Guinea pig is not as delicious as it sounds / Peru part 2

 Uncertainty filled my teenage years. I had fallen so far from the straight path that my family, especially my mom, didn’t know where to turn. At home I was toxic. The smile I wore in school was replaced by a war mask as I entered my house each night. My mom had two other kids to consider and she needed to cut her loses.

I began to fear the phone. In her search for help or a place to put me, from the Church Farm school to Valley Forge Military Academy, my mom was in constant contact with potential abductors. I would hear the phone ring and crawl to the top of my basement steps to listen. Sometimes, stricken with fear or overcome with anger, I picked up the phone and blared Metallica into it, forcing both parties to immediately end their call and hang up. Can you imagine how embarrassed my mom must of been. Now as I look back, (or watch Dead Poets Society,) I wonder what my path would have been had I gone to one of those schools. Would there still have been the trouble, the waves of my youth, the fights and nights of young love out under the East Coast moon?  Who knows where I would of landed or ended up. Maybe here. Maybe still in these mountains where I now stood. This is how I began day three, the hardest day of trekking on our itinerary.

Headed up

We had been warned of this day: 14 kilometers, 7 to 8 hours, most of it up, switchbacks that peak at 15,100 feet. That morning the sky cleared, a good sign. We set off after a hearty breakfast. At each lodge, several staff members would come out to the front door and wish us goodbye and good luck as we were leaving. It was a nice touch, creating an intimacy with the lodge. We started off as a group. Ian pointed up to the snowcaps: “that is where we pass.” Holy shit, I thought, where’s my horse?  As the first hour waned our group split. Kevin and his wife Sandra went ahead; their kids Callan and Conner, along with Craig, Katherine and I stayed in the middle and the Canadians dropped to the back. The morning grew hot and the landscape was green and muddy.  We began ascending a ridge and the group stopped for pictures. I decided to run ahead around a curve to take a leak.  Sandra who was about 100 meters ahead could see me running but could not see her kids around the corner. I stopped and unzipped and the next thing I know I have this mom {who is hot} running at me. WTF I thought. When she realized what was going on, she froze and swiveled around. Later that day we all had a laugh as she tried to explain how she thought one of her kids was hurt. I let it go but I couldn’t help thinking, Has the Crowley legend even landed in the Andes? My mojo rocking at 12,ooo feet +?

As the day wore on, the once energetic group quieted. Shadows of the huge Andean condor overhead were our only relief from a unforgiving sun and steep switchbacks.

The king of the Andes, Andean condor

Peruvians on the trail, there out of necessity, had to be saying, “Look at these assholes.” Katherine and I found a nice pace in the middle and Corinne, one of the Canadians, joined us. As we closed in on the Salkantay Pass the clouds covered us and the temperature dropped. We kept going up into the stoney gray. Warmer gear was put on, chapstick applied. The last half mile to the pass was brutal for me. Katherine, of course, scampered up it like a chestnut eyed gazelle.

Our first real mountain top, April 2012

Approaching the summit










We reached the top but it was cold. Pictures and congratulations went around the group. The family of four and Craig had already been waiting twenty minutes.Katherine and I held each other and looked down. Like July on the Masai Mara, here too I felt as though we were connected to the universe. That we were part of the sweat and sands that makes up the human history. We looked down from where we had just come, our past, to where we stood here. I wanted to tell Katherine how happy I was, how long the road had been. I wanted to tell her how much I appreciate her picking me up from my self pity and making me want to be a better person. I wanted to tell her many things but all I could do was smile and breathe it in.

