I recognized the symptoms. I knew what was happening. I had tried to prepare myself for it.
It was oxygen deprivation, and it could lead to altitude sickness.
Although I wasn’t in any immediate danger of becoming stricken with the illness, I knew that I was getting a sampling of its effects, and that made me wary of what else I might be getting a sampling of.
Cusco is more than two miles above sea level. When you’re that much closer to outer space, you’re getting that much less oxygen. Consequently, your heart will beat that much faster to take in the oxygen your body is used to. I know that for sure, because at that moment, my heart was doing its darndest to get me more of that necessary pulmonary fuel.
After flying from Los Angeles to Houston to Lima, grinding out a night on an airport bench, tussling with the airline staff over my purportedly “lost” ticket (long story), and finally flying to Cusco, Stephanie and I were more than ready to get some shut-eye.
We had left the airport and checked into our hotel. Upon entering the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised. Too often, what you see on the internet is not what you get in person. Here, we got in person what we saw online. The front entrance had a security gate. Just inside the gate was the receptionist’s desk, and in between the reception desk and stairs to the rooms was a cozy dining area.
With our keys in hand, we climbed one flight of stairs to our rooms. Right away, I caught wind of the sickness I’d only read about. After just one short flight of stairs, I was huffing and puffing like I just ran up three flights of stairs with a boulder on my back. Thankfully, my room was the first one at the top of the stairs. Stephanie’s was at the end of the hallway. As soon as I reached my room, I paused and took a deep breath. Once my breathing had regained a semblance of normality, I told Stephanie I would knock on her door in a few hours after I got in a good nap. She mumbled a fatigued, “Okay,” and proceeded to her room.
I went inside, showered to wash away the previous day’s grime, and tumbled into bed. With the portable heater on and two blankets on top of me to ward off the chill in the morning air, I closed my eyes and waited for sleep to find me.
Sleep must have gotten the wrong directions to my hotel room. I waited and waited. Thirty minutes sauntered by. Another thirty minutes came and went. Then an hour. Then another hour. I kept waiting and waiting. More than three hours later, it was apparent that sleep was a guy too macho to stop and ask for directions, and therefore wouldn’t be finding my hotel room any time soon.
Meanwhile, I was lying there in my bed, listening to the thudding of my heart as it pounded away in its search for as much oxygen as it could get.
Resistance was futile. I gave up on my search for sleep and wandered back into the land of the fully awake. I stepped into the bathroom, made myself publicly presentable, and went to Stephanie’s room to see if she was as sleepless as I was. I’d expected to hear her say that she was. Imagine my surprise when she answered her door still rubbing the slumber out of her eyes. Clearly, the sandman didn’t have any trouble finding Stephanie’s room. As we made some quick arrangements to meet downstairs, it flitted through my mind that perhaps the sandman was a sexist provider who wouldn’t give another guy the time of day but who would always be at the ready to dote on a lovely lady.
About half an hour later, Stephanie and I sat down with the hotel’s designated tour guide to discuss our venture to Machu Pichu. The tour he mapped out for us was one of the more popular ones. We would start out early in the morning to go to Aguas Caliente which is the town at the base of Machu Pichu. Along the way – by way of bus and train – we would stop to see a couple of other sights before reaching Aguas Caliente late at night. We would stay in a hotel overnight, get up early the next morning, go see Machu Pichu with a local tour guide, and then take the train back to Poroy where we would catch a taxi for the short ride to Cusco.
The price that the hotel tour guide was asking for was reasonable. We agreed to that price. He asked for a deposit. We paid it.
After strolling around for the rest of the afternoon, taking photos of the town square – Plaza de Armas – Stephanie and I returned to the hotel shortly after dusk and turned in early. Tomorrow was going to call for an early start, and we wanted to be well rested before setting off for the famed ruins.
I was afraid that I would find sleep as elusive as I had that morning. Fortunately, I didn’t. As I slipped beneath my covers, my beating heart was ticking tidily instead of thudding thunderously. It could have been that I had acclimated to the altitude. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I just knew that when I closed my eyes, I sank into a sumptuous slumber and greeted the next day’s dawn with robust anticipation.
