On my second day of freedom after a grueling first month teaching English, my friend Adam and I left Arequipa and set out on an journey. We’d spent two days seeing the city, nowhere near enough, but our time was limited. I was due back teaching in four days time, and he was heading for Cuzco in three. The monthly schedule at my school is eighteen teaching days, roughly four weeks, and then a little break before the next month of courses starts. Most teachers teach kids on Saturday mornings as well, which makes it twenty-one out of twenty-four days working; the long weekend is almost essential for a semblance of mental well-being. I had just gotten paid, had a few days and the company of a friend, an occasion to get out of town and have an adventure. We were heading higher up into the Andes, to the desert environs of Colca Canyon.
Adam is a good traveling companion and a traveler in his own right. He’s just about pro. During the school year he is a devoted middle-school Social Studies teacher in New Orleans, but summers he takes groups of American high schoolers to Fiji and leads two-week sessions in native villages and such. He shares my love of Latin America, and has picked up a real Mexico habit. Seems like most fall, winter and spring breaks are spent at least partially south of the border.
Colca is supposed to be close to Arequipa, but it turns out to take quite a number of hours to actually reach the rim. Chivay, the main town up there, is on the Rio Colca, but at that point, it’s more of a valley. You have to find additional transit to Cabanaconde to find the real canyon. Just like at the Grand Canyon, most tourists never actually make it into the canyon itself, and the ones that do take package tours that pick you up at three thirty in the morning, and lead you down the canyon on a schedule. Besides the expense involved, we wanted to be able to experience everything at our own pace, and I’d gathered that a guide wasn’t necessary on this trek.
Bleary-eyed in the cold morning, we caught a taxi out on Avenida Ejercito down to the Terrapuerto and made our eight thirty bus for Chivay. I was not in particularly good condition. In fact I was utterly exhausted from a horrible night. I’d had a few rough nights of shared living at Soul Guest House, but this had been the very worst thus far.
Trying to get some sleep before an early-morning departure, for a long day of transit to be followed by an arduous descent, at around 1 am I was awoken by my housemates the next room over. They are college-age young women, two from the UK and one from the states, volunteering at a well-meaning nonprofit, but mostly just partying their way through summer holidays in Perú. Nice enough when they’re sober, on a drunk they can get quite self-righteously belligerent.
There were seven of them: the girls, some Peruvian guys they’d brought back from the bars and this guy from Ukraine. They were sitting on the bed and floor, wasted, talking loudly, yelling, laughing, playing songs on their phone and singing along, just like it was college. I remember college. It was fun. I politely informed them (the first several times, nicely) that I had a big day ahead, and they were keeping me up.
At 2:30, after an hour and a half listening to incoherent drunken conversation, I become angry, go into their room and kick laundry, yell. The girls yell back that I am harassing them — they have just as much right to hang out as I do to sleep. The Peruvian guys pretend they’re oblivious; the guy from Ukraine just shrugs and looks sheepish. I lie in my bed simmering; the conversation shifts to what an asshole I am. At wit’s end at 3:15 I go wake up Katherine, the house manager, a med-school-student refugee from Venezuela. Desperate, I tell her they won’t listen to me and she has to do something. She isn’t happy about it but comes over to our side of the casona. The insufferable girls yell at her, too, but she wins out eventually. I don’t sleep until after 4. It’s hard to go to sleep when you’re angry.
The bus takes us a four-hour ride up into the desert altiplano, long stretches of switchbacks through desolate terrain. There is nothing out here but intermittent dry grass and occasional little bands of vicuña, wild alpacas. We pass through the Valley of the Volcanoes, flanked by high mountains and one smoking cone off in the distance. Then we go up again, over several ranges of Andes, until finally we transit the Patapampa, a high pass with snow, the highest elevation of my life, 16,109 feet above sea level. We’ve been drinking water all morning to prevent altitude sickness, and mercifully the bus stops at a little rest area with restroom access. From here we descend long switchbacks to 12,000 feet to reach Chivay at 12:30.
