Sleepless in Cusco

February the 22nd, 2017
Corner Couch, My House, Seattle

Dear Jana,

Nearly two months ago, I woke up in a hostel room in Cusco, Peru. Or rather, rising would be a more appropriate description, for it was 1:00AM and I had spent yet another sleepless night. Just as I feared would happen. By this point in my life, suffering an episode of insomnia the night before any major event has ascended to become a corner stone of who I am; a matter of fact and a natural reaction as unchangeable as the motion of stars. Losing a night’s sleep at the doors of such an event were already inevitable, then Cusco’s nauseatingly high altitude compounded the inevitability of my insomnia. I had just arrived in Cusco the previous night, and met Juan, my Quechuan guide, who sternly informed me that I should spend at least two nights in Cusco before trekking up to Machu Picchu.

The city of Cusco itself rests eleven thousand feet above sea level, and consequently its air’s concentration of oxygen at this elevation is less than two thirds the density of air at sea level – or what we are used to here in Seattle. These numbers, though, are still within the green zone of what humans can habituate to, as evident by the running and screaming little brown balls of energy that are Cusco’s children. However, being teleported here suddenly from sea level, coupled with physical stress and a bad diet, can be quite the crippling experience. For this aliment, every street corner in Cusco, in big white letters, read EL MAL DE ALTURA, accompanied comical drawing of an altitude-sick llama, advertising remedies for newcomers who aren’t yet accustomed to the low partial pressure of oxygen in here yet. My hostel even kept a human-sized oxygen tank in the lobby for when someone needs it, which isn’t as infrequent as one might hope.

When I met Juan for the pre-hike briefing, I had not experienced any of the symptoms commonly associated with altitude sickness yet, nor noticed the thinness of air. So, in a fine assortment of at least four different kinds of stubbornness and foolishness, I refrained from telling Juan that I have just landed in Cusco earlier today. Instead, I chose to mumble something about the fine meat of alpacas, and he gave an inarticulate vague answer that ended with chicos, as he signs most of his sentences off. I intended to start the hike across the Inca Trail on the 23rd of December, and spend Christmas Eve on top of the Andes Mountains; and I wasn’t going to give my guide a reason to turn me back.

Juan himself was a Quechuan man of forty-some years, which the constant exposure to sun light added a decade to. Short, thick-boned, and with a round face, he possessed the features of the average Peruvian man; and on rare occasions he takes his headwear off to reveal the last few remaining strands of hair he has, which were greyed to transparency. At first look, you wouldn’t think him to be a man capable of hiking for four straight days several times a month for a living, and you would be right. On the trail, Juan trudged up to a mile behind the slowest of us, which he defends as caring for our weakest. The truth was apparent, that every visit to Machu Picchu shaved a few days off Juan’s life expectancy – but he did not see that as a reason to stop. Juan was not renowned as a guide for having a David’s statue physique, nor an ability to haul the wounded across the Andes. Rather, Juan was renowned for his extensive knowledge of Inca history, and his connections with Quechua tribes, who monopolize the porter and transportation services on the Inca Trail.

His people, the Quechua, are the indigenous people of South America, long before the Spanish colonization and the consequent immigration to Peru. Much like their North American counterparts, they are now outnumbered in their homeland and face constant discrimination and stigma. Juan’s fairly dark-brown skin tells his origin, so does his native Quechua dialect, the Kichwa tongue, with Spanish and Broken English coming as his second and third languages respectively. The first time we met, he insisted on speaking in English to practice it, despite me being capable of getting by with Spanish. But the more comfortable he got with me, the more he drifts to Spanish; and then slowly into Kichwa, until I am left with the same level of understanding as an elementary schooler defending his father’s PhD letter on nuclear physics.
Juan wasn’t leading only me on this trip, but a total of five people. They all were present at the briefing except Zhuolang, my friend and travel partner from Seattle, who was spending her last few hours in civilization finishing delayed school work. The other people were: Carolina, an Argentinean-American woman with a weird vegan diet consisting of not eating meat anywhere but in Argentina; Markus, a second generation twenty-one year old Swede of Syrian descent; and Federico from Switzerland. The subsequent days would bring me closer to these four strangers, something I hadn’t the hope for through the duration of the mostly-quiet first meeting. We all were given the chance to hire a porter to carry our baggage most of the way, an offer that only Markus and I rejected. Markus would later tell me that his reasons for rejection were not purely financial. For, despite this being admirably his first hike, Markus was our youngest and most agile, and wished to finish the trip as independently as possible. Had it not been banned at the turn of the new century, Markus would have preferred to do a solo ascent to Machu Picchu, a feeling which we both shared.

