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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 riversâ rushing waters. We would walk and walk, and he would patiently wait. Iâd 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 â the white world and the Indian world â 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. âSister, what are you doing, why didnât you use the door?â my grandmother asked with surprise. âI just came to say good-bye,â 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 oneâs 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 â those things almost never mentioned in books â 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.
âDoes 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, Cuzcoâs Plaza Mayor, we call Huacaypata. That means âupon tears.â When the heart aches, son, we lay it gently upon tears, so that it will stay moist, so it wonât dry up and crack.
âThat is why people cry â to give our heart the moisture it needs so it wonât get sick or turn hard as rock.
âYou ask me what will cure sickness of heart? That is very easy â very, very easy. You pick the tiniest flowers, those tender little ones whose petals havenât 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.
âBut son, do not try to tear your heart from your breast. When your hand hurts you donât hack it off; when your leg hurts, you donât 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: âGo ahead and weep.â Take it to the plaza of Huacaypata and let it flutter âround like a hummingbird.