The Inca Trail, or Mucho

The Inca Trail, or Mucho People
Note: This piece is long, even by my standards, so I’ve broken it into titled chunks the size of normal entries. With cavalier disregard for intellectual property, I’ve also illustrated the story with embedded links to photos on my walking companion Simon’s website. For a more concise, reliable account, go straight to World of More and see nice thumbnail images, too.

Dead Llama Tours, Inc
The Big Pink Skipping Rope Trail
Your Finger, Idiot
Group Hug
Leo and the Porters
Dawn Flute
Mucho People

Dead Llama Tours, Inc
The Wayki Trek office on Gringo Alley in Cusco smelled really bad. Something had expired in the back room, but Leo the salesman didn’t seem to notice. At this early stage in our trip, Simon was too English to draw attention to unpleasant odor, and I was too busy pretending to Simon to be at one with Quechua culture to point out to Leo that he needed to fumigate his damn office. Instead, we politely booked a guided Inca Trail trek.

In 2001, UNESCO decreed that independent trekkers were destroying the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu. The path was deep with litter. There were no proper pit toilets. Ancient ruins were crumbling because campers were lighting cooking fires against the walls. The proposed solution was drastic: no more independent trekking. All tourists would have to walk with a certified local guide, using porters but not mules. Group size would be limited to ten per licensed guide, and no more than 500 people a day, including porters, would be allowed to hike. There would be a $50 entrance fee and carefully checked registration. Camping was permitted only at a few designated sites.

We had invested a morning in reading trip reports at the very comfortable South American Explorer’s Club in Cusco, trying to pick a decent travel agency. Wayki Trek, though small and relatively new, was well-reviewed. (No one had mentioned the rotting llama in the back room.) For $200 each, they would take us in a group of six. The price included tax, $25 entrance to the ruins, $50 government fee to walk the trail, three full meals a day, water, snacks, transport up to the trailhead, bus and train back, use of camping equipment, a licensed guide, a cook, and a porter for each hiker. We would carry our own clothes and sleeping bags, and should bring money for extra snacks and tips.

Tour groups are not my idea of fun, and I wasn’t cheered to meet ours. There was Chris and Suzanne, the Swiss-Germans, French Ana, Portuguese Joao, English Simon, and me. With Leo the guide (and Raul the trainee guide), we counted seven languages between us, and none in common. At the pre-trek briefing, we made stilted conversation about Alpine skiing over complimentary pisco sours.
    ‘I’m Europhobic,’ I complained to Simon afterwards. ‘Well, Eurosceptic. I mean, they’re fine and all, but we’re hardly going to have a rip-roaring time, are we? Why couldn’t we get a few Australians or Scots in our group? Seven bloody languages and can’t crack a joke in any of them.’

Leo arranged to pick us up at our hotel before dawn the next morning.
    ‘Just remember, you’re on holiday,’ said Simon when he woke me at 4.45. My mini backpack, stripped down to just a sleeping bag, notebook, and washkit, felt luxuriously light as I loaded it onto the minibus. We collected Chris and Suzanne, then Joao and Ana. Next we stopped for a couple of locals. I offered them cake, which startled them. My immediate neighbor was Marcelino, the cook, whose vinegary smell was to season our dinners. At Ollantaytambo, an hour and a half from Cusco, we stopped again so that Leo could hire more porters from the crowd of campesinos jostling for work. The women pushed trail snacks and walking sticks on stray tourists.
    ‘!Cómprame! Cómprame!’

We decided on Spanish as the best language to use between us. Ana answered in French, which we all understood. Joao spoke a bizarre Portuguese-French-Spanish-Football creole, which we only pretended to understand; luckily, he wasn’t talkative. Chris and Suzanne switched from Spanish to English to French to Swiss-German, depending on who was dominating the conversation. I translated for Simon and insisted that Leo teach me some Quechua, too, which I wrote down carefully on the back of teabag sachets.    ‘Ayiyanchu, wayki!’

   ‘Why does your friend,’ said Ana with a scornful nod, ‘speak no other languages?’ She herself spoke only French and the Portuguese of her parents.
   ‘He understands your French fine. He’s just a bit rusty speaking.’ I told her. And added silently, because he doesn’t need to, bee-yatch! Didn’t you people get the memo about English?

The Big Pink Skipping Rope Trail
The UNESCO Trail Gurus decree a four-day schedule for the trek, arriving at Macchu Pichu at dawn on the last day. The first morning, we ate a full breakfast at the trailhead. After a three kilometer stroll, we stopped for a three-course lunch. Leo mandated lengthy rest stops to tell stories or explain ruins during the next section, another three kilometers on flattish ground. Then we camped for the night in a meadow by a river, and settled down to popcorn and cookies in the meal-tent, followed by a three-course dinner.

Simon and I were disbelieving. This was the badass Inca Trail? At the Explorer’s Club, we had read accounts of oxygen-deprivation and altitude sickness, of gruelling passes and knee-destroying descents. Trail of Feathers, an entertaining, wildly exaggerated account of a trip to Peru, starts out with a quote from an unnamed guidebook, which claimed that the Inca Trail is ‘harder than Everest’.

