By Elle Waters
My senior year of high school, I attended a community service trip to Peru. Upon arrival to the Lima airport, many of us were struck by a wave of dizziness that left us breathless and weak in the knees.
We were informed that we were being affected by mild altitude sickness — which meant we were literally high from being high.
After flying from Lima to Cusco, we made our way via car to Pilkobamba, a small, indigenous village hidden in the heart of Peru’s Sacred Valley. Because the highland village is so obscure, there is little to no information about it on the internet, making it hard to know the exact altitude of our location. However, a quick search on Google revealed that the higher parts of Sacred Valley sit around 11,154 feet above sea level. This leads me to believe that Pilkobamba is an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 feet in altitude compared to Lima’s 5,080 feet — and remember, Lima was where we first arrived. After some time, I no longer had altitude sickness but was still in disbelief at how high we were while in the Sacred Valley.
Though it took time to get accustomed to the altitude, the three days we spent in Pilkobamba were magical and life-changing. We’d start off each day by hiking to a location even further up the mountains to dig ditches for pipes that would eventually give the village access to clean water.
It was absolutely breathtaking how the background of all our digging was this incredible view of hills on top of hills. We were just tiny specks on a mountain, doing community service. I felt like I was in a movie! Each night we’d come out of our individual huts and walk a pathway leading to the main gathering area for dinner.
One of the days following service work, we hiked so far up into the mountains that it was as if we could touch the sky, and then I got a nosebleed. We sat on edges of cliffs, hiked up steep trails, and walked on dangerously narrow and rocky paths. At one point, we encountered a herd of around 30 goats coming from the opposite direction. The entire time, I thought about the possibility of slipping and falling to my death, despite the trip advisors assuring us that nothing of the sort would happen under their watch. But there were no barriers to prevent such a fall down thousands of feet. It was terrifying and thrilling to be so far up.
Somewhere along the way, I had fallen in love with a village boy named Roy. He always wore a blue jacket. He was very tan and had a younger brother with curly hair. He’d help me with whatever task I was doing, and I would present him with some rocks I’d dug up. I barely said three words my “Mountain Boy,” due to the immense language barrier between us, but I was head over heels over him, anyway.
Following all our experiences in those short three days, our departure from Pilkobamba was absolutely devastating for me. The night prior, Roy had promised to wake up and come see the sunrise with me (and everyone else on the trip), but when the time came, he did not show up.
To be fair, he knew very little English and probably kept nodding to whatever I said because he wished for me to cease engaging with him in broken Spanish. Nevertheless, my young heart was not prepared to be so disappointed by his lack of presence, and I was forbidden to go retrieve him because it was against protocol.
Though I was surrounded by friends, I watched the Sacred Valley come to light by myself and prepared myself for eternal sadness. What goes up must come down.
I cried when we left, because I knew I would most likely never see my Mountain Boy again. With every step down the mountains I was pushed further and further away from him and the peaceful life I’d adapted to in Pilkobamba. No one understood why I was in such anguish over a boy I’d known for slightly less than three days — honestly, neither do I when I think back to it now — but I cried all the way down the mountains, on the drive away from Sacred Valley, on the train to the town of Aguas Calientes (making my friend Richard extremely uncomfortable because he had to sit next to me), and in the shower of my hotel room that night. I was no longer the highest I’d ever been.
Fast forward nearly two years and I remain so far removed from Peru, my favorite place in the entire world.
However, the memories of those three days in the Sacred Valley still burn wild and alive in my mind. Though I no longer feel the ache in my heart for my Mountain Boy in his blue jacket, and I am back to being comfortably miserable in America, I still have a picture of Pilkobamba as my screensaver. When I occasionally allow myself to drift back in time, it’s like I was living there just yesterday. A little piece of me is always with Peru, up in the mountains and greenery, gazing down in disbelief at the sights. I’ve vowed to myself I’ll return one day to Pilkobamba, to the highest I’ve ever been.