But we don’t even go into town, just out to the terminal parking lot to attempt to hire some kind of transportation. A quick survey of the bus companies inside confirmed that nothing is leaving for Cabanaconde until 4:30. Descending the canyon should take about four hours, and sunset is at 5:30. If we want to make it to the bottom, we can’t wait for a bus. Despite a sense of urgency, I painstakingly talk down a taxi van driver from his opening offer of forty soles each to fifty for the two of us. In the process I have to say definitively: no, gracias a few times. To seal the deal, I assure him that he can fill his van with other passengers, which he does.
They are all local folks, and I hear him quoting them dramatically lower prices. One of them is a odd-bird old man who holds court the entire ride, considering topics including, but not limited to, history, politics and fútbol. No one pays him much attention. He speaks clearly and slowly enough that I mostly understand him, but as he drones on eventually I tune him out. We descend windy roads, following the canyon rim, past green pre-Inca terraces down the mountainsides, severe stony peaks. I’ve been to enough places in Perú to know that among them are apus, holy mountains with living spirit. Adam sleeps through almost all of this.
Just after two we arrive in the little picturesque rough-and-tumble town of Cabanaconde, sitting a kilometer up from the canyon rim. It looks interesting, but we’re not sticking around here either, and after short repose on a bench in a broad plaza dominated by a massive white adobe church, we have to keep moving. At one of the shops we buy a couple sandwiches and some water for the way down. I also need to buy a hat. In my sleep deprivation and altitude haze, I have lost the wide-brimmed sun hat given to me by my brother Daniel in Virginia the night I left, that had made it through six countries. Left it in the overhead compartment on the morning bus.
This is a very sad development, but the high elevation tropical sun has little compassion, and so I buy a hat at another shop, a decent fedora type for fifteen soles, and then we walk right out of town on the street heading left from the church. It quickly becomes dirt and then a deep-rutted path, eventually leads us to some kind of a shrine on the precipice with maybe the most lovely cross I’ve ever seen. Aside from some macabre ones inside churches, the bloody Jesus type, the crosses here have gotten more and more pagan and poetic.
Then we are descending, needing to make good time to reach bottom before dark, but with necessary caution on steep slopes of loose material and long drop-offs. Adam has bad knees, one recently-operated-on bad one in particular, and I am quite worried about how it will hold up. Colca is the second deepest canyon in the world, four thousand feet in elevation. Cabanaconde at the top is alpine and cold at night; Sangalle at bottom is almost tropical with palm trees. Expansive views and good conversation — focused on baseball (we founded an adult baseball league in New Orleans before I left), our shared love of history, and the intricacies of teaching — keep us going for three hours, down, down, down.
We take several breaks for tropical fruits from the collection which makes up maybe half the weight in our bags. The day before at the main Arequipa market, we’d picked up a bounty of fruits, many of them previously untried by either of us, many that I don’t even know the names for. Mango and papaya, cucumber melon, granadilla, ground cherries, chirimoya, and perhaps my favorite new fruit: lúcuma. It looks akin to an avocado, with a large smoothly-rounded stone, but the flesh is orange, the flavor and texture like baked sweet potato with maple syrup. Native to Andean valleys in Perú and a popular ice cream flavor, it is sometimes called el Oro de los Incas.
For the last hour we’d been looking down at palm trees and this tiny little red-roofed village, and at 5:30 we stride in triumphantly to Sangalle, the Oasis. We walk past the hostels with blaring techno music and choose the one closest to the river, the quietest one, in time to dip in a pool set beneath gigantic boulders and wash off all the dust. Just as we’re submerging in the chilly water, full dusk falls and turns quickly into cold desert night.
We change into warmer clothes and in search of some kind of socializing, walk up to the bar at another hostel, the Paraíso, as there is absolutely nothing going on in our place. After not really seeing any gringos all day, we stumble upon a number of tour groups that came down before us, almost entirely Europeans-on-holiday. They are having a post-dinner grand old time, clearly several rounds in; we sit at a little table in the corner and share a restorative liter of beer.
Under a dazzling star-sky, we walk back to our place for the included dinner: soothing quinoa soup and uninspired pasta with red sauce. I am completely sold on quinoa in soup; it becomes part of the broth in a way that rice never could. Rice in soup is just rice, in soup. We decide to return to the bar for another beer, walk back up the path to find all the tour groups gone to bed and the place deserted except for a few Peruvian couples. The tour guides start their groups at five am or so, before the sun.
