Going to the bathroom at high altitudes is like calling the customer service of your internet provider without taking a Xanax first; a real pain in the neck.
The first moment the ice-cold wind slaps your exposed butt is almost a transforming experience, the kind you’d rather avoid as much as possible. Getting through the many layers of clothes in a draughty, tin cubicle or a rickety, wooden outhouse is a feat, requiring skills of an astronaut in orbit. Unexpected bowel movements at the worst possible times will make you wish humans were made differently. Never again will you leave a dwelling without a roll of toilet paper in your hand.
On the bright side – with all the squatting you do, you’ll be recompensed with some real lean glutes and toned inner thighs!
Using indoor facilities is pretty painless, even though in these parts, used toilet paper has to be put in a bin instead of flushed down the toilet. It’s not all that revolting, once you get in the habit of throwing your soiled thing next to the toilet, rather than in it.
Defecating in the wild is another story. However natural, it strikes fear into people’s hearts.
To make it civilized, rules have been set – go off the trail, find a sheltered spot, wipe off with natural subjects.
Ramya did all that, even though she had some trouble with the third rule – she was in the jungle, and there were no smooth stones or snowballs to use. And as she really wasn’t willing to sacrifice her sock, she chose large, plentiful leaves.
Except they were poisonous.
The rash that broke out overnight, washed over her private parts like a hot, glowing lava. Her labia and perineum turned rich royal purple, swelling so badly they blocked the natural flow of urine. And when it started to spread down her thighs and form blisters oozing pus, there was no time to lose. Action had to be taken.
“You go with her to see the doctor,” Pablo said, still recovering himself. “It’s a woman’s thing, you understand.”
Ramya got penicillin shots and some steroid creams, and was told that until they kick in, she has to tough it out.
And toughing it out she is. Standing in the aisle of the bus for the whole six hours it takes to get from Cusco to Puno, the gateway to Lake Titicaca. Sitting hurts, and legs kept close together increase crotch temperature, you see.
The La Raya Pass, the highest point on the road to Lake Titicaca, offers epic views of sloping hillsides, snow-capped mountains, moss-green plains, stormy clouds over pools of water and herds of llamas and alpacas, grazing. Your eyes are just drowning in the immensity of it.
We join the toilet line, since Ramya’s bandages need to be changed and her creams reapplied. She needs help with that.
Filling the roadside area are tables upon tables of colorful alpaca rugs, shaggy fur hats and llama teddy bears, all looking so fluffy you just wanna press them against your face and bury yourself in them.
Some people are having their pictures taken with a snow-white baby alpaca, whose chubby, round face and fleecy body with X-shaped legs are just too cute.
Suddenly, the group splits and out comes Sally, laughing at someone behind her.
A local lady vendor in a woolen vest, a bib apron and a brown bowler hat is angrily gesturing at her.
At it with locals again, Sally?
“They want 2 soles for a single picture!” She throws her hands dramatically up. “What do they think I am, a walking wallet?!” She laughs coarsely, puts her camera back into the bag and strides off.
‘It’s always good to have a nurse on the tour,’ Pablo’s words come floating back into my head as I watch her leave.
Meaning that compared to others, you always give them a slack. ‘Cause you never know when you gonna need them.
(Even though all you wanna do is to shut the bus door and drive off without them.)
Judy like a couple of hours ago, when we were leaving Raqchi, one of the archaeological sites on the route, and discovered Sally was missing.
“The drivers always get pissed when someone is messing with their schedule,” Pablo says, and with these words, dispatches me to search for her.
I run back to the temple, that is to what’s left of it – an enormous wall with windows and doors of high Inca stonework, that runs through the central axis of a complex long gone. The strange-looking adobe structure has partially preserved columns, that flank it on both sides and look like mushrooms with hats. The whole site reminds me of an ancient Egyptian temple.
Rushing along all of its 300 feet, I hope to find Sally dozing somewhere in the shade. Like that guy in a sombrero, who’s taking a siesta in one of the temple’s trapezoid windows, freaking me out.
I’m passing square-shaped living quarters of priests and administrators, and rows of round colcas, storage houses, surrounded by low walls. Everything about this place looks so regular, symmetric and parallel, like it had been drawn by a ruler.
Where the heck is she?! I look around impatiently. An angry horn blows through the air.
In a field outside the long enclosure wall is a village woman, working crops with a hoe.
I’m about to head to her when she suddenly stops digging and straightens up – something’s caught her attention.
I turn my head in the direction she’s looking.
Sitting in tall eucalyptus trees covering the nearby hillside is a small, round structure with stone walls and a wooden door. The door is wide open.
Leaning out of it is Sally, brushing off her clothes.
“Sally!” I yell. “Come on, the bus is about to leave!”
What I’m really saying is ‘get the hell out of there, everybody’s waiting for you!’
“Coming!” she yells back in her masculine voice and puts on her hat. She takes a step forward …
… and never finishes it. The village woman grabs her by the arm and pulls her out of the sanctuary, she’s just desecrated with her foreign snooping.
Sally laughs and tries to break loose. The woman’s grip is too strong, though, and the language she’s speaking too obscure. Sally wrestles a bit, then gives up and reaches into her pocket. Lying in her hand are a few crumpled banknotes.
Seeing it, the indigenous woman releases her grip and steps back, muttering something to herself. Written all over her face is pure indignation.
Sally turns and walks away. Staring at the center point of her body is a pair of intense, black eyes. The woman’s lips don’t stop moving.
“Looks like she’s just cursed you,” I say jokingly to Sally. “What did you go there for anyway?”
Sally nonchalantly shrugs her shoulders.
“I don’t know what she’s so worked up about,” she says, showing me a picture of the shrine on her camera. “It’s just ashes and rows of stones in there.”
Dug in the ground and lined with low stone walls is a wide, shallow pit.
A Pachamama shrine, I realize, when I recognize the typical round, female shapes of it.
Strictly off-limits to anyone outside the indigenous community!
A second angry blow of horn whips through the air. I almost jump.
To hell with you, Sally, I start striding toward the parking lot.
No nurses getting any slack from me on my tours, that’s for sure!
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