What color is your life?

Thinking back over my life, I remember different places by color. My dreams of Davis, where I spent my 20's, are always green - lush carpets of grass and broad tree canopies to block out the hot summer sun. Santa Cruz - I'll remember in shades of blue and grey, for the ever changing ocean and sky. On a clear day, dark and light blue meet in an unbroken line on the horizon. On most other days, the sky and the sea rolled and churned in heavy waves of gray mist.

Northern Colorado is another creature. But the colors of my life here tend toward brown, red and gold, for the hogback hills, plains of golden grass, and brilliant sunrises. But these are punctuated by short periods of brilliant white. This has been a very dry winter - the warmest January on record in many parts of the country. But last night we had the first snowfall of the season that dropped more than an inch. I had forgotten how quickly the world can be transformed by a few inches of powder. It took no more than an hour to muffle the rumble of traffic and carpet the world in a fresh white sheet. The sky and earth glowed orange in the street lights reflected in the low clouds and falling flakes. Today the world is painfully white in the muted sunlight. It's as though someone has dropped a blank canvas, that now sits waiting for a splash of new color.


A day in the life of the Manu River

More tidbits from last summer's travel journal...The Manu river is a tributary of the Amazon, emerging from the Peruvian Andes in southeastern Peru, and passing through a well-protected national park. It took us two days in a 4wd bus crossing the Andes, then another two days travelling by river to reach the park.

This is the Amazon basin. A carpet of green 60 feet high tumbles over the edge of a creamy, coffee-colored, ribbon of water that snakes its way from the towering wall of the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. This is the world’s original interstate highway system, with off-ramps leading deeper into the heart of this creature. Howler monkeys cry out in a distant but steady pulsating drone – day and night, they sound off to the beating heart of the forest.

It’s morning. Our dugout slices easily through the muddy ripples and wavelets as we travel upstream along the Manu River. The air hangs heavy as wet wool, but for now, it’s clear. Sunshine so intense, it’s as though the sky is a giant magnifying glass. The gentle rocking of the boat and steady hum of the motor lull the mind into a dreamy state. This is a world unlike any I have known - a world left out of time. It’s the kind of place that writers love - inspiring stories such as ‘Congo,’ ‘Lost World,’ and ‘Jurassic Park.’ We spy a capybara family trotting along the muddy shore - the mama is the size of an Australian Shepard. This is the world’s largest rodent. Their rotund, furry bodies are slick with mud. The babies look like little piglets.

Somewhere in the forest are people. Living the same way they have for a millennia. Rarely seen. Always watching. I imagine them moving noiselessly through the forest with spears and bows – larger versions than the ones sold back at the tourist lodge. They wear colorfully beaded necklaces and anklets, and have intricate tattoos that tell the story of their tribe. How strange we must look to them, with our pale white skin – at least the parts of it that we’re willing to expose to the insects and the sun. And out feet – so tender we encase them in rubber. We make raucous noises as we stomp along the trails, trying to avoid the mud and the army ants. Our synthetic smells and harsh language frighten away any of the animals we hope to see.

To think that humanity likely emerged from forests such as this on another continent! Yet, here we are, as helpless as newborn babes, startled at every sound in the underbrush, coating ourselves with clothing and chemicals. We have fancy cameras on hand, wanting to capture the experience of jungle life, as long as we can remain within the safety of the bubble of our modern life.

We arrive at Cocha Salvador: one of the many ox-bow lakes dotting the landscape. Where the Manu was churning and bubbling and full of energy, the lake is a piece of dark glass. We board a floating platform, reminiscent of the ferry you board at Disneyland when crossing to Huckleberry island. Our guide paddles us slowly across the lake.

A yellow-headed vulture alights on the branch of a nearby tree. A pair of them. No. More. Five we count now. They peer at us through alien eyes, through the blue tattoos that mark their alien faces. A gurgling screech and a flutter of wings breaks the silence a bit further along the shore. A pair of ‘hoatzin’ perches on a fallen tree, creaking at each other. A prehistoric looking bird – looks like it flew right out of ‘Jurassic Park’ - about the size of a chicken, with big eyes, a scrawny neck, and a yellow and purple Mohawk.

Moments later, out of the silence comes a guttural, yet high-pitched combination of a yip and a buzz – almost mechanical whirring. A ripple of water near the shore, and a sleek black head emerges from the dark lake. Splashing and more yipping from the underbrush. Then out on a log branching across the surface of the water emerges a slim dark body with four long legs about the size of a dog, and a long slim tail – this is the baby. Mama otters average about four feet long, and Papa can be up to six feet. There is an entire family here, fishing in the shade of the brush.

I still have the feeling I’m at Disneyland, crossing to Huckleberry Island. I remember my first trip to Huckleberry Island – I was 5 years old. I thought it such a wild and unforgiving place. Thrilling and frightening at the same time. Somewhere in the caves on the island I lost my parents. That’s the first time I ever felt all alone in the world – so far from anything I knew. Thirty years later, I find myself truly alone – 100 miles from the nearest road, in a wild and unforgiving place. Wholly dependant on my guide. Thrilling and frightening. And tranquil. It’s so silent, but for the buzz of the forest and the oar dipping into the surface of the lake. I decide that this the place I want to come back to again and again in my mind, when my own world gets to be too much to handle. I want to remember that this place is here – that this is my life too.


