For those of you just joining us now: Hi. How are you? Have you eaten today?
This is the second half of a two-part article—part one can be found here.
If you’re wondering what you’ve missed so far: zany mishaps, bad luck, and panic. (It’s funnier than it sounds.) Go take a look. I’ll wait.
In my defence, going to South America wasn’t my idea.
As we’ve already established, I’m not about to be voted “Lonely Planet’s Traveler of the Year” anytime soon. Even if, by some incredible mistake, I were to be nominated, I’d get lost on my way to the awards ceremony and wouldn’t show up, only to be found two weeks later, totally broke, in a different city—and yet still mumbling something about being “almost there.”
When I travel, I prefer to have at least passable knowledge of the dominant language in the place I’m going. It’s not that being able to speak the language helps me ward off disaster in any significant way—I’ve still managed to get myself lost, injured, and violently ill while traveling in English-speaking countries—it’s just that there’s something comforting about being in a hospital bed and getting a medical diagnosis in words you actually understand.
If you were to ask me if I spoke Spanish, I’d say: “un poquito,” which translates to “a teeny-tiny wee bit of it.” If you were to ask me in Spanish if I spoke Spanish, I probably wouldn’t understand what you wanted. I know how to ask you your name or what time it is, how to say “there is a donkey in the library” (don’t ask), and I also know how to deliver what I’m told is a devastating Spanish insult, which I won’t reproduce here but which translates to something like “return to your mother’s vagina.” As I’m sure you can appreciate, none of these things are particularly helpful should one find themselves lost (and at least one of the things is almost guaranteed to make the situation worse).
So when my best friend of many years told me that my then-girlfriend Katie and I should come to visit him on the edge of the Peruvian rainforest, I weighed my options. Conor had been living in Peru for a few years on and off, mostly working with NGOs. He proposed that we come down to see Tarapoto, the city he was living in, then travel with him up through the north of Peru before coming down along the coast and tooling around Lima for a while.
The offer was about as good as I could imagine it getting: a place to stay while we were in Tarapoto, an atypical itinerary plotted out by someone who knew the country, and most importantly in my eyes, a full-time translator. That would help to quell some of my panic about mierda hitting the language fan, and by handing the reins over to someone else, I would hopefully be able to avoid getting horrendously lost. I knew he wasn’t going to be there forever, so I figured I’d better jump on the opportunity while I had the chance.
Fair warning: this is a long story. And it just keeps getting worse. If you’re hoping for an upbeat tale of international revelry, you’re in the wrong place.
If you’re looking to feel confident and relatively competent in your travel skills, though—boy, are you in for a treat.
INCIDENT #2: DON’T YOU PUT IT IN YOUR MOUTH.
Everything started well enough. We booked our tickets southward and bought hiking boots. I tried on more than a dozen hats in an attempt to find one that said “I may be a tourist, but I’m not that tourist.” Katie baked some homemade granola bars. In an attempt to burnish the sheen of our Spanish skills, we picked up a yellowed Spanish-English dictionary for a few bucks from a used bookstore and I spent fifteen solid minutes playing Duolingo.
Katie and I had decided that if we were going to go to Peru, we should probably drop by Machu Picchu. I mean, it was only eighteen hundred kilometres out of the way, and all the guidebooks said it was a must-see. We arranged our flights to take us to Cusco for a week before we headed north to meet Conor in Tarapoto—and, in fact, since Katie and I have never really been the “snap a few pictures, buy the t-shirt, hop the bus back and hit the hotel bar”-types, we thought we may as well go for the whole kit and caboodle: we signed up to hike the Inca Trail.
Some of you will already be familiar with the ol’ Inca Trail: it’s a four-day, three-night hike through the Andes that covers close to ninety kilometres of distance and a fifteen hundred metre change in altitude by the time it’s all said and done. You camp beneath the unobstructed stars, poop kind of wherever, and on the final day, meet the dawn as it breaks over the ruins of Machu Picchu—which is supposed to be the sort of soul-swelling experience that normally only happens in books and Reese Witherspoon movies.