We made it to our lodge that afternoon tired but accomplished. Pilar, the head of this lodge greeted us and quickly sent us off to get showers. Fresh popcorn cooked on the stove and a fire combated the storm that picked up outside. In a land of soft green, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, a storm hit just after our arrival, delayed by the gods. I watched Walter and Alejandro wrestle with the horses through the window as the rain drops raced down the panes.
That night after dinner, Craig, Conner and I played Risk as the girls feel asleep next to the fire. Craig and I drank two and a half bottles of Argentine Malbec. I stumbled to bed and my last thought was “Please do let me be hung over for the hike tomorrow.” 
I awoke and quickly checked for any signs of a hangover. I went out to the dining area and was greeted by Kevin and Craig. Our cook had set out some meats and fresh fruit; I quickly scooped a pile of watermelon onto my plate in an attempt to replenish and hydrate. Peruvian watermelon was sweeter than any I’ve ever tasted.
As we packed up to get on the road again I went through my day pack, preparing for the hours ahead. I had brought my grandfather’s ashes again with me as I’d done in Africa and in Oxford, England. It makes me feel good to take him with me and leave a little bit of him at the places I love, the places that he helped get me to. I carry him in a crude cream cylinder which I put duct tape to avoid any accidents. It is a comfort having him with me in my pack, exploring the road, the people. Corinne asked if my grandfather had loved Peru or traveling. I got a little teary because I didn’t know. As a selfish child you don’t dig deep enough into your hidden heroes until it is too late and they are gone. I knew he loved me.  When I caught my emotions, I said, “He would have liked to travel but had to waste all his money on my lawyers and my trouble. This is the only way I can pay him back.” It is true, for all the thanks that were never spoken he lives now in my energy and is given immortality on my pages.

This picture still makes me crack up, and miss him

Our trail for the day went down and we quickly dropped in altitude. You could feel the jungle air from the Amazon basin pushing up at us.  As we descended the vegetation grew thick. We took it easy, slowly walking and enjoying the world, the butterflies.

Our lodge that night was my favorite, set on a hill it overlooked the surrounding cloud forest and river below. Our cook had arrived before us and was preparing a Peruvian style BBQ by cooking our food in the ground with hot rocks. It was at this meal that the national food, guinea pig, was offered. Corinne dug right into to the BBQ’d pet that sat on her plate. I, on the other hand, let it sit too long on my plate and in my mind. When I finally took a bite I started dry heaving and my face twisted and turned like the transformation of Jekyll to Hyde. I think Katherine thought I was hamming it up for the table but I was about to throw up on Callan sitting across from me. I pretty much ate rat. Nasty little guinea pig.

Going for the guinea!

Lunch mountain style










That afternoon the rain came again after we finished lunch. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed these afternoons.  A hike through the Andes completed, we would sit nestled in these cozy lodges, fireplaces burning, alone but with each other.  Our feet warmed as we read the day away entranced by a slow symphony of periodic rain.  Tomorrow would be the last day with Walter and the horses that carried our food and gear. Walter had become a good friend in a quick five days. Again, we couldn’t really communicate with words but through his eyes I saw we were the same. He was always smiling and I liked that. I could see he was alive. He pointed things out to me, hidden treasures in the Andes that most might walk right by. He was always patient with the group, always happy to stop for a photo. I wanted so much for Walter, hoped that his life was extraordinary . I wanted to give him the advantages I had in America without the pollution of our society, but wondered if my advantages were really disadvantages covered in cynicism.  His job is to walk a horse through the Andes, he had a wife, someone who loved him. He was eighteen and expecting his first baby, a boy. His satisfaction with life was found in his smile.  In one of the best decisions I’ve ever made I offered Walter one of the soccer balls I had brought. Ruben had told me how much Walter loved soccer.  The happiness that shone through my friend’s face as I handed him the ball will forever be emblazoned in my heart.  Two boys, from different continents, traveling on the same train of life, sharing a smile and a lust to live.

Walter came in and gave me a bear hug

pumping the soccer ball up, Ruben translating

Enjoying a joke

That evening, when the light began to fail, Walter, Alejandro and a few of the other guys kicked the ball back and forth as Katherine and I relaxed in the hot tub. “Miguel!” They asked me to play and I immediately thought of myself kicking their new possession off the cliff by accident. I declined. Surrounded by the warm water and cool air I closed my eyes and let their voices echo off of the surrounding hills. It took me back to Valleybrook, my childhood neighborhood,  and the echo of our young voices as we palled around playing basketball or street hockey in the third court. Trying to do whatever we could to make a stand against the dusk and street lamps, against time, against our fears and our future, against the dying of the light.

Rage against the dying of the light

Game on


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April 2012
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