Andes Accidents Part 3: Peruvian Perils

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The Third Hospital Trip

It took a while to recover from the trauma of Death Road. Sometimes Sarah would laugh about it; other times she’d get really quite shaken up about the experience. But the rest of our time in Bolivia went pretty smoothly. We had a fabulous time on the Salt Flats, and in Potosi and Sucre, on a loop to the south of the country and through some of the most impressive scenery we had ever seen. Sarah was good at adapting. In all but the most remote places, she showed herself to be very impressive at hunting down WiFi with which to message her boyfriend.

A cactus on the Uyuni Salt Flats, disguised as me

But by the time we returned to La Paz about ten days later, we both had to admit that we weren’t entirely on the mend. Sarah would get sudden excruciating shooting pains in her abdomen, and my right arm had deteriorated to the point that I was using a scarf as a makeshift sling. In one hostel, a drunk fellow-traveller, who happened to be a nurse, examined my arm. She concluded that in her professional opinion, “you’ve given it a really good bash.” The following night, another drunk nurse was found so that she could offer a second opinion. She thought I might have fractured the arm, which was bad news, as Sarah and I were due to trek the Inca Trail in less than a week’s time.

So – joy of joys – we went back to the same hospital in La Paz, for our third hospital visit of the trip. We both got more prodding and poking and x-rays, and a traumatologist appeared to offer his expensive opinion. He was a proud, well-dressed man, with a very old man hovering at his shoulder and nodding wisely beneath a magnificent white moustache. The traumatologist spoke decent English, but his elderly sidekick didn’t seem to know any English at all. He looked about ninety. After about half an hour, the two of them had a very serious discussion in Spanish about my arm, and the traumatologist explained to me, “This is my father. He is also a traumatologist.”

My arm wasn’t fractured, and I was prescribed medicine and a proper sling. The traumatologist went to have a look at Sarah, and I was left alone with his father.

“You… England?” said the old man, doing his best to overcome the language barrier.

“Yes,” I said. “England.” Sarah had been continuing her efforts to learn Spanish, and I’d come to rely on her – without her, I didn’t have a clue.

By this point, the Hospital Selfie had become an obligatory tradition for us

Y su esposa,” he said. “Your wife. England also?”

I hesitated. “Yeah,” I said. “My wife’s from England too.”

Sarah was given a cream and a prescription for her abdominal pains, and we were both discharged. “It was so embarrassing,” she confided. “He told me to take my leggings off, and that was when I realised I’d put my pants on inside out this morning.”

“We’re getting to the point,” I said, “where we know too much about each other.”

“My boyfriend will be so relieved to hear that the doctors still think we’re basically okay,” said Sarah. “He was worried about us after he heard about your sling.”

Our last moments in Bolivia

Sarah’s cream had to be applied once a day. This wasn’t particularly convenient: apparently she had to take off her pants, rub the cream on her thigh, and then wait for the cream to dry. The drying process took about twenty minutes. This meant that for twenty minutes every day, she had to lock herself in a bathroom, or kick me out of our bedroom, so she could hang around airing her bare thigh. I’d take myself off somewhere with a book, and wait until she was able to wear clothes again.

A Plot Twist

The days rolled on. We retraced our steps from La Paz to Cusco, and – greatly to my relief – I was able to stop using the sling with one day to spare before the Inca Trail. We’d been warned that the Inca Trail could get very cold at night, but Sarah’s fleece had gone missing in our hostel in La Paz, so the afternoon before she spent a long time trying to find the perfect replacement. Eventually she settled on a black puffy coat that looked extremely snug.

The Inca Trail was the highlight of our whole trip for me. For three and a half days, we followed the old Inca road through the mountains, with the wilderness pressing in on each side of the trail and spreading out across the valleys as far as we could see. I discovered for the first time how much I loved hiking. Sarah, with only a little trekking experience, was one of the ablest in the group, and she was usually at the front with the guides, getting them to teach her Spanish. At night, as the temperature plunged, she and I shared a tent, wearing all the layers we’d brought with us – Sarah said that her new puffy coat was a godsend.

Sarah has a nap

The crisp dawn mornings presented me and Sarah with a logistical challenge that didn’t affect the couples in the other two-person tents. Because Sarah and I didn’t want to get changed in front of each other, we had to take it in turns to dress, while the other one of us shivered on the mountainside in our pyjamas. Plus, of course, Sarah had to apply her damn thigh-cream, so she was always the last person to breakfast.

Obligatory Machu Picchu photo

On the fourth morning, we reached Machu Picchu, the climax of the hike, and the sense of achievement was immense. We felt as though we were on top of the world. Exhausted and filthy, we returned to Cusco and civilisation. It was past midnight in the UK, too late for Sarah to Facetime her boyfriend, but she was looking forward to having all of the following day to talk to him as much as she wanted.

Sarah had left our hotel room before I woke up. I didn’t see her for a few hours, and then she crept back into the room. “I have news,” she said. “My boyfriend and I broke up.”

