Belen valley, Peru

Up In the Clouds

Overcoming depression a peak at a time in the Northern Andes.

As I sipped coca tea some 3200 meters above sea-level, and watched the mist snake its way into Belen Valley, an ancient glacial tarn in Northern Peru, I felt my world begin to right itself.

Just weeks before, I had turned thirty, and was a corporate lawyer in Silicon Valley, clawing my way out of depression that had descended far more swiftly than the mist making its way down the mountains.

My depression came cloaked as grief on the heels of my father’s death. At his funeral, after my oldest sister symbolically lit his funeral pyre with my middle-sister and I watching on, I heard my uncle urging us to turn around and walk away. “Don’t look back,” he said.

I didn’t look back at my father’s body laying on the crematorium platform ready to descend below into an electric furnace. But in the months and years after his death, I could not look forward.

My father’s death was slow and tortured, and began a month before I turned twenty-six. As I tried to piece my life together after his funeral, my days and thoughts were overwhelmed with memories of his wasted body that weighed not more than a hundred pounds at his death, and the face I saw at the Chennai morgue, frozen into a grimace that marked his last painful days. I was only twenty eight. There was still so much I had to say to him.

First I grieved. And then my grief turned into depression. I clenched my fists at night so that my nails dug into my palms. I woke up exhausted, my face wet with tears every morning, and struggled to get to work. At work, I would close my office door so I could keep crying. On the commute home, I gripped the steering wheel as tightly as I could. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live either.

At twenty five, when my world was still right, I had been confident and happy. I had backpacked solo for several months through Guatemala and Honduras, and then to Burma and Thailand. I had stories to tell; of chopper rides to offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico (my first job), of wreck dives in Thailand, of a green-eyed Brazilian surfer. I fell in and out of relationships. I even fell in love. As a first year law-student at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, life’s possibilities seemed endless.

By the end of my twenties, my life had shrunk. I had no stories to tell. The thought of travel made me anxious, the smallest decision paralyzed me, and I avoided people, especially happy cheerful people with full lives, and focused on just getting through each day.

And then one afternoon I found myself at work engrossed in a National Geographic article about the Chachapoyans. These warriors named ”cloud people,” by the Inca, built their cities high on mountaintops in Northern Peru more than 600 years before Manco Cápac, and his golden magic staff reached Cusco.

As I drove home that night, I thought about the journey a National Geographic team had taken through the remote cloud forests of Peru in search of an ancient and unknown civilization, and for the first time, I was excited about something. I gripped the steering wheel a little lighter.

The road from Cajamarca to Chachapoyas

The next day, impulsively, I contacted the only trekking company I could find that led treks in this remote region, and booked a ticket to Lima. Weeks later, I would fly to Lima and then Cajamarca, and from Cajamarca I would follow the same treacherous unpaved road taken by the National Geographic team through the Andes to the town of Chachapoyas.

The drive, with sheer drops and dizzying switchbacks, was equal parts exquisite and terrifying, and fourteen hours and one flat tire later, my driver and I arrived after sunset in the town of Chachapoyas. As we drove, I could taste the fear, excitement and anticipation. I hadn’t felt this way since I was twenty-five.

The next morning, I set out on a six day trek, accompanied by Manuel and his son Nelson, coffee farmers in Congon Valley who knew these trails and cloud forests better than anyone. Being so remote, these lost cities, still mostly un-excavated, were on few travelers’ itineraries. Since no one else had signed up for this trek I was also joined by Alicia, a young woman from the town of Chachapoyas who worked in the small travel agency that helped organize my trek. Mules carried our tents, food, and supplies.

My trek took me from Karajia where Chachapoyan tombs were perched high up on a cliff, to lush Belen Valley and then to the lost cities of La Pirquilla, Cacahuasha, and Lanche, through the Congon- Vilaya Valley, across the spine of the Cordillera and over the Abra Yumal pass to Choctomal.

View from the ruins of Lanche

We walked through dense cloud forest, climbing peak after peak, with Manuel leading the way on overgrown ancient trails built by the Inca. Each antique city we encountered was shrouded in clouds and, held secrets of people- past within its moss -covered walls.

My body tired and aching, I slept dreamlessly and peacefully waking each morning with the sun, excited for the day ahead. As the mist swirled around the mountains, I found myself drifting out of the depression that had defined my life for so many months.

On my way home to San Francisco, I felt strong and confident again. I knew I was going to be ok. Just like that, after four years, my world was right again.*

In the five years since I felt the Chachapoyan mist on my face, I found joy in painting, I dated and loved again, I surfed waves from Nicaragua to Java, I trekked over mountains and through valleys in Vietnam and Morocco, and I explored cities in Uzbekistan, Ghana, Bolivia, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Vietnam, and Malaysia.I even found the courage to leave the safety of my legal career behind to start a company doing what I love.

(*My depression lasted well over a year, and I did seek medical help. My trip to Peru was at the end of this year, and marked the end of my twenties and four very difficult years. Post-depression, I made a conscious decision to live and appreciate each day as best as I could.)