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