Wednesday, August 17, 1988

Amantani, Lake Titicaca, Peru


AMANTANI, LAKE TITICACA, PERU     8/17/88              

In the heart of the Peruvian Andes, Lake Titicaca, a deep blue inland sea intersticed with umber and sienna, reflects the sky and desert hills surrounding Puno with a vengeance. Horizons shimmer with lapis lazuli luminescence—the refractive quality of light on the altiplano so different at this great height.

An Indian in our boat plays a thin, atonal melody over and over with his quena flute, a bamboo penny whistle. "No, he corrects me, "it’s a piruru.—carved from a condor’s wing feather shaft  My perception begins to waver as he repeats the simple notes over and over. Or maybe it’s the thin air above 12,500 feet that’s affecting me.  

A channel wends along a wall of reeds; miles and miles of reeds; serpentine hissing, like pines in a high wind. Small mats of vegetation, algae and lakeweed carpets undulate, and constellations of bubbles escape from the shallow floor.

Uros fisherman

As we approach the land of the Uros nation—floating reed islands—giant Andean coots honk and scuttle among fallen tortoras. Ripples divide an Andean gull’s reflection  into four parts, a broken mirror, the four corners of the earth. “Reeds tied together in a clump mark the edges of the channel,” says the old boatman in halting Spanish, as he polled the reed boat with slow measured movements. Tortoras—everything, even the floating islands are made from the tall reed. We debark onto a bowed wooden plank. The islands make a rollicking motion beneath our feet, like walking on a huge waterbed.  


An Uros fisherman, perhaps the village idiot, repeatedly shakes our hands, pats our shoulders and peels a reed for me to eat. He strips off the outer bark and hands it to me, “Para comer,” he says, with a decayed smile, “Eat.” And stares. I hesitate, hoping that the reed has filtered the raw sewage pouring from the open gutters of Puno—a desperate town if ever there was one. It tastes mallowy, of dank, white underbelly, like the insides of the river elder stem.

A tethered pig roots and squeals when I approach. Uros is a landless nation. Soon, the pig will root his way through the island and drown!  Grubby children sell replicas of reed boats. The women hawk crudely embroidered wall hangings. We buy nothing and feel saddened by the children begging, it’s much worse here than in Cuzco.

At least in Cuzco, home to more than 3,000 street children, there are more tourists to beg and steal from. We escape to the boat, it becomes a refuge from this poverty and bleakest of lives. We have no words in Aymara to say hello, goodbye or sorrow, for that matter.

I watch the young ones play at the water’s edge; they are like children anywhere. A rotting reed boat with someone’s bundled manta inside, plastic litter, a charcoal brazier—pathetic remnants of a way of life that’s no longer viable. Soon, they will be all gone.

The Uros language is all but lost. Most Uros islanders have intermarried with the Aymara Indians. Anthropologists speculate that like the Pomos of Northern California, where I'm from, the Uros are among the oldest native peoples in South America. Persecuted by the Incas and by the Colla Aymaras for centuries on end, they took to hiding in the reeds. This way of life among the reeds became their culture—like that of the Marsh Arabs of Iraq. 

We bear witness to the last breath of a dying nation that so vividly captured the 1950s imagination of my youth. The Lake Titicaca of my dreams held vast ornate cities and large floating islands—not these small barren straw bale outposts of civilization, if you could call it that  More like subsistence survival.  Where were the big-breasted women in grass skirts posing in reed boats I'd seen in back issues of National Geographic?

We head for the island of Amantani because the boat happened to be going there to drop off supplies, our original destination was the more populous island of Taquile but there was no scheduled boat. It’s a grueling four-hour boat ride to Amantani and onto yet another culture. This is the seat of the Quechua Incas, the Inca conquerors who built the fabled stone cities we'd made pilgrimage to: Machu Picchu, P’isac, and Sajacmarca.

Lake Titicaca is a desert lake the size of an inland sea situated more than two miles above sea level. I keep looking for seals and test the air for the familiar salt tang. It smells more of the earth, dank cellars or moldy grain.

The barefoot men of Amantani wear thick black wool pants, white billowy shirts and vests, knitted hats with long tassels and earflaps. There is such rivalry between the island people of Amantani and Taquile, they won’t even intermarry. I imagine a Quechua version of Romeo and Juliet set in the weaving and textile capital of the Andes. The indio says “Amantani  es mejor. Hay muchas ruinas.”  He tells us the island of Taquile has none...

