Rise and Fall

Trujillo, Huaraz, Santa Cruz Trek
8/27 – 9/5/2019

Rather than bowdlerize the jokey conversations I had with my companions on Peru’s famous Santa Cruz trek, I will report them honestly in what follows. Readers who are easily offended should brace themselves.

This post is much too long, but I decided to indulge myself by allowing it to remain this way. I have broken it into two pieces – a short section on the city of Trujillo, and a much longer section on the Santa Cruz trek.

Trujillo

My bus from Copacabana brought me to Cusco in plenty of time for my flight to Trujillo – a city north of Lima, on the coast, of which I’d never heard a few weeks ago. Trujillo was a natural spot from which to launch a trip to my actual destination, the town of Huaraz, Peru’s trekking capital. I planned to give Trujillo a couple of days before going to Huaraz and embarking on the Santa Cruz trek.

The city of Trujillo has nothing to recommend it except the nearby ruins of pre-Inca civilizations. A few kilometers south of town are the remains of a major city of the Moche civilization, dominated by two enormous adobe pyramids, the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna. The Moche people controlled the northern coastline of present-day Peru between 100 and 700 AD. Climate change – or perhaps a climatological catastrophe, in 535-536AD – may have brought the Moche hegemony to an end, although this question is far from settled. And a few miles west of Trujillo stand the ruins of Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the Americas, and the capital of the Chimor empire from 900 until 1470, when they were defeated by the Inca and incorporated into their empire.

I saw Chan Chan only from the windows of the taxi that took me from the airport into town; it looked to me like a large collection of heaps of dirt, in some of which could be seen rectangular hints of ancient adobe brickwork. Adobe is little more than dried mud, which slowly and inexorably dissolves in the rain; it is a terrible building material if the goal is to create structures that will last for thousands of years. I gazed hungrily at the brown heaps as the taxi jounced over speed bumps and whipped back and forth between the hypothetical lanes, honking its horn; I was looking forward to visiting the site in a day or two. At the time, I had no way of knowing that I’d never see Chan Chan again.

I spent the next day trying and failing to find anything interesting about the city of Trujillo. I had intended to spend the afternoon at Chan Chan, but first I visited the tourist information office just off the main square, where I learned that the site closed at 4:00; there wasn’t enough time left in the day to make the trip worthwhile. “It is okay,” said the young woman behind the desk. “You can visit Huaca de la Luna tomorrow in the morning and then visit Chan Chan in the afternoon.”

“¿Verdad?” I asked.

“¡Claro!” she said.

On the following morning I took a taxi to the south edge of town. The road skirted a mountainous brown hill which I soon realized was entirely man-made – it was the remains of the Huaca del Sol, one of the two Moche pyramids. I bought two tickets at the entrance: one for the museum, and one that allowed me into the site itself.

The museum was full to bursting with superb ceramics and swirling mobs of shouting children. I was surrounded by twenty children at one point, each of whom said to me, with frowning concentration, “Hello. My name is Rodrigo / Loretta / Paulo / etc. How are you?” And then, one by one, grinning triumphantly at each other, each of them shook my hand.

After the museum, I walked down a dusty road toward the pyramids, where I discovered that the ticket I’d purchased to get into the site was actually a ticket for a guided tour, that these tours were the only way to see the ruins, and that the next English-language tour didn’t leave for an hour. I sat down in the shade of a tree, opened a package of trigo integrale crackers, and thought about my options. If I skipped this tour, I could take a taxi to Chan Chan and still have enough time to see it. On the other hand, here I was, under these vast pyramids, with a ticket in my pocket and a callejero dog at my side, who was gratefully sharing my crackers. Local women in magnificent hats were sitting on a berm a few feet away, swapping stories and laughing. This was a very pleasant place to wait, and the pyramids were irresistible. I let go of Chan Chan with only a twinge of regret.

