Three Days with Totoro

adventure, Birds, dogs, Happiness, Life, Meaning, natural world, nature, Perú, peru, Photography, Seaside, thoughts, Travel, Uncategorized

Am I right in thinking love spans not only generations but species, too? The most obvious case in point is man’s enduring love for canis lupus familiaris. When did it all begin, this love affair between Man and dog? Round a neolithic campfire on long winter nights with that wolf cub with the soft, ticklish underbelly? I know it can happen in the unlikeliest of places, as interspecies love did with me on a beach in a little balneario near where Peru meets Ecuador.

I fell head over heels for Totoro. King of all he surveys. Totoro, a regent in a republic of waifs and strays.

Totoro lives in Perú’s far north region of Tumbes. He is, quite simply, a regional celebrity. As every dog needs a home, even free spirits like Totoro become attached to somewhere. His somewhere is a beach hostel: a ramshackle beast of a place, oozing character, built metres from the warm Pacific surf.

Totoro is no ordinary dog. In fact, he is such a heartthrob that – and i kid you not – his name is cited in multiple booking.com reviews of La Casa de Diego. At his beachfront hostel home oftentimes he can be found disappearing into a hole in the sand, nuzzling into a smitten guest, or else chasing down pelicans full pelt along the beach. One review, as I recall, lauded this canine character so much the couple in question decided to stay another week, mainly because they were the ones with separation anxiety, and not the dog. 

Like many great acquaintances in life, I made Totoro’s quite by chance. I was staying in a dive further up the beach in the balneário town of Zorritos (little foxes in English), on the scale of Peru a stone’s throw from a Covid-closed Ecuador. How did I even end up there? Being on the road makes no sense at times, because one minute you’re planning a jaunt into the hinterland of the jungle and the next minute you find yourself on a 12-hour coach journey up Peru’s long and parched coastline. Frankly, i was expecting more from this little hideaway. I don’t know what I was searching for. I was the only Northern European face on a coastal highway littered with refugees fleeing the human catastrophe which is Venezuela. Zorritos was, and is, a side of Perú that foreign tourists don’t often care much to see. It wasn’t until i checked into La Casa de Diego a little ways out of town that the other side of that other side revealed itself.

In no small measure because of Totoro.

Monday morning, beginning of December. The height of summer 3 degrees south of the equator where – as you know – summer is a permanent fixture. There’s not a sole around. I’m sitting under a coconut palm, and who should sally into view but this regal-looking Nordic beauty of a dog – half pure-bred golden retriever, half Brad Pitt.

Like a stage actor he makes his grand entrance from the wings. Assuming he’s just another of Peru’s legion of wandering dogs, I note with surprise the lustre of his coat. Lingering on him, i watch him cosying up to a guest who’s readying to leave. He looks completely at home with humans, which is by no means a given in a land where dogs manage to coexist with the population while still maintaining a certain wariness of humans, who to be fair do not fetter them with cuddles and coo-ing affection quite as we do in rich countries. This confidence he airs strikes me as uncommon.

The lady disappears forever from view, leaving Totoro alone on the beach facing the hostel. As if she never existed, he immediately seeks new thrills. Sensing treasure deep below, like a pooch possessed he starts digging. He scoops with such fury that the damp sand sprays six feet behind him. Soon, he has excavated a large mound of sand while simultaneously being swallowed up by the beach. Only his little tush and tail remain aloft.

At length his head shoots up from the sand pit of his own making. He swivels it. Finally he notices me. Trotting over, for that’s what confident dogs do, he introduces himself. It’s love at first sight, for my part anyway. He’s in love with everyone. Moreover, he’s in love with life. ‘Come on,’ he intimates, ‘let ME take YOU for a long walk.’

Plastic rubbish litters the beach. The type of litter that doesn’t biodegrade is a real problem in Peru. But for dogs like Tororo, plastic bottles present an opportunity to play fetch. I pick up a 500ml Coke bottle half filled with seawater and feign a throw. This excites him. I feign again. This piques his annoyance. He barks, but not as a mindless utterance, rather a form of modified speech. His bellow cries, ‘stop fannying around, and throw that thing as far as you can.’ I do and he hurtles off after it like a pro.

We walk for miles together, Totoro and I. Together in the loosest sense of the term, for Totoro is way too individualistic to be walking with anyone. He is a pioneer, this dog. A pathfinder. He goes at a canter, leaving me miles behind, only to find me again, the pinball that he is. When the bottle winds up churning in the surf, he barks at me to find a suitable replacement. Finding one, once that goes the way of the coke bottle he tires of the game and goes off in high pursuit of seabirds skimming the waves in the intertidal zone. Crashing through the surf, he launches himself, almost snagging one in his mouth.

