Pablo Corral Vega My Garden in the Wilds (Book) « pablocorralvega.com

My Garden in the Wilds (Book)

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My Garden in the Wilds

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Photographs and text by Pablo Corral Vega

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers-Peden


NOTE TO THE READER

I invite you who are holding this book, my dear friend, to follow a process that I have followed.  Working on this book I have learned to see smallness anew, to allow the small details in Nature to be more important than what is large and majestic.

I had a beautiful teacher whose name was Carolina Hidalgo Vivar.  She taught me to look at the world with gratitude and tenderness.  I have tried to take these photographs from that position.

This book is a personal, an extremely personal, portrait of Ecuador, of my country, of my homeland.  I have traveled its roads in an attempt to find healing following the death of Carolina, trying to find a formula for converting grief into beauty.

Nature reminds us that life and death are intimately interwoven.  And that life, splendid, potent, and filled with pinnacles and precipices, is a precious gift that we must celebrate with those we love.

I invite you to take an imaginary journey from the east to the west of Ecuador, from the heart of Amazonia, climbing the flanks of the Cordillera, crossing over the peaks of the Andes and its sweet inhabited valleys, descending again to the tropics, crossing ocean waters until you reach the Galapagos, which we call the Enchanted Islands.

But approach with caution, this book is not composed of grand vistas but often of small spaces ones eyes can rescue, humble landscapes, and gardens conceived by nature.

READ THE BOOK ON ISSU

A GARDEN FOR CAROLINA

How does one speak to a person who is no longer here? What words does one use? What does one say to be heard?

Carolina, my dearest Carolina, you wrote me a modest little poem, that is what you called it. This book is my modest little poem for you.

It is modest because I don’t know what language to use to reach you where you are. It is small because it has no wings to penetrate mystery. It is the language that I know best, but I am aware that it is incomplete, inadequate. I need to tell you how important you are to me, to thank you for all the gifts you gave me.

Now after months of slow wandering around, of grieving, of looking at the persistent miracle of nature, I have realized that making a book about gardens is in truth yet another gift you are giving me. Your spirit, your memory, quickly led me to photographing what was smallest and simplest. It became an overwhelming, irresistible impetus.

These gardens are a gift you are giving me, that we are giving to others.

You had a deep love for trees. I remember the enormous, age-old Samaná, the raintree next to your house in Santo Domingo. I went to visit it, and it looked very sad now that you are no longer here. It was wrapped in fog and slightly bowed, with mossy whiskers that trailed to the ground.

You held that it is impossible to defend nature only by thinking about it, that conservation must first of all be an act of tenderness.

And your thesis was simple but absolute. “You see my Samaná, Palito, the tree I love so much? The years have turned it into an important and honorable tree. Imagine, it can’t become any more worthy because it is home to so many mosses, so many bromeliads, so many ferns, of so many little birds and insects. That tree, despite being so large and having the wrinkles, is a thousand times more fragile than you or me! It can’t defend itself! How can I look at it without feeling tender?”

You spoke to the trees with absolute naturalness. And it broke your heart when anyone attacked them. “Look, Palito,” you would say to me. “Look at that handsome tree.” For you, young trees, and gardens, and little animals, and the hummingbirds that flew outside your window were all “handsome.”

You always said that every person has a right to the shade of a tree, to the song of birds, to the sound of water.

Oh how you loved nature. That’s why you went to Harvard to specialize in landscape architecture. The city distressed you, the concrete, all the square lines and pigeonholes, the space in which trees and gardens were mere decoration. The city where the most humble people have no access to nature while those with the most resources close themselves within the sterile walls of blocks and blocks of buildings.

You were working on several municipal projects. You had the world by the tail. Your mind was bubbling, you were thinking that we must invite nature into the city, give it a fundamental presence in our lives.

No, it isn’t merely a matter of building more and better parks, but of erasing the artificial frontiers between the wilds and what is urban. “The ravines in Quito are a miracle, they guard the last traces of native vegetation within the city,” you often said. “Our nature does not in any way resemble the parks we construct. We want to make Italian or French parks in a land that is an explosion of trees, an overabundance of bromeliads and ferns and mosses.” Our tropical vegetation is baroque, a jumble of greens and water. “On the Andean moors are the minute, the microscopic hiding from the cold, while in the tropics primordial, ancestral leaves burst out before your eyes.”

And the parks, of course, should rid themselves of that European esthetic and fill themselves with the overflowing ethic of our mega-diversity. Those absurd oppositions between park and city, and between city and nature, would have to be demolished.

It horrified you how alien species were being planted in reforestration programs. Those forests of cypresses or pines, so false in the heart of the moors, pained you deeply. “We are complex. We like to look like Switzerland or Canada when there is no greater beauty than the humble underbrush of our wild country.”

“Nature is honest, Palito. Nature teaches us to look within ourselves toward what is profound. It teaches us astonishment and gratitude.”

**********

A few weeks after your death, in the darkest moments, you came to me in a dream, small, thin, delicate, with your natural elegance and your sweet way of smiling. “Palito, you don’t have the power to know what the future is going to bring you. Nor do you know when the persons you love most will be gone. You can’t control everything that happens in your life. The one power you have is that of your tenderness, of your goodness.”

The power of my goodness? And I had never seen tenderness as a power.

We frequently commit the error of thinking that tender people are fragile, defenseless. But you were powerful. Only a powerful person can transform those she has around her in such a profound and conclusive way.

You were tenderness. You used your words to comfort, to heal, to celebrate, to respect.

We Ecuadorians carry affectionate itos and itas on the end of our words. We have a warmth in our culture that the intolerant are robbing from us. We don’t drink coffee, we have a cafecito. You used the diminutive with a pride I have never seen in others. You had an active, proud, assured sweetness. You focused your concerns on everything you saw that was fragile or helpless, especially children and the less fortunate. It was not a syrupy softness or self-complacency—you despised anything sugary or lacking in good taste–but an essential tenderness.

 

THERE IN THE WILDS, MY GARDEN

How is a garden made? Slowly, with care and with enormous tenderness. In the same way that affection grows, in the same way that a house is converted into a home. Just as people gradually put so much of themselves in our heart that one day they are there to stay.

There is nothing magical or automatic about it, making a garden requires perseverance. First its outlines are drawn; it is given an easily understood and human dimension. Then it is sown, it is watered, it is awaited, it is trimmed and then again awaited. Constructing a garden is an act of appropriation, a personal dialogue with nature and its cycles.

So if a garden is to be an actual garden, I must become its gardener. I must domesticate it. Make it mine. Mine in affection, mine in invested time, mine in my ability to evoke it when I am not there.

We human beings can love what is small, what we have shaped with tenderness, what we can hold in our memories. It is difficult to love an entire national park like a Cotopaxi or a Yasuní. But that little rivulet born from their glaciers, or that ancient and so lordly tree clothed in mosses, those I can make mine.

You can see, my beautiful Carolina, that you have turned me into a gardener. I make gardens with my camera. I make them mine through patience, and waiting.

I have gone back to my origins. Inspired by you, I am again taking photographs of landscapes.

You were always so fond of that shot of me on Cotopaxi, the one when I was a thin, ungainly youth photographing nature. More than twenty years have
gone by since I traveled all over Ecuador with an unbounded sense of hope and my camera on my back. You were captivated by how happy and handsome I looked in that photo.

I am no longer the same, preciosa. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. I am more fragile, sometimes frightened, and I can be difficult. I do not have the same strength, or unconditional hope. And good-looking? Maybe, but only for those who know me well.

To do this book I went to the places you loved, and to others I was never able to share with you–places I knew when I was that ingenuous youth with the easy laughter. They are photos of our Ecuador, of the country that gave us an identity, a meaning.

I went often to Cotopaxi, an imposing volcano that occupies the nightmares and imagination of those of us who live near its shadow. Your accident was so close to Cotopaxi. How is it possible for so much beauty and so much pain to fit into the same area?

I went to your native Loja, so loved, the source of so much pride. I went to La Toma, to El Cisne, to look for the gardens seen by that long, curly-haired Virgin you convoked at the least hint of danger or injustice. “Virgencita del Cisne,” you would say with a devotion somewhere between sweet and frightened. And when the danger was greatest you said, “Diosito del Cisne,” to which I always replied with an impertinent theological quip that the Diosito is not from Loja, or El Cisne, but from the entire universe.

I went to Santo Domingo, a place you loved so much, to several tropical forests that are the last remains of the great Chocó, which runs from Panama to Peru. Along the Costa of Ecuador we have succeeded in destroying nearly all the tropical forest, victim of the encroaching frontier of development. The same fate that probably awaits our Amazonia. Little by little, slowly, with macabre persistence–tree by tree, hectare by hectare, clearing trails and roads–we are blasting and mining its core, dissolving its integrity.

Patricio, always so patient and generous, went many places with me. We went to the province of Carchi, to that extraordinary road between Tufiño and Maldonado, where what we call the fraylejones, of the Espeletia genus, look like gigantic flowers, inhabitants of a mysterious garden that warms the soul of those who look on it with humility. We also visited the ceibos of Manabí, with their arms and legs and muscles and tendons that embrace and fuse into one another. It was from those trees, when I was a teenager, I discovered the simple poetry of living.

I went to Yasuní, to the station of San Francisco de Quito University, a place that moved you to tears. The noise of the generator stopped and the sound of the tropical forest turned into a deafening shrill of invisible creatures. The Milky Way stretched across the treetops. There beside the river, in the most absolute darkness, I again felt like a defenseless child surrounded by mystery. The tropical forest is life in all its power, the delirious complexity of an indecipherable but joyous jigsaw puzzle in which we are barely one piece.

I went with my brother, always so warm and supportive, and his old friend Meyer, an agile, smiling Black, to an extraordinary mangrove forest in Olmedo, Esmeraldas. I had never appreciated mangroves, those trees that live in the mud near the sea. How you would have loved that forest, bonita! The trees are very tall and they stand tall on airy roots like the feet of giant insects. Since they had become my friends and I had looked at them with greater attention, those mangroves, bonita mía, moved me the way they always moved you. There are so few of them left, so isolated from one another, so fragile, so threatened by shrimp farms, growth, and modernity.

You know, I have come to realize that we photographers are very arrogant. As I began this project, I was looking only for spectacular photographs, I was annoyed when it wasn’t a day for the honeyed sun I am so passionate about. It was difficult for me to see the small, simple things. I was near something precious yet went on looking for something better. What blindness, what ambition. Always pushing on, demanding more.

The campesinos call our wild areas the monte, those that have not yet been domesticated. With these photos I changed focus and began constructing gardens in the monte. My gardens are far away in the middle of nature, places where my mind rests and my heart finds some consolation. Now they are mine.

The gardens in these photographs are the sparse remnants left after development, found in a gorge, at icy heights impracticable for agriculture, and too far from highways to have been disturbed. Many are in National Parks or Reserves, but most are orphans or fugitives from development.

These gardens are little jewels, symbols of spaces a thousand times larger and more complex. We need to expand the parks we have, create corridors to join them together, protect the remnants of the forest.  But if we are not even disposed to respect the limits we have imposed on ourselves when we draw the boundaries of our reserves, we are even less able, as a society, to find a compromise for protecting what we have not yet learned to celebrate.

Bonita, a treasure is something that has preserved its integrity. Nothing compares to natural space, to a garden that has not been perturbed. There is the magic, the mystery, the complexity.

Conservation cannot be done out of rage, or only with intelligence. It must be done with tenderness. I made the decision to protect nature because it is mine, because it is fragile, because once it is disturbed it is lost, because it touches me in the most intimate part of my being, because it gives me back my humanity, and reminds me of my place in the world. Without those great forests, without the moors, without the wetlands, I am the poorer. And my children will be deprived of even more.

 

MYSTERY

Carolina, my precious, brilliant gardener, sweetest of all women, surely you are tending those wild gardens. You will have accepted that most humble and worthy task.

An uncultivated garden is like an antique clock, a perfect clock, with uncountable gears and moving parts, a small clock, the product of countless hours of evolution. What makes it so special is that we don’t know what makes it function. Only that every little wheel or micro-gear is necessary.

And if we interfere in its delicate mechanism it always stops. And when it no longer marks the minutes, we become arrogant, we believe we are the chosen, and we feel eternal. We believe that we have conquered, dominated, controlled. Nature belongs to us. Nothing can happen to us.

We lose awareness that time does not need the tick-tock of our clocks. Time takes everything with it.

We approach the things we do not understand, and those that are most precious, with caution, on tiptoes. We marvel at their details, at the visible, and even more at the internal and invisible connections we can only intuit.

The light of dawn, the song of birds, the imperceptible flight of butterflies, are a gift, a delicate breath that recalls to us the fleeting miracle of life.

Carolina, the best and finest of all I know, I inherit your dreams. My mission is to give them wings. Now I carry you within me, in the soul of my soul, in the heart of my heart.

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Introduction of the book 25

El Tablón, El Quinche, Ecuador

Browse the book 25

Photograph and text by Pablo Corral Vega

Photography has the unique ability to call up our past. Its journalistic, scientific, and commercial uses represent just a tiny percentage of the images captured around the world each day. The vast majority of people take photographs simply to remember.

When we press the shutter, we are saying Here I am; This moment matters, I matter; These are the people I love; I wish this moment would last. When we take photographs, we are rebelling against death, rebelling against the passing of time. This subversive act is the human act par excellence — only we humans are conscious of the passing of time, so only we humans can conceive the impossible: stopping it, freezing it.

The shutter isolates this instant from all others, gives it a unique importance, rescues it from its otherwise inevitable transience. But the fact that an image exists means precisely that that moment is gone forever, that it was swept away by Heraclitus’ inexorable river.

The images gathered into this little book are just memories — memories for me, a testimony of moments I have lived. They have no other pretensions. This book is not a look back over my work during the last twenty-five years. There is no systematization here, no intention to create a “retrospective” in the art-gallery sense of the word — it’s too early to think of a legacy. I feel I’ve only barely begun to acquire the tools to express myself.

My dear friend Loup Langton and I sat down for three days to look at photos, and we chose several series that have marked my professional career. Among the ones chosen there were very few from my earliest years — they didn’t pass muster for the critical eyes of the present. Nor have we included my work in black and white, or fashion photography, or portraits. We have included only my work for magazines.

