Thursday, April 21, 2016

Zip-Lining, With Gibbons

It’s about 6:30 a.m. -- let’s say a quarter past dawn -- and I’m the last one out of my bedroll. At this hour I have no problem accepting the title of Laziest Gibbon Chaser in the Jungle.

I lift my mosquito net to see the other six occupants of Tree House Seven – Paul, Danielle, Connor, Michelle, Jamie and Denyse -- poised around the railing. No one is talking; hardly anyone is moving. It’s like a mime convention, minus any actual miming. No one acknowledges me as I stumble over to the railing, but I can read their thoughts: maybe some gibbons will show up, now that this lazy bastard is finally out of bed.

“Anybody see anything?” I whisper to no one in particular. Connor and Jamie look up and shake their heads. Almost a full day into The Gibbon Experience, and the gibbon count officially stands at zero.

I yawn, rub my eyes and move to get coffee, before remembering that the only available coffee is thick, cold, and more than twelve hours old.  So here I am, then: Up at dawn, coffee-less, standing in a jungle tree house, silently waiting for monkeys.

Really didn’t see this one coming.

I settle for the saddest of coffee substitutes in the form of a tin cup of warm water, squat on a wicker stool alongside my cohorts, and join the stare into the forest. After a few minutes I hear someone coming in on the zip line. It’s a group from another tree house, invading our space at a ridiculously early hour.

“Sounds like we have company,” Paul says.

“And I forgot to put out the good china.” Sorry, that’s the best sarcasm I can muster at 6:30 in the morning. “What, they don’t have gibbons on their side of the jungle?”

Of course we don’t have any gibbons on our side of the jungle either, my spiteful, non-caffeinated inner-voice starts to say, so ha-ha, the joke’s on them. Interloping, tree house-invading bastards. But my inner voice shuts up pretty quickly, because then we hear it.

It’s a sound I can only describe as a cross between a French ambulance siren from the 1960s, and car alarm going off in the middle of the night in Brooklyn. Between a haunting whale mating call, and a giant cicada stuck in your ear. It’s a noise few humans will ever get a chance to hear. And it’s really, really loud.

I’ll be damned. The gibbons really are singing.

 *         *          *

I liked the idea of the Gibbon Experience the first time I read about it, although I would have been hard pressed to tell you exactly what a gibbon was.

A non-profit organization was set up twenty years ago in the Bokeo Province of Laos to help villagers and local authorities fight illegal logging, animal poaching, slash-and-burn land mis-management, and other 21st Century sins that were slowly destroying the natural habitat of rural Southeast Asia. In 2003 the group began building tree houses in the forest, with the idea of raising money for conservation by bringing in “low-impact tourism.” It convinced former poachers that they could make more money as guides for tourists looking for gibbons than they ever could hunting and killing them. Five years later the Lao government declared part of the Bokeo Forest to be a national park, the tree houses were connected with zip lines, and The Gibbon Experience was born.

The focus of all this attention, the black-crested gibbon (Nomacus Concolor, for those of you playing along at home in Latin), is a long-armed, critically endangered, monkey-like primate now only found in parts of Laos, northern Vietnam, and southern China. The gibbons eat fruit, live exclusively in the trees, mate for life, and in the mornings, they sing.

It’s not like Adele has anything to worry about. But yes, they actually do sing.

At last estimate there were only 1,300 to 2,000 of these gibbons left in the wild. Riding zip lines in the jungle to hear the singing gibbons seemed like as good of an excuse to go to Laos as any I could think of.

*          *          *

Just reaching the headquarters of The Gibbon Experience, however, is somewhat of an accomplishment itself. The office is located in Huay Xai (also known as Ban Houayxay, Huoeisay, or Houei Sai, depending on who’s drawing the map that day), a dusty, otherwise-nondescript river town in northern Laos. Huay Xai does have a small airport, so in theory you could probably fly here. But I of course have selected an overland route from Bangkok, which involves two trains, five buses, a couple of taxis, an international border crossing, and about half-dozen tuk-tuk rides of varying degrees of spleen-rupturing discomfort.   

