Don’t Look Down! (South America) – 1999

South America on the Up and Up

Machu Picchu is an amazingly amazing place. Above-the-clouds high. Mysteriously mystical. Breath-seizing in every literal sense. Historically consequential beyond doubt. As arguably one of the most photographed exotic places on Earth, it’s also a place on the must-see or “bucket list” of every 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. Y’see, there was this travel industry meeting in Santiago. And, well, we decided to spend an extra week in Peru on our way to Chile–so we did adding Lima and Cuzco to cities visited on the way through this utterly fantastic continent. Peru is usually the one-of-a-kind place you read about, not go to.

Two miles up, breathing in amazing grandeur

 

After Lima we flew to Cuzco, one of the highest commercial airfields in the world. After overnighting in this over-two-mile high city, we boarded a train to thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk our way ever so slowly through mountains and valleys unlike anything we had ever seen before. Every bend revealed another unfolding page of photographable eye-snatching snapshots that capture the soul.

Notwithstanding eyes not immediately comfortable with the sheer verticalness of Peruvian terrain, the brain gropes to imagine how that private and progressive yet self-protective Incan culture could have actually survived …or how they irrigated trenches 10,000 feet up …or how they harvested crops …or how they ate enough protein to feed their bodies …or, implausibly, how remnants of such a complex culture could have remained unnoticed even though Peru was inhabited by other native tribes for centuries …even undetected by Spanish-speaking Europeans from the 16th to 19th century. But they astonishingly did.

Once we got past the sheer profundity of history and uncanny setting, we wondered whether the original residents could possible appreciate the global beauty of their homeland. Yet, the Incan culture thrived and ultimately bestowed so much to admire over these last few decades by us gawking witnesses.

Without much extra effort, further awe abounds exploring rock walls or hiking the Inca Trail as I did for a few miles …or climbing nearby hills to gain a better photographer’s-type view. It’s impossible to take it all in on one experience no matter how many breaths inhaled. It fills the eyes, the lungs and never-ending anticipations. There are cliffs where eyes plummet literally straight down …places more than a thousand luring feet down! We may be used to guardrails and fences, but none here! As I gasped for air, I wasn’t sure it was the altitude or the breathlessness of brinks that got caught in my throat. Despite knowledge these Machu Picchu ancients never had, they were advanced and unduplicated anywhere else. Evidence of astuteness, austereness and cleverness of this culture is simply overwhelming.

Carol and I explored ruins, pathways, tiny stone rooms, and steep stairs. Some places were precarious …so precipitous we had to crawl up or down fearing loss of balance or ways to avoid a falls. Carol became uneasy with edgy, sheer drops, and countless unguarded abysses. Faintness of heart was our constant companion. Slipping happened. Since falling became such a preoccupation, I failed to take many photographs. Looking back at ruins or at vast distances within my gasping re-grasping eyesight instead, only image-etched memories survived.

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Brinkmanship and Reflection

Carol, dizzy, declined risking 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 the triangle (see photos) amidst high-altitude, jaw-dropping brinks …the kinds we might perceive from nose-diving airplanes between those Andean canyons …but I gained an even greater perspective of this once-in-a-lifetime grandeur. I came close to that tiny topmost peak with breath stolen by my eyes.

Of all my sojournistic getaways, this climb and descent carved beautiful scars into my memories, etching embedded cliffs of awe never to be merely shivered away among coffee table book photographs at home. Goosebumps still linger.

Train to Cuzco

Coming down off this one-of-a-kind enigmatic Machu Picchu plateau created reflections among others we commiserated with … a combination of serenity and wonder … with an “-est” suffix stuck onto all adjectives repetitiously uttered …like the grandest, tallest, deepest, scariest, or the “most …” … most dangerous, most awesome, most beautiful over and over again. Superlatives reigned every sentence. Details simply weren’t absorbed. Scattered “wows” were dutifully followed by pensive intestine-wrenching re-contemplations. So many other things were there to see but missed.

At mountainside’s bottom where Machu Picchu had clung unnoticeably above history’s previous pioneers for centuries, just below the clouds, lay the little town of Aguas Calientes where the train to and from Cuzco ended.

"Flight of the Condor" played hauntingly at our departure

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 lower altitudes.

