It’s been many full moons since I returned from the land of wondrous mountains and vast rivers and it is only now that the experience finally matured enough that I dare to write about it. So much happened between the Andes and the Amazon in Peru that I am worried sheer words won’t capture the magic that each of my days was filled with. Twelve days of heaven, touching the sky while standing by the Intihuatana at Machu Picchu and witnessing a baby lama being born, roaming the cobblestone streets of Ollantaytambo, haggling with the locals for fine tapestries in Chinchero, climbing the salt pools at Salineras, watching an ox shed tears while plowing the thick soil, feeding every stray dog in my way and lastly meeting Charlie, the dog I rescued on my first trip and was to bring back to the States from the birthplace of the Amazon, Iquitos.
It was 6:00 am when the small plane landed in Cusco. The 11,000 feet of elevation was already palpable and I was gasping for air. It was a strange high and I was so grateful that I was to first travel to Ollantaytambo, a small Inka village at a mere 9,000 feet. I am in top shape, I teach and breath yoga, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience. At the airport, while waiting for my ride a heavy set Dutch girl struck up a conversation with me and asked if she could share a cab to Ollantaytambo with me. I agreed, as a compassionate traveller and climbed into the red sedan. Our driver, Rocky was a handsome Peruvian lad who kept nodding in and out while driving on the twisting roads of the vast Andean landscape. At times, I would tap him on the shoulder while my heart was racing upon seeing an oncoming semi. It was a long and daunting drive but our welcome to the small Inka village made up for the peril of the journey.
Stone on top of stone in the most divine earth tones conceiving each small home while the bright morning sun lit the mostly flat rooftops. A small village center surrounded by ancient cobblestone streets and wandering strays was the landmark. From there it was a short walk to my hotel. My Dutch friend and I agreed to meet up later: the joy of traveling alone - you are never alone.
I was on the verge of collapsing from my eighteen-hour flight and the thin air - yet my room wasn’t ready yet at Hostal Andenes. Christian, the owner suggested I grab some coca tea at Hearts Café, next door –made from the leaves of the coca plant to combat my altitude sickness, which by then presented me with a severe headache and heavy nausea. The alkaloids of coca leaves serve as a mild stimulant and open the air passageways in the lungs. I am certain you must be wondering … so here’s your answer : one would need to drink at least thirty cups of coca tea to reach the same effect as one line of cocaine. I grabbed some warm pan dulce next door and sat down for my tea and a couple of eggs. The café, overlooking the massive Inka ruins of Ollataytambo was a perfect place to watch the locals in their colorful wardrobe go about their day. I few strays gathered around to receive bites of my eggs, which I didn’t deny them. Then a young girl in her vivid wardrobe flashed a smile and reached out her hand for some pennies. I didn’t mind, then took a photo of her. The Quechua people have much reverence for their elderly. The young walk around hand in hand with their grandfathers helping them up on steep roads. Friends in their eighties walk around hand in hand while navigating the cobblestones. I felt so fortunate to get a glimpse of their intimate worlds while my coca tea was doing its magic. I was already onto my second cup, my headache gone and I could feel my lungs expand to the size of a football field.
I was finally able to occupy my room and clean up. Sunscreen is necessary to protect one from the blazing Andean sun. After recalibrating I was ready to take on the ruins. Or so I thought. It was still relatively early and the chances of beating the rush of tourists who were about to be bussed in from Cusco was high. The gargantuan stone steps leading to the temple did me in. After only four of them I felt my lungs in my brain and I knew I should have had another five cups of the tea. I was quite fucked as I wasn’t even quarter way up on the ruins. I needed to pace myself. Four steps at a time. It took me an hour to get to the top and by then the crowd of tourists converged at the bottom. I was fortunate to take in the view with a couple of striking Italian men wandering around. Certainly, the best view from all angles. I did my morning meditation at the Temple of the Sun with my face gleaming,then I crashed the impassioned speeches of a few private tour guides. On my way down I stopped to say hi to a couple of oxens. By then, my Italian friends were already taking photos of the beasts. I didn’t have it in me. I squatted down eye level to the beasts and commenced petting the one closest to me to thank him for a lifetime of hard work under man. The beautiful being looked me dead in the eye. That’s when I noticed a giant tear leaving his warm, brown eye. The incredible beast was touched that someone recognized him for all that he was. One of nature’s supreme souls.
