Monday, 12 December 2011

High and not so mighty

Peru: Colca Canyon, near Arequipa

I once heard it claimed that smokers cope better at high altitudes due to their pre-existing acquaintance with a lowered lung capacity.  This, I can now scientifically conclude, is bollocks.  It was one of the few notes, since scribbled off, that sat in the ‘pros’ column of my smoking checklist.  Its removal now leaves only ‘makes you look cool and grown up’ to prop up the increasingly imbalanced and utterly imaginary pro/con checklist I carry around with me.

This unfortunate epiphany was running through my mind as we started our three day trek down into the Colca Canyon just outside of Arequipa in southern Peru.  Gazing down from our vantage point at over 3,000 metres into the floor of the canyon, our guide traced his finger over the matchbox villages through which we would pass before lugging ourselves back out three days hence.  A condor sailed on the thermal currents above us, the sun cast mutating shadows against the canyon walls, and there was the type of silence that almost feels as if there is an echo in your ears.  A common conclusion would be that this moment qualified as tranquil, picturesque and exciting.  Not to me though, oh no.  This moment was marked by the unspoken assertion that this was going to be terrible. 

‘Are you Ok’? Helen asked, turning to me as we began to wind our way down the thin and rocky pathway that had been, over centuries, formed into the canyon wall.  ‘Yep, fine’ I curtly replied, keen not to give voice to my fears of how bad I was feeling.  Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian author, refers to something he terms ‘cultural DNA’, an approach to life that individuals in a particular culture share throughout generations, often implicitly and without due recognition.  So, for example, descendants of the incredibly hard working rural Chinese carry with them the cultural DNA of hard work being the root of all success, a phenomenon that Gladwell claims is an often ignored contributing factor to the success Chinese students enjoy in North American schools.  I mention this because I think that somewhere in me there are cultural DNA remnants of stoicism and denial that those who survived the Blitz have since become famous for.  The ‘keep calm and carry on’ mind-set that scoffs at whingeing, and implores keeping one’s fears to themselves for fear of bringing the whole artifice of coping crashing down, is one I can relate to, even if it is just in an opaque and watered-down version.  Let’s be clear about this though; it is merely a small remnant of this cultural DNA.  I’m fairly certain I’d be thrown out of the Blitz Club for even writing an overly-confessional blog, let alone for comparing my mildly discomforting altitude sickness to the privations of wartime.  But I’m gonna do it anyway, because I felt bad, and it is my generation’s greatest indulgence to assume that everyone else actually cares how they feel, or to put it another way, what their status is.  
So we slipped and slid down the dry and rocky path, on a gradient that was never quite flat and never quite vertical, making each stride different to the last, allowing the only kind of rhythm to form being the one pounding in my head.  This is another of altitude’s symptoms – the pounding headache.  That, and severe irritability.  It was, on the one hand, nice to have a genuine reason for my severe irritability, but on the other hand makes it more difficult to pass it off as anything other than, well, severe irritability when I’m at sea level.  ‘I don’t think he understands how crappy I feel’ I whinged quietly to Helen during one of our rest stops.
I was referring to our guide, Juan, who was, in considered retrospect, one of the kindest, most considerate and patient men you could ever hope to meet.  Quite what I hoped he would, or could, do for me I have no idea, but it didn’t stop me mentally directing my ire of pounding head, aching knees, and gurgling stomach directly at him.  I know for a fact that if he had been overly solicitous I would have hated it, my distaste for being fussed over even greater than my reaction to altitude.  In short, he couldn’t have won, and I feel guilty for ever thinking such uncharitable thoughts.  At least I knew I was being irrational and tried hard to be polite and friendly to him - there is some pride to be found in keeping one’s manners, even if I lost all other tenets of respectability.  Not least when I lay flat on my back at the foot of the canyon, our descent complete, my legs screaming, my head pounding, my body sweating and shivering in equal measure, and uttered that most pathetic of phrases ‘you go on without me, leave me here’.  Even as I said it I had Vietnam B movie scenes rushing through my head, as if my mildly discomforting body aches were a comparison to a gut-blasting mortar attack. Of course, he didn’t leave me behind, instead gently explaining that our overnight stop was just thirty minutes away, through the DMZ a gentle stroll uphill.

Clustering in the kitchen of our overnight rest spot, the delightful Peruvian family fussing around the fire pit to prepare our evening meal, I sat shivering as guinea pigs cavorted around my feet.  ‘These are not pets, are they Juan’ I asked.  ‘No, Ian, they’re not’ he replied, picking up a plump black one and explaining that not only are the black ones considered to be the tastiest, but also the ones that can ward off sickness.  Circling the startled little beast across my chest, and then my head, he explained that I should now feel better.  Those of you who have gone into a pharmacy and never noticed the presence of plump black guinea pigs lined up on the shelves alongside the aspirin and Sudafed will not be surprised to know that this didn’t work.  As Tim Minchin succinctly puts it; alternative medicine that actually works is called, well, medicine.  I wanted it to work, I really did, but in reality the best use the guinea pig could have been put to would have been the following morning when, after a thirty yard desperate dash to the toilet, I dropped my own version of a napalm bomb and realised there was no toilet paper.  Sheepishly exiting the toilet I came face to face with Ciara, one of our fellow trekkers, who herself was dancing from foot to foot after her own thirty yard dash, and as we exchanged embarrassed ‘buenos dias’’  I slipped into the shower block to clean up.  Grabbing a guinea pig en route to act as a loofah.

The next couple of days passed in a blur of breathless trekking, sleep, and repeated thirty yard dashes, and whilst a small part of me could marvel at the incredible and other-worldly landscape we were trekking through, a bigger part of me was praying for the ordeal to be over.  The final part of the trek is a three hour rigorous ascent up the canyon and no sooner had Juan opened his mouth to explain this on our penultimate night I interjected with ‘I’ll take a donkey if it’s all the same to you’.  Clearly I wasn’t the first to shrivel at the prospect of this ascent and the local community had set up a handy, and no doubt lucrative, alternative to the trek by offering donkeys to ferry the weak up the canyon.  Saddling up my 6’4” frame, albeit somewhat lighter than a few days hence, onto the poor little donkey I felt just a twinge of shame, but not nearly enough to dismount and declare that ‘I ain’t gettin’ on no mule, you crazy fool’.  Plodding up the canyon we passed numerous other trekkers who had taken the hardy option, their faces alternating between disdain and envy as this seemingly healthy hulk of a man trotted past on a donkey whose look undoubtedly said ‘I didn’t sign up for this shit’.

Five days of rest, a course of antibiotics, a nerve wracking overnight bus to Cusco, an increasing familiarity with the inside of toilet stalls, and I was finally feeling well enough to visit Machu Picchu.  An experience that one would be foolish to miss, no matter how ill one was.  Not that we were foolish enough to attempt to trek it.  Oh no, we caught the train, and very civilised it was too, the vista of the ruins no less magnificent for having done it the easy way. 

And my new pet guinea pig just loved it!  The smelly little bastard. 

The long and winding road down Colca Canyon

Welcome to Boots/Pharmasave/Walgreen (delete as per location)

At the back.  Feeling irritable.

Machu Picchu.  Several Lbs lighter.