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The Air Is Rare Up There!

Sunday, 8/28 Sixteen days after midnight (really 7:30 pm)


ALTITUDE IS KICKING MY ASS. So THIS is what they were talking about. My tolerance and resilience are both dry wells. I’m dizzy and have a headache. And that’s WITH the medication. Rusty, going it alone, has all my symptoms but many times worse. We’re snapping at each other and then apologizing. Or NOT snapping at each other when we want to because we just don’t have the energy.


On the other hand…Damn. This place MAY just possibly be worth the dizziness and limbs made of stone. The converter I bought in the airport won’t accept the plug to my laptop; how long can I keep going? I should shut up and and talk quickly instead of waxing rhapsodic… which works out nicely for me since tonight, my wax is dried up and old.


We met up with the Lindblad tour at six in the morning. Twig (a morning person) chatted up total strangers as if she was at a cocktail party; she could not have been more charming. I was a lump. Rusty was a larger lump.


Everything that could have been misunderstood WAS misunderstood. “Tie this handsome Andean style ribbon around your suitcase and leave it outside your hotel room door by 4:50 this morning; we’ll pick it up and take it directly to Cuzco, so pack for two days in Machu Picchu in a small duffle.” All three of us got up at 4:30 to do this, since we didn’t want to leave the luggage out there all night.


When we went down to meet the tour, the luggage was still sitting outside the hotel room doors, waiting to be jacked by any enterprising passerby. When we got to Julio, we saw that half the people were dragging their bags behind them. “Were we supposed to bring our bags here?” “Why, yes—of course.” “What was the ribbon for?” “If you want your big bag to wait for you at Cuzco.” “And putting our bags out at 4:50 in the morning?” (Utterly blank look, followed by) “I’ll have the bellboy go get your bags at once.”


Rusty and Twig send me accusing looks. I had to pull out the piece of paper that told us to do exactly that. They had to agree there was no other way to interpret the instructions.



Then to the airport, which was absolute bedlam. Vast standings-in-lines (unavoidable, and Julio and his second, Thomas, kept everyone in the right place and smiling.) The flight was unremarkable except I was on the aisle and couldn’t much see out any windows, but that’s the way, right? Twig and Rusty BOTH had window seats, and that was fair since I’d had the window seat on the flight from Miami to Lima.


We landed in Cuzco. Was it my imagination, or did I develop a little headache not long after they opened the plane doors? Everything took six or seven times too long. I was in the back of the plane and waited in the aisle to get off until all my hairs had gone grey. Then I walked at a normal pace to meet the group, glad the mask was hiding the degree to which I was huffing and puffing. Rusty had already retrieved my checked bag (good boy!). The entire plane went to have a pee, in the two working toilets, so that was interminable. Then the slow, slow waltz to the mini-buses, where we handed over any suitcase we wanted to leave in Cuzco for retrieval in three days. I almost asked what the ribbon was for again but didn’t really have the breath for it.


Cuzco didn’t look much more prosperous than Lima, but had the advantage (as Rusty pointed out) of not looking like the kind of place where someone might smash-and-grab your iPhone out of your car in a traffic jam. It was definitely NOT just like home; we stared gape-jawed at the new world around us. Rusty kept up a useful and entertaining commentary, including his observation that the front of the Cuzco airport had a charmingly Soviet aspect.



Our bus pulled over after a bit; the second bus had signaled for a stop. One of the passengers, seated in the back of the bus, had landed wrong after the bus went over a huge bump, and the passenger who happened to be a retired doctor thought he might have gotten a compression fracture. They called for a taxi to go to the hospital and Julio went with them, leaving us in the capable hands of Yeshia and Sofia. If I needed medical attention, a Lindblad tour would be the place to have it; they were on top of the situation immediately. (And offered any altitude sufferers a whole variety of options, but no one broke down and asked for any. If you give me oxygen half an hour into the trip, won’t I be demanding my own private iron lung by the time we get back to Cuzco?! Tough it out, girl!


