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Snakebit in Peru

Updated: Jan 24

A phenomenon many professionals in hospitality will agree exists is a true rarity of rarities: the Snakebit customer.  The snake in this case is not reptilian; it is an improbably numerous combination of problems, sometimes quite unusual, that spring from, again, numerous sources (sources such as service suppliers, the customer or customer’s agent, the simple caprice of life’s twists and turns, etc.).  This snake is a constrictor and its bite is its capability to slither repeatedly into the afflicted customer’s way.

On September 15, 2023, Cynthia and I left Salt Lake to begin a 16-day tour of Peru.  We had booked it some time ago but got a case of cold feet after reading about some of the political unrest in different places around the country.  At that time, the US State Department had categorized the country a level 3 risk, meaning “Reconsider travel.”  We’d booked with an operator we found online offering remarkably affordable travel – Exoticca.  When I spoke with Exoticca about our concerns, the agent I spoke with assured me that if things deteriorated, they would cancel the trip.  Not long afterward, State lowered the risk assessment to 2, meaning “Exercise caution.”  Our nerves calmed, we plunged ahead.

As we gathered information, one of the first things we learned is that Peru’s currency is the Sol (symbol “S”).  We’d never heard of it before, but in an earlier conversation with a good contact at Washington Federal, we’d learned that the bank could get us foreign currency for travel with about a week’s notice.  Turns out our WaFd contact was also unfamiliar with the Sol, but said she would check into it.

Currency exchange advice online was remarkably consistent: exchange your currency in Peru.  Going elsewhere, we were advised, would deliver much less favorable exchange rates.  I communicated the same to our banking contact who told me she didn’t have terms yet, but if we wanted she would keep chasing the info.  The advice from online sources was uniform enough about the folly of exchanging currency outside Peru that I was persuaded we should let WaFd off the hook and bring a stack of US Dollars to exchange in country.

We’ve traveled to countries where the urgency to exchange seemed less urgent.  Credit cards and a willingness in many places to happily accept US dollars, we were told, were not qualities to expect In Peru.  Credit cards would do in larger, commercial establishments, but those were not numerous and other vendors, if willing to accept dollars, would savage us with their exchange rate.

We chose the USD/Sol exchange option.   Merchants in general, we were told, would take US dollars, but the idea of relying on a merchant’s exchange rate struck us as fraught with unwelcome opportunities for mischief.  Avoidance of that path seemed the way to go.

Just a few broad points before going on with the story: a) The willingness of merchants to accept credit cards was more widely the case than I’d expected given what I’d read beforehand.  b) We were vigilant, not fearful, and I never had occasion to feel concerned about our physical or social surroundings.  I’d been prepared at least to have had to take subtle steps to ensure a potential threat, in fact, wasn’t.  Never happened.  c) Peru is a bargain that makes Sale prices in the US look like thievery.  On 10/22, to illustrate, the rate was 1 Sol = $0.27.

And off we go. 

Exoticca, as a low price provider, unsurprisingly books customers’ travel at the “Basic” level.  To explicate, on Delta a customer flying Basic fare does not have the ability to select seats in advance – they are to be assigned after check-in; early check in isn’t available; no frequent flyer milage accrues; even for a Medalion member with elevated status, complimentary upgrades are not an option.

The first leg of our travel took us from SLC to LAX (roughly 2.25 hours).  Our “seats assigned after check in” were near the back, on opposite sides of the aisle separating two three-seat rows, each of us in the middle seat.

After a 3 hour layover, we boarded our flight for Lima, Peru (roughly 8.75 hours).  Once more, our seats were in the back (second to last row), but at least we were seated next to each other. 

Total travel time, from arriving at SLC the morning of 9/15 to arriving at LIM, was nigh on 16 hours – Lima arrival was around midnight.

Having traveled our 16 hours, arriving at midnight in a foreign country where neither of us speaks the language, we collected our formidably large bags (with ballast to match) and entered a receiving area where a crowd of people there to greet arriving travelers held up signs listing their particular charges’ names.   None were ours.  There also appeared to be quite a few cars waiting just outside the terminal.  Upon investigation, we learned many also displayed signs with peoples’ names, except not ours.  None of the airport staff we spoke with knew anything about a special waiting area for Exoticca, but one of them was able to reach someone from Exoticca and handed me his phone.

