A tale of two British-Pakistani sisters in Peru

January 22, 2018

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The writer (left) with her sister.
The writer (left) with her sister.

This is about my sister. My big, little sister. Big, because she’s older than me by 14 years. Little, because she comes up to my shoulders, making her pint-sized and rather cute.

She and I have a special relationship. As a child she was very much the surrogate mother to me.

She bathed me, wiped my bottom and my runny nose. She fed me and tested her baking skills on me (I was her Chief Cake Taster with the chipmunk cheeks to prove it).

She was (and still is) my special friend and I loved it most when I snuggled up to her in her bed and when she put me on the back of her bike for rides down the railway track.

I looked up to her. She was beyond my equal and still is. A woman, though diminutive in height, who can pack a punch both literally and metaphorically.

She is fearless, happily dodging bullets to drive her helper home during the heady days of Karachi’s lawlessness.

And she’s smart. Smarter than my brother and I.

She has a strong moral compass, and will never shy of telling me when I’ve done something questionable.

When she married (as I’ve previously written, it was a traumatic event for me) our relationship shifted a little, but we still spoke regularly, we still wrote to each other and she remained firmly my big sister.

And then when she had children, the dynamic between us shifted once more, but she was still very much there for me.

And when she and her family moved permanently to Pakistan, I was devastated (a second trauma in my life), but we didn’t drift apart.

I kept the letters she wrote to me, and I remember the excitement of travelling on my own from England to Karachi to see her.

The journey was all the more memorable because a student wanted to sit next to his girlfriend who happened to be sitting next to me.

He must have really loved her because he sent me packing to first class to take up his seat.

My sister and her family visited every summer and it was the highlight of my year, but it was clear her attentions were focused on her children, which, as a teenager, I didn’t quite understand.

But I made do, and so did her children putting up with their bossy aunt. Yes, they were very much a part of her life, but I never really acknowledged that they were her universe.

Read next: How my love for the mountains took me from Hyderabad all the way to Everest Base Camp

Roll forward the years, and my sister and I were able to carve out time to spend together. Just the two of us. Two adults.

And on occasion, we went away on holiday for two weeks at a time. Two weeks away. And not to somewhere close by, but to places a little remote, a little off the beaten track.

These trips were memorable because we were less mother and daughter; more like close friends carrying a vague resemblance to one another.

Although in character we are opposites, my sister and I. She’s calm, whereas I’m a little hyper, a little prone to flying off the handle at the drop of a hat.

I throw myself into things with a fanatical determination; she takes a more cerebral approach to life.

Everything’s taken at a steady pace. My sister is careful, thoughtful, dependable. Whereas I’m a little reckless. She’s more a like a Volvo to my 911.

I exercise regularly because I don’t want to die young. She … well, she has no such concerns.

In December, 2007 we embarked on a two-week trip to Peru. Let’s just say it was a comedy of errors.

Our flight was delayed. We lost our bags. We had no clothes, no toiletries. Fortunately, these things were easily fixed.

Not so the altitude sickness. We arrived in Cuzco, a city lying 3,400 metres above sea level. The altitude hit me like a brick on the head.

Here I was, supposedly the epitome of peak fitness, someone who’d spent ample time in the mountains, throwing up every five minutes.

Not that my sister was much help. She was overcome by chronic headaches.

I’m not sure how much we took in during those first couple of days. Apparently we visited the concentric agricultural Inca rings and the salt pans of Maras.

The reason why I know this is because somehow I managed to record it all in a diary.

I’m not sure how I managed that, to be honest, although it may have something to do with the miracle wonder of Coca tea which cured our ailments.

We may also have become addicted it, downing at least 10 cups a day, which I’m sure had nothing to do with its alkaloid content (the source for cocaine).

Also read: Trekking to Siran Valley is a dream come true for adventure junkies and photo enthusiasts alike

Before our first trek, we visited market places and eateries (a lot of guinea pigs roasted on spits which I couldn’t stomach), as well as churches and little villages.

