March 7, 2013 by southerninversion
Struggling to catch my breath as the air grew thinner, I kept pausing to rest and gather my thoughts, every 50 paces. The valley opened up before me the higher I climbed, revealing its vast expanse of meadows and hidden lakes, masked by the massive granite precipices overhead and fields of glacial ice. The trail was obscured at times, unmarked, and hard to follow as it traversed impending slopes of rock face. I had to search out the trail, looking for signs of foot traffic, rock cairns, demarcations, or any slight discoloration to help lead the way. Luckily, when I came to a specific crossroads section of the trail, where it split into a ‘V’, a literal question mark, there passed a group of hikers going the opposite way, who guided me correctly towards ‘Punta Union’, the pass, and the highest point of the ‘Santa Cruz’ trail. It had been only a few days since my sister Heather had flown back to Los Angeles, back to the comforts of her home. Yet, I was more alone than ever, and I felt it, hiking in the desolate, rugged landscape of the Cordillera Blanca, outside of Huaraz, in south central Peru. I had chosen to come here approximately two months prior, a recommendation from Bobby, my friend from the strawberry farm in Lago Puelo. He had listed Huaraz as his favorite destination in all of South America.
So here I was, midway through the second afternoon of a four day backpacking journey, from one valley to the next. I had suffered through the long, nauseating ‘combi’ (mini-bus) ride, up and over a devastatingly scary mountain pass, while a little boy, sitting on a blanket as a makeshift seat, kept repeatedly throwing up into a plastic bag, outside the window. I was more than aware, that any mistake, or error by the driver, would surely mark our demise. Our precious little van could easily be sent hurtling over the cautionary marked guard rails, toward the clear, turquoise waters of the glacial lakes, thousands of feet below. A half hour later, I got dropped off alone, in the quaint village of ‘Vaqueria’, named for the cattle operations that fill the surrounding valleys there, and the Peruvian gauchos, who casually tend to their herds on foot. The first night I rushed to set up my tent, as the rain clouds gathered around me, and the first cracks of thunder and lightning set my hairs on end. I located a flat spot in the grass, beside a small brook that lead to a larger stream, and began setting up shop. I managed to get the rain fly on and all my possessions under cover before the sky began to open up, crying into the river. After the storm had passed, I cooked a nice spaghetti dinner, while continually having to ward off several curious bulls and donkeys in the meadow, who stood and monitored my progress throughout the evening.
I sat there, stationary, in the tent, quiet, listening to the sound of the rain, first heavy, then gently relenting. With the protective barrier of my old tent’s rain fly tattered, worn, and near the end of its usefulness, I was sprinkled with a few sparse droplets at the weakest points. I sat there throughout the storm. I had plenty of time to think on this particular trek, more than enough solitary hours for reflection, free from ordinary distractions. My only other companions, or non-native living creatures within miles, were the herds of cattle, painted horses, and the amiable donkeys that were grazing throughout each expansive valley, and crowding each trail. I sat there and I pictured my life up to this point, where I’ve been, and where I’d like to go, not just from a physical destination sense, but rather, personal goals and dreams. I thought about the interactions I’ve had in the past few years, with family and friends, relationships with ex-girlfriends, the lessons learned, and my adaptation from such experiences. I thought about some of the successes I am most proud of, and the failures that I could’ve overcome. Moreover, I felt the weight of this experience finally weighing down on me. The constant traveling, different cities, remote places, new friendships, and stranger’s faces. It all started to hit me in one fell swoop as I sat there. Again, the second night, the feeling returned. Again, sitting in my tent. This time I camped beside a river, bustling with glacial snow melt, after having descended from a high alpine, mountain pass, and traversing through a valley full of glacial rock debris, an apparition of a ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ type desert landscape. I sat there and reflected, alone.
Although for me it was nothing new. I’ve always been a loner, it is something that has always come very natural. I find it easy to relax and I’m very comfortable just being alone, keeping my own company. Sometimes, I even find myself escaping social situations, group settings, parties, etc., feeling claustrophobic, craving respite, a brief solace from distraction, allowing me a little time to think. I’ve learned that independence is a very critical factor to my happiness, and that I generally dislike being told what to do. Traveling solo the past several months has been transformative to my personality, and only reenforced my independent nature. I’ve had the ability to chose my own destination, with no limits, and no conflict, while opening the door to opportunities to meet new friends and share new experiences, that I might have otherwise missed out on, if not solo.
With the benefits of traveling alone, also come the pitfalls. The feeling of isolation and despair eventually came as well. I grew tired of incessant travel. I just wanted to be around friends or family, or anything that was familiar and comfortable. I longed to find something stable, a job, perhaps a routine, and just to feel needed again. The lack of this brought me down, abysmally sinking. I felt petty for complaining and conflicted, because I was free to travel and roam, yet I just wanted stability and a place to fit in. Being alone, I felt that I had no one to turn to, no one to confide in, and no travel companions to consult, especially during this particular part of my trip in Peru. I lacked the initiative to connect with my family and friends, reluctant, as I didn’t want them to worry about me in the midst of my temporary ‘funk’. Although, I learned later that this feeling was a common symptom of ‘traveling blues’, due to the wear and tear of the mind, body, and soul. I spoke with other long tenured travelers, who themselves had reached the doldrums of despair. It seems we all had passed through common territory.
