Welcome back readers. My stonework season has finally ended and my writing season can now begin. Nevertheless, due to a surprising turn of events, this year’s winter wander has to be postponed. Fortunately, I still have a couple hundred travel stories in old hand written notebooks to share from years gone by. As a matter of fact, upon perusing my website, it appears as though I have posted hardly any stories from the first ever traveling journey I took with Ms. B. in the winter of 2011. My traveling website wasn’t active that winter and perhaps I have neglected to post those stories since then because I am shy about revealing my romantic side. But what the heck, there is so much bad and depressing news in the media these days, it’s time for this website to focus a little bit more upon the lighter side of living. Accordingly, let me begin a series of postings that should probably be categorized as a love story. Awww shucks….
It was not our first actual date, just our first Real date. Our slow motion courtship of scrabble games and “friendly” dinners had been ongoing for almost two years. Nevertheless, because of our respective bad luck in past relationships, we were both rather hesitant about “getting involved.” This all changed, however, in January of 2011, when Ms. B. agreed to accompany me on my annual winter wander. Little did she realize what she was getting herself into…
Huaraz, Peru; January 2011:
Everything changes. The universe constantly transforms itself. The roller coaster of my existence has made another radical diversion. Just when I thought I was settling into a routine or predictable cycle… an asteroid or satellite crashed into me and set my orbit wobbling. No longer am I a single solitary wandering planet. I have become instead part of a binary system.
For the last eleven years, I have spent four or five months per year traveling the earth. Well, okay, not the whole planet, primarily the Southern Hemisphere. I work seasonally in upstate New York from April to November. Because the cost of living is so high in the US, it is easier and cheaper for me to spend my winter, non-working months somewhere else: Africa, Asia, Central and South America. I know it may seem strange to people who have never done it, but even world travel can become routine after a while. Guest houses and hostels start to look alike. Mountains, beaches, jungles and waterfalls… all beautiful… but they too can begin to look a like. Crowded buses and crazy train rides… the unusual becomes normal. The adventure no longer seems an adventure. It is just a different mode of living; the Pat Ryan way. Whatever could happen to transform my reality?
Ms. B. roamed her way into my orbit about two years ago and now after some rather profound psychological transformations, we have become a binary system. Put simply, she’s awesome and I love her a whole lot. So, for the first time ever, I am not traveling solo. No doubt, I am still spending the winter in a far away place (Peru and Ecuador), but now I have a companion to join me on the journey. Welcome to my universe Ms. B.; may our adventures together be wonderful and glorious…
We take the overnight bus from Lima and arrive in the mountain city of Huaraz at about 6:00 am. After some minor hassle with an overly enthusiastic tour agent, we find our way to a hostel called Jo’s place. The room we rent is a cheap 30 soles (about ten bucks) but it is also spectacular … one of the best I have ever stayed in. It’s a regular penthouse suite with views out the window of glacier capped peaks. We have hardly even settled into the room when my adventurous spirit starts imagining the infinite trekking possibilities before us. Nevertheless, I restrain myself. I am well aware of my tendency to overdo things and get myself in trouble. While such behavior is acceptable when I am on my own, now that I am part of a binary system, I have another person to consider. The inner struggle takes place. The boundary busting, no holds barred, somewhat reckless persona inside of me does battle with my considerate traveling companion persona. Some sort of compromise must be reached.
Honestly, I think my plan is a good one. After two days in Huaraz, adjusting to the altitude (Huaraz is at about 3000 meters or 9600 feet), we decide to do a short day trek to warm up. Maybe after a few day trips, Ms. B. will feel comfortable and confident and we can embark on a more adventurous overnight excursion. I choose as our first destination a place called Lake Churup. I think it will be easy. The trail is only about 15 kilometers round trip if you can get transportation to and from the trail head. We should be able to hike the whole thing there and back in a half a day or so. Yeah sure, the altitude is high. The glacier lake of Churup is located at a height of 4450 meters (about 15,000 feet and higher than any mountain in the United States). But what’s the big deal? I personally have been over 5000 meters on many occasions and have never had problems with altitude unless I went over 6000 meters. The trail is short; only 7 kilometers in each direction. It will be easy, piece of cake. Come on Ms. B., you can do it, there’s nothing to worry about.
The thing about altitude is that it effects people differently. That effect is not based on physical conditioning or any observable characteristic. Some people are just sensitive while others are not. Indeed,some people have died from altitude sickness at altitudes as low as 3500 meters while other people have no problems over 6000. I was not aware before our little walk began, but apparently Ms. B. happens to be rather sensitive.
