The X-Zone (In Memory of Christina)

The X-Zone (In Memory of Christina)

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“We smiled + laughed + it was good.” -Christina Jenkins

Prologue

For this post I am skipping ahead to the story of my last day in Peru… the last day I would spend with my friend Christina… the day we explored the caves and tunnels of the ancient Incan site known as the X-Zone.

When I got the news that Christina died in Peru on November 5, 2016 my heart broke. I’ve been trying to sort through the pieces ever since.

I  linger among my memories of Christina, trying to write them down so that I can keep the cruel sands of time from sweeping them away. I don’t want to forget. I don’t want the sound of her laughter to fade from my ears. I want to remember, and I want you to know how amazing she was… I keep thinking that if I find the right words I’ll be able to show you the Christina that I knew, but my words keep failing me.

Christina was a free spirit. She refused to let life box her in, so I shouldn’t be surprised that her spirit refuses to be caged in by my clumsy words now that she’s gone. If she were here she’d encourage me to take the time and space I needed to grieve, but she would also gleefully dance in and around my ‘word cage,’ laughing and sticking her tongue out at me while she doused it with glitter, rainbows, and ponies. Eventually I would have realized the futility of my efforts. Then I would have turned to her with eyes wide, feigning as much uncertainty (and innocence) as I could muster, and say, “I think I might not be able to capture your spirit in words.” I can imagine how she would roll her eyes at me, gesture that it was about time that I figured that one out, and say, “Ya, think!”

I realize that my words will never be right. I’ll never be able to describe Christina’s incredible spirit to you, but I hope that you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of it here and there as it dances around my broken words. The story of our adventures at the X-Zone is the only story I seem to be able to tell right now, and it feels strangely fitting for it to come before its time.

Christina following a path towards the tunnels of the X-Zone (Photo by Jari Jarvela)

“A Pachamama,” I said as I popped the cork and poured the first sip of Prosecco onto the ground as an offering to the Earth. “A Christina,” my voice wavered as I said her name and began pouring a second offering of champagne onto the ground. My voice cracked, “Te amo,” and I finished the pour with tears leaking from the corners of my eyes and down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe she was really gone, that I’d come back from my trip to Peru, but that she wouldn’t. I took a deep breath and lifted my glass, “a vida, a aventuras, a sueñas y glitter, a todo que fue, y todo que será.” I drank my my sip of the Prosecco and stared up at the moon lost in grief and memories.

“Cloud bed, I missed you!” Christina said smiling as she threw herself onto the impossibly comfortable bed at the posh El Convento hotel in Cusco. I flopped down beside her, my body sinking into the fluffy white comforter. After spending 13 days sleeping in a tent and trekking through the Andes among strangers (some of whom became friends), it was really nice to relax and have a slumber party with an old friend  in a place that had the most comfortable beds in the whole wide world. The extra oxygen they were pumping into the room to help offset the effects of altitude probably didn’t hurt either!

A beautiful bit of serendipity had led Christina and I to the convent in Cusco where we were having our slumber party and planning our adventures. Christina had come to Peru to volunteer at a center for women and children recovering from abuse in Cusco, and I was there to trek through the Andes and to visit Machu Piccu. We didn’t realize that we were both going to be in the same city at the same time until I reached out to Christina on the off-hand chance that she might like to join me in fulfilling the dreams of visiting Peru that we’d talked about almost a decade earlier.

During our time in Peru Christina and I celebrated our friendship, roasted marshmallows, discussed our journeys through darker times, and rejoiced that the paths we were on seemed to be leading us to better, happier places. It was the first time in a long time that we were both experiencing an upswing in the roller coaster called life at the same time and we were making the most of it.

“We could go explore the X-zone tomorrow,” I proposed almost immediately. I’d been intrigued by the Inca/pre-Inca site from the moment Christina first mentioned it a few weeks earlier. Heading to the mountains to explore a network of caves and tunnels steeped in mystery and mysticism seemed like the perfect adventure for us!

“You are so predictable,” Christina laughed as we pulled out our cell phones to try to solve the X-Zone’s first mystery: it’s location. The directions we found were just about as clear as mud, but when Christina discovered the GPS coordinates for the X-Zone (13°29’47.1″S, 71°58’26.5″W) we decided to go for it. We’d try to find the mysterious X-Zone in the morning and we’d invite my new friend Jari (the Finnish writer I met during my trek through the Andes) to come with us.

An alpaca in the hills above Cusco

“Aqui?” asked the cab driver looking skeptical as he stopped the cab. Jari, Christina, and I had asked thim to drop us off in the middle of an abandoned field high in the hills above Cusco, miles away from the nearest tourists. The cab driver seemed less than thrilled by the idea.”Sí,” we replied, eager to get out of the cab and start on our adventure. The cab driver continued to look dubious and, switching to English to make sure there wasn’t some sort of misunderstanding, said, “Here? Are you sure?” Christina and I each assured him that were sure. We paid the fare, and started getting out of the cab, thinking that the discussion was over. It wasn’t.

The cab driver turned pointedly to Jari, “Are you really sure?” Jari seemed startled by the sudden attention and puzzled by the question since it had already been asked, and unambiguously answered, multiple times and in multiple languages. Jari turned to me and Christina looking to us to answer, beseeching us with the silent question, “What am I missing here?”

Photo of Jari, Christina, and I at the X-Zone (taken by Christina)

As soon as Jari turned to us for the answer, Christina and I started to giggle and the cab drivers shoulders began to sag. The cab driver was finally realizing that even though Jari was male, he wasn’t secretly in charge, and the answer to the question wasn’t going to change. While Christina mumbled something about smashing the patriarchy, I assured the cab driver that we definitely wanted to be dropped off exactly where we were, in the middle of the field.

