I’ve never been one for the outdoors, past going on leisurely strolls through the park, through the city, or along some stretch of beach. And yet, I found myself in July with a plane ticket to Peru, and a spot reserved to hike along ancient trails to the lost city of Machu Picchu. So, with the fervor of one who is about to scale Everest in flip flops, a naive New Yorker began collecting the odds and ends she would need, or at least the things her research said was essential.
Two canteens. A collapsable ‘Platypus’ water bottle that would allow me to better utilize my space and pack weight when it was empty. Massive storm trooper boots that could see you through trench warfare. Headlamps, flashlights, layer upon layer of Under Armour. Sunscreen. Oh, so much sunscreen.
And with my new purchases packed, I made my way to Peru by way of El Salvador (and was succinctly judged by every South American woman on my first flight, who tut-tuted in Spanish that I was a woman of a certain age travelling on my own without an escort).
The 23-hour Odyssey commute to Cuzco was by no way pleasant, but it afforded me several lessons. One - always bring more reading material than you think you’ll need (my three “New Yorker”s only lasted the first leg of the flight), two - never drink Central American coffee and expect to sleep on the following flight. But perhaps most important of all was to be flexible - a vignette that would often pop up during my two-week sojourn to the South American country.
During the last leg of the trip, an overnight layover in Lima, I was wearing thin. The snacks had been consumed, the magazines, long disposed of, and all other forms of passing the time simply required too many neurons. Added to that, there was no indication as to where my 6am flight to Cuzco was slated to depart. A half-muffled announcement in Spanish alerted me that I was to go to a gate halfway across the airport. Following the North Faced-masses, I too, plodded toward the gate.
What greeted me was pure chaos - around 500 people, all waiting to be called for shuttle busses that would then whisk them off to their respective destination. There were people with livestock, there were people with 15 babies. I nearly boarded a plane to the coastal city of Piura.
It came down to making my mind up and sticking with a line. Remarkably, I chose the right bus at precisely the right second and made the bleary flight to the ancient city. My incredibly kind boyfriend had agreed to meet me at the airport in Cuzco when my flight got in at 7am. Things went without incident for several days.
It was only after our first week did I truly realize that I was learning at each dusty intersection, that maybe each shadow on the sloping peaks beyond city limits offered truths beyond tourism, and application to life in a much broader sense.
It was the second Monday of the trip. My boyfriend and I were to go on a three-day trek to Machu Picchu, by way of the lesser known trails. I had my gear - my headlamp, my just-add-water Pad Thai, and as many fleeces as I could fit in my daypack. I awoke in the bleary hinterlands of morning with a vague idea that I was feeling ill, but mistook it as nerves.
As my boyfriend and I saddled our packs (which we were once told would be carried by ponies and mules), I started to feel a sharp pain in my stomach. I tried to distract myself. It got worse and worse as we climbed slowly up the mountain, until three hours into the Peruvian wilderness, I had to succomb to the pain. I collapsed in a clearing, thousands of feet above sea level and miles away from anything.
It turned out, my guide Santiago said, I had a stomach parasite and I had two options - walk the three hours back down mountainous terrain by myself and get a cab back to the city, or soldier on until reaching camp that evening.
Neither option seemed remotely appealing, but those were the facts - the pain in my stomach would not be wished away, as I would learn, the power could not be wished back on after Sandy. With herculean effort, I again shouldered my pack and made arrangements to meet Santiago at Urubamba to take the train to Machu Picchu.
The boyfriend helped me back, step by step, through the treacherous terrain. We were climbing down steep slopes against the general ebb and flow of every French tourist in the country.
It’s not uncommon for Americans traveling in South America to catch a parasite - the tap water in Peru is unsafe for we Yanks to drink without a punishing case of Montezuma’s revenge. Eggs are kept out in the open air, as it meat. Dairy isn’t pasteurized. Even at our host family’s house in Cuzco, lettuce was washed under the tap water.
