Flying out of San Francisco, I imagined that all of my worries would simply disappear when I took off for the “mystical” land of Peru. I had recently been through a few travails, including an emotional business divorce and looked forward to some relief. But instead, I became aware that they traveled with me, like close friends who would not say goodbye. With this distressing realization, coupled with the frustration of having my plane ticket canceled for the flight out of Lima, I finally arrived in Cusco, irritated and exhausted.
But my spirits shifted, lifting subtly as the taxi drove me into town. At eleven thousand feet, Cusco shimmered, its sea of tiled rooftops reflecting the light of a cloudless equatorial sky. After a brief rest, I ventured out of my hotel to wander the cobblestone streets, feeling the power and energy of the architecture, the mountains, and the confluence of great historical and cultural forces.
Feeling tired but relaxed, I sat down to drink a beer on the balcony of a café in the Bohemian neighborhood of San Blas, and looked down on the beige colonial cityscape that stretched into the valley below. And again, I waited for some sort of release, a transformation of the moment into a perfect, magical piece of “now”. And waited. Until I understood that although a four thousand mile plane ride had taken me to a place four thousand miles away, a very different place for sure, I was still the same…un-different. Perhaps the “changed me” lay somewhere ahead.
I left Cusco the next day with a group of fellow travelers. We had all been invited by a local agency to experience a newly developed “Lodge to Lodge Trek” which the agency hoped we would soon be promoting to our own clients. En route we stopped in the town of Mollepata and visited textile and jam making collectives, both run by women and supported (in part) by the hosting company, Mountain Lodges of Peru. It was wonderful to see positive, sustainable tourism in action, especially when coupled with the empowerment of women who have long struggled under the thumb of a patriarchal agrarian system. The women, producing and selling their wares, were positively joyful.
From there we took off for the start of our trek, arriving at the first of a series of beautiful lodges and after settling into our lovely, traditionally furnished rooms, we sat down to a delicious Nouvelle Peruvian lunch. Fresh, organic vegetables, all grown nearby, and local river fish, beautifully prepared for presentation and taste. As I enjoyed our meal on the patio, taking in the spectacular mountain vistas that surrounded us, I felt the warm afternoon sun begin to soothe the subtle ache of travel, of crossed time zones and long flights, of strange beds and aloneness. The moment drew me to some of the questions I have asked myself since I was a seventeen year old hitching a ride from New York City to Colorado, the first of a lifetime of trips that would take me around the world many times. Why do we choose to leave home for the unknown? Are we running away from something? Trying to feel, or perhaps find some particular thing? Why do we travel?
I thought about this as I walked up and down mountains for five and six hours each day. I crossed a fifteen thousand foot pass at the confluence of Salkantay and Huayantay glaciers, stunned by the beauty. I passed beneath the snowy abodes of Andean Gods and crossed the stony rivers fed by their melting ice fields. I rested in the thick grass of high sun baked pastures. And at the end of each day, tired and sore, our group would arrive at yet another beautiful lodge, perfectly set into the landscape. We were greeted by smiling Peruvian teenage boys and girls holding trays of rolled hot towels, gracious offerings for us to wipe the dust of the trail from our wind and sunburned faces. We were handed coca and mint tea and then we took hot showers in our simple, yet perfectly appointed rooms. Finally, we submerged ourselves in hot tubs set on the hotel lawns so we could enjoy the changing colors of the last light of day and feel the steely ache of our muscles and joints turn into rubbery pleasure. With our Peruvian Beer, Chilean wine, and Pisco Sours, our bodies soaked in the steaming mineral waters, and our eyes bathed in an ocean of early evening stars.
But it was not until the fifth day of that beautiful and difficult trek that I felt the deep release I had longed for. As I descended into a thick cloud forest above Machu Picchu, the ruins visible in the distance, I felt the tension in my body drain away. Each step on the soft compacted trail resonated in perfect rhythm with the lush foliage dancing in the breeze. Flush with a powerful blast of sweet jungle air, my mind cleared as my focus shifted from waterfall to river to the distant receding peaks. At that moment, the world revealed its perfection.
I walked out onto a rocky ledge, and in wonder, looked over a deep chasm. I sensed both the edge of terra firma and the boundary of my self and knew that this was why I had traveled four thousand miles and climbed mountain after mountain and left the soft comfort of my familiar bed. Because it is in the comforts and securities of our everyday lives that we lose that part of ourselves that sits in awe, that part of ourselves obscured by the tedious routines of every day life, the routines that reinforce the stories we tell ourselves over and over again, the narratives that define and limit our experience. To go out into the world demands a heightened awareness that we need to navigate unknown terrain and forces us to change those stories we know too well. I grasped that the anxiety one often feels on the road is psychic resistance, the friction of habit rubbing against the new. Its resolution…mindful surrender. It was only in “non-trying”, that I was finally able to simply “be”.
I boarded the bus to Machu Picchu in the early morning darkness. It was a short ride up the mountain from Aguas Calientes. I walked toward the site and through the entrance gate and found a grassy area above a high Incan wall. As I stood there, the sky became gray and the jagged mountains visible, towering above and around the ancient site. Below me were buildings of perfectly cut and piled stones, ritual areas that had oriented the inhabitants in space and time, energetic axes of the sacred and secular, the temporal and eternal. I stood on that promontory and watched the slowly rising sun burn through heavy clouds and joined in a collective sigh of the gathered crowd as the sky opened. The long abandoned plazas, temples, and houses filled with tropical light and the mountains burst neon green, vibrating, pure and perfect. Three alpaca grazed contentedly on a small field in the ruins and then scattered, graceful and quick. I was lost to myself, sucked into some kind of wave field that seemed to connect me to all that was. I felt the deep and healing power of that place between self and no-self, and sensed that this jungle city had been constructed to bless and support that realm, perhaps to guide us mortals in an embrace of the Great Cosmos of which we are such small yet integral parts, to embody the infinite. I remembered why I had come and knew why I would return.
Ricky Fishman is Director of Integral Expeditions, an educational travel company based in San Francisco, and will be leading this program to Peru in May, 2012. http://www.integralexpeditions.com