At 8:15 a.m. the day of departure, The Gibbon Experience orientation room is filling up, and I’m getting worried. It’s not the idea of being driven into the jungle that unnerves me, it’s the question of which of the fifty or so Gibbon chasers gathered in Huay Xai are going to be my constant companions for the next three days.

I see a few women, and a couple of kids. But there seems to be an excessive amount of testosterone surging around the room. A loud group of Dutch kids the size of redwood trees are laughing and slapping at each other, occasionally knocking off a backward ball cap. Two guys to the left of me are having a conversation in Arabic. Behind me I hear German.  The guy to my right is with a group of fourteen male friends, traveling around Asia together after being discharged from the Israeli army. 

A Gibbon Experience employee has to shout over the car-crash of guttural languages to announce that a short safety video will now be shown, before we pile into the trucks and head off into the jungle. No one seems to be paying any attention. In a few hours we will all be suspended from a wire, flying at 60 miles per hour hundreds of feet off the ground. Maybe this is something you learn how to do as an Israeli paratrooper. Personally I’d appreciate a couple of pointers to avoid accidentally killing myself.

“You step into your safety harness like this,” says the smiling demonstration lady on the safety video. “Like you are stepping into a diaper.”

The Israeli guys understandably look each other like they must not have heard correctly. My thought is, if you have any first-hand experience wearing a diaper, this probably isn’t the trip for you.

“Attach the line like this,” demonstration lady continues. “Not like this.” A big red circle with a line through it flashes on the screen. “Like this is very dangerous.”

Like what? Like what is very dangerous?  I can’t hear because the loud German dad sitting behind me is still translating “diaper” for his 10-year-old daughter. By the time he shuts up we’re already on the closing credits. 

The video ends and the lights come up. “Any questions?” the employee asks. I’d ask if they could go over that “very dangerous” part again, but nobody wants to be that guy. “No questions? Okay, everyone in the truck!”

*          *          *         

While there are fifty people headed out into the jungle at the same time, thankfully not everyone is going to the same place. There is a relatively quick two-day tour, which promises more hiking with a higher degree of difficulty. Something, say, for your recently discharged military personnel on the go.

A waterfall tour is offered that goes farther into the jungle, also at the price of additional hiking.  And then there is the three-day “Classic Tour,” which promises less hiking, more tree house sitting, and (in theory) more chances to meet up with a gibbon.

Less hiking, more sitting. Sign me up for the lazy man’s gibbon tour.

By the time we split up there are about twenty two of us on the three-day classic tour, packed into three trucks and headed for the Nam Kam Forest. If you want to know how to get to the Nam Kam Forest, drive northeast out of Huay Xai on a twisty road for an hour and a half, stop at a little roadside shack that sells ice cream bars and whiskey with scorpions in the bottle, head downhill on a dirt road, drive through (not over, but literally through) a small river, and follow the canyon-sized, bone-jarring ruts for another hour, until you reach a small collection of shacks with naked children playing in the creek.

We’re not there yet. This is only where we get out of truck, and start hiking.

The hike starts out promisingly flat, albeit through a sun-baked rice field. It’s close to 100 degrees, and everyone is carrying a pack. By the time we reach the shade of the forest everyone is drenched in sweat. Now the serious hiking begins.

I know it’s impossible, but the hike seems to be straight uphill going, as well as coming back. Up over some rocks, up under some bamboo, up around some fallen trees.  If this is the easy program, I imagine the Israeli army guys on the two-day hike must be dropping like flies.

Another forty five minutes to an hour of uphill hiking, and we’re still not there yet. Now it’s time for the zip line.

*          *          *

No, of course I’ve never been on a zip line, and the proffered five-minute safety video has done nothing to convince me that I’m in any way prepared. Still, how hard can it be? You get hooked to a wire, you jump off of a tower. So simple a gibbon could do it.

