24 November 2011

The Authentic World

In Arequipa I rent a little room at the Hostal Regis [1]; cheap, comfortable with plenty of character (French colonial, apparently), and like most hostels in this range, slightly run down. A little wooden writing table sits against one wall; two simple chairs, the bed and and night table make up the rest of the furniture. The only thing on the pale pink walls other than the usual grimy marks is a mirror, which I try to avoid. The white ceiling has cracks and water stains; the floor is old, polished wood. The room feels well-used — comfortable and cosy and with its little desk it feels like the kind of place I could settle down and work hard at writing.

But Arequipa offers little other than a place to relax for a day. For others, the churches, the monastery, the other architectural works, the ascent of Volcan Misti, the tours to Colca Canyon and other places must seem like enough for days of exploration and excitement; I, on the other hand, prefer to watch the actual life of the city, the present taking place among the remains of the past. Being crammed in a minibus with others to travel for two days to stand shoulder to shoulder in a crowd of strangers for a brief view of condors (which I might see in Patagonia in far more preferable circumstances) doesn't appeal, and while the mountains around Arequipa have a character of their own, after Huaraz they seem low and muted. Here I've enjoyed my room and the good cafés and the walks around town, but I want to keep moving; the restlessness drives me on; Patagonia calls. I decide to continue to Puno in the morning.

From where does this restlessness arise? Was Chatwin right when he speculated humans are essentially nomadic? Sometimes the restlessness feels like a compulsion, but I wonder whether I'm travelling towards something or running from it. But from what, or whom?

Earlier in the afternoon I'd visited La Canasta for a coffee and struck up a conversation with a Canadian in his seventies. Bob enjoyed referring to himself as "the old goat", emphasising the phrase with an impish grin. He wore a Captain Ahab beard and had been well tanned by the Peruvian sun. He'd first come to Peru almost thirty years ago as an irrigation engineer working on a massive project funded by the World Bank and ever since, he'd been spending half the year in Canada and half here. Converting the desert into productive agricultural land still continues, he said. I didn't say how I felt deserts needed protection from development just as much as many other land types, but did say how beautiful I'd found the deserts I'd passed through in Peru. He seemed to understand that.

But who benefits from these irrigation schemes, I asked, the local people or the big companies?
He leaned forward and tapped the table with a long, tanned finger. You've hit the nail right on the head, he said, and went on to explain how the locals worked so hard for so little for the companies reaping the profits.
If you complain they just tell you to go and find work somewhere else — if you can.
They walk such long distances, he added, and described the places they lived. I recognised some — the kind I'd seen from the bus, the kind that had filled me with horror.
Some of them don't even have roofs, Bob said. Although retired, he worked with local communities, trying to improve their lot. Mostly irrigation, I think. The changes he'd seen saddened him. When he'd arrived, Colca had been beautiful; now the changes were too much, too fast. He'd tried to tell some of them, no, you don't need electricity here, but it was no good, they all wanted electricity and TVs and other modern things.

Later I wondered how he reconciled his desire to help improve the lives of the people he clearly loved while not wanting their lives to change. Perhaps he wanted only certain changes — those that fulfilled his own desire to help but not those that allowed those people much greater control over their own destinies.
He'd admitted his preferences didn't matter, and when he said he wouldn't be around much longer he sounded almost as if he relished the idea of his own extinction — perhaps because he wouldn't see the changes that had already begun to sadden him. I liked him, liked his compassion and his love for the place and its people, and I hope his work remains valued, that he's remembered as someone who made a difference for the right reasons.

The bus crawls out of Arequipa with the air conditioning turned off; already the air has turned hot and stuffy. A man with uncoordinated limbs and a severe speech impediment stands at the front of the bus and with great effort manages to deliver a long speech, of which I understand a few words. He starts moving down the aisle, forcing lollies on the passengers. Later he'll return collecting payment or the uneaten lollies. This is a way of life on all but the high-end buses everywhere I've travelled so far in South America.

We stop to pick up two women with a huge load of boxes of produce and bales of grass and straw. Quarter of an hour later we stop again to load a pile of enormous blue bags of potatoes. People on the bus begin complaining angrily about the painfully slow progress; someone starts stamping his feet and others take it up, drumming on the floor, shaking the bus. The driver berates the potato loaders — ineffectively, of course. Patience and acceptance seem unusual here — at traffic lights, for example, the moment the lights turn green horns begin blaring. An instant response isn't good enough; it's as if the person in the car at the head of the queue is to blame for the person further back not being at the head of the queue.

Outside Arequipa the conductor moves through the bus, closing the windows and at last turning on the air conditioning. We pick up speed and I gaze out at the stark mountains where high up a little snow still clings. There at least I can see no sign of humans. High mountains can be a last refuge because they offer nothing material, nothing that can be exploited. Yet even those mountains can sometimes be desecrated; not satisfied with revering them, we mark them with the signs of our veneration — crosses on summits, swastikas painted on rocks. Sometimes even the non-material gifts of mountains become a reason for leaving our marks — for example, while delighting in the ascent of a difficult climb, we leave a line of bolts on a buttress — and sometimes we desecrate simply in the attempt to immortalise ourselves — graffiti aren't confined to fences, buildings and railway sidings.