Still shaking his head, the cab driver reluctantly drove away. As we watched him disappear (driving at about 1 mile an hour in case we decided to change our minds and chase down the cab) Christina and I couldn’t help but laugh… the absurdity of the whole situation was overwhelming.

Looking out at Cusco from the base of the X-ZOne

After regaining our composure we starting walking up the road. The X-Zone was supposed to be located in one of the rocky outcroppings on the far side of the fields, but the nearest fields were all cordoned off with barbed wire. Hopping barbed wire fences was not on the list of approved adventure activities for the day, so we continued up the road.

About 200 feet after we passed the last of the barbed wire, we left the road and set off across the fields. Accompanied by friends (both old and new), I was in my happy place as we walked through the hills without a trail, and without a care. The sky was blue and beautiful, the air was clean and clear, the day was warm, and the terrain was gorgeous. I was loving every minute of it! In truth, I wasn’t in a hurry to find the X-Zone… The sooner we found it, the sooner our adventure would be over, and I didn’t want our adventure to be over.

In retrospect, it was nothing short of a miracle that we managed to find the X-Zone. Even though we knew exactly where it was (we had its GPS coordinates), our technology had stopped working as soon as we got outside of the city limits so we had no sense of scale, and there were at least half a dozen rocky outcroppings that all seemed equally likely to house the X-Zone.

We weren’t exactly lost, but we didn’t exactly know where we were either.

The dry fields we were cutting through as we followed the directions from the herdsman (unbeknownst to us we were heading away from the X-Zone instead of towards it)

As we looked around uncertainly we spotted a herdsman resting in the shade and eating lunch. He seemed rather entertained by the sudden appearance of our motley crew. “¿Sabes donde estan las grutas?” (Do you know where the caves are?) I asked him. “Sí,” he replied, pointing to a rocky outcropping on the hill above us.

When we arrived at that rocky outcropping we were disappointed to discover its distinct lack of caves. It wasn’t the X-Zone. Perhaps the herdsman had been pointing to an outcropping further up the hill? We hoped that was the case, as we continued picking our way through the eucalyptus trees towards the next rocky outcropping.

Looking through the rocks of the X-Zone to the hills of Cusco beyond

The next person I asked for directions was the guide for a group of tourists exploring the hillside on horseback. He seemed irritated by our presence and replied gruffly, “Go home, hire a guide, and come back to look for the X-Zone tomorrow.” When I explained to him that I was getting on a plane to return to the United States later that day, he reluctantly pointed us towards the X-Zone.

We followed the new directions back down the hill, bushwhacking through another forest of eucalyptus trees, and scrambling through the rocks until we stumbled into a small clearing. As we entered the clearing we interrupted the romantic entanglements of a pair of teenagers. “Ah, so cute!” Christina squeezed my shoulder while embodying the cute. “I know, right?” I replied. Unfortunately they seemed embarrassed by our presence and quickly drew apart.

Our real focus was the rocky outcropping above us. Had we finally found the X-Zone? As we stood in the middle of the clearing wondering if this was it, two guys emerged from what looked like the opening of a cave. We’d found it!

Excited, but ever practical, Christina insisted that we stop and have a picnic before exploring the caves. We’d worked up our appetites with all of the gallivanting we’d done!

Christina checking out the view of Sacsauhuaman from amidst the rocks of the X-Zone

The men descending from the caves approached us. Carefully ignoring Jari and I, the one covered in talismans and crystals, looked directly at Christina and said, “You are obviously a very spiritual person. You are here to visit the X-Zone, yes?” She smiled, said yes, and they had a short conversation.

“That was odd,” I remarked as he walked away. Christina nodded her head, “Yeah, I end up having a lot of weird conversations like that. It’s because of my tattoos.” I looked at her, still puzzled.

“My tattoos, especially this part,” she explained as she rotated her arm and showed us the colorful red and orange circles/rings on her elbow. “People seem to associate my tattoos with Pachamama (Mother Earth/The Earth Goddess) and believe that I honor her with them. That’s why that guy looked at me and said that I was obviously a very spiritual person.”

Evidence of Inca/Pre-Inca stonework at the X-Zone

After we finished basking in the sun and eating our lunch, we began exploring the caves and tunnels of the X-Zone. Everyone else had left by then and we had the tunnels to ourselves.

As we entered the shade of the caves we marveled at the signs of Inca/Pre-Inca civilizations that had used the caves in centuries past. It is believed that the caves and tunnels of the X-Zone (also known as Lanlakuyuq) were of special importance in Inca times because they directly connected visitors between two of the three worlds of the Inca belief system: Kay Pacha (this world) and Ukhu Pacha (the world below).

Fresh coca leaves left as an offering to Pachamama in a natural crevasse in the rock

Throughout the tunnels and caves of the X-Zone were small offerings of coca leaves from modern times that had been carefully tucked into crevices of the rock, and left for Pachamama. Although I’d never heard of Pachamama before visiting Peru, the sense of reverence and respect for nature associated with the offerings to Pachamama were powerful to observe and something that I could identify with at some level.

Christina leading the way through one of the tunnels at the X-Zone

As we wandered through the X-Zone we were constantly discovering new tunnels and caves. Each time we discovered a new path, one of us would volunteer to check it out, and we’d take turns disappearing into the darkness of the unknown. The rest of us would wait eagerly to hear the first reports of what lay ahead.

We never knew whether we’d find a new route, a dead end, evidence of ancient Inca civilizations, or something else entirely. The only thing we knew for sure was that it would be interesting.

