I’m in Cuzco, 11,200 feet in the Andes, the historic capital of Peru and launching post for Machu Picchu, along with numerous other Inca sites.
And I’ve hardly seen any of it. I have probably spent more time inside staring at a canvas done like an Incan remix of Picasso’s Three Musicians, hung by my bed in a room with seven-foot ceilings and adobe walls, two of them painted brick red. I’m showing all the symptoms of soroche – altitude sickness. I’ve been here for thirty-six hours and have slept for twenty-six of them. I’ve had a throbbing headache and my lips and fingernails are turning blue. I feel wobbly from time to time and have very little appetite. I’m making coca tea, taking Diamox pills, drinking water, avoiding alcohol, consuming carbs and salt and trying to keep my food down, drinking more water, resting. I go out briefly during the day, within a five-block radius to avoid too much exertion on the narrow hilly streets, for an hour at a time when the clouds let the sun through between noon and sunset. It thunderstorms in the evenings, and when I wake at various times of night and early morning, I can still hear the pattering of rain, and the wild dogs barking, and people setting off loud fireworks. At dark it gets cold enough here for me wonder, wasn’t the idea to go somewhere warm for the winter?
It’s less the cold itself that bothers me. There’s a portable gas heater in my room, but I haven’t paid for the tank of gas yet as I’m in bed most of the time anyway, and in bed I have
alpaca blankets to keep me
warm and fearless
I take comfort in the thought that I am sleeping more or less the same way that someone in Cuzco slept hundreds of years ago.
Comfort. That’s what I’m seeking most as I cope with the altitude. I stay in bed and watch movies on my laptop with its comfortably warm bottom and read books on my kindle with its comfortably lit screen. I plot crazed, comforting schemes: What if I went somewhere lower altitude for a while, even a few hundred meters lower, spend a night in a hotel with a heated room and bath. Maybe I can cancel my Bolivia plans (La Paz is another two thousand feet higher) and head straight for the Chilean coastline. I could go surfing again. Next time I come here I’m going to travel by bus, I tell myself, because altitude sickness is a technological affliction. Before we could move faster than our feet would take us, we would have enough time to rest and adjust as we ascended. We didn’t have giant metal birds to drop us on the tops of mountains. Does that make me yearn to live the way they did? Or does it make me marvel at the new sensations I am able to feel, that they were not? Either thought is comforting in its way.
I try to rationalize the discomfort away: I wonder if as I grow older I tend to seek more comfort and avoid more discomfort, because discomfort is built on the ruts of experience. When you know nothing, you can’t be afraid of the unknown because everything is unknown. Comfort and discomfort are more the memory-informed anticipations of pain and pleasure than the actual sensations. Maybe continued lifelong learning means facing increasingly uncomfortable situations as you age, so that you can learn the way you learned when you were young.
Thinking this changes little. I stare at the Three Musicians and have comforting memories, mild hallucinations, of lying next to a warm body in a cold room of a house on a hill near a river, and hearing the faint horn of a morning train whisking commuters into the city …
Last night I dreamt I was eating a Big Mac. But the buns were bigger and the meat tasted different. How could they change the meat! When I woke up, I checked the alpaca blankets for bite marks.