I met Lester in Paddy’s, the world’s highest altitude Irish pub. Maybe it was the scanty oxygen, or maybe it was an excess of pisco sours, Peru’s national cocktail – either way, I inexplicably agreed to join him on a four-day trek described in a mountaineering book from 1982.
Clare, an old friend living in Cusco, lent me some hiking essentials and pointed me towards the bus station. Less than 30 seconds after leaving, a sudden downpour had soaked my entire collection of borrowed belongings.
Lesson 1: invest in waterproofing, unless you enjoy slipping into soggy underwear in the morning.
Sensibly clad head to toe in breathable rain gear, Lester was already waiting by the correct bus, tall and still amidst the chaos. Before I could gauge his reaction to my bedraggled state, I stumbled over a scrawny chicken picking through the mud and, to the cackling delight of the other passengers, landed on all fours at the driver’s feet.
At a bus stop far from any discernable civilisation, we set off on foot into the mist-shrouded mountains, a photocopied map in a plastic sleeve our only guide. Since Clare’s stairs in Cusco had left me out of breath, I’m unsure why I thought a four-day hike at even higher altitude with half a campsite on my back would be a wise idea.
Lesson 2: altitude acclimatisation is best done before attempting strenuous physical activity.
Panting like an asthmatic, I eventually caught up with my trekking partner, who had already single-handedly set up the tent and had a pot of dried noodles on the boil. I lost every round of cards as the clouds drew in, scenery and sky obscured in the gradually darkening drizzle.
Day two began with an awkward exchange of euphemisms, which led to the blushing realisation that a man I had met three days ago knew I was off behind a rock to do and bury my business.
Lesson 3: exploring the wilderness with a rugged stranger is in no way as romantic as it sounds.
Despite the chorus of complaints from my lungs and practically every muscle in my body, I made it to a tiny, isolated village, reachable only on foot. We agreed to help out in the near-vertical fields in return for camping rights and a swig of mouth-stripping moonshine from a tin cup caked in mud.
Lining up for a photo at the end of the day, the village leader asked a question I didn’t catch – Lester glanced at me and shook his head. Just as the flash lit up the starless dusk, the village leader’s black-toothed grin became a great, sloppy kiss on my cheek, and all became clear.
Lesson 4: when asked, the answer is always yes; we are married.
Day three brought patches of blue sky, massive grey valleys, and the red-patterned ponchos of our farewell party. Tassels bobbing as they energetically waved us off, the villagers showed no sign of having spent a day crouched over a potato field.
I, however, was in agony – severe backache and intense pain in my ankle as if the bones were rubbing like ill-fitting new shoes. Lester turned and caught me mouthing silent curses at my treacherous body. “Are you alright?” he asked. I tried to nod, but instead burst into fat tears of self-pity.
Miraculously, I limped into the next village – a village with a road! – on market day, where the ever-gallant Lester secured my passage on the fruit and veg van. After a bumpy hour wedged alongside the driver, his wife and their finger-sucking children, I was dropped off at a bus station. Rain dripped from the roofs of unmanned market stalls: there would be no more buses to Cusco that day.
Lena, a grey-haired German volunteering in a local school, came to my rescue. She made pancakes and listened to my pathetic tale of bad weather, injury and foiled romance. “But you vere totally unprepared!” she said, blue eyes sharp behind little round glasses, “Vy you decide to go?”
Lesson 5: Drinking pisco with handsome strangers in high-altitude Irish pubs may seriously affect your judgment. You have been warned.