“Pare! pare! pare!” shouts the the teenager in front of our rickety micro bus. Lit up by the headlights in front of a dark and foggy abyss, the sweat on his skin glistens despite the cool night air. He’s motioning vigoursly for the driver to “stop! stop! stop!” It’s 9pm and we’re clinging to the edge of a crumbling mountain road high in the central Andes, trying to pass by another bus heading the opposite direction. Etched into the near vertical hillside, the “road” is barely a lane and a half wide. Small white crosses cling to the bends. Why had I not noticed these on the way up? The teen is staring at the front left tire, which is mere inches from dropping off the edge. The other bus crawls forward on the inside of the turn, gassing and braking, its diesel engine barking loudly. The people inside rock forward in unison with the abrupt gas-brake pedal mashing of their driver. With barely a hand’s width between my window and theirs, there’s less space between us than if we were sitting at a cafe table together. The smell of nerves and diesel fumes. Wiping away the condensation on my window, I make eye contact with a girl in the other bus; shadows move across her palpably tense expression. But I don’t feel bad for her. She’s on the inside of the road. In my bus, I hear a guy a few seats behind me puke. Christ.
The pass is finally complete. A few people on my bus are marking the sign of the cross on their foreheads, shoulders and chest, muttering catholic things. The teenage “cliffside negotiator” leaps back in through the door with the energy of someone who’s just landed an awesome stunt on a skateboard or something like that. Huge grin on his face, he talks loudly to a few of his friends on the bus. “We were this close!” he exclaims in Spanish, holding up his index finger and thumb for everyone to see. Real reassuring. As we begin rolling down the road’s steep incline back home towards Lima, he continues, “if we went over the edge, we wouldn’t stop falling until Sunday!” It’s Friday night.
I’d spent the last two days with a friend exploring the Marcahuasi plateau and the nearest town, San Pedro de Castas, population 500. The cluster of homes clings to the mountain side nearly 4000 metres above sea level, and way off the trodden gringo trail to Cusco and Machu Picchu. Though it’s only four hours away from Lima by a series of rickety kombis, it felt worlds apart, culturally and geographically.
48 hours earlier on the way up, I’d gawked and snapped photos with shameless enthusiasm. Unlike the misty late night descent, we made the trip up the mountain in the early morning, and we didn’t have to worry about brakes failing. Our bus that morning was run by the town of San Pedro, so it was full of locals; for them this was simply the weekly commute, so naturally, they weren’t so giddily reactive to the views as I was. A woman with two younger children laughed at me and offered me her seat next to the window, telling me I could get better photos if I put my camera outside the dusty windows. Grateful, I swapped seats with her and for the rest of the voyage I chatted with her to the best of my limited ability. She told me her name was Elena and that her family lived in San Pedro. She divided her time between her hometown, high in a remote lush alpine valley, and Lima, the arid metropolis in the rainshadow of the Andes.
We continued climbing higher, higher. The valleys were a verdant paradise compared to the sunbleached desert coast where I have been living and working. Long grasses, flowering shrubs, leafy trees, plump succulents all clung to the walls of the high alpine meadows. Subtle ridges and pathways marked the hillsides, gently massaged into the landscape over millenia (yes, millenia) of livestock grazing, of permaculture. The area had been farmed like this for the last 3000 years more or less, Elena told me. At the end of the bus ride, she gave me her phone number and an invitation to come visit her and her family at their home later that afternoon.
According to the Christian tradition, San Pedro, or Saint Peter, controls heaven's pearly gates. I don't know the actual intention of the town's colonial name, but the steep and lofty cliffs, the soft inland murmur of the alpine steams, the quiet of the sky, all seemed to radiate with an unearthly type of peace. Additionally, there have been more than a few deaths in recent years as a result of carelessness near the precipices. After exploring the town and checking into our very rustic hotel, the clouds crawled up the mountain faces from the valley, socking in the entire valley, the town engulfed in an eerie mist. It wasn’t that textureless fog we’re used to seeing. It was like smoke, with puffs and swirls, floating quicky past doorways, rolling over the backs of the donkeys patiently waiting at their tethers in yards and on street corners. A rooster crowed somewhere. I was standing on the edge of a cliff with my friend Carolina, all white, all around us. It felt surreal, like floating in purgatory.
People of the town came and went along the narrow cobbled streets, between ancient houses. The cool air smelled of flowers and manure and tobacco. A group of 10 women and men sat together on some steps, smoking and chewing coca leaves. Andean people call chewing coca, “chacchar,” and the act is loaded with cultural meaning, not to mention notably high concentrations of calcium, phosphorus, vitamins, proteins, and other goodness making up this natural super-supplement. Coca has been an Andean staple for thousands of years; the narcotic alkaloid used to make cocaine was only extracted from the leaf, by a white scientist in Germany, in 1898.