Even as someone who will choose coffee and internet access over nature nine times out of ten, I have to admit: it was pretty goddamn dope. Having been born in the Canadian prairies, where each kilometre is just as mind-numbingly dull as the previous thousand, I was not ready for the sorts of things I was to be seeing. It felt like the earth was showing off: immense, verdant valleys bursting with jaw-dropping peaks; mountain ridges looming in antipodal shades of navy and white. Every bend in the trail made you feel like an idiot, because five seconds earlier you had once again proclaimed that you had “the best view ever,” and then you’d be standing in front of an even better landscape, sheepishly cracking quadruple digits on your photo count.
If that sounds like a life-changing experience that one might treasure forever—well, you’re not wrong. It certainly can be.
For some people.
(Who aren’t me.)
PROBLEM #1: I am dumb.
Ever heard the expression “fortune favours the prepared mind?” Well, I fall squarely into the demographic of people that should really remember that. If you read write-ups on the Inca Trail trek, many will warn you that it’s not for everyone. This is to say: it’s pretty hard. Not like, “marathon-hard” or “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES-hard,” but if you’re not ready, it’ll kick your ass.
I’m one of those guys who seem to be incapable of adjusting for scale. To illustrate my point: I was once invited to participate in a charity stair-climb at the CN tower. Because I encounter stairs on a fairly regular basis with little difficulty, I thought sounded like fun—spend some time with my friends, raise some money for charity, feel good about myself. I failed to consider, however, a few important questions. Things like, “how many stairs exactly are in the sixth-tallest free-standing structure in the world?” or “is it lots?”
On the day of the event, while real-life Olympic athletes in compression shorts were meticulously stretching out their hamstrings, I rolled in late, wearing jeans and doughnut crumbs. It took about fifty stairs to realize that it was going to be harder than I’d expected. The remaining seventeen hundred and twenty-six stairs were spent sweating through my plaid shirt and trying not to puke.
When it came to hiking the Inca Trail, I had mentally prepared for something like a 5k fun run + an incline. Katie and I had also balked at the idea of paying the extra money for a porter to carry our bags, electing to carry them ourselves (advice: don’t).
The group we were hiking with consisted of Katie and I, two Peruvian guides, two American couples, a solo Aussie, and two Argentinian women. The Americans were big hiking enthusiasts (as they loved to remind us, as loudly as possible), and the Aussie, a woman named Janice, was fit and chipper. As someone in my early twenties who was in slightly-above-average shape, I had expected to make short work of the trail, spending an hour or so hiking and the remainder of each day drinking pisco sours in a tent or something. Unfortunately, as it turned out, this was not to be: Katie and I sweated and heaved our way through the first day, ahead of only the two Argentinian women, who moved so slowly that you would have thought they were waiting for a bus to pick them up and just drive them to the next camp.
As a brief aside: porters, the men and rare women who make a living lugging tourists’ supplies up and down the Inca Trail (like the sherpas on Everest, one assumes), are intense. I knew they existed. I had expected them all to be something like the young, chisel-jawed Swiss guards from the Vatican, only shorter (this was Peru, after all). Instead, the senior porter for our group was a portly sixty-two year old man who introduced himself as Chakchacko. He had about four teeth total in his perpetual grin, and while the rest of us were struggling with our top-of-the-line hiking boots and carbon-whatever retractable walking sticks, he blew by us all with a twenty-kilogram pack on his back—in sandals.
Between the exertion and the immense change in altitudes, I was not feeling exactly tip-top by the end of the first day. Given the elevations you’ll encounter on the Inca Trail, it is strongly recommended that all wannabe hikers spend time acclimatizing at Cusco’s already-dizzying heights (3,399m above sea level, compared to the meagre 229m above sea level that my birth city occupies) before venturing out toward Machu Picchu. Katie and I had spent two days there, wandering the beautiful labyrinth of cobblestones that is the city centre, but it turned out not to be enough: by the end of the first day, it felt like someone was working a nutcracker around my skull. At first, I chalked it up to either dehydration or just generally being a lazy shit, but when I found myself waking up in the middle of the night to vomit for the next several hours, I realized it was a hell of a lot worse.
