Two-thirds of the year I live approximately 8500 feet up in the Andes Mountains of South America. I have never lived for any length of time in the mountains and it can be a frightful place. My house is situated at the base of an extinct volcano that serves as the gatekeeper for any weather coming in our direction. It's a muscular thing, officially called Mt. Imbabura, but more fondly called in indigenous folklore, Taitay Imbabura. Across the broad valley from Taitay, stands Mt. Cotacachi, or Mama Cotacachi. Legend has it that they are the father and mother of the region and it was formed due to their various disagreements and subsequent lovemaking over thousands of years. It rains whenever Taitay is angry or urinating, and if Mama wakes up on any given morning wearing a light dusting of pure white snow, well, then you know that the couple made up sometime during the night.
It can be difficult to breathe at such an altitude, especially for newcomers, and if you do visit, you might suffer from a nagging headache for a couple of days before you acclimate. I live about a mile or so from the sacred Peguche waterfall and it is one of my favorite walks should I become motivated to improve my health. For the most part, the hike takes me along a narrow stream (here called a river) that skirts the base of the mountain and then dives into a forest of eucalyptus and cypress and cedar. Here the path narrows and becomes humus-y and the stream runs clearer and starts up a chatter in the generally quiet surroundings. It is certainly peaceful, possibly because I am unable to see Taitay from there and I could very well be walking through the resplendent woods of North Idaho or Western Washington instead of on more sacred ground.
I can hear the waterfall about a hundred yards before I actually reach it and by that time I have woven my way through cows tethered in the long and very green grass near the path, young lovers planted against tall cedars, testing their abilities, and a few professorial gringos perhaps arguing over the necessity of the Oxford comma. All this before arriving at a platform, precariously built close enough to the falls to receive a continuous heavy mist created by raging water eating into volcanic rock. It is loud and breathtaking and I can see why the ancients considered it a sacred place. Most often I shiver not because of the drifting mist.
By the time I head back, my shirt is soaked, so Taitay having a fit won't really affect me, or so I think. In May of this year, a record was set for the amount of rainfall or urine or tears Taitay managed to produce over the course of the month and on my last trip to visit the waterfall, all hell broke loose. I have been in downpours before, having grown up in Southwest Washington State, or running from the subway to my hotel room in New York City, but Taitay was especially angry this last time. Within ten yards, my shirt and pants were pasted to my body and my hair, in spite of the deluge, seemed to be prickling with every strike of the jagged lightning. I took off jogging, a mistake for me at any altitude these days, and by the time I reached my front gate, I was gasping for the oxygen deprived me by my life-threatening decision to live in an exotic location. But I lived, again, and after one of his most thundering roars, I dropped to my knees and bowed to Papa Imbabura, vowing to find the culprit who had flipped his climatic switch.
Drying off later, it occurred to me I'd been here before. Turns out living at 8500 feet is not all that different from living through a normal November in the Pacific Northwest (on an entirely different continent, I might add). Except for that nagging headache.