Peru part 4: In sickness and in… health

After the bought of sickness in Chiuchin, I regained some energy and positive thinking and pedaled slowly uphill through a desert-like river valley until it took a steep pitch past Parquin to a climb that I’ve read “chews Up cyclists and spits them out”. I wasn’t looking forward to it in my sorry state but it was sunny and every pedal stroke was forward progress. Looking back down the valley to the starting point so much lower, you can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment. I took two naps on the side of the road, full on asleep in the sun with no cars. I was ‘pacing myself’.

A few nights of camping in the mountains got me into a good solo groove again and simply thankful to be pedaling, albeit slowly with lots of deep breaths and head on the handlebars. A few sunny days in a row had me about as happy as can be, up and over a few more high 15-16,000’ passes and more sapphire colored lagunas. The scenery was continuously stunning and I was loving life again! The town of Yantac was the usual remote Peru shabby place But then the people were so kind and interested in my trip that it won me over. At the only restaurant in town, I watched them butcher alpaca quarters that had been sitting on grain sacks on the concrete floor of the restaurant, (Aka “refrigerated”).

Gorgeous Lagunas and climbs continued until Abra Sungar where it started hailing around 4pm and I was near enough to the top to make a run for it. I dug deep and rolled over the 16,000 high point at 5:15. The descent was a cold rainbow as the storm subsided, but only my feet were cold as I got into survival mode to set up camp quickly before sunset. the soup and hot chocolate had me thinking I was a Michelin chef that night. Hunger is the best seasoning.

The mostly downhill to Chicla was fun in theory but terrifying in reality. After weeks of desolate gravel backroads, It was on the highway- with Peruvian drivers. You think everything is fine but then you look up and there’s a car in your lane coming at you, not budging and without a shoulder. So after I didn’t die, I settled into my first hotel room, cell service, and shower in a week. It took 20 minutes to comb out my wild hair.

From Chicla I planned two days to get to the town of Tanta, which I knew had some guest houses. More gradual uphill then steep climbs over two high passes awaited me, nothing new.

Early On the second day I went over the first pass, Punta Ushuayco, in the now-usual hail. My stomach started gurgling and my legs felt like rubber and then the gurgling turned into sharp doubled-over pain. Damn. Damn damn damn. Was I sick again? How is that possible? Would this pass? What is happening? Did I eat too much mayonnaise or potato chips? Wasn’t I fine yesterday? Tired but fine? I breathed hard, wanting nothing more than to be pain free so I could just ride. I stubbornly refused a car ride to the top from the one car that passed, and after the top of the pass I knew I had to hunker down and recover. I set up camp at the first flat spot near the river. The hail had let up and I just needed to be still, get warm, and I could continue the next day. Or so I thought.

My two day trip turned into 5 as I was then stuck at 15,000 ft, barely able to stand up or eat for two more days. It started snowing the first afternoon and accumulated 3-4 inches. I should have gotten lower on the first day but the pain and altitude had me in a tunnel vision and I hadn’t been thinking clearly.

The next 48 hours were some of the hardest 48 hours of my trip and quite possibly my life.

On the third day, I knew I had to get lower, at least below snow line. My body felt like it was deteriorating, unable to eat and probably affected by the altitude too. Every time I stood up I had a head rush that forced me to sit before my body forcibly met the earth. I’d been sick a lot but this felt more serious. I knew I had to get out of there. I packed strategically as possible with snow falling, and continued to collapse a few times getting my bike and bags up to the road in the slippery, snowy, steep slopes. I dramatically thought “not today, Death” as I watched the ground come closer to my face without me planning that. With mud along one side of my body and face, I put my bags on which seemed insurmountable. Snow still falls heavily. I was sweating but my feet were completely numb to my ankles. Mud, blood, snow, and sweat pooled and my bags finally cooperated on went on. I didn’t really have a plan. Camp at the intersection? I studied the map better noticed a small town 2 miles off route. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?? I Hobbled into the tiny hamlet and there were beds in an upstairs room of a closed ramshackle restaurant. It was cold and drafty but I didn’t care about anything. I crawled in with all my clothes on, spandex included.

A woman named Kelly brought me soup with yellowed broccoli and off-tasting chicken. I was grateful that someone would bring me anything, but I stuck to the broth. She tried to help me find a ride up the next pass because I knew it would be a while before I would have the strength and it was crazy steep. No one had a car in town so I negotiated with a local and Two motorcycles were supposed to show up at 6am the next day. In typical Peruvian style they weren’t there by 7 so I headed out. I knew it would be painful but it was a sunny bluebird day and I had to take advantage of the good weather while it lasted.

