Continued from Railway in the Sky
When we arrived at Riobamba, the effects of altitude hit us as we stepped down from the train. The slightest exertion made us feel weak and unsteady. Obviously, we were in no condition to embark on a mountain trek. Carlos merely nodded, and made the necessary arrangements.
We rested two days in a primitive hotel, drinking cocoa tea to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. On the third day Carlos returned with three stout campesinos, each leading a comical, long-necked pack animal. Two of the animals were loaded with supplies, and the third was harnessed to carry our gear. By this time our heads were beginning to clear.
The first week passed without incident, as we wound our way through alpine fields and across mountain slopes. Our heading was South and then East, deeper into the Andes. We hiked in single file, with Carlos in front and the campesinos and pack animals behind. The scenery was spectacular; I’d seen nothing like it, except once on vacation in Austria as a boy.
We traveled further each day as our bodies grew accustomed to the altitude. After about 10 days the headaches became infrequent, and we started to truly enjoy the journey. Carlos proved to be an experienced mountain guide, and taught us to deal with the uncertainty of high mountain weather. The nights were quite cold, and we often found ourselves huddled together in sleep.
Carlos spoke English with us, and in a rapid, local dialect with the campesinos. Otto, Pavel and I used English for the most part, although Otto insisted that we switch to Czech from time to time.
There was ample opportunity to share stories of our war-time experiences. Some of Otto’s tales were quite fantastic, and I doubted there was much truth in them. I thought he was spinning a yarn to rival my accounts of aerial combat over the Channel. Of course, I discovered later that at least some of his story was true. In fact, I still have the evidence.