From my first works we chose the photograph at the left, that rural road that rises to my beloved Tablón, in El Quinche. It was taken exactly twenty-five years ago. The world was new for me then; death was no more than a philosophical concept. I was just fifteen, and for the first time I recognized the power of that camera that had been with me since childhood. My father and I climbed the mountain to watch the sunrise; it was our moment of complicity, of wonder. I can still remember the penetrating smell of the wet earth, the raindrops like thousands of tiny prisms, the cold, transparent wind. It was then that I began to create my “photopoems,” audiovisual presentations that combined my poetry with my photography and that I screened in auditoriums in Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil. It was then that I realized that photography is a thousand times more powerful when it is shared.

In the house of my boyhood, where even now I am writing these notes, there was a wrought-iron grate with a phrase from The Little Prince: “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” Saint-Exupéry was everywhere — in my closet my mother had painted scenes from the book; she would read him to me almost every night, along with Selma Lagerlof stories, Rilke poems, and Unamuno essays.

In The Little Prince, the fox says to the young hero, “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” I never understood that then. In my years of adolescent rebelliousness it struck me as melodramatically romantic, and really not so deep. It comes in a passage that talks about the creation of bonds, about how the time we spend with other people brings us closer to them, domesticates us, teaches us to lower our barriers. And that is the ultimate meaning of life: coming closer to one another, communicating, creating ties of affection. And, of course, the eyes of the heart are powerful, intimate, revealing.

The core of Western culture is the creation of those bonds. After a trip to southwest Asia, during which I’d seen and experienced Buddhist philosophy first hand, I went to Perpignan, in southern France. There I came across an installation—an entire church covered with red hearts, sent from every corner of the country, on which each person had written about the concrete and personal meaning of “love” to him or her. At that moment I realized that unlike the East, in which the foremost value is letting-go, remaining coolly aloof from others, not showing affection, in the West it’s just the opposite: the ultimate value is the creation and strengthening of the ties of affection.

When my father died, I wrote the following words:

“How welcome is this grief, this pain, because it means we have lived! Because it means we have loved, we have dreamed, we have feared, we have hurt, we have laughed. Welcome, grief, and welcome, pain, this most human of pains, because thanks to you we know how much, and how intensely, we have lived! Beautiful pain!”

Only if we have loved fully can we experience that overwhelming and mysterious pain — only if we have constructed true, deep bonds. In the West, the quest is not to eliminate pain through an understanding of eternal change. No, in our culture we seek to be fully and intensely alive; that is, connected to others, rebellious, always trying to stop time, save it, preserve it, celebrate it in our moments of intimacy. We have faith in emotions, in attachments, despite the fact that reason tells us that those emotions, those attachments will be broken and defeated by the eternal passing of time.

For me, this passage from Unamuno sums up the ultimate meaning of our culture:

“There are those, indeed, who seem to think only with their brain, or with whatever other organ they may use for thinking, while others think with all their body and all their soul, with their blood, with the marrow of their bones, with their heart, with their lungs, with their belly, with their life.”

What does this have to do with photography? A lot.

I share the opinion of the ancient Greeks that the only two subjects that matter are love and death. And the truth is, those two subjects can be reduced to one: the bonds of affection. Death is painful, terrible, because it is the breaking of those bonds. Eros and Thanatos are the two sides of a single coin.

But it is not enough to have a clear goal; the road is equally or more important. For a photographer who wants to tell a story, the only way to approach the mystery of the other person is through empathy. Once again, one sees clearly only with the heart.

A generous gaze is essential if one is to be a good photographer. But more than that, the gaze must be curious, filled with the emotion that the Greeks called ?????????, thaumasmos — awe, a wonder at the manifest face of nature, and a recognition of our ignorance and smallness as we stand before it. We must employ that formula that novelists use: put yourself in the other person’s shoes. We could hardly tell the story of a human being if we weren’t full of curiosity and empathy.

Our ability to understand others depends on how much we ourselves have lived. To understand others we must turn to the reservoir of our own experiences; we must relive our own happiness, our own pain, the heartbreaks and disillusionments. And sometimes, despite the fact that human experience is essentially a common one, we cannot manage to imagine the darkness or light that another person has experienced. When that happens, all we can do is stand silent in wonder, or approach the mystery on tiptoes.

The other gives us our only possibility of looking at ourselves. The other is the essential mirror of our human condition. We human beings define ourselves on the basis of our community and on the basis of our bonds. We are the vulnerable animal, the animal that has lost its claws and fangs, the animal that can no longer run, the naked animal, born fragile — devastatingly fragile. A baby cannot even feed itself, much less defend itself. Our only strength and our only possibility of survival is through the community that surrounds us.

Throughout life we find ourselves with others, we look at ourselves in the mirror of other people’s experience, we are enriched through conversation, we are strengthened through love, and we are broken when love is broken in death or falling out of love. You and I, I and you — two human beings that speak to one another, that meet. There is always an “I” and a “you,” a two that look at each other in a moment of recognition.

I believe that we human beings are the sum of our encounters. We do not know what those encounters mean — some are pleasurable, others painful; some are doors into alternate universes; some are fleeting, others are long, and involve our entire lives. All lead us to a new place.

The most extraordinary miracle of life is the constant possibility of being, of living, with other human beings, the possibility of dialogue, of conversation. Every encounter is unique, unrepeatable, and every human being that we meet touches us in some way, affects us, changes us.

These photos are a testimony of my encounters — some more successful than others. I hope that these images may conjure up the rich universe of those who were photographed, may be windows through which you enter other worlds. I hope they allow us all to remember that one sees clearly only with curiosity, with empathy, with affection. As for me, in this job of looking I am just a beginner. I am a man naked and without claws or fangs, pleasurably vulnerable, who is learning to celebrate the fleeting miracle of being alive.

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25 (Book)

Corral Vega, Pablo. 25. Quito: Latina Editorial, 2007

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Andes (Book)

Vargas Llosa, Mario and Pablo Corral Vega. Andes. Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 2001

Visit the Andes’ Book page in this website

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Tango (National Geographic)

National Geographic Magazine, Diciembre de 2003

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Andes (National Geographic)

National Geographic Magazine, February 2001

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Silent Landscapes (Book)

Corral Vega, Pablo. Paisajes del Silencio. Quito-Bogotá: Villegas Editores & Imprenta Mariscal, 1992

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Ecuador (Book)

Corral Vega, Pablo. Ecuador. Quito: Harmonia Terra, 2002

A few sample pages from “Ecuador”


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Ecuador, de la magia al espanto (Book)

Corral Vega, Pablo and Cristóbal Corral Vega. Ecuador, de la magia al espanto. Quito: La TV & Imprenta Mariscal, 1993

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The Bare Earth (Book)

Corral Vega, Pablo. Tierra Desnuda. Quito: Universidad San Francisco de Quito, 1989

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Epilogue by Pablo Corral Vega

Balcony of the Clouds

Sometimes when I need to go back to the house of my beginnings, the house that is center and point of reference, the place where identity is formed, I travel to a place in the mountains that is far above the clouds.  There I forget for a moment the daily struggle, the fear of death that is, in truth, fear of life.  From those heights I see the imposing ridges of the Cordillera descending into a torrid, mysterious zone.  Below the clouds are the coffee and banana plantations, the bamboo huts built on platforms to keep out unpredictable rushing mountain streams.  But there is no keeping out the insistent heat of the tropics, the incessant chirping of crickets in the womb of the night.  There are torrential rivers and menacing jungles, but there are also dots of villages, houses lost in the immensity of nothingness.  The plazas resound with the powerful music of a magus whose gift is to send two strangers dancing into each other’s arms.

An intense and unrelenting cold blows across my balcony of the clouds.  From there I can see the torrid plains of the coast, and, when the wind helps, catch a hint of their fragrance.

That is how we live in the Andes, always between two worlds, standing in icy cold and intuiting heat, immersed in a harsh and contradictory reality yet imagining a magical space in which everything is possible.  We speak of potentates and politicians, those phantoms that have pursued us for centuries with their pettiness and dark ambitions, but we also talk about other, more affectionate ghosts that frighten the faithful at the break of day but, being more decent, never rob us of our possibilities and hopes.  In short, we live in a world in which the real and the imagined, the cruel and the sublime, blend together.

The shadows of the past of course stretch into the present.  They mark us with their conflicts, with that long record of injustices tattooed upon our unequal and complex society.  The savage black Spanish bull has been hobbled for more than a century, but we do not know how to dismiss its shadow; it lingers in our blood and our fears.  As does the terrible stone knife of the priest of sacrifices.

But to dwell on that, to see only what is negative, is to make caricatures of flesh and blood beings who despite their situation live with intensity, have close friends, dream, desire, think, and love.

A gravedigger in a small town in the Venezuelan Andes told me that he felt very sad because the living no longer remember the dead.  They never visit the cemetery, he said, though our history, our identity, is engraved on each tomb.  “If just one of these persons had not been born, our town would not be the same.  Each one lived a life worthy of being lived.”

There was an earthquake in the coffee-growing region of Colombia in early 1999.  The destruction was enormous: two hundred and fifty thousand people lost their homes, several thousands lost their lives.  I arrived with my camera a few days after the cataclysm, and  traveled through the small, devastated towns.  Each had suffered more horror than the last.  People were hard at work, razing ruined buildings and cleaning up debris with exemplary stoicism and persistence.  Pa’lante, people from Colombia often say.  Tomorrow’s another day.  It doesn’t matter what the disaster might be, natural or human, Colombians carry on unbowed, conquering their fear and sorrow.

Early one morning in the village of La Tebaida I saw two women leaning against the doorframe of what had been a house, and I asked them if I could take their picture.  They told me yes, that they had no objection.  “Look here, señor,” the taller one, doña Blanca Gómez, said.  “You look like you could use some breakfast.  Why don’t you let us get you a nice hot cup of coffee and some corn griddle cakes.”  And pressing their hospitality upon me, they invited me into what remained of their kitchen, protected now from the constant rain by a sheet of blue plastic, and they offered me recently roasted coffee from their own trees, the best I have ever tasted.  “Señor, riches and glories are the vanities of this world.  Just look around.  The earth trembles a few seconds and everything a person has worked hard to put together is gone.  All we have now is what there is of us in the people around us.”

Similar experiences were repeated time and again in my travels.  I remember, for example, señora Irene Miranda and her family on the island of Chiloé, in the south of Chile.  She welcomed me into her home and took me in as if I, a passing stranger, had been a friend for years.  In that modest house there was time for conversation, for making bread, and for young and old to gather around the fire.  When we said good-bye, she told me, “We are simple folk.  My brother and my husband are fishermen.  Like you, they travel.  This is how we would like for them to be welcomed wherever they go.”

The idea that one possesses only what one has given away is not inspired in religion, nor is it an expression of Christian charity, it is a way of looking at the world, a question of values and culture.  Perhaps it is the result of living in a place that has never been tamed, where life is a privilege and the only way to overcome adversity is through cooperation and solidarity.  To try to understand the Andean world in terms of indicators of poverty or per capita income alone is to ignore an elementary truth: the rich man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least.

Within this context the family is an extraordinary force because it is always there, in good times and in bad.  It changes, it is transformed by history, it grows to include several generations or shrinks to the immediate nucleus; it dispenses new roles for men and women, but it is always the hub of the society.  It offers warmth, unconditional support, unity, and it clasps the elderly and ailing to its bosom.

It may also be true, however, that our countries are less developed in the material sense because the family also has the power to immobilize, to make it difficult for children to venture out, to shape their own destinies, to undertake projects and new enterprises, to forsake the land in which they were born.  In our culture, every absence is an abandonment, every cutting free a mutilation.  One must keep in mind the strength of our family ties in order to understand the terrible nostalgia that afflicts those who because of an unfortunate economic situation, or lack of opportunity, leave to seek a life in a big city or in another country.  Our people do not move with every new job, as happens in the United States.  They stay where they were born–when possible, for a lifetime.

The family is a gentle force that clips the wings of adventurers, and at the same time a warm strength that sends them forth to find their hopes and dreams.

During my travels I found towns where only old men or women remained, towns steeped in nostalgia.  For when men do leave, they tear up roots.  When they go they leave their shadows, they leave their towns precariously tottering on the edge of a precipice, and their wings forgotten behind them, like strands of frayed rope.

Those left behind are wearied by that abandonment, by hearing the savage silence of the night.  They are weighed down by those empty spaces, that light that has no name, that rain that does not rain, that sun that dries up memories, by the children who leave and the parents who remain even after death.

My continent is a savage land of deserts that know nothing of tears or the savor of an orange; of mountains that sail on a slow wave of fire and earthquake; of jungles caressed by ice, its sweat the night of the condemned man or the persistent cry of the brilliantly plumaged bird.  In any direction one looks there is nature: haughty, towering.  The Cordillera does not bow its head, it is not soothed by the civilizing hand of man.  We can tear away its skin, strip its forests, channel its tumultuous rivers, construct huge dams or bridges in its heart.  But the mountains are infinitely greater than we.  They make clear with their overpowering presence that they have been here millions of years, and that in contrast our lives are incidental, an irrelevant accident in the millenary dream of the Andes.

In this land there are many secrets, incomprehensible dimensions, highways with no return, dancing shadows and blinding light.  The visible and the invisible, the obvious and the subtle require one another, complement one another.  To understand the Andean world one must penetrate the clouds with daring imagination and sensitivity.

That is precisely what Mario Vargas Llosa proposes  with his inventions: to go beyond the visible, to remember that every person has a rich and complex story, and that even the strangest or most exotic tale is, like ours, the story of a human being.

Children of the Wind

From the time I was very small, my mother told me stories about the travels my ancestors made crossing through jungles infested with malaria and climbing the Cordillera along invisible trails that claw their way around bottomless abysses, step by step scaling the heights and with patience conquering the monstrous walls of my balcony of the clouds.  Sometimes the wind grew strong at the precise moment the daring caravan stepped onto a hanging bridge, suspended above the ravine by precarious sisal ropes.

At the beginning of the last century, bringing any luxury item to Cuenca, the city in Ecuador where I was born, was an enormous undertaking.  The first electric plant in the city was brought there on the backs of Indians, that is, dragged inch by inch by Indian porters accustomed to the altitude.  They almost never spoke Spanish, and they preferred to make that perilous trek in their bare feet.  Very delicate items could not be carried on mules or llamas since occasionally they stumbled and fell into the abyss, along with their precious cargo.