I could hardly understand a word of what the tour guide had to say, but that hardly mattered. Our group climbed a hill that flanked one side of the Huaca de la Luna, to the top of the pyramid. From the top, we could look across the flat plain where the city had once stood, 100 feet below, to the Huaca del Sol, the twin pyramid whose excavations have been difficult and which is off-limits to visitors. We were standing on the fifth and final level of the Huaca de la Luna, we were told. The Moche people had followed the same building procedure I’ve seen at Mayan sites; whenever they felt it was time to create a larger structure, they built the new one over the top of the old, filling in rooms and plazas in the original structure as they worked. This method had the effect of preserving the old structures under the fill material. In the case of the Huaca de la Luna, the preservation is incredible.

We walked past an adobe enclosure where we were told human sacrifices had been performed, and then under a protective roof. An entire wall of geometrical reliefs had been exposed, with much of their original coloring still intact. And then we were led to a still more perfectly preserved series of reliefs. And then to another wall, deeper in the excavation, where staring images of Ai apaec, the chief Moche god, bared his fangs at us. Finally, we were led out of the pyramid’s north side, where the wind and rain over 1,300 years had buried the entire exterior wall. Excavations that began in 1998 have gradually removed the debris cladding, exposing the reliefs and colors of the original structure, 70 feet high, a series of patterns and an expression of aesthetics that are both utterly foreign and profoundly persuasive. The ancient civilizations of the Americas hint at aspects of human nature, and at both the commonalities and varieties of the aesthetic sense, in ways that have shocked and surprised me over and over since I left the United States, five months ago.

Paul Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, makes the case that the fortunes of major countries since the 16th century have turned on questions of economic and military strength. I think he is probably right, and of course it is reasonable for him to restrict his analysis to the last 500 years – but Kennedy’s choice necessarily excludes the Moche, and the Maya, and the people of Easter Island, whose civilizations fell for reasons that had nothing to do with their economies and militaries, and it excludes the greatest demographic disaster in human history – the death by plague of perhaps 70% of the population of the Americas. The last 500 years have been all about technology and productivity and population growth and resource exploitation and warfare, yes, but the last 500 years are a small fraction of the history of human civilization, and are hardly a blip in the 200,000-year-history of Homo sapiens. The forces that destroyed the Moche civilization have no precedent in recent history, but it would be a mistake to think we have become immune to them. On the contrary; we are very likely to be facing something similar ourselves, and soon.

Only one member of our tour group made any impression on my memory: a young woman who paid grave attention to the guide, her expression inscrutable behind opaque blue sunglasses, and who carried casually along with her, like the smoke from a burning pile of squandered delinquencies, a magnificent nimbus of tawny curls.

Here are a few photographs from my visits to Trujillo and the Huaca de la Luna.

The Santa Cruz Trek

The bus ride from Trujillo to Huaraz felt very long. I carried my gear through the dark streets of what appeared to be a typically ramshackle Peruvian town until I found my Airbnb, where I was shown my room by a woman who had no English at all but was able to use my infantile Spanish and energetic pantomime to show me which keys actuated which locks, how to use the shower, and how to connect to the wifi. Typical Peruvian dogs snarled and barked out in the typically Peruvian street as she bid me a good night.

On the following morning, I discovered that Huaraz is not quite as typical as it seemed. It was true that its embrace of ugliness had the fatigue and resignation you find in dockyard prostitutes and in every other Peruvian town except Arequipa, but it has more open spaces than usual, and its long association with fit young gringos has led to a proliferation of restaurants and cafes. The most unusual thing about Huaraz, however, is its setting; the Andes, giant and heavy with ice, loom in the sky north and east of the rooftop cisterns and half-finished building projects and tangles of overhead wire. Huaraz is like Zermatt, except that its mountains are bigger and it possesses no cuteness whatsoever.

I walked into a randomly chosen trekking agency and booked space on a trek that was leaving the next day.

A van picked me up outside my Airbnb at an absurdly early hour – the usual thing for expeditions like this. It filled quickly as we went from hostel to hostel, and then, when the van was completely full, and it was impossible to cram in one more person, we kept picking people up. We heaped the backpacks into tottering piles to clear a couple of seats, but then we stopped to pick up still more people. Finally, the backpacks were lashed on the roof, and every seat was taken. There were fourteen of us.