We have planned a slightly more humane schedule that allows for one more beer and a game of cribbage. Adam is a good card player, a good competitor in general, and wins this game by one point. When we walk back the stars are even more striking, perhaps enhanced by beers and exhaustion. But stars in the Andes aren’t just something to look at — they are piercingly bright, something you can feel. We are asleep before 10.
The next morning we climb four thousand feet back up. It is absurd. Our legs are already incredibly sore, and it feels like we’d just gotten there. But at 6:30 we are up and at ‘em, the canyon wall lit brilliantly by sun, while we are still in shadow down below. We supplement our egg sandwich breakfast with some papaya and lúcuma from our tropical fruit stores. And then it is time to walk up. One foot in front of the other.
At first the day is brisk, but soon with sun and exertion, we have taken off many layers. It’s something of a challenge even to keep up conversation, what with the constant shortness of breath, and we talk much less this leg. It takes a force of will to defy gravity for this long. Adam says going up is better, at least the footing is more solid. I disagree, preferred the descent, but I concede it’s not that bad. He disagrees, laughs and says it is that bad, but going down was worse.
We stop periodically for air, water and fruits — among other things, we try our first pepino dulces. Sometimes called melon pear in English, it is about the size of a large apple, yellowish with purple stripes, beige-colored fruit. It is cool and refreshing and tastes like a combination of canteloupe and cucumber. At eleven we stop at a good overlook and have lunch; queso andino-tomato-avocado sandwiches, my go-to in this country. They are always satisfying, but especially so on the side of a canyon. Refreshed, we push on, legs burning, and come to the top a little before one.
Adam’s knee does indeed hold up, through this probably-not-advisable duress we’ve put it through. At the top, walking on flat ground feels like we are floating, though we’re walking like old men who’ve been skiing. In Cabanaconde we hang out in a hostel and watch the first half of the Uruguay-Portugal World Cup game. Adam has a beer and I have a té de coca, much better for altitude, as we are now at ten thousand seven hundred feet. At 2 pm we catch a bus in the main plaza heading for Chivay, and it is a couple hours ride uphill. This time I sleep some, too.
We walk from the bus terminal into Chivay, which at a population of some five thousand is the main hub of Colca country. After wandering around asking prices at hotels for an hour, we finally book a semi-affordable room. This little dusty sleepy town is somehow more expensive than almost all of the country. With little dallying, we drop our bags and take a combi to the La Calera Hot Springs, a lovely, un-fancy complex of pools above town, set on the banks of the Colca River before it turns into a canyon. This was exactly what our worn-out bodies need. We soak for a few hours in steaming pools of varying heats, mostly surrounded by Peruvian couples and families with kids horse-playing. Thankfully the hot springs are not on the package tour itinerary. All those tourists are almost back in Arequipa already.
At nightfall we taxi back to town, and it is soon bitterly cold. In addition to the elevation, it is also winter in this part of the world. Strange, as the calendar says July, but perhaps only fitting as I never really had a winter this year. Not much of a winter in Colombia. After a dinner of alpaca steaks — not so great really, more like lean pork chops than steak — we decamp to what appears to be the best bar in town, an “Irish” pub where we figure we can get a warm drink. But it’s only cold drinks in a cold room. We keep our jackets and hats on and play a game of cribbage; this time I win. We go early to bed and despite an unheated hotel room, sleep like logs from all the exertions. Mercifully, in lieu of heat, there was a great supply of blankets, alpaca and otherwise.
It was a good trip, fitting for a visit from an old friend to a different continent. Unfortunately, this also extracted a third of my monthly income. The best thing I can say is that since I work all the time, I don’t have occasion to spend much money. It’s time to buckle down, back to my routine of all teaching, all the time.
(Letter to Adam Kronenberg)
July 29th, 2018
I am back in this little mountain town on the verge of the canyon, exactly a month after we arrived here. With my Dad and Deborah, that next trip I was anticipating when last we were here. I realize now that we didn’t actually spend much time in this town, just coming and going. We’ve been here about eight hours, and it’s great.
The only difference a month’s time has made in Cabanaconde is a fair bit more snow on the mountaintops. About ten days ago there was a good snowstorm in the mountains, and Misti and Chachani and all the other mountains around Arequipa are well-dressed and looking their best. It was enough that for half a week the mountain passes were blocked, and I wondered if we’d make it up here at all.
