South America on the Up and Up
© Copyright 2020 by Wes Choc
Unquestionably. It’s confirmed. Machu Picchu is extraordinary. It’s an amazingly amazing place … above-the-clouds high, mysterious, mystical, breath-seizing in every literal sense … of historic consequence beyond doubt. As one of the most photographed exotic places on Earth, it's on the must-see or “bucket list” of every single adventurer or National Geographic subscriber I’ve ever talked to.
My wife, Carol, and I never could have imagined visiting such an isolated and remarkable place, but we did as tourists with a generous nibble of traveling most sojourners just don’t get to taste. We were attending a business meeting in Santiago, and decided to spend an extra week in Peru on our way to Chile. So we added Lima then Cuzco to cities visited on our way south down this fantastic continent. After all, Peru is one of those “one-of-a-kind” places you read about, but never likely have the chance to visit. Who would’ve thought the most unforgettable experience here would have nothing to do with this extraordinary culture amid innumerable mind-boggling vistas. That particular surprise, indeed, caught us off guard. Hmmm. Is surprise the right word?
But first let me “tourist” a bit. From Lima we traversed myriad uninterrupted mountain ranges to Cuzco, one of the highest airports in the world. After overnighting in this over-two-mile high city, we boarded a local passenger train and thunk-thunk’d through mountains and valleys unlike anything we had ever seen before. Every bend revealed unfolding pages of photographable eye-snatching snapshots that capture souls between camera clicks.Arriving at Aguas Calientes, a tiny tourist-oriented town at the end of the tracks, we transferred to small bus-type vehicles that carried us further uphill to the stone walls and steep agricultural terraces of this ancient civilization.
Apart from eyes uncomfortable with the sheer verticalness of Peruvian terrain, the brain gropes to imagine how that private and progressive yet self-protected Incan culture could have survived …or even how they irrigated trenches or harvested crops 10,000 feet up …but most of all, how implausible remnants of such a complex culture could have remained unnoticed even though Peru was inhabited by other native tribes for centuries. It wasn’t even known by the Spaniards from the 16th to 19th century. No one even detected this culture at all until the 20th century!
Once we got past the sheer profundity of history and this uncanny setting, we wondered whether the original residents could have appreciated the unique global beauty of their homeland. Yet, the Incan culture thrived. It bestowed so much to admire over the last few decades, and we still gawk at its magnificence and improbability. Without much extra effort, further awe abounds exploring rock walls or hiking the Inca Trail (as I did …at least a few miles of it!), or climbing hills to gain better photo-oriented views. It’s impossible to take it all in on one experience no matter how many extra breaths inhaled. It filled eyes and lungs with never-ending anticipations.
There are cliffs where eyes plummet literally straight down, places more than a thousand luring feet down! We may be accustomed to guardrails and fences, but none here! Gasping air, I wasn't sure it was the altitude or the breathlessness of brinks that kept getting caught in my throat.
Despite knowledge the Machu Picchu ancients never had, they were advanced and unduplicated anywhere else on Earth. Evidence of astuteness, austereness and cleverness inside this culture is overwhelming. We explored ruins, paths, tiny stone rooms, and steep stairs; many so precarious to get to, we had to crawl up or down fearing loss of balance or falling. Carol became uneasy with edgy sheer drops and unguarded abysses. Since faintness of heart was a constant companion and falling such a preoccupation, I didn’t take many photos. After looking at ruins or at vast distances within my gasping re-grasping eyesight, only image-etched memories survived.
Brinkmanship and Reflection
Carol declined risking any further elevation, so on my own I climbed that always-photographed pyramidal-shaped peak overlooking the terraced ruins we admire in all the travel brochures …up steep primitive zigzagging trails on the shady side of that triangle (see photo) amid high-altitude, jaw-dropping brinks. It was like looking out of a nose-diving airplane traversing Andean canyons. But, once again, I gained an even greater perspective of once-in-a-lifetime grandeurs. I came close to reaching the very tip of that topmost peak while breaths were being stolen by my eyes.
Of all my “sojournistic” getaways, this climb and descent carved dazzling scars into my memory bank. Embedded cliffs of awe so remembered could never to be duplicated inside any coffee table book at home. These are things we’ll never forget; goosebumps still linger.
