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A four-day hiking adventure in Colca Canyon—a deep, deserty canyon near Cabanaconde and Ariquipa, Peru.

Eating cherimoya with Juliapi in Choquequirao

—Evan A. Belknap

I write this from a hostel in Huaraz, Peru, surrounded by several of the tallest mountains in the Andes, capped white, all over 20,000 feet. It’s new and beautiful with the familiar sounds of Peru—honking taxis, people hamming, dogs barking, bird songs, radios crackling flute music.

Since the rains flushed me out of Cochamó Valley, Chile, I explored the mountains and lakes around Bariloche, Argentina. Living with beautiful newfound Argentinian friends for about a month, I contemplated what it would be like to never go back to the States. To start a windsurfing rental business right there next to the lake, eat steak and drink wine, climb and make babies until I was old and grey. That was a good vision, but eventually my itchy feet got me on another bus.

Suddenly, I was sitting on a surfboard in Pichilemu, Chile. After several long mornings of getting pummeled by the cold ocean, I sat with the Dutch owner of my hostel, and he talked about how it was more important than anything to somehow find a way to do what one is passionate about forever. And to do that, he said, you need some kind of elaborate trick that will make you money. You’ve got to be tricky though.

I met old friends in Mendoza, Argentina, and bike-toured wineries. We rented a car and abused it into the Arenales Mountains just to the south for a few days of climbing crumbly orange granite. As funds ran low, Peru beckoned, and a friend and I prepared ourselves for almost a week of bussing north—through the desolate Atacama Desert, and into the clutches of the Inca.

We hiked all over Peru—from the river hot springs way down in Colca Canyon, to a less-touristy and amazing Incan ruin Choquequirao, up and down those near vertical Incan stairs. We ate cherimoya fruit with this little boy Juliapi on the bank of the river in Apurimac Canyon, and frolicked with Sacerdote up on Sunch’u Pata. The most motherly woman in the world, who made us food before and after our trek told us to ask Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) to embrace us and grant us entry before we started off—“Tell her you love her, and then go tranquillo with your hearts open.” With our hearts open, we got chewed to death by sandflies, and had an unforgettable experience.

I went from Cusco to Lima, and then finally, here to Huaraz. It sounds like a Disney ride if you leave out all the logistics between pretty pictures. Traveling in Peru is heads up and shockingly real, and it has been beautiful, but also emotionally taxing.

The sensation of rolling into a new town has become familiar and predictable. It’s starts with a calculated fear at five in the morning, stepping down off my night bus onto a deserted street in an unknown city. I am generally tired, lost, and hyperaware of the thousand dollars of climbing gear I’ve chosen to carry, not to mention my computer. I find the first terrible hospedaje, get hustled by the receptionist, and eventually sleep until the sun comes up.

Locking up my extraneous belongings, I go out into the now-crowded street—people and chickens and dogs and vendors of so many things, fruits and tools and cellphones and toys, tea vendors with multicolored bottles of bee-covered sugar, piles of rocks and trash, sand leftover from making cement, broken bricks, bottles and dog shit, old women like wrinkled apples in huge brown hats and dazzling shawls. Taxis weave in and out, never stopping, children and dogs jumping out of the way just in time, and I too, suddenly feel the wind and hear the whoosh of a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi inches from my knee. People stare; I’ve gotten used to it.

I have tried very hard to not be the typical aloof tourist, wandering the fringes of other people’s lives with a camera pointed. I try to be social, which is not necessarily like me, but I’m getting better. And it’s fun to try new fruit, see new things, eat mysterious meats, and attempt to humanize oneself to people that, you quickly learn, are just people, like all the other people. I tell the orange juice lady that God, I’m thirsty, and she smiles—because all humans get thirsty—and says that she has just the thing. That initial fear starts to dissipate.

But while I am used to the stares, to keeping one eye over my shoulder, to speaking Spanish, I am still routinely stunned by the poverty. It makes me uncomfortable—as it should—for I wonder about the morality of me traveling so far to stare at these peoples’ lives. After a while, it gets hard to look. I have stared long and hard, stubbornly, with the idea that filling oneself with as much as one can is “good,” that there is some intrinsic benefit to it all. I think there is on a personal level. Knowledge breeds compassion. But finally, compassion doesn’t feed people, and I am getting tired of compassionately doing nothing.

I’m coming home soon. The Southwest is calling my name. The desert spires, green chile, good beer! Coffee! Security! Family! These little things that we should never take for granted. I miss the Sandia Mountains, the frontier, and riding my bike.

While my five-month journey comes to an end here in South America, it just continues on up there in North America, and that’s exciting. More and more hot weather for me, hurrah

 
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