But we did, got out of town this morning on an 8:30 combi, and it was a relatively easy three hours to get to Chivay. We had a quick turnaround at the terminal there — the only taxi guy in the parking lot asked for 150 Soles, but I immediately told him in Spanish that the last time we’d paid S/50 for two people and after some negotiation we settled at 80. The driver took the road along the canyon like a madman and we got here about 1:30. I tried to warn my Dad not to look at the road ahead, but he couldn’t help himself and was disturbed.
We were entirely correct in our assessment that walking down the canyon would be too much for my Dad and Deborah — just the journey up here with the altitude took a lot out of them, and on our arrival they took an hour and a half nap. Afterwards we walked down to the Plaza, and sat out on a second-floor terrace cafe for some coca tea. The extent of our achievements today was a walk at sunset to the mirador overlooking the canyon. When my Dad saw the bottom he started talking about walking down tomorrow, but I strongly discouraged him of this. We lingered out there on the mesa and watched the colors of the day slip away.
I’ve just finished my second month of teaching. While the job still takes up all of my time, it has gotten easier. Most days a lesson plan for a two-hour class is only taking me forty five minutes, and that’s with me putting in more bells and whistles and creative exercises. I could probably whip a basic one up in thirty minutes. I’ve been through enough problems and road-bumps by now that I’m pretty good at anticipating them. Been evaluated twice, last time got an 89.5, and am feeling pretty solid as a competent-level teacher who can deliver the material.
There is so much more I know is possible, but at this point the really advanced stuff, the creative, multi-faceted lessons still feel out of reach. I remain in survival mode, but it has become a somewhat more relaxed and confident type of survival.
Things have mostly been better at the Soul Guesthouse. We had a house meeting the week after you were here about that terrible night. Everybody sat around the living room and the girls wanted to change the subject to the lack of hot water and bad wifi and so forth. But when it was my turn I explained that while I am living here, this is my home. I don’t have another home in the world. And when they not only were keeping me awake all night but yelling at me, it felt like I didn’t have a home. I think it struck a chord, and Katherine made the rules much stricter for partying here.
Nevertheless, two nights ago, again just before I was leaving for Colca, it was the last night for most of the young party crew. Of course they had to have their last hurrah, and though they didn’t wake me up, they did leave the living room trashed, and somebody puked in a vacant room. Sharon and I were awake very early when a new teacher from Philadelphia arrived, and it just so happened she was supposed to have the room with the vomit. So it’s not all smooth sailing yet, but I anticipate that things will be better. Because of the end of summer in the northern hemisphere, all the young kids have to go back to school.
Though it’s still a month away, my thoughts are moving towards my return to the states for September. Reid and his fiancee Erin have asked me to officiate their wedding, and to come up with a non-traditional yet ancient-seeming ceremony. Like something that had been going on for hundreds of years but doesn’t express the patriarchal, religious, or legal aspects of marriage that they want to avoid. It’s kind of a tall order. I thought they might have wanted a rabbi, but I proposed the Shehekianu and they rejected that. We’ll figure it out. And then I’ll spend a few weeks in Virginia to help prepare for my brother’s wedding. I really wish I was coming to New Orleans, but it’s not in the cards this time.
It’s the following night and I’m getting ready for bed in the most luxurious hotel room of my entire year abroad, just outside of the town of Yanque (the one about five miles from Chivay). This morning we walked a couple miles out of Cabanaconde and climbed a mere thousand feet up to the Kallimarka pre-Incan ruins, which are somewhere around 1500 years old. This was a “monumental effort” on the part of my Dad and Deborah (their words). It’s a really good thing we didn’t try to descend the canyon itself. About nine-tenths of the way up Deborah threw in the towel in a great state of suffering and difficulty, said she’d sit in a little spot of shade she’d found and wait for us.
My Dad and I carried on, got to the ruins, and about half an hour later she yelled up to us — apparently she could hear us talking the whole time — asking whether it was worth it. We said it was. The ruins were pretty well ruined, just low remnants of stone walls, the highest six or so feet high. But the spot itself was spectacular, a commanding position on a flat mountaintop looking out over the whole valley. Deborah slowly managed to climb the last stretch, and her persistence was one of the highlights of their visit. It felt striking to be up there with them, where the world seemed somehow fuller, a sacred place that will stick in my mind.
