The Highlands of Peru and Reverse Sensory Shock

Like many frequent travelers, I stopped regularly experiencing “culture shock,” or reverse culture shock, a long time ago.

That’s why, on of my recent returns to New York City, it was unusual that I felt noticeably more disoriented and challenged than before I had left. This city is never easy, but everything about it seemed harder than ever to parse and absorb and digest and cope with. Inside, my Manhattan apartment was a sensory deprivation box. Outside, crowds were overwhelming. When crossing a street in Midtown, or navigating a sidewalk, the pedestrian flow came at me in a bewildering onslaught. The subway was intolerably claustrophobic. I felt hemmed in by other people’s proximity, assaulted by the discrete sights, sounds, shape of their presence. I interrogated friends: Is something going on? Isn’t New York more crowded than usual? I questioned myself: Why do we live this way, crammed together in a suffocating mass?

I had to admit that it wasn’t New York, it was me: I was undergoing a kind of reverse culture shock— or more accurately, sensory shock. Just prior to this episode, we had spent a week in highland Peru. It was a short but intense period. We were in the Andean altiplanos, in some of the highest-altitude regions and settlements in the world, where the distances are strikingly vast and apparently empty. You can look across a valley or field and see what seems like nothing, for miles. After a while, on a hillside in the distance, you notice some specks of white. Are they flowers? Alpacas? Sheep? Houses? Rocks? The distances are so vast, austere, and featureless, that scale or depth is no help, and it takes effort and the rallying of all your senses to form a guess. Driving through passes in the highlands, you often don’t see a single person for hours. Or, think again: straining your eyes, you may spot a small figure engulfed in the vastness of the landscape.

After acculturating and sensitizing yourself to this environment, you come to know it’s not empty. It’s full of life and spirit. Condors ascend miles out of the blue depths of the Colca Canyon and you squint and strain your eyes to see their form take shape out of the stark blue sky. Vicuña flicker in and out of vision against the craggy background. You are led to a sacred place where the apu is said to live. From a distance, it looks like a pile of pebbles, or a small hill, but as you move closer, it becomes a massive volcanic formation towering high above. Climbing inside, you find an intimate plateau carpeted with soft greenery and tiny orange flowers. From that vantage, soft white llamas extend and blur into the soft white clouds in the horizon.

In the process of opening your senses to perceive all that lives in the stark landscape, the landscape comes into you, and opens you.

Returning from this context, back to the city, was jarring. The close quarters of small apartments and restaurants felt stifling and sensorily deprived. Crowds and commerce were overwhelming and abrasive. My senses, adapted as they were to the Peruvian highlands, were a liability here. It took some time to recalibrate to the urban environment, and I did, but the question has remained in my mind.

Why do we live this way?