Tales From 11,200 Feet
Ancient Roman theologian Saint Augustine once said, “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” Ever since I can remember, I found the greatest joys in waiting at airport terminals, watching exit signs pass by, and packing a bag of my favorite things not knowing when I would return. The idea of constant movement and the thrill of new experiences shaped my personality at a young age, but there was one trip that changed my life forever.
It was April of my senior year of high school. My aunt, my best friend, and I were sitting in a plane outside of gate G at Ronald Reagan International Airport. I remember smelling a mixture of the D.C. cherry blossoms, purified recycled air, and some kind of disinfectant. My best friend was looking at an airplane safety manual he took from the crinkled, blue seat in front of me. I felt the barely warm plane window next to me, shut my eyes, and prepared to leave the country, the continent—the hemisphere. I knew that once I reconciled with land again, it would be the farthest from home I had ever been. I smiled.
After ten hours of chatting, laughing, sleeping, and reading, we finally reached our destination. The pilot greeted us via intercom, “bienvenidos al Perú” or “welcome to Peru.” Peru was unlike any place I had ever been. The airport in Lima, Peru’s capital, represented the city perfectly. Tawny men and women no taller than five and a half feet strolled in large groups, unaware of personal space. Middle aged men in cheap suits insisted I rented a car from them, and young women tending to their babies requested my business of taking photos for compensation. Out of downtown in a neighborhood called Miraflores, I was exposed to beaches full of young lovers who had no inhibitions and British and Australian tourists painting the sky with rainbow hang-glides. My travel group only stayed in Lima for one day, but it was a day I would never forget.
The majority of my trip was spent near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes Mountains and in the Sacred Valley leading into the Amazonian rainforest. Our tentative agenda at the time was to stay in the city of Cusco, hike in the rural villages of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and ascend to the sacred archeological site of Machu Picchu which towers about 8,000 feet over its base city Aguas Calientes. Peru continued to surprise me as the ancient city of Cusco significantly differed from Lima. Aside from the obvious differences in climate, geology, and air quality, the people and culture seemed separate and very unalike. Cusco was blatantly poor. Many buildings were made of red clay and cardboard, and almost every structure, with the exception of Catholic churches and hotels, had dirt floors. Aside from the occasional Sprite bottle I would find in a nearby alley, I did not recognize anything; there were no clothing shops, restaurants, or grocery stores that resembled Western life at all. During the day, people crowded the plazas and markets, and at night, I could hear taxis navigate cobblestone pathways and dogs rustle in the garbage; every moment I was reminded I was in a different world.
My journey changed the day we arrived at the site of Machu Picchu. I had been anticipating the day since I read a book about its history in the sixth grade. Because we stayed the previous night in a town two hours away, we started early at 4:00 that morning. After two trains, a charter bus, and a hefty hike, the outline of stone remains started to appear. The morning fog began to clear the higher we ascended, and within minutes I was standing on lost Incan ground overlooking the unexplainable abandoned city.
Carefully constructed, full of history and culture—the city was truly a masterpiece. I touched every rock and terrace I crossed. I found myself wondering what life was like for the Incan people who lived there over 600 years ago and why they mysteriously disappeared. I wanted to know how these people transported stones high into the Andes and what crops they grew on the terraces. Everything about the site fascinated me. After a few hours of guided tours, my group decided to take some time and explore the site on our own. Everything was perfect. I sat on the edge of a grassy terrace with several alpacas, walked through once functional and lively homes, and gave thanks at religious and spiritual temples and rocks. All of us were eager to share our thoughts and personal experiences; my best friend and I even planned our return trip because we loved the place so much. And as we passed under the stone entrance gate for the final time, I turned around, welcomed by a pink and red sky sweeping over the jade mountaintops, and whispered, “See you later.” It was that moment I realized that I wanted to be a part of discovering the past; I not only wanted to learn about history, I needed to make it my life.
Later that same year I started college. I was warned by my aunt that I was bit by “the travel bug” and it wasn’t something that would easily go away. She was completely right. I felt restless and unfocused; the only thing on my mind was being in Peru, feeling its earth, and uncovering more ancient phenomenon. After skimming through a list of majors and minors online, I came across a major called anthropology. From previous knowledge, I recognized that it was the study of human life and culture. I decided to take an introductory level course in the subject, and I immediately fell in love. I learned that there were many subfields in anthropology including archeology, primatology, and paleontology. Pairing that major with other subjects like geography and geology, I realized, could get me one step closer to doing what I loved most in life.
Needless to say, my trip to Peru was unforgettable. It guided me to choose anthropology as a major in college, fed my love for adventure and travel, and ultimately led me to my true passion—my calling—in life. And although there will be many places I will see in my life, to Peru I say, “Nos reuniremos de nuevo” or “We will meet again.”