Tag Archives: Cusco

projects and reasons

The drying hills, dustier by the day, have a way of soaking up the passage of time, of soaking up just about everything. Except maybe the nightly fireworks, and the sky. The whole month of August swept under my feet so quickly I have had little time to contemplate what it meant.

I have spent a lot of time sitting on a chair at work, running errands, cooking, sleeping (maybe not enough), staring at a screen (definitely too much). This monotonous routine – what we call the “necessities” of life – provides moments to learn from, moments that allow me to better appreciate what it is that I love to do. Like being sick (writhing to the rhythm of gut cramps, spending all day on a toilet, or shaking with the heat of a raging fever) sitting on a chair staring at a screen makes me sure it’s not what I want to be doing, and sure of the joy that I get from pushing my body, being on the trail, in the mountains, between pines and peaks.

This past month has been one of some of the biggest physical objectives, the most ambitious outdoor projects that I’ve yet undertaken. Hopefully it’s just the beginning.

 

A project:

In my thirst, like the dry mountains, to soak up everything while I am privileged enough to be here, I’ve been on a constant look out for routes through high places that challenge my physical, mental, and emotional limits. The moments that I crave while sitting on that chair, looking at that screen. I’ve already done a few spectacular longer routes (such as Salkantay and Lares), but it’s not a bucket list. I hate the cliché. It’s not a list at all. It’s breathing in the mountains, covering myself in the endless sky.

The project came to be via a friend, Andres, whose idea it was to run the iconic out-and-back route to the ruins of Choquequirao. (Lonely Planet just deemed Machu Picchu’s sister city as the number one destination to visit in Peru.) The route is about 60km (57km as it turned out) and usually takes fit hikers 3 to 4 days to complete. On 4 August, we donned our minimalist vests and running shoes and set out to benchmark a Fastest Known Time (or FKT) on the route. Starting from the village of Cachora, the trail starts on a high plateau before plummeting down more than 1500m to the floor of a churning river. I can only guess that water was responsible for this, that as you look down from the upper trail, down below the diving stone walls and ancient trails scraped into their sides in an endless Z pattern, down to the white thread below, carving and sweeping through the immense grey-orange canyon – that water and tectonics were responsible.

The thing about moving through this terrain at all, and especially “fast,” is that it can be immensely rewarding, infinitely beautiful. I use the iceberg analogy to explain this: the experience of a one-time event can be the the spectacular tip of an iceberg, but below the surface, to be able to enjoy it, there is a gargantuan time- and energy-commitment, months of sweating it out daily for hours on end. If you are not prepared, it can be quite “unfun,” even dangerous.

It had been some time since I had felt so good moving through nature, through the mountains. Full of raw euphoria. Not a forced emotion, not a thought-out or rational process that comes like a “oh, I should appreciate this because it’s special, few people get to see it.” Instead there was a smile, a hoot just bubbling beneath my lips. I did some whooping and shouting especially on the descents.

After hitting the river, the stifling heat and bugs, you go back up the other side. It’s equally as steep and the going is slow, but we stayed steady, looking across the canyon behind us to sheer cliffs, a zig-zagging trail and into the grey sky. We made it to the gate of the ruins, stretched, ate, and turned around. Then it was 8km of tight steep dusty switchbacks down to the river, where the humidity and bugs kept us moving across the bridge and back up the other side. From this point on, we passed a fairly steady stream of donkeys, guides, and bewildered hikers with their huge packs. After pushing to run the last 12k of rolling dirt road, we finally made it back to Cachora, setting a “fast time” of 9h 36m. Being able to feel so good, enjoy the movement of my body, the scenery, even the monotony was a huge privilege. Neither Andres nor I are under any illusions of course: this record could have 2 hours taken off of it by a pro, and can certainly be lowered by other dedicated runners. And it will be, and I can’t wait to see that!

A race:

On 26 August I lined up with 75 other people in the small mountain village of Lares in the cold morning. After having tossed and turned under the glow of fluorescent lights, the pounding and tinny huayno music and the shouts and laughs of drunken locals all night, I arose at 5am to check in and line up.

Only three weeks later and the memories seem to have faded into the jagged peaks. I can see the bushes, cut with orange flagging across the side of the first climb, a mountain reaching to a panoramic plateau. Fighting through this section, branches whipping my face, cutting my lenses, I tailed the 5th place runner until it really kicked up and I was able to pass him. Hiking and scrambling up to a second plateau, shuffling through high mountain hamlets where leather-skinned campesinos cheered, clapping their slow hands, calling their shepherd dogs out from behind adobe walls.

