5) Under the Influence of Altitude, from Under the Influence of Altitude


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South America » Peru » Huancavelica » Huancavelica
July 4th 2010
Published: July 7th 2010
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Rosalinda's Cousin's HomeRosalinda's Cousin's HomeRosalinda's Cousin's Home

Open staircase heading to closed off third floor...
I once thought that those who contract altitude sickness were simply doing something wrong. They didn’t take the proper precautions. They were not employing the proper breathing techniques to get enough oxygen into their system. I was sure if I concentrated enough and took very deep breaths this surely would not happen to me. Rather it would be the other passengers who would start to sway and feel ill on the morning bus ride to Huancayo. It would take me over a high range of the Andes. I have rarely encountered motion sickness, so there was nothing to worry about. Motion sickness and altitude sickness are nearly the same, right?
The highway from Lima to Huancayo begins to seriously incline after Chosica. The climb is not as if the bus were pushing its way up a roller coaster only to hurl down the other side. In this case, it is more like a six-hour trip on a windy wheelchair ramp, clearly not overwhelming. However, anywhere from my neck down I felt the sensation of a force being pushed to the back of my seat. From the second deck, the scene strikes me very much like Northern India. We trudge through Lima’s
Orihuela ResidenceOrihuela ResidenceOrihuela Residence

Interior patio leads to rooms upstairs...
dismal outskirts, no more inspiring due to the grey overcast film I hope will soon lift as the altitude increases. Construction projects appear to be half completed, evidenced by the clumps of steel rods sprouting from each corner of the last floor finished. Having left much of the urban landscape behind, the road snakes upward through foreboding canyons of vertical rock. The flat pavement is the only thing that keeps rockslides from splashing into the eroded river gulley that the road uses as a guide to get through the mountains. The corrugated metal roofs of meager and porous domiciles are held down by gravity and large stones. Sometimes small logs do the trick, but they are a rare sight because they’re most likely used for firewood. Young mothers in thick sweaters tightly hold onto infants in dark doorless home entrances. Our eyes meet for less than a second, yet it is enough for my imagination to infer harsh it is to subsist among rubble, refuse, and diesel fumes.
The sun penetrates the cloud cover at Chosica. It is a cause for joy and I instantly feel sorry for the nine million or so in Lima who will not see it
Orihuela ResidenceOrihuela ResidenceOrihuela Residence

Front entrance to patio...
for a long time. Waterfalls gush down the mountainside every few miles. Some of the cascades drop for more than one hundred feet. Just as in Himachal, it is not possible to look high enough up to determine the source of the water. We pass a posted sign that reads, “Educate the children and it won’t be necessary to punish the men.” Even at these heights, precautions are taken to prevent crime from spiraling out of control. We arrive at Chicla. The welcome sign reads 3,793 meters, or about 12,440 feet. Rosalinda is asleep. I feel fine. I look behind at the other passengers. Most are also asleep.
By the time we reach the first mine, I had already lost track of the number of switchbacks. Then it hit. It is hard to describe the sensation, but I liken it to someone shoving a rusty garden tool down the esophagus and scraping out the lining of the digestive tract. With altitude sickness, there is no anesthetic to quell the symptoms. Inexplicable fatigue follows and I get a nasty disposition. There is never any dizziness, just waves of nausea without the bursts of salivation before the inevitable ejection of stomach contents
Inner Patio at the Orihuela'sInner Patio at the Orihuela'sInner Patio at the Orihuela's

It serves as impromptu storage...
occurs. There is a small stop at the pass at Ticlio. The bus pulls over and I read the sign, “Highest railway pass in the world.” The driver gets out to stretch. I think about doing the same but cannot muster the energy to move my fingers, much less get up. The muscles in my abdomen involuntarily contract. Below the railway superlative on the sign, I can read the numbers…4…8…1…8. I grab a calculator; that’s 15,803 feet above sea level. I haven’t seen a tree for a few hours. Patches of snow cling to boulders. Glacial, but lifeless lakes spot the landscape. The mere thought of lunch, or Lord forbid a beer, induces more abdominal contractions.