Among the things we’d received from Exoticca was a link to access an elaborate document, describing the trip by day.  The top sheet, Lima, featured a picture of a nice looking hotel, but it was listed as an example.  If I’d had the actual hotel instead of “representative” hotel information (in fairness, Exoticca says I did) I’d not have been quite so nervous about next steps.

The Exoticca rep told me it would be another hour or so before someone could come to meet us.  I asked if he knew the hotel’s name where we were to stay that night.  When he didn’t, I read him the address of the example hotel, which he said was the right one.  We should, he went on, take a taxi and get a receipt so Exoticca could reimburse us for the ride.

The next ripple probably had language and technology at its core.  Taxis in Peru do not have meters, so there is no automatic mechanism for producing a receipt, which we told the driver we would need.  He helped us unload our luggage, then reentered the car, presumably to get our receipt.  No such luck.  Either due to a misunderstanding or who knows what, he drove off.

When we got to the front desk, it turned out we had no reservation, leading me to suspect we’d been sent to the wrong property.  Nevertheless, by now it was roughly 01:30 and we needed a place to stay.  The hotel had a vacancy and we checked ourselves in.

“Cynthia,” I said as we entered the room, “we just might be snakebit.”

She reminded me that middle of the night business tends to be more trouble prone and expressed confidence that tomorrow everything would be set aright.  Besides, better evidence of being snakebit would be if the hotel had been full.  Good point.  Still, before turning in I left, well, somewhat sternly phrased messages via the Exoticca website.

Once the sun had risen, I checked email and found an Exoticca message, sent 9/14, inviting me to reply in order to receive a magic key to download a detailed trip app.  With that I determined, as suspected, that we were in the wrong place.  On the other hand, it showed me the right one and Google maps told me it was only 5 minutes away on foot. 

By now my “proceed with caution” sensibility was dialed up to about 10, so rather than immediately pack up, we decided to check out the place, determine for certain it was where we belonged, and go from there.

Our intended hotel, the Arawi Miraflores Prime, was indeed a short walk distant.  The façade is classy, understated; the front door accessed via unsheltered stairs.  No ramp for luggage or other vehicles, such as a wheelchair, existed, but a kind of dumbwaiter at the foot of the stairs could take even heavy items to the landing.

Presenting ourselves to the front desk, we were equal parts pleased/relieved to find our names among the evening’s expected guests.  We informed the agent we would be checking out of our current location and returning to the Arawi to check in there.  Getting out of the first place and into the second was a snap, so things were beginning to look up, a turn I greeted with an inward sigh of relief.

The Arawi is comfortably appointed, slightly subdued rather than flashy or ostentatious.  All of the staff we encountered were sterling examples of service delivered efficiently, professionally and thoughtfully.  Our assigned room was ample, fresh feeling and featured an appealing looking king sized bed.  Shortly after we’d unpacked, our in-room phone rang.  A rep from Exoticca was in the lobby and wished to speak with us. 

The gentleman, Manuel, listened attentively to our blow by blow description of how we came to be here.  He also had bus tickets for us – some for future days’ itineraries, but two for today.  Turns out we were signed up for a tour of Lima to take place in an hour or so.  He also was able to send Cynthia electronically a detailed daily calendar listing particulars of the upcoming days.  We had plenty of use for that over the remainder of our trip!

An hour or so later our “bus,” a comfortable Sprinter type vehicle already occupied by our truly capable guide, Carlos, plus a few fellow tourists, arrived.

Lima is a large city – 2023 population 11.2 million – and like any large city, presents a changing tableau of faces to visitors: contemporary and lively, light industrial, residential areas that themselves present a range of living conditions (in as much as appearances can reflect such things), all existing in the embrace of heavy traffic.  Internal combustion engine vehicles dominate by orders of magnitude and are subject to minimal, if any, emission control standards.  Air quality is noxious enough that it noticeably irritated Cynthia’s lungs.

All of that said, the city most certainly has its charm.  Its Pacific coast location blesses the area with scenery to rival many more celebrated places.

A couple of standouts for me that first day in Lima: first is the Parque del Amor, which is dedicated to the memory of a couple of lovers whose mismatched stations in life made their affair scandalous.  Still, the couple found a place to meet and carry on their affair.  An imposingly large, graphic (but not overly so) sculpture of lovers entwined in an embrace dominates the landscape, as do views of the ocean stretching out to the far horizon.