But later I find out that the island of Taquile, the more popular tourist destination, too, has many ruins. I am saddened by the boatman’s zealous misinformation. When will I ever have the opportunity to come here again to bear witness to this place? 

These ancient cultures we seek are swiftly dying from the vicissitudes of tourism. We too are part of the problem, but our varied and sullen art helps us document what we see. I am traveling to the underbelly of the world with my boyfriend, poet and translator, John Oliver Simon—we are on a quest in search of the poets of South America.. This is a side trip. Kavafy's Journey, not the destination.

Small trout and gorgeous large, gold-headed fish swim among the aquatic plants. I sense the movement of something large under the water—what loch monster lives in these depths? The suche, the world’s largest freshwater fish, lives here along with sweet water mackerel, or the pejerrey. Are they truly mackerel? or are we having a cross cultural linguistic conundrum? How did ocean-going fish get into this lake two miles above sea level? If they're really mackerel, an ancient lake, or perhaps even a sea, Titicaca must have risen up from the sea floor with the Andes themselves.

“We use small nets, fishing only at night, we fish under a full moon or at dawn—and still we catch nothing,” says a fisherman. “The water’s too deep and cold here. There is better fishing there among the reeds.” This highest navigable lake, as all the guidebooks proclaim, is the largest navigable lake above 2,000 meters in the world. Higher than Lake Victoria. Bernardo O'Higgins launched his dream of the Chilean Navy from here.

Vital statistics in feet or meters mean little to me. I have to experience it though my senses. At nearly 12,600  ft. above sea level, Lake Titicaca, with its 36 islands, not counting the artificial islands of the Uros, is 105 miles long. We’re in open water, buffeted by offshore winds. An incongruous red lateen-rigged sailboat on a long reach makes it seem like we’re in Egypt instead of Peru.

The fisherman talks of the  fierce winter storms that ravage this place and how huge waves mercilessly pound the shore. We watch the steamship from Bolivia belch thick black ropes into the painfully thin blue air.  No place for pollution to go in a fragile ecosystem perched at the ceiling of the sky.


The volcanic island of Amantani looms up, like terraced breasts. We manage a rocky beach landing and crawl up from the rocks like antediluvian ancestral ooze over terraces of bright green corn sprouting up like bamboo forests, and eucalyptus. We climb over tilled deep red earth and stone fences, panting from the altitude. No roads, not even a path. No horses, no carts, no automobiles.

We gringos are assigned to a family for the night. The island swallows us up like darkness. I spray our tortora reed bed and blankets with bug spray for fleas. They are busily feeding on my ankles. We take refuge on the wicker bed. But the bed’s so short, we have to sleep diagonally.

The outhouse on the cliff, with its raised (Middle Eastern) foot-rests, has a great view of the sunset across the lake. All the terraces are sloped at a 45 degree angle. Though the village of Santa Rosa de Amantani was founded only 20 years ago, the Quechua Incas still live a an ancient lifestyle untouched by the coming of white or mestizo cultures.

Amantani’s whole, like the town of Otavalo in the Ecuadorian highlands. No disease of dominant culture demanding conformity, has encroached. The thread of craft and  pride are unbroken. No electricity, no hot water. Communal water from the ditches. No litter! No usual toilet paper and the ubiquitous plastic, in pink and blue, that is so much a part of Peru.

Children play fúbol in an empty field. Rock arches everywhere. Magical doorways frame lake and sky at every turn. Adobe, brown on brown. A baby cries, its mother exclaims over it in Quechua. I gasp. It literally hurts to breathe up here.

Another woman in a full red skirt and a black manta, borrows something from a neighbor and hurries back with a white plastic bucket, to the kitchen, where earlier, I watched the cuy, the native guinea pigs destined for future dinners, whistle and scuttle into their stone houses beneath the hearth. One large black macho fellow, like an apparition with red eyes, stared at me coldly as I eyed his harem. That explains all the black hair in my tepid tea.

This morning, when John went downstairs again to check on the progress of our hot water for morning coffee (such as it was), he found, not the señora, but a sheep rattling around in the kitchen! We burst into paroxysms of laughter at the thought of sheep fixing us breakfast.

There are no cafes on the island. We make reservations with the señorita at the tienda to boil water for afternoon coffee. Ironically, coffee in Latin America is black gold, it is exported, converted into currency, then it is imported again as instant Nescafe. Real brewed coffee is rare—even in Guatemala or in Ecuador, where we’d just been.