Hours of catching my breath and hiking my bike and mildly enjoying the scenery led me 3.5 miles up the pass. I was delusional enough to be proud of myself, even though I knew my body was barely functioning. I kept thinking I heard a vehicle but it was just the river rocks rumbling. Disheartening. Then I did see a vehicle and for half a second I thought “well this section doesn’t look too bad, maybe I can ride to the top.” What was hidden was the 20% grade loose gravel switchbacks. I do want to ride every inch from Bogotá to Tierra del Fuego. Call it stubborn, but that’s my dream. The car approached and I regained reasonable thought and asked for a ride. They were a lovely family, a dad brother and sister, tourists from Lima. The next few switchbacks challenged the cars’ ability to make it up the steep gravel and I knew I had made the right decision. They carried me 2 miles and let me off at the top. Alone that stretch would have literally taken hours. On the way down there were a few small inclines that had my thighs feeling like they had never ridden a bike. Which I’m pretty sure is untrue. I even took a nap at 10:30am.

Obviously I wasn’t back to normal but flag half-mast is better than no flag. Plus it was gorgeous and sunny. When I got to Tanta I could barely walk or think and couldn’t decide to camp or get a room. I remembered I had barely eaten in … 3? 4? Days, wait what day is it anyway? and maybe my brain was fuddled. Who am I? Where am I? The mountains. Peru? Sit down. It smells like dog poo. Sit somewhere else. What should I do? Lay down. Eat? Maybe. Am I hungry? Not sure. Sleep? Yes. There is a hospedaje. Should I stay there? Do I smell bad? should I shower? Maybe I will stay there.

As I walked my bike through the side entrance I lost my balance, unable to recover in my lightheaded state, and destroyed part of the small rock wall for the flower bed. I was so embarrassed but also felt like I existed down a long tunnel away from everyone else. I sat there, flattening the plants, unable to get up. I muttered sorry and clumsily tried to stack the rocks again. I think the matriarch thought I was drunk because she gave me a mean stare that she didn’t let up all day throughout my buenos días/tardes/noches and smiles. Whatever. I was tired of telling people I was sick.

After the always-much-needed shower, small meal, and reading in the sun, I felt more human-like than I had in days. Still dizzy, but ok. It was a Sunday and I had come back down to earth. I really missed my family but there was no phone service so I just went to sleep at 7pm.

The next day !!! was a day cycling dreams are made of. A slow rolling gravel downhill along the Rio Cañete valley, full of sun and emerald hues, topped off by meeting another cyclist going the other way and an alpaca steak for lunch. Things were getting back on track! My cheeks hurt from smiling. A serene camp spot has me grateful and sleeping soundly with duck wings flapping killing me to sleep. Another sunny day towards Tinco, this one now uphill gradually on the main stem of the Rio Cañete was continued remote stunning scenery, some of the road was where the river had carved through to leave smooth waves of rock like the canyons you see in Utah. I told myself (literally out loud because that’s what yo do when you’re by yourself a lot) that this section would have been on my bucket list if I had known it existed.

The town of Tinco was a bit rough, full of road workers who whistle at me and made me feel so uncomfortable with their stares and drunken bloodshot eyes in the restaurants that I cooked in my room. I felt safe enough, just on alert. There was a gaggle of women around but not in the restaurants and there was some sort of drama going on with someone’s husband but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I went to bed with some dude knocking loudly on the hostel main door for about an hour, calling for Marisal. I guess that was the drama. I woke up to diesel fumes seeping through my windows from the main square where multiple trucks were running, which unjustly left me in a foul mood. Another cat call from the road workers and a broken bicycle chain had me suddenly in a “I hate everything mood”. Eventually that feeling waned as the sun reached the valley and I climbed 3,000 ft to the pass and then through some of the most epic and desolate valleys. The road was paved so I expected there to be more buildings but nope, nada. It was gorgeous but I was still tired and not at all amused at the small amount of hail.

After the final small pass, The 30 mostly-downhill miles into Huancayo were terrific scenery and very fun. After all that up, it never occurred to me that I would go down for a lengthy period of time.

I realized days before that I needed to have some tests run to see why I keep getting sick, maybe it’s a parasite or bacterial infection? I got into town exhausted, scoped out the location of the hospital for the next day, and slept like a rock.

The next few days were boring but important hospital visits and errands. The hospital was much nicer than I expected, after hearing horror accounts of Peruvian healthcare. It was totally modern, though it was a confusing myriad of movement and translations and order of events, going to different departments for different tests and paying different people for different things. Eventually it was all done.

From Huancayo I was reassured about my health with a diagnosis of gastritis and a parasite that is also found in healthy people and likely just needs to run its course.

Now on pavement, I climbed up and then had some small steep punchy hills to gradually descend along the Rio Mantera which was also glorious! Not much traffic, steep drop offs and silky ribbons of road turn after turn. I stayed in Izcuchaca which has a historic and beautiful stone bridge. After breakfast my route was inhibited my a nonexistent bridge over a big river. A grandma and her granddaughters helped me carry my bags down the steep embankment, across the pedestrian bridge and up the other side. They were great, it would have taken me forever solo. The next night I had a tranquil riverside camp spot and the air was so warm, instead of bundling up in all my layers immediately after sunset, I slept in shorts with my sleeping bag draped over me instead of cocooned inside with only a small hole to breath through. Lovely.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to fully enjoy this magical spot because stomach pain had me up half the night and in the morning I was back in the pits of sickness. I wouldn’t let myself cry, even as I realized that my body was refusing to cooperate with my dreams and goals. I rode 17 (still beautiful!) miles to the nearest town, struggling with the mostly downhill. Once I was there I knew what I had to do.