Unless you do it wrong, and a big red circle with a line through it flashes over your life.

Our guide hands me a tangle of belts, straps and clips that is supposed to be my safety harness. It looks a bowl of pad see ew noodles I ate in Thailand three days ago. I slowly untangle the straps until they fall into a pattern I could plausibly identify as diaper shaped. 

No one is helping in any official capacity, and it occurs to me that this is the zip line equivalent of packing your own parachute. Put on your own damn safety harness. If you put it on wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself, do you? Didn’t you watch the safety video?

I step into my diaper/harness, pull a strap here, tighten a buckle there, and as best I can secure my crotch area for a flight over the jungle.

*          *          *

The initial zip line run is a complete leap of faith, in the same way I imagine it would be to bungee jump, or dive off a cliff in a flying squirrel costume.

It’s high. It’s long. The other end where you will theoretically land is nowhere in sight. One part of my brain tells me this doesn’t look like it could possibly work. Another part says that if there had been a rash of tourists plunging to their deaths from zip lines in northern Laos, I would have heard of it by now.

“Not necessarily,” the first part of my brain replies. “You saw how far the drive out here was. They could just roll up the bodies in banana leaves and no one would find out for years.” 

“Shut up. We’re already in the diaper harness. People are watching. We’re doing this.”

“It’s our funeral.”

I clip my harness to the zip line and step off the platform. In a split second the wire starts to hum, the ground below disappears, and I improbably find myself hundreds of feet above a jungle in Laos, sailing along like a flying squirrel.

*          *          *

I end up lucking out with my three-day jungle companions.  The Israeli paratroopers have wandered away on their own Bataan Death March. The Dutch teenagers are off in another tree house, presumably snapping each other with towels. Back at Tree House 7, my tree house mates and I are killing time after a day of jungle zipping playing Dave’s Gin (taught by yours truly), waiting for our guide to zip in with some food, and trying to figure out what the deal is with the bees.

Ah, the bees.

Forget man-eating tigers, poisonous snakes, or malaria-infected mosquitos. The biggest hazard to living in the jungle in Laos, improbably, turns out to the small swarm of bees inhabiting the tree house bathroom.

The “bathroom” is not an actual room, but an open platform located at the bottom level the tree house, directly across from the zip-line entrance. The bathroom facilities consist of a sink, a shower, and a squat toilet, all complete with a stunning panoramic view of the jungle. Because there is no actual “room” there is no actual “door,” either, just a cloth curtain that more or less blocks the view if someone happens to unexpectedly zip into the tree house while you’re in the bathroom, you know, brushing your teeth.

So here’s the thing about a squat toilet, located in a jungle, 100 feet in the air. The Laotians are not big believers in toilet paper; my impression is that they find the concept kind of disgusting. (And let’s be honest: they do have a point.) Instead, what you find in lieu of toilet paper – here and elsewhere in the country –is a spray hose.

All right, then. A little tough to get the hang of, but okay, I’m on board. We are after all in a tree house in Laos, not the Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay.

The problem we discover is that the spray hose, by necessity, has water in it. And for reasons I will let an entomologist explain, bees in the jungle really like water. They seem to be particularly fond of water that comes out of a squat toilet spray hose.

Which prompts the question, each time the need arises: how badly to I really have to go to the bathroom? Badly enough to risk being stung by a swarm of bees? You know, when you put it that way, maybe not. Maybe I’ll hang on, and just explode when I return to civilization. I think that sounds like a reasonable plan.

It’s as if the folks at the Ritz Carlton ran a few volts through the toilet seat, just to make things interesting.

This is the price you pay to hang with the gibbons.

*          *          *

After the first day or so the Tree House Seven become seasoned zip line veterans, grading each other’s landings like Russian judges at the Olympics. Come in too fast, you risk slamming into a tree. Come in too slow and you sputter to a stop way out on the wire, forcing you to pull hand over hand the rest of the way in, upside down like a spider monkey.