I’m still queasy after yesterday’s meal and I’m worried about the cleanliness of the water. Nothing boils at this high altitude. The water has a sweet off-flavor, a manure bouquet masked by a peaty sheep dung smokiness. After finding cuy fur in my mug, I resort to adding drops of bleach to my coffee. I tend to get horrifically sick on the road. After a bout with bad sausages, compounded by a virus, I’d lost so much weight while in Lima and in Cuzco, my health was already compromised. I still had a chest cold and a ruptured eardrum wasn’t helping matters.

Our roommates, Helen McGill, a grandmother from New Zealand, and her  mountaineering friend, Greg, are very cheerfully sipping my bleach-infused beverage. How easily we gringos resort to swapping intestinal tales by way of introduction. They’re both suffering from severe chest colds too. He had pneumonia from exposure, from climbing above 20,000 feet, and he had frostbite on his toes. He shows me his  black-purple toes, and wonders if he'll lose them. I think gangrene. Their hoarse coughing keeps us awake—it sounds like a seal rookery late at night.

The local maté seems to be a type of pennyroyal--a sprig of herbaceous bush with leaves so tiny it makes identification difficult. Young Villen, our host’s eldest son, who stares longingly at our small cache of food with the soft eyes of a begging dog, brought us handfuls of maté with each meal. Soon our table was covered with piles of small twigs. Not much in the way of plant life—except the maté—manages to survive the voracious appetites of sheep. We also had to keep an eye on our meager stash of chocolate (emergency rations) whenever Villen was in the room.

Dinner cooks in earthen pots, the round ollas blackened by a sheep dung fuel and charcoal fire. With the setting sun comes the high altitude chill. The lake is an aqua-grey, fluxed by wind. Last night, a surprise rain drummed impatiently on the galvanized roof—a sign of wealth. A new economy comes to the island. The adobe houses where we gringos—with our coins—stay, all sport new tin rooves!

The separate kitchens still have traditional thatched reed rooves. Five girls dressed in full skirts of deep red and green, rush to the kitchen of the house, amid peals of laughter. When we can no longer see to paint and write, we head in for dinner.  More greasy rice and potatoes. At this altitude, the insides of the rice kernels are uncooked.

Our host asked us if we were ready to eat, using a new Peruvian-Spanish verb we’d never heard before, papaer instead of comer. This gave us a clue as to what to expect by way of cuisine. Papas and rice for lunch, rice with papas for dinner. It was funny, since I’m of Irish descent, and my ancestors survived the Great Potato Famine. Potatoes were a daily staple in my grandmother’s house.

Why do I only crave catsup when on the road? Future travel note: One should bring fast food catsup packages, cooking gear and food to this island—as well as offerings of fruit and vegetables. Candy isn’t a good house gift. There’s no dental care whatsoever here.

We couldn’t get gas cartridges for the Bluet stove and so we left it in Puno. Note: next time, bring a Primus stove that accepts many types of fuel. I’m sorry to say, I’m beginning to lust after those cuy. Potatoes and rice grow old fast.   

John and I spend the day hiking up to the ruins on the top of the volcanoes of Pachamama and Pachatayta. When I ask the old Amantani woman we met half-way up the mountain, what Pachamama a and Pachatayta mean, she pats both my breasts at the same time saying, Pachamama. Breasts. Mother. Twins.” She pats one breast, and then the other, saying, bridegroom/brother, sister/bride. “Pachatayta,” she says. I’ve been unusually blessed  by her hands. She asks for my turquoise hishi necklace the color of the sky, a gift from my beloved. She offers me her traditional hat. He watches with amusement as I struggle with having to say no.

From the heights of Pachamama, beyond the town of Juliaca on the mainland, we spy the lapis gleam of another lake set in a shimmering salt pan, and its twin mirage hovering in the sky. We penetrate the past with our bodies, we follow the path up the next mountain, passing through archways—each one progressively older and more primitive than the last. We raise a fallen stone lintel back up across the door of a shepherd’s hut.  We explore ancient roofless huts with moss-covered niches. We ascend the layers of a lost civilization.

At the top of a pyramid—a five-step ziggurat—we leave offerings. Coca leaves and banana ash. Water and bread. We offer smoke to the sky to remind it of the cycles.  