I have often imagined the journey made by the French grand piano that graced the three- or four-day parties my grandfather used to attend.  What an odyssey that was, crossing the swamps, with each misstep the piano emitting a muted sound that echoed through the ravines of the Cordillera.  The brutal rain was amplified by the sound board and lacquered surfaces slipped in the hands of drowsy Indians.

In those voyages that as I child I recreated in my head, the wind sketched the coordinates of my fear.  It crept in through invisible chinks, violating the improvised refuges of travelers.  It raised enormous spirals of dust and howled across narrow passes and needle peaks; it riffled the sulphurous rivers flowing down from the volcano; it swung the hanging bridges like hammocks, inviting the horseman-become-tightrope-walker to explore the void.

The true lord of the Andes is the wind.  In desolate Patagonia and in the Bolivian altiplano, on the mossy high plains of Venezuela and on the foothills of Ecuador’s volcanoes, it is always there: no ties to hold it down, at times slicing one’s skin, at times caressing it with age-old passion.

The history of the Andes is the history of the wind.  We are all huairapamushcas, children of the wind. When a Quechua woman becomes pregnant and a child is born whose skin is lighter than the color of cinnamon, the indigenous peoples say that the child is the wind’s, and that it carries in its blood the vices of that unpredictable sire

It can be argued that the people who came from Spain to this Andean America were also children of the wind.  They carried in their cultural memories eight centuries of Arab influence and, as a reaction to that past, the violent reaffirmation of their Catholic identity.  Those who came first were not noblemen, not men with a future.  They were adventurers who had nothing to lose, men willing to surrender their lives to the imprecise art of sailing, with no guarantee of return.

But the peoples the first Spanish adventurers encountered upon their arrival did not themselves have a common ancestry or language, nor did they have solid alliances.  The Incas, cruelly and efficiently, had conquered indigenous peoples and cities the length of the Andes.  The Inca empire itself was divided, and subjects who had been enslaved mistakenly  saw in the arrival of the Iberians an opportunity to free themselves.

The dramatic confrontation of these two worlds gave rise to an always capricious, sometimes violent mestizaje, the mixing of bloods that has produced us children of the wind, an extremely diverse peoples who are neither from here nor from there, but whose identity is, lacking better referents, inseparably bound to the extremes of our continental geography.

After traveling through the Andes photographing fiestas and everyday life, I realized that after 500 years it is nearly impossible to find pure cultural elements.  It is in our fiestas, in those spaces communities invent to escape the yoke of everyday life, that the shadings and complexities of our society are best observed.

Carnival in Bolivia, for example, is a ritual space in which the dances are a hypnotic retelling of trips to the dark abyss of the mine, of unfruitful struggles in the land of the serpent.  It is a pumpum on the tight skin of a mutilated bull, or a wail, a whirlwind caught in a raging flute.

It is an ancient war in which the archangels take their measure against the devils.  The miners offer cigarettes and coca leaves to the Tío, the coppery dweller of the mine’s  depths, a compassionate demon that gifts the desperate with death and those who still can speak the name of the beloved a mouthful of fresh air.

This is fiesta, this is Carnival, a cord that binds together the sacred and the profane, the Spanish and the pre-Columbian.

When Carnival is over and Lent begins, the time has come to fast, to forgo meat, to surrender oneself to faith and moderation.  Let the true faithful remove their monstrous masks, turn away from pagan music, and send a fervent prayer to the great beyond, a subtle link between two worlds!  Let the captain of the chasquis kneel, the president of the devils, the priestess of the inland seas–now dry!  Let all kneel before the dark-skinned Virgin, that Virgin whose face has been blackened by the breath of the mine pit!

Even in fiestas celebrated by Indians in the most isolated areas, the Catholic religion, the thumbprint of Spain, is evident in spontaneous manifestations of faith.

In Chile, in Argentina, in the Andes of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, in Colombia and Venezuela, Catholicism is the consistent cultural marker.  Not merely a religion, it is a manner of thinking, an expression of societal mores.  It has many faces.  In Castro, a Chilean village on the island of Chiloé, dwellers solemnize the passion of Christ with restraint and formality.  In Paucartambo, near Cuzco, in Peru, they toss flowers to the Virgin and sing mournful dirges in Quechua.  In Pelileo Ecuador, mestizos celebrate Corpus Cristi by constructing small altars in front of their homes and decorating them with flowers, and a few meters away, the indigenous, masked salasaca dance in obsessive circles to the repetitious rhythms of the drum, a Spanish guitar, and the pinguillo, a wooden, two-holed flute.

In Quito Ecuador, barefooted, veiled penitents and devout faithful carrying processional platforms of saints emerge from the baroque Church of San Francisco protected from the crowds of faithful by a police guard.  The rosary broadcast over loudspeakers sounds like a prayer to a distant and moribund God.  It is Good Friday, the end of a millennium, and it is difficult to tell what century we are in.  This faith is sincere, and touches the very essence of the people.  The solemnity of the ritual is deeply moving.

Despite the virtual disappearance of natural obstacles erected by the Cordillera–thanks to telecommunications and the construction of highways in even the most isolated districts–the psychological distance among Andean countries persists to an amazing degree.  I have come to view the Andes as an archipelago with islands separated not by sea but by insuperable barriers of stone and rock strung together by a common thread of language and religion.

To recognize that we are mestizos, children of that capricious and unpredictable wind of history, is to accept ourselves with all our defects and virtues, our past of conflict, and to appreciate that diversity is our strength.

The Restingplace of the Clouds

Tell me a secret!  Tell me where transparency is born, where is it that horizons blend together, on what balcony do clouds come to rest?  I want to know.  The air in that place must be so rarified that our lungs obsessively recall each inhalation; the light so new that however tightly we close our eyes we cannot retain an image.

Tell me, tell me more secrets.  Why do grandmothers take off their hats before they surrender to forgetfulness? Why do women with generous wombs have the round face of virgins?  Where does the drum store future rhythms?  How long does the wind suffer before it dies?  How does death cry when it looses its way?  Why do they laugh with all their soul, those who travel between sky and night?

Come, reveal the mystery of this land.  Tell me what yellow dogs dream, where that woman in black goes who never bid farewell to the sea.

Buenos Aires, March 2001

Pablo Corral Vega

Translated from the Spanish
By Margaret Sayers-Peden

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Man, cities, and condors

Mario Vargas Llosa

In the Andes, human beings have the condor’s vocation: rise upward, climb the stairways of air, soar above the clouds, scan the earth below, far below. Why else would cities like Quito, La Paz, and Cuzco be so high that more than clusters of human dwellings they resemble the nests of those large, proud birds that from the highest Andean peaks scour the landscape in search of prey that they fall upon like meteors? It is probable that at this very minute, in this blue dusk turning into night, there is a line of condors perched on one of the peaks above Quito, surveying—half-enraged, half-intimidated—the superb spectacle below. Who are these people who dared to climb to such heights? Who are they who built their refuges on these high, windswept plateaus where for centuries on end only condors ventured?

The cities of the Andes, each and every one, are a testimony to the heroic adventures of the many generations of men and women who overcame enormous obstacles set before them by fiendish geography to construct dwellings, tame the land, acclimatize domestic animals, and make life liveable for those who follow. The mantle of fireflies that Quito turns into every night proves that this audacious undertaking, the conquest of the Andes by human civilization, has not yet ended, and undoubtedly never will. Here nature has never been completely subdued, humanized by commerce with mankind, as it has in other places on the globe, such as Europe or North America. Still today there is something indomitable and uncontrollable in these mountains that from time to time unleash their fury in the form of earthquakes and avalanches, those huaycos that bury whole towns and sow terror and death in their passing.

That is why a scene as idyllic and rich as this, the myriad of lights of haughty Quito, twinkling in the night, cannot be trusted. Because there in the background, massive and untouchable, stand those mountains of eternal snows, implacable and belligerent.

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The village of Chaltén

Mario Vargas Llosa

Down there, to the right, in those small white houses that look like snowflakes at the foot of the mountain, is where we live, we women and men of the village of Chaltén.  You don’t see us, of course.  We are insignificant, invisible, compared to the cordilleras that surround us with their year ‘round snow, jagged peaks, yawning ravines, rushing rivers, and thunderous waterfalls.

Here humans count very little because they are dwarfed and obscured by Nature.  Nature written with a capital N to underline how stately and majestic it is, how fierce and untamable, even though man has tried to be its master ever since the first humans appeared here ten thousand years ago.  We have not succeeded yet.  Who could conquer these mountains?  The most we have achieved is to coexist with them, grant them the respect they are due, and never dare to challenge them because they always win.  The proof is that they are still here where they have been since the beginning of time, unchanged; in contrast, countless cultures and peoples that flourished in their valleys and on their heights have disappeared without a trace.

In Chaltén we are modern, civilized people.  But even so, the nearness of these mountains fills us with nearly religious respect and uneasiness.  We are not pagans, or pantheists, or idolaters.  We are religious in the most elevated and profound sense of the word: Spiritual trembling, a preoccupation with the beyond.  These soaring mountains that pierce the clouds, that challenge the heavens, fill the spirit with anxiety and a mysterious melancholy, lift us to a more immaterial but less fleeting world than the one in which we live.  That is why it must be true that great mystics have almost always lived at altitudes that inspire flight, even if only in fantasy.

But it is not only religious disquiet that is engendered in a landscape like ours.  Peoples’ sense of beauty also flowers.  Who could be insensitive to spectacles like those the mountains offer at sunrise and as night falls?  We have no need for fireworks here because Nature provides them to us gratis, every day. Spectacles that are never twice the same.  Rain, snow, or sunshine, skies covered with clouds or glittering with stars, there is always a different picture, new shadings and hues.  Even though ours is a small village with many problems, we are proud of Chaltén.  How could we not be when, compared to what we see here, the rest of the world seems ugly?

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The man who makes people happy

Mario Vargas Llosa

He paints and sketches portraits, but if someone should ask this man what his true vocation is, he would immediately reply, without hesitation or doubt, “Making people happy.”  In fact, nothing is so rewarding to that heart that has been beating for more than seventy springtimes as the delight on the face of a passerby who has paused a few moments to pose for him when the artist holds up the pad with the portrait, and his subject recognizes his face—improved over real life.  “But how well you captured me, señor,” they tell him, grateful.  “You’ve even made me good-looking.”  And the girls, happy to see themselves so beautiful thanks to his pencil or brush, often give him a kiss.

The happiness of his clients makes the artist happy, too.  There is so much misery in this world that lifting someone’s spirit and helping him believe—if only for a minute—that life is worth living, is to do a good work.  And isn’t it wonderful to be able to do that by drawing and painting, that is, by practicing the most gratifying of callings?  He discovered how fascinating it is to draw when he was a little boy, and although he has spent his life as an artist, what he does still has the power to move him and stimulate him, and make him wonder if besides being art, drawing and painting aren’t also some kind of miracle.  Because that is what he feels when the charcoal lines on his sketch pad begin to evoke a face that reproduces not just his model’s face, but his character, dreams, and soul as well.

Since life is hard, and one has to eat, he charges for his portraits, of course.  Not much; a fair price and no more.  But if for some reason he is especially fascinated by a face he works for nothing, for the mere satisfaction of having painted something worth painting.  Although young and old, men and women, have emerged from his hand, his favorite models are children.  To help them sit quietly, like this little girl, he tells them stories as he learns their secrets and transposes them to the portrait.  So he makes them doubly happy.  Who can doubt that life is beautiful when you work at something you love?

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The flirt of Toledo

Mario Vargas Llosa

Why am I covering my face with my right hand?  Not because I believe that by taking my photograph you are stealing my soul.  That’s what people who are ignorant believe, and I’m not ignorant.  I’m covering my face because I don’t like it that a stranger is taking my picture without asking my permission first.  Didn’t they teach you, back there where you come from, about good manners, respect, politeness…how to treat people?  In my village, we learn that, and everyone, no matter who, respects it; if you take liberties with someone here, you’re criticized and set straight by the community.  You people who come from somewhere else need to learn that about us: be respectful and thoughtful of others.

And something else.  I’m covering my face because I have a sweetheart and I don’t know if he would like it for a young man like you to come here and take my picture first thing you do.  What are you going to do with it?  Put it in your billfold and show it to all your friends, back there where you live?  What will you tell them?  That I was one of the conquests you made during your trip through the mountains?  That I fell in love with you and that I cried over you when you left?  Ha!  You’d like that.  But you’re wrong.  I don’t fall in love that easy,  fall for the first stranger who walks into town.  Besides, I told you already, I have a sweetheart.  So even if I liked you, I wouldn’t fall in love with you.  Besides, you’re not my type.  And with that camera in your hands, you even make me laugh a little.  You look like you’re playing, not working.  Or is that what you call work, going around snapping people without asking them first?  Oh, come on.  Don’t take me seriously, I’m just joking.

I have to go now.  My sweetheart is waiting for me, and he’s very jealous.  Though he trusts me.  He knows I would never give him any reason to be jealous.  We’re going to be married during our village fiesta, at the end of the year.  The priest comes that day, and there’s a procession and a mass and at night there are fireworks and a dance, with more than one band.  If you come back then, during our celebration, you’ll have a really good time.  The town looks so pretty with all the paper decorations in the streets, and people who come from all around with their music and songs and dances—all of them different.  And they bring their chicha with them [to get a little tipsy],* and that’s different in every community, too.  If you do come back then, maybe you can dance with me, and see what a good dancer I am.  You’ll have to ask my sweetheart first, of course.  Although, I just thought… maybe you aren’t a very good dancer, anyway.  That’s funny!

Well, I really have to go now.  Bye.  See you.

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Carnival in Oruro

Mario Vargas Llosa

Carnival is fiesta: pagan, Christian, religious, secular, provincial, universal.  And Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia, is the best in the world.   Carnival time is more than having fun: dancing, playing, singing, and dressing in costume and eating and drinking.  Most of all it’s living as if the lie of happiness were truth.  The lie that we are all equal, free, prosperous, and blessed, and that life is given to us simply to enjoy.  That is Carnival in Oruro: a waking dream, and the feeling, for a few days, that life has turned to dream and dream to reality.