As is the nature of old men, Juan didn’t have a problem waking up at absurdly early times, and he intended to have us all do the same. He therefore decided we will begin our trip the following day at 5:00AM. It was around then that I ran through the seven stages of grief in a second, then accepted the time he suggested without complaints, although 5:00 AM is around the time I usually go to sleep. I went back to my hostel with the knowledge that I will begin the hike on no sleep.

It might as well have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, for that was exactly what happened. As the minute hand spun around gracefully like a skillful ballerina, I shifted from counting how many hours of rest I would get if I fell asleep this instant, to pleading the hour hand to turn and force me to end my misery. An episode of insomnia comes in stages. The first of it is awareness, you notice that your mind is still clear, and doesn’t fall down the rabbit hole of random thoughts as it usually does. Then, you toss your body around, desperately looking for the seamless way to rest. But like pieces of a puzzle that are only a near-fit, each position leaves at least one of your limbs irritated and asking for a change. It hits you now, that you won’t be getting any sleep tonight until it is too late, and the inaudible terror slowly reside in. Exclusive to Cusco, was an added level, where due to my lungs relaxing in preparation for sleep, I started to feel the lack of air. At that stage, was where I gave up and left bed, for the futile attempts to catch fairy dust would only add frustration to the inexorable sleep deprivation.

I left my room exhausted by my own thoughts, the biting cold of the stone floor on my bare feet adds to my feeling of vulnerability. Glancing at Zhuolang’s door, I took a minute to consider knocking at her room to ask if she also was incapable of sleep. Deciding against it, I went to the little corner besides the staircase where the hostel kept hot water and coca leaves. I was panting after climbing the stairs three floors up earlier that day, the first effect I felt of Cusco’s elevation. That happened in the presence of the hostel’s owner, who offered me coca tea as a remedy.

In the highlands of Peru, and widely all around western South America, the green leaves of the coca plant are cultivated in a fashion similar to that of tea leaves. The resemblance being the variant ways of consuming it in different foods and sweets or boiled in hot water as tea. Dating back to the days of the Inca, coca leaves have been used to fight altitude sickness, since most of the empire’s cities were scattered on top of mountain ranges. People like to jokingly say that the combination of Cusco’s altitude and its visitors’ need to consume coca leaves makes it one of the highest cities in the world. However clever a pun that is, grouping coca leaves with stimulants is parallel to calling a grape-lover an alcoholic. Coca leaves produce no psychoactive effects, and are merely used to fight nausea, diarrhea, and breathlessness in high altitudes. However, despite its empirical success in fighting altitude sickness, and my own observation of its effects, it is still worth noting that no clinical study have testified to the effectiveness of coca leaves in preventing nor curing high altitude sickness.
Following the owner’s advice I poured myself some coca tea, in a last desperate attempt to get a couple of hours of sleep before my expected 20-some mile hike in the first day. It was inexplicably bitter, more than I could handle, and definitely bitterer than the first cup the owner greeted me with at the hostel’s doors. Sitting cross-legged near the dim night light of the hallway, I wondered if I had boiled more leaves than I should have. Later I would learn, from Juan, that when chewing coca leaves, people would usually add a small amount of any kind of sweetener to balance out the acrimony of coca. Repeatedly, I would overhear heated arguments about the best sweetener to add to coca, but I never got around to making a decision of my own.

