One foot after the other – just keep walking – step by step – for 9 hours, up and down the mountains, through the eucalyptus trees, avoid the cactus, move over for those moving faster. Would the hike ever end?
This day actually began several months ago when Rachel and I signed up with MMI (Medical Missions International, Canada) to go on a medical mission trip – Cusco EXTREME, where we would fly to Cusco, Peru and then go to a number of remote sites to give medical treatment. We not only needed to raise support, we also each had to bring a suitcase filled with medicines. It was so amazing to see God provide ALL that we needed! I signed up as a “general helper”, not really knowing exactly what I would be doing. Our team was comprised of a doctor (Mike), a dentist (Cal), 3 nurses (Rachel, Trudy and Corinna), me and a number of Peruvians to be translators, helpers and a cook. Not only would we need English to Spanish translation, but also to Quechua, which is nothing like Spanish!
Rachel and I left home on a sunny October Friday, flying first to Miami before getting a 2am flight to Lima, Peru. From Lima we caught another flight to Cusco, which would our base for the mission. The first person we met from the team was Vicente, our Peruvian leader who greeted us at the airport and took us to the hotel. After an hour nap and a quick shower, we met the rest of the team – 3 Canadians, another American and us! This, our first day in country would be a day to acclimate to the high altitude, see a little of the city of Cusco and get to know one another for on our second day, after church, we would drive several hours out into the countryside and begin.
- Watching Wonder Woman and reading the Spanish subtitles before arriving in a Spanish speaking country does help improve your Spanish.
- Drink bottled water only – even for brushing your teeth!
- No salads – cooked or peeled fruits and veggies only!
- Toilet paper doesn’t get put in the toilet but in the trash bin.
- There’s no heat or air conditioning in Cusco – all buildings are open air somewhere so they stay “refreshingly” cool.
- Stop signs are a suggestion and any road can have more lanes then marked (and I never want to drive there!)
- Diomox makes the fingers and toes tingle (it’s a medicine to prevent altitude sickness) – but take it anyway!
Day 2 -In Peru! Began with a typical breakfast – bread, cheese, olives, fruit juices, tea and coffee. Following breakfast, we went to church – it was fun/amazing to sing songs I knew from home – but in Spanish! However, in Peruvian style, the service officially started at 10 – which really meant at 10:40 or thereabouts! At 12 we had to leave as we needed lunch and then to get on the road. We drove for several hours with each town along the way having its own character. One was known for its earthen bricks, another for its breads and another raised guinea pigs, which is a delicacy here in Peru. At one point we got to the altitude of 14,200’. At last the van stopped and we were told that the road was not passable because of the rain, so we would need to cart everything down into the canyon, cross the creek and then carry it back up again. I was amazed at how breathless and huffy/puffy that little exertion made me, but we were at 12,000’ or so and not used to it at all! After getting everything unloaded, we unpacked the medicines and sorted them into different duffels by type and explored our new home – the old 2 room school house – men in one room, the dental/optical/dining room, and women in the other room, the medical/pharmacy room.
- There were 3 types of toilets there – the squatty potty (no flush), a child sized toilet (with seat) or a regular size toilet (no seat). Regardless of which you picked, for all you need to bring a flashlight (no electricity or windows) and toilet paper.
- Wood floors are hard and cold even with a sleeping pad. Dirty sheepskins provide extra padding and warmth, especially in a room that’s 54 degrees.
- We are at Comunidad Quisinsaya – don’t try to GoogleMap it – it is too small to show up!