This is the last place I will make the sacred offerings to the dead: to Dave Evans and to my grandmother. It’s been a year to the day of the Harmonic Convergence, when we rode horses to San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, seeking, seeking; we drank aguardiente with the village elders, we offered up old coins with the head of Quetzocoatl to the altar box, we lit candles among the pine needles and rose petals scattered on the Mayan church floor, and we saw our likenesses reflected in the smoking mirrors placed on the breasts of old world saints.

In San Cristobál de las Casas, the Harmonic Convergence was anything but harmonic. Brothers Ivan and José Arguelles were way off on all this New Age stuff. Fending off something more primitive and  malignant, we sat up, terror-stricken all night on the roof of the hotel, waiting for the safety of dawn. Not only were the newly dead viciously haunting me, my grandmother and the small fish inside, something was trying to strangle me in my sleep. The hummingbird messenger of death arrived twice in the night. I recognized John’s friend, Kayla and my friend, Dave Evans, in the dreams. But some other dark entity from the bottom of the imagination rose up, wanting out—as if the gates of the Otherworld had opened. Crack between worlds.

Westering days like beads, draw us backwards toward our existence.  Between the cleavage of volcanoes, unnamed birds fly before us—similar to yellow flickers, plovers or whimbrels—uttering a strange mournful cry of distress;  as if ancient people were trapped within the bodies of birds.

John’s deep into his journal, so I wander off to explore the ruin at the top of Pachamama, it’s a round fortress, but the entrance is blocked off with rocks. Something moves inside—a clatter of hooves and stone. As I climb through the opening, heart in my throat, a merino sheep leaps over the stone wall and  escapes, my racing heart blurs my vision. It’s nothing like I imagined it to be at this highest of lakes.

Inside the enclosure, I can no longer see the 360 degree meniscus where blue lake and sky struggle for definition, or dominance, this place where the sun was said to be born and the first Inca sprung from a hole in the earth.

The abandoned altars are not in the center, where you would expect, but off center in three concentric tiers within a hexagon. The red phallus at the southern altar seems out of place, an extra punctuation amid female forms. Pachatayta is visible through the gap. Like a gunsight. I think of the heelstone at Stonehenge.

I am the ageless woman lying within this grassy circle, offering smoke for the dead. I chew coca leaves; want to complete the ritual, but John comes in all business as usual. The unborn child who wore no face at all, travels with us still. He is unraveling us from within.

To pass the time, as John writes, I piece together some shards. A floral design emerges from traditional unglazed pottery stained with iron oxide, white pigment and ochre clay slips. After the chicha drinking ceremony, the Incas still dash pots against the rocks— the same way we throw glasses against a fireplace after a toast. Break the sacred vessel for luck. Pachamama has a terrible thirst and is easily offended if she isn’t offered a drink.

How old are these shards? Weeks, centuries? The old curandera at the archway told us that the Incas make two pilgrimages to the top of the volcanoes; on July 25th (Independence Day), and again on New Years Day. The local priest, the cura, does he participate?  Copious drinking, dancing and... I gather evidence by way of ribbon streamers and flowers.

As we leave Pachamama, I don’t remember placing a stone on top of the ancient stone phallus. Rubbing Priapus for good luck. But John records this event in his journal and he tells me to go back and hide my offerings from the elements.  

Pachatayta, the square temple, is in better repair. Stone gates are closed  off with more stones. Niches are filled with bleached snail shells and the cuy hearth houses show signs of recent use. Moss on the south sides of stones in the Southern Hemisphere reminds me of where I am. Tin-lined doors are reinforced with hand-forged hinges and modern rusted padlocks seal off shallow tunnels—the cuy minotaur’s miniature labyrinth to the underworld. There is evidence of recent ceremonial fires in the fire pit. Broken chicha jars. Button offerings made of bone. Years in the cracks of stones. We are trespassers in an ancient and alien world.

How many archways covered with flowers have we passed through to get here?  Each arch, the eye of a needle, once held sacred tapestries and gold for the Inca; the human thread polishing the stone carvings of Janus heads, llamas, whales and vessels. Whales??  Here? I scan the inland sea for signs.

The arches are a polyglot of cultures Roman and Moorish, korbeled and trapezoid. It could be the hillsides of Greece. Corfu  in the distance. Circular breathing. Phalli, crusted with the white splatter of bird guano crown the crest of each gate, garlanded with dried flowers at their bases.  