The friends on the steps were laughing, joking, counting flowers into bouquets in preparation for the upcoming Easter celebrations. Enjoying the ancient comforts of companionship. They were farmers, mostly. The brightly coloured skirts, long braided hair, and tall hats were characteristic garb of the Andean people. I said to Carolina, “It’s like a national geographic magazine… they probably don’t know and don’t care about this week’s terrorist attacks in Belgium, about the terrifying rise of Trump’s right wing populism. ” But then I caught myself… what the hell was I talking about. I sounded like an elitist asshole. They were not exotic, and they were probably not living in removed ignorant bliss. I was the damn exotic one. I was ignorant, and still am, but at least I’m learning how little I know.
We couldn’t get a hold of Elena by phone, so we just started asking around town where her family lived. People up there spoke slower. People even paused before answering. In Lima, conversations are a rapidfire slur, with responses beginning before the question is finished. In the mountains, perhaps a result of the strong indigenous culture and lineage, it was very different. Yes there was catholisim, yes, people spoke spanish, but the hot and heavy “latin” influence of the coast didn’t seem to permeate the thin air.
Somehow Elena knew to come find us on the street, appearing with her sister, and greeting us with the typical Peruvian single kiss-on the cheek. This is not a an actual kiss but rather a touching of cheeks accompanied by a kiss sound. Something I’d grown used to in Lima. While Elena looked relatively urban in her tights and synthetic jacket— she lived in the city after all— her sister sported the typical Andean garb I described earlier. Her skin was weathered under her tall brimmed hat. Aside from their eyes, it was hard to tell they were even sisters. Unlike Elena, she planted a big fat proper kiss right on my damn cheek with her lips, then smiled at me, with both her hands on my shoulders. Bienvenido a San Pedro de Castas. She explained, as we walked to their house, that in Lima she felt like a caged bird, and that she much preferred the material simplicity and emotional depth of the high temperate alpine Sierra.
Descending into their yard, Elena’s family members were seated along an ancient stone bench and on small wooden stools. The two girls who came with Elena on the bus were playing with a dog, wearing little wool coats. It was about 8 degrees maybe. For the next hours, all we did was talk. Talk and talk. Sitting outside on that old stone wall, I watched the mist twist and roll, occasionally revealing the immense panoramic views these new friends enjoyed daily. We couldn’t see the valley floor kilometeres below us, but the peaks revealed themselves fleetingly. The summits were an additional kilometer higher than the town, Elena’s brother informed me, pouring me a second glass of Chichuasi. The comforting tonic was perfect the mountain weather: pisco (a Peruvian brandy), eucalyptus, garlic, sugar cane extract, and cloves, sealed and aged for 9 months. Good for your body and spirit. We talked of Canada. We talked of Peru. The Chichasi warmed my core. Darkness fell and we moved into their 200-year old kitchen.
We talked of the social challenges of the town, of the increasing impact of tourism, and of the changes in weather as a result of climate change. Elena’s sister served us muña tea and bread. Both were warm and sweet. I zoned out, Spanish bandwidth long since exhausted, observing the stone walls, the dirt floor, thinking of all the members of their family who had sat in here, of all the conversations that had been had over the last two centuries. Of the temptations of the city, of the false promises of the sprawl, on the bottom rung of an economic ladder leading nowhere… Carolina nudges me, bringing me back, “Colin, they’re asking you about the terrorist attacks in Belgium this week.” Right, so blissfully ignorant. I told them what I knew about the attacks, informed by a half-ass skim of a few new articles earlier that week, but I knew that I was the one receiving the lesson here, not them.
Eventually our fatigue got the best of us. The next day we were getting up at 5am and taking horses up to the Marcahuasi plateau, our ultimate destination. But if Elena’s family home was part of the journey to get there, then the overused old journey-as-destination cliche couldn’t have been more true. At the hotel, we switched off the single bulb on the ceiling and crawled under the heavy alpaca wool covers. While the daytime temperatures consistently reach the high teens year round, the temperatures drop to the low single digits at night. However, no buildings, Elena’s family’s house, the hotel, use any heat sources. I had one of the best sleeps of my life, exhausted from the high altitude, the weight of the cover pressing comfortingly on my legs, on my chest, like being embraced from all directions...
As the intensity of the mountain road lessens, I feel the breeze from the dark night outside the bus window become warmer as we spill out onto the valley floor. People around me are sleeping now, but my mind is wide awake, ruminating on the events of the last few days. The Marcuahuasi plateau was stunning, of course, an astoundingly remote and spiritual place at the end of the earth, but I can’t keep my thoughts from returning to the yard of my new friends’ home. In my hands I turn over the smooth goat’s horn that I’d picked up in their garden, which Elena’s brother cleaned and polished for me, laughing with joy at the transformation from garbage to gift. I resolve that our encounter will not be a one time affair. It’s too sincere and genuine of an interaction to never see them again. I wake Carolina and we begin hatching plans for the next visit.