I picked off 100k runners (who had started 10 hours earlier and 40k before us, passing through towers of black stone and blue-white hanging glaciers in the black of night, the white of fog). On a long and technical descent into a small town I was passed by Lorena, the #1 woman. For the next 25k I kept her (just) in sight and finally, shortly after the red-black Ipsaijasa pass that rose like a castle wall from the green pampa, the last high point of the race at 4500m, I was able to catch and pass her. The last 22k of cruisy downhill punctuated by short, steep climbs, went by slowly. I just wanted to finish. The heat grew with every step down into the valley, and though I was eating well (something that I have struggled with since getting into running) and my legs felt fairly good – despite that, psychologically I just wanted to be done. I wanted to stop at the river crossings and bathe in the cool clear water. But I pushed down through the towns, pastures, forested river banks, and arrived with a spring in my step on the streets of Ollantaytambo, cruising in to the central plaza and the finish line in 9h 20mins, and the cheers of strangers and close friends alike

.

As I sit here at my computer, dreaming of the mountains, of the thin air and the biting teeth of ridges of rock, I am reminded of what it is to live, to explore the places that take the breath from my lungs. I’ve got another race on the horizon. As a mountain experience, it will be more pared down: most of the race will be run at night so I’ll only have my feet, my ears, my gut, by which to appreciate the scruffy and stony Andean range, the wild country between pastures and hamlets.

People ask why someone would ever want to run for 9 hours, or 15, or 30. There is most certainly the physical challenge, but nobody runs through all of the daylight hours (and more) to “stay in shape.” For me, still very new to ultra running, I would say it’s really just life boiled down. It’s living through joy and elation, anger, sadness, indifference, resignation; dealing with sometimes unbearable physical discomfort; a wandering, calculating, even hostile mind; it is feeling the sun warming your skin in the freezing cold; it’s also feeling the sun scorching down when all you want to do is stop and lie in a cold stream; it is loving those around you; respecting their work and deeply understanding their struggle as a human being; it’s feeling invincibly strong one moment, utterly broken a few hours later; it is feeling the earth and rocks under your feet, watching in slow motion as clouds gather to strike the jagged peaks; it’s being so sure you’re in the right place only to notice you are utterly lost, and alone.

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Privilege and mountain running

There is a geometric quality to my thoughts. Always. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent all this time on edges, on the domes and cones of these mountains, climbing the squared steps of ruins, arching with rhythmic feet the soft perimeters of the unimaginable V that rises from each microscopic river into the rocks and sky. I always come back to the privilege of having the time to appreciate.

I start in the dark, the pink sun buried somewhere to the east, in black silhouettes. You get the feeling you’re being watched. A massive presence, full of earth and rock and snow and ice waits for the day to crack its eyelids, to wake slowly, to explode and give light to a landscape that makes Machu Picchu or Giza look, frankly, mundane.

First, as I move smoothly along the approach road to the campground, there is no one. Just tents, sleeping behind rocks and in between grazing packhorses and mules in the half-darkness. But lights begin to flicker on as I reach the trail. This is where tour groups sleep just before setting out on a four or five day trek. People appear at their tent doors like ghosts, brushing their teeth and watching me run by with groggy confusion.

 

The arrieros have been up since before dark in their dirty boots and crusting layers of wool. I watch them push packs onto waiting mules, pulling hard on the ropes to tie their bundles off – it will be hours of rough terrain and probably rain before they set up camp in advance of the trekkers. These men work ten or twelve days at a time, waking at 3am to tie loads, to make breakfast and start breaking camp, and they go until well after dark, cleaning and readying for the next day. They make enough to support their families in adobe, dirt floor houses. Some even have stone walls. But they only spend three days at home before heading back to the mountain. The mountain is their money, their food, it is their livelihood, towering above the valley a white and icy mess of jagged lines and 10,000 year old ice covered in last night’s snowfall.

I’ve slowed my pace, distracted as I think about the fully loaded packhorses and the men who spend their lives amongst these rocks, 4 kilometers in the sky. “Come on Liam, focus! It’s only been 3km and you’ve got nearly 50km to go!” I get back to my feet, finding a rhythm as they turn over like they have so many millions of times. I get beyond camp to a buttress where a stream flows out and the first bit of rugged singletrack starts up toward the pass. I’ve only been running for a half hour, and I estimate I’ve got another 7.5 before my proposed mid-afternoon arrival at the dam below Machu Picchu. I feel alive with the cold morning air and the rising mist, I feel the weight of three litres of water and the day’s food, a change of shorts and t-shirt for the long, hot bus ride back home. But there’s a long way to go before that.

