Lessons from Emilio
8 April 2022
I am fairly well read. I have a few degrees and certifications from university classrooms. None of that really means anything.
In Peru, I became accustomed to one particular image from which I learned a great deal. This was our guide Emilio. In the image, he is on the Inca Trail, alone, a floppy hat and sunglasses, his hands resting on the top of his walking stick as he waits for me to reach him. I am wheezing from altitude dizziness as we ascend—already my pack is stowed away on a horse. I imagine he must be anxious or tired of me, but he is not. His face shows only friendship, even some pride, and he tells me, “Steve, very few people can do this. Even many from Peru will quit this trail. You, Steve, you can do this.”
He will tell me this in various ways a dozen times or more over the four days of our trek. During the first several, I believe he is giving me the “motivational guide talk,” but as our companionship grows over slopes and valleys, I begin to believe his sincerity. He speaks honestly to me as we walk about everything—his wife, the edibles of the mountains, money, the coca leaf, Lima, the food preparation.
Coming down the Salkantay was less traumatic.
I can seldom recall the cloud cover roiling over the escarpments across the valleys, the lichens atop lichens scaling the boulders, or the “Dr. Seuss”-like trees bordering our descent without also picturing Emilio’s face.
I watch the high school students trotting ahead—though later, even they will be blister-wearied—and I know that the Andes have humbled me, reminded me who’s in charge. Several times on the second day I fall on the rocks, once hearing my camera body crack and a lens splinter. Once I become so dizzy that rather than risk taking a misstep down a 1500’ slope, I toss my body against the uphill grade and sit, waiting for it to pass. But around that next bend, I know Emilio is waiting with his words.
“I am not meant to defeat whatever I encounter; I am, though, capable of meeting it and learning from it.“
We’ve Met Before
And here is what I know—parts of this world challenge us, push us to quit, but I can meet them. And I will find friends who will help me. I am not meant to defeat whatever I encounter; I am, though, capable of meeting it and learning from it.
Emilio is the face of Peru for me, but he is also the same face I’ve met elsewhere. He is the teary-eyed 16-year-old Miho in Japan who led me through the Hiroshima Museum, he is Khagda of Nepal who explained Nepali politics to me on a rooftop in Pokhara, Lucia of China who tried to embarrass me with incorrect translations, Jem of Dominica who reminded me why a treehouse is better than a London apartment, Chief Archie of the Bella Coola peoples who took me to an ancient place, and the Karmapa Lama of Dharamsala who, at age 19, explained to me the critical difference between religion and ethic. There are dozens of others.
Age or culture is irrelevant.
The Andes nearly knocked me flat. But I have learned some things.
That there is nowhere in the world that I cannot visit; that there are few people in the world who aren’t worth meeting—or who will not welcome me into their community; and that I can meet no one who cannot teach me.