The spider monkey crawl is extremely humiliating, not to mention the high humidity, upper-body workout you really didn’t sign up for. Much better to hit the tree. Better still to glide in for the perfect two-point landing.

There has been a lot of hiking, a lot of laughing, a lot of sweating, and a lot of zipping about the jungle. But not, unfortunately, a lot of sightings of actual gibbons.

On the day we first hear the gibbons sing, the guide points to a broccoli-shaped tree, about 200 yards in the distance. I squint and see some branches moving. Those can’t possibly be the gibbons. The siren-like noise I’m hearing sounds like it’s coming from a public address system on the roof of the tree house.

Someone hands me a pair of binoculars, and I look back at the broccoli tree. Sure enough, there they are: long armed black silhouettes, swinging back and forth on branches, and singing as they go.

*          *          *

About ten years ago, I went on a whale watching boat trip up the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. After the tour boat had taken our money and pushed off the dock, the guides immediately started hedging their bets to tamp down any inflated expectations about actually seeing any whales on the whale watching boat trip. 

“You know, zee humback and zee minke whales can be very shy,” our adorable French-Canadian whale guide announced to the boat through a portable microphone. “Sometimes we will not zee deese whales for many days.”

Many days, huh? Oh well. For fifty bucks, I guess you still get a nice boat ride.

Yet despite the disclaimers, within a half hour a monstrous tail fin flipped out of the water, less than fifty feet from the port side of the boat. Geysers erupted out of blowholes on the starboard. People ran from side to side, yelling and pointing cameras. Against all odds we had somehow hit the minke whale mother load. Our guide began babbling in barely intelligible Franglish, like Celine Dion had just won the Mega Millions jackpot.

“We never zee such tings like this,” she choked out, on the verge of tears. “We are really, really, really, very rotten spoiled.”

*          *          *

I think about the minke whale explosion as I sit in Laos watching the swinging silhouettes through the binoculars. No, the gibbons are not exactly hanging out with us in the tree house. But I can see them, albeit from a distance. And I damn sure can hear them.

So maybe we are only mildly rotten spoiled. But still.

There are less than 2,000 of these long-armed, branch-swinging, monogamous, musically inclined primates left on the planet. And I’m one of a handful of people on Earth that will ever be close enough in a forest to hear them sing.

I have to think that alone is worth the price of the boat ride.

*          *          *

We’ve spent three days in the jungle, hiking and zipping and spotting the occasional gibbon in the distance. The prospect of the trip back is disheartening, because after a bone-jarring hour over a rutted dirt road, followed by a drive through a river, a stop at the ice cream/scorpion whiskey store, and an hour and a half drive on a twisty Laotian highway, we’ll be back in grungy Huay Xai, instead of on our way to meet the gibbons.

We stuff the Tree House Seven into the back of a single tuk tuk, along with our back packs, and (for reasons never fully explained) several bags of rice. There are liters of Beer Lao to lessen the pain of leaving, and a satisfaction of knowing that, even if we do nothing else the rest of our lives, at least we’ve done this.

“I have the feeling that in ten years time this road will be paved,” Paul says, holding a bottle of beer as our tuk-tuk bounces us back toward semi-civilization. “There will be a big neon sign at the turn off, pointing the tourists toward the ticket booth at the entrance to Gibbon Land.”

He might be right. Personally I could do without the hoards of tourists, the neon signs, and even the paved road. But I do hope that in ten years’ time the gibbons will be still here. Singing their bizarre car-alarm siren songs, and swinging in their broccoli trees, hundreds of yards from the tree house.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Lost City of Pisco Sours

Tessa and I have been climbing Mount Machu Picchu for more than an hour. The view below us is obscured by clouds. The view above us is obscured by clouds. You get the idea. Essentially we’re just climbing in clouds.

I am in the Andes, hiking some 8,000 feet above sea level. Machu Picchu – the famed “Lost City of the Incas” – sits somewhere a thousand feet below us.  It feels like I’ve landed in the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although I have to say, I’m currently much less worried about rolling boulders and poison darts than I am about dropping dead of a heart attack.