Yet this is how the world is. In Puno in the evening while talking with Stephen from DC I mention the idea I'd discussed with Bob — that in a sense everything is authentic. I point to the wood-fired pizza oven where we wait for our orders. That's not part of traditional Peruvian culture, I say. He grins. I explain how I think cultures can't be static, how I admire more than regret the way Peru and other places have capitalised on their history and culture while also providing what the tourists want — wood-fired pizza, for example (but not authentic pizza, as my Italian friends later point out — what's being offered is the abomination from the United States). Yes, the loss of traditional ways of life saddens me. Here in Peru it's still strong in places but it's inevitably weakening and will eventually survive only as scheduled shows for tourists. But despite the protestations of the romantics, traditional ways of life were and are hard and consequently short. Who can blame those forced to live those kinds of lives for seeking a more comfortable existence? Whether the modern lifestyle really lives up to the expectations of those who desire it is questionable — I suspect mostly it doesn't, but at least those seeking it can hope it might. Nevertheless, the gentle, wood-fired-pizza guy in jeans and T-shirt (and who looks disconcertingly like Willem Dafoe) is to me just as authentic as the women in their colourful, traditional dress and cowboy hats — this is the authenticity of the present.

I'm not sure Stephen's convinced. I doubt Bob was. I doubt many others would be, particularly those who prefer to call themselves travellers not tourists and claim to be searching for authenticity. Still, for the moment I'll stick to my assertion that what we think of as authentic is mostly the unpreservable past being left behind by the present, and what we think of as fake is often part of the authentic present.

At ten to midday the conductor starts the video to satisfy the demands of those like the man next to me who apparently see the journey as a necessary evil — those who have been reading newspapers, playing portable video games, sleeping, talking on phones, and ignoring the beautiful, sere, stony desert through which we're passing. Am I the only one who loves these tenacious, flowering cacti, the shrivelled plants, the high mountains under a sky streaked with mare's tails, this land like a gasp?

At 12:18 p.m. we pass a sign saying "Zona de Vicuñas", and there, a short way off in the desert, a vicuña lifts its head. Lithe, golden-brown, the pale under its belly extending a little way further up its body. Further on, four more, then more still. Does anyone else see them, even when we pass a family right next to the road?

The bus pauses at the Putahuasi pay station, then drives on. A dust devil, swirling; a small, simple shed with grey walls and a yellow thatched roof; many vicuñas; a few llamas; mountains on the encircling horizon. Soon after, we pass a 22-wheel lorry on its side, a similar lorry waiting while men transfer gas bottles from the overturned truck. This time, everyone on the bus gawks.

The sense of altitude increases. We stop briefly at Imata near a strange monument of a flamingo with outstretched wings. A caracara flies past and another perches on a rock as we leave the tiny town. I feel so high I never want to descend; coming down will be as figurative as literal. I love this landscape: bleak but not unrelentingly arid; small waterways, half stream, half tarn, in shallow valleys; the hills of the altiplano rolling gently towards the sky — the sky, through which we drive. Somewhere in all this emptiness we pass a small cemetery crowded with crosses tilted at various angles and enclosed by a low adobe wall. A sign says 4528 m. Can we go any higher?

Apparently not. We begin the gradual descent, past a lake among yellow-brown hills. A small flock of flamingoes feeds near the shore. More lakes  — Andean geese, coots, teal, more flamingoes. Another accident — a van rear-ended by a truck —  and again the bus passengers turn from the dreadful video.

A caracara sits like a sentinel on a rock above the road. We stop in a small, quiet town — the sort where I feel like getting off just because I know no one and am known by no one; the kind that offers the dream of vanishing forever. After the bus has set down and picked up passengers the conductor opens the vents in the roof and as the bus picks up speed the wind rushes and howls in a way utterly fitting this landscape.

But someone gets up and closes the vent.

At Juliaca the light comes from another time, another world. On the outskirts the busy streets also appear curiously deserted, the contradiction disorienting. This is how one might imagine the streets of a city after some catastrophe — an epidemic, perhaps — with a few survivors mingling with the ghosts of those who no longer live there. Further in, the town looks like a scene from Blade Runner, with people everywhere, jostling, dodging tricycle and motorcycle taxis, squeezing past innumerable stalls, somehow functioning amid the chaos. Everyone seems to be welding, fixing things, making things in small dim workshops or outside on the dusty, potholed streets. We drive past an open shed, dark, full of big carcases hanging on hooks; past a man in a green and yellow dragon suit striding along the street, clutching the dragon's head while his own head hangs between hunched shoulders as if depressed. For all the horror of the place — almost everything the opposite of where I feel most at home — I like Juliaca, or at least find it fascinating. Here I could be lost and anonymous; for the first time, a plane flying overhead seems like a link to a world I'm not ready to rejoin.

I still don't know whether I'm running away or travelling forward, and even less idea who or what drives me.

A flock of Andean gulls with their beautiful black faces. Straw stooked as it was in New Zealand before I was born. Three ostriches (not rheas) in a small paddock as we leave Juliaca, one of the strangest places through which I've passed.

Finally we reach Puno, where I take a taxi to the Hostal Los Piños. On the way, a rat scampers in a street, but it turns out to be only a brown plastic bag swirled by the wind. Rats, I suspect, will outlive us, but perhaps these ubiquitous scraps of plastic, the symbol of our dependence on oil and our wilful rejection of caring for our only home, have become the new rats of the modern world.

I think I prefer the old rats — the authentic rats.

1. “Hostal” is the usual spelling in South America. 

Photos (I have no photographs from the bus journey from Arequipa to Puno. These words, with photographs from elsewhere, will have to suffice):
1. A small village in Bolivia, from the train between Oruro and Uyuni.
2. The road to Chimbote from Trujillo, in northern Peru.

3. The Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
4. Salt pan just outside Oruro, from the train to Uyuni
5. Flute player in the Valley of the Moon, La Paz. Clearly not a vertigo sufferer.
6. Caracara on one of the summits of the Muela del Diablo near La Paz
7. Coastal desert on the road from Trujillo to Chimbote.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

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

21 October 2011

Chachapoyas — the houses of the dead

A note: these posts are selections from a substantial amount of writing by hand. I trust they convey something of the ‘flavour’  of the journey, but they certainly don’t amount to a comprehensive account — I simply don’t have the time, nor the energy to attempt that. Consequently, I’ve skipped substantial periods and will probably continue to do so.

