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Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters

Zia Zaman
'The last sip of water I drink as I get out of the cab is like a tonic. I hold it in my mouth and savour it in my throat so as to make it seem like I had plenty remaining, like it will never finish'.

Every moment I spend here in this place makes my heart creep with the sense that perhaps I should have been born here. Or that I was many lives ago. Life’s surprises never end. I am a rational human being in a rational man’s job living within my means, constantly saving to be able to afford to go somewhere. In that somewhere I have always been that rational man, sans tie, but seemingly whole. I change. Places do that to you. Especially different ones. And people do that to you too. But it is only on this particular voyage that I may have felt not like the rational man who I am (was?) The lonely traveler walking with measured paces, reading his travel bible, enjoying a heavy quality paperback, counting change, studying maps, catching ferries, lifting poetry, sleeping sideways, and dreaming awake falls apart here in Peru. Inkaland.

And here I am. I meet a man. At Miami airport. He doesn’t look like a thief but I think him so. He thinks the same of me. Arguments would have broken out over who looked more smarmy. Me in my dark short jacket and blue jeans or him in his rust-coloured full-length poncho. He stares at everyone who approaches the United counter as though he is memorizing where everyone is seated. Behind the glare on his glasses, I could just about make out the suspiciousness in his beady-eyes. He looks at me and takes a simple pace back. He says nothing but I feel he is wary of me. It reassures me because I am vulnerable; exhausted, I still have my wallet dangling from my back pocket and my boarding card loosely tucked in somewhere accessible. I sit down. He just leans against a pole, continuing to study the passengers checking in. I sit down on the plane. He is miles away. I do a crossword and check the list of people I could contact while there. Five hours pass. I don’t think of him. Tired, really tired, me and the rest of the plane arrives and the cattle hordes are prodded into one of three immigration lines. I choose the middle. The other two move quickly. Ours is stopped. A couple of people ahead of me in my line is the man in the poncho. He looks at me, opens his mouth, and says, "Slow line". I reply yeah and that was that.

I had read about altitude sickness. I was wary of it so I thought I'd bring along some pills. But then I wondered if the customs authorities would frown about the particular drug I was recommended. So I left it at home.
"In the beginning the altitude sickness might affect you. It’s okay. It can happen to anyone. Let me just serve you some cocoa tea. It’ll be okay." "No really, I feel fine." My driver. Or so I inferred since he had my name on a placard at the airport. Along with four other weakened souls, I hop into a specialized cab with my driver who incidentally does not drive but tells the actual driver where to go as if he didn’t already know. So let’s call him my guide from the airport to the hotel. Cocoa tea will make you feel better. I promise. "Okay."

Cuzco is at an altitude of three thousand eight hundred metres. My brain converts to feet, then to miles, is suitably impressed and psychosomatically I reach for my throat gasping for air. It passes. So I arrive in the hotel, supposedly to be shown to my room, right? Instead my guide sits me down and proceeds to soft sell all the wonderful trips and adventures that a discriminating traveler might enjoy. Despite my tiredness I’m quite impressed by his organization and wearily canter upstairs to the bed and a hot shower. Just about to poke my toe in to test the temperature, I get a call. "This is the hotel. Why did you not contact our driver at the airport?" I protest.
"Anyone who drove you here has nothing to do with this hotel. Nothing."
Whatever. I hang up. I feel my jeans pocket and I’m out $250 of traveller’s checks. I tear the place apart and then I find them. And my guide’s cheerful card.

It can’t be Christmas. There are all these people hawking goods in the market. There are fireworks going off every which way. The city is alight with sparkles. The cathedrals are ringing out with mass. The streets are grimy but hopeful. The Plaza del Armas is so filled with hay it’s like a huge manger. The BBC World News is blaring from my TV. Firecrackers everywhere, bells, good cheer, icons, candles, fruitcake, and champagne. It must be a dream.