People approach. As they pass, they look on in bemusement at Totoro who is rounding me, corralling me as if I’m a sheep, which I am compared to this lion. He’s calling out to me in a voice so powerful to give him a reason to run. The strangers can’t tell if the dog is showing aggression or is being playful. Totoro trots past a dead and bloated sea lion, showing little interest. An American in a stockman’s hat walks toward us. He asks if the dog is mine. That dog is no one’s, i tell him. He’s a fine dog, the man adds. A dog you might see in America, i say. Yeah, he goes on. He’s not your usual kind of dog here. I reply, i think he belongs to the hostel, but he comes and goes as he pleases.

We walk directly into the sunset until i can no longer visualise where i am. I call him and he responds right away. He knows the score. I am not the first guest at La Casa de Diego to have walked Totoro. Rather, he walks the guests as he sees fit. I happen to be the only one resident at this time, which pleases him while offering me exclusivity. We turn our backs to the tropical sun and head home. Totoro spots another sortie of seabirds skirting the rolling surf and goes hell for leather after them, stomping on the water’s edge like his life depended on it.

On the verandah outside my room, the day is ending. I rock rhythmically on the hammock while under me he settles down to rest. Finally, I think, this elegant brute is settling into the Sphinx position. Every part of him is washed by the Pacific surf. I watch his chest gently rise, gently fall. Every part of him is perfection. His paws are large as a mountain lion. He is in the prime of his life, and that saddens me because at that moment I feel my prime has gone. Well, at least i am as free as Totoro. The difference is, though, Totoro exists only and always in the moment, and I do not. So who now is the freer of us both?

In the morning when I awake, he is there sprawled out over three-quarters of the double bed while I’m shunted to the edge. As if he has learned from other guests the art of manipulation, he hides his eyes coyly with his enormous paws. ‘Sorry for commandeering your bed,’ he says without words. ‘But, on second thoughts, I’m not actually sorry at all. This is what I do when people like you come to stay.’

The day is bright, the heat incipient. Opening the rattan door Totoro bounds down the rickety staircase to the sand below. Like yesterday and all the days preceding, this is the first day of his life. The excitement of new adventures in familiar places is suitably matched by his enthusiasm for the chase.

He waits patiently for me to eat breakfast. Once done, with that stentorian voice of his, he orders me to get up so he can take me for a walk; a long walk on the wet sand of the Gulf of Guayaquil, its lukewarm Pacific waters bobbing gently under twine-bound fishing rafts already poised for the day’s catch.

We walk for hours, leaving fleeting imprints in the sand near the water’s edge. He hurtles off, chasing down whatever has the temerity to try and outrun him. The seabirds that fly in single file inches above the waves are always one step ahead. This frustrates him, and even from a quarter mile away, I hear his voice boom with rage and his long legs pummel the shore. He is in his element in ways I could only dream of.

On the evening of the fourth day of my stay at La Casa de Diego, the curtain comes down on our love affair. I stack my bags up against the fence in readiness for the moto-taxi driver to collect me. Totoro stays by my side but knows what to expect. I am not the first to fall for him, nor will I be the last. I so want to leash him and take him with me on the overnight bus south. But I know that an organism needs its habitat; that to deprive him of this world over which he rules would be to strip a king of his crown.

I can still see him now, digging up the beach, beguiling locals with his brazen beauty and confidence, bounding, like a straw-coloured stallion, after those shore birds that artfully skim the waves single file in a game he’ll never stop playing until he is old and dignified enough to know that against the pelicans he can never win. But winning is a strategy and strategy is not the point. It is capturing every moment that counts, and few embody this true meaning of happiness more than him.

Brought Low in a High Place

#adventure, adventure, altitude, America, Andes, Lake, Perú, peru, South America, Titicaca, Travel

It’s one of these rare places on Earth as recognised as it is obscure. Ask anyone if they’ve heard of Lake Titicaca; a surprising number will reply, yes. Ask them where to locate it on a globe, and a fair few will struggle to point to that magical spot between Peru and Bolivia. I have no idea why, but since childhood I’ve been able to press my finger square on it. In hindsight, it was my way of saying,

‘don’t you go disappearing because one of these days I’m coming for you.’

Facts That Stick to Boyhood Dreams

The best factual odds and ends stay youthful as we reach adulthood. Random things conceal their true purpose until decades later. For as long as I can remember I’ve known Titicaca to be the highest navigable lake on Earth. It was family Christmases playing the board game Trivial Pursuit that taught me that. And this cool factoid remained lodged in my mind, planting a seed of fascination with this freshwater sea in the sky that would carry through to this day. And talking of trivia, Titicaca’s stocked with it in the way Lake Victoria used to be stocked with tilapia fish.

Unlike tilapia, you can’t eat facts, but you can regurgitate them. Titicaca is an epic of empirical fact worthy of bringing up time and again.