October begins — that strange, in-between month I love so much; the month in which Kerouac said everyone goes home [1]. I don't fly back to Aotearoa until mid December, but maybe in a sense I'll be going home soon; maybe in October I'll achieve to a much greater degree that feeling of being at home wherever I am, of not wishing to be elsewhere; maybe when November arrives I'll be able at last to say: I was at home in October.

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.
2. Here’s a photo of the best-known sarcophagi at Karajia.
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.
5. Who was this person? Spare a thought, please, and if you come here, pay your respects.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

11 October 2011

Last days in Ecuador

After a night of rain, the river is a strong brown god [1]. A rat scampers along the lawn-like grassy banks where a stormwater drain discharges into the turbulent water just above an arched bridge paved with rain-slicked dark wood. A few people walk, jog, are led by dogs or just sit by the river, but in this still-early morning the town seems only to be waking. Metal roller doors close most of the openings where last night shops and bars and restaurants invited customers in, and only a few panaderias have opened, their delicious hot-bread smells reminding me I've had no breakfast. But Bananas, open every day except Christmas, is closed. Apparently, Sunday doesn't count as a day. I buy a couple of croissants from a little panaderia and make a mug of tea at the hostel.

In El Cafecito the sun comes out and throws shadows on the pale green and taupe and white walls and doors, lights up the hanging Boston ferns, catches one of the sprays of flowers  — real, not fake — on each of the well-worn wooden tables. This place has the reputation of being constantly packed, yet in the time I've been here only 4–6 others have visited. I discover the likely reason later: La Cigale, a few doors up the street, has cheaper food of wonderful quality; this is where the crowds have gone. Here, though, I'm enjoying the café con leche and thinking about Cuenca: how I've loved the responses I've had from greeting people — everything from a gracious nod and smile to a big genuine buenos dias from a wrinkled old woman knitting in a doorway; how so many of the people here are so tiny  — I remember a small, gnome-like nun stepping slowly down the morning cobbles of Calle Largo, a vision like a scene from a mediaeval story; how I found a small stationery shop and knew instantly this was the place to buy a pen when I saw the small tabby cat washing its face on the counter; these and so much else.

Now, though, my time in Cuenca has to end.

The bus to Loja fills with the smell of moist, fungal footwear; at a stop nowhere in particular, three small people smelling slightly of stale fish occupy the seats in front of me. The man behind me coughs and from deep in his gut the smell of old liquor escapes. The bus climbs steadily into mist, the air grows colder and the windows steam up. We descend from the wet scrublands into an arid, steep, enormous landscape; later we climb again into the mist, then descend. So it continues. From time to time I drop off to sleep but try to stay awake, partly to keep an eye on my bag which I've hung over the back of the seat in front of me — the safest possible position — but mostly because I love this huge landscape with its suggestion of wildness. But even here, the land has been extensively grazed and much has even been cultivated.

At Loja I take a taxi to the Hostel America — the most expensive room so far on this journey, by far — and after settling in, walk to the Pizzeria Forno di Fango where I have a tiny woodfired pizza and a glass of beer. Despite the excellent food and welcoming atmosphere, I'm slightly melancholy. Perhaps I miss Cuenca and the friends with whom I shared some of my time there; perhaps the woodfired pizza reminds me of particular, wonderful evenings back in Aotearoa; perhaps today's landscapes also remind me of New Zealand. This is not homesickness, at least not in the usual sense of longing for somewhere familiar and comfortable, it's more a reminder of how lucky I am to have a place as wonderful as New Zealand to return to, more a kind of enjoyable anticipation. In any case, looking out the bus window and these almost-familiar landscapes seemed close enough to a homecoming, and while my friends and family might not be with me in person, they accompany me constantly.
I like Loja — it has the feel of a real city with only a smattering of the usual concessions for tourists (like, I admit, this pizzeria) — but I'll never forget Cuenca . The last thing I did before leaving the hostel was to hand to the duerna the The Birds of Ecuador and the guide books I no longer needed. The offering seemed as much symbolic as practical.

Tomorrow, Vilcabamba, the last stop in Ecuador.

1. "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god" — T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages.

1. The Tomebamba runs through Cuenca.
2. Rooftop sculpture, Cuenca.
3. Street art, Cuenca.
4. Black-chested buzzard eagle, captive in the avifauna centre in Cuenca.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