The second day is largely considered to be the hardest day of the trek: though the total distance you cover is only about ten kilometres, it’s all uphill, climbing over twelve hundred metres. After no sleep for either of us, me being unable to eat, and still having to lug our full packs on our shoulders, the climb was gruelling for Katie and I. We were only barely ahead of the Argentinian women, who were so slow I began to speculate may have been some sort of elaborate “Weekend at Bernie’s”-style prank played on us by the guides. At this point, racked with exhaustion and barely able to put one foot in front of the other, the hike felt interminable.
The second day’s hiking climaxes with the Warmiwanusca pass, the highest point of the entire trek. I dragged myself to the summit, sweating and miserable. The rest of our group had been there so long that they were about to apply for permanent address changes, but we only had about ten minutes before the Argentinians would be arriving, so I happily collapsed onto a patch of grass and begrudgingly admired the scenery. As a big “ha ha, fuck you!” from the universe, a few feet to my right, a guy who looked like he’d started his hike somewhere in the middle of a Sears catalogue crested the trail, a little black dog at his heels.
“He just followed us up here,” he laughed to another hiker. “He wanted to come!”
I managed to sleep that night, thankfully. I ate breakfast the following morning. Even the cold-sweat fever I contracted at the end of that night didn’t seem so bad—I’d sleep it off and be ready for the really important leg the next morning: the overnight hike to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is the final pass in the trail, the one that overlooks Machu Picchu, and the one from which you are meant to breathlessly observe the sunrise as the climactic finale of the trip before spending some time exploring the ruins themselves.
Because you’re meant to arrive by sunrise, the hike starts at two-thirty in the morning, lit mostly by headlamps. We rolled out of our tents as the guides woke us, scarfed down a quick snack and lined up to hit the trail. This is where the porters leave the group—they pack up the tents and remaining supplies and make their own way out of the park. And because the porters had been the ones preparing all of our meals, they left us with boxed lunches for the day.
After a few hours of hiking through the dark, we took a small break to wait for the Argentinian women to catch up with the rest of us—if we’d still had the tents available we could have set them up and had a little nap before they managed to arrive. In lieu of that we decided to bust open our boxed lunches and have a snack.
PROBLEM #2: Soy tonto.
Did you know that “soy tonto” means “I’m dumb?” Yeah, me neither. You remember, way back in the first paragraph of this story, when I said that I bought a Spanish-English dictionary from a second-hand bookstore? Well, there was a reason for that. Yes, Katie and I wanted to have a handy reference for understanding Spanish words, but there was one word in particular that we needed to become familiar with.
I’ve had a serious peanut allergy since I was two years old. Before that, I’m told, peanut butter on toast was my favourite breakfast—but after starting to turn blue and choke one morning as a toddler, it was taken off the menu permanently. I was always raised to be careful; I was forced to wear my Epi-pen around my waist in a black leather Ducks Unlimited fanny pack until I was like ten years old. So, obviously, the first word I looked up in the dictionary was “peanut”—the translation was listed as “cacahuete.”
Here’s a fun fact for you travellers out there who also have severe food allergies: it turns out that cacahuete is essentially a regional term. Were you in Mexico or Spain, the dictionary would have been entirely accurate. Spot on, in fact. However, if you were to find yourself in Argentina—or, say, Peru—the word employed for “peanut” would be “mani.”
That would have been good to know.
Back on the trail, I opened up the boxed lunch. Even in the dark, it was underwhelming: an anaemic apple, a sandwich so stale-looking it could have been a theatrical prop, a juice box, a chocolate bar. I grabbed the chocolate bar, hoping for a quick sugar high, and flipped it over to read the ingredients.