Lingering around the nearby hotel where we listened to Andean flute music, we feasted on authentic cuisine, then retired tired, and eventually roused early in order to have a hearty Inca-oriented breakfast before boarding that narrow-gauge railroad … that once-a-day and only way back to Cuzco. There are absolutely no roads, no airfields, or any other way to get to or from Machu Picchu except train or, if you’re a hiker, on the Inca Trail itself.

Unlike when we arrived, we barely noticed a flatbed train car at the back end of the train and another 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 other than recognizing the flatbeds weren’t there on our trip to Aguas Calientes from Cuzco a few days prior. But, extraordinary things are common around here.

In the background we heard Peruvian flute music …beautiful, haunting melodies conjuring Andean charisma with a mixture of the uncommon coupled with the mystique of the unfamiliar. Distinctive, almost contemporary native tunes and their stylistic execution were of course for the benefit of tourists; and, the authentically-garbed entrepreneurs had their DVDs for sale, modern souvenirs that Americans liked … and purchased … as we did as well.

The Flight of the Condor was a famous recognizable tune; and, it concluded our visit as the very last melody these musicians were fluting (see photo) before we stepped up and onto the rusty metal boarding stool just below the train’s own boarding steps. Each one of us lingered for two or three moments with hesitating back-glances up the blackbird-studded craggy skyline hoping to see one of those condors, or at least hear their caw. We entered the short train (see photo above) recounting interest-piques from this special sojourn. As we looked out dirty windows reminiscing about this special place, we observed a dozen military troops, rifles in hand, jumping onto a flatbed car at the rear of the train …and another dozen or so onto the front flatbed. Odd, to say the least!

Disturbing!

While our own eyebrows arched, no one else seemed to care about it, so we tilted out chins and yielded. In Peru, we guessed, there was something unremarkable, perhaps almost routine about this odd image. Most of us 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. We lurched, rocked, stopped, then squeakily heaved and jolted with that typical “urrrr-thump-thump, urrrrr-thump-thump” melody that was especially nostalgic for any of us who’d ridden rails before. Two engines, a dining car, three coaches, and two flatbeds slowly 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 very high cliffs lifting up to our left while the twisting Rio Urubamba circuitously slithered around down to our right, we shivered unnervingly close to these vast and redundantly remarkable edges of grandeur, up or down for miles, but eyes always faced right.

While the engine dragging its human cargo didn’t seem to labor all that much, it was obvious we were gaining altitude as the Urubamba kept slithering narrower and lower to our right. The thump-thumps were rhythmic, mesmerizing. The snow-capped Andes, in one huge spiky peak after another, were now always in our sights as we thump-thumped along under shadowed blue and gray points with rugged caps of bright white and silver-shaded rock faces. Even while eye-capturing 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 their mid-slopes made these lofty mountains seem even higher.

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High Altitude Training and a Change of Plans

Sometime later over loudspeakers, passenger announcements were delivered in broken English that the train would be stopping in the town of Urubamba …a small village half way between Aguas Calientes and Cuzco. Passengers would then be transferred to buses waiting there to take us to Cuzco. Tour guides had already received information about which tour company was assigned to specific buses upon arrival in about an hour. Our luggage would then be placed on those buses automatically for all tour passengers. Others’ luggage would be placed on the platform for pickup. It was strange that the message wasn’t repeated in Spanish. In a follow-up statement, our announcer went on to explain rather matter-of-factly there was an imminent railroad workers’ strike; so the train couldn’t go on to Cuzco. The recording ended with a quick irking screech. Absent any anxiety in the announcer’s voice, we figured these sorts of things probably occurred from time to time and speculated it a routine event! Nonchalantly delivered, everyone silently acquiesced without complaint as we listened to one urrrrr-thump-thump after another, carrying us around yet another high-pitched metallic curve at an ever-so-slightly greater speed.

Many exhausted passengers jostled into slumber; but, others enjoyed their noisy, lumbering, photo-dictive journey, cameras pasted to windows where noses were not.

As we came into Urubamba, the train urr’ed, shrugging to a stop. Everyone knew they were disembarking, so retrieved carry-on bags hung in every hand as we elbowed our way toward throngs of white buses visible a little more than a football field away. Hordes of villagers between us and the buses were hawking cheap tee shirts, shiny brass llamas, wool blankets, and local crafts. Didn’t we just hear a pan flute?