27 September 2011

Galápagos: Part II

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
At the end of the wharf just beyond the sleek sea lion sleeping on the wake-washed steps, a turtle slowly descends into the depths — a glimpse; nothing more. A yellow warbler flits a few paces ahead, tantalising, never quite allowing the opportunity for a photograph, and above the bay frigate birds circle incessantly: looking, waiting, patrolling. I know of no other birds that look so pointy — everything, bill, forked tail, wingtips, comes to a long, thin point[1] — and so unstable; the slightest change in the air seems to make them tilt and wobble. Yet in truth they're among the most accomplished fliers. I read once that they have the smallest wing loading of any bird; in other words they have the largest wing area in relation to their weight. Perhaps this is why they appear like paper kites, vulnerable to the whims of the wind.
I'd intended visiting Tortuga Bay today but the weather looks ominous, so instead I return to the Charles Darwin Research Centre and stop at the little beach where yesterday I photographed the marine iguanas. Today just a few photographs satisfy that compulsion and I prefer to sit and enjoy them, to listen to the sea breaking on the rocks and white sand, to gaze out at the big cruise boats anchored in the bay. Even in this relative shelter they're rolling and pitching; through binoculars the open sea looks wild. Two hours on that sea tomorrow. Even with dramamine it might be rough.
A movement catches my eye. I should mistake it for the tail of a lava lizard but I recognise it instantly — a small snake. The guide book describes the Galápagos snake as "locally common but difficult to see". This is one of the advantages of simply sitting still; of not being in a hurry, not feeling compelled to be always photographing or even constantly searching. For me, this is not even primarily a matter of patience — I don't think I'm a particularly patient person, although with practice I've learned some degree of that skill — but more a matter of paying attention and being satisfied with the opportunity to do nothing but notice and wonder. Still, being still guarantees neither remarkable sights nor worthwhile insights, and once again I feel blessed with luck — to have seen this small, thin, lithe animal gliding over the rough rock feels like a great privilege, as if the Galápagos has rewarded me for noticing small things.
Out in the bay the National Geographic Explorer pitches and rolls and slowly swings around on its anchor. What is it like to live aboard a huge, luxurious cruise boat like that, to be taken around these islands and shown the sights — the animals, the landscapes, the sea- and sky-scapes, the places significant in the human history of the Galápagos? I admit I sometimes feel twinges of envy; how great it would be to have all the practical things organised for me, not to have spend time trying to work out how to get to some of the difficult-to-reach places — places I'll never see, like Fernandina with its flightless cormorants. But the cost would be prohibitive, and the other cost would be the lack of time to be still, to reflect, to do nothing except live where I am.

A blue-footed booby glides in to join the pelicans at the fish-cleaning station, and through the recently rain-washed air the grey silhouette of the island on the horizon is as clear as I've yet seen it. Last night and early this morning rain pounded the roof, wild gusts howled, and I thought maybe the trip to Isabela would be cancelled, but now in the early morning the sea seems, if not calm, then at least not confrontational; the trip might be bumpy but neither frightening nor sickening (I trust). I'm actually looking forward to the journey — going somewhere new, just going somewhere; going somewhere I trust the wildlife will be just as inspiring. Ten days there. Ten days to relax and think and see and write and photograph unhurriedly.

The ride proves anything but smooth — a progression of leaps and lurches with an occasional huge thump as the sea suddenly vanishes from beneath the boat, leaving it momentarily airborne before the impact. I gaze out at the horizon from my lucky seat near the stern and trust the dramamine, and throughout the two-hour journey I'm not troubled in the slightest by any nausea. In fact, I enjoy the ride — the sight of the deep swell rising and falling, Santa Cruz and the island to the east gradually shrinking towards the horizon, small islands appearing, seabirds circling and gliding, and the unvarying, near-deafening growl of the two massive 225 hp Suzuki outboards. The sky darkens and softens, looks ominous. Soon we're surrounded by rain. The world contracts: above and all around, the indistinct grey sky; beneath it the heaving ocean, dull and leaden and churned white in the wake; through it all the strangely meditative roar of the motors. We pass through the rain and emerge into a brighter day. Isla Tortuga appears; we pass close by a spike of guano-plastered rock pounded by waves; Isabela draws closer. Behind the boat the wake sprays white against the dark raincloud, and a rainbow hangs there, motionless and beautiful among all this movement.

Isla Isabela
The small beach at the Playa del Amor comprises countless shells and broken coral. Mangroves flank one side, a lava tunnel the other, then a long, steep embankment of black boulders, among which rest several of the largest, most colourful marine iguanas I've seen. Two of these beasts flick their heads up and down, apparently at each other in some kind of interaction, punctuating the display with bouts of nose-blowing, snorting salty water violently from their nostrils. A third, close by, looks on like a referee. The surf rolls in, smashes and foams against the boulders but the iguanas take no notice. Evening approaches; a heavy grey sky over an almost-turquoise sea. As far as I know, I'm the only person within at least half an hour's walk, probably more, and except for the information sign saying don't walk on the sand the iguanas nest there, I could have stepped back thousands of years, maybe millions. Before humans arrived, change here must have happened at evolutionary rates — except for the volcanic activity, of course.
When I began walking here in the early afternoon I didn't know how far I'd go. I walked along the beach, stopping to watch the little sanderlings rushing frantically back and forth to check the sand between waves, the whimbrels, the ruddy turnstones, the ghost crabs and the endlessly fascinating patterns they leave on the beach. Eventually I came to a section of sand untracked by humans and realised that beaches without human footprints must be one of the world's great delights. Maybe that's why I feel so reluctant to walk on them, or, if I must, my inclination is to walk where the sea will quickly erase the marks of my passage. Perhaps also this is one of the things I love about the sea: that no matter how badly the crowds might churn up a beach, within a day the sea will have erased those signs.
I crouch in the evening on the rocks of the lava tunnel at the Playa del Amor and admire the iguanas, look along the boulder bank and think about returning tomorrow. But the chances are good that other people would be here, and although I'm no misanthrope places like this have a fragile timelessness that the presence of people can easily destroy. Even my own presence seems too much — I write this back at Puerto Villamil at the little beachfront bar where I've stopped for a beer and a session of writing, and I think of the Playa del Amor now as night falls and no one's there, just the sea, the night, the iguanas; the smell of the ocean and wet rock; the sound of the sea breaking — a sound that pre-dated life itself — and the night breeze in the mangroves; the way it was millions of years ago; and I can't help feeling I'm an intruder despite the care I've taken to tread carefully and slowly, not to disturb anything — if I could have walked without leaving footprints I'd have done so. How much do we need to see and hear and feel and taste for ourselves; to what extent can imagination and the recorded experience of others replace our own experience? Of course imagination can mislead, but experience can also carry a cost: the observer effect is inescapable.
On the way back from the Playa I pass the small cemetery which sits just behind the beach, some distance from town. Few things seem as still and permanent as graveyards, but this one on Isabela seems particularly silent despite (or perhaps because of) the incessant sound of the surf and the occasional calls of birds in the dusk. White graves, each with a cross; bright fake flowers; the sky darkening. Each grave has a story, but how many are still remembered? This morning I woke feeling that perhaps the strongest argument I know for the existence of intrinsic value — the value residing only in the thing itself, not in any usefulness it might have for us — is the knowledge that eventually our universe will cease to exist, and everything it ever contained, including the Galápagos, my time here, and everyone who ever shares it, will be lost, irretrievable. Immortality is an illusion, but the extraordinary grief of knowing what will be lost seems to me to be the strongest argument that those things have value regardless of whether they're "useful" to us, and the value of these things, here, right now on Isabela in the Galápagos, seems immeasurably great.

