Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 34, November 3, 2002
Mummies, The World's Worst Guide, Altitude Sickness II, Snot Dusty
Photos: C(h)ocks Away! Click here to enter the Penis Temple Gallery!


Visiting our mummies

One of Arequipa's chief tourist attractions is that it is surrounded by volcanoes. I imagine, for it's long term residents, this is also one of it's major detractions. Based on recent fatality reports, it would appear that you stand a annualised one in 5000 chance of being killed by an earthquake. But as we were only there for a few days, we figured our chances of being croaked by geological activity were pretty low, even if we climbed a volcano. For the climb, our little group bifurcated as Jane and I have done a fair bit of high altitude hiking and Simon and Justine have not. They went to climb El Misti (5800m) and we headed off to climb the more vertiginous, icier Ampatto (6300m). The latter, we were told, was high but not especially difficult and a fine introduction to mountaineering.

Nor is Ampato is just any old volcano: it is where quite few Inca mummies were found. The most famous of these was a teenage girl called Juanita - frozen in a glacier for centuries, until a nearby eruption melted the ice, she is one of the best preserved mummies in the world. So, by way of background we went to the local museum where you can view Juanita and her pal, both of whom are lovingly preserved (in all their grisly gory) in impressively bespoke Japanese freezer cabinets. For our 15 Soles, we also caught a National Geographic vid, which spent most of it's time rather pompously telling us what an unbelievably fabulous honour it was to be sacrificed 20,000 ft up in the Andes. Never once did the narrator touch on the possibility that it might be a little bit tight to march a 14 year old girl up a freezing mountain, drug her, then kill her with a blow to the head.

Miss Guided

Having satisfactorily checked out our mountain's cultural background, we then got ourselves a guide. First we went to an agency and agreed a price. Then the guide himself followed us down the street and cut out the agency. And then, the day prior to ascent, our guide got himself in a minor car accident. But every crash has a silver lining and he passed us over to his guiding mate, Miguel Zarate, who was one of the chaps who had worked with the National Geographic team who had discovered Juanita herself. Naturally (although we felt for our injured guide) we were pretty pleased at this turn of events. For National Geographic and BBC2 are the twin Holy Grails of the guiding world. With credentials like these, how could our new pal, 'Micky' be anything but a tip-top guide? Well, as you may well imagine, we were about to find out.

When we had a preliminary chat with him, Mickey told us that another person was coming along - a Japanese guy - was that OK? Since he'd asked so nicely (and as was such a super special guide) we replied that of course it was, as long as it was understood that he was our guide. He said, sure, everything was cool: it was still our trip. He also added we might be able to do the mountain in two days. Again, we said that would be fine - no point in suffering for longer than necessary - but as we were worried about altitude sickness, we'd like the option of three days and we'd like to go slowly.

Things started well and day one was, if not a walk in the park, scarcely arduous. Walking, even with a 30 kilo pack was surprisingly easy and, although the Japanese guy seemed to be flagging, we walked up from 4800m to 5400m and made ourselves a pleasing, if freezing, little base camp. True our tent was a tad knackered and it was very difficult to sleep, but nights at such heights are rarely a laugh. At 2am, I woke up with a splitting - and rather worrying - headache, but this went after a few cups of coca tea and, an hour later, we started our ascent in the sub-zero dark. After an hour hiking (and with two hours to go until dawn) I did find myself wondering why I actually paid to do this sort of thing. But the answer is obvious really. I'll be back in a few months and if a prospective employer asks me if I've wasted a year getting stoned on a Thai beach, at least I'll have a smart answer ready. Besides, which, it's like, really great for my development as a person, man - as we all know, you really can discover a great deal about yourself, freezing your tits off and gasping for breath in the dark.

Getting High

Anyway, as we got higher and the air thinned further my quest for the inner me had to take a backseat to more visceral concerns. Namely that our pace was being dictated by the Japanese guy and not us. For, while he may not have been as fit as us, he was far, far better acclimatised and, at such altitudes, the latter beats the former hands down. Touchingly, he was also making snide comments such 'how many mountains of this height have you climbed recently' Sadly, I lacked the Japanese to rely 'None, you stupid prick, and this is why we asked to go slowly.' Still in all fairness, I couldn't dislike him all that much. After all, he had onlu paid for a service and, unlike us, he was receiving it.

