Oxygen for soroche
By Toh Hsien Min
For the second year in a row, the combination of too much leave going into November and the prospect of the northern hemisphere winter saw me heading to South America. The almost three weeks in Chile in the previous year had turned out to be intensely memorable, in no small part for a glimpse into a culture that is relatively little understood in this corner of the world, but also for the raw majesty of the fjords of northern Patagonia, the breathtaking Torres del Paine and the simple homeliness of Chilean Tierra del Fuego. You could say I was hooked. So when I was casting around for a destination last October, Peru seemed the obvious candidate.
When I finally deplaned in Cusco after another marathon set of flights and fought off the instantaneous earth-swirling giddiness of high altitude, it was at once evident to me how different a country Peru was. There was more poverty, as was evident from how some of the buildings on the outskirts of Cusco resembled melting clay, and more inequality, which would be eventually epitomised by the Larcomar mall in Miraflores, Lima, being virtually indistinguishable from those in Singapore. But what I sensed fairly quickly was that on the whole Peruvians were considerably less relaxed than their neighbours. Or perhaps I was less relaxed, having read all manner of travel advisories about the country. A Peruvian living in Singapore had told me, while shrugging off the risk: "with Singaporean standards of security every place looks dangerous". But the danger seemed all too real when at Cusco airport someone pretended to be the driver I had arranged and would have taken my bag except that I stopped him and asked him what my destination was. Apparently he had read my name off a board held up by the real driver outside, and had put it together with there only being one Asian at baggage reclaim. Worse was to come; in the central market in Puno a week later, I had to fend off an attempted robbery.
Incidents like these tend to leave a bad taste in the mouth and colour an individual's view of a country, but when the kindness comes it comes with all the more weight for that. In the thirty hours before I flew I had a catalogue of fourteen things to do, not including packing, and as a result I had forgotten to pack the charger for my camera battery. After Machu Picchu, my first camera battery was down to its last bar, and I still had the most of two weeks to go, so my priority when I got back to Cusco was to buy a charger. The photographic supplies shop I stopped at, on the corner of San Bernardo and Almagro, where I had previously bought a UV filter to replace one I broke, didn't have a charger in stock, and I was starting to despair as it wasn't clear to me where I might get one before reaching Arequipa or Lima. On top of that, it had begun hailing outside, and I was starting to feel the symptoms of altitude sickness taking hold after a respite in the lower Sacred Valley.
This was when things took a remarkable turn. The lady in the shop looked at me, and understood my anxiety. She had a battery charger, only it was not for sale. Leave your battery with me, she said, through a translation from another customer, and come back later in the evening. I'll have it ready for you. When I returned to the shop a little over an hour later, she refused to accept any payment. So I gave her a two Singapore dollar note, and said, this is not payment, this is from my country, and is a gesture of my appreciation. God bless you, she said. In that moment, all of Peru was made whole for me, and I learnt anew that kindness is infinitely more potent than any evil.
This issue was a little bit more complicated than usual to put together. My year at work has started with a vengeance, on top of which one of our reviews editors had decamped to China and the other had problems with her email. So what looked like a promising issue for reviews was a little bit trickier to put together than expected. We made it, nevertheless, if only on the last day, with a good range of reviews besides what is already looking like a valuable regular roundup feature. In poetry, there was a small crop, and we seemed to have trouble finding a good batch to put together until some late edits on certain poems came together to ensure a thematic flow in the selection. Likewise, the short stories were few, but nicely formed. Perhaps that's all one can ask for - not perfection, but little nodes of good to balance out the challenges.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 1 Jan 2016