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una aventura mas: days 1-13

The taxi hurtled downhill toward the abuelita and her flock.  Sheep scatter and pigs struggle to waddle out of the way.  Too late, the driver applies the brakes, and ka-thud-du-kahdada - one of the sows disappears under our wheels.  Oh dear god.  I’m horrified, expecting a scene, expecting the abuelita to fly at us in a rage – we’ve just killed 70lbs of food – but no one seems terribly upset, except  for the pig, apparently still alive and now stuck under the car.  The taxi cab shakes as the pig tries to free itself, squealing desperately.  Frantic piglets shriek from the bank on the side of the road.  Wilson and I climb out so the driver can jack up the cab, and the abuelita hikes up her skirts to haul the animal out, still struggling.  Once free, it runs off unharmed, and the rest of us climb back into the cab, nod to the abuelita, and roll on down the side of the valley .  This was day one.  Wilson (my Peruano guide from the Salkantay-Machu Picchu trip, now my friend and fellow adventurer) and I had ridden a bus for three hours from Cusco to arrive at the top of the Apurimac River valley.  One enterprising cab driver waited beside the road and waved us over.  This was how we came to be rattling down the rough dirt switchbacks, pushing chickens and dogs off the road in front of us, dragging a tail of red dust behind, speeding toward Cachora and the start of the seventeen day aventura.

The first five days, we hiked up, then down, then up, then down.  River valley to river valley, straight up and over the peaks in between, descending 1000m then climbing 1000m.  Like climbing over a 4,000-footer in the White Mountains, without switchbacks.  Straight up, then straight back down the other side in one day, five days in a row.  Unlike in New Zealand, the rivers at the bottom of these valleys were crossed once, easily, with a rough log bridge, then forgotten.  No trails meandering along the valley bottoms, circumnavigating the hills in the middle – we traveled direct, and at an average altitude of 3300m (10,800ft).  It’s impossible to talk about the trip without dwelling on the elevation.  Our maps were poor and we didn’t have an altimeter, but with every step, I knew that we were high.  My lungs knew it and my heart beat out protests in Morse code.  Up, up, up, then down, down, down.

In between breaths, Wilson taught me words in Quechua, the language of the locals.  We’re passing through their land, he reasoned.  We should speak their language.
“How are you: imaynalla cashanky,” he’d prompt.
“Ee-la-mayna…eee-ya-llama…how was that again?”
Imaynalla cashanky.  And the response: aliyammi cashany, I’m fine, thanks for asking.”
“One phrase at a time!” I’d protest, and put one foot in front of the other and pant the unfamiliar syllables like a mantra.

We carried no food, only a bit of bread, cheese, fruit and nuts, and I brought my emergency jar of peanut butter and a spoon.  Our meals Wilson begged and bartered from the campesinos who lived along our route.  On the third night, I sat next to Wilson on a wooden bench inside a tiny mud and thatch hut.  On the rickety table in front of us, our hostess placed two bowls heaped with rice, runny fried eggs and boiled yuca root.  Nodding to us that we should start eating, she settled back on her low stool next to the cook fire, tucked her skirts between her legs, and poked another branch between the rocks, sending a fresh wave of smoke into the already thick air.  I took a pinch of salt from the bowl and applied it liberally to the egg before mixing the bright yolk into the rice.  Starved at the end of a long day’s walking, the simple carb-and-protein blast made my stomach sing.  The white, potato-like yuca was dry and starchy, but with a thin layer of salt, delicious.  Satisfied, I leaned back against the wall and sighed.  Straw fibers from the mud bricks tickled the back of my neck, and a curious cuy (guinea pig) startled me as he brushed against my toe, cooing and burbling to his brothers, huddled in the corners of the small cook hut.  The only light came from the small fire, dim, but enough to make out the shapes of the family sitting by the fire, watching us eat.  I felt shy under their gaze, a gringa, wearing in my synthetic-down jacket and head lamp.  When the daughter stood up to clear our bowls and serve tea from the kettle, Wilson nudged me insistently under the table.  “Practice your new language!” he said in English.  “Sool-pie-coo-ee,” thank you, I murmured to the daughter, who froze and looked up from her pouring.  My stomach fluttered and I tried again, “Ee-mahn-soo-tee-kee?”  What’s your name?  She turned to her parents, and the three began to chatter excitedly.  “They want to know where you learned to speak Quechua,” Wilson translated.  Suddenly I was under the spotlight.  I blushed, my eyes watering from the smoke, excited, overwhelmed by a sense of unreality.  They asked me questions.  I could barely get the answers out.  I smiled nervously and tried to breath.  What was I afraid of?  How different these people are?  How much I stood out?  They laughed at my poor attempts at Quechua phrases, but Wilson beamed, proud of his “gringa”, showing me off.  “They love you now,” he assured me.

