That’s a question I don’t often hear. Sure, I encounter lots of inquiries about where I travel and how I do it. But that one… it required a little thought.
“The most impactful lesson I learned,” I said. “Is to trust strangers.”
The most impactful travel lesson I’ve learned is to Trust Strangers.
It sounds so wrong, right?
We grow up learning never to take candy from strangers, not to acknowledge them or engage with them. That they’re murderers, rapists and ill-intentioned people.
But if it hadn’t been for the kindness of strangers, Maddison and I may have died on our 3-day hike through the Andes.
If you aren’t convinced that this type of kindness exists, here’s a little proof:
In my past travels, a stranger chased down a homeless person when he broke into my car and tried to steal my suitcase. A stranger bought my dinner when I looked like a homeless person (I was just #sweatydirtyhappy). The strangers, also known as hitchhikers, I picked up while road tripping the states both turned out to be great people.
After all, every friend starts as a stranger, no?
And my three-day backpacking expedition on the Lares Trek was no exception.
The transit to the trailhead was complicated and winding in itself.
From Cusco (quite possibly my favorite city ever), we took an hour-long taxi ride to Calca followed by a 1.5-hour bumpy bus trip to Lares.
The bus, on which we were evidently the only foreigners, weaved around mountains and ascended one pass so high I noticed frost encrusted on top of the earth. It passed through tiny villages with homes made from stone and straw.
Looking out the window watching the landscape unfold before me, it was then that I saw why Peru is considered a third world country.
You can’t tell just by visiting the hearts of big cities like Lima or Cusco.
You need to venture out into the mountainous countryside where the indigenous people live with little to no amenities that we so often take for granted.
From food to shoes and every necessity in between, how often do you wake up worrying about whether your basic needs will be met?
I mean, basic as in bare minimum. Not basic as in basic bitch.
If you weren’t aware, basic needs are defined as three simple things:
Water, shelter and clothing.
And by today’s standards, that definition is often extended to hygiene, education and healthcare.
I would agree that the latter three are also very important. I’m a fan of my hygiene.
Most people I met had days of dirt underneath their fingernails.
And in the tiny villages sprinkled throughout Andean Peru, toilet seats are rare. Toilet paper is even less available.
But in the Peruvian countryside, you’re probably more concerned about your feet.
Because you most likely only have one pair of shoes that you wear everyday to walk tens of miles in one cycle of the sun.
And you’re not just walking down the street. You’re trekking across mountain bellies in sandals that earn their name. Your feet get sandy and stained to the same color as the earth below them.
There’s a river for that.
Often times, I saw women sitting by the water’s edge with clothes that needed cleaning.
In fact, the river had many purposes: where men cast lines to catch fish for dinner, where free roaming alpacas, horses and dogs go for a cold drink.
But what the indigenous – Quechua – people of Peru lacked in amenities, they made up for in natural resources:
Picturesque panoramic mountain views, land that gives birth to crops like potatoes and quinoa, homegrown shelters made from stones and straw.
Despite the fact that they didn’t have much, they seemed to make the most of everything. If I had to lump them all into a few descriptive words, I’d say the Quechua people were gentle, welcoming and kind.
There was not a single time I encountered someone who made me feel uncomfortable, threatened, offended or degraded.
In fact, they made me feel more comfortable than a lot of people back in the US of A.
No, the Andean people of Peru didn’t have much, but here are a few things they all did have:
Generosity. Reciprocity. Companionship.
And those are things that aren’t as available in most first world countries that I’ve been exposed to.
More often that not, people are consumed in their own shit – too busy with their social media presence to look up from their phones and offer a lost stranger some guidance in an area they know well.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely been guilty of this before. I’m no first world angel.
But being in the Andes showed me the way people should actually treat each other: with grace.
And for the grace of the Quechua people, I’m eternally grateful. Because honestly, without their selflessness I’m not even sure I’d be alive right now.
From getting lost on the side of a cliff to thinking I’d die from altitude sickness, stay tuned to find out what a grueling three-day trek through the Andes looks and feels like.