As the side of the mountain began to collapse that same primal, inner voice that I had last heard during the Northridge earthquake began to scream through my mind repeating the same word over and over: “Reverse! Reverse! Reverse!”
I had been staring from the window of the colectivo at the wingspans of two birds circling in a serpentine sliver of blue above the gorge trying to work out if they were condors when I began to notice small dust particles slipping away from the rock face before large sections began to break off in chunks crashing onto the road below, the road that I was travelling along. My iphone which I had tried to grab to record the scene suddenly became irrelevant as I realised I was in a life threatening situation. I managed to scan the area quickly realising the inauspiciousness of my location, the road hemmed in between a river and cliff before the bus was suddenly enveloped in a thick, acrid dust cloud. The other passengers some who had at first laughed when the mountain side gave way were now eerily silent waiting for fate to reveal itself. I’m sure that when the man sitting beside me began to mumble to himself he must have been praying. When the dust eventually cleared another man, a mestizo, stood outside my window pointing to the mountain waving his finger angrily at it, at Pachamama, the Quechua Mother Earth. The most disturbing thing about what I had witnessed was not the landslide itself but realising after the road had been cleared that we, the passengers on the bus, were deemed as human beings a less valuable cargo than the contents of two trucks which were now reversing back down the road away from the danger zone.
at the colectivo stop
As the bus climbed further across the face of danger my thoughts were now consumed by geology, eyeing rocks and stones only breathing a sigh of relief when approaching rolling farmland. The landscapes eventually changed altogether as we travelled across a vast steppe, the Altiplano, which seemed to slope downwards at a slight angle away from the road suddenly ending at a mountain range far off in the distance. This mountain range, Urupampa, was topped off by Sawasiray, at almost six thousand metres it loomed majestically above all other mountains like a blackened quartz crystal being thrust out from the inner core of the Earth reaching high into the stars and towards the heavens. I looked in awe at it’s snow covered peak and was aware that this was the last great bulk of the Andes and the only thing seperating me from the malaria infested swamps of the Amazon basin behind the mountain thousands of feet below.
Andean village life
photos of sleepy Maras
The colectivo dropped me off in the main square of a village where I had planned to stay, my main plan being to walk to Salinas, ancient salt mines some distance away in use since the time of the Inca. Sitting in the silence of Maras’ main square I was reminded of the rundown towns of the indigenous North Americans I had travelled through in Arizona and New Mexico with their tumbleweed and the same oblivion to the outer world which here felt very faraway. The main square would have been quite unremarkable had it not been for the sobering image of the mangled shell of a colectivo which must have somersaulted at high speed somewhere else only for the wreckage to be dragged into the village and left to rust infront of the steps of a small red stone church not that much larger than a garden shed. I realised with Maras that it was what I had been searching for, rather forgotten, authentic, and most of all Quechuan it seemed a million miles from the other more colorful towns like Pisac and Ollantaytambo I had visited, unfortunately all firmly on the tourist trail.
inhabitant of Maras
Walking through narrow lanes of simple homes some at the point of collapse I sneakily peeked through the shutters of windows, some without glazing, to homesteads of rickety furniture like something out of Little House on the Prairie, the dwellings rudimentary without even floorboards nevermind rugs. Along one lane I could hear music, a quivering solitary voice and his sad lament, the tin string notes of what could have been a lute quite alien to my ears. I didn’t sense any danger in the village but at the same time it didn’t seem very friendly either, just resigned to it’s sleepy fate. I could sense the people behind the walls, venerating their mountain spirits the apu and mysterious in their silence, steeped in superstition and witchcraft.
gracias amiga … gracias!
I passed a woman who had set up a metal barbecue frame on her doorstep where she was selling what I thought were large rats, she told me their name which I noted as q-oui later when accessing wifi I realised it was spelt cuy translated as guinea pig. On another doorway I noticed a red rag tied to the end of a wooden pole, the regions advertising for chicha, a red corn-based alcohol-free beverage that at first tastes remotely like strawberry but with a sour aftertaste that is impossible to describe and in the end I found unbearable to drink.
