I noticed that the old man was weeping silently. He stood there alone, shading his eyes with one hand, gazing across the valley to the blue-green mountains, and into the golden sunset, just as I had seen in that picture all those years before.He turned away from me and I barely caught his words in that quaint musical dialect of North-east Peru: If I had read the future, Id have asked themnot to come…
I was about to go over and speak to him, when a young woman appeared, it seemed from nowhere, and touched his arm and whispered softly,
Acu, tatiytuyni, ña horana samanayquipaca. S ham, yaycúm, sham… (Listen, my dear father, now its the time to rest. Come, lets go in, come…)
I realized that she must have been speaking to him in his Indian language. She turned and smiled shyly at me as she led the old man off.
Si quieres conversar con mi abuelito, has de venir mañana a mi casa a la vueltita no más. De don Hildefonso su casa es. (If you would like to converse with my grandfather you must come tomorrow to my house thats just round the corner. It belongs to don Hildefonso).
I was still haunted by the unexpected vision of the way the old man had been standing there, so I nodded dumbly and turned towards the Hostal Dorado across the Plaza. It was growing dusk now and the chicharras (crickets) with their shrill reverberations were announcing the fact. I began, almost unwittingly, to slap my neck and hands as the mosquitoes came out for their evenings entertainment under the flame trees surrounding the square. I was surprised that they could even bite me through my London safari shirt.
What was I doing here in this town of Lamas, in this remote Province of San Martín, Perú? As I look back now, I have often asked myself that. Why had I decided on thatyears trip round the world? Was it because I was tired of life and work at home; was it because of a failed marriage; was it because of a shrinking world economy that made it a now or never thing; was it because it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to bore folks later in a bar and office with colourful anecdotes; or was it because I always had needed some sort of project in life...? Only the Lord knew!
Yes …, I suppose it might have been all and none of those things combined. Yet it seemed to me in that quiet late afternoon that it had been something deeper, something to do with a photo that I had seen in my younger days... Had it been in a magazine in the dentists ordoctors waiting room; in the Uni students common room; in a newspaper left in the corner of Manchester commuter train on a dismal Monday evening, somewhere inconsequential in itself at any rate?
Yet that picture had always lain there among the windmills of my mind. The vision was of a South American Indian, standing on a hill-top, shading his eyes and gazing over the mountain ranges into the sunset. That vision had haunted me all my life. In times of quiet, in moments of jubilation, even in the hurly-burly of everyday existence, that man would be there – always watching, always looking...
And now, I had actually seen him, this very afternoon, doing exactly what was in that picture in my mind…!
To make matters more curious still, how was it that I had ended up being here, way off the beaten tourist track, in Lamas, in the Montaña of Perú, of all places?
You see, Id been doing the regular touristy-sort-of-thing one does in the world, just as one does to get a flavour of a place, yet avoid difficulties, hazards, etc. In fact, well, to avoid any real contact with the place itself and its people, just to obtain that sort of“plastic” version of reality that most tourists experience. So, of course, in Peru I did things like Lima with its gold museum, its Cathedral and the Plaza de Armas, and a well structured evening peña (national dance-bistro); then, on to a quick flight over the Nazca lines (bit pricey!); Arequipa and the monastery; off next day up to Lake Titicaca and the floating islands (photos of the Urus - they wanted to charge me!); popping over to Bolivia to see La Paz and the Tiahuanaco ruins; back via Cuzco and Macchu Picchu (got the usual postcards sent off!); back down to Lima, laden with llama rugs and dolls, and pan-pipes (for the relations and kids back home); and the next morning that horribly early flight to Iquitos (Ick-quick-toss, as my English friend pronounced it) for a night or two in a jungle, native “village” sort-of-thing, to round the experience off, thus making me the“expert” on Peru on returning home!
But I hadnt planned on this unforeseen and unscheduled stop at the foot of the eastern Andes slopes, at a place called Tarapoto.
Se ha presentado un pequeño desperfecto en el avión, Señores y Señoras, que nos obliga pernoctar aquí en Tarapoto. (A small technical hitch, Ladies & Gentlemen, that requires us to stay overnight here in Tarapoto).
The captains voice had crackled over the loudspeaker of the aircraft as we came in to an unexpected landing on the dusty tarmac of an airport some forty minutes short of Iquitos. What I would come to understand later, much later, was that his “apology” was his metaphorical language for:
My niece, who lives in Tarapoto, is fifteen today and the family are having her quinceañera, (Fifteenth, coming-of-age, birthday party) to which myself and the crew are invited.
