My Two Day Trek to Find the Thermal Baths at the Base of Ausangate Mountain

The end of the world has one small gravel road. It loops up and around and across several mountain ranges, all of the cordilleras.

There are no directions, except for ‘sigue sigue!’ ‘de frente, no mas!’, head nods from the occasional alpaca herder, and one sign we found: ‘Baja Temperatura’ with a snowflake displayed, if you didn’t understand the words.

There is a vastness, an expanse as big as the cloudless sky. It fills your chest. It lifts you up to the snowy mountain peaks that you can almost touch with your outstretched arms.
625392_737a925a6ea7443d8bb6b3281882e6fd-mv2_d_4608_3456_s_4_2

625392_fb8063bfa995462f91cf4ace0abb32df-mv2_d_4608_3456_s_4_2

There is a half-finished water piping infrastructure project at the end of the world, transporting glacial water down to the valleys. No wonder, the municipality also made it out here to the end of the world.

We found a wasteland of giant boulders at the end of the world. And small gravel, and mid-sized rocks, all tossed aside in the name of progress, to construct the concrete canals and plastic pipelines funneling the water to places where someone said it should go.

Hundreds of alpacas are grazing in the alpine valleys at the end of the world. Most of the animals are white, but some are mottled and some dark brown.

An anthropologist from Lima told us that the alpaca wool market is forcing pastoralists to raise white alpacas to meet the current demands.

The genetic diversity of alpacas is dwindling, even at the end of the world.

Little yellow flowers resembling dandelions pop out in clusters, so close to the ground you have to squat with your big pack on your back to see them shimmering in the sunlight. They are singing.

625392_55df6e9a1f7941849971f88670db4be6-mv2_d_4608_3456_s_4_2

And finally at the end of the world, are several thermal springs, bubbling up from the swampy ground, sending steam into the wintry air. You can put down your pack, and leave it with one of the three villagers who live at the end of the world, to explore the geo thermally warmed waters, first donning your extra scarves, hats, and long underwear as the sun edges closer to the silhouettes of the mountains.

It appears as if there used to be a functioning set of swimming pools at the end of the world. There are the leftover remains of intricate watercourses combining cold glacial river water with the hot thermal springs. The glass in the windows is broken in an abandoned bathroom building and a locker room.
At this time, the end of the world has one concrete pool remaining, filled with water the color of clay, its temperature just right to warm the marrow of your bones. There is a constant gravity-fed stream in and out of the pool, regulating the water level.

We took off our shoes and rolled up our pants to soak up the minerals through our pores while we wrapped our scarves up over our noses.

Light pollution doesn’t make it as far as the end of the world. Not even a glimmer of electricity that might send its eerie orange glow out from a city behind the mountains. Nothing. Instead the stars dance in spirals, making waves through the Milky Way. They shine electric blue and green and purple in the darkness, and you can watch them only if you wrap yourself in thick alpaca blankets, and hug your knees to your chest.

There is alpaca meat for breakfast at the end of the world, with hot coca tea, and potatoes, of course. You might be offered Coca-Cola too. The Coca-Cola Company is alive and well at the end of the world.

We came back riding horses. I had to ask, for the horses, but what I didn’t ask for was the red scab I still have on my sit bone from my skin being rubbed raw after sitting bareback on my brown steed for three and a half hours, with my giant pack on my back, clenching every muscle in my legs and arms, praying I would not fall off.

I did not fall off.

Horses have an easier time coming to and fro from the end of the world. They are accustomed to the cold air, and the hot springs, and their white alpaca neighbors.

I have the sore spot when I sit at my desk to write. Some people come back from trips with caramels and wooden figurines for the mantle piece. Those aren’t the kinds of souvenirs they have at the end of the world.

 

lost and found

With a break from hosting academic groups for the month of June, I packed up my backpack for a few weeks to explore the mountains, valleys and jungles of Peru.

625392_6eb33e841c5343188d8b8121ca700819-mv2_d_4608_3456_s_4_2Starting from Lamas, onto Tarapoto, Chachapoyas, hiking to the Gokta waterfall and Kuelap ruins, traveling through Trujillo and Chimbote on the way to Huaraz, Chavin, and San Marcos, I’ve been through (too) many bus terminals and purchased, drank, and thrown away more than 10 plastic water bottles in just about a week.

That’s more plastic water bottles than I’ve bought in as many years.

I am embarrassed to even write down these words, and more so each time I toss an empty bottle in the municipal trash bin at a bus terminal before boarding to my next destination.

But a girl’s gotta drink.

A few years ago, when discussing the hidden costs of common commodities, a former professor of mine once prompted the question – what happens to the tiny amounts of water that are often left in plastic bottles when they are thrown into garbage bins and eventually end up in landfills?

This question has stayed with me since.

Because maybe when we stop to think, all those drops of water might just add up to something worth counting.

I’ve dreamt of those lost sips of water, left fragmented from one another by our selfishness, our blatant disregard for emptying out the last remaining drops of water on a plant, or lawn or even an asphalt parking lot for the droplets to sizzle and sigh with relief, drawn back into the larger cycle of evaporation.

What about those half drunk bottles of water, lazily left behind on park benches and bus seats and movie theaters? abandoned.

Not to mention about the idea of a disposable plastic water bottle in the first place. That’s a separate argument.

I’ve fantasized about the gallons and gallons of water that we’ve trapped inside those plastic cages, water caught in a liminal threshold, suspended between life and death, removed from the larger context of clouds and rain and evaporation to forever forget the feeling of coming back to a greater whole.
625392_557b4d5e91fa45568590cf2f9d089961-mv2_d_4608_3456_s_4_2

On my long bus rides through the Peruvian countryside I’ve been listening to Rebecca Solnit reciting her book, Field Guide to Getting Lost, where she weaves together threads of lost and found through personal accounts and non-fiction essays. To me, water itself maintains this cyclical theme of gathering together and reorienting, by losing itself to the flow of a river and the rush of rain, and finding itself in your drinking glass.

When last night’s dew evaporated off of the cobblestone streets in this morning’s blazing sun in Huaraz, that water is lost to me. For now. But what about the water that some corporation found and bottled and sold to someone else to store in dark cupboards on dusty shelves? This water is lost in a larger sense. Lost to its natural flow of transformation. Stuck, standing on one leg in the doorway.

And not to mention, where was this bottled water even found in the first place? What did they do it after it was found? And who lost because of it? What about the people who used to drink from that mountain spring, and are displaced now, because of a giant pump in the way?

625392_c93495ef91ab4f909d3271dc2ff8e657-mv2_d_4608_3456_s_4_2
So, rethinking, I suppose I could travel through the Peruvian countryside- complete with bacteria and viruses that are strangers to my North American body, with a heavy-duty filter, iodine tablets and extreme diligence. I could imagine filling up my water bottle at sinks and water fountains, then patiently waiting the allotted time for the filtration and iodine to do its trick. But even iodine tablets have holes in their functions, and besides I wasn’t able to get a heavy duty filter for my travels.

So for 1 sol every 625 ml, I will have to resign myself to removing the cap off of each empty water bottle and drinking every last drop before it ends up in the recycling bin at the next bus station.