Villagers seemed happy to see us (how did they know we would even be there?), but those twenty-some-odd troops did not appear to be happy to see 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 …perhaps for our benefit to depict expected native costume. Nearly all men and boys dressed in white pants and white shirts (we learned later these weren’t costumes; this was how they dressed daily).

Slowly, with all eyes staring at us, an undulating flood of humanity surged eagerly to receive us …waving, smiling, politely beckoning, but yelling to be heard. I wondered why there were so many locals (was it the buses?). There were easily three or four more times as many native Peruvians selling wares as there were among the less than a hundred potential and less-than-polite customers now wearing frowns and marching a haughty stride. Did I just hear someone playing Flight of the Condor?

As locals yielded to barking troops who were angrily gaining way, we could see a subdued but mildly chaotic situation developing. There weren’t enough olive-green uniforms amid the local color. Carol and I happened to be the very last norteamericanos to disembark and approach this melee of brass figurines, woven baskets, alpaca wool blankets, oil paintings, and terra cotta ceramic pottery. Six couples of us last-ones became separated from all others in our tour group with hordes of sales opportunities in between us and the bus.

A young uniformed guy speaking no English, tried herding 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 (we could see them boarding different buses). We were pressing into a mass of humanity in a constrained and unruly space now getting compressed and out of control. Public desperation festered amidst forced military-oriented and noisy reshuffles for position. Grimaces and groans abounding, normally fast-spoken Spanish accelerated, elevating in pitch and sound turning into degenerated exchanges of dissonant almost operatic exhibitions.

Meanwhile, tee shirts prices began suddenly decreasing the further we zigzagged through mazes of this high altitude culture. Our perpetual “no thank you” or even “no gracias” didn’t have much impact, and not one of the uniformed men was listening to anything we tried to say. “Three for ten dollars!” yelled a budding young salesman about his array of tees, “a good buy!” in heavy accent as someone in our group of six replied “yes, good bye!” producing some off-hand humor missed by everyone else within the locals’ horde. Collective tension was unconsciously elevating.

Then, one short military guy with rifle held out in a “present arms” posture persisted to move our small group of twelve norteamericanos through, yelling obscenities recognizable to me with my limited Spanish. Another military guy with stripes escorted us a little more strenuously toward that bus we knew was not ours. Even though crowds were boisterous, the market dusty, and our entourage chaotic, we shouted “that’s our bus way over there!” yelling in English above the din, pointing ahead to our right, pushing our bodies deliberately and sometimes impolitely through the masses. We were able to create enough distance between us and the two nearest troops to establish our own self-made path, perhaps successful because we were all so much physically taller than any 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 may have been exhibiting. These were survival tactics.

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Paved Glory

Hot, sweaty, we safely made it onto the last of three General Tours buses with swishes and private smiles. We saw our luggage being loaded in the undercarriage but not stopping to examine if it were all there; we assumed it must be. “We did it!” shouted one of the women.

Because the first two buses filled up fast, the third bus ended up having only our dirty dozen on it. The engine had fortunately been running in wait for a signal from some unseen official outside, then closed its doors. The engine shifted gears and we began to inch up and out of the parking area with only a slow audible crunch of big tires upon gravel to distract us. We daubed our smiling faces as we cooled down. Heartbeats decelerated. The only conversation focused on how pleasant air conditioning was.

Crowds were still trying to gain attention outside our windows as the bus inched along, but none of us looked at them. We practiced looking straight ahead, ignoring them deliberately (and hopefully politely), privately wishing the bus would go faster. A couple of teenaged entrepreneurs pounded on the side of the bus to get our attention; no one looked.

Amidst immediate relief of safety, sitting back in soft comfortable bus seats, out our window I noticed 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 we observed a second white Jeep with flashing yellow lights pulling in right behind us. Our five vehicle entourage edged out of the lot creating an in-synch parade exiting uphill on a well-used dirt road with narrow crisscrossing switchbacks …a laboring challenge for an almost-too-long white tour bus.