More even than Death Road, this was the seismic event of the trip. Our time in South America can be split into two halves: before the breakup, and after the breakup. An intermittently tearful Sarah tried to explain what had happened.

Apparently things had suddenly become very clear that Sarah didn’t want to be in a serious, committed relationship right now. But she still loved her boyfriend. But she felt that the relationship was wrong for her at the moment. But she wasn’t sure if breaking up with him had been the right thing to do. She was not in a good way.

The plan had been to have one final supper with the Inca Trail lot before everyone left Cusco, but Sarah clearly wasn’t up to that. The two of us went for burgers next to the hotel, and she talked and wept her way through the meal, before going straight to bed.

Not the best night’s sleep

At 2pm the next day, we had a twenty-hour bus journey from Cusco back to Lima. The flights weren’t much more expensive, but Sarah had thought that flying would be cheating – not the authentic traveller experience. So we boarded the bus, and got the authentic traveller experience that we were looking for.

We were sitting in the second row from the back of the bus, right near the attendant’s seat. The attendant made sure our luggage was stowed, and brought us refreshments and a decent supper. He also turned out to be a thief.

Sarah was still periodically getting totally overwhelmed by the previous day’s breakup, and she cried a fair bit, as I listened to what she had to say and tried to find the right responses.

“I think it’s for the best,” she said. “I don’t think the relationship was right for me.”

Eventually the two of us settled down to sleep. At one in the morning, the passenger in the row behind us saw the attendant hook Sarah’s bag out from under her feet and start rifling through it. Our fellow passenger woke Sarah, and the attendant scuttled away to the other end of the bus.

I was woken up by the disturbance, and we found ourselves in a strange fog of paranoia. Everyone else was asleep. We were trapped on the bus, driving through the Andes and the Peruvian deserts, at the mercy of the attendant. Sarah came up with a theory that the true thief might be our ally in the seat behind us, and we tried to have a completely soundless conversation about this possibility before concluding that the attendant probably was the real villain. Did the attendant know that we knew what he’d been trying to do? What was he capable of? What could we possibly do to improve the situation?

The bus had a trickle of WiFi, and I used this to send a message to my family Whatsapp group, telling them that the bus attendant was trying to rob us in our sleep. This did not improve the situation.

Funnily enough, I didn’t get a photo of the bus attendant

The attendant chose this moment to switch off the onboard WiFi. I don’t know if this was a coincidence or not, because he turned it back on at 7am, after a very fretful night for me and Sarah. My family had sent me some panicked messages, the most recent of which was my mother asking whether the attendant had been ejected from the bus yet. I replied that of course he hadn’t – it was his job to eject people, so who was going to eject him?

He brought us breakfast and we ate it, feeling very uncomfortable under his watching eyes and hoping it wasn’t poisoned. A few hours later, to our relief, we finally disembarked in Lima. We reported our rogue attendant to the bus company and caught a taxi to our hostel, where I spent the afternoon catching up on sleep and Sarah got bogged down in a long and emotional Whatsapp conversation with her newly-ex-boyfriend. Between the trek and the breakup and the thief, it had been a hell of a week.

“I think I want to get back with him,” Sarah said. “I think I’ve made a serious mistake.”

I nodded and listened. I was rapidly becoming a pro at nodding and listening.

Peru’s Final Hurdle

The next morning, the plan was to catch a 9am flight to Ecuador for the last stage of our trip. But Peru hadn’t finished with us yet. We got to Lima Airport at seven in the morning, and yet – in a display of remarkable incompetence – we lingered too long in Departures and ended up missing our flight.

We’d been in South America for more than a month by this point. We’d felt like hardened travellers, skilled and self-reliant. But as we queued at the helpdesk, all we felt was very, very stupid.

“If only your sister could see us now,” I said.

“I’m really glad she can’t,” said Sarah.

The staff said that they could probably squeeze us on the next flight at no extra cost, if there was room – but no promises.

“When’s the next flight?” I asked.

“Eleven fifty-five.”

We’d only be three hours behind schedule!

“So five minutes to midnight.”

Oh. Make that fifteen hours behind schedule.

That day in the airport was the longest day of our trip. We settled down to wait near the overpriced shops, and tried to make the most of our predicament. I waded through my book and bought some absurdly expensive WiFi; Sarah practised her Spanish on an app and periodically got sad about her ex-boyfriend.

“I’m not sure we could make it work again even if we did get back together,” she said sadly.

The hours dribbled by, and the Departures lounge slowly turned into a horrible purgatory. After about ten hours, I felt my sanity starting to melt. Everything felt deliriously funny, and a creeping lethargy felt as though it was beginning to suffocate my brain. At last – at long, long last – we boarded the plane, which was supposed to have been the start of our day’s travelling. We got to our Quito hostel at half three in the morning, wrecked.

So now we were in our third and final country of the trip. We both agreed that one of our primary aims was to avoid finding out how Ecuador’s hospitals compared with Peru’s and Bolivia’s.

Continue to the final part


–Related: overenthusiastic hostel staff–

–Totally unrelated: my traumatic first Tinder experience–

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