As the sun came up, we drove north out of Huaraz, past a Sunday market alive with Andean women whose local taste in hats set a new standard for flamboyance and fun, detoured around half a dozen washed-out bridges, rumbled through the town of Yungay, where 20,000 people had been killed in the Ancash earthquake of 1970, and then climbed up into the mountains, on dirt roads with loose, crumbling walls on one side and a sheer drop on the other, switchback after switchback, until finally we stopped at a wide spot near the summit and everyone piled out to take pictures of the stupendous scenery.

Here is what DangerousRoads.org has to say about this drive:

The Portachuelo Llanganuco Pass, at an elevation of 4.767m (15.639′) above the sea level, is perhaps the most significant gateway of the Huascaran National Park, Peru. The most challenging section of the road up to the pass is an 8.5km-long section. Over this distance, the road includes 28 hairpin turns and the elevation gain is 527 meters. It’s one of the famous hairpinned roads in the world.

 

The climb is simply terrible, with a notorious lack of oxygen that tests the organisms and a high degree of steepness. Most people feel altitude sickness at around 2,500-2,800 meters. Near the pass, oxygen is in short supply. In many places the road is bordered by a drop of hundreds of meters (many hundreds of feet) unprotected by guardrails. Avoid driving in this area if unpaved mountain roads aren’t your strong point. Stay away if you’re scared of heights. One mistake and it’s a free fall to your death.

The mountains around us topped 20,000 feet. They were a mass of vertical, unclimbable faces, with glaciers clinging to bowls and curling over the tops of cliffs.

We stuffed ourselves back into the van, which soon popped over the pass and descended switchbacks to the little village that was supposed to be our starting point. We all took turns in the bathroom and waited for something to happen. Avocado sandwiches and cookies were distributed. I found some kernels of corn on the ground and fed them to a caged chicken. Nothing seemed to be underway. I took pictures of drying ears of corn and watched a pig taking a nap. I applied sunscreen. Still nothing. Finally, our guide announced that we had developed donkey problems, and that the solution was for everybody to get back into the *!@# van so that we could drive down into the valley, meet the team of replacement donkeys, and start our trek a few miles closer to our first night’s campsite than we’d originally planned. Fine. We’d do anything if it meant we might start hiking soon.

I didn’t learn the names of everyone on the trek until it was nearly over, but I’ll list everyone here, at the beginning of the description, to make subsequent references easier to parse. I’m sure these brief descriptions will be full of errors and misconceptions, for which I can only apologize.

Margarita: Our guide was a compact Andean woman of indeterminate age, with a brown face, cheeks darkened in patches by years of exposure to the sun and the wind, weak but serviceable English, a long, thick, lustrous braid of obsidian-black hair, and only occasional flashes of recognition that we gringos were authentic human beings.

Isabel and Lisa: Friends and flatmates from Germany, mid-to-late twenties, not athletic in appearance but powerful while climbing switchbacks. Social workers specializing in immigrants from Afghanistan, Syria, and Ethiopia. Isabel and Lisa were a self-contained unit – friendly, but preferring to spend most off their time with each other.

Martin: A rail-thin 57-year-old expert in “procurement transformations,” track-and-field coach, lifelong runner, and, because of our similar ages, my natural partner and tent-mate on the trek. Martin is from Wales and speaks with a quiet lilt that compelled me to apologize for often being incapable of making out what he was saying. His Master’s degree in athletic biomechanics enabled him to give me extremely well-informed advice about my bad knee and what I might do to rid myself of the problem. Martin builds his holidays around opportunities to see glaciers; he has been to Nepal and Switzerland, and has visited New Zealand four times. He did not have much to say in the group conversations in the meal tent, but he was kind and friendly in one-on-one conversations, and he had a talent for making friends with the camp dogs. He used his fine camera to take many photos, including some interesting experiments with star photography, but admitted that he is too busy to attend to the job of editing and sorting the pictures he takes or publishing them online; “I usually make a calendar for family and friends every year,” he said. When I asked how he winnows his collection of photos down to twelve, he just shrugged.