Seconds after I showered and shaved, the phone rang. It was Stephanie. She was asking me if I could spare the plastic laundry bag that came with my room. I glanced at the folded bag sitting on the closet shelf, the one that came with every room. “Yeah, you can have it,” I told her while wondering how much dirty laundry she could have accumulated in one day’s time. Jokingly, I asked her, “Have you gone through ten wardrobes already?”
Her groggy reply was leaden with exhaustion: “No, I’ve been throwing up all night. I used up my laundry bag. I’m gonna need yours for our trip today.”
I could scarcely believe my ears. “You’ve been throwing up all night?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a bad headache too.”
Vomiting and a bad headache! If those weren’t symptoms of altitude sickness, I didn’t know what was. “I’ll be right over,” I told her. I got dressed, grabbed my unused laundry bag, and hightailed it over to Stephanie’s room.
She answered the door looking like a bird that had been flogged and rendered flightless. “Morning,” she groaned, noticeably leaving out the “Good” part of the greeting.
“Hi,” I replied as she turned around and dragged herself back to her bed. I watched her crawling back under the covers and took note that she apparently didn’t have sufficient strength to sit up and talk to me. “You’ve been vomiting, and you have a bad headache?” I asked to confirm.
“Yeah,” she sniffled, closing her eyes and looking like she was wishing for a magic wand that would free her of her ailments.
I placed my laundry bag on her nightstand. “Here’s the bag,” I said. “Can I get you anything else?”
I had to ask the question pressing on my mind. “Do you think you have altitude sickness?”
“It’s either that or the bright moon that was shining down through the sky roof,” she lamented. “It was so bright last night, I couldn’t get any sleep. I think that’s what gave me the headaches and vomiting.”
I looked up and saw that her room had indeed come with a sky roof. The five-foot by five-foot glass panel was currently allowing the morning sun to come in without an invitation. Apparently, it had let the moonlight in without an invitation as well. “Do you want an eye mask?” I asked Stephanie, referring to the blinders that come with an elastic band in the back to allow people use to shut out unwanted light. “I’ve got one in my bag.”
“No, I’ve got one too. It didn’t help.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear that Stephanie had an eye mask herself. Like me, she spent a lot of time on airplanes and knew that an eye mask and a pair of ear plugs were crucial to shutting out all unwanted sights and sounds when you needed to get some peace and quiet on a bright, noisy airplane.
Stephanie turned towards me. “What time does our tour start this morning?”
Oh, yes. The tour. I’d forgotten about that. “Um,” I said, glancing at my watch, “I think the guide is going to meet us downstairs in about an hour.”
A weary moan trickled out of her. “I don’t think I can make it,” she admitted with her eyes closed.
I counted the hours in store for us that morning. The excursion would start with a long bus ride followed by an extensive train ride that would get us into Aguas Caliente around midnight. I had to agree with Stephanie’s assessment. It wouldn’t be good to have her vomiting all the way to Aguas Caliente. While I was thinking this over, I glanced up at the sky roof and was baffled as to how the moonlight could have caused such an intense reaction in Stephanie. Plus, she’d put on the eye mask and found that useless. Personally, whenever I put on an eye mask, I was immediately submerged into pitch black darkness. All in all, I thought Stephanie was having a classic case of altitude sickness. Nevertheless, whatever the case may be, the result was the same: Stephanie was ill and in no condition to hit the road. It was best for us to stay put for the time being. “All right,” I told her. “You take it easy and I’ll go talk to the guide and see what we can work out.”
“Okay,” Stephanie agreed without opening her eyes.
I went downstairs with the intention of asking the receptionist to call the tour guide so I could inform him of Stephanie’s predicament right away. As it so happened, the guide was already downstairs talking to the receptionist about another matter. I sat down with him and apprised him of the situation. He also thought it was altitude sickness and agreed that Stephanie wasn’t in any condition to travel. Oh, good, I thought to myself. He agrees with me. That means he’s sympathetic to our predicament and can perhaps allow us to rearrange our travel plans without any monetary penalty. I thought wrong.
“Sorry,” he said when I asked if we could postpone our tour for one day and apply our deposit towards the revised tour. “I already used that money to buy your bus and train ticket to Aguas Caliente. It’s gone. I can’t get it back.”