It isn’t. The Inca Trail is for pussies. For Big Girls’ Blouses. For Big Pink Skipping Ropes.

Honestly. The porters race the Inca Trail once a year for fun, and the record is under four hours. We sad-sack gringos had four whole days to do it, and we didn’t even have to carry packs. The trip reports we’d read had clearly been filed by people who counted a stroll in Central Park as hiking. To be fair, we did have to work the second day, on the famous Warmiwanusqa, Dead Woman’s Pass, a climb to 4400 meters. I’d half-hoped Simon would be breathless, coming from sea-level London, but I was the one who had to trot, panting slightly, to catch up. Our biggest fear was that they would make us carry our own gear again, but one by one the porters jogged past us on the steep slope, leaning forward against the 25-kilo loads tied to their bodies with complicated rope arrangements. They were seemingly hardly troubled by their burdens. A green-tinged gringo was carried down past us, splayed across a mule.

View from Dead Woman’s Pass

Your Finger, Idiot
Far below, the Urubamba river wound through the valleys. Behind was a snowy, jagged peak. We asked Leo the name of the mountain.
   ‘Veronica? How can a mountain be called ‘Veronica’? What’s the one next to it called, Susan?’
   ‘A European lady called Veronica was the first person to climb it, about forty years ago. So they named it after her. All the placenames around here are fairly arbitrary. For example, when Hiram Bingham discovered this area in 1911, he asked the locals what the ruins were called. They told him ‘macchu pichu’—Quechua for ‘the old ruins’. Of course he thought it was some mystical Inca name, gringo fool. Half the placenames in Peru mean things like ‘A mountain’ or ‘Your finger, idiot’, when the foreign archaeologists asked ‘What’s that?’ They wrote ’em all down.’

Group Hug
It’s hard for me to appreciate natural beauty when there are new people around. It’s the failing of an extrovert, and it’s why I like to travel alone. Otherwise I busy myself harvesting human stories rather than noticing the cara-cara eagles swooping through a gorge. With six new people to play with, including Leo, I was as wound-up as a six-year-old at a birthday party. Simon and I chattered all day long on the mountains, swapping life stories and sad romantic histories, making up silly characters, and reciting whole scenes from Father Ted. He had a penchant for very bad, very long jokes, his enjoyment of which was in inverse proportion to the limping punchlines. At the top of the mountain passes, he would launch into a medley of mournful Smiths’ songs ‘because I’m so happy’.

‘I crashed down on the crossbar
and the pain was enough to make
a shy, bald Buddhist reflect
and plan a mass-murder…’

In return, I lectured him cheerily on Cromwell, the Irish potato famine, and the Penal Laws.
   ‘And then Trevelyan, the Lord Lieutenant, decided to withhold the Indian corn set aside for famine relief, to teach the Irish to plan a bit better in future.’
   ‘Good grief, did he really? I’m so sorry. So, the Dalai Lama goes up to the hotdog stand and says “Make me one with everything…”‘

We especially enjoyed the fact that our European neighbors changed into fresh outfits, matched by couple, every day, while I wore exactly the same clothes four days running, as usual. Simon took to calling me ‘the fragrant Mary Archer’. The third morning, as I put on my stiffening socks, he asked innocently if I’d ever seen the Al Pacino movie, Stench of a Woman.
    ‘Simon,’ said Suzanne in the meal tent one night, ‘I think you are always making the jokes when we are walking. I think this is very English. And when you make fun, you don’t zmile, you have the serious face. This is also very English, I think.’

Suzanne herself was smiley, a grown-up, snowboarding Heidi. When we brought this to her attention it bonded our group.
   ‘Also you see Heidi in Switzerland? I like Heidi,’ said Joao.
   ‘Heidi was Swiss,’ said Suzanne proudly, ‘The book was by Johanna Spyri.’
   ‘Oh my Got!’ roared Chris, who looked like Peter, ‘Clara wass so hot!’
We all sang the theme tune as we waited for dinner, and we discussed raclette hungrily. Joao wanted to contribute to our deepening togetherness, and loosed some strangled yelps from the corner. Eventually, he took a deep breath and produced ‘Day-veeed Beck. Ham. Now go to Real Madrid.’
Chris, Simon, and Joao dribbled this conversational football until bedtime.

Leo and the Porters
We were blessed with Leo as a guide. With his sleek bowl haircut and bright brown eyes, he had the look of an intelligent forest animal. Every mealtime he told us long stories of Inca legend and history.
   ‘The Inca could only marry a woman from a noble family. But one day, he was traveling in a village far from Cusco, and he saw the most beautiful woman imaginable. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen. And he fell in love with her on the spot. Of course, she wasn’t an aristocrat, but he couldn’t believe that she was just an ordinary village woman. So he brought her back to Cusco, and he asked his priests to tell him who she was, where she might have come from. And the priests agreed that she was very special indeed. It was out of the question that she marry the king, since she didn’t have noble blood, so they decided she must be sacrificed. On the spot where her blood fell, the first coca plant sprang up. That’s why coca has always been regarded as a woman, a sacred woman.’