Nika: An open, happy Slovenian woman in her early twenties, who carried casually along with her, like the smoke from a burning pile of squandered delinquencies, a magnificent nimbus of tawny curls. She was the person from the tour of Huaca de la Luna! Nika and I had an immediate natural chemistry; I was always glad to talk with her, and I don’t think I’m imagining things when I say that the same was true for her. Nika spoke about her country with such affection that it made me want to plan a visit to Slovenia.

Benoit and Eliz: Benoit is a runner and engineer from Marseilles; Eliz is a French medical student. Both are in their early twenties. Benoit was friendly and open, taking no offense at all when I admitted that my brief visit to Marseilles, several years ago, had left me unimpressed. Eliz is simply lovely, with a direct gaze and an eagerness to think the best of everyone. In my first conversation with her, I praised Paris unreservedly, telling her how much I was looking forward to seeing it with my brother, and only then learned that Paris is her home town; she was transparently pleased to hear me talking so enthusiastically about the city she loves. I was never clear about the precise nature of Benoit and Eliz’s relationship; they were traveling together, and looked out for one another, but it seemed to me that they were being careful to maintain each other’s independence.

Kenneth and Gabby: Kenneth is a tall, indefatigable, 28-year-old man from the Netherlands, who has been growing out his long dreadlocks for the past eight years. Gabby is slightly younger, a high-school teacher who, after three years of experience, is able to take an extended period off to travel in South America with a guarantee that her job will be waiting for her when she returns. Kenneth and Gabby are easy and affectionate with each other, but their relationship is fundamentally casual; Kenneth told me that they were traveling together because they “were going the same direction.” If this was a casual partnership, based on mutual attraction and convenience, it makes casual partnerships look very good.

Harry and Charlotte: Although this couple was ostensibly using our trekking company only for transportation, carrying their own tents and preparing their own food, they were immediately an essential part of the group. A more attractive couple is hard to imagine. Harry is thin, fit, and wears a tangle of red curls pulled back away from his face. Charlotte is blonde, with delicate features and with eyes as blue as morning glories. She is an ecologist, responsible for all of the details that maintain the health of a small English forest. Harry is a drummer, guitarist, and juggler, who makes a living teaching kids the “circus arts.”

Rob and Amy: This couple is from London. Rob, at 30 years old, was the most senior of the young people on the trip; Amy hasn’t yet turned 25. Rob is a natural clown and a great hugger and scratcher of the dogs and burros with which we shared our campsites. Amy is quick-witted and uncomplaining, despite having a little trouble with the altitude. These two displayed an unmistakable commitment to each other, seeking each other out to share observations and inquiring earnestly into each other’s welfare. They have been a couple long enough to start sharing behaviors. One night, they agreed they might get up early the next morning to watch the sunrise on the mountains. When someone asked at the next day’s breakfast whether they’d followed through with this idea, they said, with great vehemence and in perfect unison, “Christ no!”

Motti: Recently retired from the Israeli military, and traveling because he can, Motti is a compact, humorous, intelligent man whose previous position of authority in some aerospace-related job has left him overeager to explain how things work and to take the lead in solving problems. I can hardly guess at his age, although I am sure he is older than most of the trekkers, but younger than Martin and I. He preferred to take his time while hiking, stopping to take photos and admire the scenery, so he was often the last person to arrive in camp in the afternoons; our different paces meant that I didn’t really get to know him.

Jim: This 63-year-old American was able to keep up surprisingly well, considering his age and the size of his pack. His Jimmy Stewart demeanor masked an unexpected willingness to tell lewd stories around the table after dinner.