Three days later we crossed the next pass, Abra Choquetacarpo, 4500m (14,700ft).  It was cold and I was having a hard time breathing.  My senses were on overdrive; every step registered: soft squishing mud, the brush of dew-soaked tussock blades against my leg.  Every blink, every breath had its own savor, and everything I saw sent my mind zooming back through the people and places of the last three years.  New Zealand: Graham, Jasmine, Dr. Gonzo, Lumir, Aussie Bob, long solo hikes when I felt invincible; Antarctica: André, all the good and all the bad; Wyoming: Cal, the Tetons, Jan.  Chile and Argentina and Patagonia and the recent days with Wilson.  Rich, I whispered to myself.  As if here in Perú I’ve finally stored up enough experiences to recognize it.  Rich.

On the other side of the pass, I skipped alongside Wilson on the long Inca road.  It’s seven feet high, five feet wide, a smooth stone highway built into the rocks on the side of the valley, built to speed along the Inca chaskis (foot messengers).  The even white line of the road stretched out ahead of us, and our conversation wound around to become a monologue: Wilson dreams of traveling the world – wants it so bad he can taste it – but money and family problems weigh on him like sandbags on a hot air balloon.  I listened, impressed by his determination and maturity (he’s three years younger than me), and at the same time humbled by the sudden, clear realization of how easy I have it.  I listened, but something in my head was breaking free.  All the times I’ve talked about how money’s not necessary to live, bragged about my minimal living expenses.  How easy, how trite, when you don’t have medical debts or a family to support.  Every moment I’ve spent whining about “too many options”.  I want to bury those thoughts, erase them from existence.  An abstract vision of what my future might be spun around in my head, something rattled and clicked into place.

Two days we spend in Huancacalle, the first town we’ve seen since leaving Cachora a week ago.  It’s one dirt road, lined with whitewashed adobe houses, but there are two or three hole-in-the-wall shops where we buy bread and cheese and bananas through the grated door, and a hostel with electric hot water in the outdoor showers.  It’s Sunday, Mother’s Day, and we wait in line at the top of the hill to use the town’s one telephone so that Wilson can call his mum.  A tiny, baseball-cap wearing woman serves us dinner and breakfast in her kitchen.  The plastic chairs and stained tablecloth, the bare light bulb that hangs over our head, the sink where she turns a tap to run water and rinse our dishes, these are unspeakable luxuries after the past week of smoky bamboo shacks.  Dinner is beef loin, with rice and tomato slices.  Breakfast is the same, with fried trout instead of beef, and black coffee to follow instead of tea.  Our hostess has a silver-rimmed fake tooth and a bright, smiling face that she has to keep uplifted when she talks to us; she barely comes up to my chest.  She, Wilson, and the man who works with her keep up a running commentary while we eat, about me, excluding me.  I’ve spoken Spanish to them, even tried out my Quechua, but I’m a gringa, and our hosts insist on believing that I understand nothing.  It’s harmless, joking, but I feel trapped by my appearance, accent, and culture.  They won’t look past the stereotype.  Still, I like this woman, with her electric laugh, and her efficient way of chopping washing talking cooking all at the same time.

And on the eighth day, it rained.  Wilson and I crossed our final pass in a cloud, a few hours along the road from Huancacalle, a mere 3700m (12,000ft).  The wind whipped the cold rain into our faces.  Three local women passed us as we stopped to dig out our heavy rain jackets and warmer layers.  They carried large bundles on their backs in their traditional, colorful mantas.  Pausing a few steps beyond us, they reached over their shoulders to pull bits of plastic out of the top of their bundles, which they wrapped around their shoulders like capes.  Rain pooled on their wide-brimmed felt hats and their sandaled feet squelched in the red mud as they smiled at us and kept walking.  After about seven hours, our easy, well-graded road petered out in the middle of a lush, green hill.  Houses dotted the hillside and the heavy clouds trailed between tall eucalyptus trees.  Pampaconas.  A chorus of little kids appeared out of nowhere and extended shy hands to wish us “buenas tardes.”  I passed out pieces of hard candy and gum, bought for the purpose in Hunacacalle.  The younger kids were terrified, and I was too, a little.  We sat in another tiny, smoky cook hut to wait for our rice with eggs and potatoes.  The woman cooking for us squatted on a cinder block while she scooped hot oil over the eggs.  When she stood up to pull down bowls from the shelf, I could see a tiny white cuy sleeping under her skirts inside her cinder block seat.  Outside, kids played with our bags.  One of the braver boys poked his head into the smoke and held out my adjustable walking stick.  “What is this for?”  Wilson grinned.  “For killing bears.”  The boy shrieked with glee and ran out again, shouting to his friends.  The rain closed in again before we left, and I hugged my arms to my chest in the sheltered doorway of the cook hut, steeling myself.  I noticed one small boy sitting in the doorway opposite, playing quietly in the mud with his bare big toe.  A pink knitted hat dwarfed his thin, dirty face.  Out of the rain, but not the cold, the boy’s nose was running, and he watched us, the strangers, with huge eyes.  Wilson made him laugh, teasing the chickens, and I resolved never, ever to complain about anything again.