The last few months have been busy at work, and I don’t get very many weekends off, as I’m visiting partner communities. I had been training hard though, for a race in Puno, the Ultra Titicaca Trail 60k. Only weeks out, the race was cancelled. So I had great fitness and a rare free weekend. My natural reaction was of wanting to take advantage of this to spend time in the mountains. I had had the idea of running the Salkantay route (a fairly popular 4-5 day mountain trek) in a day, so this would be a great test of my fitness and a beautiful day moving on my own power from high mountain pass to steamy jungle. Because in the end there are really only two reasons why I trail run: it makes my body and mind feel great, and it allows me to appreciate the beauty of forests, mountains, streams, lakes, meadows, rocks, and all the animals and plants that inhabit them. And – and I’ve thought this many times before – it occurs to me that this enjoying nature is a privilege and a luxury of people who can take days for themselves…a truly exclusive group.

I’ve left the camp behind me in the clearing mist where the tourists will have gotten dressed and stumbled to the breakfast tent. I’m holding my trekking poles by my side as I cruise the last rolling – if quite technical – singletrack before the real climbing starts. The river roars at the bottom of a steep embankment to my right (still swollen from the remnants of the rainy season), and in front of me a towering, steaming white Goliath, reaching its dry and snowy body to the sky, steep and impossible. Now the trail kicks up, gets rocky, and gets real. I’m dragging myself up the switchbacks (so tight they’re almost on top of each other) on the side of a rugged moraine. I’m breathing hard, but steady. I’ve already had my first bite of sandwich (not eating or hydrating on a solo outing like this is suicide) and I’m feeling strong. Out of the corner of my eye, something moves. I turn to the right to see a man floating down the trail on the other side of the gulch, a trail far more technical than the one I’m on. The trail blazes through a God size mound of scree that a glacier dumped in the middle of the valley some number of thousands of years ago. From my vantage point, the man seems to be wearing jeans, a jacket, and has a book bag slung on his back. He looks up, seems to see me, and then returns to the shoe-cutting stones. This kind of ease on this kind of trail is mind blowing, something you only see from professional trail runners. But then again, I think as I keep my feet moving, turning over despite the lack of oxygen and every muscle that screams to slow down – then again, this man is made of this mountain. This is not his weekend adventure but his daily commute – he belongs to the mountain. He disappears quickly into the gulch and I continue up past a shear cliff face on my left, the Apu Salkantay on my right, up toward the pass.

It occurs to me as I pause on a precipitous ledge to catch my break and grab an apple from my vest that my appreciation for these landscapes appears pure, but is really only aesthetic. It is like looking at a painting without knowing it’s history or context, admiring a naked body without knowing the human inside it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, only that there are whole dimensions missing from that appreciation. It is also a privileged appreciation. So many of us try to connect with our surroundings, nature, the trail, the mountain, the river, and we value that. It is laudable, especially in a world that seems to be both disconnected from and violent toward those natural spaces. But I can’t imagine the tiny Andean woman in her pollera (traditional skirt) pulling potatoes from the cold ground before sunrise, admiring the aesthetic beauty of the Salkantay valley.

Above 4500m my body REALLY resists running. But I will it to run here on a few hundred meters of flat pampa before the final ascent to the pass. Every meter of running saves time. I splash through puddles, muddy depressions on the grassy oasis. As I make the final push to the pass – even scrambling in a few sections – at 4650m I look back to see a massive cloud just behind me. It’s moving fast enough that I have no time to get my camera out to snap a photo of the beautiful mountain. Instead, I make it to the pass, a cemetery of rocks and cairns standing immobile in a cloud so dense I can only see about 20 meters ahead of me. There isn’t much point in staying up here: I can’t see anything, its cold, and I’m making good time, so I might as well keep the rhythm.

Easier said than done. After just over 1.5h of slow and steady progression up to the pass, I’d wanted to scream down the other side. But in the thick fog and the light rain, the steep rocky trail is technical. I remember I’m alone. “Take it easy Liam.” As the rain starts around 11k, (3.5k after the pass) I come across my first hikers with their neon rain covers and their ponchos. As I cruise easily through the rock garden past them, I say hi. I like to imagine what people think: “WTF!” Later I would actually hear “that guy has got to be crazy!” They were starting their second day of trekking.

