Sunday, July 29, 2012

Europe is for Pussies

GAR uttered these words to me on day 5 of our adventure in Peru. We had been ATVing through the streets of Urubamba, a sleepy town in the foothills of the Andes, and we caused quite a stir. We were essentially revving through people’s backyards. Kids screamed, locals shook their firsts at us in frustration, some terrified sheep baaed frantically as they unsuccessfully attempted to leap over tall fences, little girls were crying, and a very angry bull was snorting and preparing to charge … and one member of our group, a 12-year-old boy, had rolled his ATV right over, breaking his arm (the doctors would later say it wasn’t broken, but we were all fairly certain a human wrist doesn’t bend that way all on its own. So he used the belt from his hotel room robe to fashion a sling for it as he soldiered on for 5 more days with a swollen, purple – and clearly broken – arm in tow). Never mind the fact that this youngster wasn’t old enough to have so much as a learner’s permit back in the States, he had passed the “training” lesson for the ATV – which consisted of the leader saying “You ever ridden one of these? No? Okay, you’ll be fine” and then giving us a 10 second rundown of how to shift gears before taking off – and that was “good enough” by South America standards.

And the whole trip had been that way. We had been thrust onto whitewater rafts and set adrift into the (admittedly pretty mild) rapids. Taken a hair raising bus ride up the side of cliff and then left to pedal (well, not so much pedal, but hold on for dear life while our wheels whizzed furiously fast beneath us) down the face of a mountain. Climbed up and down ruins and craters using “steps” that were nothing more than shingles that protruded slightly more from the rock face than others. And performed Olympic caliber balance beam maneuvers to slither along a tiny ledge that abuts giant salt pans – don’t fall in or else you’ll be left to turn to jerky in the hot, hot, too close to the heavens, midday sun.

Now don’t get me wrong – up until the ATV accident I’m not sure that we had actually ever been in any real “danger” along the way. Oh sure, some kids ended up with scraped knees from taking a wrong step, and a subsequent tumble (one thing I learned during our excursions is that kids sneakers just do not have sufficient traction on the bottom. Oh sure, they have multi-colored lights and pop-out wheelies and every bell and whistle you can dream up. But treads? Nope, just not a feature they value I guess)… plus there were some cases of altitude sickness – both mild and more severe – which can happen to anyone who’s visiting a place that’s more than 12,000 miles above sea level (seriously, the people who live there develop enlarged hearts just to be able to pump enough blood through their weak little veins. How could our normal size hearts ever live up to theirs?) … and white water rafting (regardless how mild) always has some risks (no spinal injuries on our trip but we did have someone end up with a really nasty eye infection due to having too much dirt and mucky river water kicked up into her cornea) … but overall we hadn’t been exposed to anything too terrifying. But what did crack me up was just how laid back everyone was about safety. In North America we’re all bubble wrapped, covered in caution tape and secured into a harness before we even are allowed to go bumper bowling. And frankly, it takes the fun out of things. Oh sure it protects you from broken limbs, dismemberment and a perilous death – but at what cost?

All I’m saying is that up North, where we live, the thrill is gone. Where’s the excitement? Even on our recent cruise to Mexico, a decidedly third world country, GAR and I signed up for an “extreme” adventure – zip lining hundreds of feet off the ground, rappelling down waterfalls and crossing “unstable” rope bridges (right … it was totally just like the skeleton piano bridge scene in “Goonies”) high in the jungle – that included a hefty security briefing before being buckled and strapped into every means of protective garb imaginable. Oh sure, we all came back safe and sound (except for some nasty mosquito bites and a bruise I picked up when I lost my footing rappelling down a cliff), but I was never once worried that I WOULDN’T make it through okay. And, as a result, the whole thing felt so sterile. What was supposed to be an “exhilarating, once-in-a-lifetime thrillfest” was, instead, a little hum drum actually. (When we got home we saw an episode of “South Park” where the boys went zip lining and were so bored they spent the next 6 hours just trying to break free and go home – hilarious!)

That’s just how we roll in North America … and, to GAR’s point (and the title of this post), it’s the same problem in Europe. All beauty with none of the thrill. And this is where South America kicks all of our asses.
I tried to keep this in mind later that evening as I puked my brains out.

Now let me tell you something about the incredible, edible egg – it can’t be trusted. If you’re sitting at home right now noshing on some raw cookie dough as you read this I implore you to bake that shit before you eat it – please. In the summer of ’09 Nestlé’s delicious pre-made batter gave me eColi and it’s the sickest I’ve ever been. Bad eggs I learned later. In the summer of ’12 (on this very trip actually – see, this wasn’t a total tangent with no purpose, I promise) I suffered the second worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever had, once again the result of some serious egg mishandling. Oh sure, I should have known better – swallowing raw eggs is for Hans and Franz type bodybuilders. Cartoon characters and cocky jocks who are trying so hard to be macho that it comes off as comical. And yet … well … I am a sucker for liquor. I mean, come on, we all know that by now, right? And in Peru the local liquor is Pisco – a type of brandy that is traditionally served in a sour drink that is topped off with frothy (and raw) egg whites. And who am I to doubt an entire nation? Who am I to question the safety of drinking what millions of Peruvians drink?

