Located at the base of the mountain, Aguas  Calienetes is the
Located at the base of the mountain, Aguas Calientes is the “jumping off point” for visitors to Machu Picchu.

I rise before dawn and dress in the near dark. I grope the walls for the light switch above the sink basin. The bare bulb flickers awake and I quickly brush my teeth with bottled water. The bus is waiting.

The air outside is heavy and damp. Except for a handful of local outfitters and tourists who stumble towards the bus clutching coffee and backpacks, the outpost is still asleep. Seedy bars and overpriced restaurants sit idle and dark; souvenir stands cower under blankets of plastic. Wedged on a sliver of land between the roaring Urubamba River and the longest mountain range in the world, Aguas Calientes seems less like a town than a few forgotten crumbs lining the pocket of the giant Andes.

The movement of the bus jolts me awake. I am one week and three thousand miles from home in the jungle of Machu Picchu. My husband was so furious about my leaving that he barely spoke to me in the days leading up to my departure. He gave a lame excuse for not driving me to the airport to which I countered that since I could get myself to South America, I most assuredly could get myself to a plane. My departure was icy. Was it too much to ask him to understand that I was drawn to this place like water to a divining rod? There is risk in all travel but I was well-prepared for the trip. I was troubled and disappointed that after nearly thirty years of marriage, my husband and I were unable to simply agree to disagree.

After our plane landed in Lima, it took nearly a week to acclimate to the altitude and travel by bus and train to reach the jumping off point at the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. We spent the afternoon exploring and hiking the ruins. The beauty was breath-taking. I snapped hundreds of photos but none captured the spiritual essence that draws over three millions visitors to this remote area of Peru.

Today’s outing, however, seems not so promising. The sky is a low grey ceiling; driblets of water trace the window glass. High above the main site, two massive stones mark the Inti Punku or Sun Gate. Researchers believe it to be the original main entry to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail. On rare mornings when the mountain is not shrouded in cloud cover, the sun rises directly between them.

The bus drops us off near the gate and we begin winding ourselves up and around the side of the mountain. A few hikers turn back, uncomfortable with the narrowness of the trail. Alone and unafraid, I move steadily in silence, holding close to the mountainside. The clouds occasionally thin into wisps of cotton candy. I glimpse the sky; we have missed the sunrise.

At the summit, our guide Fernando sits perched like a spider across a boulder. He is mysteriously suspended in mid-air, supported by clouds. Lanky and handsome, he looks more Spanish than Kechuan. He has a surprising mouthful of silver braces and habitually lowers his head self-consciously. Chuckling to myself, I greet him by name. As a child of the ‘80’s, “Fernando” reminds me of the Abba song. I mentally hum a few bars but I can only recall the words to the chorus. I pull my water bottle and some nuts from my backpack and sit down beside him.

“You speak English very well” I say. His shy smile says he is pleased by my compliment. He tells me how he grew up about fifty miles away in the original Incan capitol of Cuzco. A few summers back, he travelled to New York. He loved the US and hopes to return when he has saved enough money.

At the mention of home, I feel myself tense.

Like a door that has been left open, I am suddenly aware of a hollow, nearly imperceptible hole in myself. I am chilled; the wind seems to blow right through me. Fernando thanks me, straightens his limbs and with a word of caution, disappears back down the trail. What had happened? Had Fernando sensed it too? Breathing in the vapors, I stare into the milky abyss, willing myself to remember this place, this moment.

I discover along my descent that the jungle has come alive in my absence. Slithering vines snake upwards while orchids languish like jewels on emerald silk, glistening from the previous night’s rain. Trills from tropical birds pierce the space high above my head and a glint of color flashes in my peripheral vision. I stop, peer up and then down the side of the mountain, yet see nothing but clouds. Further down the trail, the apparition reappears, hovering like an orb. Small and transparent as cellophane, its color shifts from yellow to pink to lavender. I try to photograph it but the camera lens moves in and out as if there is nothing there. I rub my eyes and look again, but it is gone.

Am I imagining things?

Suddenly, there is a break in the clouds. For a few moments, the magnificence of Machu Picchu spreads like a postcard below me. Mountains guard the site like moss covered sentries. Clouds swirl and dance, snagging themselves on distant peaks and wrestling the sunlight in a war of dark blue and purple. Stone walls and terraces lay cast upon the earth like a toddler’s forgotten puzzles. I am utterly spellbound.

I greet Fernando at the trail’s end and recount to him my experience. His face lights up as he explains “There are many butterflies in the Amazon called Morpho Butterflies. They seem to change colors when they fly!”

A week later I have returned back home. Like the maps and souvenir rocks and coins I brought home, my recollection of the mysterious butterfly becomes lost among the numerous memories of my journey. I sleep in my comfortable bed and drink fresh water, yet I am filled with discontent. Everything is moving too fast. On nights I cannot sleep, I walk into my backyard. I am transported back to my time in Peru. I gaze up to see the same sky that had held me pinned to those mountaintops. Now I feel weighted down by earth.

Years later, I begin searching for the creature I saw fluttering in and out of those clouds. While there are hundreds of species of butterflies in the Amazon, none seemed to look like the image I remembered. Only recently, I discovered what I believe I saw: The Mother of Pearl Morpho Butterfly. It is described as “the most iridescent of all butterflies.”

I was surprised to find this butterfly prominently featured in the Salvador Dali painting, Allegorie de Soie or Allegory of Silk. This work features disjointed images of an egg, a woman clad in elegant silk attire and several butterflies including the Pearl Morpho. The images are superimposed on a background whose shadows and lines give the feeling of time passing.  I interpret the piece as a  statement of transformation: the cocoon into the butterfly, the butterfly into the woman and then the woman back into the butterfly. Not shown, is the cracking of that egg, the unrest, the messy, chipping away of the old which is the untidy forebearer of all transformation.

“Change” is not particularly pretty nor is it easy.

Pearl Morpho Butterfly
Pearl Morpho Butterfly

It is disconcerting when we realize we are living a life that no longer fits. I believe it is human nature to want to keep that which we hold dear in those safe familiar places and yet, it is a manifestation of the spiritual and our trust in the divine that gives courage and leads us down unforged roads into unfamiliar territory. We are not born to be stagnant. It was in the unfamiliar that I began my own transformation. In middle age, I am attuned to the sound of my own heartbeat and in the listening, I become alive.

Salvador Dali's painting, Allegorie de Soie.
Salvador Dali’s painting, Allegorie de Soie.