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From Our Archives: Inca

On the Inca Trail: Breathing hard
Erik R. Trinidad
altitude sickness feels a lot like the morning after a wild college drinking party

ottled water. Coca tea. Flat soda. None of these recommended things were subsiding my coming altitude sickness as I hiked my first day of a four-day group trek high in the Peruvian Andes on the ancient Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

In case you don’t know what altitude sickness feels like, it isn’t pretty. Imagine Mike Tyson pounding a massive migraine in your skull, your breathing getting really hard and short as if you’ve just attempted to complete the New York City marathon (and you’re not a Kenyan), and your esophagus filling with vomit that never comes up or down, it just settles in limbo for your own internal hell. In ways, altitude sickness feels a lot like the morning after a wild college drinking party where you wake up next to the school’s team mascot sheep, except without the alcohol (but quite possibly the sheep). The only real cure for altitude sickness is acclimatization, which entails spending a full day or two in your hotel in the nearby city of Cuzco while your body adjusts to the high elevation, or not hiking the Inca Trail at all.

I did decide to brave the Inca Trail anyway, after only a day in Cuzco. At the time I thought altitude sickness was just an urban myth created to keep city folk away from the lost city of Machu Picchu, but it was apparent after fifty feet of walking that it was no lie. It wasn’t so bad though; we were only at about 9,000 feet and it wasn’t even the highest elevation we’d be during the trek. I drank all the recommended preventives—an exorbitant amount of purified water, coca tea at every pit stop, and some flat soda I bought from a woman along the inhabited part of the trail, which I had to flatten myself—and all of them worked as a temporary fix along my way. But by the end of the first day, my head was really starting to pound away like a Caribbean steel drummer as the night sky blanketed over our camp.

The night sky in the Andes is absolutely incredible. Whoever at NASA that decided to spend so much money on an observatory probably never set foot in the Andes, because if he did, he’d see that an observatory would not be necessary. Away from city lights, high up in the mountains, you can see the grandeur of outer space with the naked eye in the Andes. It was absolutely incredible to see the stars glowing out of a pitch black intangible ceiling. But as awe-inspiring as it was, it didn’t take my mind away from the fact that altitude sickness was grabbing hold of me.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw something I had never seen before outside of a movie: a shooting star. An actual shooting star. It was surreal. I mean, I had always heard about shooting stars in fairy tales or in movies, but I always thought they were fictional devices thought up by the Brothers Grimm, brought to life by the animators at Industrial Light and Magic. My guide Juan saw me staring into the heavens and joined me.
"Juan! I saw a shooting star!" I enthusiastically exclaimed like a kid who just saw Mickey Mouse for the first time at Disney World.
"Oh, that’s great," he said without much shared enthusiasm. He had been hiking the Inca Trail for years and shooting stars to him were like fire hydrants are to us, even though stars in the ancient Incan culture were believed to be celestial deities.
"I’ve never seen one before."
"Make a wish," he told me. It only occurred to me then that I was having Gepetto’s magical moment in a Peruvian Pinocchio. I closed my eyes and made a wish for the only thing on my pulsing (and I mean pulsing) mind: to be gone with the altitude sickness.

I hit the sack after that and awoke the next morning, a new man. It actually worked! Wow, when you wish upon a star, you’re dreams really can come true! Sure it could have just been the good night’s rest, but if you won’t tell the Incan gods, I won’t.

© Erik R Trinidad July 2002

Don’t Tread On Me, Argentina
Erik R. Trinidad
'I didn’t know exactly what people were yelling to the woman, but I assumed it was pretty nasty'.

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