Sunday, November 25, 2007

Colca Hole

Colca Canyon is located just outside Arequipa, Peru, and is touted by the local tour companies as the second deepest canyon in the world (the deepest is next door and has an extra 130 metres of down). But when I saw it, I realised they were pushing the boundaries of the correct definition of canyon. The hole is clearly a valley, at least to my eyes. But I’m not a geologist, or a tour guide, so I don’t get a say. Anyway, we walked down the thing.

We set out hopelessly unprepared, deciding along with our friends from the recent pampas trip, Paul and Charlotte plus Chris, that we’d make a camping trip of it. But nine-thirty in the evening is no the ideal time to go out trying to hire tents and other brightly coloured outdoors equipment, so, the next day, after a six hour bus to the starting point, we began walking minus sleeping gear. But that didn’t matter so much, as there were a number of small, roadless towns on our proposed route around the Colca Valley.

The walk down was scenic at first, but soon turned into a punishing, sweaty dust march under an unforgiving Peruvian sun. It was two and a half hours of dry, steep, slowbaking switchback downhill that left a crust of dirt on our teeth and throats and an awful notion wailing loudly in my head- ‘we still have to come back up this thing’. The idea of walking into a valley only to stop, turn around and walk back to again struck me as extremely ridiculous about halfway through the monotonous descent. Walking up a mountain seems genius in comparison, with a clear goal reached after the hardest part, the reward being able to be enjoyed in the knowledge that there is a slightly easier journey back home. Putting the hardest part at the end of the trip just seemed silly, and it played uneasily on my mind the entire time…

We arrived at our revised goal for the day. Originally, we were going to walk to the hotel with a pool on the valley floor, lunch, swim and then continue to a town further up the other side of the valley wall. The next day we would complete a loop back to our starting point. That idea was scratched pretty soon into the piece, after we really started to comprehend just what we’d gotten ourselves into. For the last half of the trudge, we were able to see the lush green grass of the hotel and the shining emerald of the pool, but it seemed like an eternity before they actually started to get closer. Once there it was like a different, less punishing world. We swam and relaxed on the grass, massaged the downhill-induced RSI from our legs, drank 500 litres of water and tried desperately not to think about the next day.

We sat down for dinner, which was spaghetti with a tomato sauce. Earlier in the day, I had caused major panic within our group when, after misinterpreting the cook, returned from the kitchen bearing the news that we would be eating asparagus and tomato sauce for dinner.

After dinner, Chris returned form the bathroom with an awkwardly parted gait and a darkness in his eyes- both sure signs that something had gone terribly awry in the toilet block. Before I go further into this amazing story, it is important to realise that a group of backpackers often resembles a gaggle of new mothers in that there is one topic, universal to all, that is discussed ad-nauseum and which seems completely disgusting and inappropriate to outsiders. Poo stories, they are called- everyone has a couple and after a few of beers they come flooding out as people try to outdo each other with disgusting tales that only a continent with such a poor sewerage system and such lax food safety standards can produce. So, before we go any further, be warned. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell these tales in backpacking circles, but as I remember from the civilised world, these things are usually taboo and tend to stay in (water) closet (I think in New Zealand it’s also accepted dinner party conversation-looking at you, Ben). So the squeamish should steer clear of the following couple of paragraphs and just look at the photos….

Anyway, the toilets at the bottom of the canyon were clean and apparently safe. When Chris returned from this particular ablutionary excursion sporting the emotional and haberdasheric scars so obvious, we knew that in fact it was far from harmless. He then related a story in which the elements of plumbing and timing collaborated in what can only be described as a miracle…

Chris had been sick. Icky in the toilet sick. It happens to everyone here. You don’t feel sick, but a doctor would look in the bowl and whip out a prescription for something, for sure. It had been like this for a few days and Chris had made a courageous effort in leaving civilisation and regular intervals of flushing toilets so far behind. The mens toilet in Paraiso Hotel was situated right next to the pool- the pool that was filled with fresh water that was slowly growing slimy. To clean the pool, the caretaker simply empties the pool through a pair of pipes in the bottom corner of the pool and then puts the plug back in, letting one of the natural creeks refill the pool at it’s own leisure.

It was nightime when trouble struck- we had just finished dinner and Chris had gone off to take care of his business. Halfway through the process- past the point of no return- he noticed through the open door, the curious sight of the attendant tugging at some kind of rope leading into the bottom corner of the pool. When the whole situation clicked- large volume of water about to enter pipes, toilet close enough to pool to be plumbed into the same pipes, toilet full of disgustingness- it was too late to do anything but let out a Hollywood-style, slow motion…nooooooooo!!!! From beneath him Chris felt a violent upsurge of fluids as a pool load of water flooded the system.

What I like to think happened is something akin to one of those cartoons where the character is spat up into the air, somersaulting on top of a column of water or newly discovered oil. Or maybe the character is pinned to the ceiling by the uprush, leaving a hilarious silhouette above the source of liquid. Chris assured me it was nothing as funny as this, but his body and jeans were covered with the contents of the toilet bowl as it erupted beneath him. Of course Chris let out a string of brutal expletives, sending the caretaker scarpering, never to be seen again for the length of our stay.

The devastating scene

Chris performed the best cleanup he could, and rejoined us at the dinner table, gloomy and uncomfortable although smelling surprisingly fresh. The mens toilet was now out of bounds.

The next day we woke up and procrastinated for as long as we could, but there was no way out of this hole except for up. We plodded off, again under a brutal sun, trying hard not think about what the next few hours had in store. Our included breakfast of two bread rolls and jam hadn’t really fortified us for this journey, and it was a convoluted hike upwards as we had to constantly stop and regain our breath in the ever-thinning air. After about four hours- four disgusting hours- we reached the top. I’d felt like passing out for the last hour, and everyone else was in varying states of sun-dried exhaustion. We tried to celebrate reaching the top, but nobody had the energy, and also we had a bus to catch in fifteen minutes. It was the last one of the day, and the edge of the valley was about twenty minutes from town. We hurriedly navigated through rice paddies and irrigation ditches, getting lost and taking a shortcut through someone’s backyard. After a frantic, Amazing Race style bolt to the bus stop, the driver informed us that we had juuuuust made it. The bus left twenty minutes later.

More unmentionable mishaps on the bus home.

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