Pachamama and Pachatayta, Mother and Father earth is everywhere. Rae Pieraccini, a friend of Luis Kong’s, is a Kaiser nurse from Santa Rosa, California, who lives in Cuzco. Rae said when she first came here, she heard Pachamama crying in her dream. Crying for the children. That’s why she stayed here, to feed the children.        


Pachamama is crying. These stones, this offering; is it too late for the earth?  Have the Inca gods abandoned the top of this mountain? The terraces still yield gardens—annual stubble of wheat and corn. Dry irrigation. Harvest.

Despite the founding of the new village, Santa Rosa de Amantani, thousands of years of unbroken tradition remain. Tiny, dark two-storied houses remain. Generations come and go like the tide. It is hard to remember Titicaca is a lake, not an ocean.

The plaza is cobbled with black and white stones like the hand-smoothed ones I found on the path at the huaca. César Vallejo’s Piedra Negra. Black stone over white stone. More than meets the eye, these stones are arranged in a pre-Hispanic profane game of the dead; as they are in the ruins of the sacred city of Pachacamac, where I placed a piece of cranium on top of the stela. Black stone over white stone is the move of death said the poet César Vallejo who died just as he predicted he would in Paris on a Thursday in the rain.


 It is said the sun god, Inti, was born on an island not far from here. The  Incas claim this place to be their world womb. Either an older culture was settled here and the Incas took over, or this really is the birthplace of Machu Picchu’s stone builders.


Rough-split slabs with fresh chisel marks on them—this volcanic rock doesn’t make for good corners. At a cliffside quarry on Pachamama, stonecutters search for clear stone to dress, divide them with crowbars and hammers, the ringing of steel on rock reverberates on the opposite cliff. Hammer and tong. Not pneumatic drill and saw. Iron is the only new invention in the quarrier’s lineage.

There are so few modern touches here, it’s as if we stepped back in time. The island literally has no roads—just cobbled Inca paths shared with merino sheep and an occasional wayward pig. it’s like being in the Blasket Islands off the coast of Kerry. Only the boats are different. No oxhide or canvas curraghs, but reed or wooden boats. Sure, some of the wooden boats have engines. Otherwise it would take days to get to Puno or La Páz.

And we could hear a lone chainsaw whining out its days, readying the village for winter from various parts of the island and we imagined it to be communal  property. A teenager passes us with his ghettoblaster blaring music in Quechua.  We are back again in the 20th century.

At the weaving co-op, I tie bracelets I made from wool scraps onto the wrists of young girls gathered around me. In spite of the language barrier, we giggle in a mixture of broken Spanish and Quechua. I teach them the string games my grandmother and I used to spend hours playing: cat’s cradle, the ladder, lightning rod, the throne. At first they have trouble getting the sequence right, but soon they are able to play with each other. Will they share the game with others or will they forget the patterns after I leave?

The curandera again pats my breasts, shows me the symbol for Pachamama on a woven belt—a circle divided into six parts. Cardinal directions. Up and down. Hexagon. In this way I come to understand the seventh point is completion; the center of the self.


The weavers all greet us, shake our hands; we’re old friends after yesterday’s buying spree. Intent on a sale, the old woman dresses me in a vest and native hat. The hat, a nearly flat quilted disk with yellow, red and black felt flowers embroidered on it, was amazing and extraordinary, even by Peruvian standards.  But I felt funny buying someone’s best hat. Sacrilege of culture. Instead, I give her a silver ring from my hand and they finger my jewelry—especially the turquoise, the sacred stone of the sky.

The men and girls carry their wool spindles with them everywhere, throwing them down to the earth with a deft motion, mad dervishes spinning fleecy clouds into thread. Warp and weft of this continent.

At the island school in the village, the children sit two to a desk on either side of the room. Peach walls, white ceiling ringed with rain rot. Natural light, no electricity. John, who is a bilingual teacher at Oakland Unified School District, gives a little discurso, a speech to the 4th graders on  his class in California, and on poesia y beisbol.  The maestra translates what she can into Quechua. We recite some student poems in Spanish, she gives up. They are all wide-eyed, these gringo strangers speaking to them is a real novelty.

The children sing to us in Quechua. We imagine it to be an anthem of sorts and they sing us another mnemonic learning songs naming the countries in central & South America. Goose bumps on my arms when they sing Guatemala. I’m moved to tears... their beautiful voices soaring up into the same air. I manage to sneak a photo but it’s very dark.