Day 3 – The dentist asked for a volunteer to help him and I accepted the challenge – or I drew the short straw! After breakfast, Cal showed me the instruments and how to set up. We got some tubs for sterilizing the instruments – soapy water, clear water, sterilizing solution, and clear water again. And then the patients came! Pull a tooth here, pull a tooth there, fill this tooth, and wonder at the deplorable conditions of their mouths! Emotionally it was hard pulling the teeth from little ones – especially knowing that for some it was a permanent tooth and they would always have that gap. At times I had to hold their heads still as tears poured from their eyes as Cal injected anesthetic into their gums. Fortunately, I had brought a grocery bag of small stuffed animals and dolls that I gave to them to hold and then keep during their painful procedures. And, although Cal could and did do fillings, few of the children had teeth that fillings would fix. Patient after patient – pull teeth, clean the instruments, get ready for the next – they kept coming all day! One patient had to have 3 molars removed (lots of blood and pus) and then have the hole sewn up – I helped hold the thread and later cut it – I’m glad that’s not my future occupation! We had a few laughs – like when the lamb wandered in to watch Cal at work. Or the when the kids came too close and Cal squirted them with water. Our work day ended at dusk and then, after dinner, the town president addressed us and thanked us for coming to their almost forgotten community. One of the teachers also thanked us and told us about their school system – how they teach the youngest children in the Quechua language and then they learn Spanish. But the nearest high school is 3 hours away.
- Most women are wearing traditional skirts, sweaters and hats (the hats are different in each community).
- When you are wearing 5 sweaters and 4 skirts, it really doesn’t make a difference if you take your sandals off before you step on the scale.
- Don’t drink too much after 6pm if you don’t want to put your boots and coat on and take a walk to the toilet at 3 in the morning – but drink enough so you don’t get a headache or altitude sickness.
- A room stays warmer at night if you cover the broken window pane with plastic & duct tape.
Day 4 – I began my day with a mountain fresh, Styrofoam cup, hair washing experience – cold but clean! Then, with all our gear loaded into the two vans, we had a quick devotional time, sang a song in English and then Spanish and then most of the team set off hiking to our next location. Since I had a hurt Achilles tendon, I rode in the van with some of the Peruvian helpers. The roads were dirt roads, often with streams crossing them, but after a few hours we made it to our next location (the team would take many more hours to get there – 8 hours total) and began to get the rooms set up. This community had us climb a ladder to our sleeping/cooking rooms with the dental and medical rooms below. Our only toilets were 2 squatty potties and you needed to take a bucket of water from the outside tap in with you to flush them. Eventually the rest of the team arrived – hot and tired. Rachel had gotten so badly burned that she had blisters on her arm and ears – even though she had applied SPF 50 sunscreen several times.
- Wear a hat and longs sleeves when hiking at high elevation.
- We are at Comunidad Ausaray – again, won’t show up on GoogleMaps.
Day 5 – Once again, a clinic day – now I’m getting the hang of the instruments used, how to prepare a filling and even how to take a tooth out of the mouth using cotton pliers! After spending the previous day with only Spanish speakers even my Spanish is improving! But what a long day – we began at 8 and ended at 6:15pm. At the end of the day, we get treated to a bonfire with the town president thanking us for coming and having people from his church sing for us.
- Small toilets are better than squatty potties – especially when your GI tract is feeling “off”.
- Tuck your pant legs into your shoes or roll them up before going to a squatty potty or when you squat, they may go down to the floor and get wet, just saying.
- If the shower doubles as the toilet, you have to be really stinky and sweaty to want to use it, especially as the temperature drops and you only have lukewarm or cold water.
- If you chose to not use the toilet/shower, wet wipes work great for the creases and crevices!
Day 6 – No shower since Sunday morning but another mountain fresh cold-water Styrofoam cup hair washing! Once again, we pack up to leave – this time as Rachel isn’t feeling well, she rides in the van with me as the others hike. Along the way we stop in a town and Domi goes shopping for some meat for our lunch. The shop owner shoves the dog out of the way, opens the cooler and pulls out half a lamb. She and Domi discuss the price and decide on only half the piece. So, she puts the meat on a log stump and whacks it in half with the knife. That doesn’t quite work so she gets the hatchet off the floor and whacks it good. She then throws the part we aren’t getting back into the cooler and puts our part in a plastic grocery bag with the bone sticking out. Domi pays and we then go to the pharmacy to get some paper towels. They’ve only got 1 roll – so we buy just it and then finish our journey. (I have to confess – a few hours later when lunch is ready, I really don’t have an appetite for that piece of lamb, so I eat some of the vegetables cooked with it).