Leo was a local, one of seven children from a small village outside Cusco. His father was illiterate, and determined that his children would get an education.
   ‘He was a very unusual man,’ said Leo, ‘He said to us once “I have a very small plot. I can’t divide it up and leave it to each of you; it would be unusable. The only gift I can leave you is an education.” So two of my brothers are lawyers and I studied tourism in Cusco for three years. My sister is a teacher. The others didn’t want to study. All through college, I dreamed that soon I would be able to support him so he could retire. But he died the month I graduated.’

He had run for local office in his village the previous year. His platform was spreading the benefits of tourism from the trail throughout the community: better conditions for the porters, extended transport links. Porters are paid 120 soles, or about $34, to work the trail for four days. Out of this, the government charges them entrance to the trailhead each time, at the local rate of $11 a head. Then the train monopoly charges them full local price for the journey back to Ollantaytambo. They are supposed to pay tax on the balance. There is a complicated scheme whereby registered porters could request rebates on these entrance fees, but most of them don’t. They are just poor farmers who try to bring in extra cash for their families when crops allow. When I asked, most of the porters said that they walked the trail about four times a month in season, which, counting tips, still brought in an income higher than a teacher’s salary for sixteen days’ work.

Things had got slightly better in recent years. Now there was a weigh station at the start of the trail to make sure they were carrying no more than 25 kilos. Previously, tour companies had saved money by hiring fewer workers and loading them with up to 60 kilos. Back in Cusco, I’d seen flyers for The Andean Porter Project, an organization that tried to improve their conditions. They were recruiting traveler volunteers to help measure the porters for ergonomic backpacks. Listening to Leo, I was exasperated at this well-meaning, cack-handed nonsense. These people have been carrying loads on tump-lines for generations, and will continue to do so long after they’ve sold the daft charity backpacks to buy multinational fertilizer for their fields. Pressuring their government to ensure that they hold onto the money they work so hard to earn would do a lot more, but I suppose it doesn’t deliver the meaningful, personal connection that the volunteer/consumer demands these days.

Leo came from nowhere to be a favorite in the mayoral election, he said. People were surprised by his youth and ideas. He wanted to persuade PeruRail to reopen the link to his village, and to offer cheaper ticket rates to locals than they currently did. He wanted to set up a center to help porters with rebate paperwork, while lobbying the central government to drop the entrance fee. He wanted to represent country porters and guides in Cusco, where the high-level decisions about Trail management were made. As an educated city slicker and guide with strong roots in his village, he felt he had a unique insight into the needs of the tourists, the porters, the agencies, and the guides. Everyone thought he would win. But the vote count, which normally took two hours, stretched to eight. Something odd was going on: many extra votes had crept in. It turned out that his main rival had gone to every house the night before and offered a dollar a vote. Leo didn’t know how much he had paid for the extra box of blank ballots. He came in third.
   ‘So will you run again?’
   ‘Who knows? Peru can get you down.’

It was Leo’s idea to bring the porters into the meal tent after dinner on the first night. It’s an Inca Trail tradition to introduce them to the tourists on the last night, just before tips are presented. Leo wanted us to get to know them earlier so that we could chat to them on the trail. They liked to know about their tourists, he said. They often asked where theirs was from, what they were like. So he decided we should make friends.

It was excruciating. We Europeans sat on our little stools, trapped by the table so that we couldn’t stand up in greeting, while the Quechua porters lined up for inspection, heads bowed. They whispered their names at Leo’s prompt.
    ‘Tomas.’ ‘Marcelino.’ ‘Simón.’ ‘Javier.’ ‘Ramon.’ ‘Rigoberto’.
We said our names, and told them where we were from.
    ‘Do you have any questions for the porters?’ asked Leo. We squirmed. I asked if they had families. They all did, except for the shy 18 year old. Leo slapped his back and joked about his girlfriends on the trail. Suzanne asked how old they were. Late twenties, mostly, slightly younger than us. Leo asked if the tourists had families, in a new, loud tone that people use in seniors’ homes. Nope. The porters marveled a little at these six childless thirtysomethings.
   ‘Europeans aren’t sure how to make babies,’ we explained. ‘We’ve come to Peru hoping someone will tell us.’
They filed out after a decent interval of fixed grins from both sides. Leo explained that their shyness was a documented psychological phenomenon in colonized, mistreated people. I elbowed Simon in the ribs.

To be an Inca Trail guide, you need a three-year qualification in tourism. I asked Leo how much they taught of local history, culture, or archeology. Almost nothing, he said.
   ‘It’s all bookkeeping, marketing, and sales. People just sit through the classes because they need the piece of paper to work. If you want to teach tourists about the other stuff, you have to study on your own.’
He had worked for the big Cusco agencies for ten years, and eventually got sick of their treatment. They didn’t provide porters with tents or food, they crammed tourists into huge groups, they exploited wherever they could. So he recruited six other experienced guides, and they started Wayki Trek as a co-operative. They never took groups of more than eight, and they looked after their porters. They made less money that way, but more than they had working for someone else. He was happy.