All the other, smaller local buses were still boarding passengers, and some folks were still engaging in local free enterprise. Carol and I, and everyone else on the right side of the bus stared in cooled-air comfort, watching all goings-on at the makeshift market from this new vantage point of sudden relief. I don’t think anybody in our group bought anything; but, I still wondered about a lot of things:  …how the locals might have known we would be stopping there …how they made a living if they couldn’t sell much (maybe the other bus travelers were better shoppers) …who were their regular customers when there weren’t train strikes? Then I wondered …why was no one in our group of twelve buying anything while those in other groups apparently were …where was the actual village of Urubamba (here was the train station, parking lot, but no other outlying buildings visible below the blue rocky sky-high peaks in the distance)?

In touristy-ish banter our twelve discussed why military was needed for boarding but thankful for at least some crowd control in Urubamba. We wondered out loud about the two white Jeeps, and there was considerable commiseration about being harassed by overaggressive locals selling stuff one could buy in every other local Peruvian village. Everyone had an observation. Now safe from unidentified possible harm, we again became mere tourists in Peru along for the ride while magnificent scenery recaptured attentions as we translated all we saw into terms we Americans could understand. Opinion-dominated chatter faded away.

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Eyes Right

Our pudgy driver couldn’t speak English so we didn’t know what we were looking at; but, it was postcard after postcard stunningly scenic; no one seemed to mind. The bus never did get cold, just a lot cooler than outside. We eventually got onto a more-or-less paved road and into those more distant, magnificent mountains we had seen from the train. Continuing to gain altitude, we left the Rio Urubamba valley feeling safely excommunicated from the original itinerary while re-acknowledging the tourists we were.

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 to the left side, but all faces were eyes right taking in the precipice falling straight dizzyingly down. We could see that once-wide river just below us; it continued to grow narrower as our highway winded circuitously left and right with ever-increasing downshifts and engine speeds. But being on a bus was different than being on a train. Some things are assumed when traveling on trains, they anonymously remain on tracks for one, something not necessarily true for buses: they can go off the road. Edges were, well, real! And, there were no guardrails!

At least the air conditioning of Bus #3 made us feel better (at least as I now recall).

As we rounded sharp curves, three buses and two white escort vehicles all stayed in parade line, going just a little bit faster than other traffic. Pavement was narrow with inconsistent striping. With an absence of guardrails the roadway paralleled a berm of a foot or two; and, this became the next latest “hot topic” whispered among couples on our bus. Eyes widened then looked away. Occasionally parked or stalled vehicles or a local family with llamas or sheep were ambling along the pavement’s edge, and the buses skirted closely around them as necessary. We passed a number of slower-moving vehicles progressing around bends entering the oncoming traffic’s lane left and back right repeatedly. Carol and I couldn’t figure out how the driver knew for sure there was no approaching traffic on blind curves. Sometimes the bus would jerk back into the right lane for no apparent reason.

Noticing other passengers noticing the same thing with some snide side comments about what it was like to drive in Latin America, some closed their eyes and forced a smile while clenching first to armrests, then to the seat in front of them with a sense of abandon no one would likely tolerate had we been going to the Grand Canyon. Tensions stirred.
Stereotypical cynical humor about Latino bus drivers gave way to more telltale glares among passengers as they murmured concerned asides across the bus aisle with arching eyebrows and firmer chair hugs on severe curves. Amid wrinkling foreheads, temple rubbing, and lip pinching, such hand activity helped keep eyes closed when necessary. Acts of restrained toleration were practiced skills in situations like this, after all, this was not the United States.

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Ernest Hemingway

Then, the first jeep and two buses passed an old school bus quite long past ever looking school bus yellow anymore, but now looking rather iconic, like something one might imagine in an Ernest Hemingway novel. It was a dirty, muddy, completely rust-colored with stacks of semi-tied-down luggage on top, overloaded with local folks inside and smiling kids’ heads hanging out windows waving at us. Were there live chickens inside?
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 was “Couldn’t that rusty top-heavy crate tip over?” laced with our own repeating trepidations, all interspersed with a few colorful four-letter words enunciated clearly. Once we passed Hemingway’s rusty bus, the Jeep behind us was unable to pass it because Ernest was straddling centerline and accelerating almost in a competitive reaction to our own pass. Recognizing we were not able to keep our five-vehicle entourage intact, passengers’ whispers became suddenly audible as yet another new hot topic then supervised our lips while arched eyebrows or frowning eyes salt and peppered expressions of askance.

