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Cabins of the Smoky Mountains

Almost alone in the Peruvian High Andes

I’ve been asked by several people why I’m spending all my time in the Andes and not seeing the rest of this diverse country. In my email below I provide my answer. I warn you that it’s long, so if you are too busy or not interested, please delete now!

I just returned from an incredible adventure in the mountains, and I’m at a loss for words… Whenever I visit spectacular scenery I always fail to find words to express the fullness of what I feel. When I began this four day trek I fervently hoped that words would unfold to express how I feel when I’m in the mountains.

The trek began by leaving Huaraz in a colectivo (mini bus) so full that when the people standing in the aisle departed, there was still one more man sleeping on the ground underneath all of them in the same aisle. My guide, Francisco, and I then crowded into a taxi with 7 villagers and we drove on a narrow, dirt road high into the mountains.

Peru’s tallest mountain, Huascaran, 1st climbed by an American women, Annie Peck

Having the patience and tranqility of a donkey are valuable traits in this country. Our taxi got a flat tire, and out popped all the men to fix it in no time flat. When we arrived at the last town, our departure point, we learned that our ariero (donkey guide) and donkey already departed for other work. So there we were ready to leave but with no donkey and no donkey guide. Francisco managed to scrounge around for an extra donkey and for the first time in his life, he played all three roles… guide, donkey guide, and chef.

More patience and tranquility was needed when on the second day of trek we took a siesta and the damn donkey escaped with our tents and food. Fortunately, said donkey was recovered and we continued.

My guide, Francisco, was a very good guide = very hardworking and professional. In attempt to find middle ground between our two very different worlds, we amused each other by sharing sware words in all the languages we knew. He elaborated my Quechua, and I shared with him what I knew in Genovese, German, and English.

Francisco was curious about the world. He has met people from all over during his years serving as a guide, but he lacks any context for the tidbits he has learned. He wanted to know if people use donkeys and horses for transportation in California. At one point I drew him a sketchy map of the world, and informed him that no, Switzerland and California are not next to each other.

To pass the long days of hiking I shared with him tales about the United States. I disgusted him with stories about those who carry around dogs, dressed in doggy clothes, in their purses and who shop at doggy bakeries for the food. Here stray dogs are so abundant and meat so rare, that treating dogs like people is unfathomable. I shocked Francisco by letting him know that great poverty exists in the United States too. I entertained him by giving him my ipod to listen to music while he cooked. Given all the classical music on my ipod, I could only wonder what he thought of Beethoven’s ninth? In the evenings we passed time by the light of the stars and our head lamps with Gin Rummy.

On our second day of trekking, we arrived somewhere just below 14,000 feet to set up camp in a fertile valley surrounded by snow capped peaks. The river followed us wherever we hiked. That evening I stood knee deep in the glacial river, stooping over to wash my hair. I paused to look up at the surrounding beauty. At that moment I understood in a very real, tangible, and grounded way the meaning of baptism in the most beautiful sense of the word.

Some people wonder how I can embark on such an independent adventure through the mountains. But when I’m in the mountains I hardly feel alone. I am held in their presence, cradled in the valley’s palm of the mountains’ hand. To be embraced by the mountains is to be completely unrestrained by self absorption. The mountains do not feed on image, consumerism, materialsm, and the many other obsessions we so often trap ourselves in. As I write tears come to my eyes and I know that tears express what my words never can.

I asked my guide if he ever gets bored repeating these tours week after week. He told me that once he gets high enough, in the heart of the Andes, he’s never bored. I don’t think one could ever get immune to such beauty. After experiences like these I’m most grateful that I can revisit the hidden jems of the world by simply turning inwards in silence and solitude.

The bulls and I are getting along a tad better. It didn’t help to know, though, that my guide was also attacked by a bull on one of his treks. Nor did it help to have one of the bulls that surrounded our campsite try to enter the tents. Had I insisted, I’m sure Francisco would have been more than happy to kill it, perhaps just to feed some of his machismo and the pleasure that seems to come with protecting the hapless woman.

Climbing to 14,500 feet wasn’t too bad. That day we ascended a steep pass and then hiked down for 8 hours straight. The most difficult part of the trek, by far, was the lack of sufficient food. Surviving on what mostly seemed like stale bread was no mean feat.

During our last night in the mountains, we attracted another hungry person. We set up camp in a lush valley, along the river, in the middle of nowhere. What appeared to be a fifteen year old boy came out of the woods, stood 15 feet from us, and stared the entire time. He stared, unmoving and unblinking, while we set up the tents. He stared while Francisco cooked. He stared while we ate. I began to wonder how long this could go on with this mute boy who was clearly not quite right in the head. It was unnerving to have a boy who appeared like a crazed animal stare for so long. Finally, Francisco gave hime what little we had of our own food, and the boy left.

Unfortunately, I’ve lost a bit of weight. Tomorrow, for Thanksgiving, I intent to eat 3 cows, one for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Today I enjoyed what seems to be a typical Peruvian experience descending the mountains in another colectivo (mini bus). Patience and tranquility were a must! Crammed with crates of vegetables and people, our colectivo broke down. Bad battery, they said. So all the men hopped out and pushed it. It is a bit unnerving to coast backwards on a narrow dirt road that hugs a cliff, and hope for the bus to gurgle to a start again. Once we were on our way, we then got a flat tire. So again the men popped out and fixed it. We careened down those mountains so fast that even Francisco was annoyed, and asked the driver to “respect the potholes” because my head was slamming into the roof of the bus.

Now I have one day of rest before I depart for the long “trek” home. I intend to visit the market and Francisco offered to accompany me. He was particularly touched by all the gifts he received. The tent lamp from my Dad, the extra tip from David for his hard work from three years ago, and my own tip.

So now the circle is complete. Those nights spent during my childhood watching my Dad’s slides of Peru from the time he lived and worked down here have come back home. Never did I think that I too would be down here. I am grateful for the experience and will forever hold and cherish in me the mountains’ presence and the starry night skies.

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