“The rock formations in there are really cool!” exclaimed Christina as she emerged from the darkness. “I went as far as I felt comfortable going, but I bet Jari could squeeze his way through even more,” she she said laughing. Jari seemed to delight in squeezing himself through the tiniest of spaces, which was pretty entertaining to watch.

One of the narrow cracks that Jari and I squeezed ourselves through at the X-Zone

As Jari disappeared into the darkness, Christina turned towards me. She confided that she was a bit claustrophobic, but loved the way the no pressure dynamic we had allowed her to explore her fears (and these spaces) as much or as little as she wanted. I confessed that I have a touch of claustrophobia too, but that most of the caves and tunnels I’ve explored haven’t been small enough for it to be a problem.

As we went deeper into the X-Zone it didn’t take long for me to find a tunnel that pushed me right up to the edge of my comfort zone… A series of ancient stone steps plunged steeply into the belly of the earth on the path branching to the left. My curiosity piqued, I asked if I could be the first one to explore this tunnel. After following the steps down into the darkness, the tunnel turned sharply to the left, and the last of the light and sound from the surface faded away. I turned my headlamp on, and snapped a rushed photo of the stairs behind me before excitedly pressing forward to explore more of the tunnel.

Inca stairs in a tunnel at the X-Zone

At the base of the stairs, the tunnel widened enough for two people to stand side by side, but quickly narrowed, and was barely wide enough for me to walk through it comfortably. My small headlamp illuminated the way as the path continued downwards at a gently grade. After descending about 10 paces (30-40 feet) it looked like I’d come to a dead end. I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more to explore, but it was still pretty amazing. I gazed upwards, marveling at the beauty and texture of the rock, listening to the silence of the darkness, and wondering how far below the surface of the Earth I was because I truly had no idea.

Looking at the rock formations above me I noticed that there was a crack in the wall of the tunnel to my right. My gaze followed it down and I was surprised to discover that the trail hadn’t come to a dead-end! It just took a sharp right into an impossibly narrow looking crack. I eyed the crack carefully. The upper portion of it was too narrow for me to squeeze through, but it flared open just a little bit towards the bottom, and the floor of the crack was well-worn from (presumably) human traffic.

One of the tight squeezes at the X-Zone

The average-sized Quechuan person would probably have no trouble crawling through that opening, but it wasn’t clear that the same would be true for me so I got down on my hands and knees and looked more carefully at the opening…

The flared section at the bottom looked to be around 15-16 inches high and extended into the crack about 3 feet (~1m) before opening up into an area that would be wide enough and tall enough for me to stand up in. I could definitely squeeze my way through it, but I’d need to crawl/wriggle through some of that space on my belly, “pecho a tierra.” As I thought about it, a wave of panic quickly washed over me and I reflexively looked back along my path of retreat, towards the exit.

Nothing had changed, the path was still clear. I reminded myself that I was still okay, and the panic faded away. I took a deep breath and weighed my fears against my desire to keep exploring. Throwing caution to the wind, I lowered myself onto my belly and squirmed through the opening.

A tricky maneuver in one of the cracks at the X-Zone

After squeezing through the narrow stretch, I stood up with a sense of exhilaration. I made it and I was still okay! Smiling, I looked around at my newly discovered world. It was small, and I was definitely pushing at the edges of my comfort zone, but I was still on the fun side of that boundary.

I gave the crack ahead of me a calculating look. It seemed like it was way too narrow at the base for me to navigate, but it looked like it might be possible to climb up a few feet and squeeze through the upper portion. That seemed a bit risky though… especially since there were no indications that the crack would widen again.

If I’d been with a guide that could assure me that the crack was passable and safe, I may have been able to push through my claustrophobia enough to keep exploring the crack… maybe. As it was, continuing to follow the crack seemed dangerous and stupid. I decided that I would quit while I was ahead and spend a moment enjoying the space that I had discovered.

“Are you okay??” Christina’s muffled voice, barely audible, broke through the silence. “Yes!” I replied into the darkness. “Are you okay??” Christina repeated, clearly unable to hear me from where she stood at the entrance of the cave.

I dropped down onto my belly, squirmed through the crawl space until I could project my voice into the wider part of the tunnel and repeated, “yes!” I finished crawling through the space, stood up, and shouted, “I’m okay,” into the silence.

“Okay!” replied Christina, her voice still muted but much louder now.

The entrance (left) to the longest/deepest tunnel I explored at the X-Zone

“I’m on my way!” I exclaimed as I headed back towards the mouth of the cave. “There’s enough space in here for two if one of you wants to come down,” I continued. I’d forgotten that I’d asked  Christina and Jari to wait for me at the entrance of the cave. I’d been worried that if my claustrophobia reared it’s ugly head I might need to be able to make a hasty exit from the tunnel, and that would be impossible for me to do while someone else was descending into it. Luckily my comfort level had grown, and that thought no longer worried me.

Jari descended into the tunnel and almost instantly disappeared into the darkness beyond me. As I reached the foot of the stairs leading out of the cave I paused and looked around again. This section was wider and much more spacious than I remembered. “Christina, do you want to come down too? I think this section is wide enough that it’s probably within your comfort zone.” I was feeling reluctant to emerge from the cave, so was glad when she decided to come down and join me.

Christina’s ankle was bothering her, so she descended slowly and cautiously. “Yeah, this is fine,” she said once she reached me. Then, before turning her gaze to the walls of the tunnel, she gave me a quick and impulsive hug, “You were down there so long, and your voice was so muffled, I was starting to worry about you! I’m glad you’re okay!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how long I was gone!” Time had disappeared in the darkness and silence of the cave and I had absolutely no idea how long I’d been down there.