On the shoulder of Taulliraju

In May 2005 my husband and I trekked 30 miles through the Andean highlands. The day we crossed the Continental Divide, at Punta Union, was the highlight of our trip…

La Cordillera Blanca, a cirque of towering white spires, glows pink in the early sunlight and we linger a moment before departing our campsite. The locals believe each peak is home to a spirit. I imagine these native deities, or ‘Apus’, formless creatures beneath the snow and stones, stirring every so slightly as the face of the world turns toward the Sun. Today is the day we climb, then cross, the spine of the world, along the arc of the Andes. We will haul ourselves up and over the shoulder of the mountain the natives call ‘Taulliraju’, or ‘Lupin-Mountain.’

We begin our ascent through a forest of shrubby trees whose bark, burnt in the tropical sun, peels away like rusty red rice paper. Silver-green leaves dangle motionless in the thin air. Every breath explodes in a small white puff as I gain momentum and we march up the trail. Behind us, a burro brays, perhaps in protest at having to carry our food and camp supplies. We meet a mule train coming the opposite direction and exchange a ‘Buenos dias’ with the driver. Our guide, Ricardo, stops to chat with him a moment. They speak in the rolling, gutteral tones of quechua, with an occasional Spanish word tossed in. I understand nearly nothing. The local dialect is like a mixed salad of languages – and I can only eat the carrots. I learn later that this man is heading home, to the village we passed yesterday. This village – a series of farmhouses, build of mud and straw and separated by fields of corn, quinoa and potatoes, splayed out along the slope of the mountain, above and below us along the trail. Some homes had golden maize and peppers with leathery red skin strung from twine in their yards. Women in dusty skirts and dark hats, tending to their homes or hauling firewood or babies in festive shawls, greeted us with friendly smiles. Children scrambled up to ask us for their favorite treat, ‘caramelos’, though we hadn’t anticipated that, and had none to give.

But today we have left the bustle of activity behind us. Now, we emerge from the disorder of the forest, onto the steep, open grassland. Ahead, trails crisscross the gray slopes of the mountains, the only markers of humanity on these timeless crags. I strain for each breath in the crisp air. A small notch in a black wall of rock, another 2000 feet up, marks our goal. For a time I find it difficult to peel my eyes from the trail. My feet move to the beat of a rock song that has found its way into my mind – “This is how you remind me of what I really am…” – by Nickelback. Those are the only words I can remember, but I sing them over and over again. My heart in my head also has a rhythm, out of step with the music – it’s more of a primal drumbeat. The tufts of stiff grass that populate the highlands melt away, and now, at 15,000 ft, we tread over simple, bare rock. We climb the last few hundred feet along a winding stone staircase built by the Incas, and emerge, at the top of the pass – on the shoulder of Taulliraju.

Taulliraju: He’s like an old man with a craggy white beard, thinning abruptly into a gray cascade of andesite. He is timeless in our minds, but young on the face of the Earth. Born in a sea of hot fire, cooked in Earth’s cauldron, and infused with the recycled elements of the ocean floor. Slowly rising over the eons to his full stature. Now he towers silently over the sea, breathing in time to the rhythm of the tides. A slow, steady inhale, then a rumble of thunder and a puff of white in the exhale. Woe to any creatures who happen to be playing in his beard on the exhale.

My skin tingles here, so close to the sun. Intense rays of midday light flood the landscape. There are no shadows. Scanning the rocky horizon prompts a dull, but increasingly loud ache behind my eyeballs. I try to turn away, but the jagged contrast between the snow-capped peaks and the tropical sky compel my gaze. Gray, white, and blue - the color of an endless summer. This is a place there the gods have walked, so the locals believe. And now I can believe it too - this is a city of gods, on the edge of the sky, a place where heaven meets earth. The locals also believe that the retreating snowline is a sign that the gods are leaving. When the snow is gone, the land will become stark and dry and fruitless. I marvel at such grandeur, and find it hard to believe it is in such a fragile balance. But such is the state of the Earth. Even the mountain gods live and die in time.


What does it mean to live well?

This banner hung outside of our room at the Rupa Wasi Lodge in Machu Picchu Pueblo in May 2005. It says:

"In the end what matters most is
How well did you live
How well did you love
How well did you let go."

I often wonder what it is deep down that gives me such a strong urge to travel. I'm often not content with a weekend drive in the mountains. I feel compelled to visit far-away places. I want to immerse myself in another environment, another culture, another life for weeks at a time. When I'm not traveling, I scheme about traveling. Where will I go next? When will I go next? How can I spend more time there?

I never feel more alive than I do when I travel to far away places. I suppose that is at the heart of my desire - when I travel, I am aware of everything around me. I am fully awake to life. The more new, different, or strange my surroundings, the more heightened my awareness. In my mind, this is what it means to live fully - to be fully present to each moment. I love the suprizes that pop up - this banner, for example, which gets to the heart of everything.

But despite the relentless urge to explore exotic places, I always reach a point in my travels when I want to come home. A point when I'm tired and long for nothing more than to crawl into my own bed and wake in familiar surroundings. There is always a fine line between the desire for new, different, and daring, and the desire for comfort and familiarity. (Although, after a long trip, the familiar often feels strange - I always wake at some point during my first night home in utter confusion - for a brief moment, I have no idea where I am, and nothing looks familiar).

But how can I be more awake to life in the comfort and familiarity of my own home? I can't always be galavanting across the globe in search of adventure - and, in truth, I really don't want to be. Maybe I can find a balance in seeking out adventure in my own backyard.