The other notable in my view was the trip our guide Carlos took us on to a bustling market teeming with brightly colored produce, meats, fish and fowl. There he enlisted the assistance of a particular market worker to introduce our group to fruit varieties not found outside Peru.  Of the many items she selected, I’d had previous exposure to exactly none.  There were quite a few unaccustomed flavors, and even more unaccustomed textures and modes of access as well.  We completed our market tour with a group lunch at the lunch counter there.  Carlos ordered a family style sampling of items representative of local cuisine.  Stir fry sorts of concoctions, served with  varieties of rice and sauces, are common and yummy enough that the recollection as I write this is making me want a snack.

Seems worth saying again – the Arawi Miraflores Prime Hotel was warm, inviting and comfortable.  What made it most memorable, though, was the staff – professional and friendly to a fault.

In the morning we breakfasted at the ubiquitous hotel breakfast buffet, then shuttled to the bus station for a roughly 4 hour bus ride to Paracas.  Upon arrival, we found our names once again not among those the gathering of greeters were seeking.  In this case the difficulty turned into nothing more than a trifle – a greeter at the station, when he learned where we were staying, noted that the hotel was only 5 minutes away and a bus with ample capacity was already on hand for transport there.

Our hotel, the Aranwa Paracas Resort & Spa is a gorgeous seaside complex of reception area, sleeping room towers, an expansive, airy standalone bar and separate standalone restaurant.  The neighboring town, literally steps away, is a wall to wall, picturesque collection of cafes and shops.  Passing by them is to walk a bit of a social gauntlet, but nothing offensive by any means.

Back at the hotel, a large plaza-type area

features a swimming pool inviting enough that I imagine even a sensory deprived person would find its allure irresistible.  To complete the service envelope, the poolside area is also equipped with a dog pool.  We saw no dogs using it or on property, but thought it a nice touch.  We lounged poolside, sipped cold chardonnay, and indulged shamelessly in the afternoon’s people watching.

In the morning, a 40 minute (or so) boat ride took us across the harbor and a stretch of open water to the Ballestas Islands, where an impressive variety of wildlife can be found.  Penguins, sea lions and seabirds abound.  I confess, though, that reading about the day’s adventure I’d thought we would make landfall and walk around an island.  Not so.  In fact, we did observe not only wildlife, but the island’s craggy beauty; all from inside the tour boat.

The boat ride’s most famous artifact is a massive candelabra figure engraved in the desert hillside.  How it came to be there or why remain mysteries.  The figure itself owes its permanence in part to the extremely arid surrounding climate.  Erosive elements found in many places, periodic rainfall in particular, is substantially absent here.

Our seaborne adventure gave way to another 4+ hour bus ride to Nazca, a thoroughly charming, seemingly prosperous town that owes its good fortune to the famous Nazca lines and figures decorating the surrounding desert.

Discovered in the 1920s, these lines and their purpose remain a mystery.  We were assured, and I don’t doubt that it’s true, that the best way to see them in their totality is from the air.  We did not opt for a plane ride, but our excellent guide (henceforth I will stop appending “excellent” to “guide.”  Every single one of our guides performed admirably.  Consider that they all deserve to be called excellent) took us to places where much was visible without climbing into an airplane.  No doubt due to their vastly broad onlooker appeal (anthropologists, archeologists, historians, and just about any other sentient being) the accessibility for tourism has been expansively curated.  In one place, a hilltop provides both a figure of its own, widely thought a puma, and a brilliantly situated observation vista of the numerous area lines.  In another place a tall observation tower has been erected.  From the top several figures are clearly visible: a tree, toad, lizard, and hand. 

It does have me scratching my head about the provenance of figures thousands of years old visible only from above.

Our next stop, Arequipa, would be a bus ride away.  An overnight bus ride, that is.  As buses go, this one was quite well appointed: reclining seats; blinds; a lavatory. 

However evident and well meant these accoutrements were, in my case they were no more sleep supportive than pyramid schemes were a sure road to riches.  Cynthia, by some blessing of good fortune, was able to sleep, at least a bit of the time.

From Arequipa, the drive to Chivay through Colca Valley is both spectacular and passes through areas rife with llamas, alpacas and vicuñas.  All of these animals are valued for their fine wool, but none so much as vicuñas, which we were told repeatedly is the most valuable animal among them because of its wool.  Llamas and alpacas are rather docile and habituated to people.  Vicuña are adorably cute, but not approachable the way their Camelidae cousins are.  They will spit, bite and otherwise discourage curiosity seekers from getting too close.  Among one another they can also be dangerously competitive.  A dominant male, for example, may try to (or successfully) castrate other males to eliminate competition.

