In the real world, I am buried beneath a big pile of rocks. If I just put them all together in an orderly fashion, I will have time and money to go traveling again. In the meantime I will continue to post old stories from the archive of scribbled notebooks. Oddly enough, this old story has the exact same title as a new story I just posted a few weeks ago. Am I repeating myself? Not exactly.
Paradise Found… Again
Leymebamba, Peru; February 15, 2011
I found my first Paradise in 1993 on my very first trip to South America. The place was called Vilcabamba, it was located in Southern Ecuador and when I came upon it while traveling I thought seriously about stopping, staying, and never returning to the USA. But I was a young man back then and my brain was still fully poisoned by the American delusion. I was on vacation from my career, I had not yet abandoned my career. In other words, I still believed the illusion was truth. So I didn’t stay in Vilcabamba. I continued my travels until I ran out of money and then went back to my career in the USA.
Fortunately, a few years later I did abandon my career. The delusion got smashed and I came to see the world in a whole new light. Nowadays, believe it or not, I discover paradise several times a year. I’ve found it in Central America, South America, Africa and Asia. As a matter of fact, although it is difficult, I’ve even managed to discover it in the USA. No doubt, the delusion keeps it well hidden, but it’s still there. So what is Paradise? The easy availability of food and shelter and a pleasant natural environment in which to spend your time. As the bus descends the steep mountain dirt road into the Utacamba valley and arrives at the small town of Leymebamba, Peru the warm and fuzzy feeling washes over me. I smile. Here we go again. We have discovered another Paradise.
The journey from Cajamarca to Leymebamba involves a long and crazy bus ride on a dirt road that zigs and zags up and down green mountains with steep precipices and gorges precariously close to the side of the road and no guardrails to protect us from a very long drop to certain death. Indeed, the guide books suggest that the trip should not be attempted in the rainy season. One of the passes we cross is called Mud Mountain Pass. It is the rainy season when we travel and the road is scary and long. But the views are spectacular and we make it to our destination. Such is the nature of Paradise that the journey to get there is never an easy one.
We get off the bus in a plaza in the center of town and immediately find a very nice double room that only costs 30 soles (ten bucks). After checking in, we set out to find food and explore the town. Food is cheap; only about 2 bucks for chicken and French fries and the town can only be described as amazingly beautiful. It’s nestled in a river valley where two rushing rivers cross each other. Part of the town is situated on a small plateau that sits above the rivers but part of the town seems to climb up the sides of the hills. There’s only one real road that follows the river and passes through the center of town. But there are seemingly infinite pathways that head upwards into the green hills. The paths are made of cobblestone and dirt and there are some rather impressive stone stairways that connect the various levels of town. In some respects, it’s like a Dr. Seuss village or an elf village; a multi-leveled labyrinth of inter-connected walkways surrounded by psychedelic green hills with a great variety of colorful flowers poking out everywhere.
It’s late in the afternoon when we arrive so there’s not really any time for a walk into the hills. But we climb a stone staircase to a high section of town from where we have a glorious view of the surrounding valley. The locals we meet throughout the day are exceptionally friendly and they respond to our foreign presence with smiles and greetings. Only about 4000 people live here and although it’s not a tourist town yet, tourists do pass through so the people are accustomed to strangers. A few years back, some stone ruins were discovered in the vicinity so visitors are becoming more and more common. Thus far, the locals have experienced the economic benefits of tourism but they have yet to see the problems that will inevitably arise from the influx of strangers. Right now, at least, they are very welcoming. Generally happy with their lives, they have no problem showing and sharing their good fortune with others.
But what exactly is good fortune? By definition, most people here are subsistence farmers or simple traders. The per capita income is only a few thousand dollars per year. By international economic standards, the economy is poor and undeveloped. On the measuring stick of American ideology,,, western ideology… these people live in extreme poverty and have very rough lives. But the shops are full of food and necessities and the people all seem happy. They don’t have a lot but they do have enough. They also have something that the modern world is lacking. It’s hard to describe what that something is, but that something is what we search for.
The following morning, Ms. B. and I decide to go on a quest. Superficially speaking, we are going on a trek to find the stone ruins of Congonas that are supposed to be located 6 or 7 kilometers outside of town. Spiritually speaking, however, we are looking for something much more than ancient stone ruins. We pack some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, some fruit and some water along with our rain jackets and cameras and head out early in the morning. We don’t have a map or anything so we ask a guy in town for directions. He points us to the start of the trail and we begin the journey.
The trail zigs and zags up the side of a mountain. We are walking for about a half hour when we come upon an old man with a horse walking in the opposite direction. He gives us a smile and friendly greeting, complains about the mud and asks where we are going. We tell him we are searching for Congonas and ask if we are going the right way. He says yes but adds that the way is difficult because of the mud and he points at the mud-covered legs of his horse to demonstrate. “it’s long and difficult,” he says, “maybe you should not go.” But I tell him that we will try anyway. In response, he shakes our hands with a great big smile and wishes us luck on our journey.