Inca stairs leading down through a tunnel at the X-Zone

As Christina and Jari finished exploring the tunnel I began poking around the adjacent tunnel. It was much shorter, following a number of Inca stairs up into a smallish clearing on the side of the hill. It didn’t seem like it went anywhere interesting, so I descended and waited for Christina and Jari to finish exploring. As I waited, I checked the time and was surprised and saddened to learn that it was already late afternoon. I was going to have to head back to Cusco soon :(

“I’m going to have to come back here!” Christina exclaimed as she emerged from the cave beaming.

“By the way…” she said as Jari emerged from the cave and the three of us prepared to leave the area. “Did you notice this?” She pointed to some small white letters painted on a rock near the entrance of the tunnel we’d just been exploring. Jari responded while I moved closer, “Yeah, I saw that before. Do you think it’s official, or is it just graffiti?” The words, which were carefully painted in all caps about 1 inch high, said, “NO ENTRAR,” (DO NOT ENTER).

In general I think of myself as being very observant, but I hadn’t noticed the fine lettering either on my way into- or on my way out of- the tunnel. My heart sunk. I was pretty sure that it was official because of the way the rock had been scraped away to make an uncharacteristically smooth surface in just that one spot, and because the size, styling, color, and type of paint didn’t seem typical of graffiti.

“I think it’s probably official,” I confessed, feeling especially guilty because I was glad I hadn’t seen it until after I’d explored the tunnels. I view myself as a trail ambassador, so I wouldn’t have felt comfortable knowingly violating the (presumed) property owner’s wishes if I’d seen it before.

“I thought it was probably graffiti,” shrugged Jari. Perhaps we were just seeing our own biases? As a scientist I thought it was written by an archeologist, and as someone that writes about graffiti, Jari thought it was graffiti. We looked expectantly at Christina, she would be our tie-breaker.

She looked at us and burst out laughing, “I don’t know, but if it’s graffiti, it’s f***ing brilliant!”

She turned to me, “Don’t you have a plane to catch? Let’s get moving.” She was right, I did have a plane to catch, but exploring the X-Zone was a lot more fun than sitting in an airplane. “Fine!” I said, sticking out my tongue out at her and laughing.

“Let’s go that way,” I said pointing towards a tunnel that we hadn’t explored yet, but that seemed like it would lead us vaguely back towards the point where the taxi had dropped us off. I was definitely procrastinating. We’d worked plenty of buffer into our schedule, so we still had plenty of time left… or, perhaps more accurately, we weren’t out of time yet ;)

Emerging from the tunnel we were presented with a choice: we could either squeeze through the lower doorway to the right (which seemed to lead us back away from the road), or we could climb the steep narrow stairs that started partway up the rock on the right…

“Are those actually stairs?” asked Christina skeptically.

“Hmmm… probably? What else would they be?” I said looking at the stairs carefully to make sure that I wouldn’t damage them by climbing them. “I’ll go check them out!” I offered selflessly… Yeah, I was definitely procrastinating.

The high road or the low road at the x-zone

“The view from here is pretty good,” I told Jari and Christina as I reached the top of the stairs. Hopping to a rock a little bit higher up, I gained a spectacular view of the golden hills surrounding us. I was near the top of the rocky outcropping, and at this altitude the horizon looked even further away than usual.

I didn’t realize quite how far up I’d scrambled until I looked back down into the craggy chasm and saw Christina nervously eyeing the steep stairs. “I think it might not be a good idea for you with your ankle,” I admitted to Christina as I headed back towards the top of the stairs. I figured I’d head back down to Christina as soon as Jari finished coming up.

Christina looking dubious and deciding not no, but heck no

When I got over to the stairs, however, I noticed that Jari had stopped, and was gingerly dabbing at the top of his head. “Jari?” I asked, looking at him and sensing that something was wrong. He was so distracted he didn’t notice.

“He just slammed his head into the rock,” Christina explained. Jari remained silent, focusing on the task of climbing the remaining stairs. Christina broke the silence to say, “It was a pretty good hit.” If Christina thought it was a good hit I was definitely worried.

As Jari approached the top, he looked up at me. As soon as our eyes met I knew that Christina was right. Jari’s expression remained stoic, but his eyes spoke volumes. Normally they were full of intensity, regardless of whether they were sparkling with laughter, flaring with irritation, or hardened into a steely focus… That intensity was always there, but not this time. His gaze was directed but unfocused, and I wasn’t 100% sure he was seeing me. I hoped that the only thing hiding behind those eyes was pain, but I had no idea how hard he’d hit his head, or what kind of injury we might be dealing with.

As I helped him to his feet he distractedly lifted his hand and gingerly touched his scalp. I reflexively asked, “Is it bleeding?”

“Yes,” he said, turning his head towards me and meeting my gaze, “quite a bit.” That was his way of saying that it hurt like a motherf***er. I breathed a sigh of relief. Jari was responsive and his eyes were focused and reactive. That was really good news.

“Would you like me to take a look at it?” He nodded. There wasn’t enough space at the top of the stairs where we were, so I suggested a suitable rock just a couple feet of way. “Let’s go over there.”

I looked down to check-in with Christina. “Yeah, no,” she quipped. “I’m not going up there… Nope. No way,” she said with an air of infallible certainty. “I’m good, I’ll wait for you down here.” It seemed like a prudent decision to me, so I nodded and turned my attention back to Jari.

