´Did you pay the extra for fancy gear?’ asked one of the girls in my group as I pulled on a full face helmet. ´Because we get to wear these ones´, she said, pointing to a pile of standard helmets. ´Nope,´ I said, ´I´m with you guys. Nothing fancy for me.´ I took off the comfortable protective headgear and wandered over to where the majority of the group were gathered.
In hindsight, maybe I should have paid the extra for the upgrade.
We had spent two hours in the minibus travelling away from Cusco along gravelly roads and through passes cut out into the mountainside. The further we got from Cusco, the more lush it got, huge mountains covered in a dry, dense greeny-yellow blanket, red earthy rock faces exposed intermittently.
The road had followed along the bottom of the valley and close to the train tracks leading to Machu Picchu, but once we passed by the busy little town of Ollantaytambo we started to climb into and above patches of misty cloud. The road became yet more windy, twisting and turning back on itself, making for a lengthy ascent. The rain became heavier, adding fat splashes to little mountaintop pools. By the time we reached our intended drop off point at 4,350m, Rodrigo, our guide had pretty much decided that we should drive down a little further to see if the rain would ease lower down. No one argued with him. The driver crossed himself a few times before we started to descend at speeds that would be considered fast on a dry day. Maybe the crossing stopped us from slipping off of the road, or maybe we were just lucky.
At the new start point we donned raincoats and got kitted out with helmets and mountain bikes. Everyone also got a reflective safety vest to wear over the top, and it was only as I was flying down the hill, barely able to see for the rain and the spray in my face, that I realised I was without. A second sign? On flatter sections I peddled along, wriggling my toes in the puddles that had formed in my shoes and moving my fingers to stop them freezing up. Some people´s brakes were dodgy, another person´s chain was loose, but my bike was tickety-boo.
A few people bailed and jumped back in the van that was trailing us, but I was soaked through already and decided to stick with it. Taking corners carefully, I rode on through big pools of water and saw how the runoff from the road channelled down thick concrete drains. One wrong move, I thought, and one of us could fall into there and end up in a mess.
A friend was having a few issues with his bike and the support team gave him a hand. I slowed down a little and glanced back to see where he was at… and then everything went slow mo as my front wheel hit the lip and I met the concrete head first.
My head bounced about in the half metre deep channel, my face smashed into something, my nose bent and my limbs collapsed, tangled in my bike. I started to move. I could see, my eyes were okay. Relief. I clambered up and out of the ditch and touched my nose. Surely it was broken? And the rest? I could stand. My arms and back were okay. My jaw and teeth were intact. And although there was blood, I was alive.
Later that day at the hostel in the little, muddy jungle village of Santa Maria I assessed the damage. Cuts and scrapes on my hip, bit of a mashed up elbow, bruises and deep grazes on my leg, a bit of a headache and sore teeth. And a fat, cut and blocked nose. But not broken.
People monitored me for symptoms of concussion and came with plasters and ointments and arnica. I barely knew these guys, yet they wanted to help to make me feel better and to check that I was okay. After a bit of flatness in the week leading up to the trek, it was a little reminder of just how good and kind people can be (maybe too sickly for some of you, but in a moment like this, allow me some saccharine).
It could have been so much worse. It was one of those times where you´re reminded of just how quickly your life could completely change. My first thought when I crashed out was ´thank f*** for the helmet´. Without it, this would have undoubtedly been a whole different travel story.
That night it took a while to unwind but I finally fell asleep to the sound of rain pattering on the roof and the lullaby of crickets chirping and frogs croaking. What a crazy day.