Saturday, February 23, 2013

Day 163 It's a jungle out there...

Funny how in one day months ago, I rose up out of the beige desert and into the green high Andes, and now, in one day, I've dropped down out of the green high Andes and into the green lush jungle. Passing through some unknown altitude, I hit a wall of humidity that made my hair curl so fast, my hat fell off.  The change in vegetation, birdsongs, and crawling insects seemed to happen over a single ridge.  There'll be no more shivering under a mountain of heavy blankets at night.  And, bonus, among the new verdant vistas are coffee and cocoa trees.  How fascinating the world is by foot.

Just a few days from the border now, a level of sadness hits me every day as the racial overtness is harder to ignore.  As I pass through a village, nearly everyone stops what they're doing and stares at me with silent vague intensity; someone invariably and anonymously barks 'grin-go' with ire, and often then spits.  From every car or truck that passes, a sullen shout of 'grin-go'.  Here, the term simply means 'white person', and clearly used as a racial epithet by many, though not all, people.  This is added to the general nonverbal communication devices such as whistling to get my attention (as if I'm a dog being called to come), banging incessantly on car door or tabletop, and most irritating, wailing on a car horn.  Could they really hope that once they're hailing me so rudely - and never with a pleasant smiling 'hola, señora, buenos dias' - I'd have any interest in a conversation.  It tries on one's patience and has become more aggressive as I've traveled northward.  Few people will utter a word to me until I offer a greeting first.  Still, I manage to ignore the morons and find cheerful and better mannered people to banter with every day and haven't had any difficulty in finding accommodation every night.

Even I am surprised at the distance I've traveled in nearly these 6 months.  I don't know yet what the total distance will be, but I've been figuring that the border with Ecuador will be about the half-way point.  I estimate that I've spoken directly with somewhere close to 8,000 people since I started this pilgrimage, not counting the impossible-to-know number of listeners to the various radio stations I've given interviews.  In terms of global population, it's nothing, but in terms of the efforts of one little pilgrim, it incrementally contributes to the betterment of the world, no?  And what a great adventure I'm having in the process.  The world needs more pilgrims.

One amusing comment on my northern Peruvian sojourn... the ending 'bamba' on many of the placenames signifies something like 'town' or 'ton' in English placenames and is used so commonly paired with other onomatopoetic syllables that it's utterly confusing to follow conversations regarding directions (which, of course, I have to have every day).  Piscobamba, Pomobamba, Cajabamba... My frustration totally evaporated when I passed a village called - and I could never make this up - Shitabamba.  Laugh out loud.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Day 157 All's Well

The high country of Peru persists underfoot.  It sometimes seems as though a strange tectonic event keeps pushing Ecuador ever further from my last stop, but it's the serpentine nature of the footpaths and roadways that makes progress seem snail-like.  I'm walking happily every day through long valleys and over high passes.

I wonder what the classic poets and authors of the Age of Enlightenment would have produced if they could have walked through the Peruvian Andes... in any given day, I climb and descend thousands of meters of elevation, mostly along the Inca Trail, but sometimes along the dirt roads where mines have cut through the ancient trail or it's otherwise obscure.  Along the bare rock face of one enormous mountain, I counted 27 sharp switchback turns for the unpaved 'highway' on the opposite side of the valley; I prefer climbing on foot than driving that oversized zigzag.  At the top, over 4,000 meters, the temperature is cool and the air brisk; at the bottom, over the roar of a rocky, muddy river, less than 2,000 meters, the humidity is oppressive and temperature soaring; somewhere in the middle, an horizon of clouds separate the extremes.  Plodding up or down on foot, there's little time for changing clothing layers - hot below, cold above.  It's a workout, and a great one, too!  What would Dante have written?  It's like traveling the seven levels of the heavens, with villages at every horizon.

Two slightly untoward and unprecedented events have passed since the last update.  One day, I failed to reign supreme in the routine battles with dogs.  One got me in the ham.  I was high up along the Inca Trail, populated by isolated clusters of two or three rock huts.  The trail is so easily obscured in the rocky country above the treeline, that I go pretty far out of my way any time I see a person to talk with and confirm direction.  In this way, I approached a hut, smoke rising through the grass roof, and a big dog barked as usual.  Two small children were outside playing in the mud, so the dog was doing its job.  I was shouting hellos to the hut occupants, but before an adult could come out, a second big dog came running from behind the hut - and ignoring all rules of battle - noisily passed under my waving trekking poles and grabbed me full force on the back of my thigh.  What force it had!  Such strength!  I whacked it across the ribs and it released its grip just as the mother of the kids came running, spoon in hand.  The dogs ran off, the kids cried, the young woman had no idea what to do.  I dropped my pants expecting gushing blood, but though red and quickly swelling, there was thankfully no penetraton through the skin.  The woman said the dog was old and had lost most of its teeth.  A nasty bruise lasted a good long week and the soreness did little to interupt my gait, so all's well that ends well.  I can't blame the dog for doing its duty.  I hope it doesn't happen again - better to get bitten by no dog than even a toothless one.

