Letter: Trek

The purpose of Project Helping Hands trips is to bring medical and dental attention (as well as public health education) to communities who do not have access to these services. In an ideal world, the high Andean communities would have the resources and infrastructure to get basic care. But they don’t. Llama Pack Project is working hard to provide the men and women in these communities with sustainable development. One way that the team supports the community is through services and education. Another is by hiring the locals and their llamas to help transport the supplies. The day in between Cochayoc and Quelcanca was a hiking day. I wrote about how the llamas were carefully packed in a previous post. The trek took us through incredible mountains and valleys, past remote potato fields, beneath majestic snow covered mountains, and up to 14,000 feet before descending into the beautiful community of Quelcanca.

The morning of the trek I decided to utilize a llama to carry my backpack. I didn’t know what the trek would entail and I was pretty nervous about the altitude. In hindsight, I probably would have been just fine, but oh well. I love this photo, but I feel like I have to explain my ridiculously small backpack in comparison to my fellow hikers. I might add that they are both in the 20s. . .

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Photo by David Flores.

The trek started by walking straight up the side of a mountain. There was no trail, it was just straight up where the llamas had been grazing the day before. Within the first 15 minutes of the trek I was beginning to question whether or not I’d be able to do this for the next 8 hours. It was a brief moment of panic, then reckoning. One foot in front of the other. Right away the views were spectacular. And watching the llamas ahead of us and behind us was almost surreal. I have never been so close to (or such a part of) a herd of llamas.

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Leaving Colchayoc.

Very quickly we leveled off and the incline became more gradual. I breathed a sigh of relief, chewed my coca leaves hard, and kept on. One of the things I love about hiking is that it can be both a solitary and community experience. After our incredible day in Cochayoc, I felt a connection with the group that only deepened during our all day trek through the mountains. And yet, at the same time, I reveled in the moments along the trail when I was alone for a stretch. Looking around me, with only mountains and sky for company, I felt profoundly insignificant and alive at the same time. The physical stress of the hike (that I had worried so much about) melted into the background. I continued to put one foot in front of the next, breathed in the thin air, and walked. And walked. And walked. My lungs did not burn, my legs did not ache, my heart did not pound. Instead of fatigue I felt vigor.

Every now and then, our guides who were managing the llamas would signal us to stop. Since I was in the group between two llama packs, this meant that the llamas behind us would catch up and peak around the trail to see what was going on. We would see these sweet llama heads come around the curves behind us, checking us out as much as we checked them out.

We stopped for lunch mid-day. I’m not totally sure why, but some of us decided to do headstands at the top. I only made it a tiny bit above the tripod position before I fell, but it was fun to try.

Just as we began unwrapping our sandwiches, the rain started. Cold seeped into our stationary muscles and bones. We gathered around each other to keep warm. Plastic bags came out of pockets to cover backpacks. Rain jackets and ponchos were donned and shared. One of my hiking sisters taught us all the phrase “Embrace the suck.” Here we are at lunch in the pouring rain, embracing the suck. Embrace it we did. And then we kept walking because it’s a lot easier to keep warm while moving. Despite the rain, I was elated. It was like nothing could dampen my spirit. IMG_1172

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The hours of walking after lunch were the best. It’s like a switch had been flipped in my brain. Joy is all I felt. Pure Joy. I’m not one for selfies usually. I never know how to angle the camera or how to smile, but in this photo I was by myself and wanted to capture the beautiful lake in the background. I was laughing in this photo. By myself, being rained on, fingers freezing. But I was so happy.

I alternated between being part of a group of about 6 of us walking the same pace, and being on my own between two groups. When I was with the group we talked, laughed, admired the incredible surroundings, learned about each other’s lives, shared water and food, or sometimes just walked in silence.When I was alone, my mind wandered to the peaks and valleys of my own soul in the way that remote nature allows one to do. I’ve mentioned before that one of our group members is a professional photographer. He took photos of everyone along the way. Here are a few images he captured without me knowing it.

The scenery was spectacular.

The rain eventually stopped. At one point I turned around because one of my hiking buddies needed something. As I turned back to see what was going on, my eyes glanced upward. It had been misty and overcast all morning, but now the clouds had parted enough to reveal a towering snow covered mountain. I pointed, yelling and laughing. Everyone turned around and this is what we saw.

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Photo by David Flores

The first group made it to Quelcanca by the afternoon. I arrived shortly after. The town of Quelcanca is nestled between jagged, beautiful mountains. The river runs through the center of town, dividing it into two parts. The school was on one side, and most of the houses were on the other. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more picturesque town.

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A few more photos from David to capture the beauty of the town.

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Photo by David Flores.
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Photo by David Flores.

The last team members finally arrived, and once again we were welcomed with open arms. We were all tired and hungry, but the spirit of the group was shining, ready for a good night sleep and to get to work the next day.

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