1. The tip of the bill actually curves into a sharp hook, but from a distance the pointy effect remains.
2. Trying to format this post has nearly driven me crazy — large chunks keep disappearing for no apparent reason; the html seems simple and straightforward yet identical strings give completely different results in different paragraphs. I’ll post it anyway and trust the weird and illogical idiosyncracies aren’t visible. Besides, I have more important things to do with my time than sit in front of a computer screen, going nuts.

1. Galápagos flycatcher
2. Frigatebird (Magnificent frigatebird, I think)
3. Lava lizard. The red on the throat identifies this as a female.
4. One of the combative marine iguanas at the Playa del Amor.
5. Striated heron.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

15 September 2011

Galápagos: A raid on the inarticulate

What can one say about the Galápagos [1] that hasn't been said so many times before, sometimes by far better writers? The guide books rave; the coffee table books filled with spectacular photos project endless variations of the same images of a place the way it might have been before human ascendancy; occasionally someone mentions the impacts of tourism. This is one aspect of Eliot's "intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings" [2] and perhaps the only approach is what he called "the fight to recover what has been lost/And found and lost again and again". Here on the Galápagos the problem isn't only words: everything has been photographed innumerable times before, often by those with the eye that characterises the exceptional photographer (always supported by equipment I can only lust after), and sometimes I despair of finding a way to present what I feel (not necessarily what I see) in a way that hasn't been presented a thousand times before. Still, I take heart from the similar despair of a man I cannot hope to emulate and find encouragement in his conclusion: "For us, there is only the trying".

A short path leads to a tiny white sand beach bordered by black lava boulders. From the rocks I look out over the dull turquoise sea at the boats pitching and swaying, the grey sky bright with cloud; I look down at the brilliant, sea-washed reds and oranges and blues of the Sally Lightfoot crabs. A sudden memory of those wonderful days at Flounder Bay and the big Leptograpsus there, close cousins of these. This is the kind of place where I can relax and feel alive, where I belong: here in a place owned by animals — by birds and reptiles in particular.
Reptiles. There, just a few metres away, a marine iguana looks back at me. I work carefully, photographing, taking care not to overexpose the scaly white patch on its head. I notice another, close to the first; their camouflage on these rocks is astonishing. Two more; I realise I'm looking at a small group. Later at the Charles Darwin Research Station I photograph the beautiful, bigger, land iguanas with their sulphur-yellows, russets and touches of white and red — spectacular dragons — but it's these little marine iguanas I'm in love with.

At the Station's Interpretation Centre, the main exhibits — the giant tortoises and land iguanas —  are only part of the attraction for me. So much is happening around them: birds, lava lizards, big yellow and brown paper wasps, dragonflies, a Darwin's carpenter bee, a sulphur butterfly, ... how many people pay much attention to these things?Most of the people I see focus on the tortoises, with size seemingly the greatest attraction, and admittedly the fully grown adults are astonishing. But most of these enormous reptiles, not just the famous Lonesome George, who stretches his long, old man's neck to peer hopefully in my direction, have a kind of sadness about them. One in particular, in an enclosure further on with several others, looks back at me with what seems to be a kind of longing for something lost. These tortoises can live more than a century; what might they remember, and what meaning might these memories have for them? A century ago airmail began, Hiram Bingham rediscovered the present-day theme park known as Machu Picchu, and we began bombing our own species from the air. For this tortoise inspecting me, the single most memorable event in its life might be the day it was taken from the wild — or perhaps, if this is one of the products of the highly successful breeding programme, perhaps nothing stands out as memorable among the endless succession of similar days. Most probably, the longing I see in this tortoise is my own looking back at me, but to articulate its nature I need to know what I long for. Without that, I can't even try.

The walk back to Puerto Ayora takes a long time, not because it's far — it isn't — but because so much keeps calling out to be noticed. A Galápagos flycatcher flits among the foliage close by. As I photograph it, it swoops down and snatches a spider. A few quick photographs — then suddenly the bird flies directly towards me and tries to land on the lens. For a few seconds it scrabbles with its little claws on the lens hood then, unable to grip, flies off. This is the Galápagos.

1. Written on Isabela Island, about events on Santa Cruz.
2. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker.

1. Blue-footed booby. I never, ever, want to see another T-shirt printed with some bad pun about boobies.
2. Sally Lightfoot crab.
3. One of the very-difficult-to-identify Darwin’s finches. Beak size and shape is apparently the only reliable way to distinguish the species, and even then the overlap means it’s not always possible. Presumably they have it worked out, though.
4. This is the one.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

11 September 2011

The Amazon: Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve

A bird flies across the evening sky some distance away; Miguel calls out to Jairo and revs the outboard motor, steering the canoe towards the tree where the bird landed. Another of the birds crosses. In silhouette, it looks a little like a small, heavy-billed stork, but the identification doesn't click until Jairo tells us — it's a white-throated toucan, the largest of the toucans in this area. Another first for me; not just the species, but the group — the first toucan I've ever seen.

