It was a wonderful night in Cusco, Peru. Nice dinner. Nice Wine. Good Hotel. Soft beds.
I was having a wonderful dream which I can’t remember except that someone was calling to me. Gently. Softly. Then suddenly with more urgency. I was thinking, in my dream, ‘Why are you so upset? Relax…’
I got annoyed with this person in my dream until I discovered I was awake and it was my sister Laureen calling me out of a blissful sleep.
“My heart rate is 138.”
“No it isn’t, it can’t be…you’re resting in bed. Your Fitbit is nuts…”
So she tells me how it has been going steadily up every time she lies down and she feels ‘funny’. Ok. That was wrong, I admit it. She didn’t look good either so maybe she was right, Fitbit or not.
We tried the usual array of cures, including calling the desk for oxygen. They brought it up (they seemed like this was pretty much standard procedure), showed us how to work it, told her to use it for 5 minutes, then call them to pick it up and left.
And then we ran out of O² after three breaths.
Yup. The tank was empty so we called for another. They brought a new tank, equally short lived and now it is 1:00am and she is not doing any better so I quite screwing around and called the front desk to send a doctor. The desk guy called back, said he found a doctor but –
‘Do you have money?’ What? OK. Everybody has to make a living.
Yes I say, I have a card too but he says ‘No-no! Must be cash’ and I tell him I have cash, cards, passports…Just send the DOCTOR! (Apparently I become irritable in the middle of the night.)
An hour later there is a knock on the door (now it is 2:30am).
‘Hi, I’m Paul.’ Well who the hell is ‘Paul’? I don’t want Paul! I want a DOCTOR. I want Dr. Somebody! I don’t need a Paul! I can find a Paul anywhere! (I did not say this out loud, because, you know, he might be the only Paul available in the middle of the night in Cusco.)
Despite my misgivings as to his alleged medical license, I let him in the room. After a quick exam, Paul wrote some prescriptions, collected his 200 soles in cash and left. I called the front desk once again to find a 24 hour pharmacy and they said they would look and call when they found one. In the meantime, Laureen propped herself up in bed in the sitting position, sucking on O² and looking pretty miserable with her heart rate dancing all over. So, no, I’m not sleeping either but I am getting greatly annoyed and vexed, which gathered in clouds as the minutes ticked by until they reached hurricane proportions by 4:00am when I marched down to the desk to find out what was taking so long.
Magically, they found a 24 hour pharmacy while I was standing there sucking on my fourth cup of coffee from the breakfast buffet (opens early) because what you want to do in times of stress is slam down so much caffeine you are practically slobbering when you speak to the front desk people who do not really, REALLY understand how close you are to jumping over the desk and committing hari-kari upon them.
I slurped more coffee as I waited while they drew me a map and I went in search of the all night pharmacy on foot.
But it was closed.
I know! I couldn’t believe it either! I muttered something unsavory concerning the staff of the hotel – and the pharmacy –while I walked back to the hotel, deciding how I should inflict some pain on the desk people when our very lovely tour guide showed up (called by Laureen). She calmed the waters a bit and then took me to the REAL 24 hour drugstore.
Several hours and three drugs later Laureen felt a lot better, so we took the train to the Sacred Valley (which is next up time in the my blog) and beat a hasty retreat out of the nutsy altitude of Cusco. We only had to return one more time to make our connection to the Amazon Rainforest near the end of our trip. But, we had drugs from ‘Paul’ and would only be staying there a few hours overnight so a week later upon our return, we had expectations of a good night’s sleep, the former altitude problem erased from our minds when I heard a tiny whisper from the bed next to me, just as I was going to drift off.
‘I have some bad news for you….’
I knew there was something off about that darn ‘Paul’!
Cusco, Peru was a place of many first for us. First time at a high altitude, first touch of the ancient Inca ruins, first taste of the famed Cuy or guinea pig, our first time crossing 30 feet of terrain and stopping to catch our breath in oddly surprising, unable-to-speak gasps and our very first experience with altitude sickness.
What is notable about high altitude is how your lungs shrink to almost pea-size and just walking around seems to take all your concentration (because most of you is trying to breathe) which makes it hard to really appreciate those ancient Inca ruins. And they did not disappoint. The architectural skills of the ancients is really astounding as precision cuts into stone, combined with anti-earthquake stacking leaves one wondering how it could have been done without Divine intervention. Along the whole cut of each temple stone, the mortar-free seam was so tight one could not even slip in a piece of straw between the interlocked blocks creating a flush, level wall that even modern times has trouble mastering. Mind boggling.
But the altitude of where the ruins rested was even more impressive. Cusco nests at 11,000+ ft. The air is ‘thin’.
Admittedly, I would have been even more impressed with the whole package if it weren’t for the trying to breathe thing that occupied my mind. I remember thinking, “Just get enough air, it can’t be that hard. There has got be oxygen somewhere in these molecules right, just get a big breath…that’s right…what did the guide say? ‘Take our time? Quickly now!...what the heck does that mean...don’t worry about it…just breath…nice big breath…OMG! There is absolutely no oxygen on this damn mountain! I am on a mountain right? Or is it a hill? Crap! It’s just a hill!’
These were my first experiences of Cusco. I did recover well enough on the bus ride back to the hotel to tell my sister I think I was having hallucinations (certainly from oxygen deprivation) because I kept hearing the tour guide say, “Quickly now! Take your time…We will stop at the Pee-Pee room next.’ But no. I was assured by my sister that that was indeed what I heard. I would comment more on the language barrier more but she (our guide) spoke three complete languages and I spoke one, plus ten words each of three different ones.
We rested at our hotel for a bit and, feeling restored, went into the night for a bit of supper. Everything is up and down in Cusco, well, really all of Peru, and the quaint narrow streets were cobblestone dotted with Peruvian women in brightly-colored regional dress sitting with alpacas so tourist could pose with baby alpacas and the women for a very small fee. (I am sure if I would have jettisoned a few non-essentials like my extra shoes and two pieces of clothing I could have slipped one of those adorable baby alpacas in my pack.) We passed on both because we were in search of food. Cusco had a large number of Italian restaurants and we were looking for a Peruvian menu but we settled on a fusion place of both cultures and tried Cuy ravioli followed by a nice sauvignon Blanc of Peru breeding. Cuy is the famed guinea pig of Peru and while it was interesting, it left us undecided and we made a mental note to try it again to make a judgement. Then we retired to the room for the evening and that’s when things really got interesting.
Cusco was the one fly in the ointment of our Journey. Hence it has a new name I have bestowed on it, undeserved to be sure, but nonetheless, it remains in my journal as ‘The Poison City on the Hill.’
And I will tell you why next time. Until then…just breathe.