5:30am. The bus leaves the Riobamba terminal in half an hour. We eat leftover potato thing–that`s what Mike and Kelly call it–mashed russels mixed with sauteed vegetables, wrapped in a tortilla. We don`t have time for coffee, hail a taxi outside the hostel, throw our enormous backpacks in the trunk, tell the driver we are going to the terminal, inform him that he will charge us one dollar because we know this is fair. And we`re off to Peru.
The bus to Guayaquil takes about 6 hours. Road construction slows our progress. We are sitting beneath a speaker that blasts unchanging romantica: synthesized, high-pitched, whiny beats. As we descend the jarring road from the southern highlands to the flat-plain coast, the air begins to change. What was once light, fresh and cool is now the opposite. Roadside vegetation has bigger leaves. The trees are different. Cloying heat envelopes the bus even though there is no sunshine, only clouds. Open windows bring shit-smells swirling around us. We close the windows and watch the countryside zoom behind the dewy glass. People board and disembark. We remain seated, occasionally stretching arms to ceiling, Mike twisting back with a pop, until the bus reaches it`s end. Guayaquil.
The bus station is huge and modern. This is the first McDonald`s I have seen in Ecuador. We are immediately badgered by bus attendants. These are probably the most annoying people on earth. All they do, all day, is stand around rapidly repeating destinations in shrill voices that follow a standard tonal rhythm. “Ambato! Quito! Ambato! Latacunga! Ambato! Quito! Quito! Quitooooo!” or “Baños! Baños! Bañosss!” They do this continually throughout the day, without moving from their original position. The effect is absolutely maddening.
The bus to Lima has already left, even though all the internet sites said that it did not leave until 2pm. It is noon. We take a taxi to the office. The guy behind the plexiglass barrier says the bus tomorrow is full. We would not be able to leave for Lima until Friday, meaning we`d be in Guayaquil for two days, which is something none of us want to do. Besides, we would not get to Cuzco until Sunday probably, the day before we are supposed to leave for our trek. We initiate the back-up plan. Head for the airport.
After talking to various flight agents, we discover that buying tickets on the internet will actually be cheaper. There is an internet cafe in the airport and we begin the process of finding three tickets to Lima. The process is painstaking. We eventually settle on the cheapest tickets we can find. Kelly sits down to enter her credit card information. Bank Of America puts a hold on her card due to suspicious activity. Mike enters his card information. At first, the site rejects us. He tries again and is accepted. We have tickets for Lima. The flight leaves at 5pm this afternoon.
Now, we must find tickets from Lima to Cuzco, but we are striking out. Everything we find is extremely expensive, almost as much as it costs to fly to Ecuador from the US. We discover a website from a cheaper airline and find some reasonable tickets. I enter my card number. The site does not work. It regurgitates error messages at us. We try over and over but cannot get through. Flight agents quote us exorbitant prices. We have reached a dilemma. We are all extremely stressed out. We feel like we have been getting screwed over this entire time. Bad luck is on our side. It is decided that we will just fly to Lima and hope to find cheaper tickets there. It is decided that we will hope for better luck.
Airport fees, overpriced food, security checks. Our flight leaves Guayaquil on time. The plane is spacious and modern. There are television sets on the back of every seat. You can play games, watch a selection of movies, listen to various albums. I turn on some mellow tunes and try to relax. Food is served even though this is only a two hour flight. Triple decker sandwich and fruit bowl. Orange juice without ice. I read my book, “The Conquest of the Incas,” which tells the history of the region we are flying over. Gold, disease, knights versus Indians, Christianity. We land in Lima, Peru and they let us through customs without a second look.
We are immediately accosted by taxi drivers. We are continuously shunning them. We are also approached by some men who tell us they can get us tickets to Cuzco for cheap. They wear name tags and ties. We are suspicious but intrigued. First we talk to the flight agents and are quoted a reasonable price. We are willing to go with this, but the suit ties keep telling us they can give us a better deal. We follow them to their office, figuring that we can turn around if anything feels sketchy.
