This day a year ago, I was so close to crossing the border into Canada and finishing my thru hike. Emotions ran high for myself, for my fellow thru hikers and everyone’s feet were burning to get to the finish line.
On this particular day, the Appalachian Trail traversed the Kennebec River and the riverbank town of Caratunk in Maine. This is a great day for thru hikers, since this town features a fun jaunt across the river, a brewery, a hiker hamburger challenge, ice-cream and an opportunity to pick up resupply boxes.
I got a box from my friend, Dave. It had hiker’s food, enough Starbucks instant coffee packets to fuel every thru hiker on the Trail, and two sporks.
Two Light My Fire sporks, a green one and a black one. I had never felt more alive than at that time, hiking that Trail. I was ablaze, sort of a walking bonfire. I had experienced fire before, the type that reduces everything into ashes and leaves you covered in soot. My landscape had felt permanently desolate, until I saw the sparks. They led me to an incipient decision to go for a long walk on the Appalachian Trail, where I found the heat, oxygen and fuel necessary to light a strong, crackling fire.
After a fire has been ignited, it goes into what firefighters call the “growth” stage. I hope that’s where I’m at now. The flames are still going, some hot coals are settling in and I can feel the warmth.
This was the second time I had walked across the border between two countries. Last year I hiked into Canada from the USA while thru hiking the Appalachian Trail and the IAT . This time I was border hopping between Argentina and Chile while exploring Patagonia.
Thomas and I arrived at the chilean border crossing checkpoint after walking 5 miles from the argentine town of Los Antiguos. A friendly officer takes our passports.
“So you are from the United States of America?.” He is suddenly serious.
“I’ve been following the news about your country and your new president.”
“Umm. Ok”, we chuckle and frown a little. We are still getting used to everyone we meet making some comment about our country’s current political climate.
The border patrol officer looks at our backpacks and smiles.
“Are you refugees?”
“Not yet. But are you receiving refugees? We might have to take you up on the offer in the future.”
We smile back, he is just being funny. Passports are stamped and our new friend welcomes us into his country. He thought it was crazy to be walking into countries so he orders a car who was also crossing the border to give us a lift into the next town.
Today there are thousands of displaced humans who are crossing borders on foot, others who are waiting at camps and many who became our neighbors and live in our cities. Thousands who unlike me aren’t out on a beautiful adventure, humans who unlike me actually are refugees.
Let’s not forget about them. Let’s extend a helping hand. Let’s lift up the borders of our lives and let’s give them a chance.
The agreement was 3 hours of work every day in exchange for beachfront accommodations. And the fence. Like the one she shows me on Pinterest.
I set to work hoping it doesn’t become a Pinterest fail. Intertwined pieces of driftwood slowly took shape as I held my breath with their balancing act. Structureless they held on to each other as the fence grew wavy and rich in texture.
On low tide mornings, we would drive to the south end of the malecón and scour the beach for fresh crops of wood. One day we even loaded up an entire tree on top of the pick up truck. The neighbors complained but eventually settled into the artsy new addition to the beachfront. She likes it, it actually does look like the one in the photo.
Location No.: Too many to count spanning over Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia
Time spent there: 01/06/17 – 07/15/17
I’ve spent 6+ months traveling and hiking through the Andes with Thomas and this one song. The same song. Six months and the one song.
The Andes, in Spanish, cordillera de los Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world, the highest mountain range outside of Asia and has the world’s highest active volcanoes.
Home of many famous peaks, including my first real mountaineering experience summiting Huayna Potosi Mountain in Bolivia at 20,000 ft. One of it’s coveted peaks is Chimborazo Mountain, farthest from the Earth’s center than any other location.
The Andes guard half of the world’s copper production. Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest source of lithium and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.
Some Caribbean hubs are peaks of an extensive submerged continuation of the Andes in the north. La Paz, Bolivia’s seat of government, is considered the highest capital city of the world. Potatoes and tomatoes, two of the most widespread crops on our planet, originated from the Andes.
The Amazon River is born in the Andes Mountains. Traveling on it was a bucket list fulfilled experience. They are also part of the American Cordillera, a mountain range that is the “backbone” of North America, Central America, South America and Antarctica. I’ve walked on a section of this spine on the Appalachian Trail back home.
In religion and mythology of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador; the Andes are the home of the apus. These are the spirits of the mountains that protect the local people in the highlands. We hiked through one of these sacred apus, Salkantay Mountain and visited Machu Picchu. I felt the energy.
Pretty cool mountains, right? We traveled all over the Andes and every single day I was subject to this one song. In our mutual fascination for this mountain range, Thomas decided we should listen to El Condor Pasa (If I Could) by Simon & Garfunkel. Every day.
Granted, it’s a great song. It’s part of the soundtrack for the movie Wild and I am woman hiker; the music is considered Peru’s second anthem and a national symbol of the spirit of the Andes. Appropriate for our setting, but to listen to it every single day?
El Condor Pasa, the condor passes. We constantly searched for condors while hiking. They are often seen soaring near rock cliffs, rising in heat thermals. The Andean condor is the largest flying bird in the world and one of the longest-living birds. It’s a near threatened species. Like the song, they depict freedom. They are the hammer, not the nail.
When we see them soar, we feel free.
The condor is deeply imprinted in Andean culture inspiring orchestral musical pieces like El Condor Pasa composed in 1913. Simon & Garfunkel’s cover in 1970 made it the best-known Peruvian song in the world.
With more than 4000 produced versions of the melody and after Thomas playing it hundreds of times over six months, it’s also a song I’ll be glad to never listen to again.
