The challenges of travel and the idea of returning home had both begun to weigh on me in Peru. I frequently found myself thinking, This trip will end. Soon we’ll be heading home. Riding past sandstone pillars clustered around the high desert like lonesome choirs, whittled by the wind, I reminded myself that I was lucky to be there. In the muffled din of whistling air and vent and visor and buckle surrounding my brain, I would flip through a catalogue of the quiet moments of enchantment that have been the rewards our two-wheeled mode of travel. How they’ve dropped right into my hands like baby birds. I feel entrusted with them; repaid for my own watchful, quiet way. Remember and retell these moments exactly as they were. They are the roads leading back to every place you’ve been.
The leathery swish-swish of padded, camel-like feet over cobblestones, of the alpacas led through colonial Plazas de Armas, adorned in tasseled harnesses of fluorescent yarn for photo-ops. An elderly man shuffling towards a marketplace, pausing in the street to shake and shush the old, chittering sack of rice he carried, which he has filled instead with indignant and bewildered guinea pigs. The scent of the earth snaking out from the dark mouths of the copper, silver, and gold mines that gape throughout the Cordillera Negra, telling such stories as So Many Millennia of Detritus and The Birth of Minerals. I am so lucky, I would think to myself, for I don’t ever have to embellish. I never have to cast a wide net. How completely these stories have floated down into my gloved hands, the work of them having already been finished.
I look at that mountain differently. I look at that mountain now as if it were my own baby.
Nathan and I stood in the Maximiliano Laura textile gallery in Cusco, Peru, and listened as the gallery’s curator came to describe a close friend’s loss of a child. He had begun with a rhombus, absently tracing with his finger as he talked, a small shape woven into a riot of cotton, writhing anthropomorphic figures, and color. Then, with shining eyes, he looked up and recalled what it was like to accompany his friend to bury his infant in the mountainside. At this, my eyes also filled with tears—for I can’t look at anyones tears without shedding some myself—and I felt inexplicably that his words were meant for me. The mountains here have long been sacred places—templos, huacas, he explained. People have returned to them for centuries to ritually plea for the abundance of rain and crops, and to seek guidance on earthly matters. He said that it was not only as visual icons of majesty that established the holiness of mountains, but also the dead and the sacrificed buried within them. My mind automatically leaped to what his friend must have felt turning away from his infant’s grave. But instead, what the curator spoke of was how, within the topography of one’s grief, which might remain an endless, barren, and featureless plain, one could create a monument around which to orient oneself, a marker in the landscape with which to find the way back to the flow of life. And I puzzled over the realization that over the past month and a half—having visited museum after museum with temperature-controlled storerooms of the ceremonially-bundled and numerically-categorized dead—I’ve also spent much of that time privately scanning the mountains as we curve around them, looking for signs of the gods in the hills and yet, never feeling the certainty that we had come to them.
Sometimes, in flights of fancy, I pictured the mountains regarding my doubt; stony, untroubled. And where are the holy places that you’ve made? What is it that you’ve sanctified—or does your mind go blank when you look to the sea, the earth?
And my answer—I don’t know, I don’t know.
As we exit the gallery and step out into the cobbled streets, I think about the mountains of my personal life which I would like to see in a different light. About the personal griefs I’d like to give up to the processes of the earth and see transformed into temples, after all the things we’ve seen and places we’ve been. Transformed into places where I might drop flowers and drop to my knees; each time knowing more deeply my place in this world.
The rhombus, the curator had explained, is often a representation of the Southern Cross; the constellation viewed as an image of the order of the universe by many of the Pre-Columbian cultures and their modern-day descendants of Peru. He continued, explaining that the cardinal directions are not so much static locales, but rather, are more like conceptual polarities in their essence—are a North-ness where a South-ness is designated, are an East-ness to whatever West-ness is pursued; they are the Above and Below and Left and Right wherever there lies a Center. I couldn’t help but smile as the curator went on, and my mind wandered back down the four days that Nathan, Horace, and I spent wandering the narrow earthen roads of small Andean villages in the Ancash department.
We frequently stopped and asked locals for directions. Alla, frente nomás! Aqui cerquita! There, straight ahead! Right here, close by! they would all say—the women in endless variations of broad-brimmed or narrow-brimmed hats, adorned with their community’s notion of choice, and in knee-length pleated skirts made voluminous by starched petticoats trimmed with lace. The men in their plain trousers and plain button-down shirts and simple sandals or galoshes. Then, each would fling an arm vaguely forward or across their chests to indicate a turn. And when, frequently, the straight path kept or the turn taken didn’t bring us to our destination, I would muse to Nathan that perhaps Andean peoples’ way of orienting themselves within their surroundings was slightly different than our own.
