Congratulations to Rosemary, on winning the trophy this month. A True Tale.
Oh What a Holiday! or The Day I Was Thrown Onto a Train.
It all started with a bout of food poisoning.
We were at Lake Titicaca in Peru during a lovely, enlightening tour of the country. The coastal desert was a revelation and I didn’t realise there were such dunes and oases outside the Sahara. Flying in a helicopter over the ancient Nasca Lines we marvelled at how such animal and bird shapes could be drawn so large when the artists could not see them. These had only been discovered when someone flew over them in a plane. Then we went over the Altiplano or high plateau to the Colca Canyon where we were thrilled to see a dozen soaring condors. We had been warned that we might not see any, so it was especially wonderful.
It was there that one by one the party of twenty three started to experience altitude sickness. The Altiplano is 14,000 feet above sea level. Lake Titicaca is 12,000. We travelled on to Puno by the lake where I was too ill to go on the lake tour and had to experience it by proxy with reports and my husband’s photos. I felt better after resting but in the night started to feel awful, spending far too much time in the bathroom.
Everyone was convinced that I was still suffering from altitude sickness and would soon feel better when we reached Cuzco; at 9000 feet, considerably lower. I was not convinced about the sickness but duly boarded the train in the town of Puno.
Just ten minutes out of the station I started projectile-vomiting, something which had happened the previous time I suffered from food poisoning. Until that happens you really have no idea how powerful your stomach muscles are. I won’t go into details but the train got in quite a mess! Our tour manager went into action consulting some of the train personnel, though I was oblivious to what was happening.
The train stopped at a small town and I was helped into a taxi to the local hospital. Of course, my husband had to come, too – well, he had to find the money to pay as only cash was accepted in this out of the way place. At the hospital I felt guilty as we were rushed in ahead of everyone else but we were paying and they needed the money. I will be for ever thankful for the NHS, as I learnt here what can happen if there is no such scheme and those with little money do not get treatment.
We were ushered into a room, which was about the size of my doctor’s consulting room. As the paying customer, I was allowed on the couch. Around the room, at the same time, sat several people with varying ailments. Later, I asked the tour manager who said that one of the women had cancer, a man had a stomach complaint and a child had an unknown illness but none of these people could pay for investigations or treatment, so were all sent home with paracetamol, which was all they could afford. In that area they were so poor that, if they need paracetamol, they bought one dose, worked for a few hours to earn some cash, then bought the next dose and so on. This explained why, when I went to buy some in Cuzco, the shop sold them in little packets of two. My request for twelve was met with astonishment.
But I digress. Because of my condition I needed to use the facilities and was directed to two outside privies. Nearing them, the stench was overpowering. A woman and a little girl came out of the one with a female picture on it. On entering it, the reason for the smell became clear: the cistern had no chain and I doubt it had seen water recently. I thought of the clean facilities on every floor of our local hospital at home and, ashamed, swore I would be truly grateful for our health service in future, even with its faults.
They still treated me for altitude sickness, which I knew was not the whole story but the local people spoke Quechua, not Spanish and everything had to be sorted through an interpreter. I was too exhausted to argue. My husband had to pay for the ambulance back to the train (which wasn’t an express) with an additional payment for the petrol. They couldn’t afford to keep it fuelled.
The ambulance turned out to be an old VW camper van and I do not think that much had been spent on conversion. The old brown 1970s upholstery was still in place. It could still have been used for camping. I was placed on a stretcher, which was laid on a bench inside the vehicle. With no safety straps, we set off. The roads seemed terrible and, at one point, the bumping was so bad that my whole body left the stretcher and thumped down again. It was nerve-wracking.
We caught up with the train. When they got me out, I could see that there was no road at all but we had been driving beside the track for goodness knows how long! The next stage was to get me on the train.
It was not at a station, so there was no platform from which to board and was like a scene from an American western with the tall carriages and high steps to mount. There was no way that I had the energy to climb, especially with a huge step up at the bottom. I said in Spanish, “No puedo,” (I cannot) which I hoped would be understood by someone.
I could see a lot of people discussing what to do. The discussion went from the carriage to the people on the ground. I began to realise what their plan was and was rather perturbed. Surely they wouldn’t, would they? Oh, yes they would!
If you have ever seen someone crowd-surfing at a music festival, you will be able to picture the scene as I was lifted over the heads of several burly men, swung a little backwards and forwards, before being released up to the waiting arms of more strong men on the carriage. I was so ill that I almost didn’t care but was considerably relieved, as was my husband, when I landed safely and was escorted to our carriage, which had been thoroughly cleansed. Our fellow tour companions had created a makeshift bed for me and I immediately fell asleep until Cuzco.
At our hotel, a doctor was called, realised that I was very ill and sent me to the tourist clinic, which is usually for altitude sickness but where they did eventually decide that I had food poisoning and gave me antibiotics in a drip. After a test proved I was suffering from E.Coli, I was sent out with specific antibiotics and at the restful Monasterio Hotel, which is in an old monastery, I was able to take a couple of days to recover enough to go on to Inca Machu Picchu, which was the site I had wanted to see since seeing it in a National Geographic Magazine when I was eleven years old. I was so pleased that, despite being ill, taken as a whole, the trip was really enjoyable and the part that was not, was a truly enlightening experience.