By the time we reached Machu Picchu the next morning, my head was floating somewhere above the rest of me. I sensed that it was neither the elevation nor the gallons of coca tea I had drunk to ward off its effects that caused the crescendo of pain in my head, throat and lungs. We hiked the granite steps along the terraces and through the ruins and clouds. We took in the staggering vistas across the Urubamba Valley and Huayna Picchu, the anchor peak of the Lost City of Machu Picchu. As I climbed the cliffs, my stride morphed into a stagger. I knew that Alejandro, our guide, was discoursing on Inca priests and the conquistadores, but his words failed to penetrate my brain. I had dreamed my whole life of coming to Machu Picchu, and I was so dizzy, I wasn’t quite certain I was even there.
I hastened back to the train station on a quest for tea to soothe my aching throat, then plunked down on an outdoor bench and fell into an unforced interlude of REM sleep. I woke to the voice of a woman leaning into me.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Why do you...?” Then I noticed she held my backpack, which contained my wallet, our passports, money, tickets, cameras, Ava’s copy of West with the Night, my $32 sunscreen. I had left it in the station café without a backward look.
On the train back to Cuzco, I told no one how I felt, but Ann, one of those friends who intuit what you need, knew that something was amiss. I resisted her inquiries; being of Yankee stock, I would scarcely admit to impending doom even if perched on a platform with a noose draped around my neck. Plus, I’m the big traveler, right? Forever traipsing off by myself to Haiti or Rwanda, undaunted by hardship anywhere on earth, I had a reputation to maintain.
The next morning our group boarded a plane in Cuzco for Puerto Maldonado, located on the Tambopata river in the part of the Amazon jungle that hugs Peru’s border with Bolivia. An airport check-in en masse was more than I could bear, although I could disguise my distress from all but one person.
“Try to hang in there. OK, Mom?” said Ava, who fixed me with an almost maternal look of reproach. “You don’t look so hot.”
“I agree,” said Liz, another mother. She’s an unflappable sort, one of my go-to gurus for wisdom and reason. “I’ll get your suitcase, honey,” she told me, then placed her palm on my cheek and grimaced. “No fever yet. Don’t worry about anything. We’ll carry you if we have to.”
In Puerto Maldonado we were greeted by 100 degrees of tropical humidity. After a glass of passion fruit juice and some salty plantain chips, we embarked in an open boat through the troubled brown waters of the Madre de Dios river, the epicenter of the illegal mining operations that are one of Peru’s most explosive political issues. I didn’t know whether illness or weather was inducing my sense of dislocation, but somehow I half expected to sail past a raft bearing the royal court of Spain. In an hour, we arrived at the magnificent Hacienda Concepción, an eco-resort in the belly of the jungle. I climbed out and asked our guide to steady me on the nearly vertical climb to the hotel grounds. The canopy of green and the hum of insects added to my fevered dismay. Without a word, Ann checked me in first and led me to my room. “Let me know if you want anything,” she said.
“Just this bed,” I said, and drifted off under the ceiling fan. Sweat soaked through my brand-new moisture-wicking outfit and onto the lovely Peruvian cotton sheets. I slept through dinner and pisco sours and card games by lantern light. I slept through the girls’ ordering of multiple grenadine lemonades. I slept through what I finally recognized as the point and reward of the trip: time with Ann and Liz, and also with Val and Natalie, all of whom were, like me, raising children in rural New England. Time with our daughters. After all these years of talk, we had actually made it to Peru with our band of teenagers, who had been together since kindergarten.