Saturday, June 29, 2013

Walks and water

                Although I have been in Lima for almost four months now, I still have much of the city to see. This past week I was able to get to explore a bit more going on a long walk by the beach and going to the Circuito Mágico de las Aguas (Magical Water Circuit), two distinctively limeñan attractions. As the weeks are coming to a close, I am beginning to realize how much I still have to see and do here yet how little time left there is to fit it all in. I guess I’ll just have to come back.
                Last Sunday the young adults from my church here embarked on the ambitious walk from our church all the way to Larcomar, a journey of about 11 kilometers along the cliff that presides over the beachfront. Before we left, we ate lunch together that we had prepared as a group. Finally, I got a lesson in Peruvian cooking! I learned how to make papa a la huancaína—a savory dish of boiled potato covered in a orange pepper and cheese sauce—and tallerines rojos, which is basically the Peruvian version of spaghetti with meat sauce. Helping prepare the lunch reminded me of my love for cooking; I adore the idea of taking basic ingredients and from them creating something greater than the sum of the individual elements themselves. You are taking this gift of food and making something that will not only sustain life, but at its very essence is life.

papa a la huancaina on our plates. yum!
                With full stomachs, we set out on that chilly winter day. The clouded-white sky, a ceiling, flat and calm. The streets were unusually quiet as we headed towards the “costa verde” (green coast). Once we got to the path along the cliff-tops, it was almost a direct journey from there to Larcomar. We meandered along besides the vivid green grass all the while admiring the powerful rolling waves of the Pacific. There’s something mystical about the ocean; its vastness can never be known, every tide whispers the secrets of the deep.

it was a typical misty, winter day

                Better than the walk itself, though, was the company. I had the wonderful blessing to get to know the other young adults in my church, which I found only just recently. They told me stories of their childhoods, histories of Peru, jokes about animals. More than that, they had unending patience with my broken Spanish. Communities that quickly welcome people so openly and without judgment, like they have done for me, are rare, and when I come across them, I cannot help but get excited. It’s beautiful to see how God is working through people, and I am blessed to be a part of this loving group of people.

the group!

                Later on this week, with some other international students, I went to what we call Parque de las Aguas (Park of Water), which is a park full of fountains right next to the soccer stadium. Although we arrived only an hour before it closed, we enjoyed the fairytale atmosphere while we posed for silly pictures by the gushing water. Seeing the lights change the waters colors and the fountains themselves changing their patterns of water spouting was like watching a waltz of water. Truly magical! It only takes simple things, light and water. And with a bit of creativity, look at the wonders you can accomplish. You might have to look a bit sometimes, but if you try, you can always find the beauty wherever you are.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Glacial Climbs

                It’s been several weeks now since I journeyed to the mountain village of Huaraz, but the Andes are still on my mind. Since I was too busy to write about it the week after, I’ll use the time now to reminisce about last month’s journey to the spine of South America.  
                We started out on a beautiful sunny day, in transit before the sun came up. Several of us shared a van up to the Huascaran National Park in which we would hike the trail up to Lagoon 69 (unfortunate name, I know). About two hours of driving later, we had almost made it to the park entrance when we stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. It was more like a house, but they had a patio on which they served guests who were going to the park as well. Hard to beat starting the day with an egg and avocado sandwich made for you by friendly Peruvians. Conversations with a Spanish engineer working in the Peruvian mines; with an American woman who had been adventuring all around South America; with an Israeli man who had been travelling with his daughter.

Breakfast spot
                Shortly after we entered the park officially, we drove past a beautiful lagoon of some of the lightest blue water. Photos all around, and then back into the van. We finally made it to the starting point of our journey. We were in a valley with patchy green and tan grasses kissing the lazy creek that ran through the center of it, the ribbon around the gift. Feeling good, we started off all smiles and excitement. We were hiking in the Andes! It was surreal.

                After about half an hour of the uphill, though, the surrealism quickly turned into an un-ignorable reality. Breathing the thin mountain air was like visiting a friend that you haven’t seen in years for just a quick lunch—sweet, pure quality at its essence, but not enough to satisfy your deep need for a more robust gulp. As we trekked, our need to stop and rest became ever more frequent. At the 2 hour point, we were stopping every 10 to 15 minutes. Our hearts were pounding with the effort of transferring our diminished supplies oxygen to our aching muscles. Our heads were throbbing with the pain that comes from dehydration. One of the girls in our group had been hit with an upset stomach, which she had to deal with the entire time. It was so often, it is not an exaggeration to say that she didn’t hike up the mountain, she diarrheaed up the mountain. Poor thing!

                Three hours into the hike, we should have been there, but because of the problems with the altitude and malfunctioning bowels, we were moving at a much slower pace than expected. We finally arrived in a valley, so green and lush…and then we saw there was more. By then, we were exhausted and ready to be done. Two of us went on ahead while the other two contemplated whether they would just head back down or if they had the energy for the final stretch. That last part, though, was by far the most difficult because it was the steepest. We could only go about every 45 seconds before needing to stop and catch our breath, prevent ourselves from fainting.

