In my life, I have on a number of occasions encountered an angel. I´m not speaking of the devine spirits that are written about in the Bible. I´m speaking of the angels that visit our lives and serve to rescue us at critical times. I believe we are all angels…we are each capable of rescue when called upon by someone in need. My last encounter with an angel was when I was in India (you can read about it in the last entry of my Indialogue). I don´t use the term lightly, and as I write this I´m in an exhausted state of humility. Humbled, again, by angels…
I spent my Friday with Manuel, a 21-year-old college student who is studying to become a tour guide. His family is involved with Peruvian Hearts, and Manuel was gracious enough to offer to give me a tour of Cusco to show me what many tourists don´t see. We wound through steep, crooked, stone streets and through local markets. It was a nice, casual unwinding before setting off on my excusion to Machu Picchu.
The manager of the hotel in Cusco was kind enough to make arrangements for me to travel to Ollantayambo by “bus” where I would take a train to Aguas Calienties (the launching point of busses to Machu Picchu). There, I would stay overnight and catch the early bus to the ruins on Saturday morning. At 3 o´clock, the manager walked me to the transit station for my ride to Ollantayambo.
Now, I supposed it was going to happen sooner or later on this trip. My list of transportation horror stories just keeps growing. From the slowboat down the Tortuguero River with frequent stops at food poisoning cantinas, to the toxic bus ride through orange groves in Belize – from the hard-axeled Russian lorrie wrecking our guts across Botswana, to the infamous Karma Express in India…ah, yes. The mind whirls at the sheer glory of it all…it would be almost disappointing to not be able to add to the list here.
Ladies and gentlemen, I submit for your consideration the Inca Mixer – one part social experiment, one part bone jarring torture device.
When I was told I would be traveling by “bus” to Ollantayambo, I took the man at his word. We strolled through a rusty gate into a muddy pit crowded with passenger vehicles ranging in size from small Toyota coupes to mini-vans. All offering rides to paying passengers heading in the same general direction. Not one would leave the lot until it has as many bodies in it as possible.
After refusing to ride in the first vehicle presented to me because I physically could not contort my body into it (this angered the driver), I was presented with a slightly more hospitible mini van where I was offered the center position in the middle seat. On my one side was a man of generous porportions who took no interest in sharing any horizontal space. On my other side was a tall man who leered at me when he saw me approach the van, as he knew it would be the two of us vying for the most space. In the end, he won because he knew the language of the argument.
The ride from Cusco to Ollantayambo winds through the most spectacular scenery of the Sacred Valley. I was sorry I wasn´t in a position to take photos, because it was truly breathtaking. Instead, I spent the 90 minute ride up and down switchbacks at 40 miles per hour trying to balance myself. It was the most stenuous ab work out I can imagine. Meanwhile, the stout man to my left was falling asleep with a towel over his face to block out the sun. The deeper he fell asleep, the more space he occupied. The 90 minute jostling was pulverizing my tailbone, and ripping at my core to the point of exhaustion. This physical workout coupled with the personal space issues ranked this a transportation experience of note, but because of its relative brief duration it cannot begin to compete for a top spot. At one point, my eyes caught the stout man to my left splayed out in his seat totally relaxed and covered with a towel, and I suddenly had a disturbing and fleeting sensation that I was riding shotgun to a bloating corpse.
The next leg was only slightly more pleasant. The train into Aguas Calientes was reasonably comfortable, but crowded. I arrived at about 9 pm and went to my hotel where the tour operator with my Machu Picchu pass met me. To be at the ruins for sunrise, I had to be at the bus station at 4 a.m. to be in line for the 5:30 a.m. bus. It was obviously a short night, and I made it to the station the next morning to secure a place in line about 20 people back.
As the bus made its way up the hills toward Machu Picchu, the morning light was gradually turning the sky purple such that the sillouettes of the towering mountains appeared. With each passing turn, Machu Picchu begins to hint at itself. You begin to sense the remoteness. The serenity. The intimacy.
Entering the ruins is startling. While you can´t see them from the lot where the busses stop, once you pass through a simple turnstile you´re right there upon them. It is an expansive and awesome setting that´s impossible to consume with your eyes. I spent the first few hours climbing and exploring on my own. The sun began to crawl out of the thick morning clouds and cast honey light on wet stones and mossy canvas. The swallows looped overhead singing their morning prayers. And the breezes fell lightly from above like a bath being poured from a heaven.
After strolling the ruins for a few hours, I returned to the entrance to get some water and something to eat. I sat on a terrace and had a cup of coffee and a cheese aponata (mark this event, t-minus 8 hours and counting).
