I anticipated the headache, dizziness, and nausea associated with the drastic change in altitude; I even embraced it, drawing my first full breath of empty air on the tarmac of the Cusco airport. What I had not expected, and what surprised me most, was the effect of altitude on the dreaming mind.
Disrupted by the body’s attempt at remedying the lack of oxygen (increased respiration, red blood cell production, and metabolism), the brain begins to falter in its capacity to cycle appropriately through the stages of sleep. One theory is that the inability of the REM stage to remain stable between deeper and lesser states of restoration causes more vivid and abnormal dreams. I began to notice these effects from my first night in Cusco – the novelty, intensity, and seeming randomness of images has been my most sincere companion ever since.
This country has, in many ways, caused me to sustain experiences in my waking life that I had always considered unique to dreaming. In both worlds, I am without myself, steeped in the absolute foreign. In both worlds, revoked of familiarity, beauty and suffering become so vivid that they pull themselves apart to the poles of the earth. Still, only here, I am compelled by their vividness in either direction. There is an unchanging truth in their unity and a translation between waking and dreaming. During the day I saw the city from high in the hills, in a dream I tasted a fruit that had been ripening for centuries; in both worlds the single sense is all-encompassing and the self is lost in it.
Throughout Peru’s vast history and even today, shamanic dream practices seek to uncover the subconscious wisdom and awareness that is already present within – a way of understanding reality informed by the unification of the waking and dreaming states. It is common for a shaman to discover their calling through dreams, as it is believed that the mountain peaks will communicate with a sleeping person when they are ready to begin their healing practice. They then must climb the mountain that has spoken to them and seek the truth in waking life, thus, finding themselves through their subconscious. From this perspective, the process of self-actualizing in my dreams is a process of realizing what is destined to be achieved.
One rather unique part of this process for me has been attempting to internalize the Spanish language through dreams. Within the first week of my arrival, I was bombarded with a language I was only marginally equipped to navigate, trying to handle all areas of public life with minimal vocabulary. One morning, at breakfast with our host family, my roommate Kele reported a dream he had the night before. A woman, after surviving a tornado, handed her infant to him to care for and the child turned and said “el viento fue muy fuerte.” I was amused, and curious if I had the capacity to understand words in sleep that I could hardly understand while awake. Two nights later I dreamt I was playing a game of tag in which purple rings were used to indicate who was out. I tagged a woman and, upon realizing she only spoke Spanish, I said to her “señora, necesitas un anillo morado.”
Telling my story the next morning at breakfast, I felt I had accomplished something significant. Like I had stepped further onto a path that I could not name but has remained constant ever since. The nature of studying abroad is to confront self-actualization at every moment, and for me, this has meant that the realm of dreaming and waking life merge in ways that are both uncomfortable and radically beautiful. It is like being thrust into cold water and struggling to regain the breath as it swells in and out trying to reestablish an interrupted flow. Slowly I am finding it. There are small things that bring me back into myself like walking to class or eating my breakfast, taking cold showers, or climbing out of bed and pulling back the curtains after a night of navigating the flotsam of an 11,000 ft dream.
Elias Lopez is a student at Western Washington University and an ISA Featured Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in Cusco, Peru.