“The top has to be around this next corner,” Tessa says, as I huff my way up the ridiculously steep stone steps a few yards behind her. I said the same thing twenty minutes ago. When one of us repeats it again in a half hour we’ll still be wrong.

I nod and wipe away a small river of sweat running down my forehead. Tessa has a concerned look on her face, as if trying to envision how she’s going to manage to carry my corpse down the mountain.

Tessa is a 20-year-old student from Denver, currently studying in Buenos Aires. She had some free time so she decided to fly to Bolivia and take a bus through the Andes to see Machu Picchu. I won’t tell you exactly what I was doing with my free time when I was 20, but it usually involved a couch, a remote control, and a carton of Marlboro Lights.

“Maybe we should stop and rest a bit,” Tessa says. She’s barely out of breath, so I know she is just being considerate of her somewhat older hiking companion. She is also polite enough not to say, “Maybe we should stop and rest a bit, Grandpa.

“I’m fine,” I say gamely. But there’s that look on her face again. “Okay,” I say, leaning against the side of a rock. “Maybe just a few minutes.” 

*          *          *

Peru in general, and the area around Machu Picchu in particular - is amazingly beautiful. Yes, I’ve seen mountains before. I’ve seen high mountains before.  But the lush, jungle covered peaks towering over the Urubamba River take stunning to an entirely new level. It’s pretty easy to see why the Incas named this the Sacred Valley, and decided it would be good place to set up an empire.

I know none of this going in. Even though Machu Picchu is world famous, like most Americans I am woefully ignorant about the country and the culture. I vaguely recall something about llamas, pan flutes, and runways built for ancient astronauts. And oh yeah, the Pisco Sour. Big fan of the Pisco Sour.

*          *          *

You are forgiven if you didn’t know that Pisco is a brandy made in Peru and parts of Chile. You might be able to order a Pisco Sour in certain American bars uppity enough to stock the main ingredient (i.e., Pisco), but I doubt you’ll find it on the laminated menu at TGI Friday’s.

In addition to Pisco, the Pisco Sour includes lemon juice, sugar, and a little raw egg white. If you like your beverages without egg froth, or if you are just a salmonella-phobe in general, this is may not be your drink. My advice, however, is to get over it. You risk a lot more gastro-intestinal distress for a lot less reward at the Taco Bell drive-thru.

I first encounter the authentic Peruvian version of the Pisco Sour on the drink-special placards lining the main pedestrian gauntlet of Aguas Calientes, a small town at the base of Machu Picchu. The battle for the tourist dollar is fierce here, with hawkers jumping into the street and trying every English word they know to suck you in to their restaurant. Every hour must be happy, because the “Happy Hour Specials” go on all day.

I see the restaurant directly outside my hotel offers two Pisco Sours for the price of one. Not bad, but I think I can do better. Farther down the hill I spot a place where the offer is three for the price of one. When I eventually reach a restaurant where the going rate is four for one, I decide it’s time to stop for dinner.

*          *          *

I came to Peru with only a vague idea of how to even get to Machu Picchu. After landing in Lima and sleeping a few hours I hop a small plane to the city of Cusco, which, on the map at least, seems to be in Machu Picchu’s general neighborhood. It’s still 70 miles away. I’m told that normally you can take a train from Cusco to the base of Machu Picchu. Except during the rainy season. And yes of course, it is currently the rainy season.

However, if you can make it to the little town of Ollantaytambo about 35 miles up the road, you can take the train the rest of the way up the valley to Aguas Calientes. Getting to Ollantaytambo? The travel options to Ollantaytambo are: a) a very expensive taxi ride, or b) a very cheap ride on a collectivo.

A collectivo is essentially an unmarked white van that drives around a particular neighborhood of Cusco with a driver yelling “Ollantaytambo! Diez soles!” I find the neighborhood, waive down the white van and pay my ten soles (about $3.00), because I am that very special combination of both “trusting” and “cheap.” After a couple of trips around the block several locals and a few other backpacking foreigners hop on the collectivo, my only assurance that a kidnapping is not taking place.

