By Emma Busch
The plane landing in Cusco jolts Marzi and me awake and into action mode. This is the day that we’d planned for so long—the day that would launch our adventure– but it was a trip that even our meticulous research hadn’t anticipated. Leaving the airport, we are surrounded by a chorus of bilingual taxi offers. Determined to get a more fair price, we take turns responding, “no gracias,” with a smile, but right at the end of the line, a shouted offer makes us pause.
“There’s no way that’ll be the actual price,” Marzi murmurs to me as we debate whether to consider taking the ride.
“Yeah, but do you really want to lug our suitcases around anymore? My arm’s getting tired,” I reply, nudging her in the direction of the driver.
As we drive off towards our first destination, the driver asks our plan and our conversation points us in the direction of his friend Marko, a tour guide who offers his services to get us where we want to be without the stress we had been anticipating.
The car ride to Lake Humantay takes us swiftly from cosmopolitan Cusco to a much more rural view. As we look out on the fields canvassing the hills and the mountains in the distance behind them, Marko tells us about his life. We learn that his native language is Quechua and his family lives on a farm. He explains that in South America, you have to get a degree in tourism to be a guide and that he was just starting his business. When we tell him about the paro in Ecuador, he shares the story of the current political issues in Peru: the president had just ordered their congress to dissolve a few weeks ago, after they tried to suspend his presidency. We react, shocked that we had not heard about this happening one country over, and are even more surprised to learn that he is happy about it. “Todos eran corruptos,” he explains and goes on to describe the reasons the congress being dissolved is a good thing in his eyes. The conversation transitions to politics in the United States with Marko asking questions and us trying to explain some of the just-as-shocking events happening back home.
On our hike, Marko waits patiently as we pause for yet another breather. Marzi plops down on a rock to catch her breath, making another quip about how weak she is.
“I’ve been running in the altitude in Quito, I have an unfair advantage here, don’t worry about it,” I respond, chuckling at her dramatics.
“Casi hemos llegado al lago,” Marko comforts us. He points just a little way up to where we would get our first view of the lake. Just one more switchback, and this struggle would all be worth it.
The water of the lake is a pure blue, made brighter by the reflections of the sun. The contrast with the icy white glacier above creates an image even more spectacular than we had imagined it would be. Marko shows us the best photo spots, adding to our list of glowing reviews for his tour guide service.
Clouds begin to cover the sun and the temperature goes down about ten degrees, forcing us to put on another layer. As we pose for yet another photo in front of the lake, a drop hits my cheek. Expecting rain, I look up to see a flurry of snowflakes. Marzi and I marvel at the dramatic change in weather and giggle as we stick our tongues out to catch the snow.
Our next Airbnb is in a hostel with our towels folded into swans. We can already tell that this town is almost purely for tourism, as it is on the route to Machu Picchu; it’s also where we would catch our train the next morning to get to the ruins, those wonders of the world that we’d come here to see. This time, we go to bed well aware of the few hours of sleep we are going to get, but with a smile, remembering the unimaginable beauty of Lake Humantay and anticipating the incredible day that is to come tomorrow.
Marzi and I look to a peak towering over the ruins. “That can’t actually be where we’re hiking up to,” I remark in awe, “maybe we just can’t see where we’re actually going yet.” Sure enough, 2,700 stone steps and nine breathers later, that’s where we are. As we catch our breath, a cheer begins as the six year old we had passed on the way up makes it to the top. We join in, clapping and in awe of how her tiny legs could have made it all this way.
We walk around the edge overlooking the ruins. All the way up in the mountain, this architectural marvel seems polly-pocket-sized. I can understand why the Spaniards never found it; there are mountains in every direction, as far as we can see. Even from high up, we can see the intricacy of the structures, with each stone brick carefully shaped and placed. As we admire the landscape, a man walks over who we can immediately tell is from the United States. Somehow, even on top of a peak that is seemingly isolated from any civilization, he has the cell phone service to facetime his mother and show her the view.