So were we, until Leo disappeared halfway through the second day, apparently to attend to a client from another Wayki group who had been taken ill. Raul, the trainee guide, would look after us until he came back that evening. We never saw Leo again.

Raul was a raw graduate with an adolescent air. He hadn’t got to the part about studying on his own: we knew more about the ruins than he did. We wondered if the disappearance was prearranged. Leo himself had been filling in for a guide who was ill; a back-to-back shift on the trail. Perhaps he brought Raul along while he sussed out how self-sufficient our group was, and then took off back to his family. We never found out.

Dawn Flute
On the third morning, the porters brought coca tea to our tents before dawn so that we could be first on the trail. Baby Guide Raul explained we were starting early because there were several ruins on the way, which filled up with tour groups later in the morning. Although the trail was overcrowded, by always being the first or last to leave, or by taking alternative, harder routes, our group was mostly alone. We were also the smallest group on the trail. SAS, supposedly the plushest outfitters in Cusco, brought about 30 people, and the mix of pace and temperament never seemed like fun when we passed them.

The full moon hanging over Dead Woman’s Pass lit our way as we hiked up the slope. This section was true, paved Inca Trail, and easy to follow even in darkness. These paved paths had once supported a relay messenger system that brought news and produce from all over the empire: a Cusco noble could enjoy fresh fish from the coast in just two days.

A few pale streaks appeared above the mountains as Raul ushered us into Runkuraqayand gave a halting lecture. He was nervous in front of his first-ever tour group, and it didn’t help that we felt conned by his boss’s disappearance. Raul kept asking me to translate for Simon—he didn’t even speak English—and I wanted to tell him that I would as soon he told us something new or accurate. But his charisma deficit was more than redeemed by the mountains at dawn. As we continued up the pass, we spoke in cathedral whispers when we spoke at all. Below us, an early porter followed playing ghostly flute music like a wood nymph.

I felt sorry for us tourists and our camcorder minds. It was so hard for us just to be in the mountains at dawn. A wandering porter with a flute felt somehow staged, and we assessed the scene for corniness while we tried to enjoy its beauty. We photographed. We imagined how we would describe it later. We pasted the memory into mental scrapbooks, and flipped through them looking for comparisons. Often, we were too bent on having memorable experiences to experience them.

Mucho People
We climbed to Sayacmarca, a ruin perched on an outcrop so isolated that it wouldn’t seem like prime real estate to a modern eye. Simon speculated that all these ruins were elaborate Victorian fakes, built by hurling stones up from the valleys using steam-shovels and Irish navvies. We wandered through, stroking the smooth stones, wondering if the holes punched through some the corners at waist height were for drapery tie-backs. Velvety ladies’ slippers grew among the stones.

From Sayacmarca on, the trail mostly descended. The Quechua call this region ‘la ceja de la selva’; ‘the eyebrow of the jungle’. We stepped down through high jungle and rock tunnels, through elaborate agricultural terracing, through spearmint-scented meadows. Our group had been spoiled with solitude on the trail. Reaching the final campsite, where every hiker had to stay on the third night, was a shock. We picked our way between row after row of blue-domed tents, catching unwelcome glimpses of pale bellies drooping over y-fronts. There were two filthy toilets for 500 people. At one end of the campsite there was a pumping disco—on the Inca Trail, for God’s sake. Sometimes I want to take Peru outside and smack it. Hard.

But Wayki Trek had done well again, and our camp was tucked in a spot that was as private as possible in the circumstances. We would need the quiet: Raul wanted to get us up at quarter to four to be first to see Macchu Pichu at dawn. At 4 am, we were bleary, trying to force down the pancakes and hardboiled eggs of our last catered meal. At 4.45, we were waiting for the ticket office to open, head of the line while other groups straggled in behind us. A large, impatient group who had passed us the previous day tried to barge us, but we stood firm.
   ‘I feel like a German in Majorca, up at 3 am to get my towel on the sunlounger,’ I grumbled. Chris pounced.
   ‘You also have this joke about the Germans? In Switzerland also they are famous for that.’ He paraded up and down the ticket office loudly mimicking a middle-aged German package tourist determined to reserve his spot. We giggled and shushed him: who knew where the other trekkers were from.

At five we passed through the ticket booth and onto the last few kilometers of the trail. It was very dark, and my flashlight was to weak to see the path clearly. The crowds behind us forced us to jog-trot, and I kept stumbling on the slick rocks. The boorish leader of the enemy tour group told us to get in against the wall so his 30 clients could pass on the narrow path.
    ‘Non! Ils ne passent pas!’ spat Ana, ‘Il est cochon! Et j’espere qu’il comprend francais.’ We cheered her bolshy spirit as we rushed and stumbled along, resenting the mob after the peace of the early days of the trek. I wished I’d stayed in bed.

Suddenly, it seemed, we arrived at the Puerta del Sol, just before six o’clock. The Sun Gate is high above the ruins. At the June equinox, the sun shines directly through it and lights up the main temple in the valley below. We were a five days early. Below the gate are steep terraces, both for defence and agriculture, and this is where the trekkers arranged themselves as they filed in. We sat with our legs dangling over the edge, waiting for the sun to rise over Macchu Pichu.