I led him over to a slightly larger space, sat him down on a rock, and took a look at the gash on his head. It was about an inch and a half long, and although I didn’t think it needed stitches, it looked like it might leave a scar. “Would you like me to clean it up for you?” I asked. There were some small bits of rock and grit in the open wound that really needed to be dealt with. With Jari’s consent, I moved to the other side of him, put down my backpack, and started taking out my first-aid kit…

“Jocelynin lääkekassi muistuttaa kulma-apteekin ja kenttäsairaalan yhdistelmää, saan häneltä pikakurssin ödeemaisen ihmisen elvyttämiseen. Keuhkojen hapenottokykyä hän on mitannut koko porukalta kahdesti päivässä oksimetrillä.” -Jari Järvelä in Tintinä Andeilla for Suomen Kuvalehti

“Jocelyn’s first-aid kit seemed like a combination of a field hospital and the corner pharmacy…” -rough translation from the Finnish article “Tintina Andeilla” by Jari Järvelä

Suddenly a security guard materialized in the clearing below us,”¡Bájense!”(Get down from there!), he bellowed. I apologized immediately, and told him we’d come down. The security guard pulled out his walkie-talkie and called someoen. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was clearly unhappy.

I paused to weigh my options… On one hand, I was dealing with an angry guard. On the other hand I was dealing with a head wound. Since the guard wasn’t pointing a gun at me, and cleaning the detritus out of Jari’s wound before it scabbed over would be much better than doing it later, I decided to deal with Jari’s injury first. Besides, I’ve never been good at following orders :-P

I felt the guards impatient gaze upon me as I slowly and carefully prodded at Jari’s gash, dislodging the grit and cleaning it up as best I could. Despite the pain, Jari remained stoic and unflinchingly still, which was surprising until I remembered that he was ex-military.

While I cleaned up Jari’s gash, I thought about how we were going to get down from the rocks. Scrambling down the way we’d come up seemed like a fantastically bad idea given the circumstances, but I didn’t want to get separated from Christina either. After I finished getting Jari cleaned up I looked back down at Christina. Although she couldn’t see the guard, she’d heard him yell at us. “How about I just meet you around front?” she offered.

“That could work,” I replied. “It looks like there’s another way down from up here, so I could meet up with you at the front of the outcropping.” I felt uncomfortable splitting up our small group, but in this case it seemed wise. “Are you sure that’s okay?” I asked, double-checking that Christina was really okay with this plan.

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She rolled her eyes at me just a little bit, as she said, “Of course.” Christina was like me: if she said she was okay with something, she was. We both smiled, knowing that if our positions were reversed we would have had the exact same conversation. I turned my attention back to Jari and we started making our way down through the rocks.

“Get down from there!” the guard repeated as soon as Jari and I started moving. “Yes, yes, we’re coming down,” I replied wondering how the guard could imagine we were doing anything else. “Don’t you know this area is closed?” he continued, pointing to the sign in the clearing beside him, which read, “Cerrado, área en mantenimiento” (Closed, maintenance area). He clearly wasn’t sure how we could have ended up where we were without seeing that sign.

“Lo siento,” I apologized again and admitted (truthfully) that we had come in from the other side and hadn’t seen the sign. As Jari and I continued our descent, Christina emerged from down below and approached the guard. She offered to pay any admission fees that we might have missed due to our round-about approach to the site. She wouldn’t knowingly evade the tourist fees because she believed that we should do our part in supporting the local archeological sites (I agreed). Although that seemed to placate the guard, he continued to watch Jari and I like a hawk. At least he’d stopped interrogating us, which was definitely an improvement.

“Maybe you’ll end up with an unexpected souvenir from this trip,” I commented, looking back at Jari. He seemed to be feeling much better, but was completed befuddled by my non sequitur. “Oh,” I said smiling as I realized that I was channeling my mother, “If you end up with a scar, it’ll be an unexpected souvenir.” He smiled as I went on to tell the story of how I’d fallen during my PCT thru-hike and broken my nose, and that my mom’s reaction had been to ask if the fall had given me a ‘souvenir’ (most people can’t tell, but I did end up with a ‘souvenir’ from that fall).

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When we finally reached the clearing where the guard was waiting for us we asked him about the best way to get back to Cusco from there. He was eyeing us impatiently, but explained that we needed to, “Follow the path through the trees over there,” while waving off towards the right. We set off in what we thought was the correct direction.

“No, not that way!” the guard yelled, clearly exasperated. “Over there,” he pointed and waved to a different spot. It was not even a little bit clear where the path he wanted us to follow was located, but we tried again.

“No,” the guard replied again, “you see, over there, the path goes over there!” Even then it wasn’t clear to us, but the guard clearly thought that there was a path, and that there was both a right way, and a wrong way, for us to leave the clearing. 

We continued this comical dance of taking a couple steps towards what we thought was the path, looking to the guard, having him redirect us, and then trying again until we finally made it out of the clearing and into the safety of the eucalyptus trees.

“Well, that certainly ought to have convinced the guard that our story about getting lost was believable,” Christina blurted out as we hiked down the narrow dirt path. “You’re not wrong,” I laughed, and within a few seconds we were all laughing so hard we couldn’t walk and had to stop and take a break.

After we escaped from the clearing it seemed like the hands of time sped up. Before we knew it we were walking along the road back to Cusco contemplating the chances that an empty cab might happen by, and trying to decide if we’d be better off hitchhiking or walking the rest of the way into the city. While we were contemplating which bad plan was our best plan we happened upon a Quechuan woman and her son standing expectantly by the side of the road.

“¿Está esperando un taxi?” (Are you waiting for a cab?) we asked. She shook her head, “No.” Then after a moments pause she continued,  “Estoy esperando el autobús” (I’m waiting for the bus). In an amazing stroke of luck, the was due within moments, and it would take us almost exactly where we needed to go.