Down the Hill
Coming off this one-of-a-kind enigmatic Machu Picchu plateau created reflections among other mutual “touristers” …mixtures of serenity and wonder …words with “-est” suffixes stuck onto all adjectives uttered (like the grandest, tallest, deepest, scariest, or “most …” like most dangerous, most awesome, most beautiful over and over again. Superlatives reigned over every sentence so much that details weren’t absorbed. Scattered “wows” or “oh-my-Gods!” were followed by repetitious, pensive, intestine-wrenching re-contemplations. So many other things must be there to discover, but would be inevitably missed.
At this mountainside’s bottom where Machu Picchu had clung unnoticed for centuries just below the clouds, lay that little town of Aguas Calientes where trains from Cuzco ended. Souvenir shops, t-shirts, places to sit and sip coffee, plus awe-inspiring mountains to look up at if you could crick your head back far enough, greeted us as we re-acclimated to (somewhat) lower altitudes.
Dawdling around the hotel where we listened to Andean flute music, we feasted on cuisine using local veggies and fried plantains, then retired tired. We were roused at dawn to have a hearty Inca-oriented spicy egg meal before boarding that narrow-gauge railroad —that once-a-day and only way back to Cuzco. There just aren’t any roads, airports, or any other way to get to or from Machu Picchu except train or, if you’re a hiker, on the Inca Trail itself.
Waiting at the station to depart soon, we noticed a flatbed car at the back end of the train and a similar one in front of the engine. We surmised it must be how supplies were hauled in and trash out. We didn’t give the peculiarity much thought beyond recognizing that the flatbeds were not there on our trip to Aguas Calientes from Cuzco a few days prior. Extraordinary things are common around here, so no eyebrows were piqued.
As we patiently waited, haunting flute music pervaded air we inhaled —beautiful, unforgettable melodies conjuring Andean charm, mixing the uncommon with the mystique of the unfamiliar. Distinctive, contemporary native tunes and their stylistic execution were of course for the benefit of tourists. The authentically garbed entrepreneurs had their DVDs for sale (of course), alongside modern souvenirs that Americans liked and purchased. Flight of the Condor was a recognizable tune; and, it fulfilled our visit as the very last melody these musicians were fluting (see photo) before stepping onto the rusty metal boarding stool just below the train’s own boarding steps. I learned later that Simon and Garfunkel had also reworked this tune into their famous Sounds of Silence. This had been a fine finale for this unusual place!
Each of us lingered for two or three moments, hesitating back-glances up the blackbird-studded craggy skyline hoping to discover one of those condors, or at least hear their caws. We entered the train recounting interest-piques from the sojourn. As we gazed out dirty windows reminiscing about this special place, a dozen military troops (rifles in hand) jumped onto a flatbed car at the rear of the train ...and another dozen or so onto the front flatbed. Odd!
Though eyebrows did arch, no one seemed to care about it, so we dropped our chins and yielded. In Peru, we guessed it an unremarkable, perhaps routine image. We couldn’t tell the difference between military troops and police (if there indeed was one) anyway. Oh well. Everyone sighed then relaxed, falling into seats waiting for that first jerk to carry us back to reality.
We all lurched, rocked, stopped, then with rusty squeaks heaved and jolted with that typical “urrrr-thump-thump, urrrrr-thump-thump” melody nostalgic for any of us who’d ridden rails before. Two engines, a dining car, three coaches, and two flatbeds curly-cued around tight turns as predictable metallic squeals pressed wheel against steel. As our old car screeched gaining tiny lunges of speed while hugging high cliffs lifting up to our left, the twisting Rio Urubamba circuitously slithered around down to our right. We shivered unnervingly close to these vast and redundant edges of grandeur for miles as grimacing eyes stared to the right …and downhill.
While the engine dragging its human cargo didn’t labor that much, it was clear we were gaining altitude as the Urubamba kept slithering narrower and narrower to our right. Thump-thumps were rhythmic, mesmerizing. Snow-capped Andes, one huge spiky peak after another, were now in our sights as we thump-thumped along in and out of shadows beneath blue and gray points with rugged rocky caps of bright white and silver-shaded cliff faces. As white-craggy mountains slid by our windows in the distance, other majestic blue-clad peaks emerged in a hypnotic trance of V-shaped valleys existing nowhere else like they do here in Peru. Thin horizontal clouds shrouding mid-slopes made lofty mountains seem even higher.