But I wonder about what it means to say I've seen a white-throated toucan. The silhouettes of birds flying in the darkening sky; a few seconds during which I didn't even know what I was looking at? This is an aspect of the birds, but not the same as a protracted period of watching, noting the shape, the colours, the behaviour; listening to the calls, watching them feed. Sometimes the brevity of an encounter's inevitable — I remember the momentary glimpses of botos (freshwater dolphins) breaking the surface of the river, and the second or two as the otter slipped into the water (a sighting, Jairo says, about as rare in this area as seeing a jaguar) — and perhaps this is bordering on semantics — I saw the bird but don't know it — but the substance of my frustration remains.

Sometimes, however, second chances arrive. At the laguna I finally get a good look at Greater anis, after missing the earlier sightings of these strange, long-tailed, heavy-billed birds. We see botos again, too, as we start fishing for piraña (I catch eight, and try to put them back with as little harm as possible to the fish and my fingers) but if we hadn't seen the documentaries, we'd have no idea what these river dolphins looked like. For us, they're a splash, a gasp, a glimpse of a pale greyish-pink hump, ripples spreading; nothing more. Later we move to the middle of the lagoon and swim in the murky water, with much nervous joking about swimming with pirañas. I'm glad I've seen the documentaries and read Richard Conniff's excellent book, and in truth I don't feel at all apprehensive, even when Jairo tells us the lagoon's also home to stingrays and electric eels. I assume he and Miguel wouldn't be swimming if the risk was worth considering. Besides, the water feels lovely. The laguna has a distinct thermocline, a layer of warm, almost bath-like water over much colder water. After the first few people have stirred it up, the water becomes a patchwork of cold and warm — a curious sensation.

By the third evening I realise I'll miss these swims — the feeling of being in the water, the knowledge I'm swimming in one of the innumerable headwaters of the giant, wonderful Amazon, surrounded by everything from caimans and pirañas to monkeys (we've seen five species: squirrel monkeys, white-throated capuchins, woolly monkeys, sakis, and a pair of night monkeys), gorgeous tarantulas and countless birds, including the weird hoatzins that fascinated me almost from the time I developed an interest in birds, meaning almost as far back as I can remember. I'll miss the social aspect of larking about with friends, too. I've been lucky with this group, some of whom I've known only for a few days, the others a few weeks at most.

That question again — what does it mean to say you know someone? People can go for years without getting past the stage of saying "Hi", yet strong and lasting friendships can develop within a matter of days. Circumstances can influence this; the intensity of the situation can forge friendships remarkably fast, and in the same way, the intensity of an encounter determines what one sees. I could have looked at white-throated toucans in a zoo, but could I justifiably say I'd seen them? The tendency to think of things — animals, in this case — as objects in an environment seems to miss the point: they're part of their environment and when they're removed from it, they're incomplete and so is that environment. Perhaps this is a rationalisation of not having seen white-throated toucans close up and in detail, but for me it's a consolation. I've seen white-throated toucans, not as specimens or objects for inspection, but on their terms, as an integral part of their environment: flying in the warm dusk over the Laguna Grande.

1. "Jairo" is pronounced, roughly, "HAI roh". Our guide for the whole four days, he speaks excellent English, has a degree in ecology, and did an excellent job. 
2. I wrote this post from journal notes while on Isabela Island in the Galapagos. If it’s a little rough and lacks links, it’s because I’d rather be out enjoying the wildlife ;^) [Update: added the link to Richard Conniff's book. I think he's a wonderful writer,]

1. Red-bellied piranha
2. Samona Lodge, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve
3. Ruby dart frog.
4. Jairo and a friend from a nearby lodge wait for night on the Laguna Grande so we can look for caimans. We found them, including a very large black caiman.
Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

05 September 2011


At the little museum beyond the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park, Pedro gives us a brief tour, speaking in Spanish, which I mostly can't follow, and skipping the tattered, stuffed condor with its outstretched wings. The enormous bird saddens me — dispossessed of its life in every sense. I've seen animals mounted so expertly their eyes seem to retain the memory of life, and although taxidermy raises difficult philosophical questions, at least the care and expertise with which those animals were mounted suggests a respect for the animals, an attempt to retain the life taken from them. I don't know the history of this condor, but can't help feeling it represents (unintentionally, I trust) not the wonder and magnificence of the largest flying bird in the world, but the power of humans over animals; too often, the only reason we do things to animals is because we can. I glance at the dusty bird, its disintegrating primary feathers, its dull dark head and lifeless eyes, and turn away.

Outside, however, I feel more optimistic, particularly after I've tried a cup of coca tea from the little stall. Coca tea's supposed to help one cope with the effects of altitude, but I'm trying it because, ... well, because it's tea; it looks like real tea, with lots of big leaves steeping in the cup. I love it; I'd happily drink more. The flavour differs from the teas I love (and miss here), but at least it has a flavour, unlike the steely tea bags to which I've resorted.

We drive up towards the cloud, along a badly corrugated and pot-holed dirt road. Wild horses graze unperturbed as we pass by; a few fine spots of rains appear on the windscreen, then sleet, then we're bouncing our way up through snow. At the car park (about 4500 m) we change into whatever warm, wind-and-rain-proof gear we have and begin the 300 metre steep trudge up volcanic scoria to the refugio. I'm breathing hard because of the altitude but feel good. I settle into a steady pace and maintain it all the way, loving the feeling of working hard in a wild, cold environment — the kind of environment that reminds me of familiar places in Aotearoa.

