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Finding New Heights in Peru

By Zoe Ness · 2 years ago

I can’t breathe.

No, really, I cannot breathe. I am standing at 11,000 feet and I’m still looking up at the towering houses above me, and I can’t breathe. Every time I try to suck air into my lungs, it feels like sucking through a straw without a hole at the bottom. Nothing gets through.

Of course, there was air. In the grand scheme of Peru, 11,000 feet isn’t even that high. I learned to breathe. I got used to the dizziness and to nearly passing out when ascending short sets of stairs. But I stand by the statement that Peru took my breath away.

I don’t have enough words to describe Peru. As an English major and lover of the written word, I strive to be honest and compelling in the words I string together to tell people about my life and my experiences. But Peru was not meant to be described. The only way to feel your heart skip when you look up at the soaring mountains of Aguas Calientes is to stand in the valley on your own two feet and look up. The only way to feel the chilling shortness of breath as the atmosphere grows ever thinner is to climb by yourself, your muscles screaming more than they ever have before. The only way to put voices to the faces in pictures is to go up to a Peruvian and introduce yourself.

The flight from Lima to Cusco was barely an hour, but it might as well have been a portal to another dimension. Imagine mountains made entirely of homes, stacked one on top of the other in organized chaos. The city seemed to rise infinitely upward until the hills scraped the bottom of the sky. The beauty of it all took my breath away…or maybe it was just the altitude sickness. My muscles ached and my lungs gasped for air that wouldn’t come. Climbing short flights of stairs reduced me to a panting, sweaty mess.

It would take days to write about everything I loved in Peru, so I’ll choose a couple specific moments that have stayed with me.

Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption, which is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco.

I grew up somewhere in the middle ground of Devout Catholic and Hippy Methodist. I knew a couple Bible stories. I went to church when I was home, but I’d never really felt a spiritual connection. Cusco is littered with grandiose Catholic churches rich enough to rival Rome. It was like stepping inside a treasure chest. Solid gold alters rose 20 feet above us, bejeweled martyrs watched us from the walls, and vibrant paintings of saints gazed down from the ceiling. The best painting––and the painting most replicated on postcards––was The Last Supper. Everyone knows Da Vinci’s famous last supper, with Jesus at the center of a long table amidst his apostles. Every other time I’ve looked at that painting, my attention was focused on the people, or the background. In Peru, the center of focus is the meal itself: a whole roast guinea pig on a gold platter. Yep, Jesus ate guinea pig at The Last Supper.

Jesus and his followers before eating food at The Last Supper, chiefly guinea pig.

All right, that’s the funny part. But the significance of Jesus eating a traditional Peruvian dish goes much deeper, and standing in that vast cathedral I felt a deeper understanding of religion than I ever had before. In addition to the guinea pig, the Inca religion had a significant impact on what began as Spanish Catholicism. I found myself entranced by art that combined the Holy Trinity with the three sacred animals of the Inca religion—the eagle, jaguar, and snake. Inca beliefs intertwine throughout Catholicism, refusing to be bent by colonization. We visited another church, Santo Domingo, which was built on an Incan temple of the sun. When it was built, the Spanish settlers wanted to destroy the temple entirely and build their church from the ground up, but the foundation of interlocking stones was so strong and precise that the Spanish simply could not break it. Everything in Cusco is built upon the Inca.

On this trip more than any other I’ve been on, I felt hyperaware of my Americanness. I was constantly embarrassed by my linguistic ineptitude. Americans are very good at forgetting our history of colonialism and invasion, and we have come to expect that everyone in every country will speak English. But on the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, I watched one of the most intriguing exchanges I’ve ever seen, that almost made me feel better about English being the default lingua franca. Across the aisle from me was a Chinese couple and a Peruvian couple, and over the course of the three-hour train ride, they all taught each other words and phrases in their native languages using English as the go-between. It was such a small act, but it was amazing to watch, seeing four people from opposite sides of the world able to converse even though they shared only a functional knowledge of a second or even third language. I’m still embarrassed that I only speak one language, but it is pretty awesome that English can facilitate these types of connections.

