04 November 2011

Leaving Huaraz

The dueño at La Familia Meza shakes my hand and mumbles something sincere and incomprehensible in Spanish. I manage to make out something about recommending the hostel to people I meet in Lima, and I'm more than happy to do so. The hostel's been a wonderful base: the people welcoming, kind and helpful; the rooms simple but comfortable; the showers as good as I've had in South America; the kitchen functional; the tables with plenty of room for friends; the views from the rooftop patio inspirational. Another hotel that's developed from a place to sleep into a place with the feel of home, and not entirely because of the wonderful people with whom I've shared it. Even the young French couple, notably the young, wild-haired man with what seemed a fierce and perpetual frown, came to feel like friends. The evening before they left for the Santa Cruz trek we chatted briefly and his smile transformed him.

We step out onto the street and the dueño locks the doors behind us. That awkward moment of not knowing how to say goodbye. She laughs and says something about yet another goodbye; we hug; I say something inadequate about how I've enjoyed spending time with her, thanks for the help with trying to change or refund Marijn's bus ticket, safe travels, if you ever come to New Zealand, etc. All unsatisfactory, but sometimes understatement says more than eloquence. At least, I hope so.

I walk off towards the Cruz del Sur station and turn the corner without looking back.

By the time the massive double-decker Volvo inches out into the street, Huaraz has transformed into a blaze of sodium light and headlamps, fluorescent glows in small dim shops and the silhouettes of people crossing streets, leaning in doorways, holding conversations on broken footpaths. The bus reverses, moves forward, stops, then finally manages to turn into the street, heading away from the hostel, away from Cafe Andino where my friends will be deciding whether to go out for drinks, away from Cafe California with its home-made bread and jam and Lapsang Souchong tea and delicious food. It stops a short distance down the road while the safety announcements play.

Then the long drive through the night to Lima. The steward distributes salty sandwiches with some kind of sticky, chocolatey dessert, and offers a drink; I opt for tea, which is awful. I drink it anyway, for the liquid, and sleep for most of the eight hours, waking often but returning quickly to dreams of which I remember nothing. Consequently, I also see nothing of the land between Huaraz and Lima until we reach the dreary, repellent streets of the huge city in the early dawn. At the Cruz del Sur station I check the Litehaul in for the afternoon bus and buy a small café con leche that doesn't taste like coffee but at least lets me write at one of the tables. Later I buy apple pie  — this at least tastes like apple — and when I'm confident the South American Explorers' clubhouse will be open, take a taxi there to collect my books.

So much record keeping. This, I suppose, is an aid for memory, but does it have any other useful function? Can the small details of anyone's journey, repeated so often in slightly different forms, be of interest to anyone — even to the person to whom they happened? Sometimes they can add a flavour to the journey; perhaps also the sum of these insignificant details amounts to more than a simple sum of parts. Conversely, the big events that apparently give a journey structure can fail to give it life: the travelogue that simply documents which sights were seen can read as if they were seen by something other than a human being. This then is the difficulty — how to record and yet bring the record alive, how to allow the reader to enter the journey.

In the afternoon the bus leaves Lima with many seats still empty, but the one next to mine is occupied by a phlegmatic Canadian, probably in his late thirties. He'd flown to Lima in the morning, missed the early bus and had waited at the station most of the day. He must be exhausted. His voice sounds slow and tired. We talk a little and he tells me he's travelling to Bolivia to do some research for six months. We discuss modes of travel — how we both like the process of moving through a place yet also like staying somewhere and coming to know it, gradually, perhaps through the small details that eventually accumulate into affection and then love. He has reservations, though. You can spend too long in a place, he says; the people you meet can keep you there longer than you should. He trails off, hesitates, then says, "Women ...", almost inaudibly, and lets it go, and the empty space in his voice seems large enough to contain all the loss and memory in the world.

I don't push him hard to talk, and he sleeps most of the way, apart from eating his meal with astonishing speed (he's gobbling dessert before I've even finished opening my meal). I sleep a little too, but not for long. For the first several hours we drive along the coast, through a similar kind of desert to the one my friends and I had driven through from Trujillo to Chimbote. I find these deserts intensely beautiful and moving — something about their simplicity, about their purity: stone, sand, sky, nothing else; and about their timelessness,affects me deeply, and it does so in a different way from that of mountains. At Laguna 69, and when we were ice-climbing, and again when I saw the mountains from Huaraz, particularly on that spectacular last evening just before I left, I felt uplifted, exhilarated, but the feeling in these deserts is different  — just as emotionally moving, but with a kind of melancholy as well; perhaps akin to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

We drive through the evening, through coastal desert. Grey sky, the horizon out at sea indistinct, surf breaking on small sandy beaches with cliffs and headlands at each end; stony hills, flat reddish-brown plains studded with perfect crescent-shaped dunes of pale grey sand as if some god had swept all the grey into those perfect, geometric shapes. This contrast between the reddish-brown and the pale grey astonishes me; it's very beautiful but so distinct a demarcation it seems impossible — how does this pale sand remain so separate from the other colour?

Perhaps the god is the wind.

But other aspects of the desert are appalling. Litter lines the roadsides; the desert near the roads has been used as a dumping area for truckloads of broken bricks and excavated stones and soil, and the small settlements strike me as inhuman — the kinds of places that breed hopelessness and despair or worse. A man runs across a waste land tracked with a thousand footprints and the tyre marks of trail bikes and cars; I see widely spaced shacks in small settlements and realise with horror that these are the homes of people. Just on dark, we pass a place walled off by two high fences, one barbed wire, the other concrete block, and within the confined area, sodium lamps on high poles shine on blank, box-like buildings. The place looks like a prison. Maybe it is. But who, or what was imprisoned there?
To me, the most likely answer is, "Hope".
I look again at the desert away from the areas we've ruined, and think, what compels us to screw up beautiful things? Is this really part of human nature?

