Stranded in the Andes

Aliyah Austin, Reporter

I found myself stranded in the Andes.

The mountains stretched up into the hazy heavens and I was drowning in electric blue. I wanted to reach toward the sky to capture the infinite freedom of the pearl clouds and the flaming sun.

I was 15 and I had no idea why the hell I was there or how I managed it.  I’d always believed that the shy, insecure daughter of a widowed mother with a family below the poverty line couldn’t be anything and couldn’t do anything. We’ve lived in emergency housing, been kicked out of raggedy apartments, spent summer days in the alleys of Muskegon while our mom was working and nights in houses full of health code violations and neglectful adults. “No, I don’t have enough money” was our bedtime lullaby. Somewhere amidst the chaos, I grew a shell and retreated into it.

Every night before I went to bed, I’d close my eyes and make up stories. They were simple stories; they didn’t involve mermaids or unicorns or anything like that. They were just variations of me talking and smiling, fleeting flashes of happiness to soothe my mind and put me to sleep. But not even my imagination dared to envision me traveling to Peru to volunteer with a group of relative strangers. My dreams couldn’t span continents. But somehow there I was; lost, wonderstruck, crying, confused and hunting for something to latch onto.

I hoped that I would find it.

Our bus bumped its way through the jagged, khaki hills to a tiny village nestled at lung-aching altitude. We were spending four frigid nights and five days in Huilloc to help local families build guinea pig huts, since guinea pigs are a big Peruvian export. Poverty forces families to live with the pigs in their homes assembled from bricks, mud and a work ethic that could change the world.

The smattering of makeshift buildings, dusty and dirty, were simple and full of character. A long road twisted even further into the hills, leading to more plain buildings packed with knowing people.

After we filed out of the bus, I lingered behind the group as a Huilloc native announced our arrival with the blow of a horn. The sound was fitting for the people of the village – it was raw and real.

My red and black suitcase clattered on the cobblestone path as a man with tar-black hair and a wide grin led us to a field in the heart of the village. Our tents were set up and our families were waiting.

Dressed in traditional layers of blinding colors, their cheeks were rosy from endless days under the sun and their hair was shinier than a new Cadillac. They had an unwavering kindness within them. Their smiles were genuine; you could tell by the twinkle that lit up even the darkest depths of their eyes. You couldn’t walk five feet without receiving an, “Hola!” peppered by a buenos aires, buenos noches or a buenos dias.

The day that we met them, we danced.

I stumbled over my feet as I was yanked into the action and swallowed by a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors swirling and twirling around me. I’d never danced with a stranger before and I was awkward and graceless. But while my moves were stiff, my eyes were wide. It was such an intimate welcome. I didn’t need to speak Spanish to feel the gratitude that they were showing with each step and each turn. It was the fun kind of dance, the one where you grab your partner’s hands and kind of tug them forwards and backwards, left hand, right hand, left hand while simultaneously turning your body.

Volunteering in Peru was a lot like that dance. The family I helped lived down the dirt road that wound into the hills. Twice a day, we walked the path and I did my part. I put work in, helping them build guinea pig huts by pelting mud at bricks and filling in the cracks. But they guided me and showed me moves that lasted long after the dance was over and we had left the village and the country. Before our Huilloc welcome, I was confused –  then I was being embraced by complete strangers in a foreign country.

And just like that, the shy, insecure daughter of a widowed mother found what she was looking for: life.

Peru consumed me and forced me to confront myself and challenge my world. I was so lost. I’d never had so many questions in my life. I still haven’t found the answers to all of them – there are still so many I haven’t even asked yet. I still haven’t found myself, either. I’m still lost.

But my new “lost” is less lost.

I’m starting to think that we don’t find ourselves – we create ourselves. The secret lies in combining mud and brick. You aren’t just building a structure for someone else – you’re building yourself. Maybe we came from the earth, derived of nothing more than dust and dirt. It’s up to us to become something more, to build our own structures up so that we stand tall and strong. The main ingredients for that are love and adventure. We’re all adventurers. The question isn’t whether we will wander, but how we’ll do it. For me, it took stepping out of my comfort zone and into another country. But there’s an art to losing yourself and there’s something mystical about hands outstretched in dance and trudging up a well-worn curvy path under a blaze of flaming sun, pearl clouds and electric blue that speaks to the soul.