And so I found myself stepping out on the baking soil of Tarapoto air-field to be soon surrounded by motor-tricycle rickshaw drivers offering to take me to the town or to see the “city” of Lamas nearby.
Lamas, más fresquita es y hay chunchus para ver. (The air is fresher and there are “Chunchus” - a derogatory term for Indians - to look at.)
So I had chosen to come to Lamas, along some thirty kilometres of dusty highway, passing the villages of Morales, with what appeared to be a shiny new concrete bridge, and later climbing up through Cacatachi and Rumisapa on the way. Proper conversation with the flamboyant driver had been impossible due to the shaking, dust clouds and open exhaust of the sprightly machine. Hanging on for dear life while being directly behind the driver, I thought I did hear him shout something about Rumisapa being called that because in the local Kechwa language it meant „Lotsof stones and certainly the maize crop was being challenged numerically by the number of boulders in the field.
The driver finally deposited me in the Plaza de Armas (the main square) before a tired-looking, three-storey building called the Hostal Dorado. He grudgingly accepted, with little grace, my two tatty dollar bills, and turned to a large florid lady, standing next to me. After some lengthy haggling, the pair charged off to some other destination with a sack of what appeared to be pineapples balanced precariously on the handlebars of the motor-tricycle.
The Hostal Dorado (lit. The Golden Hostel) was no better or worse than other places of refuge that I had stayed in around the world. It had received its name from the peeling yelloworange paint that was liberally daubed on its ceilings, walls, and shutters. That contrasted strangely with odd pieces of faded blue colonial furniture that “graced” the entrance area.
I was given a room that fared little better in design and content. The twin shutter-type doors met grudgingly for some of their length and were held together by a large iron hook and clasp. The en-suite facilities were literally that! The toilet in the corner of this upstairs room was discoloured and cracked. It had neither seat, nor a lid on the cistern. A piece of wet string hung forlornly from one corner of the tank and I perceived that by hauling fiercely on it, it caused the toilet to flush. A liberal supply of neat newspaper squares hung on a hook and the old cooking-oil tin below suggested that one should not flush such paper down the toilet. The sink carried a small section of carbolic washing soap and a thin cotton towel. The one tap dripped half-heartedly until the town supply of water went off from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. I did not have the courage to enquire if there might be a bath or a shower around.
Sitting on the edge of the bed that evening, I read the tattered copy of the Guía Turística de Lamas (The Lamas Tourist Guide) that I had found lying in a corner of the room. It boldly portrayed a picture of the Church across the square, although I had a feeling that the picture was not quite right and saw later that the Guía had been printed in the late sixties, before the last big earthquake in the eighties. It proudly stated that the citys full name was El Triunfo de la Santa Cruz de los Motilones y Lamas (The Triumph of the Holy Cross over the Motilone and Lamas Tribes) and had been established around 1650 by a group of Spaniards. I was to find out later that there was more to it than that, much more. The city appeared to be also nicknamed “La ciudad de los tres pisos” (The city on three levels) due to its topography, being built on three ridges of the hilltops, on the last range before two thousand miles or more of the Amazon basin stretched eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.
The fly-blown forty-watt bulb dangling on a wire from the ceiling did not encourage reading or other pursuits. So, after glancing at my watch and seeing it was eight-fifteen, I lowered myself carefully on to the wafer-thin mattress and the creaking bed-frame, and covered myself with the thin cotton sheet provided. Would tomorrow bring the answer to the riddle of the vision of the man with the shading hand? Sleep prevented me from reflecting more on these strange coincidences.
It was still quite dark in the room when I awoke, although I could see the outline of the dawn round the edges of the closed shutters.
I did what I had to do, though the string snapped in my hand, and I had to grope around in the cistern for the plug to release the water. I then realized that it must be sixoclock at least, for the tap began protesting, as if it had indigestion. Sure enough, when I turned it fully on it burped and spat out a mouthful of brown, oily water and then slowly began to stabilize itself and run clear and tepid.
There were sounds of activity below in the square. On opening the shutters, I was confronted by a ragged, spotty youth perching precariously, at balcony level, on the roof of what appeared to be the local bus. He was, as I had seen before in Bolivia, in the plaza in Cochabamba, the ayudante, the drivers mate and conductor, and general whipping-boy. This one was on the roof of the bus, busy stowing away sacks of coffee and bales of cotton; together with gargantuan bunches of cooking bananas and three roosters tied up in bags with just their heads protruding.He grinned at me and shouted: Hola, gringo, ¡cara de papaya! (Hi there, gringo with a face like a pawpaw!)