Albeit, tired of the song, I could spend another six months in the Andes traversing its sacred mountains, seeking the freedom of the condors, feeling the earth beneath my feet. If I could, I surely would.
I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.
I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.
Away, I’d rather sail away
Like a swan that’s here and gone
A man grows older every day
It gives the world
Its saddest sound,
Its saddest sound.
I’d rather be a forest than a street.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.
I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet,
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.
(lyrics to El Condor Pasa “If I Could” by Simon & Garfunkel)
I remember being here as a kid, maybe 10 or 11 years old with Uncle Ruben and his girlfriend at the time, Mery. I always wanted to go back to that place framed by exotic memories of colorful soil and earthy homes.
Nestled against an mountainous rainbow of mineral infused colors and tones. Here is where this place is. They call it “cerro de siete colores” (hill of seven colors), but it feels like there are so many more than seven colors. The cerro spills into the few streets and its rich shades blend into the walls and roofs making an array of color. It’s all one big palette someone left lying in the desert.
I visited again in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Not a child anymore. But my town seems to have stopped growing, stopped in time, frozen in its own history. It seems to be the same size every time I come back. Don’t grow little town, I like you this way. I like you with your narrow dirt streets, with your small shops, with your craft market on the square. I like your adobe (mud) houses, your hidden white church and the lady selling roasted corn on the corner.
I keep coming back to this little town. I take the same photos of the big window with the white and brown spools of alpaca wool, of the bright aguayos on the tables, of the arches over the doors, of the children playing. I crawl all over your hills and the view is spectacular every time. My favorite part is to walk on that street in the northern end of the town, the one with the red clay. My shoes, dusty, speckled red.
Purmamarca, thats the name of my little town. In the local aymara language purma means desert and marca means city. City in the desert. It has been an oasis of color at times when life felt like a desert. On every occasion I’ve been here, life was taking some big turn. In the aymara language desert also means untouched land, more specifically a place untouched by human hand. Secretly, I keep coming back here because it represents a place where my life is untouched by my own human hand. It’s not a painted canvas, its just a palette. I can come here for refreshment, for inspiration, its a shade of home. It’s an opportunity to take a step back and look at the colors of my past and to take new tones into my present.
Esmeralda is 9 years old, she lives on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) on Lake Titicaca. She is a brave human. When I grow up I want to be like Esmeralda.
The first time we saw Esmeralda she was walking with her llama, Albino and her 5 year old cousin through the narrow streets of her island. I thought it would be a great photo since I was walking behind them and pulled out my phone. She spun around immediately before I got a chance to snatch the image and eyed my phone fiercely while I tucked it under my arm. We started walking together.
Me: That’s a cute llama you have there.
Esmeralda: Do you want to take a photo with my alpaca for 2 bolivianos? By the way its not a llama, it’s an alpaca.
Me: We are poor travelers so I don’t have any money.
Esmeralda: Can you buy me some papaya then?
Me: I already told I don’t have money.
Esmeralda: Do you make and sell jewelry then? Or do you sing for food?
Esmeralda: You must be hungry then.
She stops and pulls off her “aguayo” (a rectangular carrying cloth widely used by people in the Andes) and retrieves a small bag with a snack.
Esmeralda: This is “jampi” (dried and toasted fava beans). This is natural food, this is important for children to eat. We grow these beans on the island.
She handed us two beans each and proceeded to explain how they are toasted. She only had six beans for her snack. My heart melted.
We walked with her for a while longer and chatted about everything and anything.
Esmeralda: (picks up a colorful bug from under a rock) I’m going to make good money today. When I find this bug I’m lucky and tourists take lots of photos and give me good tips. One time someone gave me $100 dollars.
Eventually we parted ways and the first thought in both of our minds was:
“We need to find some papaya for Esmeralda”.
Turns out that most of the store owners didn’t even know what a papaya was and getting a papaya on this island was impossible. We mentioned the encounter to the owner of the hostel we were at. Her daughter is Esmeralda’s classmate. She told us that Esmeralda’s dad had left the picture a few years ago and that her mother isn’t the best parent either. Sparing the very sad details, she hasn’t been dealt the best cards in life.
However, Esmeralda is an industrious little human and she supports herself by letting tourists take photos of her with her alpaca. She works in the afternoons after school and all weekend to buy her own school supplies and clothes with her earnings. Tour guides also know her and make sure their groups stop by to meet her; aware of her situation they often bring clothes or toys for her. The hostel owner mentioned that Esmeralda had to repeat third grade because she is a slow learner, struggles at school and doesn’t receive help at home with her homework. Regardless, Esmeralda struck me as an incredibly bright, smart and unique individual.
After learning all this and not finding any papaya, we decided to give Esmeralda a small monetary gift. We spotted her walking home with her alpaca a few hours later and I ended up spending the next hour or so sitting on a cobblestone street playing with her, Maribel and Bertita and making videos. She is actually quite the filmmaker.
I never saw her again after that afternoon and didn’t get to say goodbye. She wasn’t around before we left the following day. When talking about Isla del Sol with fellow travelers I always ask if they met her, or if someone is going to travel there I ask them to make sure they look for her and tell her we said hi.
I think of her often and I hope she is doing well. I wonder who she will become when she grows up. I hope life is as generous to her as she was with us. I hope she will one day live somewhere with lots of papaya. I hope she is safe and I hope she is loved on some level. I hope to see her again.
PS: Unfortunately this free blog platform doesn’t support video files. If I start taking this blog more seriously and switch to a better platform I’ll post some of the videos Esmeralda took.