As the small plane made its descent into Cusco, I looked down at the mountains. We were landing right smack dab in the middle of the storied Andes. I had arrived. Most of the range was brown and greenish with a few snow-capped peaks peppered in. They seemed inviting. Being from the Midwest, I had not spent much time near mountains. My first experience with them was on a day trip to Breckenridge while on a High School mission trip to Denver. I remember standing in a mountain stream that day and looking up that them in wonder. The Midwest has plenty of pros, but its biggest con is the lack of mountains. I suppose that’s what keeps us so gosh darn down-to-earth. Since that day, though, I’d sought them out.
Cusco was mild and arid. Without buildings or inhabitants, I would have likened it to Mars, with a few trees thrown in. That’s not to say it wasn’t beautiful. The brown mountains contrasted perfectly with the bright blue sky. And the sky was especially bright- 11,000 feet up feels like 11,000 feet up. The sun was strong and the air was thin. It would take a month to acclimatize. Walking up a flight of stairs felt like running up 10 and I would frequently wake up in the middle of the night, unable to catch my breath. I grew up with asthma, but this was different. The air literally escaped me.
The architecture was warm, charming and of course, Spanish. Cusco was also different. As in, “This is nothing like Des Plaines, Illinois.” If culture was what I wanted, culture was what I got. And then some. Cusco is a fascinating mix of indigenous Quechua culture and a large Spanish influence. Its complicated history is evident and there are ruins abound. The tile roofs and the cobblestone streets charmed us immediately. Homesickness and parasites eventually took hold while I was there, but even in the pits of pining and parasites, I had enough sense to know that I was where I wanted to be. The thought that Cusco was an astonishing place occurred to me every single day.
Five months back home is a dreary winter that takes too long to end, one that passes by insignificantly while I’m going to work, checking Facebook, and meeting friends for happy hour. Time abroad in any amount is warped and highly concentrated. My five months in Cusco held more weight than any other five month increment before.