As soon as we arrive people start lining up to get their turn to be seen – even if it will be a few more hours before we start. Rachel, our head pharmacist, still isn’t feeling well so she takes a nap. I explore – we have just 1 squatty potty at this location and the floors in the rooms aren’t stable – you can go through the floor if you step wrong! Later, we discover that the water gets turned off around noon and doesn’t come back on until the next morning – so we don’t have water to even pour down the toilet – NOT a good thing!
After the team arrives, and we have lunch, we open the clinic and start seeing patients! I take care of where I step and manage to not fall through the floor! Rachel is now sunburned, blistered, feeling poorly and running a temperature. After dinner, David, the missionary from Cusco, offers to drive her back to the city and his wife so she can spend the night and following day recovering. She agrees and leaves, while the rest of us get a presentation from the community.
- Water is really important – for drinking (after it is purified) and to flush toilets – otherwise even squatty potties get full and VERY gross!!!
- We are at Comunidad Umuto – yeah, not on the map either!
Day 7 – The plan is for clinic in the morning and then return to Cusco in the afternoon! The dentist and I finish early and, as we have a bunch of kids hanging around I suggest giving some toothbrushes to them. Cal decides to turn it into a toothbrushing lesson and has them all take out the brush we have just given them and then follow him as he brushes his teeth. They do it and then are delighted to also spit into a hole!
What a fun moment after soo many tears! After packing up, we return to Cusco and rejoice to get hot showers at the hotel. We then go out for dinner and get an interesting surprise – Cuy, or guinea pig! I do take a bite (and pictures!!) and it tastes like chicken. Bed never felt so good that night!
Day 8 – Today we get to be tourists! It’s the weekend and we are off duty and on our own dime! We get picked up at our hotel at 8am and driven just over an hour to the Sacred Valley to the Via Ferrata. The Via Ferrata is a path used to climb a mountain with a safety system permanently installed, in this case we had what looked like large steel staples sticking out of the mountain and steel cables next to it. We first got fitted with safety harnesses, helmets and gloves – after a brief lesson on safety and how to use the carabiners we began. Every few feet as we climbed we had to unhook one carabiner, put it on the next line and then repeat with the 2nd one. It was hard, climbing up, up, up but so neat.
Then we crossed a cable bridge, which was definitely out of my comfort zone!
Fortunately, our guide took my phone from me and took pictures to prove our craziness! When we had made it to the top of the mountain ((and after stopping for quick pictures at the “pod” hotel (see in the upper right background) – someday I want to come back and stay there!)) we then got to zip line down!
It was great! One line was so long that we had to go tandem – and even then Rachel and I didn’t make it all the way to the end and had to be pulled in!
Upon our completion of the zipline we were driven to the train station at Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Machu Picchu Pueblo (1.5-hour ride). There we found our hotel, got some dinner (I had alpaca steak!), bought our bus tickets and of course, did a little souvenir shopping before going to sleep – we planned on an early morning to get to Machu Picchu!
- Make sure there is enough room next to the toilet for the door to shut when planning out a bathroom.
- Get not only the name of the hotel, but also its address – makes finding it a little easier.
Day 9 – The tourists lining up for the buses to Machu Picchu woke us up around 5am (remember, all buildings are somewhat open air!) so we got up, had breakfast and went to stand in the line too! By 6:45 we had arrived and walked briskly over to the entrance to Huayna (or Wayna) Picchu, as we had tickets for 7am entry. We signed in, and then began the long, arduous climb up the mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu! What a journey – it was step, rugged and by American standards, so dangerous that no one would be allowed to climb it! But it was amazing to make it to the top, even if it was only 8,924’– and would have been even more amazing had the cloud cover lifted so we could actually see Machu Picchu from there!
After resting and enjoying the experience, we safely descended and then explored Machu Picchu – ruins from the Incas which are believed to have been built in the 1500’s and only used for less than 100 years before being abandoned. Little is actually known about them but there are lots of theories! (That mountain in the back right is WaynaPicchu – we had climbed to the very top!)
But we were tired and ready to leave so we caught the bus back to the Pueblo and then it was time to catch the train back to Ollantaytambo and prepare for the next week.
