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Published: August 9th 2011
There was never a more pitiful creature than the mule. Forced to be the “work horses” of society--without any of the gratitude or title. Whipped. Prodded. Mistreated. If ever there was an animal that ought to stage an uprising against humans, surely it is the mule. With these thoughts--and perhaps as an atonement for all of humankind--I lean forward and pat my mule on the neck, saying a comforting “muy bueno, mula.” The tenderness of the moment is shattered seconds later as the man behind me whips my mule with a rope and commands, “Vas, Mamacita! Vas, mula!” (“Go, little mama! Go, mule!). Mamacita, the mule, turns her ears backward, gives a slight snort of disapproval, and reluctantly snaps back into action.
Lesson learned, I think. This is what you get for not taking better care of your feet. At that moment, my foot slips out of the stir up. This has happened a few times and each time is unnerving. My dangling foot desperately searches for the comfort of the stir up--but only succeeds in slightly kicking the mule in the ribs. We skirt too closely to a rock and the torque of this causes the quarter-sized blisters on
my feet to burn. I whince and steal a quick glance to my right. The steep canyon wall falls below me. With each step, gravel tumbles down the narrow path and skips its way to the canyon floor. Just don’t look down, I tell myself.
The silvery-blue river and the cluster of bungalows its waters feed, grow tiny as we ascend. When I have the nerve to look away from the path ahead, I am awestruck. The pale blue sky is doted with the occasional presense of the mighty Andean condor, tiny rural villages cling to the terraced rock, seemingly-endless colonies of agave and cactus grip the walls, a series of dusty trails snake around the base of the canyon, and the cascading hues of the fading sunlight transform the rock into a show of purples, reds, and oranges. This is really spectacular. Colca Canyon, located in southern Peru, lays claim to the title of “world’s deepest canyon,” which I am pretty sure isn’t entirely accurate, but I can believe that this is one of the world’s deepest canyons.
After a long descent into the canyon and negotiating the steep narrow trails, my feet are finished. No amount
of Ibprophene nor Aquaphor can change the past. I am grateful that there is another way of this canyon. This is sort of luxurious. I don’t even have to walk out. I can skip the final 3 hour 4,000 feet ascent. I only need to sacrifice a little pride and stomach a terrifying mule ride. I leave Pierce, our guide, Remy, and the Dutch teenager, Guido, at the bottom of the canyon. Our heaviest items are loaded on to my back and Pierce snaps a few pictures as I am hoisted on to the mule. Somehow, I find myself as the lead of our mule train to the top. I am followed by three Peruvian tourists and then the local man who owns the mules.
I take the ride as an opportunity to practice my burgeoning-Spanish skills. I stumble through phrases and questions. I ask the mule’s owner if the “speaks” Spanish or Quecha (the indigenous language of Peru). The man replies in broken Spanish (as it is not his first language either) that the mule prefers Quecha. I only know one phrase in Quecha, which is a greeting I am told. This won’t do me any good with the mule. We periodically pass local people descending into the canyon and I greet them with my phrase “Alli yanchu?” (“How are you?” in Quecha). They reply in Quecha, but--of course--I have no idea what they are saying. It’s all I can do to converse in Spanish with my Peruvian compadres, greet a handful of people in Quecha, and hang on to the mule. My brain can’t really juggle any more than this.
When we finally reach the top of the canyon, the mule’s owner insists that we “de-mule” immediately and demands his payment. I hand him the 60 Soles and he is gone--my mule trotting at a good clip and kicking up dust as they disappear. As I get my bearings, I note my surroundings. The sun is setting. I am atop a huge canyon. Before me stretches an endless vista of terraced fields where quinoa and potatoes are grown by the locals. My three Peruvian escorts have agreed to show me the way back to the town--which is a good thing--as I have no idea where I am. They tell me tales of people getting lost in the terraces and I believe them.
We walk in a single file line for 20 minutes through the golden terraces, talking about the sun, kicking up fine powder below our feet, and savoring the final moments of our journey. It really is sort of magical, I think. My legs are sore, my feet are burning, and my arms are tight, but none of these can steal my attention from this moment. I listen to the musical sounds of Spanish and happily trot along after my Peruvian escorts. I feel vulnerable--in a foreign country, with strangers, navigating an otherworldly land--but I also feel alive.
We arrive into the town and part ways. I wander the streets and search for my hotel. I am joined by an intimidating-looking pitbull dog who seems to only wish to shepard me to safety. At long last, I arrive. I thank the dog and tell him goodbye. I dust off my boots. I straighten my pack. I take a deep breath and pass through the hotel door. I have made it--thanks to a mule and three kindly Peruvian men. As I make my way to my room, I think of my mule and say a quiet thank you--sending my gratitude across the great space of the canyon and beyond. Today is the mule’s day--and it’s about time.
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