Today a friend, reposted something I had written 4.5 years ago, shortly after having moved to Lima. Re-reading it brought tears to my eyes, a memory of one of the most magical three days spent in Peru. Quite possibly one of my favorite experiences of my entire life. I thought I'd share it here as a little inspiration of the value of wanderlust and being open to new people, experiences and adventure:
A Very Important 15 Minutes.
PART1 The first day I went to Club Hipico, I met Patricia, a local architect. I probably talked to her for no more than 15 minutes. We had a lovely but brief conversation. She was super interesting. I liked her immediately. She said if I'd like to join her on an upcoming site visit to some very old churches she is restoring in the highlands, it would certainly be a chance to really see Peru. In hindsight now, I realize two things (1) how important every random person you meet could be, and (2) my blind faith in a stranger may have been risky but it sure paid off in this instance.
Patricia and I exchanged texts over the coming weeks. She invited me to join her for a trip to the churches but at that time I was fighting what almost every new expat faces once they've been here for an extended time: stomach problems. I told her I sincerely hoped she would invite me again. Well, another invitation came a few weeks later and so in December, I went on an unforgettable two-day Andean adventure with total strangers... who just happened to be super interesting, fun and now new-found friends in Lima. Flashback to my last post: the Universe really wanted to make sure I knew there was good reason to be in Lima. Point taken.
I arrived at Patricia's house at 6am and, with her driver Martin and her childhood friend Luciana, we packed up her SUV to head north up the coast. I learned from Patty, who drew a map for us of our planned adventure, that Peru is really made up of 3 things: coastal desert, highlands (the Andes) and rainforest (the Amazon). Our first stop was an hour and half up the coast, Delpino, a gas station/restaurant known for awesome food. I jealously watched Patricia eat the most delicious chicharron sandwich and papaya juice but I was so weary about my stomach, that I safely stuck to toast, butter and jam. She promised me we would stop there on the way back to Lima and then I could indulge.
After another stop at roadside vendors for fruit and newspapers, we turned onto the "Penetration Highway" (no joke) running perpendicular to the coast, Patty asked if I knew the word "entrañas"? Mischievously laughing, she said, "we will soon be heading deep into the bowels of the highlands." She wasn't kidding. We followed a paved road where the mining companies go and then further into unpaved territory. We began to drive dusty narrow unpaved roads, with steep drops just outside our car door. On roads carved out of and clinging to sides of steep mountain , we slowly climbed higher up the mountain range via a series of switchbacks.
We were going to Pararin which sits at around 11,000 feet, the first of 3 small isolated Andino towns we would visit over the next two days. With the help of grants and private donors, Patty is restoring a church dating back to the 1600 or 1700s. The local residents of the communities also contribute. She explained that from Pararin, a couple left to become a true success story (went to Lima, bought a single sewing machine, now many years later owns one of the most successful sportswear companies in Peru). They haven't forgotten where they came from, and in addition to contributing to their home town, have also truly mobilized folks to each sell a cow to help the community improvement efforts. In Pararin, I continued to learn about the strong sense of community that I felt a few weeks before when I visited the human settlements of the hills outside Lima. The people in the hills originally came down to Lima from the highlands which have a long history of community-mindedness, a core cultural value and survival skill dating back to the early Incan days. Makes sense, really. Living in isolated mountain towns, self-sufficiency and a strong sense of community are a must. What’s more, on our drive up, I also listened to how the Andinos were direct victims of terror in the 80s and early 90s, and before that, landowners from Lima were victims of socialist military government land-seizures in the 70s. In short, Peru has had an intensely rough go of it for 30 years or so. Thankfully, it is a much more stable place today. But its legacy of course is not forgotten.
Arriving in Pararin, we saw the beautiful work they are doing to restore the church downed by an earthquake in the 70s and then rebuilt poorly sometime later. We met Carlos, her head technician and also met a statue of the patron saint, San Pedro, who would play a central role in the rest of our highland adventure. Patty's team had finished restoring the statue and was going to deliver him to Navan, another town on the next day, where the community anxiously awaited his return with a celebration planned for our arrival. After a simple lunch in the church of muña tea, boiled potatoes and eggs, Luciana and I left them to work so we could explore the tiny town perched high overlooking gorgeous mountains. On our stroll, we met some old women, abuelas, dressed in traditional Andino garb.
They were so sweet and asked me how I was adjusting to life in Peru. They lived in Pararin their whole life and giggled when I told them they lived "encima del mundo" (on top of the world). I told them that I'm from Chicago where it is flat, such a different place. They giggled some more. When we asked to take their pictures, Elisa insisted on getting her good new hat first. So cute.
She was so beautiful and had a sparkle in her eyes when she talked that reminded me so much of my grandmother, Ann. Eventually, we said adios and headed back to the church where they were packing up our new "friend", San Pedro, for his journey home to Navan.
