A Gringo’s Guide to Altitude Sickness (for the Modern Self-Affirming Woman)

I walked out of Cusco airport confidently, with backpacks on back and front, passport in hand and a sense of wonder in my heart. I got a brief look at the mountains surrounding the area and had a chance to marvel at them for a split second. Then I walked back into the airport, and out again, but this time through the correct exit.

My taxi was waiting to pick me up, I met my driver with no problems and had my first conversation in Spanish. Soon enough, I was in a darkened hostel room and ready to sleep off my jetlag, and a particularly nasty headache which I attributed to the altitude. That was the last of it, until the next day, when I nearly passed out at dinner. And then again the next morning. And the evening after I felt pretty rough too. You get the idea. Altitude doesn’t really seem to get along with my body.

Almost a week in though, I feel confident that the worst is over and that my body is adjusting. It hasn’t been a week without its lessons though, and I thought I’d include some below for your reading pleasure.

  1. DRINK. Hydration seems to be the key to overcoming altitude sickness, at least in the beginning. I average about 3 litres a day in England so increasing that was incredibly difficult and I’ve spent a large percentage of my time here needing a wee, but it’s worth it to not feel like shit.
  2. COCA. It’s not cocaine, nor what cocaine is made from. It’s a sacred leaf which grows in the mountains and it makes really good tea. Coffee is, unfortunately, a strict no-no (I know right??) so I’ve replaced my morning cup with a massive mug of coca tea and just had to get over my longing for the coffee-and-blog-post-writing aesthetic. It will probably make a reappearance when I’m a few thousand metres closer to sea level.
  3. IT AIN’T YO’ FAULT. This is where the self-affirmation comes in. As the relatively fit, pole-dancing yogi that I am in England, I was pretty upset when it seemed that I was coping worse than anyone else in my volunteering group – getting out of breath quicker, feeling sick more often and just generally feeling like I’d lost any sort of cardio work that I’d done in, like, ever. BUT IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THAT. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, no matter age, size or fitness. Even people who have lived here all their lives get it. So hold your chin up high, remember to breathe and just take it easy when you’re climbing stairs (or just doing anything that isn’t lying down and waiting for The Emperor’s New Groove to load on Putlocker, in my case).
  4. IF THE WORST COMES TO. This is me, at dinner, having just finished some soup and feeling fine until suddenly, I don’t. I feel unbearably hot, faint, panicky and nauseous. It’s what Peruvians call Sorojchi, and it basically just translates to “worst thing ever”. It’s grim. You can fix it by getting horizontal, fast (before your body makes you do it by passing out), drinking tea with lots of sugar (and I mean A LOT) and maybe a Coca Candy (boiled sweets which I luckily like, because I’ve had to eat a hell of a lot of them).
A cup of (very clear) Coca tea, which was given to us by the locals in Pongobamba after we’d helped them plant some trees

So, these are the lessons I’ve learned so far. Also that I’m not invincible, and I shouldn’t pretend to be. Accepting help from those locals in the know has been one of the main things that has got me through this week. I’m looking forward to the lessons I’ll learn come Monday.

– The Bechdel Bitch Abroad

P.S. “Gringo” is Latin American slang, essentially meaning “an idiot abroad”. Which I definitely am.

P.P.S. Sorry, mum and dad for not telling you all about my struggles so far. I didn’t want you to worry (also I’m fine now). Love you <3

I MET SOME ALPACAS (photo taken by the lovely Anik)

1 thought on “A Gringo’s Guide to Altitude Sickness (for the Modern Self-Affirming Woman)”

  1. Brilliantly written Rosie. Hopefully it’ll get easier over time … Carry on being fantastic! Lots of love Xxx ________________________________

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