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. “So if we don’t go today, we can’t get that refunded?” I asked just to confirm.
“No,” he answered too quickly before proceeding to give me a lengthy explanation through somewhat broken English about how once the tickets are purchased, they’re not refundable. “You have to make your mind right now. If you go today, we can do like we talked about. If you cancel, you lose your deposit.”
I can’t say I understood his entire explanation. I just knew for certain I wasn’t about to drag Stephanie heaving and vomiting all the way to Machu Pichu.
“Do you want to go talk to your friend about it?” the guide asked.
I recalled how Stephanie couldn’t even sit upright when I was just in her room. There was no point in discussing the unavoidable. “That won’t be necessary,” I told him. “Cancel the tour. We’re staying here for today.”
“That’s too bad,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” I muttered and started to get up from the table.
Abruptly, too abruptly, the guide proposed, “Do you want to go ahead and sign up for tomorrow’s tour?”
I can appreciate a guy wanting to make a buck, but this guy who’d struck me as being a little too aggressive from the start was now grating on my nerves. He knew very well that if we signed up for the next day’s tour, we would have to pay him another deposit. He also knew that if Stephanie was still sick the next day, we would lose our deposit yet again. “No,” I replied definitively. “We’re not signing up for any tour until Stephanie feels better.”
Once I got back to my room, I called Stephanie and told her I’d cancelled the tour. “Get some rest,” I encouraged her before hanging up.
Towards the middle of the afternoon, Stephanie said she felt good enough to get on the road the next day, so we visited various tour places to see what they had to offer. After numerous inquiries, we stopped at a travel agency and talked to Lucia, a young lady who couldn’t have been more than twenty-four. Our conversation with her was difficult, very difficult. Her English was extremely limited, and the words that she did know were spoken with an accent so thick you could cut it with a hacksaw. Even so, we trudged on, and after some spirited haggling, we reached a price significantly less than the other places.
Lucia asked us for our money. I asked her for more specific details about the tour. Lucia said her English wasn’t good enough to explain all of it to us. She added that the English-speaking tour guide meeting us in the morning would be able to tell us everything we needed to know. I was uneasy with Lucia’s explanation but chalked it up to an unavoidable consequence of our language barrier. Foolishly, I went along with her paltry excuse, and as I handed her my portion of the payment, I idiotically ignored the two gnawing feelings squirming around in my gut:
1) Lucia agreed to a price that was too good to be true.
2) She appeared to be in a rush to seal the deal.
The next morning arrived without a phone call from Stephanie reporting a bad headache and vomiting, thank goodness. We ate breakfast and were more than ready to go when the bus came to the hotel to pick us up. As the tour guide hurried us onto the bus, I tried to get him to clarify what Lucia couldn’t. He told me not to worry and that he would explain all of it as we went along. I believed him, further tightening the dunce cap on my head.
During the ride to the Sacred Valley, I asked the tour guide about our train tickets to go from Machu Pichu back to Cusco. He said to inquire at the train station and that they would tell me everything I needed to know. Although I was miffed that my tour guide was passing the buck along just like Lucia had, I didn’t know what other recourse to take and went with the program, hoping that the people at the train station would be able to tell Stephanie and me about our return tickets.
After having had dinner and whiling away the hours at the restaurant, we went to the train station and presented our tickets. The lady behind the glass window told us where to line up for the train. We asked about the train tickets for the following day only to hear her say she didn’t know anything about that. Perplexed, I said that the tour guide who dropped us off said to ask her about the tickets to get us back to Cusco. Again, she said she didn’t know anything about the tickets. I showed her the receipt we received from Lucia, the young lady who sold us the tour package. She said the receipt didn’t mean anything unless we had the actual train tickets. I told her we didn’t have any such tickets. She strongly recommended we buy the tickets then and there because if we waited until the next day, the tickets might be sold out. Shocked, Stephanie and I stepped back to talk it over.
Had we missed something? Did we have the return train tickets somewhere in our paperwork and not know it? We rifled through the few documentation that we had. No, we hadn’t missed anything. We had everything we were supposed to have, or to better phrase it, we had everything that Lucia gave us. Nowhere in our possessions were the return train tickets.
What happened? we asked ourselves. Did Lucia make some sort of mistake?
