En Route to Peru: Worrying Omens
“On our trip,” said Ally, “nothing at all went wrong. Nothing was lost or stolen, nobody got ill or had an accident – it all went really smoothly.” She had returned from travelling that evening, which, by coincidence, was twelve hours before her sister Sarah and I were due to fly to South America for a couple of months. In later weeks, in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, Sarah and I would look back on those words and wonder how on earth Ally had done it. We started to think that her cheerful success story had put some kind of jinx on us.
Sarah and I had become friends at university, and we’d graduated together two years previously. I had stuck around to do a two-year Masters degree, while Sarah had got a proper job. A year after graduating, we both found ourselves looking for someone to go travelling with, and the next thing we knew, we’d booked flights to Peru together.
Neither of us had been to South America before, or spoke Spanish. There was a vague idea that one of us would learn the language before we got there, but this never came to anything. We signed up for the Inca Trail, and we were told that we really must do some preparatory treks beforehand, which we didn’t. And there was one other way in which we were unprepared. Five months before the trip, Sarah acquired a boyfriend – but she failed to engineer an opportunity for me to meet the guy, except once, at a party, for a grand total of five minutes.
I wasn’t thrilled about the fact that I hadn’t got to know him: it seemed like bad form to go gallivanting around South America with his girlfriend for seven weeks without having had so much as a decent conversation with him. I was single (and avoiding Tinder after past traumas), and the past couple of girls I’d tried to date had made it clear that they were unhappy about my planned trip with Sarah. What if Sarah’s boyfriend was likewise unamused?
Our bad luck on the trip started fairly instantly. I said goodbye to my mother on our doorstep, and set off down the road with my backpack and my new satchel – and within sixty seconds, before I’d even made it round the corner, the satchel-strap snapped. By the time I reached Heathrow Airport an hour later, the satchel had broken in three more ways. It was basically disintegrating.
My dad met us at the airport to say goodbye. The satchel had been a present from him, and he admitted with some embarrassment that he’d bought it off some random bloke who had been lurking outside a tube station. He gave me his own battered leather satchel as a replacement. Then Sarah and I went to our twin room in the airport hotel, where Ally – fresh off her flight from Thailand – helped Sarah to make her backpack lighter. It was a big, heavy backpack, and it looked a bit absurd on Sarah, who was not much over five foot three.
“Nope,” said Ally, taking things out of Sarah’s pile of belongings. “Don’t need this, don’t need this.” She held up Sarah’s makeup bag. “Really? You’re going to be staying in gritty hostels. Everyone will be travellers. If you’re wearing makeup, you’re doing travelling wrong.” She took Sarah’s razor too, for good measure.
Over the next seven weeks, Sarah and I lost count of the number of times that we really could have done with something that Ally took out of that backpack.
Eventually, Sarah’s pile was small enough to fit in Ally’s own backpack, which was smaller, so the sisters swapped. Ally also gave us her spare moneybelt. Both Ally’s backpack and her moneybelt had just survived a month of daily use in South-East Asia; both of them got broken the first time that Sarah used them.
The First Hospital
We don’t know exactly what happened to the backpack, but by the time we saw it again in the airport in Peru, its buckle had been smashed. Sarah had to tie it on with an awkward sort of knot around her middle, and this unsatisfactory arrangement lasted for the rest of the trip. “Ah well,” we thought. “These little things happen.”
And by this point, I had a more troubling problem. During our plane’s descent into Lima, I’d felt an excruciating pain right between my eyes, as though my skull was going to burst; and now I was spitting up small-to-medium amounts of blood, a couple of times an hour. I didn’t want to make a fuss so soon after reaching Peru, so I tried to ignore it for now.
Lima was great. On our first morning, we went on a walking tour around the Old Town. Sarah, who has a gift for instantly making friends, was soon chatting to several of the other people on the tour, and we had lunch with them afterwards. It was a good day, marred only by a card machine eating Sarah’s travelcard. It had lasted about 24 hours, which must be some kind of record, and the rest of the trip became that bit more logistically complicated. But meanwhile, the blood-spitting didn’t stop, as I grudgingly admitted to Sarah.
