John is an English professor, raised in Vancouver by loving and attentive parents who believed good manners were important and emotional displays were embarrassing. Onions, garlic and pastas were considered seditious and alcoholic drinks toxic. Entertainment included Gunsmoke, Ed Sullivan, and standing around a pump organ droning hymns. During his years at university John acquired a Harris Tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, smoked a pipe with perfumed tobacco and read Canadian literature. He married his high-school sweetheart, got a teaching job at a college in Prince George, and started raising a family. A wild party was one that survived until midnight.
I, on the other hand am a laboratory technologist who was raised in Winnipeg by emotional and demonstrative Slavs that kissed and hugged with the same exuberance they used when pounding their fists on the table over issues of importance, like whether wheat grew better under socialism or capitalism. Food was usually fried in pork fat, spiced with garlic and washed down with homemade hootch. Entertainment consisted of dancing to music played on a fiddle by a resident uncle or cousin and there was always time for a story about the old country.
I met John at the college where he taught. By that time, his wife had left him because his libido had broken loose with a redhead he’d met at a literary conference. And, I too had been married and divorced; my husband had traded me, a granola sucking jock dressed in Goretex and leather boots, for a cute little deaf mute who baked cookies and knit socks.
“At last,” he told my mother. “Some peace and quiet.”
Because John is a leg-man and I had nice ones augmented by years of professional roller skating followed by more years of long-distance trekking, it didn’t take much to get his attention. We soon started having an affair. But I’m impulsive, and when things went badly at work I quit and booked a one-month ticket to Peru. After some agonizing deliberation on John’s part and assurances from me that espresso bars were big throughout the Inca Empire, he agreed to join me.
He got a passport and had inoculations for all possible diseases, some of which I had never even heard of. If the nurse mentioned it, he wanted the shot or pill for it. By the time we were packed, his first aid kit contained three different types of tablets for malaria (just in case), some tablets for high-altitude sickness, some Gravol for motion sickness and some prophylactics for dengue fever, encephalitis and Asian flu. Although I said nothing, I knew they were sugar pills since prophylactics for these diseases hadn’t been discovered yet. His toilet paper supply took up more space in his pack than his clothes.
What I never counted on was that John could make himself sick just by worrying, and we didn’t have any pills for that. As the plane descended into Lima, he started hyperventilating. Friendly passengers advised him to breath deeply, to breath into a bag, to not breath at all. An Indian lady gave him some taco chips. John tried all the advice, ate the chips and developed a severe headache.
By the time we got to immigration, he was too sick to stand. We headed for the infirmary where the doctor decided that John was having a heart attack. As the doctor blew cigarette smoke into his face, John responded by puking the taco chips onto the doctor’s tie. The nurse insisted that I should clean it up. John, shivering now, mumbled that the tie looked better. Ignoring the nurse, I wrapped my long johns around his head and my jacket around his shoulders. He was going into shock.
The nurse pushed us toward the back door to wait for an ambulance. Shock or not she didn’t want him puking in her clean infirmary again. I carried my pack on my chest, his pack on my back and John on my arm. We waited. John puked again, this time over the railing and onto the alley. Finally, a 1948 Fargo panel truck with a red cross painted on the door arrived. As I pushed him onto the steel bunk in the back, he muttered, “Ya don’t see many of these babies around anymore.”
We zoomed through town with the siren blaring and horn honking at the intersections. All the while, the driver’s assistant explained that the hospital was the best in the city and the most expensive, that he had his mother there before she died, that the cost of food was high, that he could exchange money for us. He hauled out a calculator but we couldn’t agree on the exchange rate before we arrived at the hospital. John slept throughout the trip.
Inside the emergency entrance John was placed in a wobbly wheel chair that had no rubber on the wheels and we were quickly escorted to a first-class ward that had twelve beds; all but one was occupied. Visitors were cooking meals on camp stoves set down beside the beds. Others were changing sheets or helping patients to the toilet. The rule of Latin American hospitals became instantly clear. The services provided are medical; the rest is done by friends and relatives.
But the medicine was first rate. The emergency doctor determined that John was having a mere panic attack and ordered some adrenalin, which a nurse administered with an old glass-style syringe that had a sharpen-as-you-go needle. John was oblivious to it all, including my gasp as the needle went into his arm. I was too slow in my Spanish to tell them that we had a bundle of AIDs-free syringes in our packs.