Which leads me back to the part of the story where I’m vomiting up all of my internal organs and reminding myself that – oh right, you forgot … safety is not the top priority in South America.

The next morning I told my tour guide about my stomach pains and she had me drink some fizzy medicine and then told me to jump up and down as fast as I could – “It will make you throw up,” she announced. A fact that I wished she would have shared BEFORE I drank the mysterious liquid since, honestly, throwing up MORE was not really what I had in mind. Plus, I had already taken some mysterious, unmarked pills the night before that the front desk had given me. And some energy pills that were in an incorrectly labeled Bayer bottle (which did NOT cure my serious headache but instead caused me to be forcefully awake while suffering from a migraine). I mean, really, how many shady, unknown medications should one person ingest in one day? And yet here I was, a belly full of acid, and now some sort of bubbly mixture as well, bopping up and down until I literally collapsed. But I didn’t puke anymore. And it didn’t help with the pain either.

Not wanting to be the type of pussy who can only handle fancy panty European vacations I sucked it up and boarded the bus, which lead to the train, which led to a much more terrifying, drive you nearly off a cliff (but hey, I don’t question why they don’t make the roads big enough for two cars to pass each other but instead make it so that it’s barely big enough for one, resulting in a pissing match to see which person will put their car in reverse and nearly drive backwards to their doom so the other one can squeak by on a dirt path the width of two pebbles side-by-side with no guard rails on either side … I guess that’s just how they like it), bus to Machu Picchu. And behold! It was glorious! Until I threw up some more all over it.

Which is how I ended up in the infirmary right there in the side of this former Incan civilization … along with several of my dinner companions from the night before (do you still need MORE proof that you really shouldn’t eat raw eggs?) Rough translations of bodily functions were attempted in Spanish before people just resorted to miming “explosive diarrhea.” I like to think it brought it us all closer together … but mostly because there were only two dingy cots in the clinic and half of a dozen of us huddled together to use them. Oh – here’s another fun fact about Peru. They don’t believe in outfitting bathrooms with toilet seats, paper products or running water. This is true even in doctor’s offices. Which brings me back to my previous point about bodily functions and food poisoning … fun times all around. From what I could tell the doctor was anxious to give me IV fluids and, despite my previous points indicating safety be damned, I decided that I’m not quite THAT much of a risk taker given the overall cleanliness of the place in general (the infirmary was littered with an oddly large number of dead butterflies – and live bugs too ... but I focused on the butterflies. It was kind of beautiful actually, but also seriously haunting).

Finally I persuaded the doc to skip and the IV and instead load me up with the thing South Americans are largely known for – drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. He freely doled out antibiotics, meds to kills off any parasites that might be living inside of me (yes please!), some pills with a purpose that was not clearly outlined but (I’m assuming based on the results) seemed to be aimed at helping me expel any remaining poison from my system, and some shady unmarked “pain pills” … which I conserved and tried not to take too many of lest I was accidentally taking opium or crack or some other drug I’ve only read about in my high school “Just Say No” drug pamphlets. (Incidentally I brought some of these pills back with me into the U.S. I’m not sure if this qualifies as drug running, but it should be noted that I was searched by 3 different airport officials … coincidence? Eh, maybe.)

While the heavy doses of narcotics did help some, nothing could have prepared me for the train ride back to town. I drifted off only momentarily before awaking to find the devil in my face. Yes, the devil.

Actually, at the time I had no idea what this creature was, but it was screeching and dancing down the train aisles and (or so I’m told) he was supposed to represent some sort of Incan devil (though that still in no way explains WHY he was on our train). And, stranger still, his “performance” proceeded a fashion show made up of finely woven alpaca goods. The Peruvian people are nothing if not random. (It should be noted that earlier in our trip we were introduced to another member of Incan folklore – the God of Prosperity. This short, stout masked creature grunted loudly while marching around bearing items that represented wealth around his neck – American money, a house, cigarettes and other random items adorned his attire. Between the God of Prosperity grunting and the trilling, haunting sounds made by this devil creature my drug induced dreams quickly turned to nightmares over the next few evenings.)

Nevertheless, I made it back to the hotel and slept … and then looked at some llamas … and then slept … and struggled to breathe in Cusco, the crazy 2-mile-high city … and slept … and I think there were more ruins maybe? The rest of the trip was a little hazy actually, what with the lack of air, my inability to keep down any food and the onslaught of meds the docs in “The States” are reluctant to prescribe. But I think I had a blast. And, honestly, I lost a ton of weight. It was practically like spending a summer at fat camp … or some sort of cleansing spa (but with more hiking).

And to top it all off I even went paragliding (not to be confused with parasailing, which involves being pulled by a boat. Gliding, on the other hand, involves jumping off a cliff and praying for dear life). That’s right, I snuggled myself into some strange man’s crotch (I’m not kidding, you sort of “sit” right in his crotch), loaded a tiny sail on our backs and jumped. And it was … not nearly as scary as it seems actually. But I did it. I made it. I survived South America bitches. Not poison or the devil or a strong gust of wind could take me down. Take that Europe – with your fancy croissants and berets and lispy accents … you can’t light a candle to our neighbors down South.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I should probably see a proper doctor and figure out why I’m still having waking nightmares of brim fire and finely crafted alpaca wool sweaters.


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