The edge of cold, the bite in the air starts to abate as I get down to 4000m and again have to will myself (this time more easily) to run across a rainy and muddy field to where the trail really turns down toward the jungle. Another camp, more trekkers, some dogs, and those arrieros again, yelling at their mules and dragging them down the muddied slopes with their full load. Chewing coca, without any rain gear, they watch me go by and give me a gruff “Buenos dias.” Another day at the office, this time in the rain.

The trail down to Chaullay is steep and fairly wide. It’s raining steadily now, and I’m just trying to make good time. I always hit a low point on long runs, and it starts here, around 20k. My stomach starts to feel upset, I’m not eating enough, I take a wrong turn and have to squelch my way back through ankle-deep mud to the village to ask directions. “Of course, it’s down the valley.”

I had been told that some of the trail to Llaqtapata was washed out by landslides so I take the road. By this point, I’m fully out of the alpine, it’s steamy, the visibility is pretty good, and it’s time to take off my jacket. I walk for 5 minutes to eat and take on fluid and then I’m feeling great again. The next 10k I’m ticking off the monotonous road (narrow, dirt) kilometers quickly. It’s really easy going and my legs feel great. Van loads of trekkers drive by me, sometimes hollering encouragement out the window, other times just staring in bewilderment. At one point I am condescendingly told to wait by a man on horseback. I’m annoyed, but then I see the rocks falling from above, flying down the mountain to strike the road – remnants of a landslide. When you do go, when you make a dash for it you just hope it’s not the moment another rock decides to fall, because that would be it. Through a few small rivers whose cold water is like heaven on the hot and blistering feet. I stop to fill up my water and take off the last of my layers. It is a hot summer run now and I’ve arrived at Llaqtapata where the road splits. Only 12k to go. Here, men wait, drinking Coke, washing their cars, aimlessly waiting for tired trekkers to cave and get a ride. They’re working. I’m playing.

At Llaqtapata I head up, and thus begins my second low point, this one more of an angry one. I feel great physically, I’m moving well, but I expected the climb to be two or three kilometers max. So when it’s stair-worthy steep for four kilometers I start to get frustrated. I’ve slowed down, more out of frustration than fatigue, and I just want to be on the final descent to Hidroelectrica. Each turn I think it’s going to be the top. It’s not. The climb is an excruciating seven kilometers before it finally turns down. Just before, I stop at a campesino’s house (who sells soft drinks and cookies to hikers on this Inka road in the middle of the jungle). I sit down for one minute to drink my Pepsi (fluid, sugar, salt – it’s all you need!) before continuing on up. A man comes out with his adorable and precocious daughters and we chat briefly. People like me are how they make their living in this lush green canyon in the rocks.

This whole time I’ve been frustrated, yelling at the chickens that cross my path, I’ve been ignoring this vast valley of lush green forest, topped with shear cliffs and spiky mountains. Chatting with the little girls and confirming I’m not lost both brighten me up. I’m close and I’ve only been running for 6.5h.

“I’m going to scream down this last descent and I’ll be in under 7h, wow!” Nope. Nothing of the sort. The 5k descent is extremely steep, and unthinkably muddy. But not dirty mud. More clay, really slippery clay. It is like a skating rink. I have to hobble down with my hiking poles. I fall once, and consider it a miracle that I don’t fall a lot more. Once I finally roll into the parking lot, still feeling great, it’s around 1pm. I’ve been on the trail for 7.5h, moving for 7h 18mins. The sun is shining, the mountains are gazing down at the rushing and muddy Urubamba river.

I sneak between the trees, strip down, and sooth myself in the frigid waters. I just can’t stop thinking how this is a privilege. It is a privilege to do, to experience, to be, to move, and to appreciate.

I wash, change, sit in the sun by the river before sauntering over to the railroad track to buy some overpriced food. I eat while I wait for the train to come in, full of Machu Picchu goers. The people who said I was crazy in the last kilometer of muddy descent arrive. We exchange words. I get in a car and sleep and eat my way to Urubamba where friends wait with a warm welcome, a barbecue, stories of their day of rock climbing. Later, we pile seven people into a car for the dark drive back to Cusco.

The arrieros will have long gone to bed in their wet clothes. They’ll be waking up in a few hours while I rest my legs. They’ll be tying bags as I sleep. They’ll be getting on the trail, moving through rocks and canyons as I’m back in my bed, dreaming of the mountains.