By the next morning, there seemed to be more blood than before. Sarah told me to stop being stupid and look up a nice Peruvian clinic where they might be able to advise us, or even give us a prescription for medicine. Not really sure what we were doing, we walked into a place called Clinica Good Hope and tried to ask to speak to somebody.
The language barrier was severe. Sarah had decided to finally learn Spanish during the trip, but she was two days in. With some miming and a lot of help from Google Translate, she tried valiantly to explain the problem, and on cue I was able to spit up some blood. After that, things got a bit confusing.
Instead of a short conversation with a sympathetic nurse, I found myself being admitted to the hospital. They put a patient wristband on me, got multiple doctors to examine me (Sarah kept having to repeat her prepared Google-Translate speech), did blood tests, made me lie down, made me wait in the waiting room, and took me for a chest X-ray. I was taken into a darkened room and placed in the vice-like jaws of a massive grey machine. They lined me up against some crosshairs, did the scan, and sent me back to the waiting room. At this point, all I desperately wanted was lunch.
But they still couldn’t diagnose me (we gathered), so half an hour later I was dragged back into the X-ray room for a head scan. I had to squat awkwardly and place my wide-open mouth up against those crosshairs, and I felt as though I was about to be shot in the back of my head. But this time, they found something. A doctor came and found me and Sarah perching on the edge of a hospital bed, waiting powerlessly, and he told us that he had found out what was wrong with me, but he just needed to finish something. In the meantime, he moved me into a wheelchair.
Whether in English or Spanish, it never seems like a good sign when a doctor says, “I know what’s wrong with you. You’d better sit in this wheelchair and wait here.” Sarah and I waited with a fair amount of apprehension; but the doctor’s verdict turned out to be very simple, and the wheelchair was never explained. I had a congested sinus, enflamed by the flight, so I should take some pills and use a nose-spray for a week or so. I wasn’t dying after all.
Slightly delirious, Sarah and I stumbled out into Lima’s permanent haze. The bulk of our second full day in Peru had been spent inside that blasted hospital. We wandered in a daze, finding ourselves at the nearby cliffs, where paragliders were soaring out over the steep drop to the Pacific far below. Without even really discussing it, we went up to the ticket office, signed the waiver and got strapped to a professional paraglider for a tandem flight. Twenty minutes after we walked out of Clinica Good Hope, I could see it in the distance as I flew past, feeling weightless and exhilarated, weaving around the tops of trees and swinging out over the sea.
After the paragliding, Sarah went off for an hour to try to Skype her boyfriend, or at least chat to him over Facebook Messenger if the bandwidth from Peru wasn’t good enough. “He’s so sweet,” she reported to me over supper. “He was very concerned about both of us when I told him about the hospital visit. He said he was relieved to hear that you’re okay.”
I shifted awkwardly in my seat. “Tell him I appreciate it.”
Sarah’s walking-tour friends had invited us to a party that night at their hostel, which seemed like a good way to forget about Clinica Good Hope. Sarah rummaged through her clothes until she found a black top, the only stylish item to have survived Ally’s purge. “I hope none of them will be wearing makeup,” said Sarah.
The party was on a rooftop terrace, with loud music, comfy chairs and intermittent rounds of free shots. We played Beer Pong – Sarah went first and she was terrible, but then it was my turn and I was considerably worse than her. We drank Coronas and listened to people’s stories about travelling around South America.
I idly discussed with Sarah which girl in the bar I thought was the prettiest – a redhead at the far end of the terrace who was in a completely different group. Then I left for five minutes in search of a loo. By the time I returned, Sarah had actually managed to get herself adopted into the redhead’s group, and because they were all Sarah’s friends now, by extension they were my friends too. As I chatted to the redhead, Sarah gave me a grin that said, You’re welcome.
The following morning, Sarah and I joined a bus tour through Peru which could take us down south, to an attractive colonial-era town called Arequipa, and then on to Bolivia. It was a spectacular few days. We made a whole bunch of friends on the bus – well, Sarah did, so I got a new circle of friends without having to put in any effort myself. I bought a cap, and then lost it the same day: it flew off my head as we careered across sand dunes in a high-speed buggy. Sarah battled with ropey internet connections as she tried to stay in daily contact with her boyfriend. We saw deserts and the Peruvian coast and sea lions and pelicans… But as our bus rumbled towards Nazca, where we were due to stop for half an hour before an overnight journey to Arequipa, the tour guide stood up. “Everyone, this is an emergency,” he said.