High Altitude Training
Later, raspy loudspeakers announced in broken English that our train would stop in the town of Urubamba, a mountain village half way between Aguas Calientes and Cuzco. Passengers would be transferred to buses waiting there to take us to Cuzco. Guides would receive information about which tour operator was assigned to specific buses upon arrival in about an hour. Luggage would then be placed on those buses for all tour passengers. Others’ luggage would be placed on the platform for pickup. It did seem peculiar to us that the message wasn’t repeated in Spanish.
In a follow-up statement, our announcer went on to explain that there was an imminent railroad workers’ strike; so trains couldn’t continue. The statement ended with a quick irking audio screech. With only nonchalance in the announcer’s voice, we figured these things occurred from time to time and again speculated it routine! A few eyes rolled.
Everyone acquiesced without complaint as we laid back and listened to one urrrrr-thump-thump after another, carrying us around yet another high-pitched metallic curve at an ever-so-slightly greater speed. Even though many exhausted passengers jostled into slumber, others enjoyed their noisy, lumbering, “photo-dictive” journey. Cameras were pasted to windows wherever noses were not. The Andean Theater went on.
Arriving in Urubamba, the train urr’ed and shrugged a lurching stop. Passengers knew they were disembarking, so carry-on bags hung in every hand as elbows bumped into each other onto a narrow depot platform. Below the exit gate, our eyes evaluated what it would take to go toward the throngs of white buses visible a little more than a football field away …evaluated carefully because there were obstacles! Hordes of villagers between us and the buses were hawking cheap tee shirts, shiny brass llamas, wool blankets, and local crafts. Did we just hear a pan flute? Once quick bathroom stops were completed, it turned out that Carol and I were among the very last ones to make our way through the depot’s exit gate.
Villagers seemed happy to greet us. How did they know we would even be there? But those twenty-odd troops did not appear happy to face them. Soldiers wore heavy frowns and pinched lips above crispy starched olive green uniforms. Indigenous women and girls were dressed in embroidered dresses and flat hats, garbed in dark-colors, bright reds and black —we guessed for our benefit to depict traditional native costume. All men and boys dressed in white pants and white shirts. But we learned these weren’t costumes; this was how they dressed all the time.
With eager eyes staring at us, an undulating human tsunami surged to receive us —waving, smiling, semi-polite beckoning, but yelling to gain notice —and to compete for our attention. I wondered why there were so many people (was it because of the buses?). There were three or four times as many native Peruvians selling wares than there were among the hundred or so potential clients …customers who were now wearing less-than-polite frowns and marching with haughty “let-me-through” strides.
I’m sure I heard someone again playing Flight of the Condor.
As locals yielded to barking troops who gained way with anger-yapping jaws, we realized even more chaotic situations were developing. There weren’t enough olive-green uniforms among the local color. As the last norteamericanos to disembark and approach this melee of brass figurines, baskets, alpaca blankets, and terra cotta pottery, we became a clump of six couples separated from all others in our tour group with masses of sales opportunities between us and the bus.
A young uniformed guy speaking no English, herded us with military authority toward another tide of bag-laden men, women and children. We became round-eyed uneasy when it became obvious we were not heading in the same direction as the rest of our tour group (they were boarding different buses to our right!). Our chain of twelve pressed its way into this pack of humanity with constrained emotion as we faced this unruly space, getting compressed and out of control. Public desperation festered amid forced military-oriented noisy reshuffles. Theatrical grimaces and groans abounded, normal fast-spoken Spanish accelerated elevating in pitch and sound then turned into degenerated exchanges of dissonant, operatic exhibitions among anyone so excluded.
Meanwhile, tee shirts prices began decreasing the further we zigzagged through mazes of high altitude festivity. Our perpetual “no thank you” or even “no gracias” didn’t have much impact, and not one of the uniformed men listened to anything we said. “Three for ten dollars!” yelled a budding young salesman lifting his array of tees. Pleading “a good buy!” in a heavy accented English while a woman among our dogged six replied back “yes, good bye!” producing off-hand humor missed by everyone else within the locals’ horde. Collective tension elevated.
One short military guy, rifle held out in present-arms, persisted to move the twelve of us norteamericanos through, yelling obscenities right away recognizable to me despite my limited Spanish. Another military guy with stripes escorted us with persistent vigor toward buses we knew were not ours.