Along one lane I became quite startled at the face of an old woman carrying a bundle on her back. She was dressed in the traditional clothes of the Quechua but not as vivid or clean like the ones you would see in Cusco. I was instantly reminded of an old man I had once saw in Vrindavan. Like him the lines on her face seemed intense and windswept unable to conceal a life lived of love and loss. Hestitantly staring into her piercing, deepset black eyes I tried to explain that I would like to photograph her. I somehow expected her to be mad feeling I might be overstepping the customs of the villagers but in the softest voice of staggering beauty she said in Spanish “Yes my girlfriend, you are most welcome to photograph me.” Afterwards I slipped some silver coins into her hands which she took one by one and kissed saying “Gracias amiga, gracias.” I couldn’t help but admire her with the deepest respect as she walked away towards the town square under her bundles of cloth and life.
A little later a young boy of about ten saw me from an upper window of one of the houses and quickly disappearing excitedly reappeared running out of the doorway below carrying a small bundle of jangling metal. Suddenly he stopped running and stared down at the ground shuffling his shoes in the dust. Realising he must have been overcome with shyness I approached him and asked what he was holding. He showed me simple keyrings, just a square of silver metal with the word Peru inscribed; I bought some from him. Although I didn’t want the keyrings in particular the real happiness came watching him run back to his house shouting with joy and waving the green ten soles banknote in the air.
barbecued guinea pig anyone…?
salt mines at Salinas, find the man wearing red trousers!
Walking to Salinas along a dusty trail that a villager had advised me to follow as the homes faded I walked across cultivated land the magnitude of the landscapes quite remarkable. Althought the vastness made me think of farmland more at sea level gasping for oxygen reminded me that I was thousands of metres above. Sometime later I became startled at something moving behind a wall giving me thoughts of dread as I had never researched the possibility of carnivores like mountain cats in Peru. Thankfully a small smiling face appeared under an indigo blue woolly hat. The girl appeared excited as she rushed over to me speaking in an unfamiliar language as happy to see me as I her. Although young she seemed to have a firm dislike of Spanish words pointing repeatedly to herself and saying the word Quechua proudly over and over. This simple interaction across cultures, languages and generations was my greatest moment in Peru. Laughing I tried to explain that she must try to speak Spanish or English for the ways of the world but to always remember she is Quechua first and foremost. Like the other Quechua I had spoke to I could understand their pain myself coming from a country where our own mother tongue had been obliterated. I felt an intense bond with the indigenous peoples and their struggles against the Spanish whom after invasion killed their Emperor, Atawallpa, looted their wealth while destroying their infrastructure and even their Imperial capital, Qosqo. Bringing smallpox which killed millions these seismic facts are often brushed away as distant history but it is evident that this pain and the consequences of a foreign, parasitic society is not distant history but live on in the people today. Recently under the Fujimori government the Quechua were targeted again only this time under a forced sterilization program and had the highest number of casualities in the Peruvian civil war of the Eighties. I thought Peru would have been an incredible introduction to South America which it was but I left with a heart far heavier than when I had arrived. If I ever pass through the great European cities again with their elegant restaurants, fine architecture and wealth I will forever remember the face of that little girl living on the Altiplano with pride burning in her eyes and of all the Quechua, one of the greatest peoples I have ever known.
the proud Quechua girl outside Maras
Caught up in thoughts of life and heartbreak I realised how much I was in my element being alone in those vast alien spaces, the silence only broken by random interactions with random people. History was cruel I decided. People were better to photograph, to be amazed at, to laugh with but my greatest love from now on could never be a person, never again. That sort of love was too fleeting, too painful, too primative, too unstable.
While sitting on a wall in what seemed like the middle of nowhere staring across golden patchwork fields of swaying barley caught in the breeze I noticed tiny black specks far off in the distance. Unable to work out if they were people or animals I realised I didn’t need to find out. I had my answers in the mountains and their forbode, in the rain and light and only from time to time in the eyes of strangers.
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