Since those days of board games played in the Scottish seasonal spirit, I’ve harboured a secret longing to see, with my own eyes, this vast inland body of water. Now a mere 8,370km2, during the Pleistocene – ending 12,000 years ago – Titicaca was reckoned to be subsumed under something much bigger. Back then the entire altiplano was a liquid landscape the size of Great Britain, stretching as far south as today’s Northern Argentina. But being, as we presently are, in the Holocene Epoch, all that’s left these days is a puddle of stupendous proportions, about the size of Puerto Rico. And that’s just the area. We haven’t dove down yet.

Deep, Wide, and Barely Comprehensible

Titicaca is as deep as it is wide. At its deepest, on the Bolivian side, the lake bottoms out at nearly 300 metres (nearly a thousand feet). That’s not far off average bathymetry around the British Isles. Never mind its surface elevation is a staggering 3,847 metres (12,507ft) sobre nivel del mar, as the local Spanish speakers say, which is by no means everyone in an ancient polyphonic region that plays host to the Aymara language (on the Bolivian side) and Quechua (you got it! on the Peruvian side). So, aside from the dizzying altitude, you’ve also got communication to contend with. If you’re struggling with your Castellano when you get there, you’ll leave head-spinning once you’ve been exposed to these other two autochthonous languages.

These are but minor inconveniences when finally, after forty years of not trying hard enough, one finds oneself there on a beach on an isle ringed with clouds in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Standing on a subtropical sandy beach at 12,507ft? Or glimpsing mountaintops so distant I’m not even going to guess how? Or sleeping on a double bed in a lodge atop a huge, anchored raft of totora reeds 3 metres (15ft) thick that’s continuously waterlogged and needs building up every fortnight to avoid sinking? Or watching a storm front gather over starboard waters when on the port side hills are bathed in pure sunlight? No, the lake doesn’t add up. And that’s precisely why it does. And that’s why I want my ashes scattered there, but not any time soon, I pray. 

Heroic Landscape – Or is it?

I entered from Puno, a day’s bus ride from Cusco, passing through Montana-esque high plains landscape. Toward journey’s end the lake’s a shimmering tease. You see it, then you don’t. You round bends on the bus, stealing glimpses over dozing, double-masked passengers, all the while knowing the sky above is stretched thin. The cloudscape populating this sky is itself a mountain range of vapour pressing down on the Andean high plateau beneath. Titicaca is there. Or is it? The billiard table land rushing by you glimmers grey-silvery, but that could be just the sky above mirroring the earth below. You’re on the altiplano now and gone is the intimacy of Cusco’s mountain-drenched surrounds. Distance now morphs into something else. It’s vast and continental.

The high plains perform a trick of the light few other topographies do – how the jagged crown encircling the far horizon could be mountains or clouds, or both. Driving across the continental U.S. years back, the landscape was an illusion of features real and imagined. I loved that magical feeling, the ego death. Never has a person felt so good for standing so small amidst all the grandeur of something so large.

Storms Gathering on Two Fronts

With an air of the unfinished, the city of Puno is no fairy tale on the lakeside. But to give it credit, it commands one heck of a view. Where it lies the lake takes a bite out of the shore, giving it that safe-harbour-in-a-storm aspect. The five days I spent there were stormy, both literally and figuratively. And to be fair, Puno, for all its shortcomings, was that safe haven: not once but twice. The lake itself is the embodiment of inner peace, weighed down by nothing but pure light. But not outwardly. Not always. Even heaven comes wrapped in a black shawl. But back to my tale of two storms.

Figurative one first.

Walking down to Puno’s port from my hotel off the Plaza de Armas, the crowds were milling. The annual festival had been cancelled due to – you guessed right – Covid. Yet. That didn’t stop masked gatherings. It was a Sunday and a bright one at that. Kids rode their pedalos with glee in the shallows while their parents fawned over them, snap-happy mobile cameras in hand. A gloved woman held aloft a great raptor, leaving the day-trippers to swoon around the blindfolded bird. Where the falconer is also the hawker, the kids posed with the raptor while their parents parted with their hard-earned cash.    

The Legend of Uros

Down by the jetties, many pleasure boats. I boarded and before long we were making waves. This section of the lake is littoral: shallow, reedy, and cut through with navigation channels. Before long it opens out into a vastness the likes of which I had never seen, least of all at 3,850 metres up. On the far horizon was our objective: the floating island community of the Uros people. With an island of braided honey-yellow reeds improbably floating on 20 metres (60ft) of dark water, a sky of azure and the rest of heavenly emptiness, this was going to be a photo opportunity way too good to resist. Evidently, it would seem others on the boat were finding something similarly hard to resist.

The boat moored and we disembarked on this bouncy mat of totora – an aquatic grass that is the lifeblood of these lake people. Even the creation—origin-myth stories of the Inca and the legend of Tiwanaku on the Bolivian shore feature strongly this boat, house, and island-building material. Hell, its reputation extends so far and wide that 2,000kms away on the Pacific coast near Trujillo you can still witness totora canoes cresting on the breakers. At least, I did.