Though crowds had become boisterous, the market dusty, and our entourage chaotic, we shouted “that’s our bus way over there!” in English above the din, pointing to our right, pushing our own bodies with deliberate but impolite cadence through the masses. We were able to create enough distance between us and the two nearest troops to establish our own self-made parade, perhaps successful because we were all so much taller than local Peruvians. By this time, all twelve of us had serious looks pasted on our faces. We moved fast, keeping eyes fixed straight ahead toward that one bus we knew was ours ignoring any ugly-American aplomb we might have exhibited. These were survival tactics.
Hot, sweaty, we made it onto the last of three General Tours buses with swishes and private smiles of accomplishment. We witnessed our luggage being loaded in the undercarriage but not stopping to examine if it were all there; we assumed it was. “We did it!” shouted one of the women upfront.
Because the first two buses filled up fast, the third bus ended up having no others than our dirty dozen on it. Bus #3’s engine had been running in wait for a signal from some unseen official outside, then closed its doors. After shifting gears, we crept up and out of the parking area with a slow audible crunch of big tires on gravel persisting to distract us. We daubed our smiling faces as we cooled down. Heartbeats decelerated.
Conversation focused on how pleasant air conditioning was, despite that upfront lady’s repeated “whew!” remarks. And, we leaned back, relaxed, and gazed out.
Black and red, and white-clad crowds still tried to gain attention outside our windows as the bus inched along, but none of us looked right at them. We practiced looking straight ahead, ignoring them in a deliberate, polite manner, yet wishing the bus would go faster. Several teenaged entrepreneurs pounded the side of the bus to get our attention. No one looked twice.
Amid pending safety relief and sitting back in soft comfortable bus seats, out our window I saw a white Jeep Cherokee with a flashing yellow light on top. It moved onto the ascending road with the first two buses following it. Our driver nosed his bus out to follow, we being a minute behind bus number two. Then a second white Jeep with flashing yellow lights pulled in right behind us. We were the first to depart this valley of tour vendors.
Our five vehicle entourage edged out of the lot creating an in-synch procession exiting uphill on a well-used narrow dirt road with multiple crisscrossing switchbacks ...a laboring challenge for an almost-too-long white tour bus as this.
All other, smaller local buses were still boarding passengers; and, there were, of course, many folks still engaged in local free enterprise. Carol and I, and everyone else on the right side of the bus stared in cooled-air comfort, observing all goings-on at the makeshift market from this new vantage point of sudden liberation …and safety …albeit at less than a 10mph escape speed.
I don’t think anybody in our group bought much if anything; but, I still wondered about a lot of things: How locals might have known we would stop there. How they made a living if they couldn’t sell much (maybe other bus travelers were better shoppers?). Who were their regular customers when there weren’t train strikes? Then I wondered why there was no one in our group of twelve buying anything while those in other remaining groups apparently were.
Where was the actual village of Urubamba? All we ever saw was the train station and parking lot, but few other outlying buildings, businesses, or homes.
In touristy-ish banter, our twelve discussed why military was needed for boarding, and how it was predicted by the tour operators. The outspoken lady upfront said “I’m at least glad for crowd control in Urubamba as well as cool air right now!” We all speculated aloud about the two white Jeeps and about being harassed by overaggressive locals selling stuff —stuff one could buy in any other local village. Everyone had an observation and multiple opinions.
Now sheltered from unidentified harm, we again became mere tourists in Peru along for the ride. Urubamba was now out of sight, and out of mind. Magnificent scenery recaptured attentions as we translated all we saw into terms we norteamericanos could understand. Judgment-oriented chatter faded away as eyes strayed and refocused.
Our pudgy driver couldn’t speak English so we didn’t know what we were looking at, but it was window after window of stunning scenic postcards. No one minded. The bus never got cold but it was definitely cooler than outside. We grinded on more-or-less paved roads and physically into those more distant, magnificent mountains we had admired from the train on our trip in.
Securely re-acknowledged being the tourists we were, we also recognized how that first-half itinerary of thump-thumping tracks was now completely different …a brand new, unanticipated journey!
Buses labored never-ending tight curves winding side to side while trying to cool its customers. After a half hour of ever-changing, breathtaking panoramas the road curled around steep cliffs up the left side.
Just as it had been on the train, all faces were eyes right taking in the dizzying precipice straight down beside a rail berm that could no longer be seen. That once-wide river below us grew narrower as our road winded circuitously left and right with ever-increasing downshifts and engine speeds.
But buses aren’t like trains. Trains stay on tracks with anonymity and they can’t drift onto berms. Edges were, well, real! The crunch heard when we drove onto a berm was disconcerting. And there weren’t any guardrails! At least air conditioning kept us cool.