As Christina, Jari, and I climbed onto the bus I turned to take one last look back at the rocky outcropping of the X-Zone. I didn’t want my adventures in Peru to end, and I didn’t want to say good-bye to my friends, but I had a plane to catch.


Epilogue

The first weekend of November (2016), was the first big adventure I went on after returning from the X-Zone and my adventures in Peru: a solo backpacking trip to the White Mountains where I climbed 4 of New Hampshire’s acclaimed 4000 footers (North Tripyramid, Middle Tripyramid, Whiteface, and Passaconaway). I trudged through the crusty snow, my head in a cloud of icy fog, feeling more intensely alive than I had in weeks. I pitched my tent in a snow-covered clearing, ate a simple dinner of mac-and-cheese with tuna, and curled up to sleep, happy and content. As I drifted off to sleep I imagined Christina laughing as I tried to explain to her how sleeping on the wet, cold, snowy ground after a dinner of processed mac and cheese could possible be defined as ‘fun’ and not just ‘miserable.’ She would have hated it!

That same weekend Christina was also off on an adventure. Her time volunteering at the women’s shelter in Cusco had just ended, and she was enjoying her final days in Peru at a spiritual retreat in the Sacred Valley. While enjoying Pisco Sours and causas (a layered potato dish typical of Peruvian cuisine that Christina loved), Christina had explained to me that she was hoping the guided shamanic journeys at the retreat would help her integrate her experiences in Peru (her work, her activism, her newfound joy of solo adventuring et al) with her life going forward. She was looking forward to the new world she was going to create for herself when she returned to the United States, and was confident that the retreat would leave her feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on whatever it was that the world would throw at her next.

On Sunday night (November 6), I returned from my adventure, exhausted, but feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on life’s challenges… I crawled into my bed, which was so warm and comfortable that it felt like a little slice of heaven, and started drifting off to sleep. Mere moments before becoming completely unrousable my phone rang.

Half-asleep, I answered it. It was the late night phone call that everyone dreads. Christina was dead. Still groggy, I hung up the phone, incapable of believing what I’d just been told… Moments later a fitful sleep overtook me.

I awoke the next morning, uncertain whether the call had been real or imagined. My mind rejected the unbearable truth. I prepared for, and then gave a talk to a room full of colleagues at 10 am. It had to be done. It went well. Christina and I had always been able to do what had to be done… It’s what we did… But we had also learned the hard way that we needed to allow ourselves time and space to grieve.

On November 8th I dragged myself to the polls amidst my grief and voted. It needed to be done. The next day, as my liberal friends mourned the loss of the country, I mourned the loss of my friend. I wanted to shout at them, “America isn’t dead! Maybe she’s different than what you thought she was, but she’s not gone!” Sobbing, I’d finish with a whimper, “Christina is dead! No matter how much I fight, I can’t get her back!”

In fact, just getting Christina’s body back to the United States turned out to be an ordeal. Memorial services for Christina were delayed as the people closest to her dealt with the repatriation of her mortal remains… It took longer than it should. Finally her body was returned to US soil, and on December 10th we were able to hold a Memorial service for her in a small space just outside of Boston.

As I prepared for the services I struggled to find words to describe what Christina had meant to me. During a rough patch in her life, my ex-husband and I had welcomed Christina into our home, and she’d transitioned from being one of my friends to being one of my sisters. Like my little brothers, she teased me mercilessly and helped me learn to take myself less seriously. She also knew that when the sh** hit the fan she could count on me to wade through it, stand by her, and help her clean it up. It’s what we did.

So, what did Christina mean to me? When I tried to distill my words into thoughts, they came out as fragments, and I ended up with was this poem:

“Be the TROUBLE you want to see in the world”

A mischievous twinkle in her eye

Suddenly a ridiculous adventure

Butterfly wings and glitter

Happiness found

Embrace the whimsy, the joy

It is okay to play!

TROUBLE is fun

“Be the CHANGE you want to see in the world”

Strong and in charge

Life is messy

The work is never done

Embrace the challenge, the tears

Fight for what you love

CHANGE is hard

“Embrace the power of BOTH”

This isn’t the Highlander

There can be more than one

Be trouble, be change

Discover more options

Responsible and fun

Whimsical and strong

Laughter and tears

Glitter and Grit

BOTH is better

I miss her, and I don’t expect that to change. She has been woven into the fiber of my life and my being. She was family, and the love I have for my family is unconditional and unfettered by bounds between life and death.

Christina and I causing ‘trouble’ in 2009 (Photo by David Green).


The words Christina used to describe herself were, “survivor. radical. traveler. she/her. leaping. healing. glitter + grit.”
“Love, as I am often heard saying, is a verb. To love involves choices + acts,  including – perhaps, especially – difficult ones. Love is showing up when it is hard. Love is saying no when it is the true choice for you. And love is using our voices, speaking up + calling out, when needed.” -Christina Jenkins

“I love writing. I love finding my words, using my voice, sharing + listening. Writing is a form of visibility that is both a privilege + a way to continue showing up for radical social justice.” – Christina Jenkins

Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1)

Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1)

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“Slow,” responded our guide with brutal honesty, “You are are very slow.”

He had tried to get a way with the politely evasive answer, “Hard to say,” when the woman with the baseball cap and jaunty step had asked him how the pace of our group rated, but she’d persisted. She’d even given him options to choose from, “Would you say that our group’s pace  is pretty average? Is it faster than usual? Is it slower? How would you say our group is doing compared to other groups that you’ve guided?”