The bus was cool, but our foreheads were sweating.

As this newly-lingering stress pervaded us dozen, an odd contest began to occur. Hemingway’s school bus passed us back putting itself between us and bus #2. Passengers’ wide eyes followed it in disbelief with a few “oh my gawd’s” and “did’ja see that?” synchronously uttered with twenty four eyes pasted on Ernest’s high-pitched low-gear effort at road supremacy successfully passing us to our driver’s obvious chagrin. Our now miffed Bus #3 driver elevated his double chin appearing irritated, then looked below his wire-rimmed glasses while smirking his nose at the other driver; he then passed Ernest a second time catching the eye of this renegade school bus driver as our own driver threw up his arm gesticulating with his middle finger, Latino style.

Now succeeding at this second pass through curves for which no one could see oncoming cars triggered somberness with one woman letting out a yelp as she lost control. Passing another stopped car along the road almost clipping its rearview mirror, Ernest accelerated, 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.
But on Bus #3, things became suddenly and gravely serious. I grabbed another glimpse at the drop-off to the right; it was straight down. As we gained speed, occasionally we would grind onto that narrow berm to the dismay of everyone on board along with a couple more yelps. An inharmonious wailing a cappella embraced two ladies ever so faintly as everyone hugged the seat in front of them. Our driver ignored “driver, driver!” heeding no questions. But no one again tried to gain his attention perhaps to avoid becoming an unnecessary distraction. The otherwise short and stocky tour bus operator became fixed on his mission sitting tall in his padded throne looking down at the road from the bottom of his glasses and tuning out a sopranos’ chorus as tires ground again into the narrow berm.

Looking down my right again, I became uneasy at how close we were to the edge. Dissonant voices became piercing over rhythmic road and engine sounds. While some crouched down, the anvil chorus continued until something yet even stranger occurred. Choral clamoring stopped dead cold; time froze. Now, eyes watched Ernest and the white Jeep vie for position. “Hot topics” vanished. Lips narrowed. Eyes closed to any other distraction, stared straight dead ahead. Our bus gained speed, Cherokee following less than eight to ten feet behind as we slowly but surely passed teetering Hemingway once again on a completely blind curve. We closed sight with our eyes wide open defocusing vision, looking straight ahead, saying absolutely nothing.

Hashing engine noises crackled as we passed Ernest. We didn’t look to see if he or we were about to go over the edge or whether there was any oncoming traffic. Everyone just quietly stared straight ahead. Was it apathy, or a form of surrender? I could see wavy lines straight ahead through the windshield. Was it mirage or a trance? Changing gears from a laboring insufficiently-lubricated transmission were the only sounds to influence this bizarre spell we had simultaneously entered. Never before, nor ever since, have I endured this kind of collective panic while eerily calm at the same time, a peaceful almost schizophrenic stupor … indeed a form of mass hysteria.

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Later that afternoon

Re-assimilation. The bus continued to labor up the mountain over the speed limit, but with new patience. We twelve remained dutifully quiet and obedient. The highest of mountain passes was reached, then after that we lost sight of the Urubamba River. Within the hour upon entering the outskirts of Cuzco, there was a blind acquiescence lingering on faces, but no talking. It was only then I noticed an absence of trees on the horizon (was this because the altitude exceeded 14,000 feet?) as my mind turned the page, refocusing on roadside buildings and people and exited the bonds of anxiety. Sandy-tan houses and buildings built close to the pavement, and native black and red clad people with leashed llamas walking alongside the road jogged me back into 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 connected homes with common walls and three-story always-tan colored dwellings and narrower streets.

Kids played on the highway. Block walls faced the street with trashy debris collecting at gates and along the roadway. Every other intersection had a little grocery store with open crates of fruit out front, or dirty gasoline stations with a clump of cars to be serviced, plus an always-white building (local farmacia), or a church with a bell tower that would roll by the bus’s window for us to see.
Eventually, I became the sightseer I knew how to be. There weren’t a lot of vehicles on the road, but lots of white shirted men and boys were walking around alone on these litter-strewn alleys, streets and sidewalks, occasionally groups of black and red clad women in twos or threes with bags under their arms.