Three buses and two white escorts all stayed in parade line, going a bit faster than other traffic. Pavement was narrow with inconsistent striping. With no guardrails the roadway paralleled a berm of a foot or two. At first merely unnerving, this became the next latest hot topic whispered among the six couples on our bus. Eyes widened then looked away as our group practiced nonchalance.
Parked or stalled vehicles …or families with llamas …or sheep herds …blocked us from faster speeds. Buses skirted around them. We entered the lane left and back right without regard for probable oncoming traffic. Carol and I couldn’t figure out how the driver knew there was no approaching traffic on blind curves.
Noticing others spotting the same thing after snide side comments about what it must be like to drive in Latin America, moods changed. Most pressed their eyes closed forcing smiles while clenching fists upon sensing other traffic. Hands first gripped armrests followed by hugging the seat in front of them with a sudden sense of abandon —an abandon no one would endure had we been going to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. Tensions stirred.
Stereotypical cynical humor about Latino bus drivers had now yielded to more telltale glares as we whispered across the bus aisle with arching eyebrows and firmer chair hugs on severe curves. Amid wrinkling foreheads, temple rubbing, and lip pinching, such arm and hand activity helped keep eyes closed when necessary —restrained toleration were practiced skills. After all, this was not the United States.
Then something strange took place. The first jeep and two buses passed an old school bus quite long past ever looking school bus yellow anymore, but looking rather iconic —like an image one might picture out of an Ernest Hemingway novel. It was a dirty, muddy, rust-colored bus with stacks of semi-tied-down luggage on top —overloaded with locals inside and smiling kids’ heads hanging out windows waving at us. Might there be live chickens inside too? Luggage atop the bus swayed left when the bus curved right, swayed right when the bus curved left with authentic Hemingway-esque dancing road rhythms.
The next latest hot topic for us twelve in the third bus was “Couldn’t that rusty top-heavy crate tip over?” Words were laced with our own trepidations and what-if conjectures interspersed with colorful four-letter words enunciated loud and clear. Once we passed Hemingway’s rusty heap, Jeep #2 behind us was unable to follow because Ernest straddled the centerline and accelerated in a competitive reaction to our own passing him.
Grasping our inability to keep the five-vehicle entourage intact, passengers’ whispers became audible as yet another new hot topic captured lips while arching brows or frowning foreheads salt and peppered expressions of askance. The bus was cool, but our temples were sweating.
As lingering stress pervaded the dirty dozen, an odd contest occurred. Hemingway’s school bus passed us back planting itself between us and bus #2. Passengers’ wide eyes followed the reddish orange rival in disbelief with a few “oh my gawds” and “did’ja see thats?” uttered in overlapping unisons …as twenty four eyes concentrated toward Ernest’s high-pitched low-gearing effort at road supremacy. Ernest overtook our position and gassed it to our own driver’s obvious chagrin. Miffed, our #3 bus driver elevated his double chin, irritated. Looking below his wire-rimmed glasses while smirking his nose at the other driver, he passed Ernest a second time catching the eye of this renegade as our driver threw up his arm gesticulating a middle finger, Latino style.
Now succeeding at a second pass through curves for which no one could view oncoming cars triggered odd anxieties with one woman letting out a prolonged yelp as she lost control. Passing another parked pickup along the road, Ernest clipped its rearview mirror then accelerated again with a low-gear roar, passing us a second time, gesticulating back with full fervor as a few of his younger passengers screamed out their windows with a sense of pitted rivalry showing no dismay. But on Bus #3, things became a mix of hushed respectful voice silence countered by undertones of verbal alarm.
I glimpsed at the right berm; it was straight down. As we gained speed, we would grind onto those narrow eighteen to twenty inch edges to the shock of everyone aboard along with more yelps. An inharmonious wailing a cappella embraced two ladies as everyone hugged the seat in front of them.
Our driver ignored “driver, driver!” heeding no questions. No one again tried to gain his attention, perhaps to avoid becoming an unnecessary distraction but probably really due to gut fear. The otherwise short and stocky tour bus operator became fixed on his standing-tall mission sitting lofty in his padded leather throne looking down at the road. He tuned out the sopranos’ chorus as tires ground again onto the narrow berm.
