‘This is really a miserable trip’, said my foriend, trousers torn, passport lost and sympathetic towards our other friend who was taken ill of food poisoning. We could never have guessed that such an experience would turn out to be quite so insightful.
‘Let’s hike the colca canyon?!’ I convinced my friends ahead of the trip, excitement of seeing condors and stars and Andean valleys was too good an opportunity to pass up. I admit my line of thinking had considered the high altitude but didn’t extend far enough to gauge the level of difficulty in descending and ascending such a feat of land. It will be a leisurely stroll, I told my self – we will have enough water, snacks and company to keep us going.
What transpired next were three brown people lagging behind the rest of the group. One of us falling ill with food poisoning and the symptoms generously demonstrating themselves as we walked on, one of us struggling with the high altitude and the third simply ill prepared and unfit to complete such a task (despite being the proud owner of a fitbit, deceivingly purchased merely for measuring sleep patterns). The only preparation sought was a fashion backpack, a bar of snickers and an unflattering hat bought at the spur of the moment for just in case. Three separate stories, three collective lessons learnt.
For one of us taken ill, a humbling lesson was learnt. Once you have no choice but to quite literally empty yourself of all poison across a path that has no hide of shelter or shade, you begin to humanise yourself and through that realisation, other people. You recognise you are no different than anyone else and that in the end all we are is body, soul, dust. That experiences and circumstances influence actions- and that you can never ever know what someone else is going through and the reasons why. I think there are few things that can bring a person back down to earth than having to use the toilet in public and hoping no other group come walking round the bend at that precise moment. Having the very person you judged to also be the same person who then takes care of you provides a great slice of humble pie.
For the second one of us, the concept of letting go was practiced. Deciding that the high altitude was too much and recognising personal limits, led to having to wait for a mule to arrive in order to return to town. ‘The wait could be 20 minutes or 3 hours’ the guide said, ‘that’s fine’. Any wait would be better than trying to walk for 5 hours on unsteady footing. The wait was a 2 hour practice of patience, oppressive heat and hallucinations of donkey hooves hitting against the ground. A sense of vulnerability and fear began to set in, but realising that a passport was missing, the lack of oxygen, a fall on the ground and one side shot of an iguana lizard later, the principle of letting things go and accepting things as they are made themselves at home. A knight in shining armour and carriage finally came in the form of señor Julian and his mule. Gratitude was expressed in two rakaats of prayer and finding solace in the matrimonial suite of a random little hostel that took American Express.
Finally, the third musketeer. The one who got off lightly but not without a lesson of her own. Not wanting to leave ill friend behind, the thought of accompanying her by mule seemed like a great idea. The trek was hard and there were still hours left to go of walking. The air was thin and breathing was intentional and heavy. What seemed like a moment of physical rest was made up in the form of emotional and mental gymnastics. The path across the canyon was uneven and the mule’s makeshift saddle uncomfortable. A disciplined mule, yes, but a mere slip or fall could lead to an unfortunate turn of events. A genuine feeling of dread and fear cultivated into a plea of desperation but also hope. Unbeknown to the mule, its rider was close to tears, quietly whispering calls of ‘Ya Salam, Ya Kareem, Ya Rahman’, all the while holding on to a saddle that cut through skin and trying to not fall off. Observations were made throughout the day. That of how the human body is so weak and the value of good health but also just how strong the human spirit could be and how one could push themselves to do anything if there is enough will and courage. Observing the hard work of the señors and their mules bought a real sense of perspective in where we place priorities and our sense of gratitude. Putting bread on the table is never easy but labour undertaken with honesty and effort, despite the difficult conditions was a great reminder of still showing up even when you don’t want to. First world problems were also gently pushed to the side when a shower had to be taken in a shared shack and a bedroom had to be slept in that was hosted by mini scorpions and spiders.
A few days later, after the calves had healed, the stomach had settled and the awful back pack that led to the temporal loss of a passport was thrown away, we recalled the lessons learnt from such an experience. Though still raw in my mind, I constantly think back to that night, and despite the misery of it all at the time, I recall the night star and truly, the stars have never shone so bright.