Reed the Warning Signs

So, there was me snapping happily away with my expensive Nikon when two fine young fellows from the boat ride over started displaying a lot of interest in it. I know enough Spanish to realise that they were from neighbouring countries to the north. I wasn’t unduly concerned until two women from the boat approached me, looking serious, speaking Peruvian Spanish.

‘These men are going to rob you unless you get off this island.’

I looked at the women, I looked around. How immediate was the threat? How was I going to get off the island of reeds? They explained that Puno and Titicaca were hotspots for camera thieves, never mind local, from all South America. They swore that it was so rife as to be a quasi-industry, organised at the port and in the town’s seamier quarters. They went on to say that these usual suspects would dare not rob me here, in plain view, on a huge reed mat anchored in 20 metres of water. Rather, it would happen back at the port where their cohorts would be waiting in ambush.

‘Get off the island now,’ they repeated. ‘Don’t return to port on the same boat.’

No News Like Bad News

Spooked, I put the camera back in the bag and wandered to a stall where a local artisan was displaying his colourful handicrafts. We talked. He too had noticed these shifty sorts eye-balling me and my camera. To my surprise, he reiterated what the women had warned me. He said that well-meaning gringos descend on the lake from far afield with their $2,000 cameras, blissfully unaware that for South Americans with nothing to lose the sell-on value of a stolen camera is worth more than a half a year’s wage. The temptation is too great to refuse. I asked if they get violent.

His reply was oblique yet sinister enough.

‘Often it doesn’t need to come to that.’

‘Why is that?’ I asked.

‘Because your camera will be gone before you even know it.’

By now I was genuinely spooked. I watched them watching me, the two of them. We were on an island prison and our pilot was in no hurry to return to port. Short of swimming like some desperado fleeing Alcatraz I analysed ways of holding onto my camera by making a graceful exit. Another cruiser was moored up. I asked if I could join, but the pilot answered that it would be hours before they returned. So, I did what any exasperated fool would and rolled up to an Uros islander who was sitting in his motorised canoe just waiting for a crisis to unfold.

The Not-So-Great Escape

‘How much to get me off this island?’

He paused then asked for s/10 (soles), about $3.

Forbidden from running impromptu taxi services back to shore, the best he could do was to drop me on a neighbouring isle, in reality another giant totora raft anchored in a daisy chain to the one I was on.

Two minutes later there was I on another giant, floating totora mat, alone. Looking pleased and prepped for the great escape, I sat and waited for my ship to come in. As sure enough one did, carrying the two shifty types plus the other passengers from the journey over.

Oh no! Of all the lousy luck.

Playing the Fool Playing it Cool

I had found myself not primed for a discreet escape, but instead with egg on my face on the one island among dozens in the Uros archipelago that catered for every one of the armada of boats ferrying day-trippers daily to this UNESCO wonder. They all spilled off, a good few smiling at me knowingly as they paraded past. They must have thought,

‘What’s the token gringo doing here before us?’

I spotted the women who had originally raised the red flag. Their faces combined pity and a suppressed giggle. Last to disembark was the sum of all our fears: the two likely lads who had this little island archipelago in the grip of fear. They eyed me again before wandering around, intentions unknown. 

Storms Real and Imagined

Uncomfortable minutes passed before I gate-crashed another vessel. I sat on the open top deck and, to forget my surrealist escapades, fell into conversation with a young Peruvian sitting opposite.  The late afternoon was overcast. A chill had settled on the water. Receding into the vanishing point was Shutter Island, where a storm of uncertainty had raged in my mind. Glancing ahead I noticed the boat in the navigation channel ahead of us contained – you guessed – the very people I was trying to escape.

As I chatted to the young man opposite about paradigm shifts in human thinking necessary to save a faltering humanity, I realised we create storms in our minds. When we travel to distant lands these storms can feel like a Force 9. Yet we can drink these storms away from our fragile psyches because they do exist for the most part only in teacups. To be honest, the only gathering storms worthy of worry are those that incubate over the high Andes before hatching over Lake Titicaca.

The Wrath of the Weather Gods

Now onto the second tale of two storms: the literal one.

Earlier in the article I mentioned my Titicaca storms were both literal and figurative. While fear gave rise to the figurative storm, the literal one arrived riding on a chariot with bugling trumpeters not one day after my bungled great escape.

Right Place, Wrong Season

I decided to return to Uros, this time to experience nightfall on the lake. I chose a nice bobbing retreat. Though I was told this was not the best season for staying, on the day I arrived the sun blazed high in the sky. Few, if any, tourists were visible. Gone was the dread of being robbed. Serene was the feeling of lying on a divan on a veranda overlooking the wide water. That is, until I was awoken from a daydream by an abrupt change in the weather. A veil of grey, curdled cloud had drawn a blanket over the blue yonder. Throughout the day the low pressure built, and the wind picked up.