Puno would be our next stop, ensconced on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Along the way we stopped at a lake large enough that I thought we’d reached Titicaca.  Nope – in conversation with our guide I learned that this lake is known for its excellent trout fishing and does have an arm that extends to Titicaca, but this wasn’t Titicaca.

I was especially excited about a particular stretch of upcoming highway: the Cruz del Condor.  The magnificent Andean Condor, world’s largest bird of prey with a wingspan greater than 10 ft and weighing more than 30 lbs., was very much on my list of things TO SEE if possible.  Our van pulled up behind a small gathering of similar looking vans, each transporting tourists, just as was ours.  The reason for stopping was immediately obvious.  At least a dozen condors were playing in the valley’s air currents, gliding effortlessly in lazy swoops and turns, drawing designs with their paths that would surely constitute a grand spectacle if they left tracers in their wake.  Thank heaven for smart phone cameras!  Thank heavens also for the wonderful flying display to which the condors treated us.  I asked our guide if it was typical to see so many.  He told me condors were usually there to be seen, but often at quite a distance.  To our very good fortune, not today.

Arriving in Puno, we were treated to our first views of Titicaca.  Stunning is a good word for the introduction.  Among other things, Titicaca is South America’s largest fresh water lake.  At 3,820 m above sea level, it is also the world’s highest commercially navigable lake.  Puno itself includes a substantial metropolis, but is actually an above-treeline grassland that extends quite a ways beyond Peru’s borders.  Our Exoticca itinerary listed an optional trip across the lake to a town situated on the lake’s Taquile Island.  As mentioned earlier, Exoticca guests select their “lux” level of participation.  The tier we’d chosen did not automatically offer that option.  We investigated it as an on the fly add on, but that turned out not to be possible.  In truth, we were just as happy without the addition.  As enthusiastic explorers of new environments, tomorrow we would go into town and take in the sights.

Our hotel was on a strand a fair distance from Puna’s main concentration of urbanity.  In the morning we asked the hotel’s front desk agent about walking from the hotel.  He strongly discouraged the idea, saying it was too far and that he would call a cab to take us.  It would be an inexpensive trip and we opted to treat ourselves.

Armed with a map the desk agent gave us, we had our taxi take us to the Puno Main Square.  Exiting the taxi a short distance from the Square, we were immediately taken aback by the sound of what could have been gunfire.  In fact, it was firecrackers announcing a large, ornately festive wedding party.  Attendees ranged from seniors to infants and every generation in between.  We watched, photographed, and followed the party as it proceeded out of the square, a splinter group breaking off and heading into a nearby restaurant, decorated gaily for the event.

Before long, another series of percussive reports announced a second wedding, one matching the first for the finery of attire and apparent jubilation of the participants.  The mix of celebrants, though, became diluted in terms of purpose when another sizeable group, a funeral’s mourners in this case, began exiting from a different church.

At least a portion of the wedding revelers seemed to be migrating toward Titicaca.  Given that we would ultimately need to head the same way, we followed along.  The streets in general were teeming with foot traffic.  In addition to the storefronts arrayed on either side of the street, we encountered a large, characteristically fragrant open air street market offering a bit of everything.  We saw pieces of furniture and other household goods intermingled with meats, fowl, seafood and produce too varied and, in a few cases, alien, to be enumerated.

Approaching Titicaca’s shore, thus far entirely on foot, we could see the strand where our hotel was situated but had no realistic idea of the remaining distance to get there.  Intrepid urban, suburban and dispersed explorers that we are, we elected to continue on foot.  We have had, after all, quite a history of ignoring hotel personnel’s “too far to walk” admonishments without subsequent regret.

Perhaps because we had such a meandering walk around the Main Square area and through so many shops along the return route, we found ourselves ready for a rest before our destination was anywhere in sight.  Randomly selecting one of the many area cafes, one that turned out to be featuring live music that commenced as if to announce our entry, we seated ourselves, interpreting a waiter’s hand-wave flourish as an instruction to do so.  Several minutes later, a waiter convinced us that expecting successful communication as to what we might wish to consume was a fantasy.  We smiled our goodbyes and left.  Fortunately, our hotel was only 15 or 20 minutes further on and as welcome a sight as an oasis to a desert wanderer.