He was probably right. Gringo was a derogatory term for white-folks and my face had been burned and blistered in the ride up from Tarapoto. I smiled back, not knowing what to say, as my Spanish was fairly rudimentary, and I was not at the level of trading jokes or insults. I had yet to learn magic words like Acaso…, „stás loco ché… or no te pases, cholo, (Do you really think.., youre off your head, mate, watch it buddy) so I retreated through the bedroom door and went down to look for breakfast.
There were pleasant cooking smells wafting through a door at the rear of the hall and I ventured out into a small patio where there was a large person, poised on the edge of a tree stump, fanning an open fire on a platform of mud and brick.Buenos días, I said… Desayuno? (Good morning ... Breakfast?), as a sort of question.Buenos días, came the reply from the large rotund man. Hay tacacho y cafecito, (Theres tacacho and coffee).
I had no idea what tacacho might be nor did it figure in my pocket Spanish dictionary when I checked later. It turned out to be boiled green plantains, mashed and mixed with raw eggs, fried onions and pieces of fatty bacon. Its consistency was that of Plaster-of-Paris and after several mouthfuls I was so glad that the proffered tin mug of sweetened black coffee was close to hand.Oi Gordo…, (Heh, Fatty...) someone called from the hut at the back, apuráte pues (get a move on then).Ya, ya, mi Negrita, he replied. (O.K. then, Blackie dear)
I was amazed how people used such terms of endearment that would have produced a fight or a law-suit in politically correct circles back home!In halting Spanish I asked El Gordo about the place.
He shrugged, ¡ Qué se puede decir! no tiene porvenir sin carretera, la Marginal, y con todos esos indios y“shipicos”, ¡estamos fregados! (What can one say! The place has no future now without the Marginal, the new main trunk road, passing through here, and with all those Indians and immigrant folks from the highlands, were sunk!)
Había tiempos cuando Lamas era el centro, todos los „caminos de herradura pasaban por aquí… (There was a time when Lamas was at the hub of things, all the mule trails went through here).
Y esos “filibotones” trabajaban nuestras chacras por sus traguitos y las “yanacitas” como empleadas en nuestras casas. (And the Indians-who-wore-jackets-adorned-withrows-of-buttons worked our fields for payment in aguardiente, fire-water,and the “little black girls” were maids in our houses).
Todo está fregado… desde la Reforma en 68 y ahora con los narcos cojudos… (Everything has gone to pieces… since the Agrarian Reform in 1968 and now with the f**** drugtraffickers.)El Gordo spat in the fire and trundled off into the hut at the back.
All this seemed a bit more complex than the story of the valiant Incas and the Jungle Travelogues that I had seen on several series on the TV back at home. Real life here appeared to be so different even from the stereotyped, potted history that was presented to us by the immaculate, languid young lady, the Peruvian guide at Macchu-Picchu, with her stories of Inca prowess, Spanish hidalguismo (chivalry), and modern hai-life in Lima and Cuzco, etc.
I paid for my lodging and meal with a crisp twenty dollar bill. The Gordo examined it closely, scratching its surface with a dirty thumb-nail. I was surprised to receive in turn, such a large pile of smelly, tatty Peruvian notes and a few battered coins as change. They were to be the first of many such items, as I discovered that small denomination notes and coins were the usual currency, these notes gaining their own particular consistency and odour, having been stored in places twixt sweaty breasts, sweaty feet, greasy pockets, etc!But, it was time to look for that man...
The unmade street, that led away from the square, was baked hard and of a sandy, yellowish consistency as I followed it and climbed the small slope up to the top of the town. I noticed there was no formal drainage conduit and in street, so the run-off had gouged a gully three feet deep or more. Not a street to wander down on a dark night! There was a pleasant early-morning smell about the place, which I guessed was the combination of wood smoke, belladonna trees lining the roadside and paiche, a strong-smelling, salted, smoked and dried fish from the Amazon that hung on poles in the storefronts. The mist was rising slowly from the valley floor to my left, and there was still a little hint of chill in the air.
I discovered that the top end of the town was actually called Quilloallpa (literally, Yellow earth) and I asked a passing schoolboy in my“best Spanish” where don Hildefonsos house might be. The boy grinned and pointed with his chin:Arribita no más, meester...
I puzzled over the reply as he ran off down the slope – A little way up, no more…? It was to be much later that I understood that no más was something in local dialect that was tacked on to comments, just as I had heard in Scotland Fifers sticking „eh, and Dundonians „ken, on the end of their sentences for no apparent reason either!
The girl I had seen yesterday was standing at a doorway about twenty metres further up the street. She must have been looking out for me and she beckoned me over. I noticed that she waved to me, palm down, the opposite to the way I would have done it. She told me later that gringos were insulting, for their way of waving people over was one only used to call animals!