Watching clouds intensify over the peaks away to the Northwest was impressive enough. Tempestuous as a Turner painting, photographically the conditions were perfect. However, my glee was short-lived. When evening fell the creeping storm front found the lake where – similar to a hurricane feeding voraciously on the Atlantic – its destructive energy ramped up a notch or two. We were in for a rough ride, and no anchor was going to stop la isla de totora from listing.

Gale Force Fun

As the night went on, rain bucketed against the glass façade, hammering the pane until I thought it could take no more. Pools started running under the door and under the bed. Fork lightning flash-bombed the big sky. The atmosphere rumbled in deafening decibels. The whole bedroom swayed from side to side. I felt like I was in the belly of some great leviathan. I went out and could see great waves now lapping against the thick edge of our totora raft. The cold descended and before soon I was cocooned under half a dozen blankets. I fell into fitful sleep, or at least think I did. I kept waking up from dreams of going under by sitting bolt upright and gasping with sleep apnoea on account of the high altitude. So not only was I seasick on a lake, of all places, I was also mountain sick far from the mountains. Only on Titicaca, where our sea-level lives stop making sense, could this happen.

Sleep disruption aside, for the adventurer this was riveting stuff. Titicaca delights where other places disappoint. The worse the conditions, the more a sense of boys-own adventure overcomes you. A Shakespearean weather drama unfolds over your head in skies so endless, for the sake of sanity the mind needs to limit them.

A Place Called Eternal Home

On the third day I was relieved, admittedly, to return to safe harbour at Puno. Happy to leave the lake, I knew there and then the lake would never be happy to leave me. I had breezed into town from Cusco with two Liverpudlians, one of whom was there to fulfil his father’s dying wish to have a vial of his ashes scattered on Titicaca. His father had never been to Perú, and yet still considered the lake sacred enough. Me, I now had, so planning to have a portion of my desiccated self tipped into the lake I thought was the least I could do, to offer to eternity the dust of my bones. I waited forty years to float on the world’s highest navigable lake, and I’ll spend another forty years alive, I hope, before my earthly remains sink into that deep water. Pachamama, she’ll wait.

End…

Cha-cha-chani: Volcanoes Don’t Get Much Bigger Than This.

#adventure, altitude, Andes, mountains, peru, South America

Though Chachani may sound like a dance step, ascending this Peruvian volcano – one of only eighteen on Earth to exceed 6,000 metres – is no waltz.

No Walk in the Park

As I sit here tapping away, turning milestone into narrative, an ironic smile upturns the corners of my mouth when I think of trying ballroom dancing on its icy apex. So, if you’re thinking of celebrating the feat of summiting your first 6,057 metre peak (19,872 feet) with a little jig, forget the waltz. You can forget the cha-cha, too. In fact, about the best I could hope for was a stiff and ponderous trudge: the dance of the malfunctioning robot.  

Those who purport to know say Chachani is the easiest 6,000 metre climb anywhere in the world, but I can testify that if climbing Chachani is a stroll compared to the others then the others must require something extraordinary. That, plus a lungful of bottled oxygen. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity way too good to miss.

Chachani coming in from the North

To See or Not to See

Let’s go on the proviso that it’s not everyday one decides to tackle a behemoth of geology that stands proud above all else – even over the formidable presence of El Misti, a 5,822 metre (19,101 feet) stratovolcano that, alongside Chachani, forms a silent guardianship over a white city named Arequipa that itself sits 2,335 metres (7,660 feet) up on the arid Andean plateau in Peru’s deep south. So, let’s go on that proviso: one chance in life to ascend to places that few ever venture. Or would ever want to. Do you take it? You’d be a fool to, but an even bigger fool not to.

Don’t Go it Alone

Adventurous types pour into Arequipa, or at least they did before Peru declared a national state of emergency due to Covid. As of early 2022, the city and country were still struggling to recover sufficient tourist numbers. Bars and diners lay empty. By government decree, not one but two face masks were the order of the day. Troubling times for the adventure tour industry, sure. Having said that, keep a good thing down and it always rebounds.

The bigger they are, the higher they rise. Arequipa’s two famous volcanic landmarks are, by any measure, epic. Hardly surprising then that a number of tour providers on Calle Jerusalén, as well as in and around the Plaza de Armas remained open for business. Covid might have detrimentally impacted the local adventure travel industry, but it seems it couldn’t make a dint in interest for Chachani. The rates too, were as low as the volcanoes were high: about $80 all in.

When it comes to mini expeditions of this stature, it’s a professional guide you need. These guys go to university to learn to lead expeditions in these mountains. I went with Waiky Adventours, but a whole host of others made similar arrangements.

The Long Road to Basecamp

A good many operators in Arequipa’s burgeoning adventure tour business will take you most of the way to base camp by jeep. Up and up the route snakes, north and away from the city’s sprawling limits, past the sublime figure of El Misti toward the indomitable sight of Chachani spread even over a massif of towering, flattened peaks.

