Pisac, Peru: Don't Be Lazy
By Jason Riley
When you live at sea level, altitude can be a killer. Wandering around Cusco too soon after my arrival was ill advised, but I felt fine and—of course—thought I was special. I wasn't. After a couple hours hiking through a city wedged in a valley two miles above sea level, the headaches began. Pain and confusion forced me to retire for the day.
I awoke early the next morning, clear-headed, and assuming everything was fine, traveled to the market town of Pisac. Wandering in and among the weavers of awayu fabric and baby alpaca sweaters, a table filled with Inca crosses caught my eye.
"This cross is a chakana," the man said. "The Inca had three laws represented on the chakana by these steps," indicating three points of the stepped cross. He slipped the polished stone from his hand to mine. "Ama llulla; Ama suwa; Ama qilla: Don't lie. Don't thieve. Don't be lazy."
I thanked him and paid for the Inca cross.
"I heard there are some Inca ruins in Pisac—like a mini-Machu Picchu?" I inquired.
"Yes, turn around and follow that path at the back of the market up the mountain. There, you see the warden's tower. It's not a difficult path."
I picked up a half-liter of Inca Cola at a kiosk across the way and began my ascent. On the trail I passed two women gliding down from the mountain. Their pigtail braids lay pegged beneath bowler hats. Their awayu slings rode heavily against their backs as though each carried a sleeping puma. Under the weight of such loads they seemed to spring off their earthbound foot before taking their next strides. I took my first sip of Inca Cola and quickly recapped the bottle. It was too warm, too sweet, too yellow.
The path rose slowly folding back upon itself like an aerial photo of a river. My thighs tightened with each labored step. My cells shrunk, losing water. I swayed in the heat. The altitude and its sickness had struck me hard yesterday. Though I had felt better this morning, clearly my body wasn't acclimated. Under normal conditions it can be difficult to breathe in the Andes. Unfit for this hike, I felt as though a child stood upon my chest; we wrestled for each breath, and I couldn't throw him off. I thought of turning back. The warden's tower upon the outcropping hardly seemed worth it. My head swelled, vision blurred, and tongue stuck fast against the roof of my mouth. Thirst. I lifted the bottle and discovered I had drained all but the last swig of the yellow liquid. I saved it and patted my pockets for anything to relieve my pain. My finger fell upon the Inca cross. Ama qilla. Don't be lazy. I pressed on, feet heavy, inflexible, as though my heels and toes were nailed to wooden planks. I made it as far as the next bend in the path, and the trail took on a steeper pitch, ending with a flight of seven or eight stone steps. I could no longer lift my legs high enough to mount the first. Inti (the Andean sun), the mountainside, and the altitude were all ganging up on me. Delirious and defeated, I collapsed on the bottom stair.
I won't call him a shaman—I'm still not certain he was real—but I heard his footsteps approach from down the mountain. He stopped and told me to face the sun. "Take off your shirt," said the ghost in Spanish.
"I really don't want to take off my shirt."
"It works better if you take it off."
"How about if I open it?"
I worried he would see how flabby—how lazy—my body had become after months of a sedentary lifestyle and would leave me to die of exposure. But he didn't abandon me.
"Hold out your hands. This is a magical potion."
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