On our first afternoon, we walked through a few small villages, past a guinea-pig farm where a dark, solemn girl held out a struggling chestnut-colored example for us to pet as we went by, and then up to a broad meadow where the cooks and donkey wranglers were setting up our tents. Most of the trekkers rushed to help, where they displayed an ineptitude so complete and pitiable that it made me admire the silent determination of our porters to work around them. I saw this over and over during the next few days; I’m sure that the universal incompetence was a matter of inexperience with backpacking. The German women broke one of the tent poles and gestured at each other with the pieces. God.

The organizers had forgotten to pack the folding chairs, so we all sat in a circle in the meal tent, atop the pads the donkeys wore on their backs as they hauled our gear. The table was at chin height. Dinner was the usual mess of unseasoned meat and vegetables with a side of rice. The sun had set by the time we had finished eating, and the stars had begun to appear. Jupiter was straight overhead, and Sirius was bright over the ridge to the south. A cow arrived in camp and glowered at us in the light of our headlamps. Martin had decided to take pictures of stars, so he pulled out a tripod that he had disassembled for easier packing; his attempts to put it back together were ugly to watch. Motti, off in the darkness, attempted to find someone who might be interested in his explanations of night photography. “It’s the sensitivity of the sensor,” he said, with a tinge of desperation. “It’s all the sensitivity of the sensor!” Most of the party was taking pictures with their phones, and gave up on the idea that they might be able to do anything complicated, but Kenneth, who understood how to open the advanced settings on his Chinese phone, immediately took a beautiful shot of the Milky Way arching through the sky with a glowing tent in the valley beneath it.

My sleeping bag smelled suspiciously like other gringos, and my mat was like something you might put on the floor of a garage to sop up oil leaks, but I slept well anyway.

There was frost on the ground in the morning. Most of us were drinking cups of tea and chatting as Motti took a photo of the cow, who had apparently been circling the tents all night. He came back and announced that the cold had destroyed his battery; he had put the camera on the charger overnight, he said, but the battery had died after only one photo! Then there was a lot of talk about battery technology and low temperatures. At no point did anyone say, “You must not have connected the cable correctly, you dope.” Kenneth put his mug down on a frozen cow flop and lit a cigarette.

Our second day’s hike took us up past the tree line, switchbacking through tundra, to Punta Union pass – at 4,750 meters (more than 15,000 feet), the highest point on the Santa Cruz trek. Margarita had told us that we should take our time on the way up and that we should not linger at the pass. We would have lunch on the far side, a few hundred meters lower, she said. But we ignored this advice. From Punta Union, jagged peaks surrounded us on every side, with glaciers covering every ridge and a lake full of rock flour hundreds of feet below. We couldn’t hurry away from this spot. Some of the young men clambered from the trail up onto the ridge and then started working their way across to the closest glacier, while the rest of us took turns posing with the sign that marked the high point of the trail. Margarita told us at dinner that night that it was very unusual to have a group in which no one was forced to turn around because of altitude sickness. A few of us had had headaches, but no one had been ill; we were all very pleased with ourselves. That night’s camp was at 13,500’; I took a couple of Advil before going to bed.

A dog had joined us before we crossed the pass, coming out from behind a hummock and reacting to our presence with such extravagant joy that I was slightly suspicious of his intentions; I actually suspected this dog of duplicity. He followed us over the pass and down the other side, camped with us that night, and followed us for the whole next day, too. Other dogs joined the parade, all of them friendly, all of them fully aware that they were not allowed inside the tents, all of them polite, still, and focused whenever there was a chance that they might be handed a snack. Margarita explained that these dogs lived on the trail, following groups over the pass until they got close to civilization, when they would pick up a group going the other way and follow these new people back over the pass again. These dogs were lavished with attention, treated to lots of snacks, and maintained a fantastic level of fitness. Kenneth had one of these dogs sprawled across his lap on our second evening when he observed, “If after I die I come back as a dog, I want to be one of these Santa Cruz dogs.”