After a final fruitless attempt on my bed, I had concluded ‘a cure for insomnia’ cannot be added to the impressive alleged resume attributed to coca tea. I downed one of every other kind of tea the hostel had, all less bitter than it was, with only three hours until the zero hour, 5:00 AM. I had decided to spend the last hours rearranging my bag and ticking all the marks on my checklist. Waking up Zhuolang to help with the task, and to not be alone in my misery, concluded in a much easier fashion than originally anticipated. For, as I learned when she opened the door, Zhuolang too have spent a sleepless night in Cusco.

It is my personal understanding that Zhuolang’s wakefulness that night did not stem from a predisposed nature to insomnia. Rather, her humbling hiking experience could not fill her confidence charts to comfortable levels, leaving her with an empty feeling of self-doubt. As a true scholar, she compensated by excessive studying and preparation of the trail long before flying to Peru. Back in Seattle, the Chinese lawyer spent several days mapping out the road, contacting different agencies with inquiries, and most importantly ensuring that she have packed all the recommended gear for a successful trek. After several visits to hiking equipment vendors, hours of picking the right hiking slacks and shoes, and the subsequent days of breaking into her first-ever hiking boots; Zhuolang was finally happy with her chances in an efficacious expedition. However, her confidence would plummet after half of her gear got stolen in Arequipa, less than a day afore we arrived in Cusco.

To reach Cusco, Zhuolang and I had taken an overnight bus from Arequipa, a 14 hour drive that even exceeded the duration of my international flight from Seattle. We had arrived in the bus terminal with only a few minutes to spare before departure. We were rejected entrance at the door, and had to squeeze every last drop of Spanish knowledge we collectively possess to understand that merely stepping foot inside the terminal requires a hidden fee on top of the bus ticket, one which the operating company deliberately forgot to mention. We ran frantically trying to pay the fee at the main office before the bus drives away, and narrowly made it back on time for boarding. However, at the waiting area near the gate, we realized that Zhuolang’s handbag has been swept from right between her feet. Our attempts to locate the burglar were all met with failure, and we had to ride the bus out of the city soon after. Thankfully, all of my friend’s important possessions have been placed in her more-secure backpack. So all that have been lost was a few camping and hiking equipment, and our sense of security.

To top that off, the four thousand feet ascent in the bus from Arequipa to Cusco was not as comfortable as it was advertised to be. Despite the pitch black windows of the bus, we still felt every ripple it stumped and every turn it took. Not so long after we embarked, more than half the passengers became motion sick including the two of us. Have we done research before taking the bus, we would have known that even individuals who don’t usually suffer motion sickness report experiencing it on the way to Cusco, mainly due to the change in elevation and Oxygen levels. As each of us was huddled in a different corner of the bus trying to keep our stomachs in place, knowing that we were not in anguish due to our own weakness would have been slightly consoling. Even after reaching Cusco, we would still feel the aftermath of that bus ride for the remainder of the day.

Having not fully recovered yet after the journey from Arequipa, coupled with the shock of having to re-prepare for the trek after her gear was stolen, is probably what rendered Zhuolang sleepless the night before the hike. We spent the last hours of that night packing our bags and informing all those we know that we will be out of the grid for a few days, before watching silently as the sun rose to signal our meeting time with Juan.

We left the hostel thirty minutes before the zero hour, choosing to wait outside and breathe in air that wasn’t recycled between four walls. Across the street, was a big sign I still for some reason remember, Colegio La Salle. Under it, a long line of mothers and their children, all dressed in the bright colors of traditional Quechuan clothes, waiting patiently for the doors to open. I scanned the street corners, looking for a vendor to get my breakfast from, but it seemed that all of them were still tucked in their beds. Our waiting, and our night, was concluded when Juan arrived in a big white van, big enough that each of us had three seats to lay down on. I climbed inside the car silently, laid down on the seats, then was fast asleep before you could say “off to Machu Picchu!”.

Sincerely Yours,
Omar AlSughayer

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