I am lucky to be here. And yet, hesitantly would come the refrain, I don’t like it here. I don’t want to be here. I related to the most impressive heights I’ve ever seen differently than I did the lush peaks of Ecuador and Colombia, with all their dazzling emerald lexicon; than the cloud-dolloped volcanoes of Central America; than the rolling deserts and sepia buttes of Mexico. At the forefront of my mind are not the jungle-veiled, hardly-ruined ruins of Machu Picchu, but rather the age-old struggle to eek out a life where only the clay and lichen seem not to struggle. Red, wind-whipped cheeks and rheumatism and disdain for outsiders and drunken apathy belly-up to the heavens in ditches and fields. Town after mud-brick town where the only paint on the houses belonged to the campaigning of political candidates. The words Marca asi, Mark like this, next to Koki’s or Bizarro’s or Hitler’s (yes, Hitler’s) x-marked logo—a peach or a vicuña or a hat or a flower or a condor or a bull or a Cholita or an Inca or a shovel or an orange K. So-and-so has no denunciations on record and has never served a jail sentence! Marca asi!
I try to ignore the television blaring in most restaurants and comedores while we eat our pan con huevo, caldo de gallina and lomo saltado. I’ve lost count of the numbers of deceased bodies we’ve seen on the news here. Of course, we’ve found the news in most Latin American countries to be gratuitously sensational, almost pornographically violent—even compared to our own North American media standards. But in Peru, amidst my second bought of parasitosis; after our first confrontation with a police officer seeking a bribe; and after having to negotiate our survival with every white station wagon collectivo and tuk tuk driving in the wrong lane of every high mountain road; in fact, negotiating for every roll of toilet paper, for every fork, for the cost of every plate of food served cold or seasoned with several of the cooks hairs—my physical and emotional resilience are running low and I am feeling nearly fed up with traveling. As I sip instant coffee one morning in Cusco, a few weeks before Christmas, I look up to see the figure of a child on the screen, a shepherd, who had perished by falling into a chasm while running from a swarm of bees. While his face was obscured, the poverty of his clothing and the smallness of his body are clearly visible, and I feel my stomach lurch. I picture the countless youth we’ve seen quietly striding along the roadsides, herding llama, alpaca, sheep, cattle, and goats, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Some waved back while most simply stared, and we would wonder how far they had walked, and how much further before nightfall.
He and his brother were trying to collect honey, the policeman making the news statement says with a chastising look. As if that restored sense to the matter.
In Parque Nacional de Huascarán, where we wound up and around the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, peaks can tower over 19,685 feet above sea level and can as frequently be imagined to cradle magnificent ice kingdoms in many of the perfect, cup-like valleys between them, as to harbor the worst of the Disney villains on their glowering summits. Flyers for a missing young man, already over a year old, were posted all over the reserve and all over the department of Ancash, and the lost young trekker’s handsome smile followed us up the narrow switchbacks lacing tightly up the mountains. For three days, our helmets filled with the wooly roar of avalanches high above us. I tilted my face toward the burning sun to see them, but the snowy peaks and shining glaciers around us remained etched across the horizon, unchanged. As if the earth would never dream of swallowing itself in snow.
As we hiked up to Laguna 69, a turquoise glacial lake at 16,076 feet, we asked a German woman scrambling down the trail in the opposite direction how much further away the lake was.
I must go down. I am seeing stars, she murmured. We knew those stars. They were the stars that rise while tripping over moss-covered stones and the mineral-stained rocks of a thousand delicate cascades. They rise over hills which stand like the walls of a world where everything is eventually dissolved by the sky; a world that literally takes one’s breath away. We shouted at her to stop, and once she was seated on a rock, I shoved our bag of coca leaves and little bottle of baking soda into her hands. While Horace miraculously seemed to revel in the oxygen-scarce air, we found that chewing coca relieved the drowsiness, muscle aches, headaches, and nausea that we experienced while climbing in elevation, both on the bike and while dragging our unconditioned bodies up to peaks higher than any within the continental United States. But a half hour from the top, we balked as a young Peruvian woman sauntered down in wedge heeled boots and skinny jeans, not a glossy black hair out of place, and chatting to her companions with ease.