In retrospect, I’d say the desk agent’s advice was worth taking in both directions.

After breakfast the next morning, we boarded a bus for the roughly 7 hour ride to Cuzco (also often spelled Cusco), a ride that would further impress upon us our preference for swifter modes of transport.  That said, Exoticca’s surprising affordability pretty much explained the company’s selections, to my way of thinking.

Cuzco is a charming, seemingly prosperous, and bustling town that, like Nazca, owes its happy situation to its Machu Picchu proximity.  Practically speaking, tourists going to Machu Picchu will travel through Cuzco.  Unsurprisingly, tourists are everywhere and the town goes to impressive lengths keeping them (us) entertained.  As one of the Modern World’s 7 Wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Machu Picchu easily qualifies as a Rock Star among the world’s tourist magnets.  And for good reason, I’d say!

This is now day 12 of our trip.  We leave our hotel in the morning before sunup to take a 90-minute drive to a train station.   From there the ride is around 3 hours to where our Machu Picchu excursion begins in earnest.  There is an upgraded train available featuring a 360 deg view bubble that, regrettably, we chose to forego, a mistake we would not make again should we ever return.  The train trip scenery is spectacular, but interrupted enough by regular stands of trees that photo opportunities were limited.

A small village surrounds the Machu Picchu train terminal with a set up that reminds me of Solvang, California.  Everything is woven seamlessly into the tourism experience.  Guides in Inka costume “dance” the groups of tourists from the station’s waiting area to the train platform itself.  The costuming is gorgeously detailed and performers’ enthusiasm as infectious as a swelling hallelujah chorus.

The Machu Picchu barrios themselves truly represent a wonder of the world.  Although the wheel had not been yet invented, and no modern tools or metals existed, the Inka’s built an expansive network of communities; some located on exposed precipices that defy easy explanation for how the work was done at all.  Not only because of the obvious peril involved, but even more so because of the work’s exacting precision.  The stonework fittings are impressive by modern standards.  There are corner configurations whose complexity defies explanation still. 

The development is divided into sectors: residential, mercantile, agricultural, religious.  The ingeniousness of certain elements stand the test of time as a testament to human intelligence and creativity.  In one open square rests what at first glance is just a rock.  Upon closer inspection one finds it is an astronomical model of the Southern Cross constellation, used for tracking seasonal change.  There are dish-shaped depressions that, filled with water, function as telescopes of a sort.

It was evident that “tours” of Machu Picchu can mean a variety of things.  Ours was around 2 hours and involved considerable walking, some of it over stone steps steep enough that participants with any knee flexion limitations might find the going uncomfortable.  Tour options we learned about were separate hikes up nearby peaks showing their own archeological artifacts, some exposed enough to trigger one’s vertigo just from looking up at the facilities, whatever they were, constructed there.

Our train ride back to the jumping off station below was uneventful, but our trip the other direction had shown us what spectacular snapshots we might see along the way and added to our anticipation of the return.  Sadly, the same tendency of passing flora to interrupt the camera’s viewfinder made the photo op a tiny bit frustrating.  In fairness, I’d have to take my share of responsibility for it.  I’d supported the decision NOT to upgrade to the 360 degree bubble car.  Live and learn.

Busses (more like mini vans) and tour greeters awaited our return to the main station, directing us to our correct respective coaches.  I confess that I’d been looking forward to the return drive to Cuzco.  Our morning trip was in the dark and I was curious to see the country we’d passed through.  On the heels of so much train time and our Machu Picchu trek though, I found my sightseeing objective in conflict with a desire to nap.  Both were able to claim a portion of the travel.

Just as we’d experienced previously, the return trip involved more than one passenger drop-off stop.  Ours was last, but along the way we paused in front of an attractive Italian restaurant.  I made note of its name, La Osteria, and checked it out online.  Fabo reviews AND easy walking distance.

Dinner was truly fabulous!  As a huge pasta fan, I went for spaghetti with pomodoro, Italian sausage, peppers…  You get the idea.  My sweetheart exercised her aversion to carbs and stuck with a lovely steak and salad.  As is true of Italian cuisine everywhere, we were served somewhat more than we could consume.  We were happy to have our leftovers packaged for us so we could give them to one of the many beggars in the area.

