“Had to stop at a red light;
Lookin in my mirror, not a jacker in sight
And everything is alright.”
-Ice Cube poet, sage.
So this marks my first post to this blog in nearly, what, 2 years? Wowza. I’ll make this one extra long and excruciating to make up for it, I promise. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t take the time to write about any of the adventures from 2011. Maybe one of these days I’ll catch up on it. But until then, let’s just start over, ok? What’s passed is past. What’s real is this moment, and in this moment I am sitting in a small cafe in Pisaq, Peru, feverish and shaking from sun poisoning. How did I get here? By bus. No, I have returned here after finding it late July and deeming it one of my favorite places on the planet. I’m working a lot now, but I took what vacation I had left and got back as fast as I could.
Once in Pisaq, I set out early in the morning on foot from a little place called El Molle. First stop: breakfast. A big one. There’s a place in town that offers all you can eat pancakes, so I figured I’d do that….along with a fruit salad. You know? For health? Turns out I couldn’t even finish the first plate of pancakes they brought me…I need to move on. Just thinking about it is making me sick. Why am I even talking about breakfast? Gross.
There are some pretty good Incan ruins in Pisaq, but you have a climb a mountain to get to them. There is a bus that will take you, but I hiked it last time and I’m determined to hike it again this time. The nice thing about the Incas was that whenever they took over a place, they assimilated into the local culture instead of dismantling religious temples and enforcing a new language, etc, unlike some imperial powers I know (I’m looking at you, conquistadores.) And it’s thanks to this practice that a lot of pre-Incan relics were able to survive to modern times, assuming they were not destroyed by the Spanish. So that was pretty big of them. Then again, after the battle ensuring their victory over non-Incans, they would disembowel their enemies and use their eviscerated corpses as drums to celebrate their conquest. Well, nobody’s perfect.
So I’m off to the ruins. Mostly I just wanted a good climb. The elevation in Pisaq is 9350 ft to start with and the ruins are situated at about 12, 370ft to give you some idea. You can hike it in about 2 hours at a good clip. However, having reached the top, I was unsatisfied. There was a mountain next door that was taller, sultry, not crawling with people. From where I was standing, I could see a small trail leading from my current mountain to that one, so I abandoned the ruins and took off for it before any of the local rangers could stop me. Two things when I arrived to the top: there was a really small picturesque village surrounded in fields of flowers! Score! But also, now that I was there, I could see that I had not in fact reached the tallest part of the mountain. Oops. Well, I wanted to reach the tallest point, so I pressed on…but when I reached that point, I found there was yet another, taller peak just beyond, and a pattern began to emerge. And it’s a little embarrassing because this is a lesson I really should have learned already at some prior point in the last 29 years. Ah, but morals are for the ends of of stories, and this is just somewhere in the middle.
My problem is, I never know when to stop. I’m surrounded by mountains! Maybe over there a better view. Maybe over there no one’s been before. Maybe over there llamas! It’s exhausting, but I can’t quit because I’d feel like a quitter, like I was missing out on something. And what’s more, I would be. If you haven’t seen something, you’ve missed it. Anyway, I passed this “highest point”. And the next. And the next. Somewhere along the way I crossed paths with 2 women who wanted to know (a loose translation) what the hell I was doing there.
“Just, uh, looking around,” I say.
“Are you going to the lagoon?”
The what?! Yes please. It was such a relief to have this destination, this purpose now. Onward!
Every now and then I would pass another little village, all guarded by dogs who were none too pleased with my encroachment. On the whole, I consider myself pretty well versed in agitated wild animal speak (NOT ELEPHANTS) and I attribute this to the plethora of backwoods inhabitants of rural east Texas. We had it all! Snakes, your pick of rabid vermin in varying sizes and dispositions, coyotes, wild boars, buck, and of course your not so friendly domesticated livestock like bulls. In my experience, most of these things can be chased away or at least re-routed with a stick. And of them all, I would venture the pigs are the most menacing. OH. And the geese. Good god. Happily I’ve yet to encounter a bear, though I’m told the proper course of action is to stand your ground, spread your arms wide, and slowly approach as if to give it a hug. I hope I never have to do this. Anyway, with dogs the trick is to win the staring contest and then maybe do a little stomping–but ONLY AFTER the dog has looked away. Seriously, don’t mix that up.