The adrenalin worked. John moved and moaned, his eyes flicked open and shut, he licked his lips. Seeing that he was regaining consciousness, I busied myself with the necessities of acquiring Peruvian money. John awoke to the doctor’s calculator and a huge pile of money stacked on his chest. After the transaction, a few words and a handshake, we bid the doctor goodbye and started for the door. The bill, we were informed by the nurse, would be paid by the airline company.
As we walked down the street looking for a place to stay, I noticed that John had color in his face and was walking with determination in his step. He was also congratulating himself on getting us a free ride into Lima. This, I thought, was a good sign. He had some of the makings of a traveler.
The next day we flew to Cusco. From there we hoped to catch a train to the start of the Inca Trail where we would hike for four days past ancient shrines and ruins and over high mountain passes to the historical city of Machu Picchu.
In our Cusco hotel room John took some pills for altitude sickness while I tucked all my camera gear into his daypack and our passports and money into our money belts. We headed to the plaza for dinner. There, I enjoyed a meal of stir-fried organ meats while he had an egg sandwich although he did taste a bit of my dinner. Another promising sign. As we sipped our beer we heard a loud knock on the window behind us. We turned to see what the person wanted. He knocked and pointed and knocked some more.
“The guy’s nuts,” John said and ordered a second beer. As he went to grab his pack to get his change purse he discovered that the pack was gone along with the camera equipment. This depressed both of us. John no longer felt so good about saving us the $20 taxi-fare into Lima. The camera equipment was worth more than $3000.
The following day we replaced the camera with a little point-and-shoot, purchased hiking food and obtained tickets for the train to the trailhead. Like visions of sugarplums at Christmas time, John could see VIA Rail dome cars passing through the Canadian Rockies. When we boarded, he was pleased with our reserved seats on a comfortable coach that had a toilet at one end.
By the time we traveled 50 kilometers, however, the train was packed full of locals, some sitting, some standing, some even standing and sleeping. The isles were jammed with sacks of vegetables and corn. The women shared empanadas, children cried, chickens clucked and a lamb bleated for its mother. I clung to my backpack like it was my oxygen supply. Occasionally I glanced at John as he peered out the window ostrich style, trying hard to ignore what was happening around him. By the time we were near trailhead, I realized that there was no way to get to the exit so I made an alternate plan. When the train stopped, I jumped up, slid the window open, grabbed John’s pack and waved my hand for him to climb out the window. Everything happened so quickly that we were both on the ground with packs on our backs before he could protest.
John was proud. “That’s one hell of a long way to jump!” he said, adjusting his pack. He strutted toward the trailhead.
We had sunny days for walking and cool nights for sleeping. John began to relax. He even managed to speak to a few locals. He also noticed the paved Inca Roads and stone baths. The final evening was especially pleasant. We could hear birds singing and smell frangipani in the air. We camped near an old Inca sentry post that had huge stones ground together to fit like a jig saw puzzle. We took photos.
Just as we were finishing our supper, three police officers with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, sauntered up to us.
“Estamos Officiales,” said one, flashing an official card at us.
“Passaporte.” the second one said. They were both polite. They glanced at me but, being macho, directed their enquiries at John.
After John pulled out his passport, they clustered around him, peering from his passport picture to his face, muttering questions that he was unable to answer. I slipped back a few steps to take a photo. The click of the shutter brought the muzzle of one officer’s rifle to rest on John’s temple. The cold metal made John’s hands shoot up above his head.
“Yo soy Canadiansays, yo soy Canadiansays,” he cried as if this would explain that since he was a Canadian he was not a criminal or terrorist.
“Control your woman!” the officer commanded. “No photos!”
John, not understanding, nodded. I tucked the camera into my pack and apologized in Spanish. One officer nodded at me and shouldered his rifle, while the other returned John’s passport. They moved off into the scrub beyond the creek and disappeared.
“Geez,” I said once they were out of sight. “I’m glad they didn’t take the film.”
The next morning, John took the lead. We were up early and at Machu Picchu before noon. After a brief look at the ruins and a quick dip in the hot springs, we headed for the train station and back to Cusco. We knew we had enough time to catch the late flight back to Lima. From there, I thought, we’d go down to Chile.
As we walked toward the exit at the Lima airport, John stopped and smiled. “Can I buy you a glass of wine, honey?” I grinned back and we headed for the lounge.
Once the wine arrived, he sat back and said,” If you get our tickets changed so we can go home today, I’ll marry you.”
After a few moments of thought, I did and eventually, he did what he said he’d do and we went to Guatemala for a honeymoon. He’s been trying to control me ever since.
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[Vivien Lougheed’s stories can be found at www.chickenbustales.com.]