Travels in Peru 2

Travels in Peru 2

We arrived in Iquitos in the evening and the heat and humidity hit us like a wet blanket. The streets were clogged with motorbikes and three wheeled moto-taxis celebrating Peru’s entry into the world cup. Everyone was tooting and cheering and it was almost impossible to cross the street. Iquitos is the largest city in the world not accessible by road and with all the young people celebrating it struck me as a real frontier town. Of course it is the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon and that was where we were headed.

The next day we caught a motorboat 140 km upstream to a lodge deep in the jungle. After a quick lunch we travelled further into the jungle and began a two-hour hike to look for monkeys. It was hot and steamy and even without walking the sweat dripped from our faces. The jungle was thick with mosquitoes and other insects and seemed foreign and inhospitable. Tales of anacondas, jaguars, tarantulas and piranhas combined with the heat to make us feel like we were in another world. We come from a different place, a major city in a developed country with all the amenities. Here we were plunged into a jungle that seemed potentially full of things that could harm us and it felt very strange.

I had to wonder – is the world a friendly place or one to be feared?

Being used to a large city I am used to feeling relatively safe from the natural world. When I go bush I am aware of snakes and biting insects but because I have been brought up with these the Australian bush mostly feels like home. And the big cities hold very few fears. But the amazon jungle felt so foreign that I wondered how I would survive if I had to live there. The heat and humidity I might get used to but the unknown of the jungle and the animals and plants that inhabit such a place made me really question whether this particular world was friendly or not. As we hiked through the forest I felt like we were walking in circles and had no idea of how to get back to our boat.

We visited a local village and discovered that the houses were all built on stilts because for some months of the year the whole place was flooded. People used boats to get around. I wondered how little children were kept safe from the water. We saw young boys cutting the grass with large machetes and I thought of all the possible machete injuries. Everything seemed more dangerous than the world I knew yet these people lived within the forest and depended upon it for their survival.

More walks into the jungle revealed details of which plants were used for which ailments or which trees were used to build houses or boats. The hot humid conditions were ideal for growing food. The rivers and streams meant plenty of water and fish, easy transport and play for children and adults. We boated on the river at night and walked into the jungle. Fireflies lit our way and the stars were brilliant in the darkness of the jungle. Tarantulas proved hard to find and not at all aggressive. We fished for piranhas and discovered they aren’t as terrifying as in the movies. Over just a few days the seemingly dangerous and inhospitable jungle proved to be friendlier than I had imagined. Sometimes our fears are just about the unknown rather than based on reality.

#Peru, #Amazon, #wilderness

 

 

Travels in Peru 1

Travels in Peru 1

We’ve just got back from four weeks in Peru and I thought I’d share some of the experiences. The highlight was the trek along the Salkantay route to Machu Picchu, which take five days and is hard walking; steep and at altitude. The mountains are, like all wild places, very special. Our guide told us that the local people considered the mountains to be gods, resting in the earth with their hair flowing down to the valleys. Many of them looked like gentle gods but Salkantay was snow-covered and steep, towering over the pass like a protector.

The walk up to Salkantay pass was steep and at 4600 metres was at considerable altitude. I took a horse up to the pass, as I didn’t want to hold back the rest of my group. The horses were stocky little ponies urged on by their owner from the rear. We had a rope to hold onto but no reins and we were perched on an uncomfortable saddle. The track was steep and wound up the valley for seven kilometres and over the pass. The horses liked to take the outside path close to the steep drop off and without reins I felt helpless to steer them to a safer inside course. Packhorses would pass every twenty minutes pushing their way forward. We passed walkers struggling for breath in the altitude, hugging themselves to the side of the mountain.

My fear of heights was overshadowed by my wonder at being in the Andes in Peru on a horse climbing up to a mountain pass. I had to just trust that the horse would take a safe path and give up my need to control. On reaching the pass we were rewarded with fantastic views of Mount Salkantay and surrounding mountains. We built a stone cairn to honour the mountain gods and the earth and drank coca tea to help with the altitude.

The trek continued for another few days towards Machu Picchu. Each day we were surrounded by mountains and wilderness and each day brought new challenges. The altitude remained a big challenge but my sore feet and aching legs reminded me that I am no longer as young as I once was.

Machu Picchu

IMG_2881Photos of Machu Picchu capture some of the wonder of the place but don’t do justice to the location. Machu Picchu is not just a unique archaeological treasure but it is located in a very special place. This ancient site is perched on a ridge between two mountains and is surrounded on all sides by more peaks, rising out of the jungle. On one side of the site is one special peak that stands by itself, looking just like a kneeling god with flowing hair.

IMG_2935

In the ruins I tried to connect with the spiritual nature of Machu Picchu but the crowds of people swarming around sitting on the walls and taking selfies made it impossible. It was only when I found a quiet spot with a view of the surrounding mountains that I could connect with the spirit of the place. Machu Picchu is a celebration of the natural world. The ruins themselves speak to the unusual advances in engineering of the Incan civilisation but for me the real achievement was in building in a location that pays tribute to the natural world that surrounds it.

