It has been a week and every time I pass the wrinkled woman outside my hotel, she laughs at me. This time I stop, laugh back, and tell her I’m leaving. That’s when she warns me about it: no exertion and no heavy food. What about alcohol? No, no, nooo! Like I need her unsolicited advice. I’m familiar with altitude and acclimatization. I’ve been high in the Himalayas, so what on earth could happen on a lake?
As soon as I reach, I climb vigorously around the Sullistani tombs, have an eight-course meal and wash down my repast with several pisco sours—sweet and dreadfully potent. The next morning, I wake utterly crippled by the rarefied air of Lake Titicaca. After lugging myself out of bed, I crawl to the dock area. I’m aware that my head has split into two distinct halves and maybe this explains the casual nosebleed. But once I manage to open my eyes, all the hammering fades. This is the highest navigable lake in the world—extremely vast, unimaginably beautiful, and the light here is so magnificent you can bathe in it.
On reaching the island of Taquile, hunger pangs encourage me to risk death and climb to the only restaurant around. Unfortunately, it’s perched on an outcrop somewhere in the sky. Wheezing and breathless, I am warmly greeted by the only dish: fried-to-a-fossil fish accompanied by a worn out black potato. The village square has an old wooden sign with arrows pointing towards various destinations in the world… Nueva Delhi is 16,341km away. Two thoughts cross my mind: I’m not coming home anytime soon, and that wrinkled woman in Lima would be laughing madly if she could see me now.
Some days later, I find myself alongside the ominous snow-capped Andes piercing through the clouds—arguably one of the most beautiful ranges I have seen. The highland Indians still speak the ancient tongue of Quechua. The last time I tried Spanish, I ordered a trout and was served a piglet. I have no idea what to order for lunch, so I decide to imbibe a few cups of mate de coca—a greenish tea with the fragrance of an old stable. It’s made from the notorious coca plant and supposed to cure altitude concerns. After gulping five cups, all I am left with is suspicious breath, a progressively weakening bladder and a 10-hour bus journey.
The famed citadel of the Incas majestically reveals itself atop the cloud forests. What’s interesting about Machu Picchu is that no one seems to know much about the place. How on earth they managed to move these mammoth rocks at this altitude is mind-boggling. They cut each enormous rock so that it slots into the next without a trace of cement or even a hairline gap. I sit there long after the last tourists have left and just watch. There’s a tangible energy and mystery enveloping this place. Before the sun dies, I reluctantly tread down to the village of Aguas Calliantes (hot springs) to have a good night’s rest before heading to a town that the world forgot.
Flying over the dense Peruvian Amazon, I catch a glimpse of a clearing, which turns out to be the airport at Puerto Maldonado. I pick up the essentials from the dusty township—insect repellent in wholesale. For a few hours, we chug along on the Madre de Dios River, wondering when Marlon Brando will pop up. Apparently, he’s in Vietnam, they tell me as we ply deeper into the jungle. The rainforest is breathtaking. It actually rains within the canopy as dew drips through the several layers of foliage. The struggle for sunlight has created a forest where evolution takes on a new meaning. There’s a Walking Palm that actually moves five-odd centimetres a year. It has external roots and walks by shedding an old root and growing a new one on the other side. On my visit to the shaman’s (medicine man) garden, I encounter a large mound of puma crap. I might as well divulge that I discover it after stepping ankle deep into the damn thing. The shaman is a nondescript man sporting a brand new pair of “Nikos” (fake Nikes), who takes me around indulging my curiosity. He offers a pulpy leaf to chew on that tingles like pop-rock on my tongue, rendering it paralytic for the rest of the day. Something tells me that he was sick of my questions.
After an incredible time roaming the Peruvian winter, I reach Lima airport with visions of a warm bath and a warmer house in the UK. All dreams are abruptly shattered when I’m offloaded and my free ticket seems to have little influence for another whole month. My visa obviously expires and I squeeze all the juice out of my credit card to buy a new ticket back to Atlanta via Costa Rica and Miami. This is the third day I have been travelling with no shower, a capped credit card and no friggin’ bed. I beg for coffee in Costa Rica, sleep at Miami airport where disgruntled staff keep vacuuming a foot away from my head, and finally reach Atlanta to find that my only friend there is in hospital having a baby. No full power, no shit, no shower and somehow the only thing I can hear is that wrinkled woman’s laughter in Lima as it echoes through my reeling head.
(Tell Homi about the wildest trip you’ve been on. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org)