 

 

Episodes

these things all happened:

When the car pulls over, I’m almost frantic. The driver brakes hard around the hairpin turn (rather than accelerating like he’s been doing) and heeds my quiet but urgent request. There is no shoulder, just the tarmac, a strip of gravel, and a thousand foot drop. As I exit the car, I throw my hydration vest and the half-eaten orange onto the seat of the Corolla. My clammy body lurches to the strip of gravel and, sensing the wind and what is about to come, I drop to my knees. The refuse that hurls from my mouth contains the last litre of water I consumed, and the last energy bar along with some nuts and the half orange I just choked down as we sped down the mountain from Lares. The last time I vomited like this was at km 50 of the Haliburton Forest 50 miler – great race – my best to date actually. This time is different. After starting out in the wrong direction, losing the path twice, slogging up over 1700m of vertical (from 3000 to 4700+), my training partner Julien and I have to throw in the towel at Quishuarani, a mere 25kms into our proposed 55km project of running the Lares trek loop. Through mountains of black and ice, and every shade of green, past stout brown women weaving at the base of a magnificent cirque, past potato fields and herds of sheep and llamas. We had stopped endlessly (probably too often) to catch our breaths for the views, and to take photo evidence. But our slow progress meant that with 6 hours of daylight left, we had only gone over one of the three big passes, and I wasn’t taking food or water on very well (looking a bit ghostly). We took our one opportunity to get on the road, and we ran the 10 or so kilometres down to Lares. I’ll be back.

* * *

I have become unphased by beggars in the street: the mumbling, the baked skin, the jangling tin of 10 and 20 cent coins, the wild eyes, the stories I tell myself about them. But I gasp if they bare their feet from beneath their twisting limbs, their torn garments. Those feet, bloated, blackened, caked in dirt or blood, were the last thing to come into the world, but they are the first to be beaten. I can’t watch.

* * *

According to Scott, there was an eclipse on Sunday. Who knows? According to just about everybody there’s a weird energy here. I’ve never once felt it. Except maybe last night. The sun hovered over the southern slums, stacked brick upon brick to the antennas at the top of one green mountain, and then all the others. (You can’t sense the chaos from all the way on the other side of the valley. It’s a quiet chaos, almost calming as you walk up the steep concrete steps…the steps are everywhere, and so are the dirty backyards filled with garbage and livestock and red-brown earth.)

The yellow light hung there in the sky, painting the silver rim of moon into a blue corner. I went up the switchback road, plodding into the grey horizon with its jagged edge. By the time I arrived at the Devil’s Balcony to descend the rough and thorny trail, everything was dusty with the recently set sun. I didn’t think to look up, but the moon would have been there, like a ring glinting in the sun. My legs felt unnervingly fresh for being on my second run of the day, and cruising at a good pace at nearly 4000m above sea level. Energy. Grizzly and grey but almost buzzing, the air was granular and the soft ground – once I got to it – was muddy and black as ink. I could still feel the horseshoe prints though – I could sense them.

Jenny says you shouldn’t go up there after sunset because you could get robbed. I’ve only heard third-hand cases…many of them…but all third-hand. I was aware of this fact though, almost twitchy with the buzz of the pixels as I silently started up the last climb on an old Inca road.

I heard it then. The beating of a drum and the hoot of a whistle. Just two instruments moving in the darkening sky above me. I was walking by this point, and could see three huddled figures silhouetted against what was still left of light in the sky. As I approached, they stopped. The woman was wrapped in a blanket, the two men hunched over, one adjusting his collared shirt and woolen vest while the other held himself as he urinated into the darkness. Stout, brown andean folk. The woman looked at me sharply and said, “where are you going young man?” I replied that I was going to get to the top and make my way back. The man with the sweater-vest and fedora looked at me urgently, the whites of his eyes bulging into the quickly falling night. I looked from one to the other: they all had purple flour smeared on their faces, and the man urinating into the thorny edge of the path had colourful pink and white and purple strips of paper round his neck. They were all drunk. The man in the sweater vest said, “I used to go up there as a young man,” pointing to where they had just come from. “I’d go aaaaall the way up, no problem. But you have to be careful. Things happen now.” Looking into their buggy eyes, I assured them all I was really just going a few hundred metres further before turning around. “Ok, ok,” said the woman, “but there are people out.”

The man who had had his back to me turned to shake my hand. He held it while he watched me through his dark and swimming eyes. “Sometimes things just happen. Not just out there, but here too. And we just can’t help it! There’s nothing we can do. It’s out of our control.”