On my way back to my room I looked at the incredible weaving of the Quechua people, I tried on many ponchos only to settle for a vintage piece with a heart and many holes. I had a thick hot chocolate at the Choco museum and fed a couple of more strays with my leftover pan dulce. In my room I fell into a deep sleep, a sort of altitude coma and lost complete track of time.
It was already dark when I came to and the streets became dark with an occasional flickering light at the end of them. It was romantic and ominous all at the same time. I set out to explore the narrow paths, the quiet streams, the ghost of the Inka, and the Apus, the spirits of the mountain.
Walking through the quiet maze I would peak through the cracks of the traditional Quechua homes to get a glimpse, to get a taste of the people who live the principle of “ayni”, reciprocity. ‘Today I help you, tomorrow you help me’ – they live it, they breath it. As I ogled through a door that was left slightly ajar an ancient hand suddenly reached out and pulled me into a small room about the size of my bedroom in my modest Los Angeles apartment. Paco, a Quechua man in his late fifties, the proud head of the family ushered me into his kingdom. In the small room, which I found out was his whole entire house I was standing on an uneven mud floor, by my feet about two dozen guinea pigs running around aimlessly, to my right under a table was a goat peacefully napping, in the corner was Margarita a hoary woman with her eyes almost invisible by the myriad of creases time created. On the wooden bed to my left an underage girl, Matilda, Paco’s wife was weaving an intricate piece, while Paco rested at the table with his merry friend.
The old woman was stirring a large pot with a slightly sour smelling brew. Paco and his friend were enjoying the strange looking, home made, fermented brew called “chicha”. Paco handed me a jar with the magical frothy drink. I was frozen. At thirteen years of sobriety how was I to explain to this kind and hospitable man that I didn’t drink, that I was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, given my limited Spanish. You just don’t reject ‘Ayni’, kindness. I took a deep breath looked up at the stone ceiling said a prayer and took a sip of the drink. It was an awkward moment of trying to pretend the brew to be what it wasn’t. I smiled politely and complemented the chicha. “Maravilloso”. The two man smiled and pointed at the old woman and explained that they ferment the drink through human saliva, that of Margarita’s. The old woman stirring the pot and occasionally spitting in it was responsible for this, not so divine drink. If I wasn’t uncomfortable enough already, upon the news I sort of threw up in my own mouth, meanwhile on the outside I faked a well-rehearsed California smile. It was convincing. I spent close to two hours with my hosts lifting my jar to my mouth quite a few times but never touching the booze, and just like they did, I slammed it hard onto the table while giggling about Paco’s attempt to marry me to his friend at the table. The joy of traveling alone!
I woke up with a hangover the next day – was it from one sip of the most potent brew- or was it the altitude sickness? We went on what was to be a light hike with my Dutch friend. But there truly isn’t such a thing as a ‘light hike’ at close to 10,000 feet. I was to climb up to the somewhat hidden Inka ruins only to stop half way up while a black dog galloped passing me like a bewitched mountain goat. I was humbled. Sitting on a rock with the sun kissing my cheeks I marveled at the strength of the mountain people, I marveled at creation, I marveled at life, I marveled at my good fortune to be where I was. If only I could freeze time.
After two cups of coca tea, I started to feel normal again. The Dutch girl insisted on coming with me to Pisac, a nearby town with more Inka ruins and this time I got a guide. William was a thalidomide with decent English, his deformed arms sat by his side like little wings. I was so blown away by his desire to teach us about everything he knew, sadly most of his wisdom came from hearsay as occasionally I would listen in on the other guides’ speeches contradicting everything that William was stating. I really could care less though. He was great company and incredibly cute even with his broken wings. The magnificent Inka terraces and the almost vertical wall that served as burial site, where hundreds of tiny caverns held the body of the bygones left me standing with my mouth wide open, occasionally uttering a ‘Fuck!’ out of astonishment.
