Monday, January 21, 2013

Day 129 Flurries in the Updraft

Just as I climbed into the uppermost bowl of the high valley, the clouds parted to reveal the heavenly blue sky and the warmth of the sun.  The panorama of the rugged Andean arêtes dotted with grass-roofed stone huts would chime yet another successful advertising campaign.  It lasted moments and then the wind blew more stinging flurries in the updraft of the deep pastural valley full of lakes and llamas and I was again enclosed in the billowing white clouds.  Altitude (5,000 meters) trumps latitude (12° S), even in summer.

In this mining district, the ground littered with sparkling pyrite and chatoyant cuperiferous minerals, I chose to pass through the last of the high ranges toward Lima by way of the railbed rather than the muddy highway ladened with oversized haulers, tires taller than myself.  Snow falling and in the company of late-season snowmen, the idea of walking the last kilometer through a rail tunnel rather than take a few hours to scale another arête on a narrow trail was marginally appealing despite the obvious dangers... hot soup and coffee with three outpost workers responsible for the tunnel stalled the decision until it presented its resolution with the arrival of a service cart just as we finished the midday meal.  Motorized rather than operated with the hand pump depicted in old cartoons, it was still a bit of an adventure passing through the long, dark tunnel in a tiny open cart, and much safer than passing through on foot to the arid environment on the Pacific side.

An astounding 16,000-foot descent to coastal Lima in little less than 130 kilometers - 3 days on foot, in the updraft snow above and cold rain a bit further down, into the coastal fog.  Steep and rugged the mountains, deep and narrow the valleys, phenomenal the engineered hairpin turns and pigtail loops for both road and rail... and lovely little villages compelled by curiosity to help a pilgrim.  I'm always well received.  Again, I appeal to pilgrims: flock to Peru, shrines, history, chewy meat and Incan trails await.

Lest I oversell, the reality includes a dearth of showers, or even hot water, or even any water for washing except the cold streams, and of any source of heat.  The last ounces of excess body fat burned of long ago and up above, I shivered myself to sleep under piles of weighty Alpaca blankets most nights.  The locals, accustomed to the year-round cold of the high country are heavily padded by adulthood and wear layer upon layer of Grandma-knit wool sweaters - rarely idle are the hands of the country woman of Peru.  They scoff at my thin synthetic clothes, which keep me warm as long as I'm moving but do little when I'm sitting still; yet, bulky sweaters don't fit so well into a backpack quickly headed for vast tropical jungles...

Northward now, back into the cooler high country and colorful cultural history... Ecuador in 3-ish weeks, with fresh soles on my hiking boots =)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Day 119 Calling all pilgrims...

Calling all pilgrims, Peru is a great place for an adventurous foot pilgrimage, for Spanish or Quechua speakers, in really good physical condition, who can comfortably divorce themselves from giant yellow arrows, and can come to enjoy/endure the ubiquitous bone-in guinea pig that appears at every meal. (Describing without cultural judgement: these guinea pigs are generally raised in the kitchens, free-range on the packed mud floor, reproducing at will, dozens scurrying around, pooping, cooing incessantly, nibbling grass strewn about twice daily, and suddenly, a few are missing and it's time for dinner...)

This region either side of Cusco stands out from all the other places I've walked because there is a sufficient number of villages for periodic rests and reliable potable water supply, the people are kind and welcoming (though not so inclined as to offer refreshment without first being asked), and the history and culture rise to meet your feet.  The altitude and daily elevation changes add challenge.

Before the pilgrimage, I had the idea that Peru in particular would be a place similar to Mexico, since they share a common history of having a strong empire and complex culture in place when the Spaniards arrived - the Spanish colonials arrived in Mexico City in 1521 and in Cusco in 1531.  However, other than the similarities of the general appearance of the colonial-era towns, they're quite different from each other.  I have the sense that the divergence of the Spanish cultural impact was the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The experience of the Native American, baptized as Juan Diego, in 1531 in Mexico City sparked a mass conversion of the natives.  Once converted to Catholism, the Spaniards intermarried and established a firm mixed culture.  In Peru, there were several apparitions in diverse localities before the end of the 16th century, but none had the widespread impact as OLoG.  While the work of the missioneries resulted in many conversions, there wasn't the emotional devotion in Peru as in Mexico.  Today, not many people in Peru know who OLoG is, there are relatively few practicing Catholics, few shrines, annual feast days aren't centered around a patron Saint.  The present culture of Peru is fascinating and diverse, but not as similar to Mexico as I had thought it would be.  Interesting.  And for this reason too, a particularly savorous place to make a village-to-village pilgrimage.

Walking village to village as I do, without a map to speak of, I tend to show up in unexpected places to the shock and amazement of the locals.  I ask the shepherds for the footpaths and sometimes just take their vague advice - 'over the next mountain is another mountain, over that mountain is a stream...follow the stream down to the village, there you can meet my cousin and stay in his house for the night, or better, rest there for a week'.  Though in this sea of mountains, over every mountain in another mountain, but good enough direction for me, and off I go - the worse that can happen is not so bad.  Often enough I find remnants of the Incan trail - a properly engineered path wide enough for two to pass, zigzagging up and down the high mountains.  Sometimes, though, the non-Incan paths aren't engineered beyond a hoe-scraped line traversing a steep slope making for a rather daring passage.  Don't look down.  I climbed one a few days ago, in a light rain, passing a young goatherd... the little boy and I had to take hold of each other as we delicately passed so neither would risk the 1,000-foot can't-see-the-bottom deathdrop - ok, so on the list of quals for the appeal to pilgrims above, add that it's not a place for acrophobes.

And I walk with joy and happiness...

Oh, and just when I'm comfortable speaking Spanish without having to think about it first, I'm now in a region where Quechua is so engrained that not everyone I meet during a given day remembers their Spanish from their schooldays...I'm picking up some words, can ask for water and almost discuss the location of paths, but to my dismay, the language apparently lacks a word for 'pilgrim', so it's not possible to say 'Hi, I'm a pilgrim!' in the local idiom.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Day 114: Ups and Downs

I'm high in the mountains again, making my way toward Lima along the old Incan trail.  Ups and downs like I haven't seen since the Atlas Mountains along the Moroccan coast.  It's beautiful here, and more densely populated than the area southeast of Cusco.

The only adequate map I was able to find in Cusco lacks the detail necessary to find a route each day, so I'm still asking the locals.  It's inefficient, but really pretty on the verdant mountains with the steep patchwork of fields ripening with corn, wheat, potatoes and other veggies unknown to me.  I rise and fall thousands of meters every day along footpaths and dirt roads with locals toiling in the fields, plenty of livestock - though now too low for alpacas - misty humid valleys, windy crisp mountains, afternoon thunderstorms... Try as I could to avoid the inevitable, guinnea pig is the most common food among the mountain families.  Not at all like chicken.  The pilgrimage continues happily, though slower than I sketched out, so Lima is weeks away.  Beautiful.