Missed me, didn’t you? Two full weeks of me not writing you and telling you the things floating around in my brain must have been excruciating. I mean, really, it’s not just self importance, now is it?
I’ve got a couple of things to tell you, but I promised Mark Boas and Laurian Gridinoc that I would write about my excursions in Peru. Thus, if you are looking for a post about something relevant to technology, education or art…well, read on. It all has its place in my psychotic attempts to kill myself in South America.
I started my trip with an Amazonian boat that took me an hour down the Madres de Dios to what I like to call a “Luxury Camping” facility. If there’s no Internet, it’s called camping. I’ve been camping for weeks. I did some day trips and wandered into the Amazon where I learned that touching things is bad. I was tattooed purple by the Huito fruit, had my mouth numbed by some crazy plant (can’t remember the name), and did some interesting dance moves to avoid having my head bashed in by Brazil Nuts (which are encased in giant shells like coconuts). When the rain starts, the rushing river of mud that will begin under your feet can suck your shoes off and push you face first into the tropical mud pie that used to be the Earth. You have to be awake in the jungle, lest the snakes or caimans decide you look tasty or threatening. Good lesson: If you are about to be attacked by a bushmaster, take off some clothes, throw them at the snake, and run like hell to avoid a painful death.
During this total lack of Internet, I felt withdrawals every evening when I wanted to learn more about something I had experienced during the day. I couldn’t fact check if the toad I saw that was literally bigger than my head was normally even bigger. Without a connection to quickly Wikipedia whether that tarantula could hurt me if I touched it, I was forced to try and remember whether or not tarantulas can puncture human skin with their itty bitty teeth. They can, by the way, but most tarantulas are harmless to humans – their poison isn’t poisoness enough. I couldn’t remember at the time, and just looked at the big hairy monster when I really wanted to touch it.
My memory fail reminded me to wonder (again) whether we’re better off having all information at our fingertips. This discussion has been had, but it’s never really been rectified, has it? Does the access some of us now have to the ever expanding knowledge bank mean that our brains are becoming less capable of storing information that might keep us out of harm’s way? Or are we storing the same amount of information, just absorbing it differently? Someone point me to non-boring medically research articles about the growth of the hippocampus in relation to the usage of the WWW.
After five days of jungle, I began what was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life – a four day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We started the trail by biking 55km down from 4300m to 1800m on mountain bikes, which was extremely beautiful and really fast. We were going faster than cars on the road. One misjudged turn or bend and you might plummet a few thousand meters. It was amazing to ride through the fog, into the clouds, get drenched by the rain and then descend the Andes through 60 different microclimates. Eye opening. Afterwards, we white water rafted a piece of the river and hiked about 300m straight up before coming to our first evening which was in a mud house belonging to an Incan who’s father had been the cook for Che Guevara.
He told us a story in Quechuan, which was translated into English by a guide who could understand the ancient Incan language but not speak it. The story was an Incan legend about the beginning. He said:
“Unlike the story in the Bible, we believe that in the beginning there was Light. Only light.”
The story was about duality. Light and dark. Day and night. Love and hate. It was a really good story, which established a reasoning for the Incan belief in worshipping the Sun. I thought about how this experience underlined my previous knowledge. I thought about how I, as a webist, need to remember that personal interaction is worth ten times digital interaction. How learning is inspired by a real connection to something. It made me think about how creating that connection with people, through your content, is important. It made me wonder if I am connecting with you. It’s hard to know if we’re connecting because you are over there, and I am over here.
The next day we hiked 8 hours on the Incan trail. It was unbelievable. In my favorite Tom Robbins book (Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates) the main character says that South America is “too goddamn vivid”. This is true. The trail is a hard one, not for the faint of heart. The sheer altitude of a lot of the trail, combined with the breadth and steepness made it more than a hike. There were passes that were about a foot wide with a cliff to oblivion on the one side. There are plenty of places to fall to your death – plenty of rickity bridges, slippery slopes and, at one point, there’s a cable car crossing the raging river that didn’t actually feel all that safe.
That evening I had a conversation with a few Irish elementary school teachers. Three guys, 25 years old – they didn’t know anything other than Facebook and Google. They had no idea what the Open Web was, basic web literacy things, what privacy online should mean, how to use a computer in the classroom, resources that exist for teachers, how learning can be supported using digital tools and techniques. I asked them about Ireland’s digital literacy initiatives and one of them said “I don’t know dick, and neither do my students. No one cares about this.” Web = Facebook. Search = Google. Mozilla = Firefox. Digital Skills = Not Important.
We working here in this realm have our work cut out for us.
When we arrived at Manchu Picchu at 5am a day later, it was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. When I recovered from the 500m vertical climb up ancient stone steps (read: twisty, turny, totally not regulation, varying heights of a mess of steps that took about an hour to climb), I had an absolutely a spiritual experience, not because of the amazing ruins there, but because of what it took to get there.
I couldn’t see the ruins at 5am. The fog collects, you can’t see anything not even the iconic mountain behind the ruins. It didn’t matter. I genuinely didn’t care. And I didn’t cry because I couldn’t see the ruins from our perch at the top of the hill. I cried because I had an epiphany of understanding. I cried because I understood something that most people will never understand. Only 75000 people hike the Inca Trail per year. That’s 0.0000125% of the population, and I belong to that percentage. I can’t explain what I now understand. I can’t teach it to you. But it’s about respect and encompasses the three Incan principles (Love. Work. Study.) of a good life.
Later in the morning the fog began to clear, but it still wasn’t about the destination. The tourists started to show up on buses. Bus after bus arrived. People came and took pictures and were loud and generally annoying. People littered! They freaking littered at Machu Picchu! WTF!? People oohed and awed at the ruins. I just stood there, mouth open, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do now.