23: More Mud, Please

23: More Mud, Please

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

More Mud, Please

Everyone has a “risk muscle.” You keep it in shape by trying new things. If you don’t, it atrophies. Make a point of using it at least once a day.

~Roger Von Oech

The stench in the room was almost unbearable, made worse by the skittish guinea pigs circling my feet and squealing as if they knew they would be dinner that evening. I tried to wipe the mud off my face, forgetting my hands were completely caked with the stuff. Giving up on cleanliness, I threw a big hunk of mud, full of hay, hair, and what looked an awful lot like feces, onto a brick. I glanced down — we had run out of mud.

Mas barro, por favor,” I said to the family. More mud, please.

Only a week ago I was on winter break in Connecticut, where my idea of filth had been the dust collecting on the top of my dresser. Now I was in the Andes with my college scholars group, building a clean burning stove for a Peruvian family who owned a lamb that was allowed to saunter through the kitchen whenever it pleased. The family (and the lamb) watched me as I worked, standing by the door with shovels, ready to bring me more mud the minute I ran out of the vile substance.

I tried to slap away a persistent fly buzzing in my ear and started hacking away at the wall of the kitchen with a pickaxe. The soot from the old stove caked on the adobe had made the wall crooked and not conducive to chimney building. Every time the pickaxe struck the hardened soot, the guinea pigs squealed, creating a strange cacophony of hand tool and rodent noises. I turned around to my stove-building partner and asked, for what felt like the hundredth time that week, “Are we really here right now?”

The minute we landed in Cusco after almost twenty-four hours of traveling, I felt my heart race from the thin Andean air and knew that my coddled existence was about to change. For a week and a half, I stayed with the Chihuantitos, my middle class host family of four. Marulyn, the mother, spoke only Spanish and I spoke only English, so our communication was based around my affinity for her food and her pitying looks as I walked through the front door covered head to toe in barro.

“Oh, Madeline,” she’d sigh, with the look of a concerned mother that transcended any language barrier, and she’d gesture to the laundry basket, offering to wash my muddy clothes.

My outfit certainly wasn’t the only dirty thing in Peru. A thin layer of grime seemed to cover everything in the city of Cusco, from the tables in the restaurants to the lukewarm shower in the Chihuantito’s apartment. Up in the mountains in the town of Ancahuasi, the people we built stoves for often went barefoot down the dirt paths to their houses, leading the way to the stove-building site. The matriarch would walk ahead of me, her white top hat bobbing up and down with each step, her baby staring blankly from underneath folds of cloth on her back.

One of the last families I built a stove for lived very far from the meeting site we went to every morning. We trekked through hills and pastures and cornfields, holding out our arms to keep the corn stalks from whacking our sunburned faces. A cow looked menacingly at me as I passed it, standing by a stream of water, and I wondered briefly whether the hulking creature could shed the flimsy looking rope tied around its front hoof.

We came to a river with half a skinny tree trunk for a bridge. The Peruvian woman leading us charged fearlessly ahead, her gnarled feet stepping in a perfect line, one in front of the other. I stumbled across, breathing in sharp gasps as I looked at the rushing water below me. Thinking I was almost done, we instead came to another, smaller river.

We stopped. I looked for a bridge. The woman, whose name I can’t remember now but whose wrinkled, leathery face is etched in my memory, looked back at us, turned around, and threw herself across the river, grabbing the other side with her dirt-stained hands, grunting as she struggled up. She stood and looked at us, as if to say “Okay, your turn.”

My partner jumped. I hesitated. Was I really being asked to jump across a river? The answer was absolutely yes. I made sure my backpack was secure, rolled up the sleeves of the dirty black shirt I’d been wearing for three days in a row, and launched myself across the river.

Needless to say, I made it.

When we returned to the United States, setting foot on American soil in the form of JFK airport, it felt like much more than ten days had passed. In my mud-stained backpack was a journal I’d written in to remember my time in Peru. The other day, I opened up the journal for the first time in months as a ticket to Machu Picchu, a postcard, and a map of Cusco tumbled out. I thumbed through the pages and found an entry about riding in the back of a pick-up truck, standing and breathing the Andean air while watching the mountains pass. It struck me in its simplicity and its ability to sum up my entire Peruvian experience. It read:

It was completely unsafe, terrifying, cold, hard, rough, dirty... and one of the most indescribably beautiful moments of my life.

Looking back, that’s all there is to say about my trip to Peru. The only thing missing is this: I’ll never forget it.

~Madeline Clapps

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