At night, after feeding a couple of homeless dogs, I got invited into another private home, slightly larger than the night before. Their walls decorated with the skulls of ancestors, taxydermied baby llamas, mummified cats, and things I didn’t dare ask what they were. I respected their customs. I sat in the lap of my eighty-year-old host who couldn’t be happier. They offered me chicha, I pretended to take a swig from it then politely made my way through the door. The woman looked me deep in the eyes held my hand and gave me an Inka cross as a souvenir. My eyes started to swell with tears of mirth.
Before I was to retire for the night I petted a three-legged dog who sat upright by my favorite Hearts Café, giving out handshakes with his mangled chunk for a leg to all who walked by him. It was quite a spectacle.
The night met me with an overload of anticipation. I laid there with my eyelids taped to my brows, wide awake with walls so thin I could hear everyone’s alarm in the hotel go off at 5:00 am. We all wanted to take the first train to Pueblo Macchu Picchu to beat the crowds. Wide awake and ready to make myself proud by fulfilling my childhood fantasy of climbing the Inka’s treasured mountain hideaway, I walked through the quiet streets with the chilly Andean air caressing my face. The morning chill can be harsh on the bones, only layers upon layers and an added wool poncho could keep one from getting frostbites. The strays were already scavenging for food and they all came running to greet me. At some point I had six of them in tow. How did they know that my soon to be ordered breakfast would be theirs? One must not dine at breakfast joints by train stations. Not even in Peru. I gathered my scrambled eggs on a napkin and gave them to the dogs.
The train was the VistaDome and I was Queen for a day, for they gave me the very front seat on the train, no one in front of me, no one next to me. Looking out was like watching my own movie on a wide screen, without obstruction. How did I get so lucky? As the pan flute was blaring through the speakers I watched farmers plowing the ground, I watched fish jump up and down in the white waters of the Urubamba river. The train ride was like life itself. Around each bend there was a surprisingly enchanting scenery either llamas or farmers or the ever changing vegetation. I made the mistake to go to the bathroom right before we hit a tunnel. I was stuck in pitch black for close to four minutes squatting on my throne wetting everything around, even the nearby sink. I did however clean up after myself. When the train slowed down, it brought about a new shift in vegetation with prehistoric ferns giving home to colorful birds while orchids hung from all directions. By now, the river carried yellow foam and the green was greener than anything I have ever seen. I was in an enchanted other worldly land, or so it felt, far away from home, far away from civilization as I knew it. This overwhelming wizardry made one feel like this was the end of the world, that there was nowhere to go from here. This was the final destination, the ONLY destination with ornate orchids hanging from metal bridges and relentless green peaks hovering from all angles.
I don’t know what was more remarkable snaking up the ancient serpentine road to Machu Picchu, or watching a llama give birth on the citadel’s main square, or the baby’s first steps; that awkward wobble reminiscent of drunken sailors’ attempt to find balance. I took a break after climbing into the Temple of the Condor. I ate my lunch, an avocado and an orange, solely relying on my hotel keys, wishing I had a Swiss army knife. I watched the baby cling to her mom’s back as if trying to climb back into her womb. I remembered my best friend was due with her daughter that day in Florida and I could feel she had her little girl the exact time I saw the baby llama pop out. As I sat in the shade of the massive Inca walls with a few other world travellers, I marveled at life, at creation, my luck, my dreams and the impeccable mountains with their silver glow and the moment - along with me - was complete. I never wanted to leave that sacred place, but instead I took her with me. At the train station I got the news, my girlfriend in Florida gave birth to little Lola the exact time I saw the baby llama’s first steps. It was July 26.
I met a remarkable young man from Brazil, Luca. We were both in altered states from the altitude and the eminence of our experience. We fell in love. For ten minutes. Then my train took me away from him.
Back in my tranquil village I stopped to grab my favorite dish. I had the best dinner made from quinoa and eggs and I knew it was too good to be true.
