What Geography Means to Me – Jenna Sutherland

No matter how many times the stereotype of ‘colouring in’ is used to describe Geography or how academics try to put a universal label on the subject, what geography means to me is simply a journey of discovery. Interpret this in any way you wish but I want to take you on my own journey of discovery that I experienced in the summer of 2013. Like most of my fellow students I tend to ignore the masses of ‘student announce’ emails we get sent daily. I remember there was one in particular however, early on in the first semester of my second year at university that grabbed my interest. I assume I am like most geography students – I tend to get itchy feet when I haven’t travelled for a while and I won’t deny that I wasn’t jealous seeing my friends flaunt their summer plans on social media. It was around this time when I took the plunge to apply to become an expedition leader with Dig Deep; a chance to fundraise for charity, trek to Machu Picchu and travel around Peru.

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For me, my summer travelling experience wasn’t just about the gruelling trek to Machu Picchu but more about the culture, language and way of life in a country half way across the world. From various guidebooks and copious amounts of background reading I’d done ahead of my trip I knew that Spanish is the main language in Peru and that the dominant religion is Catholic. The first discovery I made whilst I was out there was that there is a small minority (our tour guide included) who worship the sun and the earth. They seek a connection with nature, its forces and energies. This way of life dominated since pre-Inca time’s right up until the Spanish invasion. ‘Without the sun or the earth there are no people. We have to be thankful of that’ our guide Jonathon said, ‘surely the soil under our feet is much more pure and real than any god’. Without wanting to cause a dispute, I surprised myself by tending to agree with his reasoning.

A discovery I had prepared myself for was the traditional cuisine of South America. Being a student on a low budget and limited cooking skills I wouldn’t exactly say I’m a fussy eater, however, place a guinea pig in front of me and expect me to eat it, well, that’s a completely different story. Nevertheless, I didn’t want regrets about not trying the most famous dish in the region. Before being carved, it was presented to me in its upright position with a tomato for a hat (perhaps they think the British like that extra touch). I said a prayer to Pebbles (my beloved pet guinea pig since the age of 7) and tucked in. It tasted similar to duck on the bone, there wasn’t much meat on it, and as with almost every meal in Peru it was served with both rice and dry potatoes. A drink specific to this region was Inca cola. It soon became my drink of choice during the trip (aside from the Pisco Sours of course) I wasn’t put off by the bright yellow colouring or artificial bubblegum taste. It was apparently once the most popular drink in Peru, not even Coke could compete with it – that is until Coca –Cola bought them out. A real shame in my opinion but that’s globalisation for you! Another speciality drink I soon began to welcome in the early mornings of the trek was cocoa leaf tea – just like green tea but only heaped teaspoons of sugar could help me forget about the bitter taste. They say if you enjoy the taste of cocoa leaves then you have a good soul. Judging by my taste buds my soul is probably just average. I’ll say nothing about the Pisco sours other than the fact they are guaranteed to get you far merrier than any ‘quad-vod’ from Corp will, let me tell you.

I have to devote some of this writing to the massive culture shock I experienced from just 3 weeks in Peru. During the trek we were very well looked after, we had a Guide – Jonathon, a cook, and two horsemen. Four mules carried all our bags and equipment every day. It was sad to see them struggle up the hillside with the heavy weight of our load as they always looked hot and tired but were forced to keep going. The horsemen walked in broken sandals, they didn’t wear half the layers that we did during the freezing cold nights and the clothes they did own were of poor quality. I was ashamed and embarrassed to say the least because our bags were full of top of the range gear specifically bought ahead of the trek. Unlike us, they had no tents or sleeping bags to sleep in. We dined in luxury throughout the trek with three courses every meal, but unfortunately we were left to eat on our own as the horsemen especially weren’t used to mixing with tourists. We were so grateful for the service they gave us but it was hard to show our appreciation since they kept their distance and would never make eye contact with us.  It was disheartening to experience how they perceive the Western culture and I found it difficult to comprehend how the cooks and wrangles do this day in day out to make a measly living. Now I understand why they rely so much on the tipping guidelines we were advised about that many tourists are reluctant to give.