I joined a tour for a couple more hours, exploring the out of the way spots in the ruins. When we ended, I found a shadey spot to lay down. I was really fatigued, and losing energy. I thought it might be a combination of sun exposure, dehydration and simple physical exhaustion from all of the climbing. I lay with my head resting against an ancient wall, watching clouds going about their day, and trying to catch my breath. With each passing minute, the energy kept draining from me. I was frustrated to be feeling so puny.
Not a single thing about the majesty of the ruins was lost on me, however. Through my heavy eyes I picked different spots to stare at and memorize. I remember visiting Italica in Spain during my very first overseas trip. Italica is one of a number of Roman ruins left behind in Spain, and it was my first experience walking on an ancient site. The human imagination is limited, I believe, in its true capacity to project itself into the lives and realities of our ancients. It is an exhuasting endeavor to try to transport the mind back thousands of years to try to better understand where our present day civilization stands against the great societies of history. The rules of the Inca of Machu Picchu were simple: don´t lie, don´t steal, and contribute to your community. Pretty simple stuff, I think. I wonder, are those expectations as crystal clear in our world today? Or are the novelties of our diversions too enticing for us to focus on simple things at all?
My body told me to move. It was only 1 o´clock and my train back didn´t depart until 6 p.m. I turned my face to the sun, said a prayer, took a breath, and headed back to the bus line. I returned to my hotel from the night before and paid for a room for a few hours so I could rest. The only room available was on the top floor, with a metal roof. It was blistering hot. The hotel sat right by the tracks, so about every 30 minutes a train rushed by no more than 50 feet from my head. This, along with the noise from the street, kept me from sleeping at all other than in frustrated fits.
By the time 5 o´clock rolled around, I sat my body up and it was clear. I was sick. And I was going to be sick. For awhile.
I was flush and sweaty and weak. I walked toward the train station and lost my bearings in a stupor. And my already-awful Spanish got worse when I´m pretty sure I asked a woman “where is the transvestite?” Either she understood what I meant, or the town´s only transvestite just so happened to be at the train station.
Sitting at the station an hour before the train departed only gave my body more time to go into revolt. I was dizzy, hazy, and beginning to panic at the idea of sitting on that train for 90 minutes and then spending another 90 minutes in the mini bus ride to Cusco. In an act of desperation, I found a phone and I called Edwin. Edwin´s hotel is located just 20 minutes from Ollantayambo, where the train stops. I was scheduled to move to his hotel on Sunday anyway, and I thought if I could reach him it would save me from having to make it all the way to Cusco.
He didn´t hesitate to offer to come and get me. In his care and graciousness, I believe Edwin summoned other angels…
The seat next to me was empty, and across from me was a beatiful mother and her little girl. I could tell by how they looked at me, they knew I was sick. I sat with a cold bottle of water resting against my face. My breathing was deep and heavy. And merciful eyes were resting upon me. The breeze finally began to flow through the window.
I counted the minutes between breaths, desperate to get off of the train. I pictured clean white sheets, the full moon, an evening breeze. I conjured every comforting thought I could. I wanted to be there. Soon.
When the train stopped, I allowed everyone to depart so I wasn´t left standing teetering in hordes of people scooting their way to the exit. As I passed through the gate, I saw him right away.
I shuffled my feet toward Edwin, grabbed his outstretched hand in both of mine, bowed my head onto his shoulder, and said, “thank you.” He took my pack and asked me what was wrong. He immediately indicted the cheese from the cafe, as he opened the car door for me. There, in the floor, Edwin had brought along a thermos of herbal tea. “This is very good for the stomach. It´s all natural herbs to make you better.” He poured me a cup and helped raise it to my mouth. It was warm, mild and compassionate.
We drove to the hotel, which is situated on a beautiful farm plot on the edge of town. The automatic gate opened to the most beautifully lit property. It was like a fortress; a place of protection. That is what I felt as the car pulled to a stop. Edwin skipped the formalities of check in and took me directly to a room where another caraffe of tea was waiting. He gave me his number to call for help. I thank him again, and he said goodnight.
I stripped myself down and stood in the shower for 20 minutes. I went straight to bed and sunk into a deep, peaceful sleep. My body was still shivering a bit, and my breath still heavy. But I was safe. I had been rescued.
When I awoke this morning to the sounds of roosters and goats, I was still very fatigued. My body felt hollow, and I knew I needed to eat something to begin to get my strength back. As I made my way to the breakfast are, people seemed to know I was the stick one. Everyone treated me with care, and asked if I needed anything. I had two glasses of orange juice and two pieces of toast. Nothing ever tasted quite so good.
Today I´m going to rest and maybe visit the orphanage later in the afternoon. I need to get my legs back under me, but I feel much better.
It´s been a long 24 hours. I´m going to take a nap in the sun, write in my journal, and spend my day being grateful for angels…