No matter that the town officials have prohibited the game of water bags, and threatened to arrest and fine anyone who ignores the ban.  During carnival young and old–indoors and outdoors–throw balloons and “eggshells” filled with water, and spray each other with hoses, and pails and jugs of water, until the entire city is practically afloat.  The ones who get the most fun out of it, of course, are the children.  And their older brothers and sisters, too, because the water games are the source of a lot of romances and courtships, even marriages.

But water isn’t the most important thing about Carnival, that honor goes to music.  Music accompanies the masses and processions, and that music is somber and mournful, while the tunes they play for dancing is very spirited.  There are dances in private homes and clubs, in neighborhood associations and union headquarters, in the plazas and streets. Oruro is one big ballroom during Carnival.  The dances last through the night, and dawn find people still dancing.

Next to the dances, the best part of Carnival is the parades.  Queens pass by, surrounded with pages and ladies of honor, and then there are the allegorical floats: fairies, dragons, saints, monsters, angels.  The ones that always get the most applause and prizes are the dancing figures that prance by wearing enormous and dazzling devil masks ornamented with horns, curlicues, snakes, and mirrors.  That’s why they’re called La Diablada, the Devil’s Crew.

How wonderful to live in a dream, even a few hours a day, a few days of the year.  It provides the strength to endure the hard life of work and sacrifice, penalties, routine, and disappointment that most days are filled with.  It is good to know that after weeks and months go by, Carnival will come again, and the world will be reversed—well, turned the right way round–and the poor will be rich, the peasant will be king, old will be young, and the ugly, radiantly beautiful.

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The dream of Icarus

Mario Vargas Llosa

Patrolling the invisible borderline that separates Bolivia from Chile, in such frozen solitudes, is very boring duty.   There is almost nothing to do but try to keep warm in your khaki uniform, stick your hands in your pockets, and remember what a blessing your life was back there in your village or town, before the accursed draft plucked you out of your life as an ordinary citizen and dragged you off to the barracks, to fulfill your military service.

After a very hasty training period, and not a few kicks and knocking about from the corporal of your section, they sent you here to protect the frontier, this icy, barren plateau where the cold has cracked your lips, turned your skin blue, and streaked your ears and feet with chilblains.  With your head shaved like that, and barely protected by a thin knit cap, you have the sensation that at any moment this polar cold could split your skull open like a pomegranate.  But maybe even worse than the whistling, knifeblade wind, worse than the blazing morning sun and ice of night, is this interminable loneliness that clamps onto you and numbs you the minute you open the door of the barracks—its white walls not much better protection–and step outside to report for guard duty.

At least you have a partner on your watch.  If you were alone you would go out of your mind from the emptiness and silence.  You would hallucinate, maybe, see an army of spine-chilling extraterrestials blast out of the snowstorm mounted on balls of fire.  Or the

devil might spring up before you, or God knows what.  Thank goodness you drew Pedrito to stand guard with you today, Pedrito, the camba, the Indian from Santa Cruz de la Sierra  You have become good friends because he’s a regular guy; he has a good sense of humor, and he tells jokes that make you laugh out loud, and even though he’s eighteen years old, the same age as you, he still has the soul of a mischievous and playful kid.  Again, just like you.  So one day Pedrito got the idea for a game that would help the time pass faster on your shift: the game of the birds.  And that’s what you play, roaring with laughter, when there’s no officer or corporal or sergeant nosing around.  It’s a simple game, maybe a little silly, but it’s really fun.  What you do is climb up on a rock, and from up there you le-e-e-eap off with your arms held wide, yelling and screaming.  You feel that at any minute you might take off, lift up and fly.  Maybe that will happen one day.  Because in this weird place, you have the impression that anything could happen—even a man turning into a bird!

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Miner from Potosí

Mario Vargas Llosa

Working in the mines of Potosí is a man’s job.  A poor man, because we will always be poor.  A miner’s wages barely stretch far enough to make ends meet, but miners are very macho men, not afraid of anything, not even the devils that superstitious people think hang around the tunnels and shafts to cause cave-ins, or the police armed with clubs and tear-gas bombs who come to break up meetings when we’re on strike.  Miners are not even afraid of spending eight hours a day, six days a week, in the bowels of the earth, half buried in darkness, swallowing and breathing the thick dust that clogs their lungs, clawing from miserly rock the mineral that makes fine gentlemen rich, people we have never seen–or ever will–because they live far away from the cold and rain of Potosí.

That thing you see puffing out my cheek is a wad of coca leaves I keep in my mouth almost all day while I work.  Some people say that to “cud” coca, that is, keep it in your mouth and swallow the juice you work from it with your saliva, is bad for the health.  They don’t know what they’re saying.  Why would it be bad to do something my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandfather, and all my ancestors before them have done since the great darkness before time?  So let them say what they want, I’ll keep on “cudding” coca, sucking the juice like almost all the compañeros on my work shift.  I don’t know whether it will be bad for my health.  All I know is that for me the coca leaves block out hunger, block out cold, and also block out thoughts and sadness and memories, and allow me to concentrate on my work like a soulless machine.

When our shift is over we are black from head to toe with coal dust and, in the slow elevator that brings us up to the surface we laugh a little and make jokes about not being able to tell who’s who.  Mining is tough, like I told you.  A macho thing.  But it has its compensations.  For example, the way digging into the earth like moles makes friends and brothers of people, builds solidarity among us you don’t find in workers in any other job or profession.  Maybe that’s the reason we feel so proud of being miners, and are so at home in these mines that bury us in our lifetimes and poison our health.  And it may be why we cling to our work, and when a mine closes because the vein has run out, our heart shrinks and our eyes fill with tears—as if we had lost a beloved member of the family.  But why would it be any other way?

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Woman with no name

Mario Vargas Llosa

I don’t know what my name is by now, I’ve forgotten over the years.  Because–just take a look at me–I am a tired old woman.  I don’t remember how old I am, either, but who’s going to care?  The important thing is that I was born here in Paucartambo, and here I am going to die–if in fact I die some day.  Sometimes I think that God Our Father has had me live so long because he wants me to be immortal like Him.

You see this hat I’m carrying in my left hand?  I made it myself, when I was a girl, when we still had the hat factory that later closed and left all eight of us women who worked there out in the street.  We had to go back to the fields: work the land and tend the flocks.  The point being that this hat is as old as I am, or almost.  I have taken it off because right now I’m passing in front of the saint; he has a little shrine on this corner.  He is not really a very powerful saint, and he almost never performs the miracles we ask for, even though we always hold his procession every year, and light candles to him and bring him flowers.  Sometimes, he gets things mixed up.  He sends rain when we ask for sunshine, or a terrible drought when we pray for a little rain.  But even though he’s lazy, and isn’t past playing a trick, he is our saint, and what can we do? we love him.

In my hundreds, maybe thousands, of years of life, I have seen everything in this village.  Rebellions, killings, earthquakes, wars, epidemics, visions, and a whole parade of governments.  Things never get better, they just go from bad to worse.  But I guess, as far as I can tell, that doesn’t matter to anyone.  I’ve seen plenty of misfortune, but I’ve also seen beautiful things.  Like when Jesus appeared in the body of a lamb.  He appeared to me, just to me.  I was coming back from the stream where we go in the afternoon to do the wash.  That day I was alone, sort of daydreaming and humming, carrying the folded wet clothes on my head, when the little lamb, who was Baby Jesus in person, appeared on the path and stood in my way, looking at me with those pain-filled eyes.  I instantly knew who it was, and fell to my knees.  Then the lamb bawled, and I knew Jesus was warning me about something.  But you know, I was so thrilled at the vision, that I didn’t get the message very clear.  Afterward, I’ve often thought that He came to warn me not to marry the person I married, that brute Anselmo who beat me all the time.  No loss that he died young, run over by a truck when he was drunk.

I could tell thousands of stories like this one.  Because even though I’ve forgotten my name and how old I am, I still remember a lot of things.  For example, that tomorrow is market day, and that I’ll spend the whole day beneath a canvas tarp, selling cuyes and roasted corn.

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The stones of Sacsayhuaman

Mario Vargas Llosa

This is not an abstract by a great modern painter maddened by geometry and symmetries and wild to capture on canvas the blue-violet light that glorifies the evening as the sun says goodnight behind the mountains of Cuzco.  Nor are these the bold inventions of a great contemporary sculptor striving to immortalize matter, the mineral world, in his work: colossal constructions of unequal pieces fitted together like the parts of a perfect jigsaw puzzle.

Although they seem to be so modern, so artistic, these stones are ancient, the ruins of a fort constructed by the Incas to protect the navel of the world, Cuzco, the capital of the empire of the Cuatro Suyos, the four regions: Tahuantinsuyo, center of the civilization that until the arrival of the Europeans embraced three fourths of South America.  Sacsayhuamán was a fortress and a temple, because to the Incas religion and war were intertwined, a single entity, like the obverse and reverse of a coin.  These stones once formed walls, terraces, rooms, oratories, and storehouses for weapons and foodstuffs.  From high on their parapets, lookouts could see the four highways that, branching out from Cuzco, joined the imperial city with the countless communities, villages, peoples, and cultures within the empire, all living in peaceful coexistence, in a union-cum-diversity that has not be repeated in our history.  The impressive size and solidity of these walls symbolize the power and pride of the leaders of that great empire which, according to historians, succeeded in eradicating hunger throughout its vast territory, another accomplishment that has not survived to modern times.  The thousands of men who transported the massive stones, hewed and polished them, then set them together with a skill and knowledge that dazzles us still today, had enormous confidence in their own abilities.  They believed that the empire was timeless, like the Andes or the sky, and that was their downfall.  Complacency, along with internal strife and dynastic ambitions, precipitated them into internecine wars.  The conquistadors took advantage of this upheaval to subdue and destroy Tahuantinsuyo.

The stones of Sacsayhuamán are also witness to that historical tragedy, which made vassals and servants of those who had created one of the most original and advanced civilizations of the ancient world.  A tragedy that even several centuries later has left open, suppurating wounds.  Like the beautiful breached and crumbling walls of Sacsayhuamán.

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Death of a dancer

Mario Vargas Llosa

A dancer has died, a celebrated and familiar figure who for many years enlivened village fiestas and spread happiness with his agile steps and mysterious gesturings, and the crich! crich! of the scissors blades striking sparks as he slashed the air above his head.  A dancer who, following the rhythm of the music of the harp and violin, danced in a way that evoked the people’s emotions, but perturbed them as well. (According to believers, violinists and harp-players go to learn this music in the rushing streams of ravines, in the roar of the waterfalls that plunge from the mountain heights to explode over the abysses, and in the sound of the great rivers that flow down from the Andes to the jungle of the Amazon.)   He will be missed, this man who seemed to be performing a ritual in his dances, to be speaking through his movements, and dance steps, and figures with the spirits that dwell in the rocks and flowers and trees, as well as the distant clouds and the condors that swoop down to plunder the peaks of the cordillera.  More than a dancer, when he danced he seemed to be a magician or a witch man.  That was why although everyone admired and respected this performer, they also feared him.

And now today they are going to bury him.  To accompany him to the cemetery, the girls of the village are dressed in their most festive garb, and all the way from the church to the tomb where he will rest, his body has been strewn with rose petals, and dirges have been sung to him, and people have wept.

Now they are here at the edge of his grave, telling him good-bye.  Arrayed in their many layers of colorful petticoats, their white, fine woolen rebozos and their diadems of mirrors and colorful stones and gilded coins, their elaborate scapulars, their feathers, their sashes, and their exquisitely embroidered gloves.  The sorrow on their faces, the silence of their gazes, and the irrepressible melancholy that touches their youthful lips express a heart-rending truth: with the old dancer’s death, something of the past and of the soul of their people has also vanished, and in the future there will be less magic and mystery in their lives.  The traditional ways to give order to life are fading out…and the new?  That will have to be invented.

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Cuzco cemetery

Mario Vargas Llosa

As we are born to die, death lasts much longer than life, and the cemetery, where we go to rest through all eternity, is our true home.  Our house, our neighborhood, our village, are merely temporary stopping places, inns or hostels along the way.  The cemetery, on the other hand, is a permanent residence, the one where a Christian will lie forever.

We are not afraid of death.  Why would we be?  Fear is for those who live very well here on earth, with no worries or misfortunes in this all-too-quickly-passing life.  It is easy to understand why for those who have everything–health, steady work, wealth, pastimes, security—death, with its uncertainties and mysteries, would seem a threat.  But for someone whose life is a valley of pain from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb until the day he is buried, death is a solution, a time of rest.  It can’t be any worse than this, so it will have to be better.  And that is why we don’t fear death; just the opposite, we rub elbows with her all the time, in fact, we think of her as a friend.  That’s why, I guess, we are so religious, because religion teaches us that what is truly important is not this frail flesh that clothes us and cloaks our soul, but what is immortal in us, what will live on forever when our wretched body is eaten by worms.

And that must also be the reason why we take such good care of our cemeteries.  To have a good burial, if possible with a well-attended wake, a strong, tight, nicely-painted coffin, and a niche of your own with space to light a candle, hang a cross, a color photograph, a Baby Jesus or a Virgin and a Saint, a place where visitors can leave bouquets of flowers…that is the highest aspiration of anyone who still has his dignity.

My family does, we have our dignity.  And here is the proof: this altar we have built on my grandfather’s grave.  There, reduced to the essential, is everything he loved: the saints of his devotions, his scapular, his missal, his diplomas, his medals, and the wax flowers he had on his night table.  Even the broken mirror he used every Sunday when he shaved to go to mass.  I don’t really remember my grandfather because he died before I was born.  But I have heard my mother and my relatives talk about him so much that I feel I knew him.  When I come to the cemetery to pray for him, I feel sad, and tears come to my eyes.  Besides, at any moment now it will be my turn to die, so I know I will meet him soon.  “Hello, grandfather,” I will say.  And he will answer: “Hello, granddaughter.  I’ve been waiting for you.”

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Mourner in Arequipa

Mario Vargas Llosa

Eyes closed, contrite expression, prayer book in hand, and a rosary of white beads around her neck, this señora is praying before a small, modest tomb in the Arequipa cemetery built by the poor on a strip of sandy ground at the foot of the volcanoes.  She is praying to ask God to forgive the sins the deceased may have committed in his lifetime, so that as quickly as possible his suffering soul can leave Purgatory and move on to Paradise to rejoice by the side of the divinity.