After winding through the city, the collectivo begins to climb a steep hill. We are on a road that looks like it cannot possibly be the road to anywhere, other than to a good spot to dump the bodies. The van weaves through a canyon of half-completed houses, swerving around potholes, stray dogs, and several free-range chickens.

Finally we crest the hill and turn onto “the main road.” It looks pretty much like the previous road, except that now there are four lanes instead of two. What do you want for $3.00? I hold on to the door handle as the collectivo turns right, and drives me into the Andes.

*          *          *

I finally reach Aguas Calientes by train the next day. I am so lazy and indifferent to planning or research that I don’t learn until I arrive that you have to buy a Machu Picchu ticket at an office in town before going to the ruins. In the high season, they can actually sell out weeks in advance. There is no such thing as a walk-up sale.

The tickets for Machu Picchu are multi-tiered and expensive, ranging from around $75 just to visit the ruins, to $85 or more if you want to visit the ruins and climb one of the two mountains at the site.

Do you want to climb Machu Picchu Mountain? the woman at the ticket office asks me. 

For an extra ten bucks? Sure, why not. It’s just a mountain, 9,000 feet up in the Andes.

How hard can it be?

*          *          *

Mount Machu Picchu is the highest of two peaks towering over the Machu Picchu ruins, with a summit of 3,082 meters (9,276 feet). It is the only mountain I’ve ever heard of that has actual hours of operation, roughly equating to that of a bank lobby on Saturday. The mountain is only “open” – in the sense that you can only start climbing it - from seven to eleven in the morning. The logic is not initially clear to me, but I later suspect this is done to give the authorities time to clear the bodies off the trail before dinnertime.

In addition to the admission ticket, yet another ticket is needed for a bus from Aguas Calientes up to the gates of Machu Picchu. A round-trip bus ticket cost $24, which deeply offends my cheapskate sensibility. I decide to get a one-way ticket for $12, and walk back down into town when I’m finished. You can’t walk downhill? What, are your legs broken?

I meet my de facto hiking buddy Tessa for the first time on the 7 a.m. bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. At the entrance to the trail up Mount Machu Picchu Mountain, we are required to sign a ledger that lists our name, address, passport number, and age.

I see Tessa’s age when she signs in. The shoes I’m wearing may in fact be older than Tessa.

I actually have completed a few marathons in my day (none in this particular decade, no), and I like to think of myself as reasonably fit, with reasonableness being a relative concept. But climbing Mount Machu Picchu makes me feel like a two-pack-a-day smoker at the Empire State Building who decided to take the stairs. 

Maybe the Incas were exceptionally tall, because the stone steps of the trail seem twice as high as steps used by normal humans. We are nearly alone on the trail. Even at one of the most visited tourist sites in the world, there are very few others bold or stupid enough to be climbing this particular mountain at eight in the morning.

It takes an hour and forty-five minutes to reach the summit. We’re now above the clouds, but nearly everything below remains obscured. No sign of Machu Picchu. When we arrive about a dozen other hikers are at the summit, sitting and waiting. I am the oldest in attendance by a good 25 years.  A group of young Argentines we passed on the trail arrive after us. They immediately plop on the ground and fire up a doobie.

An hour later the clouds are still there, and Tessa and I are about to conclude that we climbed the mountain for nothing. But then it happens. The clouds part - as if in a dream sequence accompanied by harp music - and the ruins of Machu Picchu appear, a few thousand feet below. 

Not many people in the world will ever have this view. Totally worth the threat of cardiac arrest.

*          *          *
After taking a few thousand pictures Tessa and I head down the mountain toward the ruins. As we start off, “down” seems like a magical word, the good ying to the evil yang of “up.” But the steep stone steps begin to inflict a pounding on my legs, first in the quads and then to my knees. Why do I have the sense that I’m going to feel this later?