With Arequipa due south and out of sight, you come in behind it to face Chachani’s arid, northern flanks. Grazing vicuña dot the altiplano, gentle in their ways. As you are already at nearly 5,000 metres at the foot of the range, it doesn’t look especially imposing. We were subsequently to discover that just because a thing doesn’t appear imposing, it doesn’t mean to say it’s not. Up here in the liminal space between worlds habitable and inhabitable a peaceful silence pervades the air, as if the mountains are holding their breath ready for you to hold yours.

Up Where the Air is Thin

Away to the right as we started our two-day round-trek to the summit, I saw there a painted mountain. Made of iron and sulphur and all those minerals that Man so desires, under the shifting sky of cotton wool stuck on a background of cerulean blue the mountain’s rusted hues throbbed and dimmed with the coming and going of the light.

I knew such wondrous sights could only be had up here in the Gods. The natural reaction to seeing this psychedelic landscape at high altitude is to gasp, but that – as became immediately clear – was easier said than done. Oxygen levels at roughly 5,000 metres (16,500 feet) are about 60% of those at sea level, meaning those lungs have to work nearly twice as hard just to make up the same ground.

The Long Wait

Arriving exhausted at our base camp, we were encouraged to rest up and sleep for the day. The reason given was that at night the air pressure drops in the high mountains. Above about 5,000 metres sleep becomes a real problem after dark, as I found out the hard way. Other than a brave, solitary fox that came calling for dinner at our basecamp not a lot ekes out a meagre living above this height. Multicellular life wasn’t really designed for it. Even the unexpected sight of a fox tamed into revealing itself by the temptations of a handout – life must be unremittingly tough at the top.

This being the season the Andean weather gods show their unpleasant side, vistas to die for can be fleeting. By mid-afternoon the fog crept in and all about. The altiplano and all the peaks rising from it, like ships scattered on an ocean, disappeared. All at once, we were wreathed in a freezing world of the spirits. Visibility decreased until not a thing except our date with the mountaintop could be seen.

Nightfall at 5,000 Metres

I must have fallen into demented dreams for a few minutes before awakening in the pitch black with a pounding headache. Our basecamp comprised half a dozen tents, though only one showed signs of life and that amounted to no more than a rasping cough. The others lay dormant. I thought for a moment my group had gone home, and I was left alone with High Altitude sickness, until the thought consoled me that others too probably lay in their tents peering into the void, thinking about how difficult sleep was, and how cold it was becoming.  

As the evening ground on, my headache worsened. In the absence of sunlight, the chill gripped me with an intensity hitherto I had never experienced. I cocooned my legs inside my down jacket, but even that was glistening with frost.

I tried to lie horizontal, until sleep apnea grabbed me by the throat and made me sit up and lunge at the vestibule zip. I couldn’t breathe. I was alone. And then to cap it all, the nausea, which I had suffered at altitude elsewhere in Peru, came back with a vengeance. I couldn’t wait for midnight to come. That’s when the push for the summit would begin. Or would it? At this rate of physiological decay, I would need to be escorted down and off the mountain.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Sometime before midnight, the camp stirred back into life. Everyone gathered around cups of hot coca tea. Headlamp beams made feeble work of the immense darkness of our surrounds. I reported my symptoms to my guide, who seemed irked that his hopes of a hassle-free night ahead might be inconvenienced by having one of his clients die on him.

‘Stay here and we’ll come for you in about 8 hours from now on our way back.’

‘Are you not supposed to descend with high altitude sickness?’

Then I addressed him in Spanish, hoping for more sympathy.

‘No creo que deba quedarme aqui. Hay que bajar.’

By now my lungs were froth-corrupted, resulting in a lot of sputum being gobbed onto the ground. Bad sign. I ran to a rock where I vomited. Worse sign.

When he saw me throw up, his demeanour changed. Suddenly he was concerned.

‘The other guide will accompany you down.’

But some deeper power had stirred in me. My pride burned such that the air no longer felt so icy. I instructed him as to how we were going to tackle this.

‘I want to do this thing. If my headache gets worse higher up, I’ll take the other guide and turn back.’

He agreed, albeit dubiously.

The Only Way is Up

The climb, in the early stages, was brutal. I trailed the others, who had galloped off ahead, whose headtorches I could see as little beacons high above. For each scheduled stop I died a thousand times. Chewing with all the might of a retired mule, gobbets of mashed coca leaf occupied the space between teeth and gums. Hope against hope, I was sucking on that coca for dear life.

Although my eyes were fixed on the pool of light into where our frozen feet stepped, above me I caught glimpses of stars coruscating bright as a glitterball, and so bountiful they scorched the black out of the firmament. Jupiter rose over the shoulder of Chachani, not as the fake star it is with the naked eye at sea level but as the planet it truly is from Hubble.

As the hours passed, the gap between the early pacemakers and me started to close. I found I was gaining in strength while others were flagging. The headache dissipated; the nausea diminished. The coca was doing what mother nature intended. Not for nothing is this plant considered so valuable.

