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Prayers in Peru MAG
The day was warm and surprisingly bright, an aberration in a sunless Peruvian winter. The light stung my eyes as I furiously ascended the jagged mountainside, slipping, clenching the broken rocks with my fingertips. After two more agonizing bounds, I reached the whitewashed chapel with the wrought-iron windows and azure, domed roof, a building only slightly wider than my arm span.
A mixture of opaque, broken glass and mudstone crunched under my hiking boots as I cautiously entered the arched doorway. The ashes of smoky incense and long-forgotten prayers filled the air.
An elaborately dressed, ornate Peruvian doll, the chapel's incarnate saint, peered from her wooden box altar. Decorated with low-burned candles and assorted offerings, her shrine represented apparent antiquity, as did the lonely chapel itself, wedged into the foothills of the Andes. Who last prayed here? I wondered as I observed the shattered glass. And what did they ask for?
A pack of howling wild dogs broke the quiet of my thoughts. Outside on the weathered stone steps, our instructor motioned to my group. It was time to continue our ascent, and I suddenly thought that perhaps the last person had prayed to make it to the top.
Directing my silent wishes to the delicate religious doll, I tightened the straps on my backpack and stepped from the somber chapel into the harsh afternoon light. A looming giant and my newest challenge, the mountain was so lofty that I had to crane my neck completely to marvel at the three monumental crosses at its peak. The chapel was barely a twentieth of the way up, and the path to the top was riddled with boulders, shaky earth, needlepoint cacti, and ominous scorpions.
“Okay,” said our instructor abruptly, “we have three hours to get up and back down. Ready?” My fingers shook with nervous excitement. To be honest, after spending a month excavating Moche ruins in the unforgiving mountains of Cerro Leon, I was ready for anything.
The climb was more akin to a rapid charge, as the eight of us chewed the terrain with our rubber-soled boots. The first few exhilarating minutes passed easily, but soon, time began to slow. A gnawing burn settled in my thighs, my breathing became choppy and irregular, as each step was more labored.
Stopping three-quarters of the way to pluck the tiny cactus spines from my palms, I turned to view my progress. The countryside of northern Peru spread before me like a ragged patchwork quilt, dotted with the pack of wild dogs that had started following us but then wisely decided against it. The mutts were now reduced to the size of the fragmented rocks beneath their paws. On the horizon, a monstrous column of smoke billowed: gray, black, and gritty, engulfing a withered, harvested field of cane sugar. A flock of ratty vultures hovered near the smoke, and I realized with great satisfaction that I was higher than the birds.
Only a quarter of the way to go. Three white crosses waited hundreds of feet above, growing larger with every crunch of rock beneath my feet. As I struggled in the afternoon sun, I couldn't help but envision the builders of the crosses. As I had at the lonely chapel, I wondered, Who were those people? Why did they risk life and limb to carry a thousand pounds of wood up this steep, slippery mountain? And furthermore, why was I following in their sandy footsteps, racing up a near cliff with a load of archeological equipment on my back?
As I pounded the soft sand at the summit and laid my aching body next to the simply constructed crosses, I deeply breathed in the Peruvian air as if it were the first breath of my life. And in some ways, it was. Reaching to touch one of the splintering religious symbols, I was forcefully struck with the realization that everything worth doing in life is based on faith.
For the builders of the crosses, the pilgrimage to the mountain's summit represented faith in a higher power; for me, the climb represented faith in myself. And as I sat at the top of that mountain, surveying the blending of countryside and gray sky, I knew that the greatest lesson of my young life – to have faith in my abilities – came from scaling a mound of rock in the remote highlands of Peru.