I also get another sense as we make our way down the mountain. I’ve been drinking a lot of water, and I haven’t peed since, oh, I don’t know, six thirty in the morning. It’s now close to noon. Granted, almost all liquid left my body in the form of sweat during the assent a few hours ago, but my bladder is letting me know that its patience is nearing an end.

“The first thing I probably need to do once we get down,” I tell Tessa, “is find a bathroom.”

She nods, but imagine she is ticking off one more box on the checklist in her head entitled “Reasons Not to Hike With the Elderly.”

*          *          *

Here is one of the Mysteries of Machu Picchu that you probably did not read about in your ninth-grade history book: There are no bathrooms on the grounds of Machu Picchu. They do have llamas. Llamas, but no bathrooms.

I go another two hours exploring the ancient ruins with Tessa and the other tourists, instructing my bladder to stop bothering me because there’s not a damn thing I can do about it at the moment. I’m not leaving, and no, bladder, I’m not taking a leak behind a thousand-year-old Inca sun temple as you have suggested. Just hang on.

Tessa and I eventually part ways and I head for the entrance/exit, where bathrooms are mercifully located. It’s now well after 2:00 p.m. I make a mental note to check later and see if I just set some kind of urine-retention endurance record.

*          *          *

The ruins of Machu Picchu truly are amazing, but my walk back down to Aguas Calientes becomes my own personal Highway to Hell.  The feeling in my knees goes from discomfort to stabbing pain. Every downward step feels like arthroscopic surgery without anesthesia.

I start on the trail to Aguas Calientes with another hiking buddy, a young Bolivian woman now living in Atlanta, but she abandons me halfway down for two much-less-hobbled Colombian girls.  I send them off with an exhausted “Go on, save yourselves” waive.

I’ve never had any problems with my knees, but I’m now afraid that a single day at Machu Picchu has crippled me for life, the victim of some long-standing Inca curse. Even as I reach level ground it’s still another half hour walk into town. Yes, I do realize my error in judgment: a $12 return bus ticket probably is less expensive than the wheelchair I’m likely to need for the next six months.

Still, I drag myself into Agua Calientes a proud man. I climbed a mountain at Machu Friggin’ Picchu, damn it. On a full bladder!

At least I’ll have that story to entertain my rehab nurses.

*          *          *

You know what really relieves the aches and pains of a day of climbing up and down Mount Machu Picchu? A four-for-one Pisco Sour drink special!

Maybe a couple of drink specials.

*          *          *

It’s warm and steamy back in Lima, especially compared to the mountain climate I’ve been living in for the past week. It took a few days, but I am now walking again without whimpering or using a cane.

I have one day left in Peru before I take a ridiculously early (or is it ridiculously late?) flight home at 1:45 the next morning.  In two weeks I have seen stunning mountains and mind-boggling ruins and dazzling postcard sunsets over the ocean.

I vow to spend my last day doing something equally auspicious. I step out into the tropical humidity to locate the source of what I have deemed to be Peru’s greatest contribution to modern society. I set out for Old Lima, to find the birthplace of the Pisco Sour.

The story goes that the Pisco Sour was invented in the early 20th Century by an American named Victor Morris, who came to Peru to work on the railroad but ended up behind a bar instead. He took a Whiskey Sour recipe, replaced the Whiskey with Pisco, and a hundred years later I’m buying four of Victor’s drinks for the price of one at the foot of Machu Picchu.

I for one am thankful that the railroad gig didn’t work out.

I have it on the authority of two Lima taxi drivers (and that’s pretty much all the authority that I need) that Morris invented his drink in the bar of the Hotel Maury, located on the edge of the Old City. I envision a grand, ornate, turn-of-the-century luxury hotel, with a bronze plaque discreetly posted in an opulent, red-carpeted lobby marking the historical significance of the site.

At least I got the plaque part right.

It’s 92 in the shade as I wind my way through the noonday crowds toward the Hotel Maury. I see from my map that the hotel is a few blocks up ahead on the corner of Jirón Ucuyali and Jirón Carabaya, just on the edge of the Lima’s historic center. I put away the map, as I’m sure such a venerable, historic attraction will be easy to spot.