In the middle of the night I woke up ill. I knew my dinner would do me in. Being sick in a foreign country is no picnic. I staggered to the bathroom and had no idea which one of my angles to rest on the toilet, my head or my rear. It was a sorry sight. The show went on for about 4 hours and when the sun peaked through my curtains I was through the worst- or so I thought. But I couldn’t let sickness ruin my day, for I had plans. Morey and Salineras with my driver, Rocky. I was still shivering and pale like an injured swan when I climbed into Rocky’s car. We made frequent stops so I could empty myself from the Inka curse. I had no energy, as I couldn’t eat or keep anything down. Rocky was giving me an impromptu Spanish lesson all the meanwhile trying to find out why on earth was I single. I got asked that question so many times on my trip and I just kept saying I am happy to be single. Which was true. Morey was cool but I sort of breezed through it with my frail and shaky body, holding onto the railing and for dear life as the fainting spells kept getting more intense by the minute.
By the time we got to Salineras, I laid in the back of the car like a ragdoll. Rocky handed me some water and asked me to look out the window. When I saw the gargantuan salt mines, somehow the mountain spirits infused me with a serious dose of prana and I literally flew out of the back seat. Salineras is a collection of little salt pools bonded together with intricate pathways. It is breathtaking. Mere words don’t have the power to describe the inconceivable sight. I sat at the edge of one of the pools. Perhaps it was the saline water or the salt crystals and I could feel my power growing within by the minute. I started to fill out my skin again and after an hour of sitting there, I became whole, not the frail little fawn that I was a few hours back. I climbed all over the salt ponds, on ancient paths, smiling at women with wide rimmed hats harvesting salt. It was beyond surreal to be blinded by the crystals and by the sight of the striking copper rich mountain ridge.
It was late afternoon when I got back to Ollantaytambo and I stopped at Hearts Café for the most healing meal. After finishing my quinoa and oats with apples, my stomach finally settled. The two coca teas made the world a brighter place, they also gave me the idea to skip Cuzco. My heart was filled with so much love and so many wonderful experiences already that I felt Cuzco would be an overkill, and I needed to save room for Charlie, the dog I was to bring home to the US from the Amazon.
The next morning I set out for the Cuzco airport, said goodbye to the Sacred Valley and booked the next flight out to Iquitos. I couldn’t wait to see my new friend.
Upon setting foot on the tarmac in Iquitos on Tuesday afternoon, the overwhelming steaminess of the jungle air edged its way into my joints. The airport, where cabbies compete with stray dogs for scraps from incoming tourists was home to a horde of folk attempting to sell whatever they could, mostly spirit journeys with medicinal plants. But that wasn’t why I was there this time. The dog I met six months prior was to come home with me to Los Angeles.
The last time I saw Charlie he was A dog on his last legs; his paws were melted raw from walking endless miles on the sweltering concrete, his skin oozing and hairless, covered with mange resembling parasitic volcanoes erupting hot lava. He mirrored a reptile with scabs covering the majority of his frail body. Over the months I received updates about his hair growing. But I had to see his progress for myself and I was yet too meet his Peruvian helpers, my little crew the next day.
The night of my arrival I walked to the Plaza De Armas, then to the Boulevard - as the locals call the boardwalk overlooking the birthplace of the River of Rivers, the Amazon. In six months there wasn’t much change in the atmosphere. It was stilla strange cavalcade of gringos looking for salvation through the medicine plant and for the most part, opportunist locals trying to find a way out of the city reminiscent of scenes from kinky romance novels. The steaminess of the Amazonian air, though sensuous, doesn’t quite help the longevity of stray dogs. Amongst the herd of women openly breastfeeding and street musician playing cumbia, there were dogs limping and coughing their way through the crowds of sweltering bodies, many with severe eye infections and oozing wounds. I was standing at the edge of the Amazon, where the shadows of the jungle creep up on trees facing enmeshed couples. I could smell the water with its pink dolphins bellow, I could hear the crickets calling for their mates and the lost frogs moaning in the city fountain. The old dogs don’t stand a chance here- I thought, as an aging, mangy ‘perro de calle’ rubbed up against my leg. I gave him all that I could, my clammy palms and five minutes of my affection. I counted forty dogs scattered in various conditions over an area not larger than half a basketball court. I kindly curbed a five-year-old boy – all to his looming parents’ suspicion- who was about to kick a sick dog and instead I kneeled down and showed the youngster how to pet the poor soul. With the energy on the Boulevard intensifying and the crowd growing despite the sprinkling rain, I retired into my hotel room and fell asleep to the sound of omnipresent Motorkars.