Machu Picchu was never completed and it was only occupied for 100 years or so. There is still some debate about what it represents and why the Incan peoplebuilt it, as they had no written records. Unlike most other Incan sites, the invading Spanish never discovered it, so it remains relatively intact. Whatever the reason it was built and never destroyed by the Spanish I like to think it was left for us to show us how civilisation can be in harmony with the natural world. Here is a place high in the Andes, built out of local granite and a part of the mountains, which pays homage to the earth and her spirits. If we are to learn from ancient civilisations we need to understand how they lived in harmony with the earth and her cycles and how they worshipped the connection with the spirit of the land.

#Peru, #MachuPicchu, #Salkantaytrek, #wilderness, #trekking

 

Snow

Snow.

Outside the window a blanket of white covers everything and there is more of the white stuff falling from the sky. The wind is blowing the snow sideways and it looks a little bleak to be going out to ski. Looking through frosty glass from the inside it is a wonderland of white and grey.

We will venture out though because the trails beckon. New snow underfoot and our cross country skis will make fresh tracks as we climb out of the village to the newly groomed trails. There’s nothing like fresh snow for peace and quiet on the trail. The steady motion of the skis in the tracks and the mind settles as if in meditation. Each stride a glide on soft snow. Each breath a mist of warm air hitting cold. When the wind dies down the silence of falling snow is a wonder. Every flake an individual, together they float to the ground in little flurries.

The cold is invigorating but only the face is exposed. Cold lips and nose but the rest of the body is enveloped in wet weather gear; warm and snug in a cocoon. The gentle stride and glide becomes more of an effort as the hill looms large. Shorter steps, less glide, more energy. The breath becomes labored, the lungs and heart increase their work and muscles begin to burn. And at the top there is a rest as the skis glide effortlessly down the other side, following the tracks that have been made. If I have the courage I stay in the tracks and pick up speed. If I’m feeling some trepidation about the steeper gradient I step out of the tracks and snowplough down the hill; these skis aren’t made to turn easily.

There are large holes in the snow at the bottom of the hill where braver souls have let their skis run free; only to find themselves out of control. But this snow is deep, soft and forgiving and falling is a time of surprise and laughter. The snow welcomes the faller with a cushion of air and cold taking the breath from the lungs with the shock of impact.

The snow begins to fall more heavily and it’s hard to see as it clouds the glasses. Each step and glide becomes a moment of trust that the skis will follow the track. Out onto the snow plain and the wind picks up and the snow flurries bite into the exposed skin. Head down, into the wind and keep going, one step at a time until we reach the shelter of the snow gums now covered in white and bending with the weight. And on we go following the track, feeling the snow on our face, listening to the silence in the trees or the wind on the snow plains. Each hill a test of endurance as we climb up and a test of balance as we ski down.

There is so much joy in simply gliding through fresh snow. For some it is the exercise, for others a meditative calm and connection with nature, for me it is the wonder of the white stuff that gives and slides beneath my skis. Snow is yet another of earth’s miracles.

Cradle Mountain, Tasmania

Cradle Mountain, Tasmania.

Walking up a mountain in fog and drizzle is sometimes just a process of putting one foot in front of the other. The body moves in a certain rhythm and the mind tends to become more meditative. Wreathed in protective gear with water constantly trickling down my face I begin to feel like I’m in another world; an otherworldly place. Reaching the top of each hill doesn’t seem such an achievement when all I can see is fog. I could be anywhere. We start down again but I only know it’s down because different muscles are hurting.

The mystical properties of Cradle Mountain in Tasmania reveal themselves in varied ways. Fog makes most things invisible but there is a sense of being enveloped by nature. Cocooned in the mist, cocooned in wet weather gear, trusting that the path will take you where you want to go. I notice I am paying more attention to the small things. The wet leaves, the occasional flower, the water running along the path – all draw my attention away from the mist that envelops us. I stop wondering what is beyond the fog and start to enjoy the peacefulness of walking.

The next day the weather clears and I see where I have been and I am a little stunned. The fog had shrouded not only the visual beauty of the place but also the dangers – the steep inclines and cliffs, the scree and boulder fields. Places I had trudged the previous day with my head down now demand my focused attention. With the fog cleared away the mountains and lakes are revealed and the bigger picture of where I had walked clicks into awareness. There are trees of different shades and types, cliffs reflected in the mirrors of lakes and clouds now far overhead. I feel like I had visited a different place the previous day.

The moods of wild places are part of their mystical charm. The weather can change in an instant and suddenly the blue skies turn grey and snow begins to fall. We have no control over the weather but when we live in cities and towns we think we are insulated from the wildness of nature. When we venture out to the wilderness we rediscover our lack of control over the elements. We are like a small speck in a foreign landscape. Yet it has not always been so. Once we lived with the land instead of simply on her. Once we knew her moods and respected her changes. Once we lived as part of the whole rather than as individuals. We looked after the earth because we knew we needed her to look after us.

Sometimes we need to go back to nature to remind ourselves who we really are. We are not just individuals but part of a much larger system and we want to feel connected to the larger system. When we feel our feet rooted to the muddy path we know that we belong to the earth. The mystical properties of the wilderness lift our spirits as we climb mountains and marvel at the beauty but they also help sink our roots into the ground. Wild places help us connect our spirit to the earth. And we need to find that connection now more than ever.