Monday, July 27, 2009

Day 17 - My Tryst With (Not) Giving Up

Edgar had warned us that Day 2 would be the hardest. That word does not do justice to what I experienced. "Hard" denotes difficult, only a level higher than "medium" and two levels above "easy". I would classify the first half of the day as fifty levels above the very least.

Our wake up call at 5 am consisted of a man knocking on the tent and unzipping it to hand me a steaming glass of mate de coca. The warm liquid blanketed me in warmth and woke up my groggy self in a few minutes. Brushing my teeth was an ordeal because it was so terribly cold. We were in the Andes, and the mountain next to ours was snow-packed. A beautiful scene, but oh-so-frigid.

I didn´t finish my breakfast. The altitude sickness was still making me queasy. One of the travellers in our group threw up yesterday. Another one had resorted to finishing Day 1 on a horse. I wanted to do neither of those things. I didn´t want to be weak.

The initial climb wasn´t gradual, but steep right from the start. It was going to the mountains, to Salkantay, and I was panting in the first five minutes. My bag, my overstuffed, heavy coat were all becoming a burden now. I was pushing my limits, but had to keep pausing every once in a while. Thankfully, an Australian couple in our group was helpling me as much as they could, holding my bag or coat, waiting for me to catch up, and making general conversation to distract me from the difficulty of the climb. But it wasn´t enough and my situation quickly worsened. I stopped more often and for longer stretches. It had hardly been an hour, today´s ten hour hike was seeming to be a challenging task, more so than I had imagined.

Edgar suggested I take a shortcut with Diana, the other guide travelling with our 19 person group. As everyone else made the zigzag climb up to Salkantay, I was about to go on an extremely steep boulder-ridden mountain with no clear pat. This was my shortcut.

I didn´t want to take a horse. Some people had, but I didn´t want to. That was a sign of giving up. So I pushed myself harder. In the beginning, I´d walk a minute or two and then take a minute´s worth of rest. Eventually, my walking time decreased from a minute to half a minute. Within half an hour, I was at a new low - after walking two or three steps, I´d start feeling nauseous, wait 2-3 minutes to recover, and then start again, only to stop soon thereafter. Up ahead, Diana was doing her best to encourage me. When I felt like passing out, she rubbed alcohol on my forehead and my nose. When I slowed down, she waited for me, patiently. "You can do it," is what I thought she was saying. Her English wasn´t great, and my Spanish wasn´t stellar either. But we found a way to communicate. She was my savior in those few hours.

It started to snow. At first, it was just a drizzle of white spots floating to the ground. Pretty soon, it got heavier, the flakes getting denser and not melting when they touched the dirt. I made a mental note of being grateful that I still had my unfashionableyet warm coat. Nikhil had my bag, so I didn´t have any snacks or water, only Diana´s half-full water bottle.

Truly, I had believed I could make it...Now, I accepted defeat. I couldn´t go up any further, my body wouldn´t allow it. I wanted a horse so badly. As long as I could see Diana´s bright yellow poncho in the distance, I knew I was okay. When I looked ahead and couldn´t see her, I felt alone and panicked. Using all the strengh I could muster, I dragged my feet a few more inches, bit by bit, until I caught sight of the yellow plastic fluttering in the wind. I craved a horse, but due to the rocky terrain, the horses couldn´t come to the area I was in. So I had no choice but to walk uphill. Just walking, looking at the ground below me, because looking straight ahead would show a never-ending uphill. I don´t know how long I must have walked. Two hours maybe. I must have been close to the top, because Edgar came to me, his face gleaming with a smile, and next to him was a horse. I didn´t have the energy to pull myself up, so he pushed me up. "The horse is going to take you to the highest point," he said, "after that it is all downhill." I was too dazed to respond. Once the horse began to strut uphill, the shaking and swaying made me even more queasy. I closed my eyes. The whole ride took three minutes. I was so close.

The downhill two hours were an undescribable luxury. While the uphill battle had made me faint, the downhill path was rejuvenating. I didn´t feel weak anymore. Conscious once again, I mentally thanked the two things that had kept me going. One, Diana. Two, a wad of coca leaves was a permanent entity in my cheek. After sucking all the juice out of one ball, I´d spit it out and stuff some more leaves in my mouth. I went through four rounds. This is what addiction must feel like.

The lunch site was high, but not cold. In fact, the environment changed completely. No longer were rocky, snowy mountains our surroundings. We were in lush greenery, enveloped in a white humid mist. The moisture caused a slight drizzle as we walked on a narrow cliff. Thus begain our journey through the jungle known as The Eyebrow of the Andes.

We walked through the jungle, down steep muddy paths, sliding through wetness, the wet dirt crunching under our rubbery soles. Despite the long walk, I was no longer tired. We camped in a grassy open space, where the toilets were two roofless, doorless squat-down latrines. My pants were a victim of muddy grime, so I trimmed the extra length with a swiss army knife, rinsed the crusty mud, and hung them out to dry on a clothesline. At night, the weather was pleasant and the sleep comfortable. I was happy. The hardest day was over.
Day: B
Me: C-


  1. Your apt narrative, coupled with Nikhil's beautiful pictures...the readers are with you every step of the way. From snowy Andes to the beautiful flowers. Thanks for taking us along the ride.

  2. I eagerly wait for your blog updates. I am actually a part of it now. I start missing it , if you are late.

  3. Gosh! Your tale has an eerie resemblance to what I experienced on one of the treks I was part of. The place was near Dalhousie, and I had the Himalayas playing a similar role to what the Andes did for you. The common factor - Nikhil! Do ask him to narrate the tale if he remembers about it.
    As you had your coca leaves, so I had 'alpenliebes'. Thanks to Nikhil, sucking on those silly caramel toffees saw me through in some part!