For me, the strangest thing about the trip was the complete lack of strangeness or astonishment. I never went into “culture shock” or felt completely helpless and am I not sure why. Perhaps I have built up resilience to feeling lost or confused in a foreign place, or maybe our group never really met the right people or went to the right place that would have really “shocked” me. To me, everyone we met in Peru was just another human being, even though I was unable to communicate with them 90% of the time. I find nothing foreign about the human experience, trying to survive in a hostile environment and adapting. I knew that I led a much more comfortable life in the States, but that I also shared the same core experiences with all of the people we met; knowing that dispelled any fears of being overwhelmed by Peruvian culture. The only difference between me and the orphans we met was our upbringings, so I did not find it strange when we played soccer without many rules or cooked potatoes under rocks; if I had been born in Peru, I would have done the same things. I really enjoyed the trip, the scenery was awe-inspiring and the people were kind and easy to empathize with. The journey completely erased my fears about traveling somewhere that did not share the culture of the US, I hope to travel to another location in South America sometime in my life, hopefully soon.
Some say we are born a certain way, with preset tendencies or personality traits. Some say we're a product of our experiences, or perhaps our reaction to them. Maybe it's a bit of both - or at least that's what I've chosen to believe.
That, of course, begs the question, "How has my experience in Peru changed me?"
According to Stephen Hawking (and others, I'm sure), there's a split in the timeline at every decision we make. Somewhere there's another me who didn't go.
So here's the rub: I'll never know that other me. I'll never know the me that didn't go. I'll never know what that version of me does with the rest of his life. Our paths are different now. My path is different now.
Am I a different person for having had this experience? Certainly.
Am I a better person for having gone? I believe so.
But exactly how is just one more thing I'll never know.
Pre-Peru preparation had consisted of many days spent by my pool relaxing as I (sort of) read our two books, and those tumultuous mornings were followed by even more hectic afternoons at the coffee shop, as we gorged ourselves on some delicious fattening drinks while discussing the previously read novels. Having done absolutely no physical prep work for the trip, Peru proved to be quite exhausting. Hours of trekking from early morning to dusk had finally cut away at my accumulated layer of summer fat. Now that I’ve returned home and have had the chance to savour this trip, I can look back and see what I’ve gained… or lost. On the note of losing things, I no longer have my hard won Peruvian suntan, or to be correct, sunburn. This being the first time I’ve traveled out of the States/Canada I’ve also gained a new worldly perspective, one no longer based on information I’ve gleaned out of books or offline. It also seems that my many bug bites, collected from some rotten black bugs on the trip have finally stopped itching! Although the scars on legs still remain from those horrible insects… I suppose I’ll always have them now, a truly heartfelt gift from Peru. I hope that all of my Spanish speaking in Peru will help me at college this year, it was… interesting to be able to practice it with native speakers, and I now know that if I don’t know a word, it’s probably just poor English. I’m thoroughly excited to continue traveling, especially now that I have Peru under my belt!
Upon returning home, I always find it strange to go over the things that I missed. Cold drinks, mosquito free beds, the convenience of reliable plumbing. Returning from Peru reminded me exactly how materialistic I actually am. I revel in a flow of constant hot water. I feel a fondness towards my own room, and all of its amenities. I truly enjoy the outdoors, arguably more than most, and I can frequently be found sleeping out in my backyard during warm summer nights. But there is something to be said for pure, unadulterated materialism.
After a few days of lazing about, repeatedly washing and rewashing my clothes, and marveling at the sheer amount of cable channels that my TV has, I began to miss the night sky in Peru. The view of mountains on the way to breakfast, and even waking up in the morning sore from a long hike. I always hesitate before proving proverbs to be correct, but this one stands true in every facet. That unavoidable grass is always greener on the other side, whether it be from chemical fertilizer or lack of pollutants. When we have it all, we want nothing, and only when we want nothing is it easy to wish for everything. It’s disheartening to learn how unoriginal thought can describe and dictate most of our actions.
I have this theory, however strange and ill-conceived it may be. I think that maybe, we leave little pieces behind in every place we go. And not in the corny, drops of kindness, warm hearts way. Rather, in the way that we forget to empty our pockets out, and little slips of paper, or wrappers of gum can leave our bodies without our knowledge. And with these tiny fragments of our own world, we leave this viable print on any place we travel to. Perhaps it isn’t positive, or maybe it’s just glorified littering, but it is this idea, these bits of trash or otherworldliness, which allows us to claim land. Now I am not saying I own Peru, with a tiny wrapper to mark my place, much like the early astronauts claimed the moon. It is not a mark of ownership. I think of it more, as the way people dog-ear books. They aren’t claiming the book, simply leaving a Hansel and Gretel trail behind of where they once tread. And in the same way that we fold the corners of our travels, they come with us to the present page. There are chunks of mud, bits of foliage, and little stones that I still cannot fully eradicate from my duffel. In some way, this obscure game of “I’ve been there” is comforting. So perhaps, much to my mother’s dismay, I’ll leave the backpack just a little longer on the floor of my room.