Instead, what I spot in the street ahead are metal barricades, blocking the way in to the historic center. About a half dozen helmeted police with stun guns and Plexiglas shields are standing at the barricade, as if the shit is expected to go down before lunchtime.

What the hell?

I take a right, a left and another left, looking for a non-barricaded way into the Plaza de Armas. It’s the same set up on the street leading in from the east: barricade, police, riot shields, stun guns. The next street I try is exactly the same.

I look over my shoulder for a hoard of protestors or terrorists or disgruntled pensioners ready to storm the Bastille. With the exception of a couple of street kids banging on drums for change, the anarchy is non-existent.

And despite the disproportionate show of force, I see the police are letting some people through the barricades into the plaza. I shrug and decide to give it a shot. If I can get through they’ll let anybody in.

I’m expecting a question, or a request for an ID, or something, but I’m waived through the barricaded gate without incident. Apparently I don’t look sufficiently disgruntled to alarm anyone.

*          *          *

After eating lunch and kicking around the Plaza de Armas a while, I resume my interrupted search for the Hotel Maury. I find Jirón Carabaya and walk toward the first police barricade I encountered, this time from the inside.  The barricade is still there, but no longer guarded. The police appear to literally be Out to Lunch, Plexiglas shields left leaning against a building unattended.

Apparently the riot has been canceled due to lack of outrage.

I look at the street signs. I am at the corner of Jirón Ucuyali and Jirón Carabaya, exactly where the Hotel Maury is supposed to be. But there is no grand, ornate, turn-of-the-century luxury hotel anywhere in sight. What I see instead is a dusty, nearly abandoned looking building with an ugly 1970s façade. A dirty glass door and two darkened windows are shaded by black awnings covered with bird shit and what looks like a good forty years of accumulated urban grime.

The windows are blocked with cardboard placards making it is impossible to see inside. One placard proclaims “Pisco Es Peru!” The other appears to say “Pisco Sour El Tro,” although the last word is essentially unreadable. I now see the bronze placard next to the doorway. This is indeed the side (and currently locked) entrance of the famed Bar Maury, birthplace of the Pisco Sour.

The Hotel Maury’s main entrance around the corner is every bit as sad, with about a dozen tattered international flags hanging limply over the awning, as if the hotel is prepared to surrender in twelve different languages.

Of course I’m going in. Although I admit that part of me wonders if during Happy Hour at the Hotel Maury every Pisco Sour comes with a complimentary prostitute.

The lobby inside is dark and apparently “under construction,” for how long would be anyone’s guess. It’s hard for me to believe that anything in the hotel is actually open for business, but sure enough, through the darkness I see a doorway leading into what looks suspiciously like a bar.

I head for the lighted entrance, halfway expecting the sound of gunplay.

*          *          *
Remember in The Wizard of Oz when everything is in black and white, until Dorothy crashes the house and opens the door to a fantastic Technicolor world of singing flowers and dancing Munchkins? It’s a little like that walking from the lobby into the bar of the Hotel Maury. Except in place of the Lollipop Guild is a bartender named Alejandro.

Incredibly, the interior of the Hotel Maury bar looks as if it has been transported straight out of a Hemingway novel, with a polished bar top, brass foot rails, a carved wooden ceiling and a wall of large, turn-of-the-century oil paintings. If Hollywood were to build a stage set of the Birthplace of the Pisco Sour, it would look exactly like this.

How something this amazing can possibly exist inside a building that from the outside looks like a place you rent by the hour to shoot up heroin is a greater mystery than the absence of bathrooms at Machu Picchu.

Thirsty and still in a bit of a daze, I ask Alejandro if he can make me a Pisco Sour.

Of course, he tells me in Spanish. They were invented here, you know.

Yes, I’ve heard that.

Just one more story they’ll never believe when I tell it thirty years from now, again and again, down at the old folks home.