I bid them all adieu, shook their clammy hands, watched their purple faces recede back into the night as I started up into the darkness again with the renewed beat of a drum and the flitting of a whistle. I don’t believe in premonitions, as I said. Or this energy. But as I floated down through the mess of rocks and the steep stone steps to where the street is lit with yellow light, where the dogs scavenge for garbage at the hairpin turn all day and every day, I felt those bugging eyes – dark and white against the night. They were from another time. A time when this buzzing night and these pixels under the sliver moon – when they meant something.

* * *

Three figures appear through the mist. They just appear. One moment it is green and black and the sitting cloud, and the next there are three figures. Within seconds, you can hear their breathing. There’re following the stones laid at the border of this old road. They are going somewhere. The road gets to the buttress cliff. They walk between the stones and amongst the cacti and low bushes. Across the Apurimac canyon mist is clearing, the clouds begin to reveal the edge of ridges, crests and peaks plummeting down and back into the thick ocean of fog below. Except for the green under their feet, everything is still black and white. You watch them approach what looks like an impassable rock face. Step by step, foot by foot. The two tall men are wearing shoes. They are the colour of canyon cloud. The man in front is wearing sandals. He displaces nothing but moves through the mist like knife through flesh.

After the river that comes down from the plateau where the alpacas graze, after hours that near them to the place of sacrifice, to the horns that overlook a kingdom of layer upon layer of mountains, after black and orange cliffs run the canyon like a ribbon under more rocks, more stones – after it all – and as the sun gets high above the canyon and into the blue sky, the short man starts to run.

His sandaled feet hardly touch the ground. They float his body up the trail as it reaches for the hot sky, up through the green and the river that flows down the trail. They are not afraid. You watch them, feel them graze the rocks and the dust that lays dry for thousands of years under the protection of cliffs. The two men behind, the two tall ones are burning in their chests. Their lungs have lost the elasticity they should have and their tongues are out of their faces like dogs. It’s the only thing you can hear from the ribbon cliffs all the gaping way down to the canyon floor (the invisible canyon floor).

At the top, sitting on Inca walls where life was cut through without a sound, between the horns of stone, the top of steps laid hundreds of years ago. You can watch them as they drink cloudy chicha from a plastic bottle, as they eat grains of yellow choclo. The sun is out, but there is no sound.

* * *

I lent my hat to a stranger. He lost it. On a night I expected the hard breathing, the skin of a woman, this man knocked, entered, and, through his round glasses and wisps of black hair falling to his shoulders, he opened his chest. He opened a plastic bag, he stuttered, he showed his love. In the bag was a bottle of wine from Mendoza, a hat knit by some old woman, and a CD of afro-peruvian music. He cared. A gift greater than gasps.

* * *

The long run starts with a relaxed 10km. Relaxed is not a physical state, it is a state of mind. I have water strapped to every part of me, I have a jacket bundled into the pocket of my vest, I have nuts and dried fruit, a soggy piece of french toast. I have hydration salts – I have water purification tablets, gloves, a cap and buff for the cold. (The feeling that I am prepared for everything).

I go up through fields, slipping in horse manure, rocks tearing at my shoes and thorns at my bare skin. When I get above the ruins and the dogs and the tern that dive-bombs me every time – when I have a solid birds eye view of the city below, I stop. Walking peacefully toward the V, the steep red trail in the green valley, up and up to the pass, there is a sun in the sky and across the valley I can see another trail, yet unexplored. When I arrive at the pass breathing hard, my legs are loose, they are eager to carry me, to turn over more quickly on the firm ground, around the grassy corner and into a ribbed and gasping canyon. The movement of my body is unconcerned, unconscious, dialed out – dialed in.

My hard kilometers start around the sweeping corner of the second pass, the narrow dirt path that feels downhill both ways. I’m cruising, I’m feeling as alive as it is possible to feel. Powerful. At the top, at 4300m I breathe hard, lactic acid surging through my legs. The thin air allows it to get everywhere, even my arms and my lungs burn. It is almost like sobbing. The sweeping peaks that surround me and the memory of mist without a breath of wind mitigate the suffering. There is a lake and endless cones, with stone ribs bent over ridges, lines against the sky like giant teeth, like the smooth lines of a naked body. The hard kilometers continue. I am pushing myself through the pain, breathing at the edge of thin air. As I turn down the valley, Cusco is a white dot in the distance far below and everything  is dark. With the black clouds comes booming in the sky.

A new kind of urgency.

