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A young arriero leads a mule across fresh snow in the Peruvian Andes. Photo by Benjamin Swift (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist), South America Semester.

Clouds

I have been aware of clouds for nearly as long as I can remember. I often marveled at their billowing whiteness high above or quivered in fear at their foreboding darkness and dispensing of lightning and rain. However, I had no idea how intimate my relationship with clouds would become during my first ingression into the Cordillera Real range of the Bolivian Andes. During the beginning of our most recent trek, my friend and fellow Dragoncito Mahesh observed, “We are not only traveling in the highest regions of the Earth, but in the lowest regions of the sky.” Despite being impressed (although not surprised) by how poetic and profound this statement was, none of us appreciated how prophetic it would prove to be. We were moving through a land that was not our own, a land of indescribably immense mountains, stoic llamas, and clouds. So many clouds. We all quickly became very familiar with the latter most.

On the first evening of our trek, I gaped in appreciation at fluffy behemoths gently draping themselves over a nearby mountain peak like one of the soft Alpaca scarves which seem to be sold everywhere in Bolivia. A few days later I sat on a high mountain pass the group had impressively crested in the midst of a brief snow storm, and searched in vain for the stunning vista I had been promised. Instead I was greeted by a wall of white so massive and impenetrable it hurt my eyes to look at. An entire 180 degrees of my view had been obscured entirely to the point of elimination. Moments later, as the group and I slipped and slid over wet wet slivers of rock down the other side of the pass, I realized that I was inside of the very clouds which I had needed to I crane my head to see so very recently. Although the visions of warm Alpaca fur were replaced with biting cold and an inability to see even a few feet in front of myself, I felt joy blossom inside of me. I was happy to be fully immersed in and enveloped by this strange land which I had ventured into and to be embraced and welcomed by one of its primary inhabitants.