This señora does not know the person in the grave; she never saw him or heard anything about him when he was alive, and she will forget his name—which she just learned in order to pray and feel compassion for him with more conviction—almost as soon as she leaves the cemetery and the family of the deceased reward her with the modest payment she receives for her services.

It isn’t easy being a professional mourner.  It demands purity of sentiments, deep piety, a broad familiarity with the Catholic ritual associated with death, and an excellent memory for remembering the prayers prayed for the dead.  Also, an ability to identify emotionally with disconsolate family members who in mourning the loss of a loved one call on her tears and prayers to lend more prestige and dignity to their burials and wakes.  This señora has all those attributes, and therefore she is much sought after.  People come from great distances—some of them from the most important families–to the humble neighborhood where she lives in a her hut with no running water or electricity, to solicit her services.  She does not sell anyone short.  Besides asking for the name of the deceased, she often asks for a photograph, in order to know the person, to value him and to feel she is a friend, so that her tears at the wake and her prayers at the cemetery will flow with greater sincerity, like an expression of deep and authentic grief.

This señora’s heart is as big as Misti, the majestic volcano whose tremors rock Arequipa.

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A modern girl

Mario Vargas Llosa

I have been at the University all day, attending my law classes, and then at the library, studying and preparing for exams.  Now I am going to go home, take a cold shower, change my clothes and go to work.  I work at a nightclub near the Plaza de Armas, where a lot of tourists come.  I sing with a local band, dressed like an Inca princess.  We perform folklore things like huaynitos and pasillos, even some waltzes, in Quechua and Spanish.  I don’t have a very good voice, but I have a certain style.  Actually, I’ve kept my job at the club because I know a lot of English—I learned it at a language school,* and some day I hope to learn French, too—and I can introduce the numbers in the show in English for the tourists who make up the greatest part of the audience.  I also take them out on the floor and teach them how to dance the fast steps and figures of the huaynito.  I’ll never be a great star—I’m not interested in that—but I’m friendly, cheerful, enthusiastic, and that’s why I think I’ll be able to hang onto my job there until I fulfill my dream: to graduate as a lawyer.

My grandfather was a lawyer, and my father, too, and since I’m the only child it’s up to me to continue the family tradition.  That’s no burden at all.  Ever since I could think, my dream has been to study law and have my own office and defend those who are beaten down and abused, to help the poor and the helpless who are cheated, swindled, and mistreated because they don’t know their rights and don’t know how to defend themselves.  To me, that is what the diploma represents: a weapon for using peaceful means to insure that justice prevails.

My family has lived in Cuzco forever, and I’m proud of having been born in a city in which every stone, every wall, oozes centuries of history.  Underneath the widespread poverty in Cuzco that always makes such an impression on tourists breathes a desire for justice that has manifest itself many times over the course of its long history: in its rebellious chieftains, in its eloquent politicians and republican poets, in its fighters for social justice.  I am as proud of this tradition as I am for the Inca temples and palaces and the Colonial churches and historic buildings that attract those throngs of tourists.

One of the injustices that must be corrected is the prejudice still in sway regarding the emancipation of women.  It is true that things are beginning to change, but there are still fathers and brothers and husbands who believe we women are inferior creatures and that we must be protected and ordered about as if we were unable to reason and decide for ourselves what is best for us.  That is the great battle that we must win immediately!  Discrimination against women.  In the Law School, where there are more women students than men, we have set up a counseling service for Cuzco women who are abused at home or where they work.  And we have won some important victories.  There is nothing that cannot be achieved with conviction, hard work, and will.

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War of the Roses

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Love

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Tango

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Photographs and text by Pablo Corral Vega

Life is not life without poetry. I’m talking about the license we give the world to touch us, change us, wound us, carry us away, lift us up, drag us down, save us, expose us, wrap us in warmth, strip us naked.

Uno, Enrique Santos Discépolo’s beloved tango, says, “Filled with hope, we seek the path our dreams have promised our desires. . . The struggle is hard, and it is long, but struggle anyway, and bleed for the faith that drives you on. Through the thorns we crawl, and in our thirst to give our love, we suffer and destroy until at last we see that we’ve no heart anymore — the price of a punishment we undergo, a kiss we never receive, a love that left us low. . . ”

When we live with poetry, we risk our heart, our feelings, our peace. We risk our mind, our skin, our bones.

The tango is the music of immigrants — Italians, Spaniards, Germans — who came to the area of the Río de la Plata in the late nineteenth century. They had left everything behind — it’s only natural that the tango is filled with nostalgia. But it’s not an unredeemed nostalgia; quite the contrary. It’s a nostalgia that is transfigured by an embrace, that finds harbor in the dialog of bodies. The music and lyrics of the tango are pure nostalgia, but the dance itself is all sensuality, presence, exchange. Redemption.

Nostalgia and sensuality need one another and nourish one another. It’s a virtuous circle: to overcome nostalgia one must declare the triumph of the senses, assert the concrete importance of the here and now. And afterward, the senses — when one is fully alive —become the source of nostalgia.

When I went to Buenos Aires for the first time, the tango shows seemed so false to me, the sensuality so exaggerated, the gestures so lacking all poetry that I thought the tango was dead. About that experience I wrote this:

“It’s raining, and it’s been raining since the moment I arrived. Abandonment is made of rain, of unceasing processions of rain, of unexpected seasons of rain, of narrow slits of sun through the rain. Abandonment is made of sad love affairs, of love affairs marked by silence, of love affairs that try to stay afloat despite all the rain. No, it’s not that all love affairs are sad, or that rain shapes our destiny. No, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the fact that this long, profound abandonment is made of other, smaller abandonments, of words never spoken, of gestures of tenderness that were never born, of impossible embraces.”

Driven by the rain, nostalgia penetrated my bones. And then the tango took me by storm, so to speak — another sort of storm. I met Tito, a street poet, a vendor of wine and shoes, a loco who danced tango every night of his life. With him, I wandered through the Buenos Aires night. I discovered that the tango is alive in hidden, private places that the tourist never sees. It’s a world with its own laws. In the milongas — the places where people go to dance — the pimps and housewives, the lovers and the grandparents still together after all these years, the marginal males and the gay divorcees, the powerful and the nobodies, the young and those who can’t bear to grow old are all still to be found. All in the same place, playing their juxtaposed roles, actors in a delicious comedy that’s reinvented every night. They all laugh and pretend they aren’t dying. But when they step onto the dance floor, they do so with devotion, in silence, as though in that embrace their entire destiny were on the line.

Fernando Gavito, a friend of my friend Tito’s, was one of those devotees. Considered the greatest tango dancer in Buenos Aires, when he stepped onto the dance floor everyone that looked at him held their breath. His slow, deliberate movements challenged the law of gravity; they defied every notion of balance that one had ever entertained. I remember one night at the Club Gricel, shortly before his death. Mariana, his dancing partner, leaned against him, held up by nothing more than Gavito’s forehead and the tips of her own toes. It was an act of absolute surrender. The slightest error would have brought them both tumbling to the floor. That photograph has become, for me, the absolute definition of eros: I surrender to you with absolute certainty; you are my balance.

The most revealing definition of tango comes from the old men of the night: tango is embrace. More than music, more than the poetry of the old-time language of lunfardo, more than the constant flirting and the overwhelming presence of the senses, it is the embrace that expresses our humanity — more than any other thing we do. When we embrace one another we rescue one another from abandonment, we identify ourselves as members of our species. An embrace is a powerful, alchemical tool: it turns sadness into sweet. We are the species that embraces, that takes in, that touches, that swathes, that protects. The tango turns an embrace into human poetry.

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Andes

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Photographs and text by Pablo Corral Vega

When I was a boy, my father used to take me fishing up in the mountains. He had a pair of rubber waders and he would wade out waist-deep into the rivers’ rushing waters. We would walk and walk, and he would patiently wait. I’d take my camera along and stand and wait beside him. I often dreamed of exploring the great Cordillera back then. As an adult, for several years I worked on just that project, and in 2001 it was published by National Geographic Magazine.

After many journeys through the Andean nations, I realized that we are a hybrid people, a mestizo continent, and that despite the profound pain of the Spanish Conquest, despite the injustices and mistreatment that has occurred and still occurs in our societies, despite our violent history, two worlds — the white world and the Indian world — are intermingled in our culture, in our lives, in our being. And as part of that necessary reconciliation, we must accept ourselves. Inspired by that need to reconcile myself to history, and also by the need to deal with my personal pain, I have written these notes on the Andes. They have never been published before.

When the heart is in pain

I still wonder where the land of ghosts begins and the land of the living ends. As I understand it, those boundaries were erased long ago in a cataclysm, an unspeakable tidal wave, which some call the Spanish Conquest: waves awash with crosses destined to bury themselves in the coppery hearts of the idols.

One night at the very instant of a death that happened several kilometers away, there was a knocking at the window. “Sister, what are you doing, why didn’t you use the door?” my grandmother asked with surprise. “I just came to say good-bye,” the shade replied. For my grandmother there was no separation between the two worlds. When I was growing up in Quito, I shared that house with wandering souls in pain. As I listened to them climb the creaking wooden stairway, I would breathlessly calculate the short distance between them and the door to my room. In the modern world there is no place for the mystery of the night. Ghosts no longer bother to step into my path.

In the Andean world, the attention traditionally paid to the Beyond is a way of acknowledging that one’s ancestors are never really absent. Their work, their dreams, their loves, and their contempt stay with us, penetrating the silent wall of death, calling our attention to the past, to our roots. If we fail to remember our ancestors, if we fail to remember the history of everyday life lived by ordinary people — those things almost never mentioned in books — it will be hard for us to know who we are, or where we are going.

Whenever I traveled near Cuzco, I would remember the story of an ancestor who like me had decided to wander the Cordillera on some mysterious search. For years no one knew where he was, whether he had lost his life in an ambush or won the favor of some voluptuous maiden. One night the dogs began to bark furiously, and the family knew that only his ghost would return.

Cuzco is the heart of the Andean world, the exact hub at which all coordinates meet: layer upon layer, wound upon wound, hand upon hand, nostalgia upon nostalgia, Christian stone upon Inca stone. On my last trip to Cuzco I was overwhelmed by an ancient and inexplicable sadness. I realized that we must accept ourselves as a people, learn to look with kind and gentle eyes upon our mestizo world.

In Cuzco I wrote these notes, inspired by several conversations with people in the street, especially one simple taxi driver, don Aurelio Humpire Huillcahuaman.

“Does your heart ache, son? Does your heart ache? How beautiful the heart is when it aches! It is a hummingbird trying to escape your breast, fluttering, fluttering. . . . This plaza, Cuzco’s Plaza Mayor, we call Huacaypata. That means ‘upon tears.’ When the heart aches, son, we lay it gently upon tears, so that it will stay moist, so it won’t dry up and crack.

“That is why people cry — to give our heart the moisture it needs so it won’t get sick or turn hard as rock.

“You ask me what will cure sickness of heart? That is very easy — very, very easy. You pick the tiniest flowers, those tender little ones whose petals haven’t peeked out yet, and you put them in fresh water. The next morning you drink that water. Those tiny little flowers hold a world of energy, a world of hope. They have the power to awaken a bud here, a bloom there.

“But son, do not try to tear your heart from your breast. When your hand hurts you don’t hack it off; when your leg hurts, you don’t leave it by the side of the road. Why, then, when your heart aches do you want to tear it out of your breast, just tear it right out? You care for your hand, you stroke it; you rub your leg with salves and let it rest. Why do you want to tear your heart out of your breast? Your heart is most beautiful when it weeps; it needs that special water from those little flowers. It needs salves. It needs stroking. It needs rest. Tell your heart: ‘Go ahead and weep.’ Take it to the plaza of Huacaypata and let it flutter ‘round like a hummingbird.

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I am a soldier

Mario Vargas Llosa

I am a soldier, and I’m proud of it. If ten years ago you had told me that one day I would be going around with my head shaved, and wearing a uniform, I would have burst out laughing. Me? A soldier! What I liked was going out at night, drinking, dancing, and especially…girls. My dream was to get by somehow without having to work too much, and some day find a woman who would support me.

But one afternoon a patrol came to my little neighborhood bar looking for re-cruits. They roped me in, taking advantage of the fact that I was half drunk and not thinking straight. They marched me off to the barracks, asked for my papers, and decided I was due for military service. They shaved my head, took my civilian clothes, and stuck me into a khaki uniform. The drill instructors gave me so many kicks in the ass during training that my behind has been red ever since. But I got through it, and before I knew it I was beginning to like the Army. The discipline, the organization, the security, all that. The senior officer of my section told me, “You have the makings of a soldier.” And I do, because besides knowing how to obey, I also know how to command, and I’m the best marksman in our unit. That’s why they made me a corporal, and in the normal course of events I will soon make ser-geant, and I won’t stop until I’m a sergeant major.

In the short time I’ve been in the army, I’ve already been in three revolutions, which is a real kick. When there’s a revolution, the food gets better and we get bo-nus pay. And there’s a lot of excitement and speculation in the barracks, trying to guess who will end up as President. Because if it’s the general, the commander of our regiment, we—by that I mean my battalion, my company—we’ll get a real boost. The best thing that could happen would be to be picked for the presidential guard, the ones who guard the Palacio de Gobierno. Now that’s a good life. You eat like a king, and no girl can resist you.

On the other hand, this acting as escort for the Christ during the Holy Week procession has its drawbacks. Me, for example, the smell of the incense makes me sneeze, and there are priests and nuns burning incense all along the route. I have to hold back the sneeze—a soldier sneezing when he’s part of the honor guard makes a bad impression—but sometimes I can’t help it, I have to let go. Even worse, by the time it gets dark and people start getting wound up, it isn’t as easy to hold back all the pious old ladies who want to break through the rope barricades and touch the platform that holds the Christ, throw flowers to Him and ask for favors. The worst of all are the nuns, who push and scream like hysterical teenagers. And you have to be nice to them, because we’re in a religious procession, not a political rally or a strike, where we’re allowed to use our night sticks, and even in extreme cases shoot. I’ve come out of more than one procession pinched and clawed by those witches. I can tell you.