A few days after my altitude dream, I stumble into a travel agency (for there is no other name) to try and book an excursion to the Sacred Valley or an abbreviated hike on the Inka Trail. The maps of the terrain, the charts of the jungle birds, the posters of the Lake, the gear hanging loosely on nails; all of it suggests a true outdoorsman gear shop. But no one around. Finally, as I sit expectantly on a plastic chair, a woman with long strawberry blonde hair and a slighty crooked and freckly nose comes out with a charming Aussie "What can I do for you guys today?" The crowd around me defers and I step forward and explain my lack of resolve. She boosts my ego, tells a story, gives me a pat of encouragement and signs me up for a two-day hike along the Trail. Matronly, familiar, she oozes comfort. Reassured, I take the rest of the day off to drink Cuzquena in the sun while reading my novel about backpackers on an illicit Thai beach.

I walk and walk around the square and the little sidestreets looking for nothing in particular. A little museum I want to see looks shut. I knock on the bright blue door. No answer. It's 5:50. The sign says it closes at 6. I knock. Finally a guard comes out and shoos me away. I walk back the next day and thoroughly enjoy myself in this sometimes kitsch panorama of pre-Inka and Inka lifestyles through the ages. Fascinating but scary. I read out on one of the signs: The Europeans hunted them. Hunted. How civilized.

The Sacred Valley comes at the culmination of all the Inka sites there are to be seen in the Cuzco area. Amazed more and more each time, I revel in the diversity of ways in which the Inka built virtually the same temple in different ways and places to honour different gods. All academic until you touch it in person. No felt barriers, no 'no photography' signs. Just the traveller with many other travellers of course, and the Inka door, or fountain, or fortress. Throughout these sights, I periodically bump into a hairless man from the North of England who was some sort of low-tech engineer displaced by computers, but constantly managing to scrounge up enough money to commit to spend the holidays in the Southern Hemisphere every year. Elements are obviously familiar except there is a naiveté and divinity to him that is totally disarming. Plus the fact that he’s bald, is impossible to date, impossible to hate, and extremely likely to buy you a beer for no reason made him a saint worthy of yet another Cuzco Cathedral. He lived a simple life and ran a simple holiday. He planned for the full trail, but had more free time than any of us. He fancied a pub on the Plaza run by a Mancurian which felt like home. He told us all of his idolatry of Manchester United, his mates in Australia with whom he planned an island millennium party, his best mate’s two kids, his love of football, his trip to Zanzibar, his favourite subject in school (woodwork), his roadtrips to see Man United, and why Rupert Murdoch wasn’t all that bad. He was a fine man. (Don’t worry, he didn’t die or anything.)

A man in a shop in a tiny town was selling me some water. It cost only two soles and the Lima bank machine left me with a one-hundred sole note. I wonder if there was a total of one hundred soles cash in the whole town put together. There must have been, since after fifteen minutes of trying to make conversation with his daughter, the man returned with 96 soles. I wanted to say it was okay about the other two soles but he insists that I buy another water. "Thank you," he says. I'm the one that was thirsty.

On the most touristy of sidetrips that I would ever do, I sat across from this interesting French couple who had no idea that I could understand everything they were saying. Problem was, I didn’t care to listen because it was the type of intimate conversation between lovers that passes undetected to the unsuspecting ear. I shut them off until a disorganizational moment at which point she says in English, "Do you know what’s going here?" I nod no and act disinterested. Eventually, we start up a long conversation during which time we slip a bit into French to make her less fluent boyfriend more comfortable. We stop talking as strangers often do but outside, waiting for the napping bus driver, the guy starts going on about "the ‘Niners and that play Steve Young made against Indianapolis in Week Seven." I’m amazed, a little uncomfortable about being brought back to "there", but can’t help myself. I would have talked to her more about her summers away from France alternating between Spain and USA, her love of her mother’s harsh ways, and her career at l’Oreal but I just don’t get makeup. I get football so I talk about slants and naked bootlegs and flea-flickers. What a great name for a professional sports franchise, I think, as we pass a spectacular ruin, the Inkas.