Day 10 – REALLY HARD DAY!! After breakfast we loaded up into the vans for a very short ride. We started our trek at 9:20, mostly following a road (why they couldn’t have driven us further down the road I REALLY don’t know). We had a quick break at 11. The altitude wasn’t bad – just 9600’. We walked through a Eucalyptus forest and by some cacti – one person stumbled into a plant and had to get the thorns taken out of his leg. Hand sanitizer doesn’t feel great on an open wound like that! Our Peruvian leader makes arrangements for our cook to get a short motorbike ride to give her knees a rest – when he returns I get a ride too. Unfortunately, that means when he lets me off, I have no one with me and really don’t know where I am going. But the people tell me to go up the mountain. I follow a horse pack and go up – then down – then up again. I still haven’t caught up with Domi, our cook but I stop at the Inca ruins for a few minutes and see her down on the other side. I shout down to her and she waits for me to catch up. Now it’s two of us walking slowly, and not really knowing where we are going.
But we press on! Inca trail porters pass us regularly, all carrying heavy packs for the tourists! Eventually some of the fast ones from our group catch up with us – and then they pass us. We are spread out on the Inca trail for probably more than a mile – I felt so alone as I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me, or anyone behind me and I just hoped I was still on the right path. For 8 hours I put one foot in front of the other, up and down the mountains. It was physically challenging as my Achilles tendon screamed stop. It was physically challenging as my feet felt like they were on fire (lots of large blisters). It was physically challenging when my walking stick didn’t catch the ground but sank a foot because there was no ground next to me – just a steep drop-off to the river a couple hundred feet below. And it was mentally challenging because I just didn’t want to go on – after hyperventilating a few minutes I managed to keep on going. And finally, I arrived at some grass thatched roof yurts and the team is sitting on some rocks. Another team member said it like this “I have run two marathons and those are the only times I have been out of energy more than at the present. It hurts just to sit. A lot of the team have blisters on their feet and joints are screaming at us. It’s the steep inclines with big steps over boulders which wear on you. This village is~10,500’.”
Our stuff was waiting for us – gear was hauled in by horses. But the sun, and temperature, is dropping quickly so we changed into dry clothes. It turns out the guys have to sleep in the huts and the gals get to sleep in what looks like a mud floored shed. Gratefully, we go to sleep – and sleep well because during the weekend Vicente, our leader, managed to purchase some blankets for us so now I have one to put on the floor under me to help keep me warm as well as padded (the 20-degree sleeping bag with liner doesn’t keep the cold away enough!)!
- Check to make sure your walking sticks didn’t break in the suitcase.
- You need more than a liter of water for a rough, 8-hour hike.
- But, if you only have a liter, you won’t need to pee all day!!
Day 11 – Not only are the huts for sleeping – they are also for the clinic. We set up in one and, after killing a large spider, soon have patients. We build a fire in the back of the hut to get rid of the bugs and mosquitos – but the smoke is hard on us. Trying to keep the instruments clean is also hard as straw falls down on them. One dog likes to keep us company in the hut and we stay busy all day, mostly removing teeth. Occasionally when the dentist didn’t need help, I would go over to the pharmacy and help count pills there! Every prescription had the pills put first in small plastic baggies with direction labels, which were then put in a sewn cloth bag. These bags were delivered to the pastors who gave them to the people. But, before giving the bags, they did health education, preached the gospel and counseled! Around 4, as the sun and temperature went down, we closed shop. After our early dinner, we had time for a bonfire and the marshmallows came out. We had one wise guy who found some cow poop about the size of a marshmallow and was roasting it before being discovered. But it was good to laugh!
- Cow poop, when roasted, stinks!
- Beanie weenie on rice is not my favorite dish for lunch – or any meal
- Neither is soupy oatmeal
Day 12 – We are not moving on – we couldn’t get the horses for the day to move our gear. We have a lot of gear – medical/dental equipment, pharmacy pills etc., a scale, and then the personal gear. So the decision was made to have us stay another day at this spot and have the villagers hike to us, and not have us hike 4 hours. Unfortunately, the bugs are worse and the smoky fire in the back of the hut only smoked us out, so Cal decided to move operations to under a big shady eucalyptus tree – after he shoveled all the horse manure out of the way. Two weeks ago I never would have believed that I would be in an open field with dogs and lambs wandering around, surrounded by majestic mountains, helping a dentist extract teeth! One three-year-old wailed for a long time after we pulled 2 of her little teeth yet a 20-year-old stoically laid there as we used the hammer and chisel to break up her molar to extract it. This day a lot of our patients were the porters who carry the food and belongings for the tourists hiking the Inca trail.