To put it bluntly, Huancayo is not kind to the eyes upon first sight. I was to soon learn that three more days did little to help this initial impression. Rosalinda’s uncle has arranged a driver to collect us at the bus station, part to our transportation company, Cruz del Sur. It turns out this is Rodalinda’s cousin. It took little time to conclude that she is related to half of Huancayo and I would need name tags and a broad scroll to
Hanging LaundryHanging LaundryHanging Laundry

Inner patio at the Orihuela's...
outline the family tree.
Cayo drives us to a drab colorless home on the marginal blocks of Huancayo. “This is my cousin’s house”, Rosalinda informs me of another cousin. “We’ll be staying here during our visit.” We go inside and drop off our belongings while Cayo waits in the cab on the street. We place our backpacks on a few rickety chairs in what is meant to be a garage, but now serves as a closet/living room/dining room/ you know, the room you throw crap in and hope no one ever opens the door. Like every other construction this side of Ecuador, the first and second floor are complete in their structure, but the third is curiously off limits to human trespass. Rosalinda added, “There are two bedrooms upstairs. Yours is on the left, mine on the right.” Wait a minute. Hadn’t she already told me this is a family of four? It turns out they’ll all squeeze into the downstairs parental bedroom, already cluttered with odds and ends dating back months. The whole feeling is uncomfortable, yet I cannot disregard the family’s generosity. They are going out of their way to make me feel welcome
Rosalinda kindly instructed Cayo
Peruvian PatioPeruvian PatioPeruvian Patio

A typical scene at the Orihuela's...
to bring us to abuelito’s. In essence she was here by and large to see her grandfather. Banking left and right and through the unlit and unwelcoming streets of the outskirt of Chupaca, we arrived at a very meager apartment block. There was no one around. The wind blew. It whistled ominously. Forty yards away boys played on a pile of rubble under a singular street light. I wanted to dart back into the taxi. At that very instant, I thought to myself: Here I can speak the language. Neither my passport nor religion was an issue, but the worst neighborhoods of Lahore weren’t this bad. Rosalinda brought me aside away from Cayo to unnecessarily warn me, “Ricardo, my family…it is very humble.” Perhaps she thought I would be disturbed with what I might see, maybe even embarrassed?
Inside the upstairs window to the right, there was a light on in an apartment. We exited the taxi on the left near a broken down and leaky barn door. What surprised me is that Rosalinda knocked on it instead of going to the front of the apartment across the street. I checked to verify I was not a character about to
Virginal ApparitionVirginal ApparitionVirginal Apparition

The silouette attracts treu believers...
be eliminated in a Stephen King novel. We entered into a central roofless patio of a confused multitude of timber, hanging laundry, unwashed dishes, and an empty guinea pig cage. Above the central cloister were private rooms closed by flimsy doors barely clinging to their hinges. On the ground a garden hose spouted water onto the cracked cement flooring. The Orihuela family may be humble, but they are scraping by.
Like any woman in her thirties who lives far away, Rosalinda was happy to see her grandfather, who recognized her immediately. Fidencio Orihuela Pérez is eighty-one years old and looks about twenty years younger. We met him to chat in a cold room adorned with a television set and a few basic upholstered pieces of furniture. Female cousins appeared from all directions along with their offspring and a few aunts. I bobbed up and down like a jack-in-the-box to shake hands and kiss cheeks, paying no particular attention to names or family connections. They shouldn’t be quizzing me later especially since no one is wearing any name tags. While Rosalinda and Fidencio caught up, I took a stroll around the patio.
The family offered me food and drink, including some
Long Live the KingLong Live the KingLong Live the King

By the lack of cosmetic adjustments, I'd say this comes from the mid '80's
tasty lamb broth with a rack of sparse meat and plenty of potatoes. They were inquisitive, but never nosy They love their children and shower them with affection. No one is foreign to work and they openly shared their struggles with me. Like many, they ask about the States. What kind of country is it nowadays? Is the overall outlook of most Americans positive? Did I know any Peruvians where I lived?
“Actually in my state there are many more Ecuadorans.” This raised a few eyebrows. “I have always found the Peruvians and Ecuadornas to be the same people and country, just separated by a political line. The family agreed quietly and politely while they downed fresh but slightly unleavened bread with their stew. They deftly avoided my take on current events, world affairs, or my president. They are very astute and in their own way, and were feeling me out just like Tía Ana in Lima.
Fidencio piped up, “Do you want to go see a virgin?” I didn’t see that question coming as we finished dinner. I kept seriously quiet with his granddaughter next to me. Whatever was about to come out of my mouth could be misconstrued.
Fidencio and RosalindaFidencio and RosalindaFidencio and Rosalinda

