The final experience I want to look back on from our trip to Peru was the night we spent on the island Amantani with a local family on Lake Titicaca. We ventured out with a tour group of fit European couples in their 30s on a motorboat early in the morning. After a day of touring the floating islands built on reeds and sailing out to Amantani, we disembarked and were matched up with our families.
Kelsey and I watched as the other couples headed up the hill on Amantani. An island on the highest navigable lake in the world–at about 12,500 feet. They climbed with ease. When our turn came, we heaved on our hiking packs and followed Mama Junta (our mom for the evening) up the winding stone path to her home. After ten minutes of walking, we had to stop to catch our breaths and drink copious amounts of water. We had thought it was high in Cusco, we were gasping here after only a few steps. Eventually we made it to the house, where we were greeted by a little girl named Tanya poking her head out of one of the rooms.
Tanya came out to welcome us and gave us each one of her toys as tokens of friendship. We diligently held her doll and teddy bear at the table for nearly every meal as she worked on her puzzle on the floor. Tanya, we found out, has down syndrome: something fairly common on the island. She doesn’t really have access to the special education she needs on Amantani and her parents won’t have another child because they suspect another might have down syndrome as well. When we first found out, it was hard not to feel badly for her, that she didn’t have access to specialized schooling like she would in many parts of the United States. And when we left for our hike that night I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must be like for her and her parents to grow up there without any additional help.
That evening we climbed to the tallest point on the mountain. Why anyone would choose to climb to any additional height after 12,500 feet astounds me, but since everyone else was doing it, we figured we should too. We quickly accepted that the 30-something overtly-romantic Europeans would surpass us. I strongly believe the French couples were from high in the French Alps with the speed they were moving that night. It was like they had their full capacity to breath oxygen or something. Eventually we did make it to the top, where we bought an overpriced Snickers bar from a woman seated along the path and watched on of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen as the cold wind whipped across the lake.
In the evening, we returned home to Mama Junta, Adolpho and Tanya. We warmed up around the stove and ate a delicious meal of potatoes and quinoa soup that Mama cooked us. When we were finished eating, we sat at the table as the small family went about their nightly routine. Mama Junta expertly cooked on the stove, occasionally blowing through a hollow stick to stoke the fire, absent-mindedly taking about her day or her friends or her hopes in Quechua. Her husband, Adolpho, listened diligently, nodding and occasionally looking up. Every so often he would ask a question or two. He divided his time between this and helping Tanya with her homework. Seated on the ground in front of him, he helped her to glue colored papers onto a page. He was patient with her never getting angry or frustrated by her distractions. He pulled her up onto his lap and laughed with her. From the beyond the window it must have looked more like playing than homework. When Tanya got hungry Mama Junta patiently put more food on her plate. When she packed up her backpack and walked out the door, they smiled and played along. A few minutes later, Adolpho went out to get her and we could see her swinging her up and down as she laughed in the cool night air.
That evening was one of the most intimate moments I’ve ever seen between a family that really truly loved each other. After that I didn’t want to pity Tanya anymore. She has the most loving family I could possibly imagine. And they are willing to do anything for her. On top of that, Mama Junta and Adolpho clearly love each other more than anything. You could feel it in every movement they made and every word they spoke to each other. There was more love and happiness in that small kitchen on Amantani than I’ve witnessed in large churches on Christmas Eve. It nearly brought me to tears. I probably would have cried if water loss hadn’t been such a threat to our health at that altitude.
After a couple of hours, we got ready for the evening activities. Not only did this family open up their home to us, but our host mother dressed us in her traditional clothing and took us to a party. Honestly, it was less of a party than a bunch of foreigners dressed in traditional clothing, spinning around in circles with the host moms. I’m sure we looked pretty silly that night, but it was impossible for me not to smile ear to ear the entire time.
As the party continued, Kelsey and I made our way outside and laid out on the concrete basketball court opposite the doors. Above us more stars glinted in the sky than I’ve ever seen in my life. It felt like we were laying in a pitch black globe that a child had poked thousands of pinholes in and now shone a bright flashlight through. I couldn’t count on two hands the number of shooting stars I saw that night or the number of silly wishes I made. I truly believe that nothing gives you more perspective on your life than looking up at a vast night sky. Nothing humbles you more. Nothing makes you feel as minuscule or simultaneously as grand.
That evening on Amantani is one I’ll never forget. So grand in scope and simultaneously so intimate and full of love.