If there is ever a lesson to be learned in perseverance, it is when you are climbing up a mountain. You know you don’t have to reach the top. You know that you can start going down at any moment, and you will start feeling much better. The altitude-induced pounding headache, queasy stomach, and racing heart will quickly subside. But if you do, you know you will never make it to the summit. Unacceptable.

                All of a sudden, we rounded the final bend, and as if we were in a movie, the scene transformed into a paradise. To my left there was a precipice drop whose bottom was a rushing stream. Just beyond that was a small valley of grass at a flat part of the mountain. To my right were the mountains. And straight in front of me was heaven on earth. Tears welled in my eyes as I saw the glacier, white, majestic, striking, bold. Rushing forth from it was a waterfall of fresh, glacial water. And at the foot of the waterfall sat the most gorgeous body of water I have ever seen. Spread out in front of me was the lagoon, turquoise, pristine. We had made it to the top. We had made it to breathless beauty.

Heaven on earth

So glad we made it!
                The pain was quickly forgotten as giddy excitement overwhelmed us, and we rejoiced and giggled like school girls. The beauty of this place, this gift, left us speechless. In profound awe we rested and enjoyed our much deserved lunch while gazing upon the spectacular scenery. Just when we thought our friends had decided to go down the mountain pre-maturely, they too rounded the bend. The crowning jewel on the journey! We were ecstatic to be able to share in the moment all together and that they received the reward for their efforts, as well.

                Going back down the mountain was cake compared to the trek up. Happy chatter filled our voyage to the valley as we admired the incredible landscape around us. Finally we arrived back at the bus, back in Huaraz two hours later, and back in our beds shortly after. Happy, exhausted, satisfied.

                That trip would not have been possible without my friends. We became a team that day, encouraging each other to go farther than we thought possible. For the friendship with those amazing people and with all of the friends I've made while abroad, I am so thankful. The Andes are almost as beautiful as these incredible people.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sleeping Beauty

                Have you ever been to the edge of the earth? Have you ever been so high up yet felt so grounded that you forgot you were on the edge of a precipice? Have you ever seen the sun fade beyond the mountains and known peace? I have. Last weekend, with three amigas, I ventured up the 4000 meters to the volcanic rock formations of Marcahuasi to breathe the crisp air and to camp beneath the Milky Way. With every trip I take, I feel that I have entered a different world. How can one country be home to so many universes? The beauty here never ceases to astound me.
San Pedro de Casta
In San Pedro de Castas

                Of course, the trip was not without its difficulties. Two combi rides, one wrong stop, and several ambiguous directives from well-meaning Peruvians—we finally made it to the bus station in Chosica where we were going to jump on and enjoy the 3 hour ride up to San Pedro de Castas. There was only one small problem. The bus had already left! Being the resourceful students that we are, we quickly entered into a deal with another mis-timed couple and contracted a colectivo with them. Seven of us piled into a typical (i.e. not large) taxi, and up the mountain we went, determined to make it to camp before dusk.

Waiting for the engine to cool
Photo by Melanie McGuire
                But then…about two and a half hours into the journey our little red caboose just could not anymore. With steam seeping out of the gasping engine, we had to evacuate the vehicle for a half hour as it cooled down to a safe level. Our drinking water was donated to the cause of Operation Engine Cool Down. Once more we were off, and we finally arrived in the town of San Pedro de Castas, from which we were to embark on a 4 to 6 hour hike up to the camp site. However, trying to avoid trekking in the dark, we contracted horses for a quicker journey. Giddy yup!

Photo by Kourtney Liepelt

                Finally, after a breath-taking ride up, we made it to the camp site. I can see why mystics believe that aliens placed the rocks there. In the stones’ gnarled knuckle curves and majestic spindles, hidden faces reveal themselves to the careful observer. It felt as though they had been alive before but now were so incredibly dormant, these sleeping beauties bestowed a sense of heavy peace upon the entire range. Nothing could disturb its dead slumber. When I sat on the edge of the mountain range, watching grace in the form of a sunset, I felt as though a magnetic field was keeping me anchored to the spot. Everything felt grounded and whole. Complete.

                At night, we gazed upon the Milky Way, mesmerized. Marveling. How big is the universe. How small are we. Flickering flames of the fire licked at the wood as we contemplated and conversed. Sleep evaded our frost-covered bodies as we shivered through the night in our sleeping bags. 

The morning sun greeted us as an old friend, warm and familiar. We hiked a bit more, headed down the path, and set off once again for Lima. Content with the pace of nature, I have been carried through the week by the serenity of Marcahuasi. Her beauty calls to all who are willing to listen.

Photo by Kourtney Liepelt

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Amazon Adventure

                How can I even begin to describe my adventures in the Amazon? Everything was a marvel and a wonder that left me in an intense awe. Going into it, I was excited, but I had no idea what to expect. And when I saw that still river, when I set foot on that fertile earth, when I breathed that fresh air for the first time, I was hooked. It stirred in me a reverence and a satisfaction that was soul-restoring. This is the beauty of creation. This is life!