After a tour of the ruins and many failed selfie attempts with the llamas, Marzi and I make the impossible choice to finish up our day and leave. At dinner, we play Jenga, the tower of blocks reminding us of the ancient architectural marvel we had just experienced. Luckily, Machu Picchu has stayed intact much longer than our precarious creation. After yet another train and bus journey back to Cusco, we check our phones to see that the protests have gotten worse in Quito, with some rumors of the possibility of a coup. Unsure of what to do or how to react to this information, we fall into slumber, exhausted from being awake almost 20 hours straight.
Our third day has already gotten off to a rough start and the exhaustion is starting to hit. Shockingly, three to four hours of sleep three nights in a row was not making for an enjoyable experience—but the adrenaline and excitement about the places we are visiting is energizing us, at least so far.
Marzi’s dreaded alarm blares at 4:30 AM, instructing us to begin our day and cutting our night painfully short. We stumble out of bed and groggily prepare our bags for the airport. Upon meeting our Airbnb host outside our apartment, we learned that they had been planning on using our key, which we had just left inside, to go back in and clean later. Just as we hear of the inconvenience that we unknowingly caused, my suitcase topples over and clatters down the stairs of the apartment building. Smooth. Despite the inconveniences and commotion, our host still offers to walk us to the airport and gifts us each a wool llama keychain with big googly eyes.
We enter the Cusco airport for the second time in two days and make our way through check-in, ready to snatch the extra hour of sleep the plane ride will give us. The woman at the check-in counter informs us that the flight before ours has been cancelled and those passengers were being moved onto our flight. We nod, trying to comprehend what she was saying and wondering why this is our concern. She explains that we have been placed into the next flight out, an hour and a half later, and hands us our boarding processes. With our brains still getting into gear for the day, we nod again and exit the line. As our brains finally manage to process what was going on, we look at each other and groan. “Well, at least we get business class?” I offer. Marzi smiles, “Oh, we are going to make the most of our one hour luxary experience.”
We arrive in Lima, refreshed from a short nap in the comfy business class seats and the excitement of seeing a new city. Knowing that our legs would be sore from the two previous days of strenuous hiking, we had booked a bus tour. Not our preferred method of exploring, but one that wouldn’t require walking. As we take our seats on the gaudy, red double-decker bus, I realize I forgot my sunscreen. Luckily, this was no Quito with its usual UV index being around 13, but two hours in a bus with no shade seemed like a recipe for a sunburn. “Well, maybe I’ll just get a nice tan out of this,” I remark, still optimistic and determined to have a successful travel day despite our setbacks.
The bus stops in the main plaza: a square with a decadent fountain in the middle, bordered by the Government Palace, the Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Municipal Palace.
As I admire the architecture and focus on listening to our guide’s Spanish, Marzi calls me over, eyebrows furled. She shows an email from our program coordinator with the subject IES Abroad Quito – Important Program Update. I cringe and look over her shoulder to read the rest of the email. My eyes stop on a sentence “Given the issuance of the alert and out of concern for your health and safety — which is our highest priority — IES Abroad has decided to suspend its Fall 2019 programs in Quito.”
Our guide waves the flag to gather the tour group and herd us back onto the bus. Marzi and I take a deep breath and retake our seats on the second level. The tour goes on over the speakers, teaching us about another landmark or maybe a part of Peru’s history, I don’t know. I repeat over and over in my head: focus on the tour, there is nothing you can do about this now that you can’t do later; get everything that you can out of this in case your time in South America is over.
But I can’t contain it. A sob breaks out of my mouth and with that, the gates are open, there is no stopping it now. The man in front of us with his wife, trying to learn about the art museum or maybe one of the banks, turns around concerned and asks, “¿Qué pasó?” Marzi and I look at each other and sigh. There was no easy explanation for the extreme emotions and exhaustion taking over our bodies. Every part of our experience so far is running through my brain.
My host family: Sol, Juan Fra, Chucho.
My program friends: Marzi, Danielle, Elizabeth.
My friends from the university: Jeni, Grace, Davíd.
All our travel plans.
No words escape my mouth; I am overwhelmed by everything I have gained in the two months and everything that is about to be lost.