I put on my gloves and jacket and make the next kilometers about outrunning the threat of lightning, the boisterous and flexing storm. I had never thought of being out in the bald mountains, on a ridge, in the lightning. But as the dark settles in above me, it seems that’s what’s happened. I run. My legs take me through the sounds, they take me through the silence, thank god!

The final 8k descending from the last pass the storm is gone and I feel the damage. The Inca ruins above the city are covered in a layer of white. The trails have swollen with water, they have become rivers. At some points I am on the edge of control, my feet churning over through the mud and tumbling rocks, through the clashing grains of ice. I crash through the coolness of bushes laden with water, overhanging the trail. Other times I am up to my ankles in frigid water. It is cold and refreshing to see a landscape covered in white, even just for a moment. I arrive home smiling.

 

A new job

(The photos don’t actually correspond to the trip in the piece below. We visited the above town, Cancha Cancha, the previous week.)

 

The chickens have been awake for some time. The faceless dogs that harassed me from half a kilometre up the steep side of a green, chacra-dotted mountain as I tore down running toward the river below (that runs among avocado trees and broad banana leaves) they’ve yet to be stirred from their cloudy sleep. Between roosters and our beeping cell phones, we creek into the day, the dirt of the morning and the creamy mist that evaporates imperceptibly with the rising sun. We’re cold enough to perk up, and when we hear them call from the other side of the adobe wall, we rush the last things into our knapsacks and race down to the waiting truck. Senovio holds the heavy wooden swinging door of the truck open and shakes my hand as I climb up the ladder into the back of the vehicle. We settle in – I am standing, Alison is sitting, and Nohemi leans against the wooden side, half asleep. The engine rumbles to life in the sleeping and dampened valley, disappearing into the milky air. At 5:30am the ink of the night has gone and as we labour up along the knife-edge snake of road past those faceless (and still sleeping) dogs, we find the crack that didn’t exist.

There is one other man in the back of the fruit truck with us. He is draped over a sack of potatoes, beside the bag of bread and the browning mangos. And he is persistent in his questions, slurred and tired. His eyes are red and only split open by the still morning that blows into the moving truck and reminds us of the speed of time. Trees turn to bushes, bushes to alpine flowers and prickly cacti and lichen, and we’re on top of the flowing ocean of white that crashes between the green and black peaks, splashing up their sides to leave tired and bright glaciers to gleam in the morning sun.

If you look closely as we head over the pass at 4500m, down between the black spires stabbing out through white clouds, that have already forgotten all the sounds of last night’s river as they kiss the earth, lick it, and float up into a disappearing cerulean blue – if you look down to the rock-studded green you see U-shaped dots, alpacas, eating as they do forever in their thick and cloudy coats. I watch the 13 or 14-year old boy open the turquoise door of the truck, moving the dense wood of the ladder, all its grains polished down by everything that has come before. He jumps into the back with a limberness of which I am envious (up here in the thin air) and rifles manfully through the bags to get bleary-eyed shepherds their breakfast of little white buns burned stale by the cold mountain.

The llamas and sheep graze on tufts of grass. The old leather-skinned drunk man has opened his eyes and jumps off the truck, steadying himself before he goes. He lands without a teeter, grabs his bread and thermos of tea to stand with the other men, watching his herd down in the valley where the clouds are now only a memory.

After almost forgetting to pay the driver, we take off our extra morning layers, stuff them in our bags, and head up the remnants of an ancient Inca road, slowly wheezing our way over a pass to the edge of a patchy bluff. There we look down over the crisscrossing paths – the same ones that split a hundred million square miles into ten times as many unique shapes. In the green and rocky cradle below are the small stone houses of villagers whose black shepherd dogs have come to life with the blazing Andean sun. We pick our way down to where we’ll meet with some 20 women, from young and vibrant to old and slow, even deformed.

(On the streets of Cusco there are women dressed in long woolen leggings and black shoes, a few thick and colourfully trimmed skirts, wool sweaters and oddly shaped hats with fabric draped overtop – or a sort of Andea felt tophat. They are then wrapped in colourful blankets. In my experience they don’t smile very much – they ask tourists for photos. These may have been their true outfits, but they have been forced into selling their history, their story, into commodifying their experience, making money off of the fetishization of traditional, of the poor, of the foreign.)

They are the shadows of the beaming women we find in Pitukiska, in the Mapacho River Valley. As they watch from their stone walled, dirt-floored homes in the nape and crook of the bending mountains, they can see us coming. We arrive and are offered coca tea and boiled potatoes and a fried egg by the strong and quiet women already there, their babies bound in rainbows to their backs. Slowly the remaining women trickle down the sides of the mountains, some between the black rocks and dogs, others with a whole herd of sheep.