The second unplanned event happened because of bad advice.  What can be done?  A priest told me it would take 10 hours to walk from one small town to another.  The maps I have are unreliable at best, so I always ask.  Even though the distance on the map looked a lot longer than a 10-hour walk, I liked what the priest said, so I believed him.  The Inca Trail led upwards from the village through another, and another, but was then in high country (4,400 meters) across a broad wet valley, marshy with lakes and barren of trees.  I wasn't sure what pass led to the inhabited valley on the other side of the mountains and what passes led to more unoccupied isolated valleys.  Beautiful country, nonetheless.  Knowing I would be alone for most of the day, I made of point of asking everyone I saw in the morning to clarify directions.  Everyone seemed to indicate the distance to the next town was very great, but no one offered a time estimate.  After 12 hour of steady uphill walking in the rain, I came to the end of the path - it just ended in the grass.  Getting dark, I eliminated the idea of continuing without a path.  The last people I saw were hours and hours below.  I came to the end of a day without a village or even a house for the first time, and in a cold rain.  Poohey.  A few kilometers below, I remembered having passed two abandoned stone huts.  I made it to them just as the last glow of rainy twilight faded.  Shelter, fairly dry, musky smelling, but adequate for the situation, even comfortable.  In inspecting my home for the night, I shone the flashlight across the inside of the framework of the grass roof and startled a bat hanging upsidedown from the main beam.  Uck - not a fan of bats, though I appreciate their role in the foodchain, I'm offput by the erratic flying, which it began immediately.  Quick inventory of the cupboard which is unavoidably my backpack - can of tuna, small pot of beef, tube of sweetened condensed evaporated milk, instant coffee, tea bags, saltines, a pear, an apple, and an orange.  I wouldn't starve.  I attempted to make a fire from wood from the little doorframe, and succeeded enough to heat water for a cup of coffee, but the funny thing about altitude, low oxygen makes for a poor fire, blue flames, in fact, and not very hot.  I gave up after the cup of coffee, changed into dry clothes, made a bed of some of the soggy grass from the interior of the roof and passed a rather uncomfortable night with my unwelcomed bedfellow flying the length of the little hut erratically until dawn.  (Just as the flame of the last candle flickered out, the thought popped into my head - don't vampire bats live in South America?)  In the morning, rewarded with a glorious view, thick white clouds below, of the reflection of a thickly snow-covered mountain across the lake.  I retreated to the last family of shepherds I had seen, got coffee, hot food, and instruction on how to find the footpath to the right pass and how to find the elusive village that was 18 hours distant by foot, not 10.  The priest must have gone on horseback.  Another pilgrim adventure.

Still headed toward Ecuador... another week? 10 days?  Less sparsely populated, so hard to gage.  I'll try not to let so much time pass before the next update.  Thanks for the comments!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Day 142 Incan Trunk Road

'Thus said the Lord: Stand at the crossroads and look.  Ask for the ancient path and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.' (Jer 6:16)  But Lord, what if there's no one to ask?

I retreated successfully to the old Incan trail to use as the corridor to Ecuador, but it's not always easy to find and it's taking me a bit of time to make forward progress with the interruption of roundabout searches when the way becomes obscure on the rocky flats.  Nonetheless, I've climbed into some of the most beautiful valleys I've ever seen - green and lush (a bit too lush at times and rather overwet), adorable square or round stone huts with shaggy grass roofs, a step back into time that hasn't been compelled to modernize much beyond an occasional solar cell sticking above the shaggy grass roof, no doubt to keep cell phones charged.  Every few hours, I pass some shepherds or llamaherds, or people sowing rows of potatoes in stone-walled plots on steep slopes.  Quetchua is the dominant language.  Some people are reluctant to send their kids to school claiming there's no need to over-educate shepherds.  In these cases, I struggle to learn much about the whereabouts of the Incan trail, though my vocabulary has improved over the last week.

The Incan trunk road construction tells a lot about where the Spaniards colonized.  Many sections of the road include stairs cut into the white limestone formations.  While the Incans, lacking beasts of burden, lacking therefore the need for carts, lacking the need for wheels, built their roads for people to walk along, the Spaniards, dependant on their horses and carts stayed far away from the stairs of the Incan roads and to this day these sections are populated sparsely by people living in stone huts accessed only by foot or, now, horse.  These places haven't changed; no car or even dirtbike have entered these areas.  Tranquility abounds.

I'll try to continue along the Incan trail, though towns are very few and very far between.  Internet access is difficult to find, so updates will also be few and far between.  Loving the pilgrim life, difficult as it is.  Sanitation in the little stone huts is just what it was when the Spaniards arrived.  The inhabitants are friendly and accommodating, insisting I stay as their guest, sharing a meal of mutton or llama soup with rice and toasted corn kernels, sleeping on a makeshift bed of lambskins piled on the dirt floor, the guineapigs scurrying about all night long, and washing in the cold mountain springs.  Primative but peaceful.

Europeans come through in pairs every three or four months, several have told me, walking the length of the Incan trail, but carry big backpacks and camp out, never entering their homes, and rarely even speaking with them.  The Quetchuan limitation I can understand, but they say that the Europeans don't speak much Spanish and seem unfriendly and afraid of the locals.  What a wasted opportunity.