The principal comes in, he’s is a little miffed that we walked into his school without asking him first, but the maestra seems very pleased to have foreign visitors. I wonder if they even have any idea where California is. They may have heard of Santa Rosa de Lima de California, but that is a Limeño name, not referring to our Alta California, though both must share the same 15th century source, Garcia de Montalvo’s novella, "Las Adventuras de Esplendian."

We estimate the number of students to be about 210. This is an immersion school. Children begin school speaking native Quechua and switch over to Spanish by about 4th grade.  There is also a colegio, 7-12th grade as well, but most kids probably won’t continue schooling after 6th grade. Students attend school year-round, Monday through Thursday, four days a week.

The teachers, imported from Puno, are quick to head back to civilization for the three-day weekend. Hence the motor boats! The ridiculously low salary of about US $40 a month at the current exchange rate, made John’s wages seem like that of a millionaire!

Most families subsist on a yearly income of $15, or less. With inflation at 5,000 percent a year and rising, it’s hard to see how they survive. Here, the Maoist guerrilla group, Sendero Luminoso, seems far away. No riots, tanks or tear-gassing like in Lima, where, a month earlier, on Independence Day, we stumbled  upon the body of prominent Leftist lawyer Manuel Febres Flores, executed by the  right wing military in the Chorillos tunnel. Our Limeño friend, poet Carlos Orellano, said, “don’t  look” as we sped off to safety.

Here, there are no threats of general strike. Nor civil war. Or food shortages. They’re smuggling in powdered milk and grain from Ecuador. We learn somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 peasants have officially disappeared. Others whisper it’s ten times that amount. A skirmish in Ayacucho. A mass grave in Tingo Maria. Someone says, “that’s the army’s trademark; not the Sendero’s.”

Soldiers stopped us on the Cuzco-Puno train in the middle of nowhere and checked our luggage. It was then I noticed the carpet ichu grass was pale green, more the color of khaki than of gold. Presidente Alan García is losing his Kennedy-like image after nationalizing the banks and waffling on the national debt. There are rumors about his resignation, and of a military coup.

Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa announces his candidacy for presidency in 1990; he is stumping across the country with a vengeance. Our poet friends in Lima say simply, with resignation, “The Senderos will win. Hopefully, their politics will mellow with time.”

Here, the only shining path is that of the sun and moon on Lake Titicaca. Señor Bernardo C., our host, said there are nearly 4,000 people living on the island. Between the two villages, I would have guessed 2,000. They must all be related to each other.

Certainly, more sheep than people live on the island. A commute rush hour of diminutive merino sheep clog the paths as young shepherdesses guide them to forage among the rocks of the upper terraces. No more alpaca on this overgrazed island. Barely enough for the sheep to eat. I touch the backs of tiny babies as they trot by on delicate legs. No bigger than spaniels, the rams with their quadruple horns sticking up like the devil’s own, eye us suspiciously.

Isolated on this Island for so long, these sheep must be genetically similar to the first sheep brought by the Spanish--like the endangered Navajo chorro sheep at the genetic seed bank in Freestone, but more docile. The short furry pigs intermingle with the sheep. Do they know they’re a separate species? Evidence trots by in the form of a litter suggests they do know they’re pigs after all.

One hears the word ari often. In Quechua, ari means an affirmation. Almost like in Irish, where there is no direct word for yes, arra becomes a sign of yes. In Aymara, ari  means peace; in Irish, arra also means God.

On the way to school, Villen takes us down a different path, to catch our boat—the low road. I hum, a Scottish ballad: I’ll take the high road and you’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye. But me and my true love will ne’r meet again.... It’s hard to say goodbye. People greet us  with genuine warmth here.

Buenos Dias, or with an echo of ari anchu.  Like the women of Yucatan, the women here openly smile upon us—not with the open hostility that greets gringos most places we go.

I keep thinking of connections between unrelated cultures. The hanging  gardens of the mythological Irish, the Fir Bolgs, the bag men who carried bags of soil in leather bags—the Irish phrase sounding a lot like Guatemala. Mala. Bag. Another word for bag, bolsa, entered into the Spanish by way of the Iberian Celts, ancestors of the Irish.

With my camera I record polling technique of an Uros fisherman on his reed boat. Others also saw similarities  between unrelated cultures. Thor Heyerdal and the Ra. reed boats, classic design—like the boats of the ancient Egyptians, and the Guatemalans. I mentally add to that list of comparisons, the reed boats of the Ohlone, the Pomo, and the Coast Miwok Indians of California.