She said nothing to me but went inside. I followed her through a mud-floor room and out into a back patio, a shady place with a huge mango tree, groaning under the weight of mangos, the size of small soccer balls. And there he was again… that man of my vision!
We shook hands silently and he motioned me to sit facing him on a sort of stool, while the girl brought him a fierce looking machete and two large coconuts. With a few deft strokes he sliced off the husks, cracked the tops open and offered me one to drink. The coconut milk was sweet and cool.
The girl retired to the kitchen, but the man did not speak as he sat there, slowly rocking and sipping his drink and observing me.
I looked at him more closely. Hildefonso, for I gathered later that that was his name, was maybe five feet tall, thin, wiry, with straight dark hair cut in a fringe, olive skinned with one or two hairs on his chin and chest. He wore only a pair of coarse woven cotton trousers which were secured by an intricate patterned woven belt. His hands and body had many scars and pock-marks and I noticed that one of his eyes was in need of a cataract operation. His fingernails were long, especially his left thumb which had begin to curl into a sort of hook shape. I was to discover later that many Kechwa Indians grew that nail long in order to hold nails, hooks and the like. His feet, crossed before him, were stumpy and calloused, almost as if he had some sort of leather boots on them. I realized that he could have never worn, nor ever wear, shoes.
After we had eaten the soft inner layer of coconut, he stuck the point of the machete in the ground, where it swayed to and fro a minute, and then he spoke in a low, soft musical voice:
Ari, chashna wauquicillu, canga mushcucuynipi
chayamushcanguiñá. Chaymanda tucuyta yachachishcayqui ñuapa pachamanda cay Cristopa shamuctin tiemponcama.
Of course, I had no idea what he was saying, so I just smiled sagely and grunted, but I notice the look of fear that flickered across the girls face as she peered out through the kitchen window.What did he say? I asked her.
Nodin Señor, hes a leedel loco.„e remembersde old time an wen „e was a brujo, an„ealer. Now we are educated, we don belief all dat.
I had the feeling that what Hildefonso had said was not that and that what he had actually said was somehow important for me.
Por favor, Señorita, just tell me exactly what he said…
Well, he said: „It is true, my little brother, I saw your arrival in my dream, so I will teach you everything from…, she hesitated and twisted her long pig-tails, „long ago until Christs coming-again-time.
Hildefonso continued to watch me closely and, although his eyes were old and runny, yet, they were as deep and mysterious as the pools I had seen in the caverns in the Yorkshire Dales.Don Hildefonso, I said taking his hand and speaking slowly in Spanish, how will you teach me these things?
His hand tightened on mine and he smiled and said, Uyaripuway, taqui-mushcuynipi… (Listen to me please, in my dream-song...)
The sun was beginning to break through the tree shade in the patio and I could feel its warmth on my back, caressing me almost like my gentle mothers hand as I remembered it from long, long ago.
Don Hildefonso had produced a small bamboo-penny-whistle sort of thing with a small tambourine-like drum hanging below it. He began to play a haunting melody in a minor key and at the same time tap the little drum with the long fingernails of his other hand.
Di-ding, di-ding, di-ding, di-ding,
Di-ding, di-ding, di-ding, di-ding,
Di-ding, di-ding, di-ding, di-ding,
Di-ding, di-ding, diding…
The drum went on and on… and then he began to chant in a high falsetto. I couldnt make out all the words, something like:
Tingunahuay mariri, Tingunahuay mariri, Tingunahuay mariri, Tingunahuay mariri, Apallahuayquisapami, Apallahuayquisapami,
Tingunahuay mariri, Tingunahuay mariri, Tingunahuay………I closed my eyes to listen more intently...
Hildefonso and I were standing in a clearing in the jungle. He seemed a lot younger and I guess I too felt I was in my later twenties or early thirties. I noticed he still had that Collins machete that he had used on the coconut, though now it was cradled in the crook of his left arm.
The funnier thing was that I was able to understand most of what he was saying to me in Kechwa, and he, in turn, appeared to understand my English!Where are we? I asked him in utter astonishment.Nueva Zelandia, he replied.
It didnt look like New Zealand to me and I realized that this must be a local name for this particular clearing in this beautiful mountainous virgin forest all around us. As I gathered my senses and looked about me, I could see a group of young Kechwa men and women, some with axes, others with spade-like machetes, standing close by. They were all looking at me also in some astonishment! Most of them had obviously never seen a gringo before and certainly not one here with them deep in the Montaña (hilly jungle). Some began sharpening their axes and machetes on small sandstone rocks beside a little stream; others began again to playfully wrestle each other. All their children were smiling and laughing as they splashed about in the stream.Were doing a „cuchuna, Hildefonso informed me, cutting down the forest to make a clearing for planting manioc.