The most any traveler can do is to religiously use hand sanitizer and ask for bottled water without ice - sin hielo, por favor. While I followed those rules, I made the mistake of ordering a pisco sour, a traditional Peruvian drink made with egg whites. Oh, and there was ice in the drink.
We returned by way of old Incan ruins, and were then whisked away in a gypsy cab. I used my broken Spanish to ask for two anti-parasite tablets that looked like Mentos at a little farmecia, and within the evening, I was well enough to go out for dinner. It was one of many instances I learned that things don’t always go according to plan. (We eventually made it to Machu Picchu after nearly missing a cab back to the train site, nearly missing the train, and then nearly missing the buses up to the ruins).
Days later, the boyfriend and I would be plunged into darkness on Isla Amantani, as we spent the night with a host family living on the tiny rocky island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. The island was without power, as an experiment several years ago to bring electricity to the island proved both impractical and expensive.
After a dinner of various roots and squeaky cheeses, the locals persuaded us to make our way to the town center, where we would dance with the locals in their traditional dress of full skirts, waist ties, blouses, and scarves over our heads (the men only got ponchos and alpaca-knit hats).
I was equipped with a headlamp I had bought last-minute from an online outdoors store, and a titanium flashlight my brother had purchased for me several years ago. The boyfriend was in desperate need for one of them (who uses an iPhone during a pitch-black trek?) so I was again prepared.
Two months later, the vicious superstorm that was Sandy whipped through New York. I was talking on the Skype with the boyfriend around 9pm that Monday, when the lights flickered twice, and were gone.
I was entrenched in darkness, alone, and with no connection to the outside world. Closing my eyes, I saw the sloping plains of the Peruvian plateaus at night, the darkness of a thousand midnights on a thousand remote islands. I let fear grip me for a minute, but then, it was time to move on. Using several matches, I managed to find my headlamp. The storm roared on, and realizing there was nothing I could do in the moment, I popped an Ambien (also remnant from the trip) and drifted into dreamless and fitful slumber.
Luckily, I also had a collection of batteries squirreled away. The next step was to find candles, as it simply didn’t make sense to waste battery for hours of light. That problem was quickly solved when I checked on my next-door neighbors. I knocked on their coral-colored door and offered them some of the many pumpkin muffins I made in the nervous hours ahead of the storm. They asked me if I had adequate light - and then gave me two large candles.
The next morning, I found a wireless connection and managed to touch base with work, only to find that we had set up temporary offices in Midtown West. With mass transit down and taxis more elusive than a $1 deli coffee, I was forced to do the only thing I could to get to work - strap on my laptop, bundle up, and don my hiking boots for the march there.
For the next five days, it was a daily adventure of marching up to W. 37th Street and trying to find transit back down to my cold, dark apartment each night. In the evenings, I read or delayed my time in Midtown so that it didn’t feel like a banishment to my Dickensian tenement.
I used my hiking gear from Machu Picchu to stay warm (though I suppose I could have just caved and have worn the terrier-style flannel pajamas given to me by my mother several Christmases back). Likewise, my gas stove still worked, so plenty of pasta meals left over from the trip could easily be heated up in the murky yellow light of 10 tea light candles. Miraculously, I still had my hot water, making the downtown darkness slightly less ominous.
There is no way to describe the feeling of helplessness during the storm, nor the frustration ex post facto of things not being as they once were.
I realize thousands were much more devastated than I, and their stories put mine in shallow relief. But what I’ve come to realize is that everyone suffered in some way, and that you cannot apologize for your own personal experience. I had friends who were also plunged into darkness for a week, without hot water as well as power.
There were those who had their basements and even entire houses flooded, and those who remain without proper housing even as the new year arrives.
But in an emergency, everyone responds differently. Were I not to have gone to South America - even the quasi-touristy reaches of Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu, and Puno, I’m not sure how I would have handled Sandy’s wrath. But that’s the beauty of it - each experience is non-revokable, and no amount of wind or storm surge can wash that away.