And we waited. The sky got light, but Macchu Pichu was hidden behind a valleyful of dense fog. An American with a camcorder narrated the scene:
    ‘Down below here is where Macchu Pichu is supposed to be. So they say.’
On a terrace above us, a group of rowdy Brazilian Seventh Day Adventists waved their football shirts and the Brazilian flag. We watched as a Dutch hiker dropped to his knees and proposed to his sweetie. The crowd cheered as she covered her face and accepted. An English pal we’d met in Cusco had been entrusted with videotaping the proposal and he dutifully panned from future groom to bride: unfortunately, he had forgotten to press ‘Record’.

I ticked off t-shirts from other backpacker destinations: a ‘Danger! Mines!’ shirt from Cambodia, a Beer Lao shirt, a Bolivia Death Ride sweatshirt. Several Galápagos slogans.

On a far terrace, a tour group sang Happy Birthday, and the crowd joined in. Chris turned to me.
   ‘Do you want that we should also sing Happy Birthday?’
   ‘No! God no! Let’s just sit here quietly and enjoy the lovely fog.’
Simon disappeared, and returned with hands behind his back.
   ‘I have a special birthday present for you, my dear,’ he said, offering two very squashed Mars Bars. I was touched, since I’d thought he’d hoarded them unsportingly since Cusco (while I’d demolished a 1lb bar of Dairy Milk in a single sitting).

Birthday or not, Macchu Pichu refused to put in a dawn appearance. One by one, the tour groups gave up and headed down to the ruins proper. At 7.30 our little band followed down the jungle path. As we walked, the clouds dissolved and revealed the whole valley. Tired, cranky hikers stopped complaining about the dirty French hippie blasting Bob Dylan, and stared at the ancient city. The llama grazing on the terraces stared back with an insolent gaze. Macchu Pichu, swirling in the mist, was an even better birthday gift than my precious squashed Mars Bars.

Full specification available on request

I need a small algorithm. Any volunteers?

I am getting more and more tangled in my attempts to write local English. The solution is custom dialect editions of for Irish, British, Canadian, and American readers. Or for days when I lurch more towards one nation than another.

I want to assign country-specific words and phrases in a custom dictionary and grammar check tool. Simple spelling differences would be covered: color/colour, realize/realise. I’d include basic vocabulary changes, such as couch/sofa/chesterfield or gobshite/pillock/shit disturber/idiot. The tool would strip out (or add) irritating American grammar, such as the dastardly serial comma (apples comma oranges comma and comma pears). It might even swap brand names: Irish Mars Bar for American Milky Way (it’s the same damn candy bar!) And pop culture references: with a single click The Magic Roundabout morphs into Fortycoats, Degrassi Junior High, or Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. The All Ireland into Superbowl, Grey Cup, or Test Series.

The Canadian version would substitute Cold out, eh? for Hello, but only from November to April. The Irish version would say Desperate weather we’re having.

I need this tool because Canadian English is a mess. Take ‘Tire Centre’. American spelling of ‘tire’, British spelling of ‘centre’. They pay for gas with a cheque, not petrol with a check. They eat potato chips, not crisps, but porridge, not oatmeal. (1) In fact, Canadian English sounds just like the hodge-podge dialect I’ve always served up right here on this website: no wonder I feel at home.

Oh, and until you figure out full context-sensitivity, give me some keyboard shortcuts to turn your wizardry on and off as I type, so that I don’t tyre of manual corrections.

(1) Examples from How to be Canadian, by Will Ferguson & Ian Ferguson. Yes, I’m trying.

Meanwhile, back in the First World…

On the first morning, I stood in my sister’s bathroom in Ottawa, helplessly looking for the used toilet paper basket that doesn’t exist in this world of power plumbing. I scolded myself for forgetting to bring along bottled water to brush my teeth. (Though in truth I’ve been gargling tapwater giardia for months. I’m the only person I know who gains weight on a constant diet of Third World street food, and I’d hoped to pick up a nice hungry tapeworm to dissolve my new little potbelly, which appears to be appears to be iron on the inside, blubber on the outside.)

I keep scalding my mouth. I never took physics, but even I know that water boils at a higher temperature at sea level. After months at altitude, though, I haven’t yet trained myself not to swig thoughtless gulps of tea.

I am mildly fascinated by all the white people on the street. Am I that pasty? (No, I’m pastier still, despite a whole year outdoors.) Would I look like that in the unlikely event I wore Bermuda shorts?

I ran five miles by the canal in Ottawa yesterday. No stinking diesel buses caked me in black smoke. Though I haven’t run in a couple of years, I didn’t even pant in this sea-level oxygen so rich I can almost taste it.

Where are the foodstands and the vendors shouting their wares? There’s not a single dried llama foetus on sale in the whole city. There are no six-year-old shoeshine boys. None of the walls have graffitti saying ‘Please Don’t Urinate Here! Have Some Respect for Yourself and Others!’