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The puna’s no place for turkey buzzards

Mario Vargas Llosa

There is this stupid, racist saying that goes, “The puna’s no place for turkey buzzards.”  They invented that to mean that us Blacks can’t live in high places—that’s what the puna is, you know—because we can’t take it, can’t take the harsh climate, can’t take how hard life is here.  They’re saying that the sierra is just for Indians and whites and mestizos.  That us Blacks are forever condemned to live in the stifling heat of the coast, there by the sea.

That doesn’t make sense.  So what do we have to be?  Redheads?  Palefaces?  Incas?  We’re Blacks, we belong in the mountains as much as any man among them.  We been here for years, maybe centuries.  People don’t know that Blacks came to South America with the first conquistadors.  We were part of that conquest, too, though the history books have always left out that part of the story.  But we were there all right, herding the horses, carrying provisions and weapons, training the savage dogs we set on the Indians during battle.  Then later we served as a shield for the masters and mistresses against the arrows and stones and axe blades the Indians turned on us.  Many of those wars were won and lost by us; it’s always been true that we’re the ones with the greatest losses in American wars.  But no one remembers to count us.

In this valley of cane fields, we are the best cutters, and during the harvest season the owners fight to sign us up.  Cutting cane is really hard work; it’s for men with arms of steel, who can last out anything.  It’s a job that grinds you down and leaves your back bowed forever.  It’s good pay, but after that crop, what?   How are you supposed to eat the rest of the year?  We have to be quick on our feet, take any job—porter, packer, drive carts, clean out irrigation ditches—or, as a last resort, go to the city and work in a factory.

There’s plenty of work on the coast.  Lots more than here.  But we like living here.  We were born here and we have the sierra in our heart.  We like the pure air and blue sky, the rugged mountains and the green of the small plots climbing up the mountainside.  We also like the nip of the evening cold when the sun goes down.  No matter how often they say that stupid “The puna’s no place for turkey buzzards,” it is!  Yessir, in Chota we have Blacks who are men of the Andes—Andes to the bone.

We’ve worked our shift now and we’re waiting for the truck that will take us back to camp.  Once there I’ll take a brush and soap and water to my face and chest and armpits, and then after I get a bite at the cantina I’ll go to the movies.  This one has shooting, and I heard the women show their tits.  Tomorrow I’ll be at work at the dawn, but I don’t need much sleep.  Four or five hours and I’m good as new.

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Earthquake

Mario Vargas Llosa

The earthquake itself isn’t the worst part, it’s what comes before and after.  What comes before, minutes or seconds before the shaking starts, is the sound, a deep, muffled moan that rises from the depths of the earth and paralyzes people with terror.  It’s a sound you can’t compare to any other.  It’s hoarse, a groan, a death rattle of underground rocks that seems to say: “Get ready to tremble, sinners.”

IC672191.jpgWhen you hear that sound you have to start running, get outside if there’s time, or if not, stand in the front entryway, which is the last part of the house to come down during a temblor.  And of course, close your eyes and while the earth shakes and sometimes sways like ocean waves, say a prayer to el Señor de los Temblores and ask him to save you from being crushed or buried alive under the rubble.

After the earthquake come the aftershocks, which are little quakes or temblors.  They don’t last long and they aren’t all that strong.  But since people’s nerves have been shattered by what just happened, with every tremble people are screaming and crying and running in panic.  Sometimes these aftershocks keep coming for several days, and then folks take their mattresses outside to sleep, fearful the big one will be repeated.

We’re twins, you know.  She’s a little darker and I’m a little lighter, but we’re identical.  Even our gray hair and how much we weigh.  And we have always got along fine.  This time the earthquake caught us in the kitchen, fixing dinner.  But since this is the fifth or sixth time we’re suffered through this, we have good reflexes and the second we hear that terrible noise we start running out to the rear patio where we have the chicken coop.  Poor hens!  What a fright they had.  Their eyes were bugging out and they were flapping  against the wire, trying to get out.  Animals feel the quake coming before we humans do.  This time, too.  Seconds before we heard the rumbling in the ground, all the dogs in the neighborhood started howling; you could tell they were terrified.  Poor things!

Out here in our little patio with our arms around each other was where we were when it came.  Everything swayed, top to bottom and bottom to top, and it seemed it was never going to stop.  There was dust covering everything and the roar and the screams were enough to burst your eardrums.  When it stopped and we realized we were still alive, we saw that the whole house had collapsed, that there was nothing left of the roof…barely pieces of walls.  But what was saddest of all, three of our hens were crushed by the adobe blocks that fell on the coop.  We were lucky.  Except for the scare, and a scratch here and there, we came out of it safe and sound.  We’re going to the church now and offer a prayer to the Lord for saving our lives, and then this afternoon we’ll get to work.  After every earthquake, there’s so much to do!

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Life is beautiful…and so am I

Mario Vargas Llosa

This mountain stream wetting my feet grows as it flows down the mountain; it gets wider, and leaps around, drops over cliffs, forms lakes, and turns into a big, big, river that after it crosses the jungle “proudly dies, repelling the sea,” as the poet wrote.

But I wouldn’t trade this spot for any in the world–the water, and the rocks, and the reeds, and the trees.  Why, I’ve come here to bathe every since I was old enough to remember.  Even then everyo0ne said I was a beautiful little girl.  In school they always chose me to play the Virgin Mary in the pageants.  And later I was Youth Queen, and Queen of Springtime, and Miss Mérida.  I was going to the Miss Venezuela contest, but my sweetheart didn’t like that idea, and I went along with him because I was very much in love.  I still am, after eight years of being a married woman.  He is a good man and he adores me, and he does everything he can to make me happy.  He is a computer and computer systems technician and he has a very good position, with a good future.  His company has promised to send him to the United States to take a training course, and right now that is my big dream.  How I would love to see the shops in Miami, and take my son to Orlando, to see Disneyland.

My husband’s only fault is that he’s jealous.  If he would see me like this, in my shorts, showing my legs, he would throw a real fit.  If it was up to him, I’d be dressed like a nun all the time, covered from head to foot.  Of course I don’t listen to him, and if he raises his voice to me, I raise mine, because those days when women were slaves to their husbands are far behind us.  My husband has never laid a hand on me.

“It’s just that you have such pretty legs, and if you show them you’ll drive the men crazy,” he protests.  “And what do you care if they go crazy, Silly, when you know my legs are all yours?”  “But Mamita, I get really jealous when other men want you.”  “What difference does it make what they think?  You know your baby loves only you, Papito.”  In spite of everything, we’re one couple that gets along great.  And a little jealousy isn’t a bad thing, it adds spice to a marriage.  And after we have a fight, it’s delicious to make up.

My son loves to come here and play, the way I did as a girl.  He already knows how to swim, and he’s a good ballplayer.  If he really wants to get my goat, he tells me that when he grows up he would like to be a taxi driver or a bullfighter.  I tell him to forget that nonsense.  He will be an engineer, or an architect, or a doctor, or a businessman.  Some serious profession.  One he’ll make a lot of money in.

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Aracataca is a universe

Mario Vargas Llosa

Aracataca is not some lost town choking in heat and overlooked by God and man, stuck down among the deserts, and ocean, and mountains of Colombia.  Aracataca is a universe, and behind those fragile wood and corrugated tin walls sparkle a thousand and one adventures and the most extraordinary characters in creation.

If you don’t believe it, just ask the town’s most illustrious son, señor Gabriel García Márquez, a writer by profession, who swears that the epic of One Hundred Years of Solitude, all the dazzling stories of Macondo, he heard as a boy from the mouths of his grandmother and other neighborhood women, big talkers all of them.  Their parroting and gossiping and slanderings and fantasies were the clay stored in his memory that he later used to fashion his fabulous fables.

That is why, if you go to Macondo—I mean, Aracataca—do not be deceived by appearances.  At first sight you might think that nothing ever happens here, that the sultry air has made people lazy, and that everyone’s biggest worry is whether they might miss siesta–preferably spent in a hammock–or a cold beer in the little bar on the corner, listening to salsas and ballenatos.   Not true!  Here everyone, old, young, men, women, are frantically busy.

Doing what?  Why, dreaming, fantasizing, inventing.  That’s the most illustrious and most ancient of human endeavors.  Starting from this world, you imagine another that is more original, more beautiful, more perfect, and then, calling on your mind and sensibility, you transport yourself there for a better life.  Which is why if you judge by appearances and think we are poor, you are mistaken.  In fact, if you enter the real Aracataca, the dream Aracataca, you will find that we are extremely rich, the most prosperous men and women on the entire planet.  Also those with the most lively and surprising and luxurious lives.  In our universe, there is no such thing as the impossible: anything can happen.  The sun can come out at night and the moon in broad daylight, and the law of gravity can be suspended so that people can take a nice little stroll among the clouds if they feel like it.  Here fat folks are thin and thin fat, ugly girls are pretty, children are old, dogs meow and cats bark, and there is no difference among living, dead, and ghosts, which is also true for mice and butterflies, two aves de corral.

To know the real Aracataca, you must close your eyes and let fantasy gallop off with you.

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Virgin among sinners

Mario Vargas Llosa

There was not the slightest intention of sacrilege on the part of the woman who owns this small whorehouse bar in a tough neighborhood of Medellín.  This city is known throughout the world for the drug cartels that operate there, and for the violence that often fills its streets with blood. But Medellín is also a beautiful city that spills through a fertile valley, and seen from the surrounding peaks it vibrates like a resplendent mirage.  The city is also known for the religious fervor of its inhabitants, and is a true bulwark of Catholic faith.  The madam of this all-night bar of red lights and diabolical rhythms hung that painting of the Virgin on the wall as a sign of devotion.  And also to ask Mary, in her infinite goodness, to safeguard the place from brawls, knife fights, and shootings, and her girls from contagious diseases, fatigue, and the despair that one day, without any warning, pushes some nocturnal butterflies to suicide.

Managing a bar, a discoteque, a brothel, whatever you want to call it, is not an easy job anywhere.  But in Medellín it is much more difficult than in other cities in the world because of the abundance of knives and firearms, and because of the ease with which any hot dispute among the paisas (that’s what the people in this valley folk are called) degenerates into a fight or a crime.  But this madam has been lucky up to now.  Although the clients drink and whoop it up, dance and get drunk, and take the girls up to the little rooms on the second floor, generally they behave and do not make much of an uproar.  People have been punched in the nose, of course, and there are bottles broken over heads, and frequent black eyes, like anywhere else. But up till now—and the place has been here for five years now–not a single corpse has bloodied the sawdust on the floor.  Now who, if not the blessed Virgin on that plaster wall over there, could be responsible for a miracle like that?

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Mister muscles

Mario Vargas Llosa

It has cost me blood, sweat, and tears to build these biceps and pectorals.  By that I mean hour and hours of working out in the gym, following a strict diet, and giving up cigarettes and alcohol.  If you want a physique like this, worthy of a body-building contest, you have to have an iron will and absolute discipline.  Fortunately, I have both.

I’ve promised myself to keep in trim and some day go to the States, where a man with a body like mine can have a career.  Show my muscles in a nightclub, work as an extra in the movies, enter Body Beautiful contests, open a health club, or pose for body shots and advertisements.  I have no doubt that there in the United States, a guy with muscles like mine can make money hand over fist.

Here, on the other hand, a man like me is wasted.  The kids here in the barrio are the only ones who know enough to appreciate the effort and the sacrifice that having a body like mine demands.  When I take off my shirt and demonstrate for them, their eyes get wide with envy.  “Can I touch?” they ask me.  And I tell them yes, and they can’t believe how hard my muscles are.  “Like a rock,” they say.

The jobs I’ve been offered here are ridiculous.  The first was in a traveling circus that came here for the national holidays.   My act was called “Can You Beat The Strong Man?”  That consisted of challenging any spectator to arm wrestle with me, and see whose arm went down first.  I always won, naturally.  That was a joke.  But there was another act where I came out with the clowns, and they made people laugh by playing jokes on me and making me look like an idiot.  When the circus left town they asked me to go with them, but I told them no way.

My other job was even more depressing.  That was bouncer in a whorehouse bar.  I had to break up fights, put troublemakers in their place, and throw guys out who got too drunk.  All very depressing.  The one good thing about the job was the girls.  The ones who dance in the show and the ones who shill customers into buying them drinks.  Really nice chicks, some of them very loving.  But I didn’t like the business of spending all my time with night owls, breathing alcohol and smoke–both poison for my muscles.

So that’s why I need to go to California or Miami.  I’ll come back when I’m rich and famous, and have had my picture in the newspapers.  Then the mayor will give me a medal and point to me and tell the kids: “A healthy mind in a healthy body.  Learn from this man’s example.”

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The fictions of Mario Vargas Llosa


WORD TO THE READER

The vignettes that follow are not objective descriptions of the photos they accompany.  They are fantasies, fictions, and inventions inspired in images taken by Pablo Corral during his travels through the Andes.  They are not intended to provide exact information, but to recreate, with the help of imagination, the psychological, social, and cultural context that inspired the artist.  In writing these word pictures I have worked with the same freedom I enjoy when I write a novel, interrelating the photographed reality with my own visions and allowing that alliance to merge into a new phenomenon.  I would like to add that the world of the Andes is not alien to me.  I was born in a city of the southern sierra of Perú famous for its volcanoes and earthquakes: Arequipa, where ancient houses and temples are constructed of the petrified lava called sillar.  I spent my early years in Cochambamba, a city in the Bolivian sierra, and that landscape is the first recorded in my memory.  And although I have lived most of my life on the coast, I have gone back to climb the Andes and breathe its pure air, and felt my blood stir on the heights.  I have felt what the prodigal son feels when he returns home and through the gift of memory recognizes his native land and beloved peoples.

MVLL

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Landscapes of Silence

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Photographs and text by Pablo Corral Vega

“Landscapes of Silence” is a project I began in 1985. I was studying law at Catholic University in Quito, and every weekend I would drive out to the mountain. On those trips, I grew to know the wind. The wind is the voice of the mountain, the wind tells us when we are welcome, when it’s best to go back — it guides us, accompanies us. The Andes became a part of me; I grew to know their cruel, savage side, and I came to know their gentleness.