We cross the highway on a bridge. The sour smells and clammy heat of Lima surround us. This is the city that Francisco Pizzaro founded after conquering Cuzco and the Inca empire. We are knights in search of horses. We are the Inca`s sons and we must get to the highlands. We walk briskly behind the travel agent. Our only armor is our minds. The office looks legitimate. The man behind the desk speaks English, although we converse in Spanish. He quotes us a decent price for a flight that leaves at 6am the next morning. I ask him very direct questions about whether or not this is a real business and whether or not he is booking real tickets. He is not offended but answers very professionally. We decide to do it and hand him $500 in cash. I grab Mike by the shoulders and shake him, releasing some of my stress and apprehension. “That is what I`m going to do to you if these tickets aren´t authentic,” I say, seriously, to the travel agent. He gives a little chuckle and then proceeds to reassure me, over and over again, that everything will be fine.
We shake hands and part ways. The moment we reenter the airport, we head immediately to the ticket counter and try to check in. Everything is fine. We are handed our boarding passes after we check our luggage. This is a small relief after so much stress. We head to the food court, find some dinner, which is horrible, and then head through the secure area. It is midnight. Our flight does not leave for another 6 hours. We find some seats in a corner of the terminal and try to sleep.
The flight is canceled. At first, it is just delayed. We are sitting on the plane, carry-ons in overhead bins, books out, seat belts on, when the captain explains that there is fog in Cuzco. We sit for another fifteen minutes before the flight becomes officially canceled. All the passengers filter down to the baggage claim. A woman from the airline is mobbed. It is impossible to tell what is happening. A group of loud Ecuadorian and Peruvian men surround her and begin shouting. Eventually the crowd disperses and forms a haphazard line that leads towards a ticket counter. After a few hours of waiting in the line, a group of airline representatives appear and, once again, chaos ensues. The older men from the back of the line shove their way to the front. No one cares about the rules. No one can control this mob.
We are at the back of the line because we are some of the only people that did not barge to the front. We are told we need to go to a different ticket counter and wait in another line of the same people to get our boarding passes. This line is slightly more organized, but there are still groups of people who cheat and make their way to the front without waiting. We are the absolute last people to get to the ticket counter. Every other passenger from the original flight gets on a plane that leaves at 9:20am. We are put on the 11:30am flight. We spend another few hours wandering the airport, complaining about horrible food, complaining about selfish old men, complaining about weather, money, politics, everything. We are absolutely exhausted, worn out, on edge, annoyed with society, beaten, fucked. We talk about how we have been fucked so many times in the last 24 hours that it is depressing. We are almost positive that our next flight will be canceled, that the only flight allowed to enter Cuzco in the next two weeks will be the 9:20am, which we missed. We are equally positive that the 9:20am flight will crash into the Andes, killing all passengers. We know we will be stuck in Lima for the rest of our trip, unable to leave or return. We know we will be robbed by airport security. We will be like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. We will build our own section in the airport and not allow stupid people to enter. We will apply for citizenship, marry the great-great-great-great-great grand daughter of Atahualpa, build a race of powerful mixed breed politicians who will change airport policies forever. We will flourish, or we will wither. We will survive!
The flight leaves on time. We land in Cuzco without crashing. The taxi driver rips us off, but that is to be expected. We stumble through the narrow streets of Cuzco searching for an acceptable hostel. We find one with a kitchen. The owners seem nice. We have lunch at a nearby restaurant. I am too tired to taste the food. It has been over 32 hours since we left Riobamba. There has not been a moment during this period of time when we have not been stressed out or on guard. Finally, we can rest. We return to the hostel and say we will just take a little nap, that we will get up and go find a place to eat dinner. It is 3pm. We hug each other, glad that we are finally here, and retire to our separate rooms. The lights go out and we do not wake up until the next morning.