Kids half my age were showing signs of mental confusion in the absence of o2 brainfood. Grabbing one, he looked to be falling off the mountain. Another became quite delirious, muttering something under his breath. A girl in the group, who I later witnessed practically running up the Colca Canyon, looked lobotomised. Could brain damage be permanent, I thought.

So Near and Yet…

They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn. What they don’t tell you is that the coldest hour is also before the dawn. I should have known better.

We had climbed through the night. Our expedition team had gone from tight knot to attenuated line of trudgers. The first rays of morning had settled on distant peaks. The air was frigid and by now my toes had stopped receiving warm blood flow. But there was light even in the absence of day. Our guide was now excitable. Geeing us up, he promised us our reward was within reach. One in our group was suffering badly. He looked catatonic and I was worried for his welfare. Our guide plied him with coca and candy while his head swayed, and his attention faltered.

But me, I felt a new lease of life. Yes, my toes were frostbitten but my heart had never felt this heat of the moment. Yes, each step felt like my last, but I had found a new spring in my step. The night had yielded to a new day. The world was as if viewed for the first time. Seeing the rounded summit of Chachani and the cairn sitting atop I was overcome with emotion. So much so, that I threw up again.

What Goes Up…

Our travails were not quite over yet. An arête had to be crossed to reach the crater and beyond the summit whence we could see all of Arequipa before us. Picking through the jagged rock and ice we came upon a flattened brow and like that, the climb was over.

I sucked in the air at over 6,000 metres and held it there while I tried to absorb the magnitude of what I had achieved. Tears welled in my eyes. The others wore smiles as wide as the climb was long. Was it joy or relief?

Peering over the edge Arequipa, a city of two million people, was coming to life. And like that, she was gone, wreathed in the impenetrable fog. Our guide hastened us to descend before the weather worsened.

‘Back down the same route?’ We asked with a foreboding.

Then with an impish smile, he shook his head.

‘We’re taking the quick way down,’ he replied.

Then he turned, marched over to the world’s longest gully, slumped onto his backside, and proceeded to slide down the snowy mountain. Incredulous, we gawped at his receding orange figure as it diminished away to a pinprick. What had taken six hours to ascend was taking ninety minutes in the opposite direction.

We all looked at one another with childish delight then, slumping onto our backsides, followed him all the way back down to where we left the oxygen behind.

End.

To Machu Picchu, With Love

#adventure, #romance, adventure, Andes, backpacking, Eighth Wonder of the World, environment, Lifestyle, mountains, natural world, nature, peru, Planet Earth, Salkantay, South America, Travel, Travel Photography, travelogue, Trekking, Wilderness

It was always central to the plan. Fly transcontinental to Peru. Once in the capital, randomly follow compass points leading out of Lima in all directions but west, which would be suicidal as it would leave me adrift somewhere in the deep Pacific Ocean. But whatever I do, the golden rule stands: don’t fly home without first having taken the long trail to Machu Picchu.

Many roads lead to Rome. So too are there a fair few routes to Machu Picchu. The Inca, like the Romans, were master road builders after all. You can opt for what most do and that is to fly to Cusco, board a mini bus from that old Inca seat of power to the sublime surroundings of Ollantaytambo in the even more sublime Sacred Valley of the Inca, board the train from the terminus there 90 minutes to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Macchu Picchu, and from there board another bus that winds up and up until it reaches, at 2,430mt a.s.l., the ticket booths standing like sentinels at the entrance to the eighth wonder of the world.

Or you can pay Atahualpa’s ransom and trek the three nights, four days to Aguas Calientes on the famous Inca Trail. Equally, you can step out of the ordinary and hike the Lares Route running along the valley to the north of the Sacred Valley. But that plonks you down at Ollantaytambo and from there you’ll still need to ride the packed train to Machu Picchu. For the even more intrepid there’s the Vilcabamba Traverse route, which basically follows in the now well-trodden footsteps of Hiram Bingham, the American who discovered Machu Picchu with a little help from an unheralded fellow who happened to farm land in Aguas Calientes and knew all about the strange ruins in the thick undergrowth at the top of the mountain. At ninety kms long, descending into canyons, crossing raging rivers and back up mountains so steep you tip your head backwards just to see them in their entirety, the Vilcabamba can take well over a week to traverse. And then there’s the Salkantay. Free but definitely not easy. That’s the route I took. It turns out, with unintended consequences.

They always say, don’t they, that certain actions have unintended consequences. The more extreme the action, the more consequential. By the standards of some, walking a full five days and sixty kms to the foot of Machu Picchu over a 4,600m (15,090ft) pass is pretty extreme. Especially so when you happen to be fifty years old on your next birthday. Anyway, i digress. For five days I walked the walk and talked the talk and in between saw deep time cut deep into rock and cappuccino brown waters froth and fury on the valley floor because the mighty, near-mythical Urubamba river could not run down to the Amazon fast enough, pushed on as it was into incandescent rage by mountains pressed hard up against it, bullying it and blocking its light.

