By Leah Song
My face is sunburned, so sunburned my lips are a bit swollen, but somehow it makes my eyes a bit bluer. More rugged, more outdoors, wilder around fire and horseback and less around screens and automobiles. Fewer wires, fewer batteries, less electricity, less noise. More dirty hands, more blisters. Ahhhh, yes. And the creases of my eyes are still white. You can tell I was smiling the whole time. It’s a strange looking token of joy. Not that flattering, but certainly joyful. All 16 hours on horseback. A smile—line sunburn. That is truly a first. It still lingers.
I rode for the last two days with Kyd and her rowdy gang — both horses and women — way up into the Peruvian highlands through fields of barley, corn, and quinoa. A new landscape, one that beckoned the images of Alaska and Switzerland more than the Peru I have seen so far. What a vast and wild country.
We rode deep into the highlands to stay in a small village with a community that has worked to present their way of life to travelers — in a humble and off—the—beaten—track sort of way. This community decided that instead of sending their sons to Machu Picchu to find work with various trekking companies, they would set up a small arts and culture center for their village, with a guest house to host small groups of travelers. They take only four people at a time. We were four.
The next day brought such a wealth of learning. They showed us the plants they use medicinally in for cuts, stomach ailments, pain relief, etc. We saw a demonstration on their traditional weavings and textile work. My favorite part was learning how to dye the raw fibers with eucalyptus, flower petals, pepper leaves, beetle shells, minerals, salt.
Every item was gracefully placed into baskets, turning their hand-spun threads into rich and vibrant colors. Impressive colors. It’s no wonder butterflies, flower innards, and underwater scenes are always such surprising flushes of color. It is truly and fully within the scope of the natural world to be absolutely gaudy and opulent.
We feasted on corn cakes and "cuy," or guinea pig. I tried it, but could barely stomach the strange texture and little clawed feet poking out. I have heard guinea pig is the healthiest and most sustainable meat in the world. It is the only alkaline meat the body can process, and it is highly touted among cancer patients as having curative properties … but still.
Dark chocolate drinks, quinoa, blue corn pudding, and toasted chocolo (Peruvian popcorn). We all told stories, learned little pieces of village drama and family legacy, and the incredible process they undertook to develop a cultural center in this tiny community in the highlands.
We moved to music. They scooped us into a circle and whisked us into their dance. The universal language, I suppose. You can gather with people all around the world as a "visitor" and there will be a show, sometimes authentic that shares our cultural differences or similarities, sometimes just a show. But as soon as the cat is out of the bag — that there is an option for any type of reciprocation in this cultural sharing, that one of these odd travelers might have some pocketful of magic to share — then the captive audience reverses. It seems to me the general stereotype is tourists have no culture at all, and that all the poor souls raised in the West are simply attached to televisions and politics and bad food (not a complete misrepresentation, sadly) and believe anyone with actual cultural practices is an enormous oddity.
Everyone found out that I too was a singer and a folk musician, and one from a mountain range deep and distant from their own. I grew up between Atlanta, Georgia and southern Appalachia, always hopping between the two to satisfy my family’s deep obsession with folk music and my mother’s determination to learn every Appalachian fiddle tune she could before I turned 12. She brought all that music back into our home, where she worked as a day laborer for Delta Airlines, and my father held onto modest jobs wherever he could, but mostly stayed home with us girls (he was "house husband supreme").
We ate beans and rice almost daily and drew on all the walls with markers when Mom was gone. But we were fed by their love of culture, music, travel, and art. What we did not have of the "American dream," we had in the riches of storytelling and imagination. And so with honor I hold a pocket full of old songs to share at any and every occasion, and a reverence for learning and uplifting people and places with their traditions intact. It is not a flawless theory, as change is an inevitable part of this world and cultures must always flex, but the language of folklore seems truly universal. A ballad is not always the most fitting offering during my travels, but I find the vulnerability of being so far from home and carrying a piece of that tradition tends to create an instant understanding between all people. We all have sounds that take us home.
So, in one of the highest places I have ever stood, I did my best delivery of the old ballad "Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" and my best version of "Caminando.” Both songs of land and place and honor. I admit I was a little rickety without my musical partners in crime, but I sang it hard and full across these highlands. High in this mountain community of Misminay, we sat together and made music and art and told stories across every cultural difference you could imagine, and we laughed over all sorts of mutual strange things.
Kyd, the wild woman of these horses, was one part tough, one part tender, and 10 parts badass. A cowboy hat shaded her freckled face, she dressed in flannel and emanated a “don’t—fuck—with—me” vibe. Kyd was born in Canada by birth but has lived all across the globe. She’s been seven years now in the Sacred Valley of Peru, training horses (and women) to commune with this place. As we circled at the end of our stay with the women and their songs, her big eyes welled up with tears.
"Thank you for letting this be my work, and for creating such a beautiful place I get to bring people to see you,” she said in perfect Spanish. Soon, all the women were teared up, laughing and hugging. Except me. It’s a brief stop to be welcomed into a village for a day in their lives, but a deep one. Such a long journey gets you to the doorstep of these magnificent and timeless people who operate in older ways but are just as sharp as any. It seems a subtler exchange of essence is passed between souls, and to bear witness to this ancient but still thriving way of life creates a kernel of wisdom, something to hold tightly in this fraught time.
Then we were off through more barley fields, past glaciers, through rain storms and high rock outcroppings, all while communing with the beautiful beasts that carried us. Ninja is my Peruvian boo. We picnicked on roasted corn, hard-boiled eggs, avocados, and yucca snacks, and just stared into the quiet abysses of the land. Such vast and magnificent land.
I felt resplendent. My heart was full. My eagerness for slower pacing has been placated, or at least subdued a bit. There is nothing like real immersion. I didn’t learn the footpaths as well as I had hoped, but from the back of a beautiful animal, I learned well.
It is a great honor to be of this world.