As we talk about the next few months, the change in personnel (my replacing Alison) and the rainy season, Nohemi translates from Spanish to Quechua and vice versa. We smile and try to understand each other. The women sit in the shade of the once cold stone walls, the little squat toilet and the shushing river in the background, and we sit in the hot sun. We shake hands and say tupananchis kama (see you later) as the women drift back into earth’s harsh rocks.

There is nothing perfect about this. There is nothing easy about it – except for maybe a smile – that’s not so hard. Ordering textiles from indigenous women – buying or not buying them…(you finish this sentence)… women who live with domestic and sexual violence, intergeneration trauma, discrimination and neglect from the outside world and their governments, women who work from a tragically young age, who live in abject poverty; women who are not deemed important enough to receive schooling, who are tied to their stone homes by their babies and their God. Much like indigenous women in my own country. Much like indigenous women just about everywhere. I smile and I brace myself for the next two years.

The rocks and the llamas – even the faceless dogs – watch us, confused. They watch us as we wend our breathless way up and over the pass again and into hours of the blazing sun. They won’t see us again until the rains are over, until the frosts are back, and I suspect they won’t much care.

Poem from Cusco

(Here’s a little something I wrote back in June while living in Cusco, and reading and reacting to Pablo Neruda’s epic poem Canto General)

Untitled response to Canto General and Cusco

I came looking for blood in the stones,

strands of colour to weave into the open sky

cut apart by a rim of black blades.

 

I came to look for red in earthy rivers

that run down the tilting streets when it rains,

I came because I know adobe has a sanguine hue.

 

***

 

When time was young, when water was mist and rock was river,

when your hands mashed the roots and flowers

of man’s mortal mix, you imagined us

onto stone roads before wounds, before gashes,

before the blood that I came looking for in this city.

 

You knew where to sink your hands in ancient grains,

warm and wise to paint with a sage’s fingers

your memories of birth, of king condors hunting empty skies,

waiting feet on ancient tracks, waiting beside the bundled alpaca,

waiting for death to come in every moment,

 

every rain, every drought, every fall,

every thorn, every sickening headache,

each rotten potato, each death each day.

You knew to wait, to melt the stones to molten,

to reveal a perfect creation full of sin.

 

I came to find the blood of these stones

after you drew their makers from delicate leaves

and the stained and extenuated coins of yore,

the mists that breathed once for a cordillera

and twice to soothe wounds with the juice of a cactus.

 

After you stroked with your lover’s hands

the threads of a thousand stories, a million deaths,

forgotten in the jungle’s lust that trickles up the mountainside,

that drips from heaving bodies in the sierra’s ecstasy

where smoothness turns to hard stone, hard steel.

 

Your delicate fingers

opened mouths and traced pain to ancient

misty vegetation in the thinning hills

but your careful strands have since been gathered

and woven into the sky, planted in the multicoloured terraces,

 

slipped into invisible cracks and sewn into the fabric of

each baby’s bundle, each separate breath

a memory of mountains and the black condor

that lives on drifting winds and febrile beasts.

 

***

 

A blanket lies over bald hills, babies in awayus

on their mothers’ backs learn to breathe

the rhythm of their home under a pall, under a roof

or the ceiling of a billion stars

 

that watched Atahualpa’s fingers drop a Bible

to the earth, that watched saints marry into Inti’s pantheon

and melt into the eternal soils, that watched 180 men

drive swords into Pachamama’s womb till she bore a bastard.

 

After you left, the wave of a Red hand

swept the brown faces of babies from their mothers’ backs

forever into a wrath of bullets and jungle camps, obscured

even from the condor’s searching eye

 

And in the red-brown earth, corn bathed,

potatoes drowned, weapons were buried

by the blood of government guns. Then came

the tortured lips, sewn shut

 

by the shining winter sun. They may speak

of something in the summer, but words sink

and drown, smoothed over by the roar of rain,

the sweat of rape diluted in rivers,

 

the blood of steel buried by rocks

and temples to an idol God who watched it all

erode into the soil, let it grow into leaves

and pine needles, into the sentinels,

 

the stoic citadels of black and ice

that watch the world unmoved.

Each stitch made is another death,

each strand is tinted with the vermillion sins

of other hands and other fingers.

Come back! Come back! Let your soft fingers

massage secrets from between the carnal stones

and if you find no words, give voice to the pain,

and if there be no voice, then let there be birth again.