Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Dwelling in Colca Canyon

Almost two months ago now, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to travel to Arequipa, Peru, a city in the mountains in the southern part of the country. I made the decision on a Monday afternoon and left around 8:00 that evening. I accompanied my friend Maria, a Finn I had met two days prior at a big lonche at Jorge's apartment (and then Huaringas Bar and then Yakana disco...).

Traveling to Arequipa involved a very long overnight bus ride down the Peruvian coastline, and it took over 12 hours. I'm just thankful I had Maria there for company and conversation. We talked about the recent Finnish parliamentary elections (held just the day before), what on earth I was doing in Peru, and our common interest in good movies and great literature. It was a pleasant evening after all.

Our arrival in Arequipa went without incident. Maria and I ended up at a hostel, The Tourist House (!), close to the Plaza de Armas. (Little did we know that also staying in the hostel were our future hiking friends Lea, Tabea, and Piotr.) Other than wolfing down a huge chifa lunch, of which Maria ate more of her plate than I did, our Tuesday was mostly uneventful, as we went in search of a good tour to do for the rest of the week.

The next day Maria and I embarked on a three-day trek of Colca Canyon, a long, deep crevice in the Andes that is itself a six-hour bus ride from Arequipa. Depending on which guidebook you read, Colca is considered the deepest or second-deepest canyon in the world. Maria had heard many good things about the trek, and without much else to see or do in Arequipa, the trek seemed the perfect activity for us to do together.

The first day of hiking involved descending the canyon, with our guide, at a brisk pace. About an hour into the hike, my thighs started to ache from all the braking and pivoting they had to do going down the steep path. Surprisingly, this pain didn't become a source of frustration for me. I noted how my legs and torso were working together to balance my body and full backpack on irregular terrain. I realized I was reawakening sinews and joints in my body that had laid dormant in city life. It felt strangely exhilarating to be reminded of my body -- its agility and strength -- in this way.

It was nearing dusk, and after four hours of hiking, Maria and I arrived at a little hut at the very foot of the canyon, near the intersection of two rivers ("Llahuar" in Quechua). Maria and I changed into our bathing suits and spent the early part of the evening relaxing in a freshwater spring. We then enjoyed the meal our guide prepared for us: fresh trout from the river and several cups of the altitude-adjustment tea mate de coca. That first night was tranquil and clear: Llahuar has no electricity, and the skies above it aren't obscured by the pollution one finds in Lima. Before we went to bed, Maria and I stood outside our hut and could make out the universe of stars above us.

The next day began bright and early with Maria and I winding our way east from Llahuar to an "oasis" -- a cluster of huts surrounded by swimming pools, where hikers can rest before embarking on the arduous trek back up the canyon. At the oasis Maria and I met up with hikers who, the previous night, had stayed in the villages east of Llahuar (the trek to which was an hour shorter than ours). So now our hiking group consisted of at least 12 to 15 people. Some folks had to take donkeys back up the canyon; one left two hours in advance to walk up at her own pace; and Maria and I started the ascent with the rest of them.

The first hour of the hike saw our group ascend the rocky, zig-zagging path in intense heat and at a relentless pace, as we all wanted to make it back to the top before sundown. Three of us broke away broke away from the group. For a while, we were directly behind two local children who were wearing worn-out sandals and carrying large travel suitcases on their backs. But their pace, intuited from years of experience and calibrated to their small frames, proved to be too brisk for us. We eventually lost sight of them as they scurried up the sheer face of the canyon with goods to deliver to the village.

Into the second hour, I moved ahead of my hiking buddies and was the first to arrive at an old Andean woman selling snacks, drinks, and fruit at a natural pause in the path. I waited for the others to catch up with me. I asked the woman how much a bottled water costs; when she said S./4, I feigned shock, declared my knowledge of fair prices, and was able to negotiate a S./3 price. Referring to myself as "El Chino" -- my nickname back in Lima -- came in handy once again.

Before moving on to finish the last leg of the hike, the old woman, perhaps charmed by my friendly negotiation, asked our little group what each of our birthdays are. When she came to me, something about September 5 struck a chord with her, and she took out a bag of powder, put some in her hand, and told me to blow on it, out towards the cliff, as hard as I could. Without hesitation, I did that. From what I could piece together with my rudimentary Spanish, I think I may have warded off the rains for at least a little while.

Soon I arrived at the top of the canyon, exhausted and drenched in sweat. My body heaved a sigh of relief as I surveyed the spectacular depth of Colca Canyon. I savored every drop of fresh, cold water that ran down my throat. My now deeply tanned skin reflected the rays of the blazing sun overhead, and I somehow didn't bother to find shelter in the shade. The other hikers trickled up the path over the next hour. We regrouped for the short walk back to Cabanaconde, the lone village with electricity in this vast area.

As the group trudged back to the hostel, I reflected on how profoundly removed I felt from the technologies of mediation that punctuate postmodern society. I realized that the trek allowed me to connect to the earth in a way that questioned the extent of my dependence on electronic mediation in "normal," everyday life. Far away from e-mail, websites, blogging, television, DVDs, iTunes, and so on, I felt free to accept the earthy reality of aching muscles, sweat-stained clothes, and mud-caked sneakers (yes, sneakers: I did say that I left for Arequipa on a whim). The experience made me ask, "How am I being mediated here? Am I at all?"

I'm not a romantic when it comes to the idea of "nature," but I am a romantic when it comes to experience. Colca Canyon was, for me, a defining romantic Experience, following Emerson. It subsumed my body to the laws of nature, the laws of gravity, and the laws of time in a way that sustained my whole being.

As I write this, though, sitting at the dining room table in my apartment in Miraflores, I find myself wondering whether such Experience is possible in my everyday "networked" life. That is: whether such dwelling may be found online. I admit that the vast majority of my electronic intake and communication is of the humdrum, non-Experience sort. Yet, as just one example, writing this entry has not only been a personally meaningful experience -- it's also had the uncanny effect of reminding me of the power of my body to take in the natural world. Writing this on my laptop, then, at home, and using my wireless connection has given me the kind of moment's pause that is perhaps a precondition for what Emerson called Experience.

This might be better illustrated by a coda to my account of hiking Colca Canyon. Relieved, drained, and reconnected after our hike up the canyon walls, our group settled in for a big dinner at the hostel. Around a long table, Maria (FIN), Paul (IRL via ENG), Tabea (GER), Lea (GER), Piotr and his friend (POL via ENG), and Alice (FRA) ate, talked, and argued (about soccer and the movie Babel), the day's journey slowly fading into memory.

When dinner was over, the question of what to do next arose. One thing led to another and bottles of pisco appeared with our names on them. Our hosts graciously cleared away the tables and created a makeshift dance floor. Our local guides then brought out the party-makers: pirated DVDs of '70s and '80s dance music videos, from disco to Milli Vanilli. In the mood for celebration and delighted by the selection of one-hit wonders ("She Drives Me Crazy"), home-country favorites ("99 Luftballoons"), and karaoke-inducing hits ("Superfreak"), the lot of us drank and danced the night away, fixated on a small-screen television, in our hostel, in a small village that was the only beacon of light in the wide expanse of Colca Canyon.

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