Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Getting High in Peru

My wife, Evelyn, and I recently returned from a wonderful trip to South America, which included five days touring Peru, followed by a cruise taking us from Chile to Brazil. We sailed around Cape Horn and made several exciting stops along the way.

I want to concentrate on our time in Peru for this post. Visiting Machu Picchu has long been a dream of mine. It was on my bucket list long before that expression became a cliche. Although I was aware that it was perched high in the Andes, I learned more precisely it was at an altitude of nearly 7,900 feet. Nearby Cusco, which we also visited, is even higher at 11,150 feet.

At those altitudes, because of the decrease in oxygen, some people experience symptoms that at times can resemble the flu, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a hangover. I've never had carbon monoxide poisoning, but I have had the flu, and I may have had a hangover once. Maybe twice. I forget. The point is I'd rather not experience any of them.

Peruvians combat this by chewing on coca leaves. That's coca, as in cocaine. I never got a good answer as to what coca does to alleviate the symptoms, but they chew on this stuff all the time. Now, mind you, it's not the kind that Tony Montana dove into in Scarface, but I would think if you chew it all day there's got to be some effect. Our tour guides, however, did not give us coca leaves to chew on. We were offered coca tea. I'm not normally a tea drinker, but I didn't want those symptoms, and besides, there was a bit of a living-on-the-edge rush knowing that I was ingesting something that could be turned into crack. So I had a cup. Then another. After seventeen cups I still didn't feel high. I didn't feel anything, although I really had to pee.

With a full bladder and a clear head I walked around various Incan ruins in the area and, most importantly, Machu Picchu. Besides the aforementioned altitude, the ruins themselves are constructed around multi-tiered terraces, intricately-carved boulders stacked on top of each other, and stairs. Lots of stairs. They reach high above the buildings. Did I mention I'm afraid of heights? It's called acrophobia. If I climb more than two rungs up a ladder I start shaking, which makes the ladder shake making it more dangerous causing me to shake even more. It's really pathetic. I have to climb down and have my wife change the ceiling light bulb.

The stairs around Machu Picchu are narrow rocks, and apparently the Incans didn't believe in handrails. Part of my height problem has to do with not having anything stable to hold onto, while climbing up to potentially treacherous heights, which would keep me from plummeting into the abyss and turning into a mangled, pulpy mess at the bottom. Sometimes I over think these things. But I was there, and I would most likely never come back. I wanted to climb to the top to see what is now the iconic, classic view of Machu Picchu. So I climbed. And I climbed. Holding onto any crevice in the rocks I could find. Leaning my weight forward so I wouldn't tumble backwards. You can overcome anything, even if only temporarily, if you have a strong enough motivation. I made it to the top, and here's the proof.

I know what you're thinking. "Nice hat." I don't care. The point is I made it. That's me, high in the Andes, high above Machu Picchu in spite of my fears, but not high on coca. We smuggled some of the tea leaves home. Maybe twenty cups will do the trick.