Thursday, September 16, 2010

High in the Andes

Great excitement in the household yesterday when the Firstborn, who's doing a week's internship at the NZ Herald, got a story on the front page. All her own work: idea, undercover research, interviews and writing. And she wouldn't tell me her source - very professional. Even more thrilling, the story was taken up by National Radio, featured on TVNZ and even got into the Sydney Morning Herald. What glory!

It was about how to cheat urine drug tests at work, which are evidently becoming quite mainstream here. When I was in Peru, I was faintly astonished that Chuck from St Louis steadfastly refused even to sip a cup of coca tea because he was worried that it would show up in tests back at work three weeks later. Though the leaves are what cocaine is derived from, in this form the effects are very mild, we were told.

The rest of us were drinking it several times daily, to combat the effects of altitude sickness. You'd never drink it for its taste, which was like green tea but more bitter though fortunately weaker. It was kind of a mission for me though, because it was part of the reason I was in Peru in the first place, having studied South America in Geography in the sixth form and been fascinated to learn about the Andean Indians and their physical adaptations to living at high altitude (short stature, larger lungs, more blood to transport what oxygen they could get) and also their dependence on coca leaves. The tea is so mainstream that you can buy it in teabag form, but we drank it like in the photo - our hotels had baskets of dried leaves on the breakfast buffet.

I didn't notice much effect from drinking it, though when I chewed the leaves, which you're meant to do with a lump of wood ash to help convert the chemicals, it certainly made my lips numb. I didn't get any sort of high. Our driver chewed the leaves constantly, to keep from getting sleepy on the long, long, long Panamerican Highway, and on the winding roads up through the Andes. All the Indian people did: it's such an old custom that statues and portraits of them have one bulging cheek.

Our highest point was the pass between Arequipa and Chivay, at 4800 metres. We certainly felt the effects of that: nausea, blinding headache, gasping for air but never quite able to take enough in. Our guide, Joana, watched us like a hawk and wouldn't let us nod off even though we were sleepy, because then we'd breathe more shallowly and feel even worse.
We stopped at the pass which was scattered with cairns of stones: apparently not just a Been Here thing, but a way to get a wish. Bending over made the headache worse, so I just put one pebble on top of someone else's cairn. Afterwards Joana told me I'd just reinforced that person's wish - but by then we were lower down and I'd got what I'd wanted anyway: no more headache.

That trip around Peru, it was a struggle at times, but it was absolutely brilliant.

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