I can’t get over the comfort. The air-conditioning, the cars, the sleek supermarkets, the multiple bathrooms, the beds that don’t fold like tacos when you climb in, the telephone, the home internet access. I stand in front of my sister’s huge wardrobe and then put on the same black shirt I’ve been wearing for a year, unable to make a choice. I tell her about my two-dollar hotel rooms in Bolivia, and she wrinkles her nose.

I am thudding around in this oxygen-rich, cash-rich Canadian gravity.

It feels so good when you stop

Seán Daly has a timeless face. He was wearing cropped hiking pants, Tevas, and a fuzzy alpaca hat with earflaps when I met him, but I could picture him as easily in the black jacket and flat cap that our grandfathers would have worn in the west of Ireland. He is my age, from Crossmolina, Co. Mayo, and joined my table as soon as the mountain biking guide mangled my name in the roll call.
   ‘Dervala! Sure you can’t get more Irish than that! Where are you from?’

(Only my countrymen recognize my name as typically Irish. Americans believe Shannon and Kerry are Irish names—which they are, but for rivers and counties. I used to threaten to name my future US-born children Mississippi and Kansas.)

Seán was traveling in South America on his way to Australia, like the rest of the young and single Irish population, as far as I can tell. Ireland had gone to the bloody dogs, we agreed. We chatted about house prices. The property market has replaced the-number-of-pints-you-drank-last-night as the topic over which Irish people obsess and bond. It is as dreary as our weather.

Nonetheless, Seán was good fun, even at 7.30 in the morning, and I was sorry we were in separate jeeps heading up to the top of The Most Dangerous Road in the World for our mountain biking adventure. At La Cumbre, a bone-chilling 4500 meters, we were fitted for bikes and helmets. Zane, the Kiwi guide, interviewed us on whether we rode British or American style—apparently, front and back brakes are on different sides, a crucial detail when you try to save yourself freewheeling down these mountains. I felt faintly unpatriotic when he slipped off my front wheel to move my brakes to the American side.

We tried our helmets and our reflective jackets, and did some trial runs around the parking area on our expensive, beat-up mountain bikes. Zane pulled out a small bottle of pure alcohol, intoned a twangy blessing to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and then sprinkled every one of our 23 bikes. The Bolivian guides looked on. In their baseball caps, fake Oakley shades, and high-end competition bikes, they seemed to shun Pachamama’s help. I was glad of the Aymara rites. Get her good and drunk so she’d be too happy to claim one of us.

Zane explained the route. For the first 15 kilometers, the road was paved, a practice run to get used to the gradient. We’d stop every five minutes or so, and there was no need for speed. The front brake held 70% of our stopping power. We were never to touch it without squeezing the back brake first, or we’d flip right over. We’d stay on the right for this first stretch, but just to make things interesting, traffic switched to left-hand-drive at the start of The Most Dangerous Road proper. The dogs were mostly fine, but the pigs were a threat—a jogging piglet could take out your front wheel.

I was nicely terrified starting off, though I’d ridden much worse than this smooth and swooping surface. I hunched over the brakes like an old lady pedaling to Mass, and moaned at each glimpse of the valley below, and the hairpin twists that would take me down to it.

Two kilometers in, one of our riders stood by a bend in the road in front of a parked truck. I glanced over, expecting directions, and saw a bloodied, unrecognizable face in the cement gully below. The turn was too tight to stop, so I continued to our group gathering around the next corner.

   ‘Someone’s down. I don’t know who.’
More riders crunched into the gravel bay.
   ‘Did ya see that girl somersault?’ said John, the Australian.
   ‘No, but there was a guy in the ditch back there. Sure it wasn’t him?’
   ‘No, a girl this was. Her back brake failed, they said. She went tumbling right over the front, poor thing. Banged up a bit. Her hip seemed messed up and her trousers were torn. They’re patching her up in the jeep.’
   ‘Anyone know about the guy? Is he one of ours?’

We waited. News filtered down the crackly walkie-talkies. The bloodied face belonged to Seán. There were two doctors in another bike tour who had stopped to help.
   ‘Stopped himself with his face,’ said Zane. ‘I think his back is a bit sore too. They’re taking him back to La Paz to stitch him up and check him out. The jeep will come right back once they’ve got him to the clinic.’
No ambulance. He must be all right, we thought. But we were subdued after forty minutes waiting. Two wipe-outs in the first five minutes, on this gentle warm up stretch. It started to drizzle. We started to talk about the fact that this wasn’t an adrenaline trip for us; we were just interested in the views, in avoiding the suicidal public buses, in getting to Coroico. For the next stretch, we all rode the brake like grannies.

The rain grew heavier. We rode through a cloud that got thicker and thicker, and were half-glad to be blinkered from those far-below valleys that we’d paid fifty bucks each to see. Rain and mud sprayed up from our tires, blinding us and painting dirty stripes front and back.
   ‘It hasn’t rained in a month,’ sighed Zane as the guides changed one set of brake pads after another, quickly worn down by the gritty mud.

