Stamina and the Search for Endings, Part 2

February 22nd, 2014, 9am

We leave Machu Picchu, the Italians and I, and walk along the train tracks to Hidroelectrica, about three hours away. He’s wearing a purple hat and scarf, she a white top with a purple undershirt; they’re coordinated in the unconscious way of couples who’ve been together for a long time. When we’d first met I hadn’t realized they were a couple, then the week before when we were hiking outside Ollyanta I saw her walk up to him and give him a big hug, saw her move her hands up and down his back and I didn’t need to speak Spanish or Italian to understand their closeness.

As we’re walking she tells me about her phobia of wild dogs. When she was young she was out with her family and a couple wild dogs attacked her. There wasn’t much physical damage but it left an emotional scar, one that’s only deepened as she’s gotten older. Shortly after she says this, we come across a wild dog, a docile, curious one, who follows along as though he’s going the same place we’re going. She immediately gets nervous, moves quickly to the other side of her partner, putting him between herself and the mutt. A friend told me, weeks before, that if a wild dog gets in your way and starts barking at you, just bend down and pretend like you’re reaching for a rock and it’ll scare the dog away. This particular one darts on its own as soon as it sees the green-uniformed guard at the bridge.

We walk on the trail next to the tracks, by the river along the edge of the jungle. A couple trains pass, one in each direction. We walk on the tracks themselves to cross over streams of mountain runoff that feed into the river, which is the wide and fast and the color of Yoo-hoo. Black and red butterflies fly directly over the tracks, which have carved for them a perfect lane of windspace. A large purple butterfly appears out of nowhere, swirls around me so fast I can’t even see its body, then vanishes. A blonde Danish guy with tape on a hinge of his glasses passes us and later on we pass him.

The trails splits off toward the town. We see two guinea pigs cross at the same spot within a minute of each other. Later on we see a third, who is so startled to see us that it drops the avocado its mouth and disappears into the brush. We come across an avocado tree and I swing my walking stick like it’s a piñata, trying to knock it down, but the avocado clings stubbornly to its branch. The Italiana stops in her tracks and holds her finger to her lips. Through the leaves we see an Andean Cock-of-the-rock, bright orange, almost fluorescent, bulbous plumage, like a goldfish with wings.

At the town we get into one of the waiting collectivos or shared ride cabs. This one’s a wagon, which we share with a Peruvian woman and two Chilean kids. The Italian guy and I sit in the trunk, facing rear, watching the dirt road twist and turn away from us with the mountain, feeling the car slow as we go over a shallow moving puddle. More mountain runoff. Stop and go, stop and go. The Peruvian woman gets out. A butterfly tries to mate with a parked van with black and red decals. It slams itself repeatedly into the side of the vehicle to no avail.

Twenty minutes later I get out at Santa Teresa with the Chilean kids. My Italian friends would be continuing on to Santa Maria, where they’d catch another car back to Ollyanta. We say goodbye, I find a room in a hostel, a place to lunch, ask if there’s an bank or ATM in town and there isn’t. The last ATM was back near Machu Picchu. There’s another in Urubamba, 160 kilometers away. I have about fifty Peruvian soles left in my pocket, and three U.S. dollar bills. If I play it right I can make it back to Cusco.

I walk thirty minutes outside town toward the termales—the hot springs—and see a couple of condors gliding high above. Say buenas tardes to a trio of men with shovels digging out a pile of rocks along the river. One of them asks me if I want to help them and we all laugh. Right before I get to the hot springs I see something by the water near a motorcycle parked under a lone tree. There’s a braided steel cable that goes straight across the river into a set of stone steps surrounded by foliage. There’s a cart suspended from the cable, connected to a cord of white rope loosely hung from metal rings also hung from the cable. A man is pulling himself across from the other side.

I point and ask him, Hot springs? He says no. Says they’re some word in Spanish I don’t understand. I pull myself across regardless because I just have to, and the steps lead to a trail which leads past a small village with four or five visible huts and a pair of wild dogs. I keep going for a while and the trail seems to continue into a valley with no distinguishable landmarks. Turn around and on my way back one of the dogs stands in the middle of the trail and barks loudly at me. I reach down with my hand and immediately the dog yelps and runs away, as though I had already hit it with the imaginary rock I was pretending to pick up.

Back in the cable car, back across the river. The hot springs are two minutes away and there in one of the pristine bluewater pools I meet a blonde Danish guy—the same one from before—who’d recently graduated from university and had come down to Peru for an Ayahuasca retreat. While he was here he figured he should see Machu Picchu. We talk about books—he’s penned a series of stories about his experiences in Peru that he’s planning to collect and publish when he gets back. He’s the second of this ilk I’ve met, the other a film school grad from Newport Beach, who’d decided that the best way to write movies was to write novels, who did an Armenian Gypsy fortune card reading for T and myself late one night after returning from Pisac. Is one of these twenty-one-year-olds going to be my generation’s Tom Wolfe?

The Dane and I share a cab back to town and he gets into a collectivo to Santa Maria. I eat a late dinner, am down to my last twenty-five soles, and I’m wondering how it’s going to end.

Eliza, David Wade, Christine, Paul and 1 more said thanks.

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Jack Cheng

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