Pedro arrives at the refugio and congratulates Mike and me, telling us we're very strong.
"Next time we will go to the top", he says.
But there won't be a next time, not for Mike, who flies home in a week's time, and not for me. An expensive guided climb — a non-technical slog, in fact — as part of a long line of people all intent on the summit holds no interest for me. Even on this day of bad weather, the refugio's crowded and people still trudge up from the car park. This is not a place for me; I don't resent the crowd or deny them their enjoyment — I'm glad to see so many people enjoying the place — but I don't feel at home here the way I would if the hut were much smaller (this sleeps 70 people), with just a handful of people present.

Back at the car park I'm appalled at the number of cars, and they're still arriving. The place reminds me of a skifield car park in New Zealand. The weather closes in, so we drive lower, unload the bikes and try to get them to work. This proves difficult. Mike's has a bald back tyre, so he can't brake effectively and eventually has to stop partway down to change bikes; my gears barely work and when I remount the bike further down the mountain the chain slips off the sprocket and I'm dumped onto the ground, knees first but fortunately into soft volcanic dust; Sean's seat keeps slipping down and his gears eventually fail completely.Nevertheless, I enjoy the fun and the exercise despite the discomfort, although the appeal begins to wear thin while biking on the flat in the rain along a rough, corrugated road.

But by the time we reach the restaurant I'm still mostly dry thanks to the foresight of having packed leggings as well as parka. I've seen a few new birds, too — Stout-billed Cinclodes nesting in a roadside bank; a large raptor circling a long way off and far below; Andean lapwings on the flats.We recover in the restaurant over chips and guacamole, brown bread, slices of banana and apple, a delicious bean soup, and cinnamon tea, then begin the long drive back to Quito. We all sleep well, but Sean sets the record: 14 hours. Even I sleep well, and I need it — the next day I have an overnight bus journey to the Amazon.

Note: Check the photoblog for more photos of our day on Cotopaxi (and elsewhere)
1. The summit of Cotopaxi.
2. The car park when we arrived.
3. Mike rests on the parapet at the refugio as the cloud begins to lift (briefly).
4. (L to R): Phil, Serena and Sean wait partway down the road while Mike gets a replacement bike.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

26 August 2011

The summit of Rucu Pichincha

Near the summit of Rucu Pichincha, after the hard, slow slog up the soft sandy ash scree — each step a fight to stop from slipping back — I reach solid ground and the walking becomes easier. The man a little way ahead leans on his poles, then heads left, but to the right, splashes of paint suggest a marked route. A small cairn confirms the way, and even if leftwards might be easier, this crosses solid steep rock — apparently not difficult or dangerous, but enough to provide the feeling of active climbing rather than mindless trudging. The route veers across the face, towards the ridge, and as I approach the edge, the feeling of height grows; the land seems to fold away, leaving me closer to sky and swirling cloud. Here the rock steepens, requiring hands as well as feet, and the feeling of easy climbing on sound rock on a high mountain delights me, bringing back memories of the Otira Face of Rolleston years ago with Jono. Different worlds, similar emotions.

Sunlight breaks through the cloud, warming my back. A sudden shadow passes over; I look up and there, only a few metres away, a bird — a raptor of some kind — slips sideways in the air, looks down at me and sails out of sight beyond the summit ridge. In this barren place of dry rock and sandy ash, to see something so alive seems both incongruous and an unqualified joy. What was this bird doing, sailing so close, apparently checking me out? I can't resist the thought that it was waiting for me to fall or just checking to see whether I was dead enough to eat, although this is clearly ridiculous. Later, when I've identified it as probably being a juvenile northern crested caracara (I see two unmistakeable adults later, from the summit), I decide it's probably checking to see if I've discarded anything edible (I haven't, and don't).

A short section of steep rock with enormous holds, then the summit — almost an anticlimax, with its enormous "Bienvenidos" sign, graffitied, lumpy boulders and earth packed hard by the feet of thousands of visitors. The man with his walking poles has just arrived and is already sitting, looking slightly  flushed, with his daypack resting nearby. He removes his large watch, checks it, makes some adjustments, then gets up and hangs it on one of the splintered poles holding up the welcome sign. He wanders off, returns, photographs himself with his phone. I glance across at his pack and notice his Teleferico ticket lying loose on the ground.
"Su tarjeta?" I say, pointing.
He exclaims and rushes over before it blows away. As it turns out, the ticket isn't necessary for the descent, but I don't know that, and judging from his reaction, nor does he.

I drink water and wander around, eating a banana and packing the peel away carefully in my bag, not wishing to add to the orange peel  and other reminders of how many people visit this summit each weekend. Another man arrives and sits a little way off. We've passed each other a couple of times — he taking the slow and steady approach, me the not-quite-as-slow but stop-and-photograph approach. We've exchanged a few words and smiles of acknowledgement, and already he seems curiously like someone I know, someone who could become a friend if my Spanish were much better. Even in his positioning himself at a little distance he seems to share something of my own preference for visiting these places either with good friends or alone.

The latter, however is not an option today. After 15–20 minutes and a few photographs, I hear someone talking below; shortly afterwards a man in his twenties arrives, ebullient with success. He starts calling out instructions and encouragement in English to his friends below, pointing out the easy way up, congratulating them on their accomplishment when they arrive bent over and puffing. Further down the slope, groups of people plod slowly upwards.  Cloud swirls overhead and sends wisps trailing over the pass between Rucu Pichincha and the nearby summit; patches of sunlight race over the páramo between Rucu and the fractionally higher Guagua Pichincha. My hands have begun to chill and the relative solitude of the summit has vanished like the caracara — now only a memory. I sling my bag over my shoulder, put my hands in the pockets of my jacket and start down the mountain.