Below Pampaconas, we follow a river we don’t know the name of, through countryside we don’t have a map for.  Directions are asked of the men and women we pass on the trail.  It’s the harvest season, and mule trains pass us, carrying potatoes down to the river, corn up into the mountains.  “Chht…chht…hup, chhhhht,” the campesinos blow through their teeth to keep the animals moving, flicking small sticks and long pieces of grass against the mule’s flanks.  They pause to clasp our hands and say hello as we pass, their deeply lined faces turned upwards in easy, sometimes toothless smiles.  Half-chewed coca leaves tucked into their cheeks distort the sides of their faces and turn their smiles green.  The women wear multiple layers of skirts and sweaters, and under their hats, their hair hangs in long braids down their backs.  The men wear jeans and t-shirts with incongruous slogans in English.  Everyone wears rubber sandals made from recycled tires.  Cracked heels and dirt-crusted toenails testify to years spent working hard in the chakras and running the trails behind the mules.  My Quechua is improving, and draws laughter and occasional confusion from children and adults alike.  I am repeatedly struck with awareness – where I am, what I’m doing – like a bolt of lightning, grounding me in the moment.  I’m absorbing knowledge faster than I can process it.  I’m trying not to romanticize what I’m seeing, I’m trying to understand it and be a part of it, but it’s impossible for me to blend in, and I’m uncertain of my role and how to relate.  My culture is a filter; everything I see and think is run through twenty-five years of life as a US citizen.

On day thirteen, when we rode out of the jungle and into Kiteni, my eyes bulged at the site of pavement, cement sidewalks and internet cafes.  Wilson steered us toward the outdoor mercado for a late dinner.  The meat and french fries were served out of an industrial sized pot that sat over a portable gas burner.  One month in Perú, two weeks in the boondocks, and this was normal: eating dinner at a bench in front of a “restaurant” strapped to the front of a bicycle vending aparatus.  We’d arrived with about thirty other people in the back of a truck loaded with sacks of raw coffee beans.  Coffee grows wild in the jungle, and the villagers who live close enough to the road harvest the beans to sell.  Those who don’t, pick it, roast it, and grind it in their own huts for their families – and serve it to the rare gringa passerby.  ¡Riquisimo! We caught the truck in a small town on the edge of the jungle in the late afternoon.  Five young boys sprawled across the bottom of the truck bed and looked at Wilson and me curiously as we hauled our packs over the wooden sides.  The road, still very much in the jungle, was narrow and rough.  Dust rolled back over us every time the truck slowed to turn a corner.  Palms and lemon trees hung low and encroaching and threatened to knock us from our perch atop the sacks of coffee beans.  The smell in the back of the truck was both rich and repulsive: humanity, raw coffee, dirt, plants, damp wood.  It was slow going.  We stopped every ten or fifteen minutes outside of small houses or along the side of the road where people gathered with their overflowing bags of raw beans. The driver’s wife, a large woman with a meaty face, climbed out of the cab to negotiate, paying cash per kilo. The boys leaped to the beat of her harsh voice: “¡Pan, dos soles! ¡Cinco sacos! ¡Papas, cuatro kilos!” The two older boys strained to heft the tremendous sacks to the top of the pile, while the younger boys swung like monkeys from the center beam, rushing to fill orders for vegetables, riced cans of condensed milk, passing bags of supplies down to the waiting campesinos. They hammed it up for my camera, absolutely brilliant, entirely a part of their surroundings. We picked up more passengers, and the boys shouted to them to move forward, look out, make room!  We resembled immigrants: families, belongings wrapped up in blankets and plastic bags, a box of peeping baby chickens, men straddling the wooden sides of the truck.  Later, the five boys sat in a row on top of the truck’s cab, silhouetted against the back glow of the headlights on the lush jungle foliage.  A nearly full moon rose just before we reached Kiteni.  It was a beautiful night, the end of the first part of the adventure, a prelude to the next four nights to come…

(Don’t forget to check out the photos)

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