The restaurant itself affords diners a view of the nearby Plaza Mayor de Cuzco, where a large crowd was gathered to hear from what we assumed were political operatives of one stripe or another.  The crowd seemed to grow as we dined.  Although the event was rather noisy, it was reassuringly peaceful.

Once out on the street we approached a man, seated on the sidewalk with his dog, to ask if he would like our fresh and delicious leftovers.  In terms of appearance he could easily have passed as a teleported, through time and space, hippie living in Haight Ashbery circa 1970 or thereabouts.  Turns out the appearance was more authentic than I’d expected: he was vegetarian and would happily feed the leftovers to his dog, but not eat them himself.  I had no doubt the dog would have been enthusiastic about the idea, but I preferred to feed a human.

The crowd was everywhere and in short order we found a willing, grateful leftovers recipient.  [I’ll digress here briefly: early in the trip we’d been warned that crime in the cities is common.  In general it is nonviolent – property crimes like pickpocketing.]  As we were plying our leftovers quest I’d put my phone, a Samsung Galaxy, in the side, zippered pocket of my trousers.  The phone itself is large enough that zipping the pocket requires enough of a pocket wrestling match that I didn’t bother with it.  Very bad call – I became another unrecorded statistic in the realm of criminal predation.

In case I need say it, the experience of finding oneself in a foreign location, lacking local language skills, and having lost one’s communicator, is disconcerting to a degree I’d not have imagined were it not my own.  Fortunately, Cynthia’s phone, and person, remained secure, so we were not entirely cut off from our ability to communicate electronically on the hoof with calls, text, maps, etc.

The next day was day 14 of the trip.  We were scheduled to fly from Cuzco to Lima, where we would spend the night again at Arawi Mira Flores Prime.  We liked it before and looked forward to returning. 

As we waited in the hotel lobby for our ride to the airport, the appointed hour came and went with no arriving transport.  The lobby rep. told us the airport trip would take at least a half hour.  Given the way international airline check-ins can be like trudging uphill while towing a large weight (in terms of pace, not pain), each passing minute added to our anxiety.  I’d walked out onto the street a few times to see if I could spy a likely approaching vehicle.  Other vans were collecting at curbside and lo, I saw one approaching with an Exoticca sign in the windshield.  The driver pulled in behind the other vans, which meant he hadn’t quite made it all the way to our hotel’s front.  Already wound somewhat tightly from the wait, I signaled to Cynthia to grab her things and come out.  My bags were also still in the lobby and I ran back to retrieve them.  Scant minutes later we were in the van and headed toward the airport.  Finally the last pieces were falling into place.

Before we’d arrived in Peru, I had left a pair of prized sunglasses, sunglasses I’d had for quite a few years, on a table at LAX.  Super bummed, I looked unsuccessfully for the same style to replace them.  Still, finding good options was not difficult and I’d bought a nice pair from a Cuzco shop.  Most of the time in Peru, when going outside I would wear my gray flecked Patagonia sweater – another item long in my possession.  To keep my sunglasses handy I kept them in the sweater’s inside cargo pocket.

As our van made its way toward the Cuzco airport, I found myself conducting a mental inventory of what we’d just put in the van.  Did I have a recollection of putting my sweater in the van with our other luggage?  I was pretty sure I did.  At the airport, evidence of my failing memory was again paraded front and center – no sweater, which meant no new sunglasses as well.  Our driver thought we might be able to get the hotel to bring them to me for a fee, but I didn’t think we had the time for that.  Instead, I suggested, rather strongly, that he return to the hotel and help himself to the items with my blessing.  Whether or not he did I have no idea, but  I hope he did.

Time was tight at the airport, but not so much that we felt nervous about making the flight.  We checked our bags, found our way to the gate and got ready to relax. 

Years ago when I flew regularly out of Boston, I would often be paged while waiting to board.  As a top tier frequent flyer then, those announcements usually meant I was being upgraded.  For the life of me here in Cuzco, I couldn’t figure out why there would be a page for Thomas Walker to go to the gate agent’s desk, but there it was.

An officious airport rep told me a prohibited electronic device was in one of our checked bags and they needed me to retrieve it before we could board.  Cynthia thought she knew what it was and where to find it, but because the bag bore my name I had to be the person to go. 

