Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why I No Longer Giggle Girlishly When People Say “Titicaca”

By Josh Cain * Other Josh Cain Posts

“The winding road through the Andes from Cuzco to Lake Titicaca is treacherous even in broad daylight. Drivers of night buses frequently fall asleep at the wheel, causing fatal accidents. Be forewarned that taking this route at night is taking your life in your hands,” read Eric, closing his guidebook.

“Mike’s on top of it,” I said, climbing into the tour bus.

Behind us Mike was trying out a hurriedly memorized phrase on a small, confused-looking man.

“A gift for you, Mr. Bus Driver” he said in halting Spanish, handing the man a case of Red Bull.

Eric and Mike had been lured to Peru by my promises of local culture and breathtaking natural beauty. Instead, I had quickly transformed their “action-packed vacation” into a “death march through the Andes.” Tonight was no different.

The night spent on the bus instead of in a hotel wasn’t going to be fun, but the tour I planned would make up for any discomfort – a day on Lake Titicaca, complete with meeting local villagers, hiking to a scenic overlook with the musical accompaniment of a pan flute band, and topped off with a traditional dinner and dancing. Tomorrow was going to be the physical embodiment of all that makes Peru great.

We boarded the bus and I gave Eric his own seat to make him happy. Happy, that is, until the fattest Peruvian I’ve ever seen lumbered down the aisle. Smelling like a particularly pungent block of melted cheese and possessing a similar gelatinous quality, the man oozed himself into the seat next to Eric and almost immediately fell asleep on top of him.
As the bus rolled out of the station, Eric quickly squeezed his way out of his chair to spread out on an empty seat. Again Eric’s happiness was short lived. 15 minutes out of Cuzco we stopped at a village and were flooded with more locals than the bus could handle. They filled the seats, crammed into the aisles, and kicked Eric out of his temporary home. Seeking to regain the company of the limburger-scented companion he had so recently spurned, Eric discovered to his dismay that an old lady now occupied his seat. The matron,- bound in rags - had already fallen asleep and been partially enveloped by the fleshy folds of her massive companion.

For some reason Eric couldn’t see the sensibility of forcing an old woman out of her seat to huddle at his feet for eight hours, so he declared that he would stand for the entirety of the trip. Vaguely impressed by his chivalry, I continued to attempt to render myself unconscious. I had begun to doze when Mike shook me awake.

“Why aren’t you sleeping?” I grumbled at him.

“I’ve been looking out the windows. Every five minutes or so we pass a group of crosses on the road where a bus went over the edge.”

I was about to suggest that the best way to face a sudden and horrific death would be to sleep through as much of it as possible when Mike jerked his thumb towards Eric.

“Also, I don’t think he’s doing so well.”

Wearing a grimace of pain, Eric was doubled-over, clutching his stomach. My guess was one of the sources of contaminants we had encountered (i.e. everything in Peru that could be ingested) had gotten the better of him.

“I need to sit down,” he groaned, looking at us imploringly. I angrily told him that he had a perfectly comfortable seat waiting for him beneath the shriveled body of a geriatric Aymara tribeswoman, but for some reason he was still resistant to this course of action. Mike’s charity toward street urchins earlier in the trip had already revealed that he was, as Lady MacBeth says, “too fill o’ the milk of human kindness.” Cursed with that most pitiful of human emotions, compassion, he offered to take Eric’s place. With Mike on the floor, wedged firmly between a pair of ragged tribesman, dreams of our majestic hike the next day were finally within my reach.

“Oh sweet Jesus!” yelled Mike, shooting to his feet. I resisted complaining about my yet again interrupted slumber when I saw him gaping at his leg. In addition to having no problem with buses crammed far beyond capacity careening down twisting mountain roads helmed by narcoleptic drivers, the Peruvian government hadn’t thought it worthwhile to regulate that public vehicles making lengthy, non-stop journeys should be required to have bathrooms. As a result, one of Mike’s floor mates had let fly a golden stream which had managed to trickle its way through the sea of humanity before eventually coming to rest on Mike’s jeans.