I trembled at how close we were to the edge. Dissonant voices became piercing pitches over rhythmic road and engine sounds. While a few of us crouched down, the anvil chorus continued until something yet stranger occurred. Choral clamoring stopped dead cold; time froze.
Eyes stopped staring at how Ernest and Jeep #2 vied for position. Hot topics vanished. Lips narrowed. Eyes, dismissing any other distraction, stared straight …dead-ahead.
Our bus whined from wincing transmission whirs and higher speeds. The caboose Cherokee followed six to ten feet behind. Our duet, with deliberate intent, passed teetering Hemingway yet once again on a blind curve. The squealing rpms lured us into grabbing the seat in front of us. Though eyes were wide open we saw nothing; we looked straight ahead, said nothing.
Gnashing engine noises crackled as we passed Ernest this third time. No one, except me, looked to prove if he or we were about to go over the edge or whether there was any oncoming traffic …only quiet unfocused stares. Was it apathy …or surrender? Wavy lines distorted our view through the windshield. Was it mirage, or trance?
Changing gears were the only sounds to influence this bizarre spell we had penetrated together. Never before, nor ever since, have I endured this kind of collective panic while embracing calm at the same time.
It was a peaceful schizophrenic stupor …indeed a form of mass hysteria.
And here’s how it all added up at the end.
Our entourage labored uphill over the posted speed limits, but with patience. We twelve remained duty-bound and obedient. The highest mountain pass was reached. After that we lost sight of the Urubamba River as well as the need for guardrails. Within the hour upon entering the outskirts of Cuzco, there was yielding acquiescence, a kind of defrosting inside, but no talking.
I noticed an absence of trees outside (was it because the altitude exceeded 14,000 feet?) as my mind turned the page, refocusing on roadside buildings and people. Sandy-tan buildings built close to the road, and native black and red clad female pedestrians with leashed llamas walking alongside, jogged me back into true-tourist mode. Stand alone, stucco homes with scraggly cows in walled-in front yards gave way to bigger two-story dwellings with cement sidewalks …then on to three-story tan colored structures and ever narrowing streets.
Kids played on the highway. Block walls faced the street with trashy debris collecting at gates and along the road. Every other intersection had a little grocery store with open crates of fruit out front, or dirty gas stations with a clump of cars to be serviced, plus an always-white building or farmacia (other structures were tan), or a church with a bell tower that would roll by the bus’s window for us to notice.
Eventually I again became a sightseer …the tourist I knew how to be. There weren’t a lot of vehicles, but lots of white-clothed men and boys walking around alone on these litter-strewn alleys, streets and sidewalks, and an occasional group of black and red clad women in twos or threes with bags under their arms.
Though Cuzco is a large city, there never were any tall buildings. The highest structures around were church spires. Mind and body acclimating, I wasn’t sweating anymore. Two women walked down the road with pots balanced on their heads. It was like waking up after sleeping under anesthesia; my brain struggled regaining consciousness from a heavy but conflicted, relaxed state, like recovering from a hangover without the headache.
Eventually we approached downtown, drove around the plaza, down a side street to the hotel’s front door.
In an unusual gracious way, we exited one by one without uttering a word, walking single file zombie-like, into an Incan-decorated room where passengers of the other two buses had already been gathering. But, our twelve remained clumped, unobtrusive, coming-to out of this odd trance. Maybe it had to do with the altitude or thin air or...
A huge oil painting, at least 8’ x 8’ of llamas clambering down a rocky, snow-laden Andean slope as clouds created a cold, beautiful haze in the distance, hung in the entry hall. Our muted dozen merged into this group of mutual tourists, and we began to exchange a word here and there with each other. We made eye contact and displayed polite smiles. They were serving yerba mata tea. While it may have looked like a cocktail party, few were actually talking.
Peru’ving It - Explanations, Translations, Observations
Guides began explaining things. “For those who don’t already know, yesterday the train from Machu Picchu was stopped by a party of upcountry bandits stealing money, credit cards, and jewelry. They likely knew about the pending strike. I didn’t know all this myself until boarding our particular bus to come back.” He repositioned himself and stood on a folding chair so we could hear him better. “The Peruvian government is quick and decisive about such incidents, hence the military presence and bus escorts. Of course, your safety is of utmost importance to us.” He looked to the other guide, “…anything you want to add, Alicia?”
