In Cusco, Perú, I spend the vast majority of my time in the city. Cobblestone sidewalks, chaotic traffic, and an endless parade of street vendors is the daily norm. Vendors sizzle anticuchos on portable grills (beef hearts), brew emoliente (herbal tea), and offer massages all amidst the incessant bustle of a city half booming with tourism and half suffering from the crippling wealth disparity that tourism creates.
City vibes are vibrant and exciting, but after a couple of weeks, inhaling bus exhaust fumes, constantly being haggled, and waking up to the blast of fireworks creates a desire for peace and quiet. I’m not complaining, but city living does cultivate a better appreciation for enjoying a beautiful view in silence or taking a stroll in the woods.
In the past two weeks, I’ve had the privilege to travel to Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain) and Lake Titicaca, but for now I’ll focus on Rainbow Mountain.
As I said in my previous post, if Mars had valleys teeming with llamas, indigenous Peruvian farms, and towering snow capped peaks, Mars and Rainbow Mountain wouldn’t be too different. Rainbow Mountain has only recently become a spot of interest in Perú , but it has quickly come to be advertised in tourist agencies all over the city of Cusco. Rainbow Mountain is a four hour bus ride from Cusco and tucked away in a remote part of the Andes, but the lung electrifying mountain air, echoing silence, and colorful mineral patterns make the bumpy trek worth it.
After a winding and scenic drive through the Andean Highlands, 8 other volunteers and I hopped out of our touristic bus, shoved some coca leaves (a stimulant native to the Andean Highlands) in our mouths, and took off up the mountain. Many of the other volunteers are more towards the 30-40 age range, so I quickly found myself alone on the path. Rainbow Mountain is 5,200 meters above sea level, so I also soon found my heart beating as if it was trying to escape my rib cage.
But I wanted to be mystified, so I took off up the trail like a Peruvian 2nd grader who just found out it was time to play fútbol. I’d sprint about 20 meters, nearly pass out from exhaustion, collapse, devour almonds, chug water, attempt to meditate, and then repeat.
Eventually, I found myself at a crossroads, and there were 3 Peruvian men who found amusement in watching a lanky kid from the United States attempt to sprint up the mountain. They offered me water, words of encouragement, and showed me a breathing technique that involved spreading your body out like a starfish.
With the help of my 3 amigos, I made it to the top of the mountain to what is called El Bosque de Piedra (the stone forest).
I wanted to experience my own vibe and attempt to commune with good ol’ Mother Nature, so I ducked behind a couple of big stones and scurried to the back side of the mountain.
The first thing that struck me was the immense power of the silence. Looking out across the Andes with no sound other than my own beating heart, I could almost feel the existential angst of being a 19 year old evaporate off my shoulders. The uncertainties of the future were nothing in comparison to the expansive grandeur of snow capped spires and a sea of crimson tinted peaks. The nagging guilt I’d been experiencing due to being so privileged in such an impoverished nation was caressed away by the omnipotent hands of Nature. It was as if a dense coastal fog was lifted from my mind. I bounded across the mountain, slipping in patches of snow and stubbing my toe on hidden stones, but never have I felt so awestruck and uplifted.
In preparation for my trip to Perú , I read a couple books of Peruvian literature, and one was about the struggle of indigenous Peruvian farmers against the civil war that ravaged the countryside in the 80’s. Life in the Andes during the 80's featured widespread famine, constant warfare, and mass executions. One of my favorite quotes from the novel “Death in The Andes” by Mario Vargas Llosa was:
“Even here, even as we suffer, life is still worth living…”
Atop the Andes, I felt as if I’d acquired a slight understanding of the power behind that quote. On the bus ride to Rainbow Mountain, you see Peruvian children engaging in back breaking work as the sun unrelentingly beats down from above. You see the reddened eyes, wizened skin and curved backs of men and women who have spent their entire lives in the fields. Suddenly, the word “poverty” changes from an abstract idea to a concrete reality. It’s disheartening to see the spark of hope, excitement, and presence in the eyes of certain farm children, and then realize, that in all likelihood, their future will be no different from their beatdown parents.
Yet, despite my lamentations from a pampered first world perspective, I have the suspicion that these indigenous farm people have access to something I don’t fully understand. They’re constantly surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen, and that’s why I feel Mario Vargas Llosa found it necessary to make it clear: even in the face of their daily struggle,
life is still worth living.
Songs I like:
// Heat Wave // Snail Mail
// Real Love Baby // Father John Misty
// Sleep Walk // Jeff Beck