A short while later we come upon a massive mud pit. It’s deep enough to get seriously stuck and maybe even drown. We have to do some rather creative rock climbing to avoid the mud and get back on the trail. But we make it and continue on. Next upon the path, we meet a middle-aged woman and a young girl. They greet us with friendly smiles and inform us about the many shortcuts to Congonas. “Don’t follow the main path,” they say, “or your journey will take forever. Keep your eyes open for side trails. They all lead towards the top of the hill from where you can re-join the main trail.” We follow their advice and it saves us a whole lot of time and effort.
When we reach the top of the hill we come to a small village and the pathway divides and heads in two opposite directions. Fortunately, there’s a mother and two small children there so we can ask which way to go. They point us towards the left hand trail and we continue onwards. A short while later we come to another trail junction and there is no one there for us to ask. After a short debate between ourselves we guess the left hand trail again. But we are wrong. We only walk a short distance before we hear shouting from across the valley. It’s one of the children from the village informing us that congonas is down the other trail. So we re-trace our steps and head down the correct trail again.
On and on goes the journey. At first the trail meandered through mostly grasslands and grazing pastures. Now, however, it’s somewhat more overgrown with small trees, shrubs and an abundance of flowers. It seems like we have walked too far though. It was only supposed to be 5 or 6 kilometers and I think we have gone further than that. Maybe we missed the turn off. Perhaps we should give up and go back. But we continue on a bit further until we come across a teenage boy on a horse. When we stop him and ask directions, he points to a hilltop off up ahead in the distance. Apparently, we still have a ways to go.
At this point, Ms. B. looks rather tired and I am wondering if she will make it. But she perseveres and we continue onward. We have to stop and ask directions one more time at a small farm where we are directed to go left at the next fork, climb to the top and follow the ridge line left to the ruins. Up, up, up we climb. Ms. B. struggling slowly behind me as I resist the urge to go charging ahead. We reach the top of the ridge and are rewarded with spectacular views up and down the valleys. Unbelievable… infinite green with tiny trails criss-crossing about and small scattered dwellings dotting the landscape. Hard to believe that people live up here, so far away from roads and the modern world. But they do. Somehow they live…
We don’t actually make it to the ruins. We get close enough to see them; falling down, overgrown stone structures jutting out from a mountain top. But the trail peters out at a fenced in small homestead and we worry about trespassing. Going off the trail in through the thick forest would require a machete and some serious determination. Ms. B. is exhausted and we can see the ruins so this is close enough. We snap a few photos and head back down the way that we came.
After we have descended a short distance, we come upon a local man. To describe him as an enlightened Buddha mountain person is probably an exaggeration but that is the impression he gives me. He is probably in his forties and he has a sparkling glitter in his eyes and that special glowing kind of presence. He asks if we found Congonas and we say we saw it but did not arrive there. He offers to guide us back and although we consider it, we say no. After all, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. The smiling friendly Buddha seems to appreciate this response. He bids us farewell and disappears into the forest as quickly as he had appeared.
The journey back is rather tiring but absolutely delightful. We meet more friendly locals including two groups of children who want to have their photos taken. The sun falls behind the mountains and sets the surrounding green hills into a somewhat surreal afternoon glow. Flowers sparkle, the grass glitters and the smiles of the local people seem almost supernaturally genuine. Have we found paradise here in Leymebamba? It certainly seems like we have.
We make it back to town in the early evening and have a big meal in a local restaurant. There are no gourmet or fancy tourist restaurants with standard international cuisine. But there are several local eateries and that’s good enough for me. After our long day’s journey we are tired so we return to our rather luxurious but very cheap room for good long, hot showers. We are in bed and a sleep well before 10 pm. Early to bed and early to rise.. we must be living in paradise.
The next day, I awake at dawn and head out for a morning stroll on my own. I follow a trail up a river into the valley. My intention is only a short walk, but the further I go, the further I want to go. I pass through a tiny village and meet an assortment of friendly characters. Everyone greets me with a welcoming smile and the path is a delightful meander through flowers and shrubs and into a gorge. There’s waterfalls and rushing rapids; makeshift bridges and distant mountain views. How nice it is to be alive in this world. With so much to see, an impulse inside tells me to go and go and go. But I brought no water or food and Ms. B. awaits me in the town below. So I return in time for an early lunch.
After eating, we set out walking together. We don’t go so far this day but we do visit a rather impressive archaeological museum. While there, we learn about a vast number of archaeological sites scattered around in the vicinity. It seems as if I could walk and explore in these parts for days and weeks and months. There is so much to see and do. But alas, our journey must continue. Now that we have found this perfect paradise, we are not destined to stay here. Why does it always seem to happen this way? We choose to leave.
In the late afternoon, we make a visit to the hummingbird sanctuary. 17 different kinds of hummingbirds and great capuchino to boot; can the world possibly get any better than this? We also learn about a place nearby where it’s possible to see condors. How cool is that? Think about the concept. Hummingbirds and Condors in the same general area; just plain awesome. It almost seems like I belong here. Nevertheless, we do not stay. Time runs short. The earth continues to spin and the road calls us onward. We buy bus tickets that evening and leave it all behind the following morning.