Sharing a moment during a late afternoon...
After a pregnant pause, he added, “There is a shrine, an apparition in the neighborhood. Many have come to see it. It is close.”
“OK, let’s do it.” Cayo appeared to grab the keys. Though still nimble at an advanced age, Fidencio will take a ride when available to him. The shrine is located at the far end of an empty lot a few blocks away. It has garnered enough attention that a few vendors have set up tents to sell an assortment of souvenirs and pamphlets depicting the history of the site, dating back a few months. To the non-believer, it is no more than the inside of a large oval knot that has become exposed to the open air. With little imagination, just about anyone’s eyes can follow the outline of the grainy, but pious Virgin Mary. Deep red rose petals have been placed at her feet at the bottom of the indentation. A powder blue rosary hangs from below the shoulder. At the base of the tree are several bouquets in ceramic pots. The display, like the surroundings, is extraordinarily simple and straightforward. A family has gathered to pay homage to the figure and they say that
Virginal ApparitionVirginal ApparitionVirginal Apparition

A shrine for true believers...
a line a hundred deep forms on Sundays. The surrounding property is tranquil and is empty of activity. I ponder their firm and unquestioned faith in Catholic dogma, the same type that spreads from Mexico through most of Latin America. As the sun sets, a chill envelops the lot.
“Fidencio, what do you think? Do you believe in the apparition?”
“Of course! All in the neighborhood do.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“It is because the Virgin Mary gives people something to believe in.”
Cayo drives us to the main square at Chupaca. Every small town in Peru seemingly has a plaza ranging in quality from spiffy and polished to downright falling apart. No matter what the condition, it is the focal point for folks to gather to sit, chat, or for children to play soccer. The plaza is where information is shared and distributed. Cayo orders Rosalinda and me out so that we can take a walk. He and Fidencio remain in the front seat of the taxi while we investigate the stands of fruit, grain, oversized baskets of bread, and skinned poultry suspended from iron hooks at the feet. A crimson stain underneath the beak marks where
Andean SunsetAndean SunsetAndean Sunset

Dusk is falling an a Huancayo suburb...
the incision was made to slaughter them. Rosalinda buys a large bag of maná from out of a heaping sack. The sweetened popcorn kernel snack has a hint of caramel to it. Chupaca is unfiltered; it does not try to impress because it has neither reason nor the ability to do so. We make our way back to the taxi on the opposite side of the square. A scurvy six-year-old boy in tatters tugs in Rosalinda’s pant leg for a handout. He is in horrific condition. Exceedingly compassionate, she avoids handing him change and rather takes out the maná. Without speaking, the boy has taken the front tail of his soiled shirt and formed a basket, into which Rosalinda pours a quarter of its contents. Uttering not a single word, he runs off with his prize to a park bench and wolfs down his meal, most likely the first he has in a day or two. The last image I have of him while riding away in the taxi is his cheeks puffed up like a squirrel having gorged on acorns. He instinctively shoves more into his mouth where none can fit; the extra pieces fall back into his shirt
HuancayoHuancayoHuancayo

It looks better at a great, great distance...
pouch waist high.

The room where I sleep faces a busy thoroughfare…at five in the morning. I happen to be regretfully positioned above a car wash for taxis. Well before dusk, the cabs arrive for their daily washing during which time the drivers get out to chat. There is no escaping the screams, laughs, and stories about family and friends. Those drivers not involved in morning gossip pay me the respect of blasting their radios to, just like the Old Pub in Miraflores, ‘70’s disco music. Having tossed and turned for a half hour, the sky has transformed from a pitch black to a deep blue, signaling the impending dawn. I decide to go for a shower and cautiously descend the open air cement stairway in the dark. The chill grabs hold of my thighs. It is just above freezing. My source of heat for the night has been the bed. Car horns blare from construction vehicles. I learned my lesson the night before about the hot water for the shower. Powered by an electric wire, it is best not adjust the water valve after flipping the power switch on. I was greeted with a stiff shock. This morning
Torre TorreTorre TorreTorre Torre