Obviously, she had, or else we would have the return tickets in hand. Now it was only a question if Lucia’s mistake was an honest one or an intentional one.
We discussed trying to reach Lucia. The office’s number was on the receipt. However, it was late at night. We doubted the office was still open. Furthermore, there was the ever-present language barrier to contend with. Most pressing though was the fact that the train to Aguas Caliente was departing in minutes. If we weren’t on it, we would have another issue to worry about. We decided to err on the side of safety and buy the return tickets then and there.
Having secured our passage back to Cusco, we boarded the train to Aguas Caliente. We quickly found our seats, sat back for the hours-long ride to the base of Machu Pichu, and dozed off to the soothing, rhythmic, clickety-clack of the train ride.
With a few toot-toots and a couple of braking lurches, we came to a stop in Aguas Caliente hours later. Everyone got off, and all of us began looking at the porters holding up the signs designating the hotels they represented. Stephanie and I saw the porter for our hotel. Along with a few other tourists, we went up to him and told him we’d signed up for a stay at his hotel. Since the other tourists were in front of us, they spoke to him first. One by one, they told the porter their names and looked on as the hotel representative, a small man in his forties tucked into an enviably fit frame, went down the list of names on his clipboard and confirmed to them that there was a room waiting for them at the hotel. Stephanie and I expected the same result when we told him our names. To our dismay, the result we got was the exact opposite.
“I not see your names,” the porter told us.
“You don’t?” I responded with alarm. “Can you look again?”
The porter looked again, moving his pencil down the list of names. He reached the bottom and shook his head. “No, I not see your names.”
Stephanie and I traded looks of concern. I could tell she was thinking the same thing I was: First, we discovered we didn’t have our return train tickets, and now our names aren’t on the hotel list. Something was definitely wrong.
I returned my attention to the porter. “What should we do?”
He thought it over for a second and said, “You come to hotel with me. Maybe someone make a mistake.”
The advice was as good as any. Here it was, nearing midnight, and we were in a strange town without a clue as to where to go and what to do. Our best hope was to follow the porter to the hotel, pray that an honest mistake had been made, and hopefully find an easy fix. Besides, it was starting to mist, and neither Stephanie nor I had brought an umbrella. Any promise for shelter was a welcome recommendation.
Our trip thus far had been an uphill struggle, figuratively. Little did I know it was about to become an uphill struggle, literally, as well. I’d hoped that our hotel was a short walk around the corner. It wasn’t. It was up a hill, around a corner . . . then up another hill and around another corner . . . then up another hill and around another corner . . .
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Machu Pichu is, of course, situated on top of a mountain. It stood to reason that the surrounding towns would also be built on similar terrain and, therefore, be comprised of sharp slopes disguised as streets. With one hand on the handle of my rollerboard suitcase and the other hand wrapped around the straps of my tote bag, I strained up one hill, turned a corner, fought my way up another hill, turned another corner, and kept pushing myself to go on and on – all while getting sprayed by cold sprinkling water coming down from the night sky. Shortly after we turned the first corner, I had to stop and catch my rasping breath.
What else could go wrong? I wondered, huffing and puffing.
A thunderous roar joined forces with a flash of lightning to mount a rancorous reply.
Dazed in disbelief, I looked up at the sky that had decided to crank up the waterworks, turning the precipitation from a light mist to a heavy sprinkling. Were there some Machu Pichu gods somewhere, I asked myself, who were trying to test my resolve to see the famed ruins? If there were, I was ready to counter, they were in for a disappointment. When determined, my do-or-die decree can stand ready to pummel mountains into molehills. I took a deep breath, accidentally sucking in a dose of rainwater in the process. I let it out with a cough and resumed my march up the hill.
Finally, after turning yet another corner and scampering to the top of yet another hill, we arrived at the hotel and got out of the bothersome rain. Stephanie and I took a seat as the other tourists checked in. We flicked the film of rainwater off of us as the other travelers got their keys and went to their rooms. When it was our turn to step up to the counter, we asked the receptionist, a middle-age woman with an earnest air about her, to look into the computer to see if perhaps there’d been some sort of mistake. She met our request and confirmed what the porter had told us – that our names were not in hotel system. I produced the receipt Lucia had given us. I showed the receptionist where Lucia had written down that we were supposed to get two hotel rooms. I also pointed out the price tag that we paid for our packaged tour. The receptionist nodded in comprehension. She took the receipt from me and gave it a closer inspection, then asked me where the reference number was for our rooms.