Still, we persevered, with our guide and his sensitive new best buddy telling me that the skull crushing headache and feelings of nausea I was experiencing were perfectly normal. The implication being that there was something rather manly (as opposed to rather stupid) about ignoring the synptoms of altitude sickness. Then, very abruptly, at a whisker over 5900m, my symptons turned into the real thing. It must be said, that my case was nowhere near as dramatic as Jane's ascent into madness (see March 20th entry: www.rhymer.net/tdarchive5.htm). But I do remember looking up at a 50 meter rockpile and thinking that it looked about 10,000 metres high. Very strange - it was the sort of proverbial brick wall in terms of going on, like nothing I have experienced before - and I knew any further climbing was out of the question. Apparently at this point my face was grey and shrunken and my nose had doubled in size and reddened like a Scotch afficionadoエs. Moreover, my lips added a touch of drama: on our acsent they had been flayed by a deracinating wind and (due to low air pressure, not altitude sickness) were bleeding extravagently. Although Jane tells me I presented quite a sight, sadly this Kodak moment went unrecorded.

Still, this is exactly why you pay a guide to guide you, rather than climb big mountains alone: if you run into trouble, he can guide you back down to safety. But no, Micky - the little turd - suggested that I might like to head down alone. Jane, thankfully was a little more responsible and, while 'our' guide and his new BF continued summitwards, she (very inexperienced) and I (altikippered) spent a couple of rather worrying and surreal hours finding our way back to camp. Which of course we did, but that is hardly the point. Then, we waited four hours at 5400 metres (during which Jane started feeling decidedly unwell) for our worthless, useless, pointless prick of a 'guide' to return.

To cut a long and rather tedious story short, we were of course fine, once we got back below 5000 metres. Later we enjoyed a long and incredibly pointless argument with Micky, pointing out that we paid him to guide us and that he empatically had not done so. Well, in a more accurate sense, Jane (whose Spanish is good), had a long and tedious argument, while I stared on meaningfully. Sad to say, her having to argue undoubtedly harmed our case. For as well as being a duplicitous little bastard, he was also sexist and dismissive of women in way that is shocking even in these parts. Still, enough bitching. We eventually cut our losses and gave up. From my point of view, I have also learned a valuable lesson. Never again will I use a celebrity guide: next time I'll go for an honest, hard working chap who's never been near a bloody documentary series.

The following evening, we hooked up again with Simon and Justine who had ejoyed a somwhat more successful ascent - that is, they reached the top - mountain climbing is rather black and white like that. And, after spending the evening getting drunk on Pisco Sours then we headed off up to Puno, the main jumping off point for Lake Titicaca.

Dust, Sweat and Snot

Driving through Peru, you start to realise why everyone who comes to the South sticks to what is called Gringo Trail - there really isn't all that much else. That is to say, much of the country is a desert sitting at an extraordinary 3000m plus. It's all rock, scrub and sand (and, while this has a certain bleak beauty) it really is best seen through the window of a fast moving vehicle. Moreover, the ordinary - as opposed to cute and touristy - pueblos are all built of mud brick and look a little like Luke Skywalkers hometown in Star Wars. These are the sort of landscapes that people almost always describe as 'lunar'. But this term as it is a lazy clich・ Next time you find yourself reaching for it, try and remember what the Apollo landings look like. Nothing on earth, right? Nothing at all. But I will say this for the Peruvian deserts, they do look a lot like the pictures sent back by the Viking missions to Mars. So, in the interests of verismilitude, try over-using 'Martian' instead of 'lunar'.

The other thing that really gets you about southern Peru is the dust. My God is it dusty. And, in the South at least, everywhere is either already covered in dust or covered in sunbaked mud which is in the process of becoming dust. Sometimes, by way of variety, it's even covered in a fine and particularly pervasive black volcanic dust. Of course, dust isn't all bad: it does produce some lovely, lovely sunsets and, I imagine, mixed with water, it might make quite good mud. But it certainly gets about: as you discover when you go to shower, dust gets into every pit, every crack and under every flap. Indeed, the Peruvian dust is so bad that you can't even eat your own bogies. I mean, can you imagine?