The barren border crossing building at Paso de Jama, between Chile and Argentina in the Andes, has a distinct lack of noise as travellers slowly shuffle their dusty backpacks forward in a semblance of lines. I stare out the open window where a yawning blue sky meets the dry desert. Voices come in like muted echoes and I work my jaw to no avail. My left eardrum is close to rupturing. I turn to see Mads’ face has drained of blood, cheeks gaunt, her lips pale and chalky. I try to smile reassuringly as I wonder if she’ll pass out.
4,200 metres above sea level. I am lightheaded, my stomach is in knots, and my eardrums just might implode.
I decide to concentrate on my own breathing. In and out. In…out.
Mads says something to me, and although she’s not even a foot away from me, I can’t hear her. In…out. A girl in line offers me a lollipop. A distraction against the life-sucking elevation. It tastes like an orange popsicle. In…out.
My chest hurts. In…out. It passes. Lollipop friend says she might faint. Mads drops onto some chairs with exploding seat cushions, curling into a ball. I imagine stuffing pouring out of my ears. In…out.
We’re almost to the front of the line when a sharp pain pierces my left eardrum, spreading down my jaw. These ears will be the deaf of me. Ha! A grim smile touches my lips. I continue to smile, if for no other reason than to defy the elements.