I enjoyed the efforts that everyone was making to get to know each other, even when I could hardly believe the way they were going about it. One evening before dinner, while everyone was sitting in a circle in a manure-strewn clearing, there was a lull in the conversation and one of the young men asked, “Would you rather have a nose where your penis is or a penis where your nose is?” This launched an immediate debate about whether you’d have two of each or whether the organs would swap locations. None of the young women were contributing to this nonsense, of course, but they all seemed interested in the conversation. “Are you hearing this?” I asked of Nika, who was sitting nearby and didn’t seem to be attending; she gave me a bemused look that I interpreted as “Of course I am, but it hadn’t occurred to me until just now that this is the sort of talk that has probably left your generation behind, old man.” Then somebody else asked the group, “Would you rather sleep with a woman who had your mother’s body but your partner’s mind, or somebody who had your partner’s body but your mother’s mind?”

Something happened on the last night of the trek that could have been due to a generational difference between me and the young men, or perhaps it was the natural result of traveling with budget-conscious youngsters who make a sport of thriftiness in third-world countries. It could have been nothing more than an expression of the personalities of these particular people, too, with no implications for travelers or young people in general. And it could also be the case that my negative reaction was an expression of my own shortcomings, and that they were in the right. Whatever the source of the event, I thought it was ugly. Here’s what happened.

On the night after we’d hiked over Punta Union pass, one of the young men asked Margarita, “Say, Margarita, can you tell me – will tomorrow’s campsite be like this?” He gestured at the tents and the bushes and the camp dogs.

“Like what?” asked Margarita.

“Like, no beer!” he said.

It turned out that there might be beer at the next night’s camp – a prospect that galvanized a few people. A man who lived at Llamacorral (the name of the next camp) used mules to haul beer up for thirsty gringos, selling the bottles at 15 soles each – less that $4.50, but a price that caused a few raised eyebrows. He would probably be working away from camp when we arrived, Margarita explained, but he would probably be back by 5:00 or so, and at that point he could sell the beer to us.

After a lovely day and a visit to a lake at 14,500’ where the glacier tumbled down to the water’s edge, most of us were in Llamacorral by 3:00, luxuriating on our donkey mats in the sun. There was some wistful talk about the beer. Far above us on the steep mountain wall, someone had hacked a clearing in the bushes, hauled off the biggest rocks, and planted some sort of drought-tolerant, cold-tolerant, altitude-tolerant crop; the beer seller was up there, Margarita said, working in this field. “Ah,” said our thirsty crew, squinting at the puny, struggling forms in the distance. “And in two hours, he will be back.”

But at 5:00, we could still see the tiny forms of human beings laboring on the mountainside. “What is this shit?” someone asked. “He was supposed to be back by now.” A half-hour went by, then another. Finally, shortly after 6:00, a very short, very tired, very dirty man appeared in camp. People tried to mask their impatience with his tardiness and eagerly handed him their beer money.

After dinner, when a number of people in our group were more than ready for their second beers, one member of the crew was dragooned into going back to the beer seller and negotiating a lower price for the next round. He returned, ten minutes later, carrying an armload of beer bottles and wearing a triumphant grin. He’d gotten them for 10 soles each! Dude!

People drank their beers and the conversation turned to swearing. At least half-a-dozen languages were represented in the tent, but everyone agreed that there is no substitute for the word “fuck” – the Dutch, the Israelis, the Germans, the Slovenian, and the French all agreed that it is the king of four-letter words. Then people tried to teach each other colorful insults in their home languages. When this gambit started to flag, I mentioned that I used to know a woman who had decided to collect one particular off-color phrase in as many languages as she could. “She could use more than 50 different languages to say, ‘Your mother sucks dead donkey dicks,’” I said.

“What was that?” asked Benoit.

“Your mother sucks dead donkey dicks,” I said.

“Sorry, what?” asked Nika.

“How many times…okay,” I said. “Your. Mother. Sucks. Dead Donkey. Dicks.”

This phrase electrified the tent. Everyone taught everyone else how to say it in their home languages, and then we tried to figure out how it might go in Spanish. Nika looked up the Spanish word for “penis” on her phone. Benoit was the only one of us whose Spanish allowed him to come up with the word “suck.”

“Let’s see,” he said. “Tu madre, uhm, apesta, maybe, los…”

“Pene,” said Nika, reading from her screen.