During one of the lulls, Rachel and I with 2 others from the team went up to the Inca ruins right above our little site. What a beautiful view from there – high, snowcapped mountains towering over us! We finished our day by packing up all the equipment and getting ready for the hike out the following morning. We went to bed early as a heavy rain storm swept into the area. (Is it too early to go to bed if it is only 7pm?)
Day 13 – Early start this day – up and packed up before breakfast at 6, ready to go by 7 – except the horses don’t arrive so we wait. While moving the bags we discovered a baby scorpion sitting on the bags but fortunately no one got stung, although we are all covered in bites on the arms! But, even though we have a hike before us we are looking forward to the hot showers, real toilets and beds! Finally, we start walking – and walking! At the Inca ruins we stop and wait for everyone to catch up, take a team picture, and continue hiking. We encountered lots of tourist groups hiking, as well as the porters carrying their stuff. Just as we are saying “Buenas dias” to another set of porters, one tripped on a rock and face planted himself on the Inca trail. Immediately blood gushed everywhere but the doctor and nurses were on it – applying pressure, getting gauze, putting on steri strips and stopping the bleeding by putting a tampon up his nose! He had broken his nose and cut open his nose and forehead. He was in no condition to continue. His fellow porters took the team gear he had and repacked it into their already full bags before we loaded him up on a horse to have it carry him off the trail. An hour or so later we crossed a most rickety bridge and were off the trail, ready to load the stuff into the waiting van and truck. Driving to the nearest medical clinic, we sought some local help for him – but they had nothing for him! Yes, Peruvian medicine at its finest! They did not think it was an emergency. We couldn’t just leave him so some of the team went to the pharmacy, bought supplies needed to sew him up, and did so. Meanwhile, a race around the nearby square was happening which caused more injuries. Soon, in the triage room of the clinic, they had tourist with a broken nose and cut arm and a racer with a broken leg with the bone sticking through the skin. Obviously, it was time to leave and get our Quechua porter to a hospital. However, at the hospital in the bigger town they were having a party so they couldn’t see him either. One of the pastors lived not far from there so we went to his house and in the back yard the doctor was finally able to staunch the bleeding using silver nitrate in the poor man’s nose (back yard to keep the blood from getting on the floor and to keep the man from getting the virus (or maybe typhoid) from the sick child!) With the bleeding stopped, we got back in the van and returned to Cusco, dropping our poor man off with his hiring agency – and we returned to the hotel, exhausted but glad we had been at the right place at the right time!
- Don’t fall on the Inca trail.
- Be thankful for American medicine!!
Day 14 – We get a tour of the Presbyterian Clinic in Cusco before having a closing lunch with the team – everyone will be leaving either this evening or in the morning. Afterwards though we have time to go to the animal sanctuary for native animals – we see speckled bears, pumas, llamas and alpacas,
condors, a hairless Peruvian (ugly) dog, parrots and guinea pigs.
We stop at the White Jesus who overlooks Cusco and then have time to shop at an artesian market before packing up for our return home.
Day 15 & 16– We have a little bit of time to buy some tea and to explore the Plaza del Armas in Cusco again before we going to the airport – so we make the most of our time. We make it to Lima and then, since we have a 22-hour layover we stay at a hotel in the Miraflores section, and sign up for a city fountain tour with a dinner/dancing show afterwards. The fountains are amazing and fun to see – the dinner good and the show long for us tired travelers! Our final morning in Peru we take a quick walk along the Pacific Ocean and watch the surfers before returning to the airport and flying home.
- Lima is a HUGE city with richer and poorer areas – but all of it seems to be richer than Cusco.
- Even after going through security, before boarding the plane you may have to have your bags searched again and dump out the water you just bought.
What a long, adventurous, rewarding, amazing, challenging trip! Not next week, but I can’t wait to do it again!