The morning came fast. I was up at down and walked down to the Boulevard. It was early, aside from the dogs the night before there was no one on the promenade. The strays all gathered under a tarp covering the festival stage overlooking the grand river. Even the Motorkars were asleep as I marveled at the conspicuous clouds hovering above the brown water. The River had no end as it spread across the horizon. As I stepped onto the stage all the dogs came running to greet me. I was home. The charming welcome was quickly interjected by heavy rain and it was finally time to meet my new friends, Charlie’s caretakers. Resembling a wet sparrow as I flew through the lobby of my hotel, my crew was already there. Tanith, Marina and Junior hugged me like family. Their warmth wasn’t rehearsed. It was honest, their hearts pure. We ran through the pouring rain with several strays in tow to catch a couple of Motorkars to the Belen market, a mix of colorful produce, explosive energy and at times, dangerous intensity. There, dogs compete with vultures for aftermarket scraps, exotic animals are sold behind closed doors, turtles are gutted alive while caiman tails are sold for soup. It is a strangely bizarre sight and the smell was beyond what I could handle.
My exhilaration kept me from passing out as we spoke to the locals about the importance of sterilization and responsible pet ownership. We attempted the rescue of a very pregnant dog, but she quickly slipped through our fingers and dissolved in the horde of bodies.
Then it was time to head out to the Sanctuary to meet Charlie. The only mud road with extensive sink holes running through the jungle village where children play barefoot and have no schools to learn at, led us to where my ‘purpose’ spent his months recovering.
When I walked through the gate of the shelter my little heart pumped so much blood I almost fainted from excitement. We only met once, for about 20 minutes, a few months back, but when Charlie saw me, he knew exactly who I was. In front of me was a stunning, strong canine, with so much hair and so much love he almost tipped me over with his kisses.
I don’t know what was more exciting, that moment or being present for all his ‘firsts’: his first bed – where her frolicked like a happy seal, his first car-ride – his entire breakfast ended in my designer boots due to his motion sickness, his first plane ride – he galloped through the Lima airport like a distinguished Thoroughbred.
For close to a week Charlie showed me his favorite spots in the steamy jungle town. During that week my little crew comprised of Dr. Inga, Junior, Marina, Klenis, William, Tania, Tanith, Dr. Rolly and Joel created street teams and fed many street dogs, cared for the sick, cleaned wounds, administered antibiotic and anti-parasitic injections.
We even went back to the market to attempt the rescue of a very pregnant female dog. Charlie’s story ignited the whole town through social media and human compassion started flowing from everywhere. The locals started to feed the strays and almost the entire community flew into action to help man’s best friend. We found a new family, created alliances, all this with the common goal to help street animals and to educate the locals. We were able to help close to about a hundred dogs and a few of them found loving homes.
Sunday Aug. 2 was Charlie’s last day in Iquitos, the place where he spent close to nine years wondering the streets and almost dying to human neglect. We went for our last walk on the Boulevard to say goodbye to his buddies and the street gang he ran with. They all knew him. They all sniffed him goodbye. I led him to the street corner where I found him helpless and disposed of, six months prior. We stood there soundless while my eyes swelled with tears and gratitude for giving a life and gaining a friend. He was a star at the airport, he was a champ through customs and he was beyond excited to finally touch the sand in Venice beach.
My twelve days in Peru took close to a year to process and there are still many aspects of my journey that I have yet to grasp, review and savor and it might just take a lifetime. Today, I booked my next flight for July to return to the dogs of the city, to the River of Rivers and this time to my spirit guide, Don Lucho in the depths of the jungle who infected me with overwhelming compassion for all my relations. In gratitude for All.