As we neared Punta Olimpica, one of the world’s highest mountain passes, thunder rolling and lightning splintering the bone-grey sky, we could see nothing but the hail that pelted down on our visors and onto the heads of the bulls cowering on the slick asphalt. Huascarán, the highest peak of the Blancas, seemed to have been blotted from the face of the earth that day. And upon entering the famous Tunel Punta Olimpica, at an elevation of 15,525 feet, just as we were expressing our gratitude for the break from the elements, our headlight flickered out. Nathan let loose a wild laugh inside the inky black of the hollowed rock. I didn’t find it so funny. We pulled over to the side, on what could hardly be called a shoulder, waiting for either an oncoming truck to barrel towards us or for the electrical glitch to pass. Fortunately, in a moment, our headlight blinked and opened its bright eye wide upon the roughly hewn passage ahead. And stayed open.
I would remind myself, when leaving a hardware store or vegetable market or hotel, that the terse communication and staring I receive isn’t personal. I remind myself that as often as there can be generalizations, there will always be exceptions. When we rode through a village and one among a group of laborers yelled, Get out gringos!, I lost nothing. I was reminded that there remain communities so small and so fiercely insular that anyone behaving outside the norm can only be perceived as misbehaving. That some worlds hold no roles for transients or foreigners or persons not directly involved in its own subsistence, and that people rightly still seek to define the course of their lives free from the deep ruts of colonialism. Certainly, to crave a sense of belonging within communities that have long been exploited and that now find themselves virtually forgotten, in which I have merely passed through, would be, to my mind, the height of blind privilege. But still, I struggle to reconcile my desire to learn from the example of others living simply with my general distaste for the rhythm of daily life here. Yes, devotion to the Pachamama and other pre-Christian spiritual practices live on, but it feels dishonest to shrug my shoulders at the material poverty of much of Peru’s people and imagine that it does nothing to their collective psyche, even in the places where ancestral practice remain firm.
I cannot comment on the happiness or sense of personal fulfillment of the Quechua men and women I’ve seen walking back to their huts among imported eucalyptus trees on a muddy, misty hillside, bent under bundles of leña and airplants, just as their mothers and grandmothers and fathers and grandfathers have done. For whatever reasons, my conversations with Peruvian locals rarely yielded pathways beyond the exchange of practical information, and besides, it’s not any local person’s responsibility to entertain a traveler’s curiosity. But I feel that I must say that the historic footpaths they and their ancestors have walked are now littered with waste that won’t return to the earth because food and other necessities now come wrapped and bottled in plastic; that trash collection cannot remove because the taxes their communities would be required to pay for the service are too high; and because the earthen “roads” that reach those communities are too steep and too perilous for government workers to risk their lives on—if the government can be said to care for their situation anyway. The sun rises and then the moon rises, the snake swallows its own tail, and poverty too seems an endless cycle. While some communities have clearly been shown favors by political and social campaigns that have built each family an outdoor bathroom, for example, other communities make do with single bodegas stocked with dusty tubs of candy, Inka Kola, and not a single bottle of drinking water.
This was not the Peru I was expecting, and it was not the Peru dominating ultimate destination guides or international culinary conventions. As I write this, I ask myself why I remain so disturbed by the whole thing. But I also remind myself that I have experience and feeling enough to recognize hopelessness and divisiveness where I encounter them, just as I can recognize hopelessness and divisiveness in my own country. That even if considered politically correct to say nothing if you can’t say anything nice, it is not compassion to pretend that I don’t see instances of the spiritual impoverishment that can come of material poverty staring darkly back at me. Sure, cultural identities are complex, but they’re not so complex as to obscure the certainty of being truly moved or truly concerned. The lack of hope that I perceived among many of the poor communities of Peru, many of them indigenous, is not an experience that I can dismiss as a misunderstanding of Tradition; that I can forget in the glow of hand-crafted heirloom objects, of a blanket hand-woven from yarn carded at the roadside and later dyed with wild-harvested plants and color-set with urine.
Travel has taught me to do my best to understand my changing surroundings, to be grateful for the freedom to examine my values and align my life with them, and to never conflate the spiritual abundance that can come with “The Simple Life” with the spiritual impoverishment that can just as frequently accompany material poverty. Of course, my being bothered by something does nothing to fix it. It is not enough, and somehow, I am left only with the privilege of reflecting on the role I will fulfill, the practices I will pare away or uphold within my own community, when I return. Somehow, I had begun to feel homesick for a home that I haven’t yet created.