Villen has no ready answer when we ask him what he wants to be when he grows up. There is so much that culturally separates us. He’s never even left the island, let alone, been to the summits of the island to see the ruins of his ancestors. He has never been to Puno, nor seen a car, or watched TV, or read poetry by an electric light bulb.

We give him postcards of our home, the ocean and the California coast. When we ask him if he’d like to see the ocean, he can’t decide if he wants to or not.

His father is a worldly man. He’s been to Lima and to Cuzco; he has  traveled to the known world and its underbelly and he still he remembers the seabirds and the salt tang of the ocean after all these years. He has watched visitors from all parts of the world come to his doorstep and eat his potatoes. His father before him was a farmer who also grew papasPapaemos? Shall we eat?” Potatoes and  rice. More potatoes.

Through the floorboards, we listen to Villen chanting his times tables to his father until the candles gutter and fail. It’s dark as the backside of the moon. The crescent moon throws multitudes of its progeny across the waters of Titicaca. Villen tells me the word for moon is quilia, sobbing coinage in the deep pockets of the lake. We savor the sound. What good will those times-tables do him on this island?

His ancestor, the last Inca, Atahualpa, filled whole rooms with silver and gold, and still Pizarro severed his head when the sun rose. Their reasoning was, he got to heaven faster that way. When he asked if any of his friends were in heaven, the padres said no. He said, “then I choose hell.”

Last night the dreams converged, my horses came back, hidden in the hills  all these years, one last visit and they disappear. Preoccupied with the cardinal directions, each evening at sunset, I feel the loss of something unnamable. My grandmother chose to die dreaming towards evening when shadows form a bridge between the islands of the Otherworld and the now.

A silver crescent resting on the trees, a  shining phoenix. I dream John brings me a bomb for my birthday and I awake in a sweat. We are unraveling faster than we can weave—the pattern lost somewhere in the jungles of Tikal. We didn’t see the trail threading down to the village, steep enough to make us walk deliberately and with care, was a timeline, a metaphor waiting for completion.



The huge snow-capped range, the Cordillera Real of Bolivia and the islands of the sun and moon, the center of the earth beckon. Three months on the Gringo Trail, time to head for home, he says, there’s always next year.  But next year never comes. There is only the now.

Inti sol. At the birthplace of the sun, Villen’s father collects  1,000 intis from us for each night we sleep here. The equation reads something like this: a thousand  intis equals one million soles, which equals one million sunrises, or 3,000 years of civilization, times two nights. How long have his ancestors lived in this island? What were our ancestors doing  In Europe 6,000 years ago?

The boat that takes us back to Puno and the 20th century has brass 20-centavo pieces nailed to the roof; the brass worth more as washers than as coinage. In port, the first mate poles the boat through streams of duckweed, pale green confetti. As we approach shore, tiny suns ride the crest of each crosshatched ripple the wind tosses back at us. One can see the undulation of the waves beneath the ripples. One pattern superimposed upon another—like the myriad cultures trapped within the imperfect geometric complexity of our lives.







Note Bene: I transcribed these journal entries in 1988 - 1990, hence the variable dates. (I'm moving them all to 1988, journal entry date, not transcription/revision date). We were in South America during the summer of 1988. I was trying to publish these stories, or at least find a home for them. I've a vague recollection of the Machu Picchu piece being published in The Paper.

I was readying several of these Peru pieces pieces for an anthology, House on Via Gombito: Writing by North American Women Abroad. I also wrote Bill Truesdale, the editor for New RIvers Press, St. Paul, MN, a rather zany letter about my travels across the USSR. He took the letter, and not the stories.

After an incredible journey through South America, John Oliver Simon broke up with me, left me for a young blonde former student of his, and it took me nearly a decade to recover from the horror of it all. Going to the USSR in 1989 was my salvation—and still John was trying to reel me back in. Or maybe he was doing the AA thing, in his case, the SA 12-step thing, atoning for his wrongdoings. By that point, I wouldn't even give him the time of day. Ironically, we managed to heal the gap nearly 35 years later. So it's fitting that these pieces finally get to see daylight, after languishing in darkness for so long.   —Maureen Hurley 2/26/2014

I've very few photos transcribed over to the electronic medium, another project. Here are three small albums.

Machu Picchu
Peru
Galapagos

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