Mucho Macho a Machu Picchu
‘The Lads’, as I came to refer to them, were precisely that: three ruddy, twenty-ish Irish boys – not the slight, poetic type, but the athletic, overgrown footballer variety. I hadn’t met any of them yet; their musical gibberish played upon itself and created a layer of comfort in my mind – like watching one of those old BBC programs on PBS. You don’t really understand many of the jokes, you can scarcely comprehend the dialect, and you only laugh because of the wry earnestness of it all. Still, it’s late at night and you’re eating popcorn, feeling superior.
It wasn’t late at night in this case, but ass in the morning [as we used to say] – five o’clock ass in the morning, to be exact. I didn’t feel superior, exactly, but the lack of oxygen *did* make me feel a bit hyper-aware; in that I-don’t-recall-having-to-concentrate-this-much-to-tie-my-shoes sort of manner. And popcorn? Well, I had managed to grab a warm bag of it the previous night, my favorite food [here called canchita, in Colombia maiz de pira, and my favorite - the palomitas of Mexico], justifying that it may well have been my last chance to consume it prior to submitting to crippling death on the ancient stone stairways. For now, the only taste in my mouth was the flaky bitterness of coca leaves, quickly turning to awkward paste.
“S’posed ta help with altitude sickness,” said Connor, one of the Lads on the bus that wound its way through high jungle. He’d shrugged as he offered, and I shrugged back, accepting.
Later, The Swami would ask me if I felt like the leaves had made hiking, or specifically, persevering, any easier.
“I believe that my tolerance-level for alkaloids derived from this plant greatly reduce both the efficacy and my ability to perceive benefit from chewing the leaves,” I answered honestly. I didn’t want to discourage him if he thought they helped.
“You’re not supposed to tell your father things like that,” he smirked – perhaps embarrassed or ashamed or just bored.
Days before, we had been 1000 feet below sea-level; tromping through the iridescent blackness of a Colombian salt-mine, listening to a well-intentioned kid with a nearly indecipherable accent attempt to explain the subtle differences of the looming sculptures – each a cross representing one of the Stations of The Cross, as we plunged ever-deeper into the earth’s belly to explore a monducious cathedral, carved entirely from salt; peppered [to turn a phrase] with odd pews and a low, flat altar amongst the work-lights and hard-hats and wheelbarrows and slurry-hoses.
On the crammed and wondrous bus from Bogota, through the shambling highway towns with chicken-stands and travel agencies and scrap-metal dealers and jewelry stores butting up against the road in palpable desperation, I had a fleeting moment of comprehension about something. I forget what. My isolation was being rocked into near-sleep by the seasick motion of the bus until I spied a dead body.
The poor bastard’s helmet was exploded, cycle folded into a neat, yet disconcerting, new machine. He’d slid about 15 feet on his exposed face, but there wasn’t too much blood, oddly. No police had arrived yet and the truck-driver waved his arms in some seemingly-exasperated recount to some onlookers. We sailed by through the dust too fast for me to take a picture.
But now, this bus – climbing through the Andes toward Kilometer 82 [and my own certain death, I reckoned], passed through the Peruvian mountain equivalents of these same roadside towns; though more quaint, more photogenic. The plug of coca leaves was worthless other than its ability to befoul my mouth; I swallowed it in a soaking lump.
The idea of completing the grueling hike and looking down through the Sun Gate onto the ancient and mysterious city; empty not just of its former inhabitants, but not yet polluted by 1000 tourists – that seemed as unlikely a moment as I could imagine as the pain and fatigue wore through my quads and knees and triceps and lungs and somehow I kept moving downward. Stone step by stone step, the 700-year-old highway thumping beneath me. I hobbled and stabbed the walking poles with a flailing motion; like a CP sufferer, making jerky, over-forced movements somehow loosely yet willfully choreographed to keep me upright. All the blood burned, and muscle was emptiness, the air sucked down in rhythmic gasps but never once satisfied; a perpetual state of panic moderated only by such a cocktail of physical weakness and emotional determination that time may not have passed at all.
Or it all passed at once. I’m not sure.
All the drugs I’d done in life hadn’t prepared me for this. Nor for the moment I would be eating a guinea pig; served head, feet, skin and all, at a rustic little Cusco sit-down place, washed down with the diabetes-inducing sickness known as ‘Inka Cola’.