When I had booked the tour, I had told the person I corresponded with that I had a serious allergy to peanuts. I offered to bring my own food if I had to—I just wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t be coming too near to peanuts on the trip. Going into anaphylactic shock on the side of a mountain with no medical attention readily available would have literally been the worst-case scenario that kept my mother up at night. The agent had assured me that they used no peanuts on the trip, and that I wouldn’t have to worry. Even so, I read the ingredients carefully: mani was the first thing listed, followed by azucar, cacao, and a handful of other things—but no cachuete to be found.
Yeah. Uh, shit.
Unlike many of my luckier/smarter/more discerning peers, I have had enough allergic reactions to know the feeling of anaphylaxis more or less instantly. Once it starts, there’s no turning back. A strange nausea, a prickling on the back of my skull, a worsening pain in my stomach. And then, bursting out with hives and swelling up until I choke to death on my own throat.
I tried to remain calm. I turned to my girlfriend, told her not to panic, and apprised her of the situation. She did not listen to me very well. I tapped Jonathan, one of the guides, on the shoulder and got him up to speed. The options, as far as he could see them, were:
a) Run like hell to the nearest medical clinic, which was located at the base of Machu Picchu. There was no way to get a vehicle to our location, and the remainder of the trail would take the better part of an hour.
I chose the former, if only because I had paid good money to see Machu Picchu, goddammit, and I wasn’t about to get cheated out of that now. Also, because being alive is pretty good.
I took off at a jog, Katie keeping up beside me. Jonathan told us he would catch up as soon as he could—he just needed to make sure that the rest of the group and the other guide were safe and up-to-date. I wasn’t panicking, I’m proud to say. I should make clear here that I had absolutely no idea that I was going to survive—death was a very real possibility, and I definitely flip-flopped on whether or not I felt like I would make it. I think the lack of panic is more attributable to the fact that the entire scenario was so fucking typical of me abroad that I was too dumbfounded to bother with anxiety.
You generally shouldn’t take your Epi-pen right away. You need to wait for the right moment, at least according to what I remembered from a safety bookmark I got from a pharmacist when I was twelve. Even when you do take it, it doesn’t stop the reaction—it just staves it off for a bit. I wasn’t sure what the right time would be, until, after about fifteen minutes of booking it down the path, I turned around to Katie to ask her a question and she winced at how swollen my face had gotten. That was as good a sign as any.
Even then, I still had at least half an hour to go. And I had no idea how long I would be safe.
[Author’s Note: “Okay,” you’re saying, “this is shitty. Definitely. But worse things have happened, surely? You obviously lived. I was expecting more, somehow.”
Yeah, well. Read on. Again, this is all true. Just… keep reading.]
PROBLEM #3: JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT THINGS COULDN’T GET WORSE.
Let’s rewind just a little. I know this story is getting real fucking long, but indulge me for a moment, because this is a key detail. It’s the thing that takes this from a “bad travel experience” to “a great reason to stay home forever.” It’s also the part I usually leave out when I’m on a first date.
See, the previous evening, I hadn’t been feeling well. Not that that was unusual, obviously. I just figured that what I was feeling was yet another holdover from exhaustion/dehydration/altitude sickness/fever, and largely ignored it as best I could. What were the symptoms, you ask? To put it politely: a little case of the ol’ traveler’s diarrhea. I thought it would pass. Except it didn’t. Because it turns out that, completely independently of my allergic reaction, I had contracted a serious intestinal infection. When it started, it wasn’t a huge deal; it remained more an inconvenience than anything. The way the timing worked out, though, it started to hit critical mass about the same time we stopped for lunch. Thus:
The entire time I was literally running for my life?
I was shitting my pants.
Shitting in my fucking pants.
And there was no time to do a single thing about it.