1. Rucu Pichincha is an extinct volcano near Quito, Ecuador. The usual route is to take the Teleférico (gondola) from the outskirts of the city to the páramo grasslands at 4100 m, then follow the very well-worn trail to the summit at 4696 m. While the power pylons, occasional trail bikes and crowds mean the route feels only marginally like a true mountain environment, the weather's a different matter, and visitors should go prepared for anything.

1. Rucu Pichincha from the lower part of the trail.
2. Mike and Serena enjoy the Avenue of Volcanoes from the top of the Teleférico.
3. One of the Bar-winged Cinclodes we watched foraging near the rent-a-horse place.
4. The summit of Rucu Pichincha.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

17 August 2011

On the bus from Otavalo

At the Cascada de Peguche on the outskirts of Otavalo, people swarmed everywhere along the foot-polished trails; they scrambled over the worn-down rocks edging the big pool and stood triumphantly with upraised arms in front of the waterfall to be photographed; they jammed the wooden bridges. The place seethed with humans, or so it seemed to me. Perhaps I'm too used to places where another person or two comprises a crowd. I tried to look past the crowd, to see the falls, and for a moment saw something incessant, inexorable, something still unaffected, that might outlast us or, if eventually destroyed, would disappear without surrendering. For the moment, the water still keeps falling, even in the dead of night in the middle of the week when the people, presumably, have gone.

But then the crowd reappeared and I turned away, looking towards a tangle of dusty vegetation where a few butterflies flitted about. I'd noted long, orange-yellow flowers, and turned to Sandra.
   "I'd have expected to see hummingbirds around those flowers," I said. I'd hardly finished speaking when a tiny bird, hardly bigger than a bumblebee, shot past and disappeared into the tangle of foliage. We watched intently for a few minutes until the hummingbird reappeared. It hovered, darted, hovered again, then shot up over the canopy and disappeared somewhere into the other side. I had no idea what species it was, but the delight of watching it fly, of seeing something so intensely alive gave me a little hope. One of the things I love about birds is the way they so often either ignore us (within the limits of safety) or regard us as an opportunity to be exploited — in short, they live largely on their terms, not ours. The little hummingbird at Peguche exemplified this perfectly.
Near the entrance to the main trail, youths kicked a football around; fires burned down, perhaps readying themselves for the evening's grilling; large tents occupied spaces between the trees; dogs wandered around, sniffing hopefully. Smoke drifted across a line of stalls packed with colourful souvenirs. We walked on, stopping to look at a small black pig tethered by a much twisted rope knotted around its middle. It tossed aside a disintegrating board with its snout, but in that dry and dusty yard the chance of finding anything edible seemed remote. On the other side of the yard a small, scruffy sheep, also tethered, gnawed at a few dust-smothered weeds. Then, incongruously, a  beautiful, lithe grey cat stepped out onto the cobbled road, crossed it and slipped through a high, iron gate. I went over to say hello but in a manner suited to its bearing the cat ignored me and strolled further into the yard. I didn't mind the snub.
Further on, we passed a long, open food stall — little more than a back wall, one end and a roof, sheltering a collection of simple tables and a cooking area where a middle-aged, weathered woman worked at an enormous pot. An old lady sat eating at a nearby table and looking out at the passersby from the elevated terrace on which the stall stood. I smiled; she smiled back and waved. On the spur of the moment I started walking over, realising as I did that I had no idea what I'd say, other than "Buenas tardes".

When I got closer I saw a black and white cat under the table, at her feet. Without thinking, I pointed and said "El gato," and the cat immediately rose and came to the edge of the terrace to bump against my hand. I rubbed its neck and head with my knuckles, trying not to think too hard about what I might be catching and consoling myself with the thought it probably would be nothing worse than something a fungicide would clear up in short order. The old woman was grinning; so was the woman at the pot.
   "Bonito," I said, indicating the cat and hoping it was the right word.
They seemed to appreciate it; I said goodbye and left them laughing, but I needed no knowledge of Spanish to understand the good humour.

On the bus back to Quito I tried to ignore the sporadic stench of some kind of solvent and the hideously awful movie on the screen at the front of the bus — a film seemingly about little more than steroid-poisoned men smashing each other into bloody pulp in variations on cage fighting  — and instead looked out the window at the real lives going on in the late afternoon. The pigs in yards; the tom turkey displaying hopefully and futilely to an oblivious chook; a child running with a couple of dogs to a small stream at the bottom of a sloping paddock partly obscured by wild vegetation. What was the child feeling? The freedom of running in a half wild place, perhaps? The delight of being released temporarily from homework and chores? Maybe, without knowing it, the child was simply enjoying the freedom of not knowing enough about the wider world to be trapped into coveting it?

Later, I saw huge earth-moving machines with work-polished blades devouring the mountainsides, widening roads, straightening corners, improving bridges — gnawing at the Andes  — and I felt momentarily overwhelmed by the relentless, inexorable destructiveness of human beings. The bus drove on into the evening and the lowering sun threw a longer, warmer light. On the side of the road I saw striations in the soft earth  — the marks of the blade of a massive digger. A swirl of wind, and sand fills the marks a little more; the glancing evening sun accentuates the textures  — the raw, brash marks of the machine; the fine, dusty texture of the sand slowly hiding those human-made marks. In the distance, the white cone of a volcano; here, the deep valley with its swift, turbulent river churning far below. A sere, arid landscape of steep mountainsides thorny shrubs, cacti, dust and the long, deep shadows of evening.

The bus drives on, taking us back to Quito, but to what future?

1. The Cascada de Peguche.
2. In the Otavalo market later in the day, when the crowd had thinned.
3. The view from my room one evening. The mountains appear smaller in the photo.
4. Same view, telephoto; this (I think) is one of the routes to Rucu Pichincha (not the usual one, which starts from the top of the teleférico).

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor