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The Peruvian Experience

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The Peruvian Experience

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So I am down in Peru with three fellow students from Wesleyan University. We are just beginning our spring break, and had recently united in Lima before flying together to Cusco the next morning. Our plan was ambitious, chaotic, and irresponsible in hindsight; we had decided to hike the Salkantay Trek from Soraypampa to Aguas Calientes. The evening of our arrival, we were out to dinner when at 9 pm, my friend receives an alarming text from his mother stating that the Salkantay Trek was closed because of a historic mudslide that had decimated the entire trail below the highest pass. This slide sent at least 12 to their death (many remain missing today) while simultaneously displacing 430 families living in the valley. At the time, we were unaware of these disturbing statistics and decided to find a tourist agency that would perhaps guide us part of the way. At 10 pm that evening, we located a random tourist shop that was lightly populated by two employees in the backroom of a jumbled building of interior storefronts. They assured us that not only is the trek impassible at multiple points, but that the Peruvian government was preventing travelers from setting out on the trail. We offered to pay a guide to take us even part of the way, but they turned our proposal down. They did, however, secure us seats on a bus leaving at 5 am the next morning to Soraypampa where tourists engrossed themselves in a heavily assisted day-hike to Lake Humantay. We waiting in the darkness of the Plaza de Armas while bus after bus went to various other locations around Cusco. We dizzily wavered around due to the 11,000 feet of altitude gain that we had assumed less than 24 hours ago until a bus finally came to pick us up. From there, we dangerously (or so we thought at the time) drove through one-lane mountain roads in a loaded bus for nearly five hours. At last, we unloaded and grabbed our packs. We were the only backpackers in sight, and we planned on doing this trek without guidance both geographically and physically. As the rest of the hikers walked packless with sticks to the lake, we lagged behind, destroyed by the sudden difficulty of what was supposed to be an easy first day of trekking. Even with mouths full of coca leaves, two of us required sips of the small oxygen canister we picked up the day before. Our bodies pulsed with symptoms of altitude sickness, but we pressed on. No other view could have made me smile as widely as that of glacial Lake Humantay as we crested the final ascent. At 14,500 feet of altitude, we laughed at the fantastic beauty before us. We had arrived in the early afternoon, and found ourselves almost totally alone beside this pool in the Andes Mountains. Our descent was horrible. Pulsing again were headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelled joints. In our divergence from the path most traveled, we entered a trail of horse, cow, and llama (domesticated guanaco as we kept on) crap; an uncomfortable rain began to fall, and we found ourselves walking through a mountain feed mist. Within all of our heads was the terrible thought of setting up camp in the rain. Our level of exhaustion was overly evident to any onlooker (there was no one), but as the rain let up and our camp became established, moods lifted and excitement spiked. We were observing the most beautiful sunset display any of us had ever seen. The sun, setting at around 4:00 pm because of the extreme prominence of the surrounding mountains, swirled its orange and pink on the snow-covered top of Mount Salkantay almost as a kind of sorbet is presented at an ice-cream shop. Our wide smiles disappeared as a frigid wind whipped through the valley that we were so exposedly staying in. Dinner in the dark was followed by an unmatched view of eye-contracting stars as we retreated to the chilled interior of our tents. Altitude sickness plagued any chance of a good night's sleep, and we awoke frozen and in a misty cloud. It was this day that we would trek through the Salkantay Pass at 15,220 feet of altitude. Endless switchbacks defined the first half of the day. We toiled over each step, our packs dragging each attempt to press on. After a few hours of extreme exertion and chill, we passed through the highest point of the trek. Once the clouds parted, an incredible view of the mudslide's decimation shocked us into the reality of our unguided trek. The slide refigured the landscape with a melting expanse of boulders climbing both sides of the valley and completely filling in the previous location of the Salkantay Lake. Armed with a compass and an enthusiastic "we can't turn back now" mindset, our trek took us through a few miles of trailless movement into the valley ahead. The rest of this day wasn't by any means forgiving. Passing through a newly abandoned town, over a sea of boudlers and deep, wet sand, and into the jungle valley brought set after set of challenges. Towards hour 11 of the day's hiking, a thunderstorm burdened the final steps we had to take. The valley was steep, and beneath us crept a barren section of forest where the river washed away all vegetation in existence (it rose over 130 feet in some sections). Once we had almost made it to the supposed location of the next town, we hopped another small waterfall and rounded another unpromising corner to see only a gap. For about the length of a track, a secondary mudslide caused by the huge forest laceration made by the river's rise opened up to an impassible section of an unstable dirt cliff-face. We spent the next hour cautiously pressing up and around the empty gap in the forest in the ongoing rain. From there, we very quickly arrived in the next town, populated but in a state of emergency. Their supply of food had been entirely cut off, and reserves were running dangerously low. The following day, we were shown to a couple of provisional bridges that the locals had erected just two days before with some fallen logs and sticks. More treacherous than anything any of us had done, we inched along the sloped, wet logs that stretched over the intersection of two overflowing rivers. Later that day, a mile long mudslide had taken out another part of the trail, but this one was dry and had experienced some local foot traffic (there were no roads for the first four days of trekking). We got ahead that evening, and camped on a man's land high in the valley steeps who informed us that we had been the only group to travel the Salkantay Trek route for the entirety of the year 2020 (this was in March mind you). The next day of trekking was far longer than we had expected, but traveling alone through an ancient village to a phenomenal viewpoint of Machu Picchu made it worth it. We ended in with a beat arrival in Aguas Calientes, but that evening was full of celebration and restaurant food. Two of us woke up with food poisoning, and we decided to travel back to Cusco midday rather than in the evening. Upon arriving at our hostel, President Vizcarra came on the television to announce that Peru would close its airports in 24 hours. At the time of our departure in Soraypampa, the coronavirus had only spread widely in China and Italy, but when we got out, the internet flooded our phones with the reality of online classes, the spread of the virus into a pandemic, and the global closing of boarders. Panic-ridden, we awoke at 5 am to escape the claim that hostels and hotels would be locked from the outside by the police to force a 15-day quarantine period set by the Peruvian Government. We waited outside in the rain until the last flight to Lima departed with us onboard (our ticket had coincided with the last day of open airports by sheer luck). In Lima, we were locked in our friend's house, prevented from going outside by the fear of getting arrested by the endless number of police and military stationed on the streets of the city. Day after day passed, we played chess, meditated, and hoped for an email from the U.S. Embassy of Peru. Weeks passed, and the panic of my family was calmed by my less-bothered conscience. After daily reminders pointing towards the extension of our visit to Peru to months, the housing situation ended for two of us, and we ventured to a nearby hotel to wait out the rest of our stay in Lima. By some miracle, we were then put in touch with a DEA agent helping at the embassy (the DEA helped out because the chair of the embassy and many of his employees all fled back to the U.S. leaving thousands of citizens stranded for much longer). The person who aided us brought us to the embassy to get on a departing repatriation flight as standby passengers. In a rare moment of animation, my friend and I flew on an unfilled flight directly to Washington, D.C. Our trip had ended, but our quarantine in a very strange new world had just begun.
I want to note that I skipped large swaths of experience to fit this shortened story into a mildly digestable piece. I also did not read through it yet so forgive any mistakes or sections lacking flow.

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text

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Peru

Date Submitted (Dublin Core)

09/22/2020

Date Modified (Dublin Core)

09/23/2020

Date Created (Dublin Core)

03/21/2020

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This item was submitted on September 22, 2020 by Norm Cotteleer II using the form “Share Your Story” on the site “A Journal of the Plague Year”: https://covid-19archive.org/s/archive

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