The first train. Up to Macchu Picchu. Crammed, knees interlocked with a talmudic scholar and his new wife. What can you tell me about living in California? Is it a good place to start a family? Are there many jobs there? My wife is a speech therapist. How well does it pay? The discourse on the relative pay scales and training for health care professionals can be fascinating but my knee-volleyball partner seemed to be having trouble making it through the trip. I smiled at his wife and talked speech therapy but in the end, there was a lot of silence. He got up and prayed a few times and then reanimated the conversation by describing his studies as very complex all-encompassing tribal law school. "That’s why one can spend fifteen years studying it." Dedication defined.

His other two travelling companions were also memorable. One was a young Peruvian woman from Lima who had had bad experience with the shellfish. "Don’t eat the langoustines." The other was a natural beauty with a fascination for the torah, dressed much like any other pretty twenty-one year-old New Yorker would. Her slightly sunburned cheeks and ruffled hair made for quite an altering vision, so the two men facing her, of which I was one, properly did not stare longingly into her Ryderesque eyes. In and of itself, this train carriage was complete with history but the most interesting character I save for last because he is intransigent in my memory. From LA, talking in a LA volume and accent, travelling with his very quiet Peruvian fiancee, he had a humility to him that I couldn’t figure out until his story unfolded. One half of identical twin brothers, he shared a bond with his sibling as one would expect; that is until his twin died of a drug overdose. In a death spiral, both brothers were fated to be statistics but somehow the man in the train pulled himself from the wreck, got sober, save for one slip, and joined his dad’s construction company – and grieved for his lost brother. He put his life back together through hard work and dedication and now does something for an oil company that brings to his life long hours, discipline and a salary to travel on. He is happy and talks of his adventure sports, his hope to buy a house that his father and he would build, and his niece, the darling daughter of his other brother. He didn't exactly tell his life story, or boast about his recovery, or dwell, or preach; rather he racounted naturally through his anecdotes and soliloquys which had this undeniable straightforward and humble quality that Californians often possess.

"Amazing, dude. We’re almost at Macchu Picchu. How amazing is that?"
The top of a mountain is a strange place to build a temple. Or is it the most natural? Sheer cliffs -- like nothing I’ve ever seen. Just cut and paste that phrase everywhere. Stone astronomical calendars. Elaborate houses for the priest. Tiered farming. Forums and common areas, mountains to gape at or to gape from. Hills suited for grazing llamas. Condors in flight. Rope suspension bridges. A famous trail. Giant granite steps. Haze, fog, searing heat and snow in the same moment. A patch of weeds and the timer on my camera. A sardonic guide taking jibes at Lonely Planet and the helicopter tours. A wild rabbit perched in a Inca doorway. A pair of lovers hiding in a cove. A resonating "om" chamber for deep meditation. Another cool calendar. A sacrifice block. Another photo opportunity. A gate overlooking the most marvellous sight I’ve ever seen. An imagination that lets you enter into the Inkas in their time, going about their ways, having an insight into life whose shadow I can only see.

Tired, finally on the way down. Sitting in the window seat on the bus going down the switchbacks. See a Quecha boy on the death-defying stairs following us down on foot. "Uuuuupaaaaah!" he yells as we pass. Sweet. We switchback. There he is again. "Uuuuupaaaaah!" He runs like water down the mountain. "Uuupaaaah." A short one. Not hard. Wait ‘til the next one, it’s a real long run. The bus is moving pretty fast, switches back and I sit back thinking that the boy won’t make it and he appears with his song. Again and again, the boy beats the bus down until the final switchback where the steepness is less severe and the bus is really motoring. And at the end of such a long descent, I see the boy in full flight running down just making it to the bus and yelling even louder, "uuuuupaaaaah." We stop and he gets on the bus to a round of applause. I want to take his picture and I do in exchange for one greenback which he thanks me for. And he gives us all one more loud shout, this time an English "Goooodbyyyyye," and he climbs up again.

Last day in Cuzco, sitting at a table with a pair of Austrians. I ask them how they’ve liked Peru so far. They glow with happiness. They warn me about the dullness of Copacabana in Bolivia and encourage me to keep Puno as my base on Lake Titicaca. Something about the man made me feel that maybe we didn’t share the same interests, but listening to the woman’s story, I couldn’t not heed their advice so I left this seemingly quick meal with my plans in complete disarray. But I was okay with it.

