Gringo Manaba

Adventuras y Fantasias or Fantastical Adventures


  • December 2005
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Breathless in the Andes

Posted by glasscastle on December 23rd, 2005

A scary episode night before last. Up here at almost
10,000 feet, at the very edge of access to Western medicine, we suddenly found we couldn’t

It woke us up in the middle of the night, the feeling that we couldn’t
fill our lungs up, that we were underwater, that we were suffocating.
After a few moments of panic we turned on the naked bulb hanging from
the ceiling of our simple adobe cottage by twisting it in its socket.
Sitting up in bed, we could breath fine, but every time we tried to lie
belly down, our customary sleeping position, we just couldn’t fill our
lungs, and felt that suffocating feeling and accompanying panic, coming
over us again.

Soroche, or altitude sickness, is common at this altitude, although
not usually severe. It is marked by lightheadedness and headaches.  However,
it usually comes on as soon as someone reaches these altitudes, and diminished
in a few days. We have been up at this height for a week now, and never
suffered from acute soroche in the past, although we have been up to
5,200 meters, about 17.000 feet.

But we were spooked. Not being able to breath, especially so far from
the nearest medical auxiliary, is no laughing matter. We found we felt
fine sitting up, standing and walking, and even laying flat on our back,
we could breath fine.  But once we flipped over onto our stomach,
or even side, into an acceptable sleeping position, we couldn’t breath.

Shitting upright at 3:30 in the morning in a tiny Indian crossroads
two miles up the side of a snow-capped volcano, we began to have wild,
fears. Maybe we have pneumonia, and our lungs are slowly filling with
liquid so that soon we wouldn’t be able to breath in ANY position! Where
is the nearest place to get a chest x-ray, and how can we get there,
and what time do they open and how much will it cost? Should we borrow
our son’s cell phone to place a long-distance international call to Cambridge
Family Health in Inman Square? In order to get our of this valley, one
has to go UP, back over the Olympic pass
at over
13,000 feet. Would we make it, with or without oxygen. There is an airport
in the valley, but no regular flights – charter’s only.  How much
would a medical evacuation cost?

Now, a day later, all this seems ridiculous, but as any asthmatic will
tell you, not being able to breath is one of the most terrifying sensations
in the world.  At the time, we merely endeavored to pass the hours
until the rest of the people woke up.  We finished last Sunday’s
New York Times Magazine we had been carrying all over two continents.
We watched the second half of "Slingblade" on our laptop. Why do so many
of the greatest actors of our generation (Hoffman, DiCaprio, DiNero)
get off on playing retarded guys? Aren’t there any retarded actors to
play those parts? What about Tom Cruise?) Finally morning came and after
a hot shower, a hot cafe con leche and a cold glass of fresh-squeezed
orange juice, we felt absolutely normal, although a little bushed from
the short night of sleep.

Our current thinking on this disturbing nocturnal episode is that it
was related to something that happened while we were asleep. Within the
belief-system of the people and the place where we are now, there was
something, or someone, waiting for us in the dreamworld, intending to
do us harm. A malevolent spirit, or a shaman contracted by an enemy,
waiting to attack us in our dreams, so our wiser self refused to let
fall back into the dreamworld.

A more scientific interpretation of the same theory would say we were
having a bad dream so our body resorted to a self-defense mechanism which
did not allow us to assume a comfortable sleeping position. That same
afternoon we were able to take a nap, and last night we slept like a

Four more nights up at altitude and we are back down to sea level, first
a bus to Lima and then an internal flight to Tumbes, a rather funky little
smugglers city near the border between Peru and Ecuador. The plan is
to cross the border overland and arrive in Guayaquil on Thursday. Friday
to Manta, and the beach and the tennis court, and the mystery of the
missing mercenaries.