It wasn’t so much a decision as being forced to do something you don’t want to do. The full weight didn’t sink in but I knew I could no longer wait a few days, recover, and pedal again. I was getting sick every 2-5 days for just as many days, and clearly something was going on that hadn’t been addressed at the hospital in Huancayo.

I got in a small van from Mayocc to Huanta, where I got in another bigger van from Huanta to Ayacucho. We strapped my bike to the top with the corrugated metal rolls and other bundles people had. I arrived in Ayacucho at 1:30pm and navigated through the chaos to a bus company I had heard about. There was a 2pm two-part van/bus trip to Cusco or Ollantaytambo. Still in my riding clothes, I put my helmet in my hands and tried to think straight and make decisions. I was exhausted but not in extreme pain. Should I go to Machu Picchu then Cusco? Or the other way? Should I stay here? Should I drink water?

I told the lady “ok, let’s do this”. I had already slept through the other van rides and figured this would be similar. Not true. I sat in the front seat for the most uncomfortable, terrifying 6 hours of my life as we got stopped by the police, got a flat tire, and the driver tried to make up for this lost time to meet our bus connection by going increasingly faster through the rain and lightning storms as dark fell. Peruvians are crazy drivers on a good day but I can usually avoid them altogether or worst case dodge off the highway. Now I was witnessing it from the other side and there was no escaping. Passing other cars in blind corners with double yellow lines and swerving to miss chickens, we made it just in time in the rain and the dark to meet the bus connection. With headache raging I helped the men load my bike and bags underneath the bus and took my seat. Usually I am “prepared” for bus rides with tons of warm clothes, snacks, etc. This time I was still in the shirt I had been cycling in that morning and just hoped I didn’t throw up. I asked the guy next to me on the second story of the bus how long the bus ride was, having absolutely no idea. Maybe 1 or 3 hours? I had just been on a three separate van odyssey, so whatever was next I could handle/sleep through. It was 8pm and he said we would arrive in Cusco at 6am. Holy damn. Well, at least I wasn’t going to be hungry and we wouldn’t arrive in the middle of the night which scares me and is hard to get into a hostel.

We arrived at 5am, me luckily dozing the majority of the trip. Dehydrated but not feeling too terrible, I regrouped at the hostel and drug myself to the hospital. The Cusco hospital was an overall incredibly pleasant experience. This doc spoke English and apparently specialized in tourist medicine, which I hadn’t even realized before I got there. It was still part of a regular hospital so I don’t know how all that works. I was given a bed and my own room upon arrival, and waited comfortably there for my test results. It was sunny and warm and so comfortable I didn’t really want to leave. But I got my prescriptions from Dr. Santiago and went back to bed at the hostel, from where I now write. Turns out the parasite, little Blastocystis hominis, might be the cause of all of it and I take an anti parasitic medicine for three days. Fingers crossed this works because if it doesn’t I might be at my ropes end. I don’t know what else to do.

I never thought I’d be a person chronicling the mundane details of illness- but now it is my life all day, every day, repeatedly, and here we are. I’m getting bed aches, I’m sad, I’m too weak to walk to the store for more bottled water, I’m borderline hopeless and nauseous with trips to the bathroom every 20 minutes. I try to think to the future when maybe I will be better and this will all be part of the journey. Friends call and text and that really lifts my spirits, but after dealing with this nonsense for 2 months on and off, I’m stuck in a negative thought hole. I’m trying to be positive but the overcast clouds are thick. I know it will pass and when it does I’ll be ready to rage.

People always want photos with me. I’m like the most hermetic celebrity ever.

I didn’t record much on this section so I really don’t know my daily mileage or climbs. I do know the mileage was low and the vertical feet were high. This entry encompasses October 11- November 1, 2019.

2 thoughts on “Peru part 4: In sickness and in… health

  1. Damn Girl, I hope the meds are kicking in and you are feeling stronger and in less pain. So sorry. you really make me appreciate my amenities here, like clean water, good food and heat. I’m going to have a good dinner for you tonight. Take care (and be patient with yourself), Melissa


    1. Hollie I’m just now getting caught up in your emails and do know from your mom that your better ! As I read all I can think is “she’s amazing” and how many little angles appear out of no where. The kindness of people is so heart warming. On this Thanksgiving day, I am thankful for the people that seem to come out of no where to help you, thankful you get to do this and I can follow along.
      Stay strong ! One of your greatest cheerleaders !


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