Of all the places we went, the singular best experience I had was at the Lamay Girls’ Home. I love children. At the time, my only jobs had been as a camp counselor and teacher’s assistant. I love the unparalleled excitement in kids’ eyes when they talk about something they’re passionate about. I love the way they giggle when you congratulate them on something they’re proud of. As part of our tour, we brought various toiletries including towels, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and soap, as well as some toys. The moment the gate of the little house opened, half a dozen little girls sprinted out to meet us, hugging us and holding our hands and talking to us in rapid fire Spanish. They led us through their homes, showing us tidy bunkbeds and a sunlit classroom.

I sat down with a group of girls who eagerly offered me their math homework. My 20 words of Spanish were no help at all, but together we managed to figure out how many eggs went in the chocolate cake when it was multiplied by four.

At the end of the visit, we all gathered together in the courtyard and the girls taught us a few songs and dances, and we gave them all the toiletries and toys we had brought. I know it’s cheesy to fall back on the good old “people everywhere are the same” shtick, but those girls were pretty darned adorable and completely unfazed by the language barrier. They didn’t care what language we spoke as long as we played and sang with them (and did their homework for them!). My heart was so full for the whole rest of that day and I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the car ride to our next hotel.

Me teaching at the Lamay Girls’ Home.

The last few days of our trip were spent in a place I did not even know existed prior to actually stepping onto it. The floating islands of the Uros people, along with the Uros’ boats, buildings, and furniture, are all fashioned from the same buoyant reed, which grows abundantly around Lake Titicaca.

With a population of less than 5,000, the Uros live spread out across 42 islands built from the reeds. We took a small motorboat from Puno out to the islands, which were originally built when the Uros fled to the lake to hide from Spanish settlers. Walking on the islands is like walking through snow on top of a trampoline. The island shifted perpetually beneath us with each step, resulting in a rather undignified parade of white tourists stumbling across a bed of reeds approximately the size of a studio apartment.

Our tour guide told us that the Uros whom we met on the island depended entirely on tourists and selling fish at the market on the mainland. We watched a short demonstration of how the reeds are harvested and woven together to create the floating islands, as they have to be rebuilt every 10-15 years. The president of the island we visited, which boasted a population of 10 people, also showed us how to catch and clean fish, all while balancing his two-year-old son on his lap. The president’s wife showed us several gorgeous handwoven tapestries and mobiles featuring horses, llamas, and birds. My parents bought a tapestry for our house, and a mobile for my step-brother, who was expecting his first child. Our guide told us the tourists who came to the islands usually haggled and haggled to argue the price down, but my shy step-dad paid them their asking price. After we paid, the Uros hugged and kissed us, and our guide told us they would probably go into town and buy a soda as a treat with the extra money they received.

View of the Floating Islands and Puno, taken from the watchtower on the island we visited.

Lake Titicaca is massive. It is the largest lake in South America with a surface area of over 8,000 square kilometers. Sitting atop the motorboat as we sped across was like flying over the calmest ocean. We couldn’t see the shore, and it took hours to travel end to end. The boat ride gave me plenty of time to reflect on everything I had seen and done in the past eight days. I felt shame knowing that colonialism and tourism had forced millions of people into abject poverty, that every salesperson and beggar I had bypassed on the street genuinely needed the money I had. I was ashamed that many Peruvians only dressed in their traditional garb to take photos with tourists for a small fee that would barely buy dinner. But meeting the Uros and learning about their history made me thankful that they do get to continue their way of life and educate so many others about it. Meeting with them is a memory that has stuck with me, and I love telling my friends back home what I learned about them and about Peruvian culture as a whole.

There were plenty of challenges during the trip. My stepdad got a stomach bug that nearly ended the trip four days early. The reduced oxygen and subsequent muscle fatigue made for a few sleepless nights followed by action-packed days with very little rest. I had my first and worst panic attack in the middle of the massive crowd flooding through Machu Picchu. But for all that, every minute I spent there, ever corner I turned, every person I spoke to, was a fantastic, delightful surprise. For every moment of confusion or exhaustion, there were twenty moments of sheer wonder. For every time I couldn’t catch my breath, there were moments when my breath was stolen by the absolute beauty of the world around me. I stand by what I said, that Peru cannot be captured by words because it was born in a time unbound by language. Still, if I can say anything about this incredible country, it’s that ten days was not enough. I could happily spend years exploring Peru’s forests, cities, valleys, and mountains.

Sitting here writing about this summer, I suddenly find myself wishing again to feel that breathless, exhilarated exhaustion. When you find a place that steals your breath, hold onto it.

Edited by Jack Russillo