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We stopped and looked back towards the rest of our group, many of whom were so far back that we couldn’t see them. Our guide shook his head, “Today we have gone only down, and still you are very slow.” He looked across the river at the switchbacks we’d be climbing in the morning, “Tomorrow we go up.” A vague note of concern in the guide’s voice as he discussed the slowness of the group drew my attention to the position of the sun in the sky… it would be setting soon. Suddenly the guides concern with the slowness of the group became clear.

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Blue agave by the side of the trail as we descended towards the Apurimac River

Although I’d noticed that our group was slow, I hadn’t thought much about it. I’d been soaking up the beautiful and exotic views of the altiplano (high andean desert) with the mountainous cloud forests off in the distance. In short, I’d been lost in the timeless beauty of the Andean mountains…

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A cliff covered with hundreds of bromeliads

Hiking through the altiplano reminded me of trekking through the Sonoran desert on the PCT in California with its dusty trails, distant forest fires, desert scrub, prickly pear cactus, giant blue agave (American agave; an invasive from Mexico and central America), and tall columnar cactus (unlike the columnar cactus in the Sonoran desert, these Peruvian cacti contain mescaline). There was also a succulent that the guide referred to as Inca agave, which was used in Inca times to make cloth and rope (it looked so much like yucca, I couldn’t  believe it was agave; it turns out that it is fourcroya/furcreaea andina).

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Heading into a steep switchback surrounded by cacti

I was also captivated by new-to-me sights, like hundreds of bromeliads growing on the faces of cliffs, and a tree that looked like it was straight out of a Dr. Seuss book (a Ceiba/Kapok tree).

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A Ceiba/Kapok tree with it’s cottony puff balls

When I took a minute to stop to think about it, I realized that it had been taking us (as a group) an awful long time to descend the 6 miles (~10km) down to camp. Since we were descending more than 4400ft (~1350m) and it was only day 1 of a 12-day trek, I didn’t mind going a bit slower than usual (it would really suck to sprain an ankle or twist a knee on a loose rock on day 1)!

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Trail sign saying, “Danger Landslide Zone,” indicating no headphone use

Despite the large drop in elevation, the trail was mostly nicely, if steeply, graded switchbacks and since we were only carrying day packs we should have been able to descend it fairly quickly. Our itinerary suggested it would take us about 3 hrs to descend, which seemed like it would have been an entirely reasonable pace of about 2 miles/hr (~3km/hr).

Instead, we’d started hiking at 11:30 and when we stopped for lunch 3 hours later we were about halfway to our riverside campsite. By 3:30 we were hiking again, but by 5, when the guide was forced to admit that we were slow, we were still at least an hour away from camp.

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The trail disappearing off into the distance

The mountains were starting to glow with the low angle light of the golden hour and the Apurimac river, a headwater river of the Amazon, was sparkling with the late afternoon light… I desperately wanted to be closer to those amazing waters before the light completely disappeared from the valley. The guide, ever perceptive, noticed that I was getting a bit antsy and said,  “I’m going to wait here for the rest of the group. You see those tents down there by the river? That’s us. The three of you can keep going to camp if you want, just don’t cross the bridge over there.”

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The little voice inside my head danced, and shouted, “Freedom!” For the first time all day I set off at my normal pace, stretching out my legs, and enjoying my full stride. There was so much more oxygen here below 6000 ft (~1830m) than there was in Cusco at 11,000 ft (~3400m) that I felt like I was flying. The trail into and out of the canyon kept reminding me of the long, hot, descent into Belden on the PCT (aided by a similar looking ascent immediately afterwards), and my body was feeling like my thru-hiker body as I danced around the rocks, and whipped around the switchbacks.

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The turquoise waters of the Apurimac River at sunset

I loved it! The steep canyon walls lit with the orange glow of the sunset, the sparkling turquoise waters below headed on their amazing journey to the amazon, and many miles of open trail ahead of me on my journey to Machu Piccu… I was in the mountains, I’d found my happy place, I was home again!!

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A sunset view of the bridge over the Apurimac River

I ran out of trail and sunlight at about the same time, but my face remained lit up by a giant smile as I settled into camp. Not only was I in this amazing place, but when I arrived in camp my tent was already set up for me, hot chocolate and cookies were waiting for me, AND I didn’t have to make dinner or wash dishes?!! It seemed to good to be true. The horsemen (there were 3 for our group) even brought us wash clothes, basins, and soap to wash up with.

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After we all arrived and got cleaned up, we reconvened in the dining tent. Seated around the table were the 8 people of our fellowship: the guide, the Finnish writer, the 5 friends from Wisconsin, and me. As we drank cocoa and tea the most amazing meal materialized before us, thanks to the men behind the curtain, our two amazing cooks. There was no denying that our group was slow, it had taken us 6.5 to 7 hours of hiking to descend 6 miles on relatively decent terrain, but as we all sat around eating our gourmet dinner on the banks of the Apurimac river, there was nothing but smiles all around.

My tent at the Playa Rosalinda campsite

Day 1: Capuyiloc to Playa Rosalinda (By the numbers)

  • Total Distance: ~6 miles (~10km)
  • Starting time: ~11:30 am
    • Capuyiloc: 9,561 ft (2915m)
      • Groups Oxygen Saturation: 91.1±1.5 (n=8)
  •  Finish time: ~7:00 pm
    •  Playa Rosalinda/Apurimac River: 5,084ft (1550m)
      • Groups Oxygen Saturation: 94.4±0.8 (n=7)
  • Temperatures: Daytime (~100°F/~40°C), Nighttime (88°F /31°C)
  • Total Elevation: -4400ft (-1350m)

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–Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)–

 

Trekkers Wanted! (Adventures in Peru: Part 1)

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“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir

The Andes called to me, their thunderous voices promising beauty and adventure. I listened to their Siren song, strapped inside the belly of a small airplane, my body crunched into the unnatural seated position that civilization all too often forces me into. I dreamed about stretching my long legs out and hiking thru the Andes. It was a dream that I’d visited often in the 6 months since I booked my trip to Peru, but now, from my achingly small seat in the plane, the Andes were so close it felt like I could reach out and touch them.  “Soon,” I reminded myself, “soon I’ll be hiking in these mountains!”