Where Bryce meets The Badlands...
I need not worry. All of Huancayo, population about 320,000, is without water from six in the evening until six the next morning. In order to use the toilet, the family has left a large industrial bucket full of water, in which floats a plastic measuring cup. After use, just scoop up the water and pour it down the toilet. Gravity takes care of the rest. Just my luck…the bucket is empty and the water doesn’t come back for another half hour. I go back to my room to organize belonging and makes notes in my journal. More taxis have arrived. Four of them are getting hosed down and a young teenager is cleaning off windshields. The tune for the moment? Abba’s Dancing Queen. Things will get better, I thought. The water will get going, I’ll have a shower, and down some breakfast. Breakfast is a mug of oatmeal. I hate oatmeal, but keep quiet.
With the investment of time, effort, organization, and bucket loads of cash, Huancayo could develop into a destination for tourists. That is not going to happen in the next few years. The Kansas City Royals may very well win the World Series first or Tiger
Vertical CliffVertical CliffVertical Cliff

At Torre Torre with the valley in the background...
Woods could become a marriage counselor. The encircling villages of the Mantaro valley bustle with options. The ride to El Ingenio winds through fields of potatoes and artichokes. We stop at a dairy bar outside a creamery for “helado de leche”. However awkward it sounds to order “milk ice cream”, the delightful taste does not disappoint. It is literally ice cream that tastes like fresh milk, but doused in sugar, not as bad as I anticipated. I am the first to finish my cone.
Dry rugged hills spill into Huancayo when looking in the direction of Lima. Cayo shows us a place called Torre Torre (Tower Tower), an unoriginal title for a landscape plucked directly out of southern Utah. The road has deteriorated to where it was no longer passable. We’d have to walk the rest of the way, about three of four hundred yards. Cayo parks the taxi at the last home, outside of which an older woman is tending to her laundry. She offers to look after the car for a small tip. It would be foolish to get on her bad side, so Cayo agrees, knowing full well he will not have to fork over anything himself.
Water ErosionWater ErosionWater Erosion

More formations at Torre Torre
This is where the Badlands meet Bryce Canyon, but in miniature. Countless years of water erosion have sculpted vermilion cliffs out of exposed sandstone. Curvy footpaths lead out of sight into cool, dark, and humid canyons. Hefty birds with considerable wingspan glide above. While well trampled by our predecessors, none of the trails are too terribly safe. It is a young boy’s dreamscape of exploration. Individual monoliths spike eighty feet, tantalizingly close enough to tempt the athletically able to jump from top to top. The loose sandstone gives way in several spots along the precipitous trail. Footing is poor and the fine chippings provide no traction. My choice of footwear today was awful, just basic walking shoes. Cayo, on the other hand, came prepared is better shoes with traction on the soles. Two years older than me, he skips and dances along trails no wider than a foot. On either side is a precarious and inevitably injurious drop into the canyon from which recovery would be impossible. The only question is how far down one would go until his scraped and bruised body would finally come to a stop. I stay put and live vicariously through Cayo’s risky trepidations. In
Descend At Your Own RiskDescend At Your Own RiskDescend At Your Own Risk

Precarious trail into a canyon at Torre Torre...
the background, Huancayo’s outskirts smother the valley. I turn to Rosalinda and wonder aloud, “Do you realize we are the only folks here exploring this area?” If in Pennsylvania, this place would be packed, in addition to a few Hampton Inns and fast food joints just outside the gates. For a brief moment, I relished in the solitude that Torre Torre had not succumbed to hyper commercialism.
She looked around. A shepherd with his small flock three hundred feet above. No other cars parked where we picked up our “guide”, a little boy who was out to make a few extras soles. “There is no one.”
“Huancayo could turn this into a park and develop it without it losing the wild charm it now exudes.”
Cayo joined in, “Ricardo, there is much here. But no one gets together and discusses it. We have tourists here, but they mostly come from Lima.” I have not seen a single European or North American. I feel like I stick out more here than I did in India.
We had lunch at San de Pedro Saño, twenty kilometers outside Huancayo. It was festival day and we hit the jackpot. Rosalinda and I were the
Say What?Say What?Say What?