We headed back down to the coast so that we could then head back into the mountain range up to Chuichin, where we would spend the night at 10k feet. Our plan was to stay at an inn with baños termales, natural thermal baths. It was a gorgeous drive at first but then we hit unpaved roads and crawled higher into the highlands just as the sunset and darkness fell. Oh, and then, it started to rain. At first this seems like a scary prospect, to drive these unlit, unpaved roads etched into the side of tall mountains in the raining darkness, but the badly needed rain was actually a good omen. With the help of 4x4 to help the car cling confidently to the road, we saw that the rain helped clear the thick dust for better driving visibility. We joked (well, somewhat seriously discussed) the possibility that San Pedro seemed to be bringing good blessings along the way wherever he traveled with us. Later that night we would thank the rain, and San Pedro, again for clearing the sky of clouds so we could clearly see a "star rain" (tons of shooting stars) while we soaked in the thermal baths. I normally am scared on these types of drives, but I wasn't. Maybe it was because we had San Pedro protecting us. Maybe it was the oxygen making us loopy since we sucked it from a tank for the altitude; maybe it was just because I was exhausted from an amazing day and was just plain distracted from my fear by such beautiful surroundings. As we made our way in the dark, Patty even told us that four months ago, a van of 12 people were killed by rocks that fell on this very same road we drove. Apparently, they lived trapped under the rocks for 3 days as firefighters tried to rescue them but the rocks continued to fall every time they made some progress. The story goes that as soon as the people died, the rocks stopped falling. The local people apparently believe the mountains took them as a sacrifice in return for all of what people had been taking from the mountain .I'm not sure what to believe but I'm glad we safely made it to our destination for the night.
We reached Doña Herminia around 8:30 pm and Patty warned us that Nieto, the 80 year old innkeeper always thinks she's coming there to have dinner with him, rather than a customer of his hotel who is there to use the baths. We all were charmed by Nieto instantly.
Nieto is like a character out of a book. He is strong, quirky and hilarious, and by the way also an excellent cook. When we arrived there, we all went to his cluttered rustic kitchen in his own house where we were joined by his son and grandson visiting from Toronto. Nieto cooked and served us a delicious home cooked dinner for 7.
It was clear Nieto didn't want us to leave and in a final attempt to hang out more, built a huge bonfire by the house… but we politely declined and Luciana, Patty and I went down to the thermal bath since this is what we had come for. When we slipped into the pool, we were blown away by the sky -- I've never seen so many stars so clearly. And then a shower of shooting stars began. Nieto brought us hot tea and a bottle of fino sherry and left us to ourselves to marvel at the sky and enjoy the healing waters. Luciana said this whole trip was just so charmed and felt so lucky to experience this. I knew exactly what she meant. I told them that clearly, the most important 15 minutes for me in Peru so far was meeting Patty. I feel so lucky to have crossed paths with her for this experience is one I'll never forget.
Part 2. En la mañana, we rose early, greeted by mountain light so incredible, and then breakfast served by Nieto in his pajamas and bathrobe. His maid fried up for us the most delicious crispy doughy pieces of bread called Cochangas. I couldn't get enough of these and quickly devoured three with butter and marmalade.
He continued to ply us with more, offering us fried egg sandwiches and small pan-sauteed trucha he caught in the river next to his house. We finished this off with the best juice smoothie possibly ever, served out of a used Evian bottle.
Next we started a beautiful climb to Rapaz, which sits at 13k feet. This mountain range is much more bucolic and green looking than the one to Pararin. There's a rushing river winding through the filled with horses and other animals.
Every so often along the mountain roads, we encounter “traffic” such as a family on foot with their herd (anything from burros, sheep, cattle to horses). Along our way, Patty stops to deliver newspapers and fruit to her friends she's made over the years on this route.
We stop and talk to a man on horseback because Patty may want to buy some young horse from him in the future. I learn that I totally want a baby cow as a pet.
We drive past ruins and trucha farms as we climb steeply up towards Rapaz. Even with the oxygen we take from a tank in the car, we still feel funny from the altitude when we arrive. Thankfully, we all do really well and no one is sick or headachy.
Rapaz is stunning, perched up high, overlooking steeply terraced fields they farm on the sides of the mountain tops. I am also introduced to everyone as "Donna, the Gringa". This kinda cracks me up and I just go with it. We meet the community president and chat with him at the vista parque overlooking the world below.
Luciana and I feel like old friends already and explore the town while Patty and Carlos and crew work on the church. We meet so many local woman in traditional dress who are kind, warm and kiss us hello and stop for a conversation. I believe I may be one of the few gringas to ever visit this town. I clumsily recycle my "encima del mundo" comment since my Spanish is limited and it seems to break the ice with a laugh with those we meet. Everyone is so genuinely nice to me.