Back in March I’d responded to an ad reading, “Trekkers Wanted: departs September 11/ returns September 23: 12-Day Choquequirao, Salkantay Pass, Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.” It sounded like the perfect adventure for me. It was the longest (and most rigorous) guided trek that I could find that included the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. The itinerary for the trek listed ascents of 5000 to 6500 feet (~1500 to 2000 m) per day, and involved trekking up to altitudes of ~16,000 ft (~4950 m)… The elevation gains and the daily mileage of 6-11 miles/day (11-18 km/day) seemed very do-able, but being asthmatic and living at sea level, I couldn’t help but worry about how the altitude might impact me…

Though I’d done treks to higher altitudes without any trouble (eg, Kilimanjaro 19,341 ft/ 5,891 m), my asthma had made me slower than most of my fellow PCT thru-hikers whenever we were at altitudes above ~9,000 ft (~2,743 m). Would I end up being the slowest person in the group if I joined this trek? It was possible. The listing told me very little about the group I would be joining, just that they were an American group from the midwest, they welcomed people of all ages, and their previous international trekking experience included high altitude adventures in Nepal (the Annapurna Circuit).

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The Plaza de Armas (Cusco, Peru)

When my flight finally touched down in Cusco (11,152 ft/3,399 meters) I was so excited about finally getting off of the plane that I forgot all my worries about the altitude. As I carried my luggage through the airport, took a cab to my hotel, and settled into my room I still hadn’t noticed any effects of the altitude. It wasn’t until I set off at brisk walk to go explore the Plaza de Armas in downtown Cusco that it hit me. I’d made it across the street and halfway down the block (~20 steps), when suddenly I was out of breath…Was my asthma acting up here in Cusco? Was it the altitude? Was it a combination of both?

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Statue of Pachacuti in the middle of the Plaza de Armas

I stopped and inhaled deeply. The air was cool, dry, and full of diesel fumes. As cars and buses rattled down the cobblestone street beside me, I exhaled slowly… If I was out of breath because my asthma was acting up, exhaling would trigger an asthma attack (never fun). If I was out of breath because of the altitude, I would be able to exhale cleanly.

I exhaled cleanly and smiled… My body was just a little cranky because the high altitude in Cusco meant that I was getting about 33% less oxygen per breath here than I get at home. I reminded myself that my body would adjust to the altitude, but that I should try to take it slow for a couple of days to give my body the time it needed to make those adjustments. Maybe it had been a good idea to spend the extra $$ on a hotel that pumped extra oxygen into the room at night!

  • Boston, USA:
    • elev. 142 ft/42 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~101.325 kPa (760 mmHg)
    • % of 0xygen available compared to sea level: 100%
  • Cusco, Peru:
    • elev. 11,152 ft/3,399 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~68 kPa (512 mmHg)
    • % of oxygen available compared to sea level: 68%
  •  Recommendations for exercising at altitude:
    • Days 1-3: 25% – 50% reduction of activity level compared to sea level is recommended as your body begins to adapt to high altitude
    • Days 4-7: Resume normal amount of exercise, but keep a slower pace/lower intensity than sea level activities

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A quechuan woman rests with her baby llama (Plaza de Armas, Cusco)

Moving slowly, I continued exploring the narrow streets leading to the Plaza de Armas. The layout of the streets and the distinctly Spanish architecture reminded me of wandering through the streets of Toledo, Spain… In many places, however, the old stonework looked like something different, something that I would learn had roots in the masonry of the Incas.

As I wandered through the plaza I was bombarded by people trying to separate me from my vacation dollars. “Massage! Lady, would you like a massage?” cried young women as I walked by. Other people frantically waved artwork and prints in front of my face, “You want?!” Women in traditional dress carrying baby llamas or herding young llamas constantly approached me offering to let me pet the llamas (or take my picture with them) for a small fee. Everywhere I turned someone was trying to get my attention in the hopes that I might buy something.

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Quechuan woman with baby llama in traditional dress on the corner near my hotel (Cusco).

A curt,”No,” and a firm nod was my response to every query. I quickly scanned the plaza de Armas looking for a quieter, less hectic area where I could relax for a minute and soak in the sights unmolested.

Paradoxically, the corner of the plaza that seemed to be the quietest was also the most crowded. A group of ~50-60   young(ish) people were clustered together, motionless, and quietly staring into their cell phones. Although I’d frequently seen the same phenomenon in the plazas and squares around Boston, my mind didn’t put two and two together until someone noticed that I was staring at the crowded corner and said, “Pokemon. They’re playing Pokemon Go.” I laughed and decided to keep exploring in the plaza even if that meant continuing to practice the art of saying “No” every 10 seconds.

Although the Plaza was beautiful, it was with relief that I finally excused myself from it and started walking out of the central tourist district, towards the office where my pre-trek briefing would take place. The adventure I was about to embark on may have started with a “Trekkers Wanted” ad, but I was more than ready to leave the city and head off into the mountains for a couple of weeks. I wanted my trek!!

— Next Installment: Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1) —