We switched to the left-hand side for the official start of the crazy Coroico road. Downhill traffic drove closest to the drop, and had to yield to vehicles going uphill to La Paz. This was terrifying. The edge of the road often crumbled to nothing, and often there was only room for one car, requiring slow backward creeps around blind corners. The locals weren’t bothered, blithely overtaking on these corners with Pachamama’s drunken blessing. The honks of the oncoming trucks, above and below, made me feel like jungle prey. The girl who had somersaulted right at the start joined us back on the bikes, despite her bandages. We congratulated her on her bravery.
   ‘You don’t understand,’ she said, ‘It’s much, much scarier on the bus.’

A bus rumbled past so close that I stopped on the edge to avoid wobbling over. On the back was a fresh mural: Osama bin Laden and Che Guevara smiling over a burning Twin Towers. I gave them the gringo finger.

We grew filthier, hungrier, and more miserable as the ride went on. The famous views were wrapped in cotton wool. The road was churning with liquid mud, and it was too wet to stop for lunch. At our rest stops, the four skinny English boys looked like period photos of World War One tommies, daubed in khaki mud and hunched. One wore a new alpaca sweater that stretched towards his knees as it got wetter.
   ‘Look!’ he said, pointing to the stripe of mud on the back, ‘it’s reverting to its natural llama state, shitty bum an’ all!’

As we got closer to Coroico, 2000 meters down, the rain finally let up. The guides set up the picnic table they’d earlier used for Seán’s stretcher, and 23 rich tourists circled tightly like coyotes. It was 3 o’clock.
   ‘Okay. Chicken?’ said Aaron, eventually. For a moment, we shuffled and eyed each other.
   ‘Over ‘ere,’ said one of the English lads, and then we all reached hungrily. We ate standing, heads down, like dogs.

My new bike shorts, the cutest little skirt-covered shorts I’ve ever owned, were mud-caked and failing to pad my screaming rear, since I was too chicken to stand on this endless, bumpy descent. I talked with Susan and Norman, a Denver couple, about why we kept signing up for frightening, unpleasant activities.
   ‘The sense of achievement. And the bragging rights,’ said Norman.
   ‘Conquering fears,’ said Susan.
   ‘It’s like banging your head against a wall,’ I offered, ‘It feels so good when you stop.’

I’ve traveled solo too long. I have no patience with the endless faffing of large groups. As we waiting for every set of brake pads to be checked and changed yet again, for every straggler, for every lunch tray to be tucked away, I mourned the pisco sour I’d already be drinking by the pool if I were alone. As it was, we got to Coroico just as it got dark.

We dripped mud in the lobby of our posh hotel and wiggled in the sub-tropical warmth. This was my self-treat, a reward for survival that I’d hesitated about paying for in advance.
   ‘The sixteen-dollar rooms are so worth it,’ said Karin at the bike agency. ´There’s a balcony with fabulous views down the mountain, great showers, a DVD hook-up, a sauna, a pool…’

I had stayed in two-dollar hotels throughout Bolivia. You could class them as flea-pits, but fleas didn’t survive indoor cold that had me huddled in sleeping bag and blankets shortly after dark every evening. My mind reeled at the idea of a room eight times more luxurious. A hot shower? I suffered lethally-wired but still freezing showers for two weeks. At 4000 meters, on sub-zero mornings, only masochism had kept me clean. At the Hotel Esmerelda I stood under the solar-powered stream until it finally ran clear.

The next morning I discovered I had, as usual, been given the Single White Female room, at the back, facing the wall. At breakfast, the couples and groups babbled about their fabulous dawn views while I sulked. The manager shrugged when I complained, until I sweetly explained it was difficult to do my job as a travel reporter in a room too dark to see my notebook. Her breastfeeding baby squawked as she stiffened. of course, they would find me another room. And breakfast would be complimentary to make up for the inconvenience. Had I seen the new sauna?

Too little, too late, lady. I took my princess strop back to La Paz. The rain had stopped and the valleys revealed themselves below our crazy little road. The colectivo driver kept adding coca leaves to his wad. The man beside me swigged from a bottle of liquid codeine. Without chemical help, I was unable to suppress jerks and yelps of panic, even though we were on the inside lane. I clapped my mouth like a silent movie star. I slapped the door to brace against our plunge. I muttered ‘Oh dear Jesus.’ In extremes, it is still Jesus, not bodhichitta, who springs unbidden. The Bolivian passengers stared or snored.

We stopped under a waterfall to wash off yesterday’s mud. A rockslide rumbled below. A few hundred meters on, we passengers rocked forward in a sudden stop, an arm’s length from the noses of two huge Volvo trucks. The red one had decided to overtake the blue one on a blind corner. Another few seconds and we would have been nudged over the side. Our driver shook his fist, but he knew his little Hiace van was prey in this hierarchy.

Back in La Paz, I went to the agency to find out about Seán. Karin said he was in good spirits, but they’d kept him in hospital. He had, um, cracked a few vertebrae. I took his name and hospital address and went to see for myself.

