From InterExchange Working Abroad Ambassador Tom, Volunteer in Peru:
Reason for selecting the Working Abroad Volunteer Peru program: The summer break between my first and second year of med school is effectively the last summer break of my life -- so I wanted to really make it count. I wanted to improve my Spanish-speaking abilities, and the only way that could be possible is by immersing myself in Spanish-speaking country and forcing myself into situations that made speaking Spanish a necessity. Therefore, much to the dismay of my parents, I decided to travel by myself to Perú for a rather extended period of time.
Name(s): Tom Hu (Last name is pronounced like the word 'who' -- cue knock knock jokes), Tomothy, Tomás/Tomasito
Profession: Rising 2nd year medical student
My InterExchange Program: An 8-week cultural immersion program consisting of 4 weeks of Spanish classes and 4 weeks of volunteering
ARRIVAL IN PERÚ:
Not going to lie, flying to Cusco is a rather exhausting journey no matter where in the U.S. you fly from. My point of origin being Detroit, Michigan, it took me a total of approximately 21 hours to finally arrive in Cusco. On a side note: having to wait 4 and a half hours in Dallas Fort Worth airport was surprisingly painless -- Netflix + Free airport Wi-Fi + super accessible charging stations = all caught up on Season 1 of House of Cards.
But I digress -- you are almost guaranteed an overnight wait in Lima (the capital of Perú), because by the time you arrive in Lima, you will have already missed the early morning Cusco flights. There is no free internet in the Lima airport, but you can buy Wi-Fi cards for cheap! Which brings me to my very first....
TRIP TIP #1: Check out the following link for great ways to spend time in Lima during your layover -- I wish I had: http://www.layoverguide.com/2012/02/layover-in-lima-peru.html
I am fairly exhausted upon arriving in Cusco because none of my individual flights and layovers afford me much time for a solid chunk of sleep. Thankfully, my general surplus of excitement from being in Perú is enough to keep me awake for the the first day. An Amauta representative, Ronald, is outside of the airport waiting for me with a large handwritten sign, and after waiting for several other Amauta students to arrive in Cusco, we are on our way in a taxi to our respective host families/residence halls!
At about 8:30 a.m., I am dropped off at La Urbanización Marcavalle (essentially the neighborhood of Marcavalle), walked to my host family's home and introduced to my host mom (who is found hosing down a public community garden area outside her home). After bringing my luggage upstairs into my room, I am given a quick tour of the home by Monica, my host mom! I have my own room with multiple dressers, cabinets and a rather cute twin bed covered in five layers of bedsheets/blankets/quilts. There are also the essentials—bathroom with a hot water shower, lots of lights, secure doors and windows. Jorge, my host dad, turns out to be a fantastic dancer and offers to teach me the salsa, cumbia, merengue, tango and various other popular dances!
All in all, I am very pleasantly surprised with my accommodations, my general anxieties about safety are assuaged and I am super excited about eventually learning all of the local dances at a future time when walking up a flight of stairs doesn't prompt a surge of serious doubt in ones cardiovascular health. Why, you may ask? Well... This is a perfect time to segue into a discussion about...
ALTITUDE SICKNESS (Otherwise known locally as "Soroche")
What is altitude sickness? First, the medical answer.
It's basically a collection of symptoms that result from rapidly ascending to altitudes of 2500 meters or greater, due to the lower air pressures of oxygen. Just for reference, Machu Picchu is around 2400m, Cusco around 3400m, and Lake Titicaca around 3800m!
Mild symptoms include headache, nausea, drowsiness, shortness of breath after physical exertion, dizziness or general fatigue. These typically go away after a few days, as your body acclimatizes to the lower oxygen pressures, but can worsen with overexertion, dehydration, alcohol consumption, etc. Some people, including myself apparently, can have an increased individual susceptibility to altitude sickness.
And my personal experience with el soroche?
I must admit, I am surprised when by my third day in Cusco, I am pretty much unable to walk up the stairs to my bedroom without immediately having to lie down on my bed and gasp like a fish out of water for a good minute. Me?! I mean come on! I am like, super healthy! Eh, kinda. Either way, I am extremely jealous of the other students, some of which are able to run laps around La Plaza de Armas on their second day. The local cure for altitude sickness symptoms is mate de coca, which is an herbal tea made from coca leaves. Needless to say, I drink mate de coca like it's my job. Thankfully, my host family has a huge jar of coca leaves, specifically for this purpose.
So I read in my guidebook that, in severe cases of altitude sickness, one can develop pulmonary and cerebral edema (basically extra fluid in lungs or pressure in the brain) which worries me a great deal, considering by the second night, I wake up frequently short of breath and, very audibly, with fluid in my lungs. The third day is not much better, with the only difference being an additional headache that doesn't appear to go away unless I take rather large doses of Advil Liqui-gels. At this point, I am pretty much kicking myself for thinking that I wouldn't need altitude medications, for not simply resting my first few days, and in general, for having a Superman complex. Note to self: I am not Superman.
Moral(s) of the story:
* Altitude sickness can affect anyone, regardless of physical fitness or prior preparation. It pays to stay on the cautious side!
* Don't push yourself those first few days. Taking a couple of days off just walking on flat ground and relaxing with an overabundance of bottles of water can prevent a lot of future discomfort (and monetary expenses).
* Drink a ton of mate de coca.
Update on general health and other exciting things soon!