Up in the Andes, clouds dwell at ground level — they touch the earth, they kiss it. Clouds merge with rock, slip into people’s houses, wander down the narrow paths, fill the air with microscopic particles of cold and moisture. The wind and the clouds need each other; they complement each other. Clouds move fast, and they allow light to pass through them, or they hide it. The sun shines brilliantly, and then a minute later every trace of warmth has vanished.

That was the way it was when I took the photo on the left in Zumbahua. It was a dark, impenetrable afternoon. Then suddenly the sky opened, the mountain was illuminated. The light lasted for a few minutes and then the afternoon returned to its habitual gloom.

I have been given many gifts in my life, moments when everything has come together and I’ve been at peace with the world. This was one of those moments. It was what Karl Jung calls “synchronicity.” Light, wind, clouds had conspired, and I was privileged to witness that.

Since I was six years old, photography has been a constant companion. It’s a concrete, ordinary sort of exercise: paying attention to what’s around you. As the years passed I realized that to be a photographer, you have to be there, “in the moment,” as they say. That sounds like a cliché, but for me it’s essential.

The main purpose of meditation is to learn to be in the moment, to be there, where you are. Often, we think about what we did or didn’t do, or did badly, what we have to do, what we wish would happen. Our mind is so full of noise that we can’t be where we are.

And then of course, because we’re thinking about a thousand things at once, we can’t fully experience that world that lies before us. It’s impossible to take photographs if you haven’t focused all your senses on just that, taking the photograph. If you aren’t “in the moment.”

When my life is a little off its axis, when I feel lost, I try to go back to nature. Nature teaches us peace, teaches us that all things pass, teaches us that the great drama of life, too, passes. Those lines from the poetry of St. Teresa of Avila — “Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee; all thing pass” — sound very much like Buddhist thought, or Taoist.

Human experience is common to us all — we confront the same mysteries, the same doubts and fears, the same quests. And our ultimate referent is there before us — nature and its cycles, nature and its constant renewal, nature as a space in which death and life meet. We are nature, and nature is us.

And precisely because we are nature, how it hurts me that my mountains are being destroyed. When we wound them, we wound ourselves. We live in a world filled with violence. I wrote the words that follow over twenty years ago, but I had no idea of the magnitude of the damage that was to come:

“Ecuador is becoming a desert. In the Sierra only an insignificant percentage of first-growth forest is left. The erosion is alarming. . . . Humanity continues to think it can dominate nature, take everything from it, pull what’s left out by the roots. And yet these Andes are irremediably alive.

“I have seen hundreds of mountains denuded, stripped, wounded. And yet they aren’t dead; they fight to stay alive.

“I have seen fields and pastures stretching up into the sides of hills and mountains, stripping away the wildness as they go. I have seen them invade the plain, the forest, the jungle.

“But I have also seen places that have not been desolated by ambition and ignorance. There, life has an indescribable strength — green floods your eyes, you seen animals and birds, the mountain is still sacred, mysterious, incomprehensible.”

On tiptoe, meekly, aware of my fragility, yet needing to hear its deep, throaty voice. . . That’s how I’d like to approach my land. Thirsty for silence. There.

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Eros

(Please, if you are offended by nudity, don’t open this gallery. Press on the left or right of the image to navigate. Press on the center for full frame.)

Nothing as important as love. Nothing that touches us so intimately. Nothing that expresses more fully the desolation of solitude, the abyss, doubt. Nothing as magical as the touch of skin upon skin. Nothing as mysterious as that contact between two beings. Because this encounter makes us believe that death cannot come near us, that even as we are now, naked and vulnerable, we will live to the end of time. Nothing as eternal as the fleeting union between two who have the power to astound each other. And nothing as improbable as that coming together; were there but one missing link in the chain of the ancestors, the chain would have been dissolved. Were but a single ancestor removed and not be a link toward the formation of a new couple—and it is the couple that determines the course of the centuries—you would not be here, you would not be who you are, your lips would not be the lips I know. It is improbable, nearly impossible, that you exist, and because you exist, despite everything, a victorious triumph over fate, only I can love you.

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Australia

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Photographs and text by Pablo Corral Vega

The plains of central Australia are a horizontal chasm. One’s eyes can travel no more than a few yards across the flat continent, and they find relief only in the immensity of the sky. This region of Australia is the most inhospitable, most savage land I have ever known — desert on an inhuman scale.

The aborigines are the ancestral inhabitants of this land. There are hundreds of linguistic groups; they are hunters and gatherers. Their skin is dark, and covered with golden hairs, and the old men have long white beards and wildly unkempt hair. They have been mistreated, abused, and manipulated by the whites and so have become wary and standoffish. The clash with the white world has been brutal. Health problems due to alcoholism and junk food are now epidemic.

One of the most fascinating concepts in the aboriginal culture is that of “songlines.” These are songs that precisely describe the topography of the land — I might call them musical or poetic maps. If you lose your way in this land, and you don’t know how to get back home or where the nearest water is, you die. These songs, passed down from generation to generation, are these peoples’ maps, cultural pathways that guarantee your, and your species’, survival. Songlines have their guardians, people whose only mission is to preserve the songs’ content and meaning. Some of these poetic pathways run for thousands of kilometers and link linguistic groups that have no other connection but the preservation of their stretch of the poetic highway. Imagine a song that talks about the boulder, the dry river, the tree, the well, that describes the terrain so exactly that you can always walk the same route — the tribal equivalent of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs.

The tragedy of the aborigines is that these complex maps are utterly useless in the white world.

It is fascinating to think that all cultures have these maps that allow a society to survive, that provide us with directions to get back home. Beliefs, superstitions, myths, music, art, literature are poetic maps that allow us to confront the essential facts of our existence.

These poetic maps grow more and more complex as a people’s basic needs expand. At first, one has to find a solution to hunger — ensure survival. Later, there is the need to find answers to the mysteries, and words, sounds, and color may become useless.

More accurate, more complex maps give us power, they allow us to safely navigate the mine fields in our way. I think in this age of fast foods we may have discarded the maps that contain some degree of subtlety and have grown used to the crudest and most primitive of sketches.

But the map that’s hardest to find, and most desired, is the map of the future. If you can get your hands on a map of the future, you can prepare, you can react in time to what the future brings. Science, technology, medicine are a systematic effort to predict what’s down that road. . . They offer us the illusion that everything’s under control, and will stay that way — they provide everything from weather reports to the possibility of changing the future through genetic engineering.

Maps of the future are also called myth, divination, oracle, superstition, even metaphysics. Some are more elaborate than others. They are responses to things we don’t know, maps that can guide us to the meaning of a Beyond whose silence is absolute, and devastating.

What practical difference is there between talking about the Big Bang, that time before time and space, and talking about the Dreaming, as the Australian aborigines do? Dreamtime is a time when dreams created things. They are both myths of creation, ideas about spaces beyond our sensory space.

I am fascinated by cultural maps; I’m fascinated by the people who make them and protect them, who are proud of them, who find in their local references the echoes of a grand human map, a blank map, a map that offers no answers, a map covered with question marks.

This project for National Geographic on the Ghan, the new train that crosses Australia from south to north, was one of the most difficult ones in my life. The desert was savage, exhausting, and I felt I was a stranger among men. I was saved by my cultural maps — Bach’s suites for cello, the vision of the night sky, the smile on the face of Day Day, a simple, wise aborigine, and the warmth of the Horvats, new friends of mine, in a tiny village in this continent-country.

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Romania

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Photographs and text by Pablo Corral Vega

I was tired when I arrived on the morning train, so I went right to the small pension where I was to stay, a simple house with flowers on the balcony in the little town of Botiza, near the Ukrainian border. I had just closed my eyes when the owner of the hotel knocked at my door crying, “There’s someone to see you, someone to see you, Mr. Corral!” He sounded anguished.

“That’s not possible,” I told him; “I don’t know anybody here.”

“Yes, yes, they’ve asked for you.”

When I went downstairs I found a little man waiting for me: eighty years old or so, hunchbacked, with tears in his eyes. He took off his hat and very shyly said to me, “My wife, the light of my days, my friend, my companion, my Ioana, has died. I was told you’d arrived and I came to ask if you’d come to be with us. Come to my house, please.”

It was a little wooden house with hand-hewn walls and rafters, its walls covered with tapestries and icons — a country person’s house. They invited me to go into the room where Ioana’s body had been laid. Only the women were standing around the casket. They were not crying, they were singing. The singing was pitiful, heartwrenching —it took grief and elevated it. The women took turns singing. “Do you remember Ioana when we’d walk through the hills, watching the sheep as they grazed?” one would wail. And another would answer: “And remember when we’d bake the bread and talk and knit beside the chimney?” Each old friend had a memory, an improvised strophe, and together, one by one, they reconstructed the life of this simple woman.

How sweet that farewell; what sensible, true pain! It is these encounters that make one feel part of the human family.

In Romania I felt at home. It is a Latin country. Romanian, the language, shares its roots with Spanish, my own tongue; Romania the country is poor, like my own. Within a few weeks I could understand enough to get around. I had gone there to do a report for a wonderful Spanish magazine called Planeta Humano, “Human Planet.” Unlike other countries within the Soviet orbit, in Romania Communism met a violent end: the monstrous Ceausescu was killed after a massive rebellion.

Everywhere one sees traces of Ceausescu’s grandiose regime. He was convinced that he was building a new nation, a society in which everyone would be equal and there’d be justice for all. Within that context, nothing that had existed prior to his coming had any value or meaning. One of the government’s most ambitious programs involved taking huge earth-moving machines and razing all the country’s little medieval villages and building modern industrial cities. He’d had enough time to destroy several little wooden villages, where now all that’s left standing are abandoned multifamily apartment blocks. The towns lost their vitality, their spontaneity.

Much the same thing happened in Hunedoara. The government decided to build the largest iron and steel plant in Europe, a facility that would bring Romania into the modern age. What was built, though, was a huge white elephant, with a city of thirty thousand people around it, for the workers. When Ceausescu fell, hordes invaded the plant and sacked it. Hunedoara is now a smoking ruin, a monument to the arrogance of Industrial Man.

I cannot understand how anyone can dream of creating governments in the Soviet fashion, how anyone can believe in Stalinist socialisms after the disasters those regimes have brought down upon the world. What characterized those governments was three things: the belief that they were based on a “true” vision of the world, the belief that a huge social engineering project was actually possible, and the lack of any agency of outside, independent control, the lack of a counterweight of any kind.

I am convinced that any dictatorship, any government that exercises power without limits (self-imposed or imposed from without), is a black government, indeed. Dictatorships, whether of the Right or the Left (categories used to discredit those who don’t think the same way you do), are just that — dictatorships. It matters not whether they’re inspired by notions of Christian goodness or the dream of constructing an egalitarian society opposed to capitalist imperialism. The substance, the basis of a modern society is the recognition of the rights of every person, the rights of the other, the person who doesn’t think the same way you do. And there is also the necessity that power — any sort of power — have limits, counterweights.

Romania is a country that suffered for decades under the black hand of a messianic government whose mission was to re-found the nation. A brief look back at history should remind us that in the name of utopias, governments have created poverty, war, starvation, or, less dramatically, inefficiency, caprice, cults of personality, a lame kind of populism that impoverishes ideas and make us think that it’s better to divide ourselves into factions than to find identity and belonging in the great human family.

Romania is quickly shedding its prejudices, its phobias now. Its cities are modern, and fully integrated into Europe. The towns in the interior, on the other hand, are living treasures of a more agricultural time — closer to the earth, to tradition, to the community, to a style of life that is almost extinct in Europe. In these towns, neighbors still sing fervent songs to the dead and celebrate the heartfelt value of bread and soil.

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Rio Carnival

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Photographs and text by Pablo Corral Vega

The first time I went to Rio, I was captivated — changed, in fact — by the city’s charms. “What are these uncomplicated people made of, that they smile so spontaneously, walk so self-confidently? What are these exaggerated — like everything in Rio — hills made of, that those huge favelas are perched on so precariously?”

A Carioca tourist that visited my show accused me of perpetuating stereotypes, of staying at the surface of things, of not revealing anything significant about Rio. And it was true. These photos of the cidade maravilhosa are a distortion that can only be justified by an inhabitant of the Andes who’s accustomed to hiding the body yet is fascinated by the attraction it exerts when it’s carried with self-confidence and freedom. Sensuality lies not in nakedness, in the amount of skin exposed to the air. No, sensuality lies in the easiness with which a person inhabits the body. For the Cariocas, the attraction, sexuality, sweetness of the skin, the rhythm of the body are natural phenomena — and what’s the point of rebelling against nature? All those things simply are, they’re there.

This project needed to ripen, penetrate, investigate, reveal. I worked for only a few weeks in Rio. These photographs are of the surface of things, but there’s something liberating in that lightness.

I photographed two Carnivals, and I was blown away by the excess. Despite the fact that there’s a huge publicity machine — it’s a spectacle that generates millions of dollars — the happiness, the freedom, and the devotion of the people in the processions are absolutely real. When you’re in the middle of the drum corps — thousands of drums pounding simultaneously — the vibration drills into your head, mysteriously animates your feet, and boils away every last drop of scepticism or reserve.

I’m given to writing letters when I’m traveling. The first time I went to Rio, before I’d gotten to know Carnival, I wrote this:

“How alone I feel, more alone than ever. I watch the world pass by in this city which is a serpent of light. A savage hammering, a brutal emptiness, this sense of being alone — alone despite all the affection. A solitude with no solution.

“A girl from Ipanema passes by. Her face is perfect, her movements are effortless; she looks at me. She smiles as though she knew me, as though once, in another space and another time, she’d loved me. Does she have any idea of the devastating power of her smile? She’s gone.

“She’s gone. . . . This city, a serpent of light, a river of light, a river of white teeth in the darkness, a parade of derrieres — round, golden, playful, dancing derrieres.

“I untangle the tentacles of my grilled octopus, just as I’ve untangled all sorts of tentacles: slowly, expecting nothing new, yet savoring every bite. I view myself as free, no ties, brutally free and brutally alone. Isn’t that the same thing? Aren’t those two words synonymous? Freedom, and solitude. No ties, no strings, so free that nobody even knows where I am right now. Nobody probably remembers me now, or thinks about me. I could go in any direction, take any road.