   ‘Dervala!’ he said in his deep Mayo brogue, slowly turning a face that looked like raw meat. Oh dear God. He was hooked up to an IV drip and countless bags of painkillers. Several ribs were cracked and bruised. Two vertebrae were fractured, one was crushed. When he smiled I could see where his bottom lip had been sewn back on. The words of comfort from my childhood emerged by instinct, as much for me as for him.
   ‘You poor old darlin’, you’ve been in the wars, look at the state of you, you’ll be better before you’re married.’

But he was mobile, sort of, and cheerful as ever. The doctors felt he would make a full, if slow, recovery. All afternoon we chatted, while I lay on the sofa and chewed his coca leaves for altitude sickness. I told him about my best friend, who had destroyed two vertebrae in a fall from her bike three years ago, and how her husband loved the sexy corset she had to wear for months. Seán was being fitted for his corset that afternoon. We got him drinking straws for his poor torn lip; the Lonely Planet phrasebook didn’t cover such eventualities. We bemoaned the lack of Irish tea in Bolivian hospitals. I translated his thanks to the nurses who looked after him. And we laughed at the strength of the Irish kin-selection reaction, how it seemed inexplicably worse when one of our own got hurt far from home.
   ‘I knew it was going to happen, you know. I didn’t even feel I was going that fast, but I decided I’d start to slow down a bit. So I pulled the back brake, and the wheel started to wobble like mad. I tried to pull the both of them slowly, and the whole bike was just shaking. And I knew—I was such a long way from that bloody bend, but I knew there was no way I was going to go around it, given what was on the other side. I wipe out over there and I’m gone for good. So I just watched as the bike went out of control and I flew into that inside corner. Completely aware the whole bloody time. I think me alpaca hat saved me.’

He showed me photos of his pulped face in the jeep, before the doctors cleaned him up.
   ‘ ‘Twasn’t the most gorgeous nose before anyway,’ he said with a grin. ‘They might even straighten it out for me before I get to Australia.’

Bury me with my bowler hat

The last set of police statistics show that in the first eight months of 1998, there were 490 accidents in which 207 people were injured and 80 died. 65 vehicles flipped over and 64 simply collided. The worrying accident rate can’t be helped by the fact that, according to Bolivian law, the vehicle going downhill should keep to the outside of the road, closest to the drop.
Footprint Bolivia Handbook

Tomorrow I will mountain bike from La Paz to Coroica down The Most Dangerous Road in the World (TM). I’m no crazier than usual. It just seemed safer than the bus. I bought $500 worth of medical insurance for ten bucks today. $500 will buy me Michael Jackson-levels of reconstruction in Bolivia, possibly even with similar results. And if I’m beyond being patched up, well, Bolivia was a good enough last stop for Che and Sundance, and it’s good enough for me. (Peru, though, is another story.)

So, a provisional farewell. I love yiz all.

Take the red pill

At the cinema in Miraflores (Adam Stein, you’re off the hook on my movie-date-threat—I went to see The Matrix Reloaded by myself), the emergency exit is clearly lit by a glowing red sign.

‘ESCAPE’, it says.

Who could resist a door like this?

To Arequipa, and beyond

I experimented with the posh bus to Arequipa, partly to cheer myself up after getting stuck in Lima, partly to see what kind of people rode the posh bus.

You could tell it was the posh bus because we had a pretty steward with a microphone who explained where the emergency exits were, and how to make our seats recline. She also explained, several times, that the toilet was for urination only. Urination ONLY. If we had any other needs, we were to let her know and she would arrange a rest stop for those other needs. Because this toilet was for urination ONLY.

I thought it was going to be like Led Zeppelin tour bus. It turns out that the luxury class is more like a low-rent, geriatric cruise ship. A lone Mexican was the only other tourist, and my seat didn’t recline as much as one might hope on an 18-hour trip. There were no fluffy blankets and pillows.

The steward put on Mickey Mouse cartoons, and we watched him bake a birthday cake for Minnie in Spanish. Then she announced meal service, during which time use of the toilet would be forbidden, and we had to return our seats to the upright position. When we finished our meal, our seats would have to remain in the upright position until she signalled, in case the person behind us was still eating. She brought us each a large tupperware container, which held a chicken drumstick, beef with rice, and mystery cake that had traveled more than I have. I was crushed when the beverage turned out to be Inca-Cola, vile yellow fizzy stuff that tastes exactly like Robitussin. I couldn’t cut the Peruvian beef with my spork. Still, dinner anticipation was almost enough sustenance in itself.

After dinner we played bingo. I couldn’t keep up. Every so often she asked a general knowledge question, and the winner was allowed to name three numbers on his or her card. I felt this was unfair: the questions were usually something like ‘On what day and month was there a heroic peasant uprising in the village of Huancallas in the 18th century?’ But the Mexican won, and she brought him up to sing a song before presenting his prize: a free round-trip bus ticket to anywhere in Peru. He sang a mournful mariachi song, and there were a few cries of ‘Viva Mexico!’ Then the brassy woman behind me stood up to yell that it wasn’t fair that a Mexican got the prize. We should play again until a good Peruvian won, instead of sending stuff out of the country yet again.

So we played again. This time a Peruvian won, and there were no riots. I was very disappointed. I had concentrated extra-hard just to piss her off. I brooded about it all the way through Air Bud.