With Mike unwilling to return to the floor and Eric still writhing in pain, we were left with a dilemma. After several attempted configurations we ultimately decided that our best option was to drape Eric over Mike and my legs. As Eric’s head nestled gently in my lap, I prepared to finally get the rest I was going to need to truly appreciate a rapidly approaching day of adventure and cultural splendor. Only one thing nagged at me, one tiny thing that kept me from enjoying the bliss of sleep that would take me away from this increasingly hellish bus.

“I need to pee,” I whispered to Eric, who was still moaning quietly. I got some dirty looks, but managed to empty one of our water bottles out the window for use as a makeshift toilet.

In case you’re wondering, peeing into a small-necked bottle as a bus swerves around a nearly unpaved mountain road is roughly as difficult as it sounds. An admission of defeat and 45 minutes of hacking at the bottle with a luggage key later, I was in possession of a shoddily constructed porta-potty. While I initially suffered from what could best be termed “performance anxiety,” 10 minutes of concentration and a steady stream of whispered death threats from my two companions finally gave me the encouragement I needed.

Having relieved myself, I pulled the window to dispose of the entire bottle. For some reason, however, it didn’t open. After a minute of increasingly panicked tugging, I realized that the water I had emptied earlier, combined with the icy winds, had effectively frozen the window shut. To make matters worse, Eric began attempting to sweet talk the girls behind us. As I attempted to conceal the fact that I was cradling my own excretions, I was subjected to a wholly uninteresting conversation. The tepid banter came to a sudden conclusion when Mike discovered that the girls were his neighbors in New York and it was his tendency to look out the window into their apartment that had prompted them to board up their windows. In the awkward silence following this revelation, Eric offered one of the girls Mike’s sweater to keep them warm, which he was forced to provide. Minutes later the temperature dropped twenty degrees.

With no other options, we resumed our positions in uncomfortable silence. Eric was in even more pain than before, Mike - now wearing only a t-shirt, - was shivering violently, and I was holding an unsealed jug of my own urine. . Our collective misery, each magnified by our individual sufferings, induced a vigilant silence, interrupted only by the occasional ominous slosh of fluid against plastic. We took solace in the knowledge that things could only improve from here.

Then the bus broke down. The bus had needed resuscitation several times before. This time, though, the patient was truly sick and everyone was asked to get off. We had rolled to a stop in what looked like an abandoned ruin of a mountain town. There were a few broken down, seemingly deserted buildings, and a crumbling wall next to which all the locals who had been sitting in the aisles immediately began to crouch.

My relief at being able to finally ditch my bottle was offset by concern that our eight-hour ride, which had already taken fourteen hours, would not get us to our destination on time. This feeling was magnified when I noticed that the driver was attempting to fix the engine by removing one of the pieces and repeatedly banging it on the ground.

As the three of us climbed back into the bus, hoping we’d make it to the lake on time, I realized that, in a way, we had already found the true Peru that we had been seeking. The roads, though perilous, had been undeniably beautiful and we were getting a truer glimpse at Peruvian culture than we could ever hope to see on a packaged tour. After all, wasn’t this a much more unique and exciting experience than something that large groups of people do every day? As I sat gazing at the people through the window, appreciating their simple beauty, the doors slammed shut and the bus sped off, abandoning half the passengers on the side of the road. Shocked, I started to wonder what was going to happen to the people on that lonely hillside when I had an important realization. After over half a day’s nightmarish journey, I was finally going to get some sleep.

An hour later we arrived at Lake Titicaca. Miraculously, a representative from the tour company was waiting to usher us into a waiting car. He started to tell us about how exciting and action-packed our day was going to be and, as he started the car, casually inquired how our trip had been. None of us said a word. We had all fallen asleep.

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