We made it down in time to barely catch the 2 pm bus for Chivay, and were at the hot springs, once again wonderful, by 3:45. We soaked a couple hours until we were feeling drowsy, and then caught a taxi over here. My Dad and Deborah immediately fell into deep nap time and I walked down to the main plaza of Yanque at dusk. Found a vast and unkempt plaza and wandered into a church service with a priest in full white cassock playing a guitar and strumming out to some kind of religious pop song. On my way back I had to pause while a farmer crossed the road with his herd of alpacas. I really do like Peru. A few hours later, they had recovered and we went into the restaurant, where we each ordered the trucha a la plancha, which turned out to be the smallest trouts I’ve ever seen served on a plate. Maybe four-inch fish. After clearing our plates, we had to order a pizza. So much for the fancy hotel restaurant.
It’s a month later, and I’m getting ready to depart Peru. While I am excited to see people and eat the food, I am not ready to return to our home country. It just feels like I am still in the midst of this journey, and spending all this money I don’t have ($1100 so far before I’ve even arrived) to go back to North America seems wrong when my real goal is south. Also, there is nothing about the state of the union that tells me things are getting better. If anything, they tell me to stay away. Trump is now making pronouncements like “the stock market will crash if I’m impeached” and “there will be violence”. But these weddings are essential, and so however I feel, this is the time to go back.
Another month of teaching is almost done. I have only to give and grade exams. This was the hardest and easiest month. Easiest as I felt most in command of what I was doing, and starting to get more creative with my planning. My school gave me all classes that I like, without me asking — two Speaking & Writing and an Advanced 2 class. I’ve managed to do much better in the Speaking classes at creating coherent and interesting debates. There’s this excellent methodology for rebuttals that makes it so simple, even for English learners. The 3 Step process: 1) They Say…2) But…3) Because… In my Advanced Class I had some good lessons: one about art which ended with them writing poetry (though I had to agree not to make them read it aloud) and another in which we read a short story called “Death by Scrabble” which we followed up with an in-class game (I printed out hundreds of wood-looking letter squares). Having more and more fun with it.
Hardest because I went back to teaching at 7 am and just never got the hang of it. Could not adjust. Was just sleep deprived and exhausted and so confused that I developed mild insomnia for the first time in my life. I’m gonna request not to teach at that time anymore.
The biggest change is that this last month I actually had friends here. Sharon, the woman in her 70s from LA and I are building a nice rapport, and Jamie, the woman from Australia, and I have warmed up to each other. When all the young partiers left, there was a lot more space for us older folks to hang around, linger over dinners, talk, and it turns out Jamie is super cool behind her brusque demeanor. We mostly just drink tea and talk about teaching and life but we’ve had some adventures too. Last weekend we took a great hike up a canyon to some waterfalls outside of town, and on Arequipa Day we went to a cumbia concert, and then sat out in the streets well after midnight where people had set up all these tables, drinking herbal tea with anise liqueur. A great scene.
Then there is a guy named Clay from Illinois who was here this month studying to be an English teacher, and he’s a very cool dude in his early 30’s. Rock climber, good cook, creative thinker. He is invigorated by Perú and it’s contagious. One night after a day of teaching, Jamie and Clay and I sat out in the courtyard under bright stars in a winter sky and drank dark & stormys from a dark brown ginger syrup I made. I brought out my guitar and we had a good old-fashioned singalong, sang most of Sergeant Pepper’s and half of Dark Side of the Moon. There were fireworks exploding in the sky above the city somewhere, and I was 41. It is very good to have friends. Sadly, Jamie and Clay will be gone when I get back.
The winter is ending here. Not that the climate is so different, but the nights are not quite as cold, and almost all the snow has melted off of Misti. Chachani still has some, but even that is dwindling, and my students tell me that it won’t snow again until next winter. It feels appropriate that I am leaving town, even for a month. I’ll come back and it will be spring in the Andes.
P.S. The last day you were here we were sitting in that little park across from my school, and we heard a flock of birds that you said sounded just like the parrots in New Orleans. Well, you were right. Another day I saw them flying by. A flock of green parrots. Pericos verdes.