Monday 27 October 2014

South America Part 1: Coca Leaves, Orchids, Micro-climates and Macchu Picchu

After being blown away, including in one instance almost literally by Patagonia's winds, during my first visit to South America, I made a point to return to the continent at some stage after feeling that my first visit had opened me up to a whole new part of the world, with plenty of new experiences to be sought. As I have found from previous adventures, sometimes the location delivers much more than the trip notes, and in this way, my second visit to South America certainly did not disappoint.

Starting in Peru, I embarked on the Inca Trail after visiting Cusco, the former Inca capital, to acclimatise to the altitude. Trekking through nature while passing historical ruins was a fascinating experience. For me, trekking is a good way to practice mindfulness of walking, through noticing the sensations from each step along the path while simultaneously opening up to and noticing the climate and conditions around you. Together with coca leaves, that many living in the Andean region chew on to make up for the lack of oxygen in the high altitude and a favourite with tourists, opening up to the air around you while bringing attention to the breath can help adjust to the high altitude, including taking deeper breaths where possible, enabling as much oxygen to reach the heart as possible.

An orchid in bloom along the Inca Trail
Focusing on the sensations experienced in the present helps one to tune into the present moment, but at the same time, much of the present day trail, which runs through the region known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, is of original Inca construction, chronologically over 500 years old in some parts. Walking along the paths used by the Incas, including the Inca runners who relayed messages in the form of rope patterns between settlements, one can either almost feel that time has stood still along the route with the distinctive shapes of the terraced Inca settlements having survived intact or with the absence of inhabitation, the legacy of a civilization long since lost within time. But when one focuses attention to the bloom of the present moment, including noticing the variety of orchids in bloom along the route, the notion time compromised of past, present and future interweaves into a continual now, where on closer inspection, the effects of time brought by both human activity and the every alternating micro-climates in the region can be seen.

Rainbow Bridge across Sacred Valley of the Incas
Within close proximity of the Sacred Valley are three different environments including the high altitude of the Andes through which the trail runs, the tropical rainforests of the Amazon Basin towards the East and towards the west the cloud forests, forests shrouded in mist. Whereas in the rainforests the competition among interlocking trees is for sunlight, in the cloud forest the competition is for soil, Peru's cloud forests are also home to the spectacled bear, South America's only species of bear. From this, I found out where 'Darkest Peru' is, from where Paddington Bear came from before finding refuge with the Brown family at 32 Windsor Gardens in London! Each micro-climate in the region brings its own weather, which brings constantly changing weather conditions from bright sunshine to wind and rain, which also brings its effects with it that have been known to play upon human imagination, including producing spectacular rainbow bridges across the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Rainbow bridges were believed by the Incas to connect the living world with the spirit world high up in the mountains, where the souls of the deceased resided, similar to the Viking belief that they connected the living world with Valhalla.

Winaywayna Inca Settlement
It is well-known that many people with Asperger's Syndrome struggle to cope with change, one of the reason why I take on such challenges. In recent years, I have found that by facing up to constant change through being present with it helps me cope more effectively, whereas resisting can lead to high-level anxiety. More recently, I have begun to notice that through facing up to such constant change also helps to notice and open up to thought patterns, which like the Sacred Valley's micro-climates are constantly changing. Observing the terrace formations in the Inca settlements, one is reminded of how sustainability of a civilisation can be enabled through working with physical landscapes and local micro-climates, through adapting to and making use of them. The terraced formation in the Inca settlements not only blends effectively into the mountainous landscape, but also allows for different micro-climates with different amounts of irrigation to take place in which a variety of different crops could be grown, including maize and sweet potato.

The Oh My God Steps
Like with other trekking challenges I have done, including Kilimanjaro, within the challenge itself are many different challenges, which can have effects on the mind, where sometimes the mind sees it differently to how it actually is. When trekking Kilimanjaro, the almost vertical-looking Barranco Wall is one such challenge. Towards the end of the Inca Trail is what are locally called the 'Oh My God Steps', a set of 50 almost vertical looking steps. Such sights can induce doubt in one's mind as to whether they can overcome such a challenge, especially after having done much of the hard work already!

The experience of a mountain trek has been described by some, including myself, as being analogous to one's life, a range of different sensory experiences over a period ranging from a few days to a few weeks together with ups and downs, both the physical ups and downs of the route together with the mental ups and downs experienced throughout the journey. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, a little reminder this brought home to me was how one is affected by the condition differently at different stages of one's life, as well as how one's relationship with issues that the condition presents changes, including finding ways of coping with it.

After overcoming the Oh My God Steps, I reached the Sun Gate from where Macchu Picchu can be seen in the distance. Whereas during the day, Macchu Picchu, being one of the world's great historical sites, is constantly busy and crowded with tourists, by the time I reached it, it was virtually deserted as it was nearing closing time, almost like it would have been when it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. After being able to see it so clearly, the following morning when I returned to explore its interior, it was hidden behind mist, which was another reminder of how our thought patterns alternate between being clear and clouded. Mindfulness though is simply noticing this and being present with it.


...and clouded

Part Two of my adventure will follow shortly - watch this space!

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