He finally gave up, grabbed my pack, and we headed up the hills. I did my best to keep up with him. He looked very much like a middle aged man but his legs were the legs of a mountain goat. And while my lungs struggled with the brisk hike, not only at altitude but at a challenging grade, his breathing was relaxed and free. I worked up a sweat and he appeared to be having a casual stroll. Fortunately, Julian stopped periodically to let me catch my breath.
Amantani Island is free of vehicles and I found myself weighing the relative merits of the exercise provided by a life that required walking up and down hills at an altitude somewhere between 12,500 and 13,000 feet against my cardio workouts and weight lifting at the gym. Julian was in far superior shape and even if I’d had my breath, I would not have wanted to arm wrestle the wiry gentleman.
Once we arrived at his family home, it became apparent that I was not the only guest. Two fellow travelers, Sandy and Tim, were already there, having been led on a slightly different route by the matriarch, Sebastiana. Also living in the small compound were Paulo, a grown daughter, and her son, Juan Carlos.
I was shown to my room, which consisted of three beds, one small nightstand, and a mirror. It was on the second floor, reached by some rather steep stairs. Since I was the only one staying in the room, I had my pick of beds. The beds were covered in beautiful, simple textiles and my guess was that the mattress was stuffed with reeds or other natural materials. Sandy and Tim had the room next to mine, but there was one or more additional rooms at this level. It was apparent that this family could house a fair number of people and I later learned that all those rooms accommodated Julian’s and Sebastiani’s other children and their families when they visited.
The home consisted of an L-shaped structure on two stories with a separate small structure that was used for cooking and dining. Nearby was an outhouse. The structures were made of adobe, with tin roofs. A low adobe wall helped to further shelter the compound. A courtyard contained a water barrel with a stand and pan that appeared to be used for bathing. We got ourselves settled, looked at (and bought from among) some textiles and other items offered for sale by the family, took photos, and otherwise settled in.
I presented some gifts I’d brought for the family. Sandy and Tim had also brought gifts, among them some colored pens, paper, and a coloring book suitable for a child and Juan Carlos was delighted to have them.
Sandy and Tim’s room had a single lightbulb overhead—a luxury on an island mostly devoid of electricity—and Juan Carlos spent time with us, coloring and drawing with his new tools while we lounged and chatted. My own room had a small candle and no electricity, but I had something that trumped their light: a rudimentary chamber pot (basically a plastic bowl stuck under the bed). Their electricity, powered by solar, would give out early in the evening. My chamber pot would serve me all night and into the early morning if I needed it. I liked my accommodations.
I was pleased to be sharing the host family with Sandy and Tim. They were a part of the Denver contingency on this trip and staying with the same family would give me a chance to get to know them a bit better. I’d already found them to be good traveling companions, but I hadn’t yet figured out what was behind that twinkle in the eye I’d seen with each of them. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it came from being present, aware, and engaged—qualities I’m a sucker for.
The day was far from over. We would be making our way down the hill to a gathering place for Earth ceremony. I’d read about the Amantani Island practice of dressing up the visitors in local garb and dancing the night away with them. I was looking forward to the former and wanted to avoid the latter, if possible. The next day was important. It was Solar Disc activation day—Valentine’s Day, 2010. I wanted to be rested and ready for it. Besides, even though I was in good physical shape, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around dancing at this altitude.
We were called to the kitchen hut for a meal of simple, hearty, and wonderfully tasty soup. Then we made our way back down the hill for our rendezvous. I couldn’t fathom finding my way back on my own, particularly in the dark, and was happy that I had my little flashlight and that Sandy and Tim had hats with headlamps on them. I was also feeling a bit like Blanche DuBois—counting on the kindness of strangers—to get back safely. I was in the right place for that because the people of Amantani Island (apart from that curious exchange with Julian) were welcoming and sweet. Electricity and plumbing or not, these were people with whom I wanted to spend time . . . but not necessarily time spent dancing.
Copyright 2010 by Melanie Mulhall