When you have the scariest experience of your life, the most humiliating experience of your life, and the most entirely cosmically unfair experience of your life all rolled into one pants-soilingly awful early-morning clusterfuck, there’s not much you can do but laugh. It provided extra motivation to survive, though. Dying on the side of a mountain? At least somewhat heroic and striking. Dying anywhere with shit in your pants? Not exactly a legacy you want to spend time dwelling on.
After the Epi-pen, I found myself in a state of shock. I was finding it hard to move more than a few feet at a time. Katie had taken my bag from me, and I still felt like I weighed a thousand pounds. I just wanted to lie down on the rocky trail and nap.
There was some good news, thankfully: Jonathan had managed to reach the medical clinic on a cell phone, and they were sending a few rangers to meet us at the Sun Gate. Once I was there, I would be carted down to the clinic itself on a stretcher, and the doctor would attempt to meet us halfway. I just had to live that long.
One of the final features of the hike before you hit the Sun Gate is an ancient stone staircase affectionately called “The Gringo Killer.” Katie and I shared a sort of strangled laugh when Jonathan told us that. I crawled it on my hands and knees, chuckling bitterly the whole way up.
At risk of providing an anti-climax: I lived. I limped my way to the Sun Gate and met the park rangers. But as a final little touch: we didn’t even make the sunrise. Despite the fact that I ran most of the way, we’d waited so long for the Argentinians that the sun had already long since risen. And as much as I’d love to wrap the story there, the idiocy just keeps on rolling: the rangers had somehow managed to bring a broken stretcher—one of the arms was missing an essential piece with which to attach it, and so I spent a good ten minutes (that felt like an eternity) on my back while they harassed other hikers for a rope that they could use to make the thing functional. Once they’d sorted that out, they began arguing about one of the rangers sharing his supply of cacao leaves (a traditional and energizing snack that they needed because I was the size of two average Peruvian men). He was being stingy, I guess.
I had entered a state of utter zen at this point. It would be too stupid to die now, in the hands of the people who were ostensibly sent to save me, so I just laid there and let life happen.
The doctor did wind up meeting us halfway, and to his credit, did his best to speak English with me in what I assume was an attempt to reassure me. It was hard to tell, though: I think he meant to keep telling me to “remain calm,” but the phrase he kept repeating rather forcefully (and this despite the fact that I was neither moving nor speaking) was “CALM DOWN.”
And so it went: stinking, sweating, swelling, I was sent down the side of the mountain. Near the end, having exhausted “CALM DOWN” and still wanting to talk, the doctor pointed to the sacred ruins below us in the valley as though I hadn’t noticed them, and said “LOOK! MACHU PICCHU.”
As an epilogue: The fun didn’t stop there. I spent two days in a Cusco hospital once the trip to Machu Picchu was over, receiving treatment for my infection and learning the joys of navigating a foreign health care system in a language you don’t speak. (Did you know that there are hospitals out there that require you to buy all of your own supplies, from the saline pouches to the needles to soap for the bathroom? Traveling is learning, I guess.) I had an IV hooked into the back of my left hand because I was so dehydrated that they couldn’t find the veins in my arm. The hospital staff treated me the way you might treat that soccer mom at Starbucks who has returned two consecutive non-fat sugar-free cappuccinos and won’t stop yelling about how unhappy she is, mostly ignoring me until they had to give me meals. I got a full diagnosis in Spanish, and understood about thirty percent of it. I’m still not really sure what happened to me.
And this was just the first of three weeks I spent in South America. At least things never got worse than they were in Cusco. I got to spend time with Conor in Tarapoto, and we travelled all over the country. It was indeed easier with someone by my side to translate.
Maybe one day I’ll have a few pints too many and regale you with the other stories from Peru. Until then, let’s just leave things here. I don’t know how much more of this I can even handle reliving.
Oh, and one last thing: this post is dedicated to my friend and fellow ex-Winnipegger, travel blogger Darcy Shillingford. His travel writing is great—and unlike me, his adventures are life-changing rather than life-threatening.
See you next week everybody!