Coming down from the mountain, exiting the last peaceful segment of the Santa Cruz trail, passing cactus groves, abundant aloe plants, and the flowing glacial melted waters, I entered the small town of Cashapampa, located high aloft the Cordillera Blanca. I took another ‘combi’ down a slightly less treacherous mountain road, back towards Huaraz. Thankfully I was able to escape myself, and the delusions of my recent binge of ‘over-thinking’, arriving just in time at the hostel, for the familiarly mind numbing event of ‘The Super Bowl’, broadcast on Fox sports en Español. I shared the tv room with no one, zoning out a long while, until a British girl, named Janice, finally joined me to watch Beyonce electrify the halftime crowd. I watched until the waning minutes of the game, unfortunately missing the thrilling finish, due to the late, overnight departure of my bus to Lima, the capital city.
I always have trouble sleeping on buses, so I decided to consult the contents of my traveling pharmacy, conveniently concealed within the confines of a small, solitary plastic ziplock bag. I swallowed two pills for good measure and inserted my ear plugs, (a trick I learned from my sister Heather), to quiet the surrounding snores of fellow passengers. I crashed, hard. Upon awakening at the bus terminal in Lima, groggy and incoherent, I grabbed my things and headed down to retrieve my overstuffed backpack. I failed to snatch the proper ticket to claim my luggage, then realizing I had left it in my seat. So I climbed back aboard the bus, set my fiddle down in an empty seat, and proceeded to weed my way through the rows toward my forgotten ticket. It wasn’t until about 15 minutes later, while riding in a taxi, that I began to panic, realizing that I had left my poor fiddle on the bus! I had the driver make an abrupt, illegal u-turn across four lanes of traffic, and an immediate return towards the terminal. Despite my cloudy mental state, thanks to the 5am arrival and the sleep meds, I then remembered a second terminal across town, where the bus was headed next. So we pursued, seeking to intercept it, according to the address on my receipt. We arrived shortly before the bus did. I frantically explained the situation to the seemingly unconcerned desk clerk. She reluctantly called the bus conductor, who was waiting, a few minutes later, with a sly grin on his face, as the bus door opened, my precious fiddle in hand. Qué suerte!
I had been on my way to the airport before the fiddle fiasco took place. So I resumed my trip feeling extremely fortunate and somewhat stupid for being so absent minded. This marked the second time in less than a month that I ‘almost’ lost one of my most prized travel possessions, the other being my recovered iPhone in Uruguay. After traveling almost three and half months without losing virtually anything, I felt as if I was starting to fall apart. I pulled myself together in the airport and waited for my departure. I had decided to take a flight to avoid a 20 hour bus ride to Arequipa, in southeastern Peru. Throughout 5 months of travel in South America I have yet to take a bus ride of more than 8 hours, preferring to travel in smaller segments, or upgrade to a flight, if within reason.
Arequipa was probably my favorite ‘city’ I visited in Peru. It is replete with 15th century, Spanish colonial architecture, similar to that of Cuzco, though moderately less touristic, and with a more inviting feel. I spent a couple of pleasant days hanging out in Arequipa, doing laundry and eating vegetarian food, at the vast number of outlets for each, respectively. I visited the frozen, mummified remains of a sacrificial child from the Incan dynasty, named ‘Juanita’, at a natural history museum. She was found entombed in glacial ice on the top of a volcano, her skin still fully intact, albeit shriveled and weathered, with her clothes and hair also well preserved, thanks to the encrypted shroud of ice surrounding her lifeless remains. I then decided to sign up for a day trip to the ‘Colca Canyon’, which I arranged through my hostel and a local tour company. The canyon was touted to be ‘deeper than the Grand Canyon’, and apparently it is, although it depends where it is measured from, (as they count the mountain peaks in the distance all the way down to the valley floor). We were also expecting to see condors, (the largest birds on the planet), from a specific vantage point overlooking the valley, but I failed to see any. Overall, I was not overly impressed with this canyon and any direct comparison to the Grand Canyon leaves a lot to the imagination.
Despite the different tours, excursions, and other distractions, I still couldn’t shake this ‘funk’. It seemed to have a hold on me and it felt like a weight dragging me down. I pondered this as I took another night bus to Puno, a ragged, crossroads town, on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca. I had planned on crossing the border the following day into Bolivia. I hoped it would help to lighten my mood, allow me to enjoy my time a bit more, and not be so hard on myself. It seemed that I couldn’t get out of Peru fast enough and was eager for an immediate change of scene, anything to break my impasse.