On a longer train journey to Puno, I sit opposite a girl whose perfect fluency between English and Spanish is an unignorable asset. She translates wonderfully a couple of times and we embark on an eight hour conversation. It turns out that she was in her gap year, a year off that many British students take between "A" levels and university. Set up in a market research job by her father’s company in Buenos Aires, she has the added benefit of being 8000 km away from him as well. That is, until this trip with him and his girlfriend sitting in seats 47 & 48. I had wondered what the connection was between the threesome before we started speaking because the woman with her father was just too young to have borne a eighteen year-old. But the details were self-explanatory, as were the awkward exchanges when her father would stroll over to make conversation and to make sure I wasn’t a scoundrel, thief or worse. Satisfied by my innocuousness, he slipped back into his conversation with his girlfriend and left us youngens to talk about how she was at the best time of her life. My advice must have sounded preachy and ambitious but she didn’t seem to ignore me. But I do think she sees me for the rational man I am. Wanting to let loose a little, she had made some minor mistakes while in boarding school which somewhat eroded her father’s trust and more dangerously gave her a taste for a swinging life. She had transformed herself from an innocent high schooler into a worldly and mature woman, one who was probably ‘actively looking.’ I had no illusions but I wondered if I would have stood a chance ten years younger. Not in my dreams, I thought; so I sufficed to be her friend, a respite from her family grief, a window into the San Francisco bar scene, someone to pass the time with.

In Puno, on New Year’s Eve, I venture off to Isle Taquile to explore the ways of the Aymara people. Rather than walk, I find myself on a bicycle rickshaw down to the port because I had overslept. I decide to take the earlier tourist boat over the local and enjoy a brilliant time with those on board. The English husband and Australian wife were like flaked tuna and melted cheese. Married, divorced, and remarried, they seemed to have found happiness by trial and error. It worked for them. They still bickered but they supported each other and shared the fascination to take photographs of just about everything. It was on the boat back that the Englishman came into his own. His philosophy about life sometimes verged into management guru territory but his sayings worked: to do what you do best, keep expanding what it is that you’re capable of, and never lose sight of what’s important to your homelife. Eloquently shown rather than told, often through colourful vignettes about his wife, her past Olympic swimming glory, or her days as a first-class bitch, he spun his tale. One episode talked about how, when they were divorced, he met her new husband. Rather than begrudge or belittle him, our hero hit it off quite well and even actually helped the new guy through a rough patch of his life when he fell upon unemployment. His generosity was not forgotten. It all got me thinking about how my moments of rational existence I strung together to call a life were the emotional equivalent of bread and water. I yearn for a gourmet feast and while he didn’t help me find it, he helped me understand what it would look like if I ever saw it. I have never been married, or remarried, or made it anywhere close. The only commitment I make is to my travel itineraries. I can’t help but imagine myself as the fortysomething professional, constantly denying that he is gay, seeking to find a woman but being too regulated and scared to do anything about it. When will I ever have the chance to give?

A perfect nuclear Venezuelan family kept me fascinated for hours even though I exchanged but five words with them, and then only with the bespectacled ten year-old boy who reminded me so much of me. The mother had a natural aura that kept her youth visible belying the sixteen year-old son that rested on her shoulder, himself a pretty boy with perfect curly Latin hair and braces holding back a smile. The thing about the family, though, that charmed and frightened me was the portly father. His overt love for his boys was uncommon and uncommonly expressed in such a public place. Reassuring and reaffirming, it made me feel eager to experience paternity myself. And therein was my fear. Only in his mid-forties, I presume, his stature suggested a meat-filled diet. Perhaps it was my imagination again but I had a vision of the youthful widow trying to look after her two kids, always trying to give a little of her savings to heart research. I get so caught up in my horrible daytime nightmare that I shed a tear which I quickly hide because it would have been so out of place on such a happy trip.