She affirmed from the side, “We’re sorry for those on the third bus who didn’t have a guide to help understand what was going on. You guys missed our lecture about the canyons and passes we traversed, but our group just couldn’t fit onto two buses. Those mountain passes used to be the route of choice for the Spaniards when they first inhabited Peru.”
“How could buses pass another vehicle on those curves?” asked a passenger from our bus.
“Sorry, I thought you knew how all five vehicles were connected by two-way radios. Drivers use a device that looks like a hearing aid.” Then the leader on the chair continued explaining along with hand and finger gestures illustrating a hearing aid, “Though I don’t condone driving styles here in Peru, in order to stay together the first bus driver alerted the next bus when there were no approaching vehicles; the second bus in turn alerted the third to allow them to pass in safety. In their world, it’s the way it works. I wouldn’t advise this at home” he added with a grin, thinking it funny.
Not many were smiling back.
The woman guide chimed in, “… and I want to once again apologize for transfer challenges in Urubamba. With that unforeseen strike upon us, we were happy to learn General Tours arranged for three buses on such short notice and to get them there before we arrived. I was surprised at that! Let’s not forget to thank our local teammates for arranging these transfers too,” pointing to the back of the room saying their names. Polite applause followed. Three young Peruvian men in white shirts and black ties waved hands and grinned.
The tour leader continued not skipping a beat. “Once again let me express our appreciation for your understanding; we at General Tours are not only proud of our network of professionals to assist with your travel needs, but are confident in our abilities to keep travelers safe, protected from harm,” then added with a broad smile, “…and, we have a nice authentic Peruvian dinner planned for everyone this evening. Examine the menu boards in the lobby; be sure to try the platanas or plantains, fried with ever so gentle hands. Now, I know everyone wants to get to freshen up after such a long day. See you at dinner.”
Now walking toward the stairs, I remained light-headed as the day’s hangover slowly wore off and altitude acclimation kicked in.
No one on bus #3 complained about lack of knowledge or panic for the afternoon’s escapade; we were, however, assessing details. We freshened up and had quite a nice Peruvian meal as if nothing outrageous had happened at all, but with an extraordinary story to tell that we could take with us. Well, at least for one or two of us. There was even a musician playing haunting Peruvian flute tunes to greet us. When he played Flight of the Condor, that tune thereafter became the theme song for this trip. To this day, when I hear this melody, Andes’ cliffs surge to mind. And, who could ever forget Ernest?
When entering the dining room, we chatted about Peruvian driving habits with humor. But, most conversations centered on the oddities and magnificence of Incan Civilization and Machu Picchu, the absence of trees in Cuzco, and the austere beauty of a large high altitude city with (we were told) the highest airport in the World. Then we talked about our upcoming jaunt to Lima the next morning.
Refreshed, by the time dinner was served (those platanas were indeed delicious!), it seemed as if nothing panic-worthy had really occurred. Yet, I’m certain this story was repeated by those participating …or, maybe dismissed as “whatever,” …or, forgotten on purpose without many recollections at all. Maybe destinations don’t matter. Expectations, after all, were either fulfilled or not; but, anticipations go on and on. Although Machu Picchu is mindboggling, getting to and from a place like that, is remembered for its own uniqueness as well …in particular for us condors …us condors whose iconic melody lingers inside our ears.
Condors. Yeah, condors are nasty slick, vulture-like birds …but that song! I simply cannot dismiss that haunting melody …a tune that captures the Andean soul unlike any other image. It was truly a one of a kind flight that’s now implanted inside the marrow of my own black-winged bones. All those “vulture-istic” habits aside, it’s the flight of the condors that I see with my eyes closed.
Is there a difference between what can go wrong and what unique adventure might be discovered by merely turning the next page? Should risk still be avoided …or sought? Do aberrant outcomes just happen?
The flight of the condors.
Once retired from the American Automobile Association in 2008, Wes Choc changed forty years of 9 to 5 regimens to writing and volunteering. These now consume far more hours than the 9 to 5's ever did.
He has self-published three nonfiction books: one a memoir about his stint in Vietnam ("Just Dust") …another a biography of a virtually unknown World War II soldier who became a consequential spy during the Cold War (“Inconspicuous”) …and a third about personal accounts while traveling abroad (“Hectic Treks”). With a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) certificate in hand, Wes taught English in Ecuador for several months.
He continues to volunteer regularly tutoring English to refugees and immigrants. He also volunteers with returning vets at the local VA hospital. Wes and his wife, Carol, now live in Tucson, Arizona.