Chachapoyas — the houses of the dead
Today I feel that — perhaps not truly at home, but comfortable, relaxed, enjoying the day. I'd signed up for the tour to the Pueblos de los Muertos and the Sarcofagi de Karajía, two places I'd never heard of, two places where one can visit the pre-Incan Chachapoyas burial sites with their strange, silent sarcophagi. We leave early to avoid the rain (which doesn't arrive), stop for breakfast at the little town of Luya, then carry on to the carpark. Two falcons — big, barred birds — swoop down near the minibus; on our return another falcon, smaller, with a chestnut back, flies fast and low across the road in front of the car. These must remain unidentified birds — and how many more before I retrieve the guide book from Lima?
A steep, long descent on foot in the heat; through blue-grey haze a distant view of the huge drop of Gocta waterfall, often claimed to be the third highest in the world. Agusto unlocks the heavy iron gate and we file through, following the narrow path flanked by bromeliads, small orange-red orchids, agave and other xerophytes, to the cliff. Agusto explains some of the history and points out particular features including some small, distant sarcophagi. I share my binoculars around our group. Agusto turns to me.
"Do you have vertigo?" he says.
"No," I lie, not wishing to miss out on what he's likely to offer.
He asks the others, then leads the non-vertigo sufferers and liars out along a narrow path on the cliff face, at one point stepping carefully around a narrow corner just wide enough to negotiate. The drop below seems to fall into the centre of the earth. We gather in the comparative safety of the remains of a small room . What appears to be the femur of a small human lies on a flat stone; several other bones occupy small niches in the walls; some lie scattered on the ground among the dust and brittle leaves. Symbols of snake and condor dominate one wall, but the back wall — the cliff face — has been decorated with more modern markings: the graffiti of recent visitors.
Who could do such a thing? Everywhere I've travelled, supposedly sacred sites, or those where one would at least expect a degree of respect for the nature of the place, have been similarly marked. To me, this seems like desecration, an utter lack of empathy, but perhaps one person's desecration is another's desire to be included in the relative immortality of these places.
I wait at the gate for Agusto and the last of our group. The mountainside drops steeply to the haze-hidden river a vast distance below; anywhere not vertical or not crumbling rock has been worked into hard fields by humans. The difficulty of living in such a dry, severe environment must be tremendous, but how much more so must it have been for the ancestors whose bones lie weathering in the remains of their houses, on display for the visitors, vulnerable to the impulses of the gawkers and taggers. Apparently, some years ago hard times led some local farmers to believe a superstition that this place was the cause of their misfortune. They came and burned what they could, and evidence of the fires still remains in the scorch marks and blackened lichen. This is the reason for the locked gate on the access path.
A tiny hummingbird hovers and darts around a flowering shrub, then arcs away out of sight. I think of the farmers' action. The past is inescapable; even if all evidence has been erased and forgotten, the past still exists; the present is the product of the past, and perhaps the only excuse for trying to erase the past is that the attempt arises from what we try to obliterate.
I let the others go on ahead, then follow, enjoying the steep, relentless climb and arriving with time to recover — surprisingly and gratifyingly quickly — and look over the mountains. Grey cloud fills the sky; the distances seem immense. I love this feeling of altitude, and think maybe in another life I would have been a bird.
But not, I trust, the highly athletic chicken whose leg I'm served for lunch. Presented on a lettuce leaf with a mound of rice topped with slices of tomato, the leg tastes flavoursome but I spend the next few hours trying to extract the Usain Bolt of chickens from between my teeth and longing for the floss back in my room.
After lunch we drive to Karajía and take the shorter, less steep walk to the sarcophagi. Agusto points out the Shaman cave and the Chachapoyas Shield, an odd, isolated piece of — what? Sculpture? It has a curious, almost whimsical appearance; enigmatic, inscrutable. Much later I realise this is one of the things I'm most attracted to while travelling: strangeness. The known and familiar can be immensely comforting and delightful, but what is a life without wonder?
We walk the trail under the cliffs, behind the trickle of water free-falling from the overhang, and past bones laid out on rocks. Human bones. Agusto explains the superstition about touching these, suggesting perhaps it might have a factual foundation if the bones carry some kind of disease, but this seems implausible and more like an attempt to discourage tampering or worse. How long will these remain untouched as the number of visitors increases? I can't help wondering about my own right, if any, to ogle them and photograph them, and in some kind of act of simple respect I pause briefly by them as I leave; I try to acknowledge them, acknowledge the people they were, their beliefs, their contribution to the world. Maybe this is the simplest form of prayer, stripped of any religious belief.
But the intention goes unacknowledged. By late in the evening I'm feeling unwell. Was it the chicken? Probably (or, more likely, something transmitted from the lettuce leaf). Or was it my lack of scepticism about the bones? Probably not, but if it was, I don't mind paying this small price for trying to draw attention to the need to respect those who lived before us and created our present.
1. “The bus roared on. I was going home in October. Everyone goes home in October."Jack Kerouac; On The Road.
1. The view from just below the carpark on the steep descent to the Pueblos de los Muertos.
2. At the locked gate.
3. These bones and sarcophagi seem inaccessible. Long may they remain so.
4. The Chachapoyas shield at Karajia. Heavily cropped — the shield is small and a long way off. I trust it conveys something of the strangeness.