I am fairly well read. I have a few degrees and certifications from university classrooms. None of that really means anything.
In Peru, I became accustomed to one particular image from which I learned a great deal. This was our guide Emilio. In the image, he is on the Inca Trail, alone, a floppy hat and sunglasses, his hands resting on the top of his walking stick as he waits for me to reach him. I am wheezing from altitude dizziness as we ascend—already my pack is stowed away on a horse. I imagine he must be anxious or tired of me, but he is not. His face shows only friendship, even some pride, and he tells me, "Steve, very few people can do this. Even many from Peru will quit this trail. You, Steve, you can do this."
He will tell me this in various ways a dozen times or more over the four days of our trek. During the first several, I believe he is giving me the "motivational guide talk," but as our companionship grows over slopes and valleys, I begin to believe his sincerity. He speaks honestly to me as we walk about everything—his wife, the edibles of the mountains, money, the coca leaf, Lima, the food preparation.
I can seldom recall the cloud cover roiling over the escarpments across the valleys, the lichens atop lichens scaling the boulders, or the "Dr. Seuss"-like trees bordering our descent without also picturing Emilio's face.
I watch the high school students trotting ahead—though later, even they will be blister-wearied—and I know that the Andes have humbled me, reminded me who's in charge. Several times on the second day I fall on the rocks, once hearing my camera body crack and a lens splinter. Once I become so dizzy that rather than risk taking a misstep down a 1500' slope, I toss my body against the uphill grade and sit, waiting for it to pass. But around that next bend, I know Emilio is waiting with his words.
And here is what I know—parts of this world challenge us, push us to quit, but I can meet them. And I will find friends who will help me. I am not meant to defeat whatever I encounter; I am, though, capable of meeting it and learning from it.
Emilio is the face of Peru for me, but he is also the same face I've met elsewhere. He is the teary-eyed 16-year-old Miho in Japan who led me through the Hiroshima Museum, he is Khagda of Nepal who explained Nepali politics to me on a rooftop in Pokhara, Lucia of China who tried to embarrass me with incorrect translations, Jem of Dominica who reminded me why a treehouse is better than a London apartment, Chief Archie of the Bella Coola peoples who took me to an ancient place, and the Karmapa Lama of Dharamsala who, at age 19, explained to me the critical difference between religion and ethic. There are dozens of others.
The Andes nearly knocked me flat. But I have learned some things.
That there is nowhere in the world that I cannot visit; that there are few people in the world who aren't worth meeting—or who will not welcome me into their community; and that I can meet no one who cannot teach me.
I've noticed that Peru has become an integral part of how I see the world. Almost every conversation I have, no matter what the topic, somehow relates to my trip to Peru. I'm sure that my friends are getting tired of me talking about it all the time, but there is no way for me to not compare what is going on to the trip. When I went to africa in sixth grade I was not mature enough and observant enough to be able to relate my experiences there to my life here in the way that I can with Peru. I am so glad that I went on this trip; my life and the way I look at the world is so much richer. That's the corniest sentence I have ever written, but it's absolutely true. The blisters and pain were well worth the memories.
As I thumb through my notes to write a blog post about my impressions during the trip, a multitude of images and smells and feelings come bubbling back to the surface (and, funny enough, one can tell by the relative sprawl of my handwriting how strong they were at the actual time of note). What recurs with somewhat surprising frequency, though, are notations of the facial expressions of my traveling companions; Randon, eyes like saucers, soaking in every second of the Machu Picchu experience after regaling us with his research all trip. Emma, exasperated, reluctantly allowing herself to be draped in a makeshift Snow White costume as we all try not to snicker too hard. Karly, mischievous, cheating at cards and untiringly protesting that it is all part of the game. Steve, equal parts excitement, dread and delight, standing in the back of a pickup truck and announcing to the rest of us at his feet: "It's the wedding." Ellen, matter-of-factly planning to die romantically of drug-resistant tuberculosis, suddenly springing a goofy face for pictures. Greg, ever scowling and sardonic, cracking a smile for an ice cream break on day 4 of tough hiking. Alec, grinning broadly, speaking part French, part Spanish and part Airplane! with smart-alecky delight (no apologies for the pun). Dylan, sheepish, drinking a 2.3L bottle of Inca Kola in a train station ("It was only 7 Soles!"). We discussed prior to the trip how we were likely to be welcomed into the towns and families we encountered in Peru, and we certainly were, but it didn't really occur to me until the end of the trip that our group would also become a temporary little family (or, in the case of the Fort Lauderdale airport Chili's, actually be mistaken for a real family by a very talkative waiter). Steve writes below about experiencing the trip as a series of moments, and I can certainly agree to that perspective, but the thing that sticks each of those moments in my mind is the way they were shared among our group of new and old friends; none of them would have been the same without each of our unique expressions.
The trekking was actually right about the amount of difficulty I was expecting. Not to say that it would have been disappointing if it was any easier because my blisters can attest to the fact that the trekking was not all nice and fun.
I just want to say that I don't care what anyone else thinks - going uphill is infinitely better than going downhill. Sure you're short of breath most of the time while going uphill, but once you get in a rhythm going uphill is just plain fun. That's probably the endorphins released by exercise talking though. Downhill on the other hand, is incredibly hard on your legs and feet. It is a constant pounding and wearing down of your limbs; and the Salkantay trail has enough downhill to last me the rest of my life, I might get escalators installed in my house so I don't have to walk down the stairs.
I was surprised that I didn't have more trouble with the altitude than I did given that I haven't done any exercise more strenuous than walking downtown (a couple blocks) in several years. It is certainly a good idea to make sure you're in good cardiovascular shape before attempting the Salkantay trail, otherwise I think you will have much more trouble with the altitude.
The following is my account of what happened on 7 July, 2010, the day we arrived at the orphanage in Limatambo.
After we landed in Cusco we made the two hour drive to Limatambo (including a brief stop in Cusco proper where we met a man allegedly named Emilio...). Our driver, bless his soul, played worse song after worse song, including (but certainly not limited to!) Oops, I Did It Again, Smooth Criminal, and various New Kids on the Block hits.
The road took us through the most beautiful mountains I've ever laid eyes on, peppered with impoverished villages proudly displaying election slogans. (Jesus Vargas, 2011!) The orphanage, however, is surprisingly affluent.
A ten minute drive up a "road" that turned off of the main highway led us past many ramshackle structures made of red adobe and thatched roofs. I personally expected the orphanage to look and operate similarly, but I apparently couldn't have been more wrong. The orphanage is a compound of small houses painted blue and white, with tile roofs and wrought iron window treatments. There is no shortage of food, activities, water, or other basic amenities we westerners are used to (aside from a brief evening without electricity).
Our group is living in a guest house, complete with four bedrooms, a living room and a fully functional bathroom. On the buffet table in the living room, there is an electric tea kettle. I don't even have an electric tea kettle at home.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one trying to gentrify this neighborhood."
Ultimately, after a trip like this, I am asked, "How was it?" The quick response is almost ritualized nonsense: "Amazing," or "Great," or "Wonderful." Of course, attempting to communicate the total experience is difficult, impossible. Our generic answer fails to articulate it and the listener nods dully, uncomprehending. So I don't try to describe a trip, but moments from it. As my brother was captured by the moments of community around a pick-up truck, so too is Peru for me a series of moments:
- The Limatambo orphans laughing as Ellen (as Dopey in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs") falls over smiling from Emma's Snow White forehead kiss.
- The pre-school children wrapping themselves around the legs of our students as they left; and Carolyn's Peruvian friend who twice came calling at our house to see if she could come out to play—and who named all of her friends as barnyard animals!
- How we poured a hot malted meal into our cups at 6:30 each morning as breakfast.
- Randon's updates on hot water as we fired up the outside stove and hoped the pressure gauges would rise. (I had cold showers that week.)
- After riding in the dusty bed of the truck for several miles of sun, the synthesized strains of Lohengrin's "Bridal Chorus" cut through the motor and we realize that we are not driving to Cusco's "Marriott" but to see someone "marriéd." Watching the poor guy chase his runaway bull down the road next to the ceremony!
- Alec's fortuitous connection with a university professor of anthropology of the indigenous peoples—we couldn't separate them! I suspect that while I'm typing this they are trading articles on pedagogy.
- The dreaded sand flies which tore into our exposed forearms and calves and ankles. Benadryl cream was the #1 commodity for the trip.
- Eating our cheese slices with our "papas" (potatoes) fresh baked in the Pachamama ovens; believing that the black soot from our fingers somehow made it all taste better; and knowing that the chili sauce offered definitely did.
For me, these experiences were a few of the more memorable. Combine them with our group's climb through thick shrubs on a sharp slope in order to avoid forging a rushing river, or Karly and Emma's later dive into that river's icy water. I loved that Greg found himself a fan club of boys who wouldn't leave him alone and that Dylan became more or less addicted to Inca Kola. The PE teacher at Rio Blanca played "Hey Jude" on his Quena wood flute while my brother accompanied him on a guitar. And these were just in the first few days of the trip.
None of these were Peru, but each begins a story of our experience, of our connections to people, to foods, to abandonments of US comforts, to a shift in the perspectives of our lives. We kept saying the same thing over and over during our trip: "Think of how many people actually get to go here/see this/do that." Now when people ask me, knowing that it is unlikely they will ever see what we saw, I owe them the stories.
All that first week, the snowy cap of Salkantay was our backdrop. At night, the stars were so thick the valley was almost lit by the swath of the Milky Way. One afternoon we carried two large cairns of rocks across a river of meltwater as the sandflies ate our calves, and the truck to carry them got stuck in the river mud. We helped rock and push it out—Ellen got thoroughly sprayed with debris—but failed; all we earned was the driver's invitation to his daughter's wedding. He turned out to be the local pastor, and the ceremony was beautiful.
Next time I'll tell them something different.
From Left to Right: Steve Chisnell (advisor), Greg, Randon Chisnell (chaperone), Carolyn Berger(chaperone), Dylan, Ellen, Emma, Karly, Alec Snyder (advisor)