Overall, Peru wins the award for generally friendly but definitely most adorable stray dog assortment. But that seems to be more of a city thing. During my climb, I lost some time engaging the burlier mountain dogs and waiting for them to look away first, but ultimately I’m glad to have retained all my limbs. After quite some time and still no lagoon, I chanced upon another village. It seemed lovely enough to be a stopping place; my legs had taken up protesting against the whole venture, it was getting late, and I was looking downhill, thinking of Princess Bride-ing it. Then, peeking from behind a fence, a little boy and two small sisters. (Again, loosely translated)
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know, I was going to the lagoon…is it far?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty far. You’re not going anymore?” (a small note of challenge in his voice.)
“I…well…yeah, I’m still going.” (A note of resignation in mine, feet crying stinky tears of sorrow.) “Which way?”
And I was off again, but dying inside. A girl my age caught up to me. She explained she was going home to her grandmother’s, but it’s on the way to the lagoon so we could go together. As we approached the house, a small typically adorable Peruvian dog ran out to greet us, followed to comedic effect by 3 more dogs, each increasing in size and homeliness. Her grandmother was seated on the doorstep, a tiny wisp of a woman, and next to her perched the tiniest wisp of a kitten. If I recall, some folks believe they have found the location of Noah’s Ark to be somewhere atop a Turkish mountain, but I’m pretty sure they are mistaken, because it obviously landed in this little old lady’s front yard. Pigs, chickens, rooster, dogs, rabbits, guinnea pigs, kitten, cows, sheep, all living unfettered and in perfect harmony. The woman spoke only the local language of Quechua, but her granddaughter translated between us so she could have the pleasure of shaming me for being so old and still without children. Actually, it was a really nice time. They brought out a small stump for me to sit on and we talked a while and shared a few potatoes and coca (not to be confused with cocoa) leaves. Peruvians are gaga for coca everything, but that day for the first time I was eating them just as leaves. Fun fact about coca leaves: eat enough of them raw like that and you lose feeling in your face. Apparently. They both liked my hair.
“Well I think your sis verypretty too.” I slobber in spanish. Grandma laughed so hard she started coughing.
I was getting nervous about the time so we took off toward the lagoon. As we parted, the woman shouted something nagging in Quechua several times to her granddaughter, until she responded in kind.
“What did she say?” I asked, wiping the drool from my chin.
“Nothing. We can go to the lagoon now. And then we gotta find my donkey.”
The lagoon was not so close as she led me to believe. Well, maybe to her, who climbs those hills on a daily basis, but I was feeling a bit at the end of my rope and trying to keep up with her as she spritely jaunted up the incline towards certain death did not help. Mercifully, she paused to show me which berries were edible and herbs for altitude sickness, backaches. Her dogs joined us on the walk, and on the way, we also ran into her roaming pack of alpacas whom they engaged in battle. Finally we reached our destination. It was less of a lagoon and more of a reservoir, but no less beautiful….especially for the effort. Total climbing time to get there: 6 hours, straight up. The sun warmed the green of the hills and perfect blue water reflecting the sky like silver. I decided it was a good place to attach all those things which where weighing me down to stones and toss ‘em in. I imagined them sinking to the bottom and resting there forever in this memory nestled deep in the beauty and stillness of a place no one else could know. And one I may well never be able to find again myself.
Coming down took another 3 hours and I was pretty much the last one off the mountain aside from another girl who I terrified because she thought SHE was the last from the ruins and had stopped for a good pee. It was fortunate because the batteries in my headlamp had crapped out. Also, she had a beer with her for some reason, so we found a ledge, put on some Pink Floyd and watched the moon come out over the best beer I’ve ever tasted before heading back into town.
It was a pretty great journey, although I do regret only putting sunblock on my face. Here’s what I took away from it (besides the burn): Living is a series of potentially surmountable obstacles, each only becoming apparent from the vantage gained in conquest of the last. And each obstacle is greater, both in effort and in value. And you can quit whenever pleases you because it would be impossible to climb them all, but it is your path and your choices of which ones to tackle that will define you as a person. For instance, I chose to trudge on nowhere but up into certain uncertainty, altering my goals along the way for something equally unknown but closer to my sense of what accomplishment looks like. Why? Because I felt like some 9 year old dared me to. So now you know me a little better.
The next couple of days involved journeying of a different kind, but obviously you have lives to live, so I’ll stop here. Really though? If you can find the opportunity, go to Peru.
To study Spanish or for tourist services:
Cusco Spanish School
To transform yourself from the inside-out: