet, when we meandered into the market I was a little taken aback by what was offered. Mind you, this is still very early in the day, yet people were eating plates piled high with what looked like 5 lbs of rice with a chicken leg on top. Since my debacle in India, I have had a hard time digesting meat and kicked it all cold turkey last year. For this trip, however, I did wean myself back into eating white meat, for I didn’t want to miss out on tasting traditional Peruvian food. Good thing, because chicken was served at almost every place we went to, and for every meal. I present our first breakfast:

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We spent a lovely day walking the streets of Lima, popping into a museum and checking out local parks. The hefty breakfast held us over until well into the evening when we made our way back to the airport to catch a flight to Cusco. Surprise! Our flight was canceled. Another surprise! The mouthy complainer was back  on our flight pattern and pitching yet another fit about the canceled flight. Instead of adding to the chaos we grabbed a couple of empanadas, kicked back and shot the shit until a new plane arrived and we made our way to what was once the ancient Incan capital.

We arrived in the early evening and after making several phone calls to confirm that the taxi driver was indeed legit and was not about to kidnap us and sell us on the black market (I’ve watched Brokendown Palace one too many times to not be immediately suspicious of all taxis abroad and at home), we made it to our hostel.

We dropped our bags in our 6-person dorm and hit the streets in search of dinner. Walking the ancient streets of Cusco took my breath away, in every sense of the word. The city is stunning, and to think that it was the capital of the Inca empire at one time is mind-blowing. Also, it sits just above 11,000 feet above sea level – more that twice the altitude of Denver, Colorado and approximately 11,000 times the altitude of what I’m used to. Needless to say, I was winded immediately. God damn! I wheezed to myself. It’s like I’ve never exercised in my life! My breathing was heard by everyone within a 10-foot radius, and I had to stop and take “pictures” (i.e. breathing breaks) every 20 feet. My past affairs with altitude never escalated beyond 10k feet (3048 meters) and I was never made ill by the thin air. This immediate loss of breath should have been a red flag to myself to slow down and take it easy, but it was not and I did not. “Have a pisco sour!” they said, “It’s Peru’s drink, so you’ve got to have one while you’re there!” Like an idiot, I did, and just two hours later I found myself vomiting in the bathroom. Classy. Nothing clears the head like a low dose of cocaine, so we started the next morning with a piping hot cuppa coca tea.

It tasted like rubbish, or like grass clippings to be exact, but it was a drink we grew to enjoy/depend upon. In the little bit of research I did before taking this trip I came across the local remedy for altitude sickness: coca leaves – which is the plant used to make cocaine. I had planned on trying one cup of tea, just to be one of those tourists who could then say that they did it. Little did I know that my battle with altitude would be so fierce that coca would be my main source of energy to stay upright on the mountains, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The tea helped calm my stomach and gave me enough energy to hit the streets and soak in the breathtaking views.

We had to be up and at the meeting point for our hike the next morning at 4AM, so I was desperate to get some sleep. We packed our bags, one for the horses to carry and one for us to carry, and went to bed early. Of course, the more I knew I needed sleep the less tired I became. It turned into a night of restless turning and staring off into the shadows while I listened to my 5 other roomies doze off into the early morning. As I laid there breathing heavily, I tried to imagine what it would be like hiking up into the thin air of Salkantay – the highest peak in the Vilcabamba mountain range. *insert impending doom music here*


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