This is a story from days of magic and lasting memories from a dream land that is America del Sur. Surprisingly, it is the day AFTER our Machu Picchu climb that becomes my first recollection committed to paper about our Peru trip. These have been days of incredible richness in image and color, in smell, sound, and emotion… a trip of personal discovery. So much to see, to hear, and to take in… there is so much to be felt, that it can easily become an overwhelming experience. After the HIGH of Machu Picchu one may be bound to feel depression the next day. No matter how great the hotel, how nice the staff, how tranquil and inviting the flower gardens and water streams, how still majestic the Urubamba Valley, one cannot help but feel a little underwhelmed, a little sad, a little lonely the next day… with Machu Picchu green transfixed on ones heart’s retinae.
In such a slow pace afternoon, after the high of Inca heights, we head out to visit the Maras Saline, a small attempt to bring back wonder and rescue the day. Maras is a town in the Sacred Valley, known for the salt evaporation ponds in use since Inca times. My lines below, however, won’t be about the beauty of the scenery, or the salt ponds, or the Incas. Not even about the Sacred Valley. These thoughts committed to memory and these feelings committed to heart are about humanity, empathy, and something of a mystery… As in most of our journeys, it is the human contact that resonate the deepest and the longest. The Maras Salinas, so majestic and impressive in themselves, will be forever shadowed by a little man that stole my heart in Urubamba. Truth is, many encounters, things, and moments stole my heart in the Andes. Then again, my heart is too easily stolen. So, foremost, I have to write about my Maras shepherd.
Driving on a dirt road, on our way to the hotel in Yucay, back from the salines, while taking in all that wide-open eyes could absorb of blessed beauty and tranquility, I notice at the edge of my view a small figure treading on the left side of the road, with a grazing flock of sheep and goats, looking as if he just stepped out of a bucolic painting of unknown memories. We are driving at a very slow pace, he is walking as the sheep grazed, allowing ample time to contemplate the image, to let questions form, and to indulge in curiosity.
I see this silhouette in motion, becoming clearer and more colored with every passing second, up to the moment when the man gets close enough that I am able to decipher body language, interest. I feel an inner nudge for communication.
As we get close enough to him we stop the car. We roll the windows down and I look at him intently. He comes closer to the car and takes an equal interest in us.
We are on a road less traveled, in a region that does not promote car tourism at all. There is so much silence and peace around us, it makes me feel so disconnected from the rest of the world… just us, the sheep and goats, and vast expanses… I get out of the car and realize that I can see the horizon, or hint at it where separated by a mountain range, a puff of clouds, or by unexpected wheat fields at 3000 m altitude, in a 360 degree motion of wonder.
While keenly aware of beauty all around, my focus is on this little man so curious, so colorful, so short, so different who comes out of his way to get a glimpse of us. I say Hello, Ola, Bon Dia… I sense a question on his face. I smile. He tentatively smiles back. I start asking him questions he obviously does not understand. He says something that I don’t understand. It is a very rough sound, perhaps the old Quechua language of the Incas. He seems old. As with most people of the Andes we met on our trip, I cannot easily sense how old they are. Perhaps the sun they venerate so much, the wind, the altitude simply make them seem so. We are trying to communicate; I am smiling and he is almost smiling back fully. I signal him to come closer to me to take a picture. We go by the side of the road; we are taking pictures all the while I am speaking to him.
No need to explain how this encounter is etched on my heart. It feels so different and so special… Was it perhaps because how we communicated? Or the exquisite setting? Or the silence and tranquility? We had no language shared but something very deep and meaningful was shared in that moment.
I am sure that the sense of awe, curiosity and intent I was reading on his face was a mirror of my sense of awe, curiosity and intent. I felt a deep sense of empathy. All of a sudden I wanted to know everything about this unique and unusual human being. Where is he coming from? What language does he speak? Who are his ancestors? Why is he so short? Where does he sleep tonight? Does he love anybody? Is he loved?
So unforgettable the sense of curiosity and interest on his face… We communicated in smiles. Absorbed in the moment, I felt transported into a glimpse of meaning, a different sort of awareness. I started to blow kisses at him. By the time the car started moving I kept gesturing and he started gesturing back: we were blowing kisses at each other. He was imitating me, blowing kisses back. I was burning to be in his mind, to see, to hear, to understand what was he thinking. Something however, I knew. I felt how he was feeling. And that is an incredibly special kind of knowing.
So many questions… so many gaps to fill…
This little man is still a mystery; I’ll never know the answers to these questions. Yet, I felt I knew him. We share an origin somewhere. We have inhaled the same air. We have shared an intimate space in a vast surrounding; we were two adjoined dots on the canvas of an exquisite landscape for an instant. Together we’ve shared with sheep and goats, with mountains, clouds, and fields of wheat, one landscape of existence. This little man and I… we shared an ever-present moment in our landscape of being. I deeply felt that we have communed.