The Aymaras get it. The one who took us around his island didn’t say a whole lot at first but he did introduce us to Ylang Ylang, a herb that actually improves the retention of oxygen when you take a breath. At this altitude, a quick sniff of a leaf made the climb infinitely more bearable. Homeopathy aside, my Aymaran friend exuded intelligence and a quiet pride. On arriving at the top of Isle Taquile, which could easily have been in the Aegean, he tells me about the culture. Three tenets: "Don’t be lazy. Don’t lie. Don’t steal." Infinitely reasonable, I think. On courting, "Make a commitment to marry your spouse only after you’ve spent a significant amount of time together and after she has woven a scarf for you out of her own hair." Okay, the scarf bit won’t be so practical in a South of Market bar but the commitment bit is. On morality, "Life is about personal energy. When you do something wrong, have a bad thought, act greedily in your own self-interest at the expense of others, the island, or Nature, you lose a little bit of energy and you’ll never get it back. Once you lose it all, you die. Even if you’re not biologically dead, you’re disowned from the community and are left to perish. So next time misfortune befalls you, don’t dwell on what you’ll miss, especially if it’s just something material. Instead, shrug it off." The whole thing reminded me of karma theory. It made it universal but it is so different. I know because the words and ideas are lasting within me today. Like a line from Macbeth. Not like a passage from the Bible/Quran/Torah.

Same day, back in port, in the town awaiting midnight. Having a quiet drink at eleven-thirty with fellow would-be revellers in a pub called "Positive Vibrations". (Couldn’t stay away from a name like that.) In walks the gap year girl. Her father is not far behind. They’re both in a little more cheery mood now and the girlfriend is nowhere in sight. We invite her over with a wave. Papa lingers at the bar for a bit. She explains that the girlfriend got tired of the two of them fighting and stormed off. "Dad and me ended up roaming the streets together looking for a fun place to go but no one seems to be inside. We spotted this place and ducked in. It’s so good to see you here. Always great to meet people you know in a place where you’re bound to know no one." We chat about this and that and drinks arrive with her dad who incidentally is the spitting image of Clinton. We lose track of time, hear a bunch of fireworks, get poured cheap champagne and are summoned to the bar by the proprietor and her son. Toasts exchanged all around with half the pub. "Positif". A toast to the bar. Forty people mingle and meet, exchange their stories and best wishes. The night settles in as Bill goes to patch things up. My fellow revellers are my soulmates. A therapist-like ex-hippie from the east-end of Montreal who misses his copine transfixes me with his wisdom, overwhelmed is he by the feeling of joy and sharing in the pub. A Peruvian Charo from Lima who keeps refilling my glass as soon as I put it down and dragging me through unbelievably fluid dance steps, all the while complaining that she's just an ad executive whose zest for life demands more. The proprietor’s son, a twenty-three year-old Dawson Leary who charmed the pants (well not literally) off our gap girl. A couple of German women who couldn’t stop smiling. A Welsh teacher who got fed up of cold rain. The proprietor herself after whom the pub must be named. And of course the gap girl who salsa'ed, made friends, smoked, drank, and just basically partied like everyone else did, until her father came back at four something in the morning.
My trip changes. I lose track of the chronology. I get swept away by the archeology.

In Lima, after some arbitrary number of more days seeing the wonderful country, I am in a cab back to the airport. I’ve survived the harrowing plane ride over the Nazca lines, the desert heat of the Southern coast, the hustle and bustle of Lima streets, the charming European cafes in the town centre, the cute shops, the weird fast food, the music stores, the chess pick-up area, the casino, the romantic seafood restaurant by the water, the affluent suburb’s lover’s lane, and the inside of a Spanish inquisition hall. "Love your country," I say to the cabbie, or something to that effect. I get out of the cab. The last sip of water I drink as I get out of the cab is like a tonic. I hold it in my mouth and savour it in my throat so as to make it seem like I had plenty remaining, like it will never finish. I know it’s irrational. It’s just water.

© Zia Zaman 2002
Zia Zaman's new book 
now on sale!
Zia Zaman's collection of travel stories is now available on Amazon.
ISBN: 0973288302

More travel stories by Zia Zaman in Hacktreks
Cape Cod
Danny Desai


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