Armed with what Cynthia told me about where to look, off I went with the rep.  This was official stuff.  She’d taken my boarding pass and passport, which she deposited with a security agent for incoming passengers and escorted me through hidden doors down into a large, open loading bay type area.  There were our bags.  By now, incidentally, any time cushion we’d had was gone, so my sense of urgency was, well, escalating.  The first bag I opened looked hopeless, so I moved to a second and, miracle of miracles, there it was.  For reasons left unexplained, the item, a power bank, could travel inside the cabin with us, just not in checked luggage.  With the offending device in hand, we headed back toward the gate.  As I had hoped, my rep escort was able to bypass the lines we’d have encountered otherwise, collect and return my boarding pass and passport, getting me to the gate just in time for Cynthia and me to board.  A few heart palpitations, but big WHEW!!!

It was quite late in Lima when we got to our hotel.  To our happy surprise, the staff on duty remembered us and welcomed us back with the kind of enthusiasm you can tell isn’t put on.  It felt warm and nicely hospitable.  The restaurant was closing but the desk agent said they’d stay open for us.  After a brief stop to deposit bags, we headed to the restaurant.  One server was still on hand, as was a lone couple still at their table.  Our server appeared promptly and I asked what her favorite menu item was.  She told me and I ordered it.  Cynthia went salad wise and seemed to enjoy it.  Mine was substantial and tasted, I thought, slightly off.  I was famished, though, and polished it off with alacrity.  By the time we finished we weren’t technically the walking dead, but that was a quibble.  It was, without a doubt, time to turn in.

Our flight from Lima to Salt Lake connected in Atlanta and was scheduled to depart Lima at 9:00 a.m.  Our shuttle to the airport was set for 5:30 a.m., so we needed to sleep fast.  When I awakened at 04:30 I felt the need to use the toilet.  As I approached my stomach flip flopped, sending a small portion of last night’s dinner back up into my mouth, which I spit into the toilet.  I waited a while, hoping my gut would settle down.  When I stood up a wave of nausea told me to turn and assume the “toilet-ralph” position.  I did and vomited out what was left of my stomach contents in a sudden, thoroughly unpleasant stream.  On the positive side, it settled my stomach.

The morning hotel staff was as welcoming and pleasant as our greeting upon arrival had been.  Coffee and tea were available, as were pieces of fruit.  Our ride arrived on time and we loaded up, said our goodbyes and departed.

Our initial stretch went smoothly, but as we progressed traffic became more and more sluggish, finally stopping altogether.  It was obvious that people in surrounding cars were also going to the airport.  There were no alternate routes and our driver pronounced the jam highly unusual.  It was true that no options were available for cars, but there were bridges crossing the freeway with stair access up and down.  It did our nerves no good when neighboring travelers abandoned their rides, collected their luggage and went for the stairs so they could cross the freeway on foot and walk the remaining distance.  Occasional police on motorcycles passed us and our clearly agitated driver’s behavior communicated to me that we were in danger of missing our takeoff.

At about the time I’d calculated to be do or die for making the flight, traffic began moving again.  As we neared the airport exit we could see what had happened to break the logjam: the motorcycle cops had taken control of people’s merging and ended the gridlock.  Once inside the terminal we proceeded to the TSA precheck line, which was quite long.  Arriving at at the agent checkpoint, we learned we were on the wrong side of the terminal.  We would, the agent told us, need to go back out to the main lobby, cross over to the terminal’s far side, and try again.

The Gods smiled and our terminal traverse went smoothly.  Still, harkening back to my description of the trip as “snake bit,” we sat down and itemized the list of slithery incidents we’d endured: we were seated separately in middle seats on our flight from SLC to LAX.  We landed in the middle of the night in Lima and found ourselves on our own.  With no one to greet us and take us to our hotel, we did our best independently and went to the wrong hotel, where the cab driver abandoned us without leaving a receipt.  After a lovely Italian dinner and effort to present our leftovers to someone in need, I was pickpocketed.  Hurriedly leaving our hotel in Cuzco for the airport, I left behind my Patagonia sweater and new sunglasses.  At the airport we faced a mad dash to pull a forbidden item from our luggage, making our Lima flight by the barest skin of our teeth.  Arriving late in Lima for our flight through Atlanta, I got food poisoning from my dinner.

Yup, snakebit qualified.

In sum, it was a great trip with many peculiar incidents we’ll be able to recount with laughter for years to come.

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