As roadways became more urban there weren’t really tall buildings even though Cuzco was a large city. When the perspective permitted, the highest structures around were always church spires. Now my mind and body were acclimating, I didn’t feel quite so warm. We observed two women walking down the road with pots balanced on their heads. It was like waking up after sleeping for hours under anesthesia; my brain struggled to regain normal consciousness from a heavy but conflicted, relaxed state … maybe more like a hangover recovery but without the headache. Finally we approached downtown, drove around the plaza, down a side street and to the front door of our small hotel. In unusual mutually-polite ways, we exited the bus one by one without uttering a word, walking single file, zombie-style, into an Incan-decorated room as passengers of the other two buses still gathered; but, our twelve remained clumped, unobtrusive, coming-to out of this odd trance … maybe it had something to do with the altitude.

A huge oil painting, maybe 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, as we began to exchange a word here and there with each other, then some eye contact and polite smiles. They were serving tea, but it looked like a cocktail party where nobody was really talking.

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Peru’ving It – Explanations, Translations, Observations

One of the two guides began explaining things. “For those who don’t already know this, yesterday the train from Machu Picchu was stopped by a group of upcountry bandits who stole money and jewelry. They probably knew about the pending strike. I didn’t know all this myself until I was boarding onto the bus coming back.” He repositioned himself and stood on a folding chair so we could see him better. “The Peruvian government responds very quickly and decisively to 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, “is there anything you want to add, Alicia?”

She affirmed from the side, “We’re sorry for those of you on the third bus who didn’t have a translator or guide to help understand what was going on with all this. And you guys missed part of our lecture about the canyons and passes we traversed; our groups just couldn’t be fit onto two buses. Those passes used to be the route of choice for the Spaniards when they first inhabited Peru.”

“How could the buses pass other vehicles 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 some hand and finger gesticulations to depict a hearing aid, “Although I do not want to 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 safely. In their world this is the way it works. I wouldn’t advise this at home” he added with a smile, thinking it funny.

Nobody got the humor.

The woman guide chimed in, “… and I want to once again apologize for transfer challenges in Urubamba. With the unforeseen train strike upon us, we were happy to learn General Tours arranged for these three buses on such short notice; they were able to get the buses there before the train arrived. I was surprised about that. “I want to thank our local tour teammates for help arranging these transfers too,” pointing to the back of the room saying their names. There was polite applause. Three Peruvian young men in white shirts and black ties waved hands and smiled broadly.

The tour leader continued without 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 and protected from harm,” then added, “And, we have a nice authentic Peruvian dinner planned for all of you this evening.

“Look at the menu board in the lobby; be sure to try the platanas or plantains that are lightly fried. Now, I know everyone wants to get to their room and freshen up after such a long day. See you at 6:30.” We walked to the stairs. I remained light-headed nonetheless as the day’s hangover wore off and altitude acclimation finally kicked in. No one on bus #3 complained about a lack of knowledge or about our panic for the afternoon’s escapade; we were, however, privately managing the details. We dutifully freshened up and had quite a nice Peruvian meal as if nothing truly outrageous had happened, but with an extraordinary story to tell that we could take with us. Well, at least for some 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, then, who could forget Ernest.

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Abating Stress

Collectively, while waiting to enter the dining room that evening, we all did chat about Peruvian driving habits with better humor, but nearly all conversations centered on the oddities and magnificence of Machu Picchu; the history of the Incan Civilization; the absence of trees in Cuzco; austere beauty of such a large, high altitude city, supposedly the highest airport in the World they said; and, eventually our upcoming jaunt to Lima early tomorrow morning.

Now refreshed, by the time we started partaking in our meal (those platanas were indeed delicious!), it seemed as if nothing actually panic-worthy had occurred at all, now merely separation from the actual event. Yet, I’m certain this story was either repeated often by those participating in it on one hand, or maybe completely dismissed as “whatever” or intentionally forgotten without many recollections of it at all on the other.

Maybe the destination doesn’t really matter. Expectations, after all, were either fulfilled or not; but, all the anticipations go on and on and on. Even though a destination like Machu Picchu is unquestionably mindboggling, getting to and getting from a place like it, is remembered for its own soaring uniqueness as well, especially for us condors.

This adventure certainly produced a once-in-a-lifetime, one-of-a-kind flight.