“The waiter forgot to take away the other plate. That empty plate reminds me that I’m eating alone on the terrace of an Italian restaurant, watching the world pass by, in this city that’s a river of solitudes, a river of favelas rocked to sleep by the soft cadence of a samba, a river of pains redeemed and blessed, a glittering serpent rebelling against the night.

“A couple is talking on the corner. He touches her, she backs away. He puts his arm around her neck and steals a kiss. It’s the first kiss. She resists, struggles, until finally she surrenders. I watch her muscles relax, watch them both relax. And life becomes a tangle of tears and tongues and thirsty hands.

“This city is a river of thirsty hands, thirsty mouths, mouths that cure, mouths that kill, mouths that laugh, mouths that sing.

“What profound pain, what profound solitude, what desperate freedom, what silence shattered by the deafening silence of the sea!

“And I choose life, and I choose kisses — even the impossible ones — and I choose pain. And emptiness, too. And I allow myself to be conquered by saudade, and I let the night pour over me in torrents, and I drown in it, and I am saved in it.

“I picture the terrible ships dragging the black slaves to Brazil. I imagine the powerful tam tam of the black sorcerer, that drumming sound of rebellion and identity.”

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Cambodia

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Photographs and text by Pablo Corral Vega

The waters of the Tonle Sap River look still, almost motionless. The river is in no hurry. This is the city of Phnom Penh, flowing alongside the river. Fishermen drift by with their precious cargo; barges incessantly crisscross the chocolate-colored waters; canoes carry tourists to the islands and the villages along the river with their Muslim and Vietnamese minorities. People gather all along the wall beside the river, on this avenue built on a large dike that in the rainy season barely holds back the river. During the rainy season, the river swells up like a hungry jungle animal.

As night falls, families enjoy a picnic beside the river. Stalls and stands sell smoked fish, grilled fish with peanut sauce, strips of meat cooked on charcoal braziers, white rice mixed with a slightly fermented fish paste, and khao phoune, rice-noodle soup with coconut milk, mint, lemon, and ginger, but without the spice they use in Thailand. Beside the pagoda are the lotus and incense vendors — offerings to the smiling Buddha — a shirtless men selling fragile brown birds that the faithful set free, to cleanse their karma. Fortune-tellers try to trap shifty fate under their wan oil lamps; fifteen-year-old monks, heads shaved, dressed in long orange robes, listen open-mouthed to the latest rock singer; and couples embrace surreptitiously among the crowd gathered around the snake-charmer.

Cambodia has unquestionably suffered as much as any country on earth. Indochina has been in conflict for centuries, with only brief parentheses of peace. But the years following 1970 — first when it become involved in the Vietnam War and then with the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which murdered a third of the population — have left an especially profound mark on the country. It is common to see people who are mutilated. The psychological damage is harder to see, but you discover it if you scratch the surface.

I remember one afternoon with a charming old gentleman, Sen Phon, in the village of Jummik. I talked to him a long time about the Pol Pot regime. The most idealistic of the Cambodians, those who wanted to build a just, egalitarian society, turned into monsters when they came to power. Sen Phon told me this: “What the Khmer Rouge did was give power to the marginalized, the resentful, the most ignorant; many of them were driven by revenge. A rich man, a person who came from the city, was the enemy. A doctor, a professor, an artist was the enemy. Any person who had the slightest reservation about Marxism was the enemy. Any person who did not eat his soup with rice enthusiastically enough — two pounds for forty people — and give thanks for it was the enemy. Any person who did not work until he dropped was the enemy. Any person who fell asleep during the Communist indoctrination classes was the enemy. Only the mute, the ignorant, the obedient blind had the right to live.”

I asked Sen Phon who the murderers were, and he answered, “Normal people, like you and I. They thought that if they didn’t kill first, someone would kill them. But basically they were perfectly normal people. The one thing that characterized the most fanatical soldiers may be that they were all so young, some even just children — and children are the most cruel of all because they cannot put themselves in the other person’s place, cannot think of the other person’s suffering. They think that all abuse is justified because at last, a just society is going to be built.”

Sen Phon, with his tousled white hair, squatting, looked at me and laughed out loud. “It’s that after spending a whole day with you, I’ve realized that although I don’t understand a thing you say, and you don’t understand a thing I say,” my friend Peter translated, “we laugh in the same language.” Another delicious burst of laughter. “You see how well I laugh in Spanish?!”

I laugh with blessed abandon! “And you see how well I laugh in Khmer?” I say to him gratefully — for I am profoundly grateful.

What horrors have been committed in the name of justice, religion, peace! The road is as important as the destination. How much we need to laugh, talk, share. The road to peace is built by tiny concrete acts of good will. How many little brown birds must we set free in order to recover goodness?

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Educational Travel Conference

Baltimore, USA


Recording of a keynote presentation offered by Pablo Corral Vega at the 2008 Educational Travel Conference, in Baltimore. Pablo talks about his work and the lessons he has learned by being a photographer. The parts where he shows his work were removed from this recording.

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Prologue by Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa


The Andes of Pablo Corral Vega

Every work of genuine art is a refutation of stereotypes, a rejection of false and prejudiced visions of human reality.  The great merit of Pablo Corral’s documentary photographs of the massive mountain chain of the Andes, which slashes South America north to south for a distance of 8,500 kilometers, is that in images of great originality and beauty they portray the profound truths of a world whose complexity and diversity often are lost behind unilateral visions and clichés.

When we close our eyes and think of the distant Andes, the first image that usually comes to mind is that of a panorama devoid of human life.  Cordilleras with jutting, snowy peaks, dizzying abysses, and vast solitudes where occasionally a condor may soar, or deep valleys where we see the timid faces, the large frightened eyes, of flocks of llamas, alpacas, and delicate vicuñas organized in family groups in which each male is surrounded by his three or four concubines.  The second image is that of a historical, pre-Hispanic land presided over by the ruins of vanished civilizations and cultures whose temples, forts, roads, cities, and gods we must try to reconstruct in our imaginations, beginning with the archeological remnants of their cultures that have survived the ravages of time.

In the Andean photographs of Pablo Corral, the protagonist is never nature or the historical past but, rather, the human being and his current reality: history in the making.  Nature is present, of course, in all its spectacular majesty, along with the stalwart ancestors who hundreds of years ago, overcoming indescribable obstacles, succeeded in developing agriculture, establishing empires, and organizing societies in one of the harshest geographies on the planet.  But nature and history are important to Corral’s lens only as they relate to contemporary life, as elements that allow us to understand fully the social problems of today’s Andes.  For him, photography is an art, of course, but an art that allows us to come closer to human beings and to better understand them.

In one of the most impressive images in this book, we see the formidable granite mass of mount Fitz Roy, in Argentina, emerging like a great whale breasting the waves of the heavens, its ocher and snow-covered back thrusting from among the clouds.  The sun’s rays gild its heights, but night has already fallen on the lower level of the mountain, seen in the foreground.  What charges the image with drama and meaning is not the staggering power of this natural world, but how fragile and insignificant, in comparison, human beings are, those unseen inhabitants of the tiny, nearly evanescent, village at the foot of the colossal cordillera: a trickle of barely visible dwellings resembling snowflakes swirled from on high.  The contrast creates a stunning artistic effect, but at the same time it is a splendid depiction of the indomitable spirit, the iron will, and the quiet heroism that was needed for humans to sink their roots in the Andes.  And a proof of how, despite the advances of modernity, living in certain regions of the cordillera continues to be a daily battle.

Embellishment can be a subtle way of falsifying reality, if it is used as a mask to conceal scars and blemishes.  In Andean societies, as elsewhere in the world, the beautiful, the ugly, and the horrible blend together, and to suppress any of those aspects of life is to create a caricature or a non-existent reality.  There is, however, a way to approach truth in all its most painful, repulsive, and violent aspects without rejecting the desire for beauty that moves the artist’s heart.  Pablo Corral’s vision of the Andes does not pull a veil over poverty, marginalization, or the discrimination and neglect that pervade the lives of millions of men and women who live there, nor diminish the intolerable injustice that signifies.  However, in his images, even those in which the primitivism and abandonment in which certain Andean towns languish is crystal clear, there is never that complacency, that pleasure in exhibiting social ills—misery for the sake of misery—that turns a certain type of committed art into propaganda, or worse, into a formalism that is both unethical and demogagic: exhibitionism at the expense of others.

In Pablo Corral’s photographs there is always hope, an affirmation of life, a will for survival in even the worst adversity, that is seen in the most humble and mistreated–whether by their fellows or by natural catastrophes.  And perhaps the images depicting the ability to survive, to withstand the elemental and terrible conditions in which life is lived, are the most persuasive and forceful of the collection.  These photographs introduce us to beings weighed down by the oppression of centuries, people who have been exploited and then forgotten, people condemned to live amid precarious conditions and the constant awareness of death.  And yet, nothing has dimmed the joy for life, for celebrating fiestas, for dressing in costumes and dancing to the stirring music of village bands, for parading saints and virgins in sumptuous processions.  In these mountain villages, the camera of Pablo Corral, steeped in sympathy and solidarity for what he photographs, always detects the secret little flame that flickers in the darkest gloom and represents the philosophy expressed in a popular saying: that hope is the last thing to die in the human being.  Which is why Corral’s images, even when they present the viewer with evidence of painful and cruel events, are never pessimistic.  Something stubbornly defiant and strong is always visible in his subjects, the quiet affirmation that, even bowed by adversity and injustice, they never will feel they are conquered.  This endurance is evident, for example in the images that document the joy and exhilaration of the celebration of the challa (the blessings of the harvests) in the small village of Toledo, high on the Bolivian altiplano, and of the two women in Chiquipata, colorful in their derbies and ponchos, sitting on the bare ground, happily gossiping.

One of the most widespread stereotypes regarding Andean society is that it is predominantly Indian, and that anything not indigenous is inauthentic, foreign, assigned a minority role. This was true five hundred years ago, but today it is absolutely false.  Indian, White, Black, along with other races, are actually minority groups.  Mestizos compose the majority today, and they have left a powerful stamp on the cities and towns of the sierra, a potent personality clearly different from both native tradition and European influences.  This mestizaje, this mixing of bloods and cultures, must not be thought of in exclusively racial terms.  In areas relating to rituals and beliefs, clothing and language, there are visible traces of the pre-Hispanic legacy–especially in the indigenous communities of the Atlantic slopes and in important social entities where habits and customs were virtually untouched by Europeans (one thinks of Patagonia, for example).  However, the fact is that mestizaje is the commanding influence in cities and, in large measure, in rural communities.  Its impact is also dominant in the practice of religion, in entertainment, music, clothing, everyday mythology, and in the ways sexuality is regarded.

All this is delicately documented by the tireless, peripatetic camera of Pablo Corral, who immerses himself in the crowded processions of Holy Week to drown in incense; help carry the platforms of the patron saint of the brothers of the Society of San Cristóbal; explore the small whorehouse bars with their infernal glow, where toasts are drunk with ice cold beer, frenetic salsas danced, and love negotiated for a price;  meet at dawn and parade through the streets with the costumed societies celebrating carnival; and go inside dwellings still shaken by a nearby volcano that waked in a bad humor and decided to gift the city spread at its feet with an earthquake.  In businesses, factories, cane fields, churches, markets, and on neighborhood street corners, that camera registers the multiple expressions of Andean social life.  What especially stands out in this testimonial is the extraordinary vigor of the world in which criollo men and women of the Andes, the mestizos, counter the enormous difficulties in the fight for survival with a stamina that is accompanied by a touch of salty wit, cleverness, and generous doses of good humor.  The criollos always have a smile, because for them life—any life—is always worth living.  That is what the fishermen of Santa Marta, Colombia, seem to be telling us, as the red breath of the setting sun inflames them; the couple locked in a tight embrace in Barrio Triste in Medellín; or the solitary horseman in white peasant pants and straw hat who pauses on the shores of the Caribbean to gaze into the heat of empty space, lost in nostalgia and memory.

One of the lessons learned from Pablo Corral’s photographic passage through the America of the Andes is the unity that underlies absurd national boundaries.  Although by political definition the Andes are divided into nations, the differences among them are minimal and artificial; what prevails of the whole, assuming an objective and dispassionate appraisal, is the indestructible unity deriving from dramatic geography, common history, multi-ethnicity, and shared problems.  That is the essence, not borders traced centuries ago on imperfect maps by self-interest and ignorance, boundaries irrationally separating what reason and common sense demand be united.  Naturally, there are differences in the Andean world: social, economic, cultural, and ethnic.  But these differences do not correspond to discrete nations, they cut vertically through sovereign states and establish identities and similarities underlying and superceding the political demarcations that turn South America into an archipelago of countries and destroy its unity—the kind of political unity maintained amid linguistic and cultural diversity developed in the United States.

What is homogeneous and heterogeneous in the Andean world appears in the images in this book in true perspective: not what boundaries would pretend, but what is determined by natural order, culture, and history.  Although Andean society seems to be a bubbling source of diverse modes of life, of contrasting traditions, races and ethnicities, the common denominator that unites this variety is made unequivocally apparent in the photographs in this book.  And perhaps the fundamental bond is the Andes themselves, that formidable chain of mountains that forms the backbone of the continent, a geography that has determined ways of life—from the way the land is worked to the relations among its peoples—to which all the inhabitants of the sierra have had to bend, converging into a common model despite the attributes of each native, colonizer, conquistador, and immigrant.

During the first half of the twentieth century, throughout Latin America and inspired initially by the Mexican revolution, a movement developed in literature and the plastic arts called indigenismo, an exaltation of the Indian and the natural world.   In the novels, murals, and paintings of indigenist writers and artists, nature nearly always appeared as a destructive and fearsome force against which human enterprise had little effect.  The jungle, the mountain, the raging river, swallowed up human beings, swept aside their plans of domination, destroyed their dreams.  The natural world was the enemy.  That image of the Andes is very different from the one presented in the photographs of Pablo Corral.  The power of the mountain is recognized, naturally, along with its inherent dangers—foremost among them, the volcanoes.  But the natural world shown in these images is at the same time intimately integrated into the everyday life of human beings, as a ferment and incentive that has shaped the customs, determined the direction, and defined the characteristics, of a society.    The Andes are not the enemy now, they are a difficult companion, an unpredictable ally, and a severe, although affectionate and paternal, teacher.

Paris, March, 2001

Translated from the Spanish by
Margaret Sayers Peden

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