I sit in the main square outside the church and watch children play and chase each other around the square. Burros walk through the center of town. So does a random horse.
Then, everyone is shouting "Donna Donna, look a Condor!!!"I am bummed because I miss seeing it but they tell me it's a rare good omen to see them. The Incas and now the modern Andinos have always believed the condors to be gods, and they are not allowed to be hunted. Ah well, I'm sorry I missed seeing it but a while later, in the plaza, Luciana and I meet three older gentleman visiting as tourists from Huancho. One has a hotel in Huacho and grows pisco grapes. He also has a son who is a taxi driver in NY. Somehow my Spanish is improving over this trip such that I'm having entire conversations in Spanish (a little bumpy of a conversation at times, but a conversation none the less... I feel proud of myself. You should be laughing at me at this moment in story). They end up bringing out a bottle of clear pure Pisco and we all take a sip. Then, the hotel owner sweetly surprises me gives me with a gift of a bottle of his semi-seco Pisco. We tourists are all happily taking pictures together when shouts come again, "CONDORS!!" I look up, quickly hand off the bottle of Pisco to Luciana and grab my camera. There are not one but two condors flying above the town. They really are majestic. Happy to get some good photos of them, we all again ponder how this journey has been just charmed with the statue of San Pedro along for the ride.
Part 3. Finally, we leave Rapaz to head to Navan, our final destination. Since we are not stopping for lunch, like any good road trip, we eat junk food together and continue our all-carbs day, happily munching on pretzels and Pepperidge Farm cookies together. At times, Luciana and I can't look out the window as we drove the unpaved switchbacks up up up up and further up. We wonder aloud why and how the Incas ever went this high up in the first place. As we ascend ridiculously higher, the terrain and roads get wider and we begin to relax, encountering fields of peach trees.
Everywhere you look below and above are stone walled fields of peach trees and cattle, clinging in steeped terraces carved out of mountainside. As we drive, Patty prepares us for our visit and tells us that the people of Navan are the kindest most "amable" people she's met in the Andes. We arrive in beautiful Navan at its church to find the town quiet and seemingly empty. That's weird, they were supposed to be welcoming us to the town with a festival. Well after a few phone calls, we learn that they thought we were coming tomorrow not today. So funny-- scheduling snafus happen everywhere I guess! Regardless, Patty was right. Navan and its people are truly kind and beautiful. Despite our scheduling glitch, people came out to greet us (at least those not working in the fields). They told us they had prepared 15 dancers to greet us at the town gate when we arrived... tomorrow. We all laughed.
As we all walked together back to the church, it started to rain. Everyone asked, is this the work of San Pedro? Stories were shared about dreams people had while San Pedro was with them or away from them. Patty told us that even though it's a statue or object, so much energy and prayers had been poured into him from hundreds of years of prayers, this little statue dating back to the 1700s. Everyone we met there was so grateful for the much needed rain that "came with" him.
They gathered around the church door and anxiously watched San Pedro be unpacked. I've never seen such raw emotion and devotion. Eyes were tear-filled, everyone gave us hugs, cheek-kisses and welcomed us happily and warmly. It was really incredible to witness. With such care, they dressed San Pedro in special robes and other jewelry of sorts they made for him. They lit candles and sang. Firecrackers were set off, the church bells were rang.
The local women came and sat down next to me and asked me all sorts of questions about where I'm from, my green eyes, do I have kids, etc. They were so grateful to us for bringing their saint back. They brought us tea to warm us as we sat outside. They brought him inside and their town "celebrator" led a beautiful service. I was told they are devout Catholics up there, having fused successfully a relevant blend of Catholicism with their heritage of Inca religious beliefs. Most of you know that I am not religious at all but it was truly an honor to be a witness. After the ceremony they served us lunch of boiled potatoes, toasted corn kernels, local Andino cheese and a soup with this queso cheese. We all packed up the car to go and they came out with plastic bags filled with gifts of potatoes, corn, cheese and more to take home. They invited us back for a festival they have every year. I was truly moved.
As we drove down the mountain, the sun began to set. We were all dirty and tired but warmed by our inspiring two days. We had around 4 hours back to Lima to drive. We made our last stop at the gas station restaurant and this time I finally had Chicharron and we each enjoyed a Cusqueña beer that so hit the spot. We talked about how it was crazy that I went on this trip with total strangers but that in just two days, we felt like girlfriends from way back. They gave me a primer on the rules and hierarchy of cheek kissing that has baffled me since arriving in Lima. (More on that in a later post). We discussed having a party together with our husbands where we share our pictures from the trip over wine. Most of all, as we sat there talking, i thought I can't believe I didn't know these women three days ago. All I know is that while Peru is new to me and sometimes challenging, I'm so grateful I was open to a random stranger that I met for 15 minutes when I arrived in Lima.