It transpired that there had been an earthquake in the south of Peru, near Arequipa, and the only road was blocked by fallen boulders. There was no knowing when the road would reopen, which was a problem because Sarah and I only had a few days to make it to the border between Peru and Bolivia. We had the choice between staying with the bus, which was going to take a much longer night-journey to Cusco instead, or getting off at Nazca and hoping that the route to Arequipa would reopen soon.
Our Peru guidebook described Nazca as an “insignificant desert town,” which didn’t sound promising. But we chose to get off the bus anyway. We really did want to get to Arequipa, and we thought we could at least fly over the famous Nazca Lines while we waited. Completely shattered from our first week in South America, we collapsed into bed in a hostel twin room at about 8pm and failed to haul ourselves out again.
The road to Arequipa didn’t reopen. Nazca wasn’t as bad as we had been led to expect, and the flight over the Nazca Lines was spectacular – but what we hadn’t anticipated was that the earthquake had made the town a bottleneck for this whole part of Peru, and all the buses back out of Nazca were booked up. It looked as though we were properly stranded there. And the news from Arequipa, about the work to clear the road, was unhelpful and unpromising. Our gamble had failed.
“What I really, really want right now,” said Sarah, “is a razor.”
We accepted our fate, let ourselves relax about the whole stranded-in-an-insignificant-desert-town thing, and settled down for another night in the weird limbo of Nazca. After all, we told each other, another ten-hour sleep would be good for us. Then suddenly we got a phone call saying that two seats had just become available on a night-bus leaving for Cusco in an hour’s time. Our chance to escape! We dropped everything, dashed to our hostel, packed as fast as we could and got to the bus with a few minutes to spare. Our places on the bus weren’t next to each other, and I spent the night trying not to brush against the untalkative woman next to me who was definitely spreading beyond the borders of her seat. We lurched round corners, up the sides of valleys and deep into the Andes. It wasn’t a restful night.
Not Quite An Emergency
But it was heavenly compared to our subsequent night-bus, a couple of days later. We set off from Cusco at 10pm, and within five minutes Sarah said she’d started to feel quite sick. “I’m sure it’ll pass in a minute,” she said.
It didn’t pass. As we plunged through the night along the roof of the Andes, Sarah was visibly deteriorating next to me. She was shivering, and starting to grow feverish. “I’m fine,” she muttered. “I’m okay.” She clearly wasn’t. Something had upset her stomach. And we weren’t allowed to use the toilet on the bus.
The night wore on. It was impossible to sleep properly, with Sarah suffering next to me – the closest I got was a nightmarish sort of semi-consciousness that made everything seem worse. She was clutching a plastic bag, and tossing and turning – insofar as it was possible to toss and turn while buckled into a coach seat.
“‘On our trip, nothing at all went wrong,’” Sarah murmured, managing to muster a weak smile. “Goddamnit, Ally…”
At something like four in the morning, she made her way unsteadily up to the front of the coach to ask the attendant whether we could stop somewhere.
“Is it an emergency?” he asked, glaring at her.
“Well… I don’t think so…” said Sarah.
“Then we keep going,” said the attendant. “We’ll be there in a couple of hours.”
The bus came to a stop at half five in the morning, at the exact moment that poor Sarah began to throw up into the plastic bag. When she was able to stand up, she went off to find the attendant again, and didn’t come back. The bus sat there for half an hour, and I dozed fretfully. There was still no sign of Sarah. Then the attendant reemerged and said that we could get off the bus now.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Where’s my friend?”
He looked at me with unfriendly eyes. “What friend?” he said.
That was a bit of a low point. But I found her in a café, pale and weak and slumped on a sofa. She wasn’t able to eat breakfast. We got to the nearest hostel with a twin room, and she was unable to get out of bed for the rest of the day.
We’d made it to Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border. Having survived the first part of the trip, we were hoping our fortunes would improve once we left Peru. But on our first full day in Bolivia, we did something that nobody should ever do when they’re hitting a streak of really bad luck. We went mountain-biking down Death Road.