All of the underbrush had already been cut and piled into small mounds, not that there was much of it, as I realized that this virgin forest jungle had so many large trees that their canopy prevented small, scrub-like growth. This jungle was awe-inspiring, cathedral-like in many ways, quiet, shady, solemn and cool, with birds flitting to and fro high up the canopy and an occasional iridescent blue airmail-envelope butterfly passing lazily by, then a yellowy-green flash of a flock of parakeets calling a greeting as they also swooped past.I noticed that the folks greeted Hildefonso by name, but when they approached me they merely muttered,Winus deeas mmmm…. (Good morning, mmmmm….), dribbling and spitting, a sure sign of Kechwa embarrassment.
For them, I had appeared as if off another planet, parachuted into their world where everybody and everything was part of the whole, all related by name and purpose in some complete and comprehensible cosmos. So, as being from another alien world, they had no name or category for me, at least no pronounceable one, save maybe gringo, that term of scorn used for foreigners. I did so feel that I wanted to be like them, and be liked by them, so, not wishing to be defeated, the only thing I could think of doing was to offer to help them.Lendme an axe and Ill help cut down some of the trees…
This produced quite disparate reactions, from ribald laughter on the part of the younger folks, to questioning among some of the older men as to whether this “thing” could do any sort of skilled labour! Eventually one of them grudgingly handed me his axe.Go well away, mmmm…, over there by yourself. We dont want you dropping trees on our heads…
This produced more laughter and clicking noises from the men; grins, behind hands over the mouths, from the women and crude monkey-like movements from the children.
The men then set off up a slope and began to work in twos or threes, chopping away at the massive trunks of sixty foot cedro, aguano, uchu-mullaca, capirona, mashonaste and other varieties of beautiful virgin timber. Soon these huge denizens of the jungle began to fall, accompanied by whoops from the fellers, and were then pounced upon by the women who began to strip them of their smaller branches. The trunks would be left to dry for six weeks until the area was set ablaze and the manioc would then be planted in ground now fertilized by the ashes.
I found myself a nice tall thin tree with a bush-like head, its trunk oozing resin here and there. Running my finger along the blade, to test its sharpness, I then spat on my hands, as I had seen in the movies, and took an almighty swipe at the trunk. There was a satisfying clunk and the shock of the blow travelled back through the handle and into my arms. Here I was at last, a woodsman, in the jungles of Peru!
In that same moment, hundreds of red, biting ants dislodged from their nest in the tree above, fell on me and started biting my head, neck and arms. The pain was intense. My face was puffing up like a balloon, as I yelled out in agony, vainly slapping away at hands, face and body. Recalling the small stream I had seen at the foot of the clearing, I ran full tilt for it, bruising my shins in the process, and plunged as much of me as I could in its crystal waters. The Kechwa had all stopped and run down the slope after me, puzzled at what was taking place. I eventually struggled out of the water, a soggy, sorry, itchy, painful mess.
They looked at me in puzzlement , and then… fell about laughing! Tears poured down their faces, not of sorrow, but in sheer delight! Through my pain and shame I heard their comments when they, at last,were able to speak…
¡Qué bruto! ¡Qué sonso! ¡Iden llullushina! ¡Wañuchiwanchi, de veras! ¡Ashwan wayra-umaca makisapamanta! (What an idiot! How stupid can you get! Just like a baby!Right, hell kill us all! Hes more air-headed than a spider-monkey!)
¡Ari, cumpa, paypish puricú cun quiquinllami! (Youre right, compadre, and he also walks just like one too!), added another. That produced more gales of laughter, mimicking and falling about.I stood there, sore, sorry for myself, not knowing what to do or say… Then one called Rufino Tuanama, older and more heavily built than the others, spoke out,
Hell die here by himself and if he does , the authorities will come and blame us. Wed better take him home to Chumbakiwi; he can stay with us until we find out more about him. Well call him „Makisapa (Spider-monkey)…. Pati iden tunchishina mantequerollapish causac carca…(Perhaps he used to be a ghost/spirit or even a mantequero– a ghoul that kills people for their fat).Some looked a little frightened at the thought.
Rufino turned back to me, Sham upiyayra, chaymanda wasinisapaman rinayqui tian… (Come on then, drink up now, and then you must go to our house.)
His wife, Natividad, Nati for short, handed me a hollowed half of a