In one, we were invited into the home of a family who lived together in a single room. In a corner was a dais. On top of it were skulls of their ancestors surrounded by candles. That was quite fascinating.

What was less so were the hundreds of guinea pigs climbing over our feet. I felt faint. And no, it definitely wasn’t the altitude sickness.

I had sudden visions of my own guinea pigs which I’d had as a teenager. The truth is, I neglected them. They died.

And this was my comeuppance. To be besieged by guinea pigs. Black, ginger, white, brown. Long-haired, short-haired, scrambling over each other like rats.

Yes. That’s what they reminded me of: rats. And the noise. I’ll never forget the sound they made. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

I thought they would crawl over me, dragging me to my death. I had to get out.

My sister wondered what on earth was the matter with me, why I was hyperventilating. I couldn’t explain it. Not then at least.

Thereafter I begged our guide, Willow, to avoid any contact with guinea pigs.

And thankfully, there were no more guinea pigs as we headed off on our four-day trek through the Lares Valley, beginning in Qiswarani, a small village at 3,900 metres, shrouded in white cloud where we camped beside a herd of sheep, with a three-horned ram at its helm.

Perhaps that was an omen. Good or bad, that’s your call.

This was a vast and beautiful autumnal-coloured landscape with aqua blue lagoons, their surfaces so still, they were like mirrors to the top of the world.

Tiny settlements were dotted along the way. Dwellings of mud with thatched roofs and circular vegetable patches and pens of livestock. Chickens. Pigs. A llama or alpaca. (And importantly, no guinea pigs.) A life seemingly unaltered by time.

Aside from our guide, the porter/cook, Deomichu and his 10-year-old son, Augustus, we were truly on our own. A world away from technology and mobile signals.

It never really crossed my mind that we were two little women travelling alone. I didn’t feel particularly vulnerable and I wasn’t particularly worried.

Perhaps that’s youth and inexperience for you. It cocoons you from thinking the worst.

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This was an adventure and we were far away from home, work, our troubles and strife, and besides, I was more in awe of the rosy-cheeked boy, Augustus, who would run with his father carrying our equipment, up steep paths and mountain passes to set up camp. A testament to the benefits of high-altitude living.

What about our own fitness, particularly my sister’s? In fairness she did train, but six-kilometre walks, four to five times a week in a city located at sea level can hardly be considered suitable for a high altitude hike, scrambling over steep rocky slopes.

Suffice to say it proved to be hugely challenging for her.

To combat the cold she wore a padded duvet jacket. Since it belonged to the porter it drowned her petite frame.

All you could see was a little figure with tiny arms and legs and somewhere at the top a little head poking out, huffing and puffing up the mountain.

I suddenly felt this over-protectiveness that I’d never felt before and started to worry about her keeling over from a heart attack in the middle of nowhere. I went into catastrophe mode imagining the worst-case scenario.

And in the middle of nowhere your mind starts to wonder. How would we get help? Would we have to transport my sister back to civilisation on the back of an alpacha or a llama (of which there were many)?

And what kind of hospital would she end up in? Would it be clean? Would it be teaming with guinea pigs?

To ensure she wouldn’t be struck down dead, I took matters into my own hands.

I would be her personal trainer, coaching her up the mountain, repeatedly telling her she could do it and that we were nearly at the top when this was far from the case.

To minimise exhaustion, the extra layers of clothing had to go. Including the Michelin Man jacket.

She needed plenty of water too, irrespective of the lack of toilet facilities – I only have to mention the words, full bladder, exposed terrain, for you to get my drift. We took frequent breaks for her to catch her breath.

And instead of whacking me on the head and telling me to shut up, she actually did as she was told, never once complained and she survived each day without collapsing in a sweaty heap at the end. Tough as nails: that’s my sister for you.

We would get through this.

But on our last night, we were caught in the most frightening storm I have ever experienced.