Some friendly locals that we met.
They showed us the two piranhas and catfish they had just caught.

Photo by Kourtney Liepelt
The floodable zone in the city of Iquitos where we flew into. Houses are built on stilts or on material that lets them float.

                It felt as though everything around me was breathing, was moving. I felt the breath of the trees on my neck. I was lulled by the songs of cicadas and crickets, was enchanted by the call of the birds. And in the center of it all was the stillest river, the lifeblood of this entire ecosystem, the Amazon. There is something breath-taking about such a powerful force. We as humans so often forget that before we were here, nature was. And it is this nature in such pure form, so big, so undeniably wild that I suddenly could not ignore, that took my head, emptied it of all the frivolities of competition and culture and replaced it with a profound respect for this earth, for this life force that is greater than me, greater than mine. Simply put, I was humbled.

                But it was not just beauty that I encountered. It was playfulness and energy and vibrance that buzzed around the forest and within the waters. We were lucky with everything that we saw—our guide kept saying, “This is so rare! You don’t see (fill in the blank) every day!”

                Jumping from tree to tree was a troupe of squirrel monkeys, sometimes barely making it across the big gap. We spotted sloths slowly serving themselves to leaves in the altitude of the tree branches. In the black waters of the Yanayacu tributary, not one but two anacondas slithered past our canoe, and one even showed his head. By our guide’s estimate, he was about 3 meters (~12 ft) long, and that is quite small. Normally they grow to about 8 meters, but the longest on record is 10 m. Luckily, we did not encounter any of that enormity!

The Red Saber tree
According to locals, a genie lives inside. If you sleep by it for one night, your wish will be granted.
One of the biggest trees in the Amazon; this was the biggest of its kind in the region.

                For some reason I cannot get the pink river dolphins out of my head. Apparently they were incredibly playful for this time of year. As they jumped and poked their heads out of the water, they boasted a rusty pink from their long snouts across their backs all the way to their tail fins. Among the local tribes there is great mysticism behind these creatures; the popular belief dictates that the pink river dolphins have the power to turn into a human and make a woman pregnant. And it is unwise to injure or kill one, for if you do, bad luck will befall you for years to come. The peoples of the Peruvian Amazon venerate these majestic mammals, treating them with the honor of a powerful, mystical being.

The local village by our lodge
Part of "The Motorcycle Diaries" was filmed here

squirrel monkey and me
                Perhaps one of the most memorable experiences, though, was when we got to interact with the animals at a local semi-captivity reserve-esque place founded by a few local families. They saw the need to protect and rescue some animals from the local people who would catch and display them for the tourists. According the locals’ mindsets, the tourists will want to see these animals and leave small tips after being shown them. But in the meantime the sloths and small wildcats and monkeys are kept in cages or chains. Thus, these families started a reserve where the animals are fed every morning and roam free all day. No cages, no chains. Just nature, tourists, and fellow animal playmates. Our tour company, Paseos Amazonicos (they were awesome!), is also trying to help educate the local children and adults as well about how to preserve the ecosystem and to not capture the wildlife.

Our friends, the macaws
There were two in our lodge, as well
                Going back to the semi-reserve. We arrived to see monkeys playing, wrestling and jumping on each other just as brothers and sisters do. When we held our hands out near the tree branches, they would jump up on us and climb over us, as if we were also part of the landscape. Kourtney had one baby Capuchin crawl onto her shoulder and nuzzle in; he almost fell asleep. When we had to leave, he would barely let her go, his adopted mom. It was adorable!

This guy was about 3m long and surprisingly heavy

Sloth, squirrel monkey, and me just hanging out
monkey started running

                We went fishing for piranhas, and although I didn’t catch one, Kourtney did. I'm so proud of her skills! We learned from a shaman about many of the medicinal plants and concoctions the locals use to heal themselves. We learned how to shoot a blowgun from the indigenous Yagwa tribe. We had the honor to be invited to participate in afternoon sports with the community near our lodge. Everyone was out playing volley and soccer. If they were not playing, they were watching the games and chatting as the children ran about, giggling and exercising their imaginations. It was a beautiful way of life.

Kourtney and her piranha

In the Amazon river!!!
                We swam in the Amazon river. We watched the sunsets from a dug-out canoe and from a river boat. We ate so many plantains. We listened to the legends of the Amazon. 
We fell in love with the river, with the forest, with the people.

                Two days later, I’m still longing to be back in the rain forest whose mystery captivates my heart. This was truly the greatest experience of my life. Thank you Kourtney for being an awesome travel buddy! It wouldn’t have been the same without you. And to everyone else, if you’re feeling stressed or tired or overwhelmed, go back to nature. Go to where the people are few and the sky is big. There is no better way to refresh or reconnect than to spend time among that which is beyond and greater than ourselves.

Looking like the Yagwa people...sort of

"Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the wind longs to play with your hair."
~Kahlil Gibran