DSC04794Being a keen sailor and open water swimmer I’d like to think I am reasonably fit but no amount of training could prepare me mentally for the challenge of trekking to Machu Picchu. I won’t dwell on the trek too much other than mentioning it was the high altitude that quickly made me breathless and brought on headaches other than the hike itself. After a couple of acclimatization days I soon got used to it and it didn’t bother me too much. The highest point of the whole trip was 4629m above sea level. Looking back, it was incredible to think a few weeks later I was 260m below sea level in Death Valley on the Californian field class. During the whole trek we passed no other walkers in groups. It was a happy kind of isolation but astonishing to think that the route we had taken (the Salkantay Pass) is rarely undertaken by tourists when the original Inca trail is being heavily exploited. Since I was concentrating so hard on hiking throughout the day, it was only when I paused to catch my breath that I realised how high we’d actually climbed and how stunning the scenery around us was. Every day I was so surprised at just how much the terrain had changed with such a short distance. Only shortly after we’d left glaciers and snow capped mountains no sooner were we walking through jungle where the hillsides were lush with green foliage. It was quite surreal looking back at just how many ecosystems and different terrains we had come across. The few villages that we did pass were small, and very rural. They consisted of only a few mud brick houses with corrugated iron roofs.

On the last morning of the trek to Machu Picchu the steps began and didn’t stop. It was a steep ascent of roughly 3 hours. We often had to stop for many short rests all the while buses full of smug passengers on their way to the top were staring at us from the windows. I couldn’t help but think of it as cheating, not just on the walk but on the incredible sense of adventure that we had experienced along the way. Once we reached the top I expected to be met with the typical postcard view of the ruins that appears in just about every guide book about Peru. Instead I was met by a mass of tourists, buses and a general sense of overcrowding. It felt strange especially since this was the first sign of normal civilization we’d come across in just under a week. Once the passports were checked and stamped we were finally through the gates and the ruins of Machu Picchu were just around the corner. There was so much to take in, in such a short space of time. It was extremely interesting to learn about the way the city had been built. The Incas were certainly a very clever bunch of people and the architecture especially was fascinating. For example, points in the brick work had been specially lined up with the peaks of the mountains in the background and windows had been built to let the sun it from all angles. Given that I had never had much of an interest in history I found the setting of the city interested me more. I loved sitting in a secluded place in the midst of cloud forest amounts the ruins which gave me a chance to reflect on the past six days. I even called home since I hadn’t had much communication with my worried parents and to my surprise the reception was as clear as anything.

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After the trek, it was time to depart on the second stage of our trip – a 10 hour bus journey to Puno. Unfortunately there are no high speed trains or motorways in Peru that we take for granted in Europe. The next week was spent on the islands of Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world with a surface elevation of 3812m an332d one the straddles the border with Bolivia. There are parts of the lake where you can see no land; it felt like an ocean it was that vast. I often had to remind myself we were landlocked and nowhere near the sea. First we visited the floating islands of Uros, whole islands constructed entirely from reeds, not tied down to anything. They were originally made for defensive purposes so that if a threat arose they could easily be moved, but now that tourism has taken over, these islands tend to be inundated daily with nosey travellers like us. A highlight of the whole trip was our traditional home stay with a family on the Island of Taquille. We stayed with a local family who spoke Quechua – the native language of Peru. It was difficult to communicate but nevertheless it was an experience that needed no language. Our shared room was nothing but two beds and a couple of blankets with the walls lined with newspaper cuttings as old as the 1980s. As visitors we ate what the villagers ate since it was freshly cooked and prepared for us by the family, very basic but filling food of Quinoa and vegetables. The family were eager to make us feel as at home as possible and the children especially were shy but curious. On our last night on the island they dressed us up in their traditional clothes and we danced with the villagers to music from a local live band. I realised that entertaining us was their natural way of life, but for me settling back into reality in a couple of days time would be difficult.

There are many more stories to tell about my trip to Peru but going back to the initial email I received nearly a year prior to my trip, it was an opportunity that knocked softly but one that took me on my biggest journey of discovery yet.

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