We drove to the town of Chinchero (at 12,000 feet; oh, this was going to do WONDERS for my “adjustment” period!), where a woman (supported by National Geographic) has single-handedly restored ancient weaving techniques to the region. She and her (students? Workers? Partners?) gave us an extraordinary demonstration of their process. They had this presentation DOWN; it was absolutely flawless. How they spun yarn from alpacas. How they washed the wool from sheep (using yucca root, which was astonishingly effective) and then how they dyed the threads using all-natural dyes, creating an astonishing rainbow of colors.




Then they demonstrated the traditional weaving. Wrapping the warp, using a backstrap loom to put in the weft, how to weave the I-cord that edges the weavings, how to knit with the yarn… it was amazing. I wished my high school friend Sarah Swett could have seen it; she’s a brilliant weaver, too, and I know she would have spoken their language (Spanish or Quechua? No—the language of thread!). I took tons of videos which I’ll need to send her.


They’d presented us with mint tea on arrival and gave me a too-small gaucho hat for the shade. I blame the altitude for the HUGE number of purchases I made. Rusty did, too. I’m having everything shipped home. The first item I chose (a knitted square in nubby, warm alpaca), the woman who held it up to show me smiled when I chose it, and cocked a thumb at her own colorful outfit. “I make,” she said. “Wow! Es perfecta!”


Then as I was walking on, I thought to ask. “Un photo? Usted y esto?” “Si,” she replied. She held her work up happily. I got three of the four makers of my treasures on film, and Twig got a shot of Rusty admiring the huge one he bought (with my cheers of approval). Aren’t they glorious? (Look--I got fancy. It's a slider gallery; click on the left to see the two images you can't see. Cool!)



We had a lunch almost entirely consisting of potatoes (and a little guinea pig, which was tasty) and then we were on our way. The views were so dazzling they may have accounted for my dizziness…because DAMN. Breathtaking!



We zipped along countless hairpin switchbacks until we got down to the Urubamba River. My head is filled with the music of these words. Say them out loud: Urubamba. Ollantaytambo. Chinchero. They’re like songs. SO gorgeous…and the view matches. The Urubamba River runs through the Sacred Valley—and when it comes to the concept of a valley, these people are not kidding around. On one side of the river, a slope so steep that if you dropped something from the top, it would reach escape velocity in the first hundred feet. (And there were are a lot more than a hundred feet to the level of the river.) On the other side of the river, a tiny shelf of land for the train and then more than vertical cliffs; there were places where the stone sloped inward. For THOUSANDS of feet. The train had big, panoramic windows and then little skylights overhead; charming, I thought. Until I needed the little skylights to see the tops of some of these mountains.


That's Twig with a Lindblad new friend, Shelby. Shelby bought one of the gaucho hats from the weaving ladies; it looks sensational on her.




Photos don’t capture it. At least, mine don’t.


We arrived in Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo) after dark. We’re around 8,000 feet here, so the air was (comparatively) oxygen rich. And yet I was huffing and puffing even for the short walk up the cliff that was the main street. Our hotel consists of dozens of bungalows inside a nature preserve; unquestionably charming even if currently invisible in the darkness. But of course to get to my lovely hideaway (and I’m advised that my bed has a warmer in it—and it’s already on; I look forward to going there with the kind of eagerness usually reserved for religious zealots), there were more stairs to be climbed. NO! NOT MORE STAIRS! I’ve discovered that high altitudes mess with my knee joints something fierce. I was really glad no one was following me to witness my ascent (which involves a lot of arm and shoulder action to heave my poor, heavy corpus up to the next level). I have great hopes that a good night’s sleep will restore my get-up-and-go so I can get up and go to Machu Picchu tomorrow!


And on the morrow, I must remember to pour a quiet little libation of precious bottled water (we don’t drink the tap water in Peru) to honor Panchamama, the earth goddess. She deserves her moment of thanks for creating such a spectacular place!

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