We awake at 6:00 am, have coffee and share a taxi to the trail head with the American father and son (Larry and Levi) who are staying at our hostel. The taxi drops us off after an hour at the National Park entrance which is at an altitude of 3800 meters. Everything is awesome to begin with. Everyone feels good and the setting is spectacular. Snow capped peaks in the background, lurking rock outcroppings in the foreground, a waterfall in the distance, a nice river and a long view down the valley to Huaraz.
We begin walking as a group. Our pace is slow by my standard, but I don’t mind. The air is thin and I am enjoying the view. Ms. B. is slowed by the altitude. She has a slight headache and her breathing is heavy. I ask if she is all right. Does she want to turn around and go down? She says no and we continue on. Slowly, slowly, one step at a time. The American father talks almost constantly. No doubt he is a very nice guy, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate the serenity of silence in the mountains. I wish he and his son would move on ahead but they insist on staying together as a group. As Larry talks, Ms B. struggles and I long to burst free and race ahead into the mountains. But I restrain my impulses and stay with my companion. Onward and upward, we are in this together.
The scenery gets better and better. The trail gets harder and harder. At one point we pass an amazing waterfall. And then we have to climb up through a narrow gorge with the help of an attached rope. It’s more like rock climbing than hiking. Finally, after about three hours, we reach the lake. Amazing! A glacier lake nestled among snow capped peaks. It truly is a beautiful universe.
But then, the universe takes a turn for the worse. Shortly after we eat our celebratory mango, Ms. B. starts to feel nauseous. Her headache gets worse. Apparently, the altitude is getting to her. We can’t sit and enjoy the lake. We must head down. We leave Larry and Levi to their lakeside picnic and begin our descent with just the two of us. But we only manage to go a few hundred yards before Ms. B. vomits up her mango. Oh no, this is not good.
After she loses her mini lunch, we continue walking down the trail. Slowly, slowly, we struggle back the way we came. Indeed, I find it hard to believe it is even possible to walk this slow. I urge her to hurry because I know at lower altitudes she will feel much better. But she can only move so fast. She is suffering from dizziness and piercing head pains. She looks as though she will pass out in total agony at any moment. The theoretically short trail just seems to go on and on and on. It takes over three hours to reach the park entrance and we soon find out that there is no regular transport from there and it is not possible to call a taxi. There might be a collectivo at 4:00 pm but that can’t be relied upon. Now it’s only 2:00 pm so we can wait two hours for a maybe or continue heading downhill another hour to the village of Llupa and regular transport.. Because her problem is altitude and lower is better, we decide to continue onward. Ms. B. says she is okay, if we go slowly, she can make it.
The walk from the park entrance to Llupa is an absolute nightmare. It’s only a few kilometers downhill and it’s supposed to take an hour but it seems to take forever and ever. Honestly, I’m used to suffering myself. But watching her suffer is beyond me. I carry her backpack. She grabs hold of my arm and shoulder for support. We stop every minute or so before stumbling onward… slowly, slowly, slowly. She should get better as we go down but she only seems to get worse. I want to throw her over my shoulder and carry her but she thinks that will be worse. After an hour or so, she collapses on the trail and starts vomiting… lots of vomit. Her face turns ghost white and her eyes gloss over. I am so worried. What if she dies? People do die from altitude sickness. She does look like total hell. Internally, I start panicking with worry and fear but I try to remain calm and encouraging for her sake. I want to run to a farmer’s hut in the hills and beg for help. Maybe someone somewhere has a motorcycle or a mule that can carry her. I’ll carry her myself dammit. She can’t just die on me here in the mountains of Peru. After all these trips on my own, so many near death experiences. I always survived. This is our first trip together. It’s only just beginning. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. She can’t die. Please God or Buddha or Allah or Shiva or Ganesh. Don’t let her die!
She doesn’t die. After vomiting up her guts and resting in the shade for a half hour, she courageously struggles to her feet, grabs a hold of my arm and shoulder and we continue walking very slowly down the hill. It takes another hour or so of stumbling but we finally make it to Llupa from where we catch a collectivo back to Huaraz. We arrive finally at our room at 7:00 in the evening. Our short little day hike turned into an all day ordeal. We both survived but I learned a valuable lesson. Emotionally and psychologically, I can bear my own pain and suffering a lot easier than I can bear watching the pain and suffering of the woman I love. How will this realization effect the rest of our journey together? I don’t know. I’m just very happy she didn’t leave me after that first very catastrophic date. Now it’s four years later and our journey together continues…