The path was easy to find, but hard to keep to. Starting off from village lowlands, it rose through shades of green, brown, tan and ash, bursts of tree and shrubbery pock-marking the slopes, so each turn revealed a new variation of rolling Andean hills.
The hiker was forever straying to take in the scenery. He’d glug some water, wipe last night’s alcohol from his brow, snap another breathtaking view and when he turned around found it’d take five minutes back to find his bearings again.
As such, the two hour jaunt following the gentle curve of the mountain had turned into a four hour zig zag; he probably wouldn’t reach his target before it was time to turn back. It didn’t matter; the destination was only an excuse to make the journey – the journey itself was what this holiday was all about.
Although in leisure, he set himself targets; even fake ones were necessary to get out of bed. Life was a series of targets; he didn’t have to achieve them all, but didn’t want to look back and realise he hadn’t lived at all. The holiday itself was a target; if he hadn’t forced himself to book, natural indolence would have made three months backpacking Peru remain in dreams forever.
If he hadn’t, on a whim, promised to explore the mountain above the village today, in search of gilded Incan totems, he would still be sweating out his hangover in a hostel, not overlooking another living painting. Even whims had to be stuck to.
HE DIDN’T WANT TO LOOK BACK AND REALISE HE HADN’T LIVED AT ALL
“There’s treasure in them thar hills.” The line every backpacker dreams of hearing in drunken revelry.
Drink came naturally to him; quitting alcohol and cigarettes was one target he hadn’t set before embarking on this South American adventure, perhaps in rare self-awareness he had to be realistic sometimes.
His impromptu companions that night in the village bar were Hector and Arturo, a Peruvian Laurel and Hardy. Hector was lanky tall with floppy black hair, while Arturo was swarthy stocky with a bushy moustache and wide grin. Together they drank cheap Pisco, local yellow brandy that sailed the gullet easy, fooling the brain with sweet grape taste that hid tomorrow’s churning guts.
They told him about the famous gilded totem hidden in the hills above the village; condor, puma and snake sitting atop each other in Incan gold, representing sky, earth and underworld in ancient mythology. It was exactly the ‘Gram-worthy sight he wanted, to embellish a story worth telling. Stories were the fabric of human existence; he’d lived too long without good ones that didn’t start with “God I was drunk”, hence the purpose of the holiday.
Ironically enough, that was exactly how this one would start, he realised, lying in bed that morning. The old part of his brain begged to write the day off and sleep through the hangover; the new part, which this trip was embarked upon to exercise, urged to stick to the target.
So he loaded his pack with water and set off. The more he walked, the more he walked tall, Pisco sweating out, back straightening and head slowly clearing.
IT WAS A GOOD DAY; HE WAS ALIVE AND FELT ALIVE
He stopped again and found his water bottle nearly empty; he’d been glugging furiously all day to counteract the high altitude sun and now greedily supped the last few drops. It was time to turn back and it would be a dry journey. It didn’t matter he hadn’t found the totem, it was a good day; he was alive and felt alive.
On the way back down he saw two figures approaching. He’d seen them several times throughout the day, as dots in the distance behind; he’d waved before, thinking them Laurel and Hardy, but they always seemed to disappear when he did so.
Now, as they moved from dots, to shadows, to men, he saw he was right. It was Hector and Arturo, so he waved again. They didn’t respond. Perhaps they did not recognise him; he knew the hangover haze and distorted memories only too well.
“Hola,” he called and waved. Again, no response. Perhaps he misremembered the night before, had they parted on good terms or bad? Was there an argument he’d forgotten? He didn’t think so, but as thoughts grew with each step, the less sure he became.
“Hola amigos,” he said again, as they neared. He smiled, but saw no return in their faces, now they were clear. They were fixed and determined, cheerless, yet expectant. He saw a club in Arturo’s clenched fist, there was steel in Hector’s hand that glinted in the sun.
The backpack felt heavy on his shoulders now, his stomach churned with sixth sense, legs felt weaker should he have to turn and run. Was this really going to happen?