Picture this: three small tents pitched in a field. In one tent is Willow, together with two oxygen tanks. In the second is the cook and his son, Augustus. And in the third are two little women cowering in their sleeping bags.

On either side of the field, mountains stretch high up into the clouds. It is pitch black. There’s no sign of life for at least four miles.

Not even a llama or an alpaca. It’s so quiet. Too quiet, it’s disconcerting. The silence smothers us.

And then there’s a low rumble in the distance, followed by a faint flash of light. A discourse which starts off quite civilised before descending into a battle between thunder and lightning, a raging torrent of claps and bangs and jagged light torching the night sky.

We are surrounded. The noise is deafening. I can’t hear myself talk, let alone my sister. At one point our tent glows, a bolt of lightning close to spearing our tent.

We are petrified, trembling. I’m not weeping. Not yet. But I have no idea if we will survive this.

I am praying that our tent will stay pegged to the ground, that we won’t be washed away by flash floods. I think I even giggle uncontrollably. But it isn’t even funny because WE MIGHT DIE.

And we cannot run because there is no other shelter and besides, we will die trying. It is a no-win situation. All we can do is sit tight and hope for the best.

Hope for the best? How trite, but what else can we do?

The storm lasts for half an hour. The following morning my sister will tell me that she was weeping, afraid that she would never see her family again. I won’t tell her that guilt murmured through me, but I battened it away.

Willow will tell us that he was terrified lightning would strike his tent, igniting the oxygen tanks sitting in the corner. And Deomichu will tell us that he and he son weren’t phased at all.

Read further: A road trip with my mother where women 'cannot go alone'

But, we survived. My sister survived. And we ended that part of our trip intact, moving on to a hotel with hot running water and access to the Internet …

… Whereupon we learnt that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated.

Once again, Pakistan was swallowed up in chaos. Riots had broken out. People were being killed. The world was ending in Pakistan.

At least, that’s how it seemed to us. Because even the slightest mishap sounds horrific when you are thousands of miles away from its epicentre.

All hell was breaking out in my sister’s home city of Karachi. Here she was stuck in a small town in Peru, consumed by anxiety because she couldn’t contact her family so had no idea of their safety.

Looking back, I hadn’t the slightest clue what it meant to be a wife and a mother. I had no idea that there’s no such thing as forgetting your loved ones, thinking everyone will be just fine and dandy because nothing really bad was going to happen.

I had no inclination that they’re always on your mind and none so during a seismic crisis that was unfolding in your home country far, far away.

And once she did eventually make contact with her husband and learnt that everyone was all right, I merrily believed we could continue as normal.

Besides, her family were more concerned for her welfare. I don’t think she actually mentioned the physical exertion or the storm.

In fact, the true extent of our adventures were probably revealed long after she returned.

So we stayed in Peru. Of course there were a few more hiccups along the way (nothing ever goes smoothly), but it was a great adventure, and one I’m glad we did.

But it was our last trip. Not that we stopped spending time with one another. Yet to take off somewhere and not be contactable was, I wagered, perhaps not the best thing. Not then, at least.

But here’s the silly thing: it wasn’t so much the guilt that I had for taking my sister away from her family, but more that I was concerned for her.

Our roles had reversed. I was more like the surrogate mother, ensuring my sister was alright. And that came as a shock to me. A role I was less keen to take on.

She was always the one looking out for me, and at that point in time, looking after my sister was a little alien and one that made me, as the baby of the family, feel somewhat uncomfortable.

But not so much now. Perhaps it has something to do with that thing called maturity. Perhaps it’s because I’m a mother myself.

Not that I would ever mother my sister. If I did, then I would most certainly receive a firm whack around my head.

We have talked about going away again. And we will, in time. Two sisters with faces a little more lined, hair a little whiter.

Although I can’t imagine upping sticks and leaving my family behind for two weeks at a trot. Even when my children metamorphose into moody adolescents

… Then again, perhaps running away to a sheep farm in New Zealand for an extended period of time will be exactly what I need.


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