Words cannot beging to describe this outfit in San Pedro...
only visitors. Crowds assembled in the main square and bands of middle aged men in grey suits pumped out tunes. At the rear of the procession one held an enormous wooden harp supported in the center of his chest to keep it upright. The hollow stringed instrument rose two feet over his crown. The processions made tight circles around the statue centered on the elevated plaza. Marshals in ornate sashes took the lead, slowly walking the civic groups around in a march or even taking a woman in hand and breaking out in a soft dance. Rosalinda and I paused for a lunch of roasted lamb that had been prostrated over hot coals for several hours. There is beer, but it is not cold. Drinks here are served at room temperature, a considerable downer with my grilled lunch. It was one more small annoyance that was beginning to gnaw away at me.
One young man’s costume is so eccentric, it would make Liberace blush. In a black coat, unfortunate in the stinging sun at this altitude, ornate jewels hang from over his shoulders and crisscross at the center of his abdomen. In a black fedora, the same silvery jewels reach
Mom...Does This Match?Mom...Does This Match?Mom...Does This Match?

At San Pedro...you can't make this up...
the right shoulder in the form of an epaulet that hangs down to the elbow. At each forearm, lacy lime green fabric is stitched into the sleeve of his coat and reaches to his bicep. To complete the psychedelic nightmare there are his knickers, kind of like what Payne Stewart would wear in golf tournaments, only these are specked with orange tubes, pink flowers, and some shape that can best be described as purple lips. The hems of his trousers are trimmed in a faded green garland. From the waist down, he looks like a close up of mitochondria that jumped into a bucket of used crayons.
The afternoon had lingered well past five o’clock. I told Rosalinda to arrange with Cayo to take us back to her cousin’s after lunch; I had stuff to take care of. While she agreed initially, one stop meshed into another. “Oh, Ricardo, it is just twenty minutes away. Can we go, please?” she asked pleading to me. I even caught a hint of her bashing her eyelashes at me to evoke sympathy. I agreed each time, becoming increasingly tired and irritated. Our last stop was at another cousin’s (how many does she have?)
Market at ChupacaMarket at ChupacaMarket at Chupaca

An assortment of produce along with odds and ends...
paltry shop across from a maximum security prison for inmates convicted of terrorism. They caught up for the better part of an hour. As each minute passed, I vowed that I would not compromise anymore with her. If travelling with another isn’t compromise part of the arrangement? No, not really; it doesn’t have to be. In this case, I had no choice. When she said her final goodbyes, I was livid. The better part of the afternoon was lost. I was cranky, on the verge of snapping at the next person who approached me. Her cousin, a pleasant a plump woman, climbed over sacks of provisions to say goodbye to me. I pretended to be polite; she perceived my irritation and did not know what to make of it. Rosalinda hopped in the taxi with a smile of satisfaction. In two days, she had made her rounds and had seen distant family for the first time in years. “Ricardo, ¿cómo estás? Are you upset at me?”
I growled at her, ”We’ll talk when we get back.” I was never comfortable in Huancayo.
As we retired upstairs before dinner, I shot down any notion of another night in Huancayo. I laid
Chicken at ChupacaChicken at ChupacaChicken at Chupaca

Not exactly KFC...
down an ultimatum to Rosalinda. She sat down on my bed and was attentive. I called her out on her selective hearing. “You asked me what I’d like to do. I made it extremely clear I wanted to spend the afternoon back here. But you had your own agenda. This will not happen again, I assure you.” She perceived my acrimonious tone. “Either you can come with me tomorrow to Huancavelica or catch up with me later. Whatever the case, tomorrow morning I am leaving. If you’d like to stay here, I will call you from the hotel.” Privately I knew she would not travel without me; she would certainly not get in a collective taxi alone for several hours. There would be no way she’d call my bluff.
“We’ll go to Huancavelica tomorrow.” I then went down for a two hour nap above taxi drivers in full debate on whether Paraguay could pull off the upset over Spain.

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8th July 2010

I am NEVER going to make jokes about Jersey, ever again.

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