This was my entry for the 2013 World Nomads’ Travel Writing Scholarship to Beijing. I didn’t make the top three, but I did make the shortlist.
Considering there were 1125 entries, I’m pretty excited about that! Here is a link to the World Nomads’ Page with the winning entries and complete shortlist.
The porter’s eyes twinkle as he passes me the soap. It’s dark along the Inca Trail, but moonlight fills the campsite as hikers prepare for bed. As I wash my hands, I ask his name. He winks when he hears my Spanish.
The name slides off his tongue into a soup of Quechua vowels.
I find a grassy spot to sit nearby. He hesitates, but approaches. We gaze at the starry sky. Looming mountains split the world into light and dark.
“Did you like dinner?” he asks, bridging the silence.
I nod, and ask if the porters had carried the trout all the way from Cuzco.
“We fished while you were napping.”
I blush. A lazy tourist, was that me? I thought I was tough for tackling a four-day trek, yet I’d hired someone to carry my gear.
“How long have you been a porter?”
He brushes aside his thick, black hair, tucking it under his “chullo.”
“Two years, but I’ve worked since I left home.”
“How old were you then?”
“Seven. Now, I’m 23.”
I pull at the threads of my alpaca sweater – a gringo tourist staple. We’re the same age, but my idea of work is sitting in an office, making more an hour than he does in two days.
“Why so young?”
“All of us children were sent to Cuzco to work.”
Avoiding his stare, I let my eyes fall to our legs, which almost touch at the knees. My feet glow in the night, but his are black; dry mud cakes his knockoff Adidas sandals.
“I’m studying to be a guide,” he continues.
I ask what he’s learning and he clasps my hand eagerly.
“English and Inca culture. History is my favourite.” He glances down, dropping my hand. My fingers tingle with the imprints of his calluses.
“I studied history too, in Canada.”
Aderlin sweeps his hand across the horizon. “Here, we follow a path that’s over 500 years old. Isn’t it the most beautiful place to work?”
I smile and tilt my head back. I search for the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia but for me the southern sky is an unmarked map. Aderlin explains that Quechua people find constellations in the spaces between stars. “Urcuchillay” the llama, and “Mach’acuay” the serpent. I squint to make out these shapes but I fail to see beyond the shadows.
When a cool breeze picks up, I wish Aderlin goodnight. At five the next morning, I’m woken by a soft call at the flap of my tent. Aderlin carries a tray with cups of coca-leaf tea.
“Your mate, miss.”
He gives me a steaming cup. I don’t see him again until he hustles past on the steep Inca stairs, a 20-kg duffel bag bouncing on his back and a grin on his face.