Sometimes, pessimism about the future of the world threatens to overwhelm me. But then I think of my friends — all over the world, of all ages — and I realise, even if collectively and sometimes individually, we screw up beautiful things, the world is still full of beautiful people. In his biography of Bertrand Russell the philosopher Ray Monk accused Russell of claiming to love humanity but hating most individuals [1]; in contrast, I'm the opposite — I love most people as individuals, but despair over what we're doing collectively to the planet, and too often, to each other. How I reconcile my attitudes remains a challenge, but if someone of Russell's intellect couldn't find a solution to a similar problem, what hope is there for me?


Photos :
1.From the lower part of the trail to Laguna 69 in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru.
2. The stream near the start of the Laguna 69 trail.
3. One of the mountains overlooking Laguna 69.
4. Coastal desert between Trujillo and Chimbote, Peru. (The streaks in the sky are artefacts from the car window.)
5. Dune in the desert between Trujillo and Chimbote. Elsewhere, dunes like these are used for sandboarding.
6. Rimarima at dusk from the rooftop patio of La Familia Meza hostel in Huaraz.
[Check The Ruins of the Moment, particularly October 2011, for other, larger photos of aspects of the Cordillera Blanca]

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

May all your travelling be safe - the interior journey seems as profound as the external.

Anonymous said...

As RR says, profound inside and outside. What I like best about your writing is that it transcends "record keeping". It's extremely evocative. (Colin Thubron comes to mind). Wonderful, wonderful writing.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Sometimes I get the feeling the most defining moments of journeys such as yours are the more seemingly mundane ones. They are the ones which sometimes remain the most clear and vivid, and once again I felt like I was on the long bus ride with you e hoa.
John arrives next Friday morning and wx permitting we plan to camp up top of Knights track, then spend 4 more days in, up, and around the Pohangina valley. I shall look for your spirit on the mountain breeze and with the whio on the river. We shall toast you with a fine wee dram. May your continued travels be safe and well and bring you back to Aotearoa refreshed. Shall look forward to seeing you.

butuki said...

Your run of stories about this journey reminds me of one of those old "plane-flying-over-the-world-map" animations in old, black-and-white movies. And at each stop you present us with a capsule of contemplation. What's interesting about your questions and observations is that there is this contrast between the imagined image of the traveler sitting gazing out of train windows and strolling down town streets who can only be envisioned as a third person (especially for someone I've never met in person), with thoughts and emotions hidden from view, and that of the inner contemplator here, who acts more like an amorphous spirit scoping out the universe around. Since your traveling involves so much physical interaction with the places you visit, I guess that part never really manifests itself in your words, because our reading of it here is so detached and passive. But the eyes and ears that your words embody definitely, for me at least, gives me the sense of floating inside your shell, looking out, and being there.

Zhoen said...

The deserts will eat up the debris, hiding it for future archeologists, or forever after we are gone.

pohanginapete said...

RR, thank you. This isn't just a physical journal; like all my travels, it inevitably offers plenty of time when all I can do is notice, think, and wonder.

Maureen, thank you :^) I'm in Bariloche now, catching the bus tomorrow for El Calafate. Apparently Ruta 40 is still closed, so the only option is the 27 hour bus ride via Rio Gallegos.

Kia ora Robb, and thanks. The trip with John sounds wonderful, and you can be sure I'll be thinking of you and looking forward to the time the three of us can enjoy something similar :^)

Miguel, for me, the ultimate goal of writing (this kind, at least) is that the reader should become so engaged that the physical world vanishes and the written world takes over — akin to the concept of "flow", I guess. Achieving that even for short passages is hard; sustaining it seems impossible — almost. I have to add the "almost" because if I truly believed it impossible I'd give up trying. (Or would I? Writing's a compulsion.)

Zhoen, in a strange way, I find that a comforting thought. In another — that all these wonderful people will be gone — seems too terrible to contemplate.

Bob McKerrow said...

Buenos dias Pedro !

Been so busy lately having read your blog for a while. Great you made it to Peru. Travelled many of those paths, towns and places you mention. It was a wonderful country in 1968, with virgin summits galore. I think our expedition did 13 first ascents in the Cordillera Vilcabamba. Ah, those days we were young and free, but they are still good. Take care. Bob

pohanginapete said...

Muchas gracias, Bob. Here in Patagonia I'm reminded strongly of the influence of New Zealand climbers of that era; unfortunately, for sad reasons: Punta Herron, one of the peaks next to Cerro Torre, is named after Phil Herron who died in a crevasse in the area; and I can't look at the Super Couloir on Fitz Roy without thinking about Kevin Carroll. I'm glad you made it through, Bob, and hope sometime soon to be able to share a yarn with you and hear about your times in the Andes (and elsewhere).

Bob McKerrow said...

I worked with Kevin Carroll at Mount Cook as young guides for the Park and yes Phil herron will be remembered by that spoectacular peak. Cheers, Bob

Anne said...

The seemingly insignificant detail is one of the things that makes it immediately real. This is how it is to travel -- small discomforts and mind wandering over the big world.

Time will take care of the mess and junk, and us humans, too.

pohanginapete said...

Anne, I agree about the way small details make an account vivid. I've often thought that what we think of as insignificant is quite the opposite. I'm sure you're right about time taking care of us and our traces, too, although I wonder how much of the damage we've wrought will be irrevocable. But we can leave a good legacy, too.