The real surprise came days later, on a slow stroll with the old man down to the cliffside. Finally in civilized clothing; a purple long-cut box sportscoat, button-down shirt, tailored slacks and cockroach-slaying shoes – the best departure from four days of REI drabness and idiocy – it was 90 seconds from the time I handed the man 120 soles til I was soaring above Lima’s coastline, buzzing the high-rises and gawping down on the swimming pools and tiled rooftops of Peruvian elites. Parapente, they called it. No one told you a goddamned thing- what to expect, how it worked, what to do or not to do. There wasn’t even a waiver or brochure. A grubby dude clipped you into a harness and no sooner had the shoddy helmet been strapped to your swimming head when, after a brief dance of alignment, the svelte “pilot” shouted ‘Corre! Corre!’ into your ear as you half-stumbled towards the cliff-edge and slipped effortlessly into the sky as the wing caught the upcurrent.
I made The Swami do it, too. Because he was afraid of heights, and because I knew I’d never have done it if I’d thought about it for more than a minute, but mostly because it was incredible. I don’t know the actual name of the affliction, but I ‘suffer’ from the [apparently pretty common] compulsion of very much wanting to jump off when I am on top of something tall. The taller, the more sheer, the more exposed – the more intense the feeling. I’m not allowed at the Grand Canyon nor Niagara Falls. In fact, on one outing to Ireland; not an hour after arriving to Shannon, the Z and I ventured to the Cliffs of Mohr. All the tourists ignored the token ‘fence’ [single log rail] and moved out onto the grass, the sheer and biting wind begging them forth. I came to the stony precipice, swallows flitting beneath us and somewhere way way down there, waves crashing silently on the rocks. The wind was all I could hear, and the warm push up from my groin and guts and filling my lungs with gold-dust, my legs flexing in anticipation of shooting off that edge, into the mist.
I felt a Polish grip on the belt of my Israeli goatfur coat. “Get back.” The Z had a loving, yet strict expression. “I’ve seen that look,” he continued, spinning me to face him; away from the soaring temptation.
“I can’t come all the way out here and not look over the edge!” I protested, rightfully.
A long pause and a stern look. “Fine,” he said. “You can go to the edge.” I sighed with the reprieve. “On your stomach.”
In retrospect, this was a fantastic compromise – I got to peer over the edge, filled with helium, wishing to sail away – but it is actually not possible [for me, at least] to *leap* when lying flat on my stomach.
The Peruvian paraglide addressed the feeling; what I imagined a leap like that should be: a breezy, slo-mo sail, with bird’s-eye vistas and peaceful floats through damp sky. Certainly, an *actual* leap would be a three-second disorienting and terrifying hellride straight down, in blinding fear, with not much to remember it by.
Yet I digress. For now it was the Inca Trail and subir y bajar, over and over and over again. High jungle, altiplano, low jungle, forest, desert, stone, flowers, trees, ferns, springs, Indians. I’d read a couple of books about Spanish conquest and Inca history and now here I was, living the insane march at a glacial pace, as overburdened chasqui porters flew by; darting up and down stairs at a full run, 60kg of tents and water and food and god knows what folded into a large cloth and tied awkwardly to their backs, towering above their stocky, coffee-colored forms. I trudged, outfitted with hydration pack and overpriced hiking shoes and poles and sweat-wicking clothing. The chasqui runners sailed by in soccer jerseys and sandals. Fucking sandals.
I made inroads with these men when presenting the ‘group gratuity’; when I memorized a little speech in Quechua:
“allillanchu kashanxichis waynakuna. llipiykuq sutinpi noka nisaq. sulpaiqui! kusiskan kashayku llipiyku kay jatun yank’ay ruwas’kay kichismanta. tupananchiscama.”
Later, while drinking a simple yet elegant cocktail of pisco, lime juice and ginger ale at “The Old Pub” [established, perhaps anachronistically, in 1997] – mercifully alone, the whiz-bang of playboys and chi-chi mamas just out of earshot in the dizzying neon of ‘Pizza Alley’, I recalled these words. Not what they meant – at least not all of them – and at that moment was assaulted by a mestiza beauty, poured expertly into club-wear, delirious with some unseen promise. She was waiting to say something to the little guy who served as a DJ, for lack of a better term; she smiled a foolish, too-confident toothmare my way.
“De donde eres?”
“De donde crees?”
At this she cackled maniacally, gripping my arm for a moment. “Ah.. Peruano!” The idea of my being a Lima resident somehow increased her already insane, drunken joy; it made something stick or become unlodged inside her understanding; I could do nothing but nod.
“You are having fun tonight?” By now she was restless; clearly anxious to return to the group of young studs and slags staking ground on the patio.
I shrugged, “allillanchu kashanxichis waynakuna. llipiykuq sutinpi noka nisaq. sulpaiqui.”
It was clearly a language she’d heard – somewhere. But the gap was too great. Her head shook rapidly but subtly, a quintuple-take at the overdressed gringo. Even the effort to smile taxed her, and she sputtered away.
The DJ, fresh from his own episode with her, grinned fully.
“Sulpaiqui,” he nodded to me. A ‘thank you’ as old as the Incas, and just as powerful in its mystery.