“What reference number?” I returned with a question of my own.
She pointed to the top, right, corner of the receipt. “You should have a reference number here for the rooms. There aren’t any. That means you don’t have any rooms reserved.”
Stephanie furrowed her brow and tried to explain, “Lucia . . . the sales girl . . . she never said anything about any reference numbers.”
The woman behind the counter handed the receipt back to me and said matter-of-factly, “I’m sorry. Lucia . . . she did not reserve any rooms for you. Do you want me to call her?”
It was past midnight. I doubted if Lucia was still at her office. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try. “Yeah,” I answered. “Can you try and call her?”
“Sure.” The woman picked up her cell phone and dialed the number on the receipt. It rang, and rang, and rang. With no reply as the expected result, she hung up.
The writing was on the wall for us. Actually, in our case, it was carved into the side of a mountain. Lucia had pulled a fast one on us. She took our money for a complete tour and provided only half the tour. She got us to Aguas Caliente without providing a means to get us back. Suddenly, I got the gut-gnawing suspicion that if we didn’t have the return train tickets or the hotel rooms, it was more than likely that we didn’t have our tour of Machu Pichu ready to go either.
“We also paid for a tour of Machu Pichu with a tour guide tomorrow,” I conveyed to the receptionist. “I guess there’s no record of that either.”
The receptionist checked her records. “No,” she confirmed with dejection. “No tour set up for tomorrow.”
When it rains, it pours – literally and figuratively in our current fiasco.
Stephanie looked at me with a sigh. “What do you want to do, Al?”
The question was perfunctory. Stephanie was a bright girl. She knew what we had to do. She knew that if we wanted to continue with our quest to see Machu Pichu, we would have to pay out of pocket again the money we already paid Lucia. I took the cue and queried the receptionist, “How much is it for two rooms here tonight?”
She told me the price.
“Also,” I continued, “for Machu Pichu tomorrow, how much for the entrance fee and tour guide?”
She told me the price.
“If we pay you now, can you set up the tour for us tomorrow?”
I looked over at Stephanie. “I don’t see any other way around this.”
“Me neither,” she agreed.
The two of us must have looked pretty pathetic because the receptionist made a last ditch effort to help us out. “You don’t pay me now,” she said. “I will call Lucia again tomorrow morning. If she doesn’t answer, then you pay me. Okay?”
That was more than fair. “Thanks,” I answered.
“Yeah, thanks,” Stephanie added.
We received our keys and sloughed off to our rooms.
My room was cold. The absence of a thermostat told me there was no central heat. I looked around the room. There wasn’t a portable heater in sight either. Apparently, it was going to be a cold night for me. I didn’t care. It was past midnight, and we needed to get up before sunrise the next day. I shed my wet clothes, put on some dry ones – bundling up with an extra sweatshirt along the way – and crawled into bed to squeeze in as much sleep as I could.
When the sun came calling the next day, it found Stephanie and me already finished with breakfast and ready to alter the course of our trip. We stood by the front desk as the receptionist tried once more to contact Lucia. As expected, she couldn’t reach our con artist. She asked us if we wanted her to keep trying. We told her not to bother. It was a matter we would contend with once we returned to Cusco. Without further adieu, we paid her for the rooms and the tour and got on the bus to go up to Machu Pichu.
Back and forth, our bus took long, side-winding roads up the misty mountain. The drive itself gave me an immediate respect for the people who originally built the city. I was getting winded just sitting on the bus. I couldn’t fathom the hellish exertion they must have endured in having to lug countless, gigantic slabs of stone for miles up the mountain. Personally, if I’d been condemned to such a hernia-inducing task, I think I would have given up after moving a slab an inch or two.
We arrived at the front gate and joined the beehive of other tourists waiting for the international monument to open. When the time arrived, we entered the grounds of the hallowed site and walked up a steep path lined with trees. Minutes later, we rounded a corner, emerged from the trees, and came upon the sight that made all the tribulations of getting to Machu Pichu worth it.