Balcony of the Clouds

Epilogue of ‘The Andes’ by Pablo Corral Vega

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers-Peden

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