The Andes

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

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.

“When fate dealt me a hard blow once, I wanted to climb the mountain and take poison, like my papa before me. I tried, but I couldn’t. . . . The wind spoke to me.

“How does the strong wind speak? It howls over the cliffs, it sings on the slopes. Sometimes the wind is sweet and sometimes it gets mad. You must listen; it always tells us where we are: where the ravine is, where the stream is.

“And so does water. Water speaks, if only we will listen.

“The sun speaks, and the stars; mountain flowers speak, and climbing vines. The earth speaks. But most of all, the wind speaks.

“Oh, those hard blows can be beautiful, son. With time the wound becomes a whirlwind that brings old memories back to life.

“Have you ever seen a country house with mirrors? The campesino has no need of mirrors — he has no image of himself. He is one with the earth, and as implacable as the wind.

“You ask me what the Andes are? I will tell you. In Quechua, the name of the eastern Cordillera is Antis, or Antisuyo. When you climb up to those peaks, far off in the distance you see mountains that are even higher yet — mountains surrounded by dark forests, terrible and mysterious mountains impossible to climb. Those are the Antis, the Andis, the Andes. It is to that far-off and mysterious place that our ancestors go to live, and there our pain and sorrow will go, too.

“Our dead and our pain are much alike. That is why they go to the same place. The dead always say, ‘I’m going but I’ll be back.’ And our pains and sorrows do that, too — they go, but they always come back. And when they do, we welcome them like lost family, like old friends.

“How beautiful sadness is, son, how beautiful the heart when it weeps! When it weeps it is like a hummingbird that flies up to the Antis and talks with the dead, talks with our pain and sorrow.”