Tuesday, September 21, 2010

High places

As vacations go, this one was pretty revelatory. You can't help but see the world differently when you wake up to mountains every morning. Their faces change a thousand times over between sunrise and twilight, so your eyes do as well. As does your breathing, and mine came more easily those two weeks I spent in Peru.

Ok, that's a lie. At least partly. Something else those mountains bring is a quicker heart, shallower breaths, when you're actually up inside them -- navigating a two-foot wide path with steeper drops than you've seen from planes, only a rare barricade to fix you to the ground. I didn't just look at the mountains on this trip. I trekked my way through them. I'm a pedestrian by choice most of the time, but these were very different walks for me, and every day brought a new set of anxieties. Higher altitudes, narrower paths, steeper drops.
Oh my.

One thing I learned is that fear is an unpleasant place for me. Some people get exhilarated by standing on the edges of things. John's one of them. Not me. Not even a little bit. But I walked seven miles of the Inca Trail (by some accounts, the toughest seven miles of the trek) along the edge of the Andes mountains. I got up the next morning and took a white-knuckled bus-ride up and up and up, to look with amazement over Macchu Pichu at daybreak, then climb its rocky staircases, stand on its high terraces, and meander my way through masonry that's withstood hundreds of years of winds, mudslides, earthquakes, El Nino, snows, Spanish conquest, abandonment, excavation, and more recently tourism -- all a mile and a half up from sea level without a single drop of mortar to hold it together.

We didn't stop there. We trekked to the top of a mountain waterfall, stepping out of the way when a group of three enormous, untended bulls needed to pass in the opposite direction. We spent a day hiking the surviving structures of Pisac, and another -- this one so windy it tore pieces of the tile roof from our guesthouse -- at Ollantaytambo, a set of ruins designed in the shape of a llama, which you can see if you climb up the mountain across the way, which we naturally did, resulting in deep intakes of breath and not looking down (something I'd mastered by that point).

We took rides in cabs that passed on the wrong side of the road and invented lanes between lanes. We flew in a 60-seater through the Andes, which shook and tossed that little plane just enough for me to start thinking how lucky I was to have had this experience, just in case it was my last.

And of course, we rested. In the tiny town of Huaran, in what we both agreed was the most pristine and beautiful place we've ever stayed -- one that allowed enough time for profound reflection. Holy Pachacuti! I did that. Me -- a person who can barely breathe when the el train turns a corner too quickly, who can't live in the country because a frog or toad might cross my path.

Peruvians have no fear of heights. They grow up around those mountains. They walk them, farm them, and build their houses on their steep inclines. They tend their animals there, and their animals learn to run across those paths like they're a thousand feet wide. Peruvians, despite abject poverty for many and unforgiving weather for most -- lengthy stretches without rain, and then lengthy stretches with rain alone -- are also some of the kindest, most generous-of-heart people I've ever met. I have to believe it's got something to feeling so tiny in the world, compared to everything else around you.


tracy said...

Beautifully written. Just beautiful.

brian said...

If I were to take a trip from Shanghai to the mountains of Peru, do you suppose my head would explode from the change of scenery: exchanging the mountains of people piled on each other for mountains of...well...mountains? You have confirmed my belief once again that I need to go there.

Johno said...

I am realizing that the picture taken of me from behind makes it look like I might be biologically defiling a sacred valley from the edge of a holy city... Thankfully, this American isn't quite THAT ugly.