(The photos don’t actually correspond to the trip in the piece below. We visited the above town, Cancha Cancha, the previous week.)
The chickens have been awake for some time. The faceless dogs that harassed me from half a kilometre up the steep side of a green, chacra-dotted mountain as I tore down running toward the river below (that runs among avocado trees and broad banana leaves) they’ve yet to be stirred from their cloudy sleep. Between roosters and our beeping cell phones, we creek into the day, the dirt of the morning and the creamy mist that evaporates imperceptibly with the rising sun. We’re cold enough to perk up, and when we hear them call from the other side of the adobe wall, we rush the last things into our knapsacks and race down to the waiting truck. Senovio holds the heavy wooden swinging door of the truck open and shakes my hand as I climb up the ladder into the back of the vehicle. We settle in – I am standing, Alison is sitting, and Nohemi leans against the wooden side, half asleep. The engine rumbles to life in the sleeping and dampened valley, disappearing into the milky air. At 5:30am the ink of the night has gone and as we labour up along the knife-edge snake of road past those faceless (and still sleeping) dogs, we find the crack that didn’t exist.
There is one other man in the back of the fruit truck with us. He is draped over a sack of potatoes, beside the bag of bread and the browning mangos. And he is persistent in his questions, slurred and tired. His eyes are red and only split open by the still morning that blows into the moving truck and reminds us of the speed of time. Trees turn to bushes, bushes to alpine flowers and prickly cacti and lichen, and we’re on top of the flowing ocean of white that crashes between the green and black peaks, splashing up their sides to leave tired and bright glaciers to gleam in the morning sun.
If you look closely as we head over the pass at 4500m, down between the black spires stabbing out through white clouds, that have already forgotten all the sounds of last night’s river as they kiss the earth, lick it, and float up into a disappearing cerulean blue – if you look down to the rock-studded green you see U-shaped dots, alpacas, eating as they do forever in their thick and cloudy coats. I watch the 13 or 14-year old boy open the turquoise door of the truck, moving the dense wood of the ladder, all its grains polished down by everything that has come before. He jumps into the back with a limberness of which I am envious (up here in the thin air) and rifles manfully through the bags to get bleary-eyed shepherds their breakfast of little white buns burned stale by the cold mountain.
The llamas and sheep graze on tufts of grass. The old leather-skinned drunk man has opened his eyes and jumps off the truck, steadying himself before he goes. He lands without a teeter, grabs his bread and thermos of tea to stand with the other men, watching his herd down in the valley where the clouds are now only a memory.
After almost forgetting to pay the driver, we take off our extra morning layers, stuff them in our bags, and head up the remnants of an ancient Inca road, slowly wheezing our way over a pass to the edge of a patchy bluff. There we look down over the crisscrossing paths – the same ones that split a hundred million square miles into ten times as many unique shapes. In the green and rocky cradle below are the small stone houses of villagers whose black shepherd dogs have come to life with the blazing Andean sun. We pick our way down to where we’ll meet with some 20 women, from young and vibrant to old and slow, even deformed.
(On the streets of Cusco there are women dressed in long woolen leggings and black shoes, a few thick and colourfully trimmed skirts, wool sweaters and oddly shaped hats with fabric draped overtop – or a sort of Andea felt tophat. They are then wrapped in colourful blankets. In my experience they don’t smile very much – they ask tourists for photos. These may have been their true outfits, but they have been forced into selling their history, their story, into commodifying their experience, making money off of the fetishization of traditional, of the poor, of the foreign.)
They are the shadows of the beaming women we find in Pitukiska, in the Mapacho River Valley. As they watch from their stone walled, dirt-floored homes in the nape and crook of the bending mountains, they can see us coming. We arrive and are offered coca tea and boiled potatoes and a fried egg by the strong and quiet women already there, their babies bound in rainbows to their backs. Slowly the remaining women trickle down the sides of the mountains, some between the black rocks and dogs, others with a whole herd of sheep.
As we talk about the next few months, the change in personnel (my replacing Alison) and the rainy season, Nohemi translates from Spanish to Quechua and vice versa. We smile and try to understand each other. The women sit in the shade of the once cold stone walls, the little squat toilet and the shushing river in the background, and we sit in the hot sun. We shake hands and say tupananchis kama (see you later) as the women drift back into earth’s harsh rocks.
There is nothing perfect about this. There is nothing easy about it – except for maybe a smile – that’s not so hard. Ordering textiles from indigenous women – buying or not buying them…(you finish this sentence)… women who live with domestic and sexual violence, intergeneration trauma, discrimination and neglect from the outside world and their governments, women who work from a tragically young age, who live in abject poverty; women who are not deemed important enough to receive schooling, who are tied to their stone homes by their babies and their God. Much like indigenous women in my own country. Much like indigenous women just about everywhere. I smile and I brace myself for the next two years.
The rocks and the llamas – even the faceless dogs – watch us, confused. They watch us as we wend our breathless way up and over the pass again and into hours of the blazing sun. They won’t see us again until the rains are over, until the frosts are back, and I suspect they won’t much care.