“Tu madre apesta los penes de burros muertas!” shouted Benoit, accompanied by cheers.

It was at about this point that Margarita stuck her head into the tent, with the news that the beer seller wanted to know when he was going to get the extra money he was owed for the beers. The beers cost 15 soles each, so he was owed 5 soles for each of the beers that the designated negotiator had just brought back. After a moment of shocked silence, the beer drinkers exploded in outrage. No way. A deal’s a deal. You can’t agree to sell at one price and then, after the purchase, decide you want more money! Forget it!

“Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding,” I said. “There was a language barrier, after all.”

“No way! He understood fine. He’s just after more money.”

I thought about pointing out that nobody concludes a deal and then goes back later for more money – that their theory about this Peruvian farmer assumed he was behaving in a way that is practically unheard of. I thought of pointing out that the price he was asking for the beer was reasonable, especially considering how hard he had to work to get it up to this spot. I thought of pointing out that this guy was working harder every day for less money than any of us ever would, and that the least we could do was help him out a little. I thought of pointing out that our positions of wealth and education and opportunity were so cosmically unfair in this Peruvian valley that pretending to be standing on principle – pretending that “a deal’s a deal” is a principled position – is a disgusting casuistry, and is going to be seen as further proof by these people that we gringos are a bunch of spoiled, selfish babies. But I didn’t say anything. I looked around at the faces in the tent – at the outraged young men and the mostly quiet, thoughtful young women – and thought that these were my people, for better or worse. My peer group, right or wrong.

“How am I going to talk to him about this?” asked the beer negotiator. “I don’t know enough Spanish to explain anything.”

“I know,” said Motti. “Write that donkey-dick phase on your hand, and then just hold it up and read it when you talk to him!” Motti held up his hand, stared at his palm, and intoned, “Tu madre…”

On the following morning, the little beer man came to the camp to ask for the 20 soles he was owed, and the rich people who had drunk his beer sent him away empty-handed.

The last day’s hike followed the Santa Cruz river out from under the glaciers and down to the little town of Cashapampa, where a van waited to take us back to Huaraz. It was hard to say goodbye to my new friends. The story I just told about the beer money should not be interpreted to mean that I had decided not to love these people; on the contrary, feeling the obligation to forgive them made me love them more. You can admire without reservation only people you don’t know well; for everyone else, you can only hope that they treat you with the same forbearance you extend to them.

Margarita introduced herself to a group of young gringos who had just gotten off the van, made sure that everybody had enough water and that the extra gear had been loaded onto the donkeys, and set off up the trail with them – climbing back up into the mountains on the same trail she had just descended that morning. The camp dogs who had been following us since the far side of the pass turned around and followed the new group back up the trail. They knew better than I did how irrelevant we were to their lives.

There wasn’t a lot of chatter on the van during the trip back to Huaraz. We didn’t have the energy to indulge in idle conversation. We were too busy becoming irrelevant to each other.

Photographs from the Santa Cruz Trek.

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3 Comments

  1. I like the Last Photo above and the slide show!
    If you had been able to express those thoughts some may have agreed with paying more for the beer. I agree anyway.

  2. Jim, I have been with ugly gringos…but the beer thing is outrageous. Did someone pay the gentleman what was due? Keep the stories coming. I wish that I were there. Such travel feeds my soul. Theo

  3. Hilarious commentary by Dangerous Roads on your trek. And yet you trekked on…resolute! Ah the photo /paintings of the mountains The panoramas you captured! How the heck? me oh my Glorious. mountains in the mist – the rays of sun. soul food Also fantastic to come upon the uncovered mosaics on the ceilings. How long they’ve waited to be appreciated again. an honor to see. I am so surprised the minerals of the earth didn’t somehow abrade them but it is the addition of moisture that does the deed I guess.
    folks is fascinating. all sides of human in one little group. insights.
    your full circle to …irrelevant….intake of breath, smile, nod. Then smile again at the pleasure of reading your offerings. Not irrelevant : )

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