It was raining as the ten of us flooded out of the mini bus on the trailhead. In reality, the official start to the 75km Salkantay Nevada was 20km back down a very inundated road-cum-track. Ordinarily, day one of the Salkantay would involve a trek up and up that rutted track, waterlogged by weeks of summer rain and spun into mud by the endless turning of Mercedes minibuses wheels ferrying sightseers up to Humantay Lake. We were cutting to the chase on our five day dash to Machu Picchu by skipping the boring bits.

Our guide, Jorge, told us to get suited and booted. Raincoats and plastic ponchos would be the order of the day. My Texan friend and I clambered onto the muddy ground. Walking poles were doled out in exchange for rent money. Essential item. $10 for the duration. Our walking group – at that point still a bunch of strangers, mainly from Germany and Holland – formed under the rain, almost by accretion. Bedecked in plastic ponchos of the most garish colours, they readied themselves for a 2-hour detour to Humantay Lake, before bracing for a 3-hour climb up to camp 1 at Soraypampa. As usual, I was first off the bus and last onto the trail. The Texan and I rolled a smoke, buckled up and in our own time started this great overland journey with a single step. The young bucks and hinds in the group were already visibly ahead within minutes. But the Texan and I were not lone stragglers. Beside us we noticed a girl.

I had seen her when i first boarded the bus back in Cusco at 4am that morning. There she was all alone with only a covid mask covering her eyes, depriving me of the totality of her pretty face. She sat alone, not feeling the urge to befriend others, as so many solitary types do when they’re on the road. She slept, and when she woke she kept herself very much to herself. Much as I tried not to, i found myself constantly stealing a glimpse of her while trying to act all natural. Physically, she was nothing like us. I guessed Brazilian due to these fulsome lips and coffee complexion. She certainly wasn’t Peruvian, with their proud Quechuan noses. Nor Chilean. Nor Argentinian. Definitely not Bolivian. Ecuadorian? Hmmm. Nah. They too were ruled by the Inca, as their faces testify to. She could have been Colombian, or Venezuelan. I deduced that much. Anywhere in the Caribbean, the genetic blend of European, African and Indigene created this unmistakeable exoticism, verging on the absolutely beautiful. But, no. I settled upon Brazilian, as there are 150 million of them, and only 50 million Colombians and 25 million Venezuelans (there used to be 30 million, but 5 million are now refugees).

As we ambled, tortoises off the blocks, she drew abreast of us. Slightly discomfited by the presence of two jackasses who – as i was to later find out, she found irksome when they boarded the minibus at 4am singing, joking and generally ignoring the protocols of getting on a night bus – it took me to break the ice.

‘See my friend here, he doesn’t think you’re Brazilian. But i do. Am i right?”

She was. And I was. And that was the first time we were right together.

At Humantay lake, the surface water was a bioluminescent paint pot. The color was electric blue-green. Around it the land rose sharply, a browned earth soft as shale where the land had collapsed in. And on top of that sat a crumpled mountainous mass of black rock and ice. The Andean giant flitted in and out of sight, behind a veil of cloud and Scotch mist. It was summer, but the Andes being the Andes and defying definition, this was the rainy season. And for anyone who knows the high mountains, everything is exaggerated, even the intensity of the rain.

I could see the glass domes – our beds for the night – on the ridge up ahead far in advance of arriving. The others were all there, but she and I had fallen far behind. Our footsteps slow, deliberative, rhythmic. We were tired beyond belief, for here at nearly 4,000 metres (or 13,000ft) the air was reed thin and the angle of ascent deceptively steep and seemingly without end. For every gulp of air, disappointment ensued. And as the occluded sunlight dipped on a fading afternoon she and I became more and more talkative. Gassing while climbing at these altitudes is not always the right strategy. So for every sentence a pause for breath that doesn’t readily come the way it does as sea level. Our legs could not catch up with our tongues but I knew that something had clicked between us, language barrier or no language barrier.

Up on the ridge with the Salkantay mountain looming in the twilight behind a wall of white cloud, she and I slumped down. We were exhausted, the right kind of exhaustion that combines the very tired with the very happy. Eagles flew sorties in the valley beneath and every now and then a huge wall of granite would flash into view through the gathering night. Magic all around. This, I thought, is why I damned near killed myself to get here. And in the process i made a friend, a beautiful friend.

Day one not even drawn to a close, and this adventure was already shaping up to be a classic. It’s in the nature of duality that with pain comes a degree of pleasure that makes the pain bearable. Altitude and steep gradients might be the root cause of the pain, but the pleasure was all mine with her by my side. I have a fridge magnet back home that reads, ‘no road is too long in good company‘. Never was this Turkish proverb more true than the moment we collapsed into camp 1.