Monday, August 17, 2009

Señor Mendoza and the Devil's Cave

Señor Mendoza disappeared without warning, in the middle of the night, from his home in the village of Cabanaconde.

His family, including son-in-law Rogelio, a teacher at the local secondary school, searched for him throughout the town and the surrounding fields. But their searches were fruitless: after two days and two nights, Señor Mendoza was still missing.

A call was made to inform Señor Mendoza's daughter, who lives in Spain. The daughter, fearing for her father's life, went to consult a local curandero. The curandero did the required rituals, and then told her:

Your father is not dead. He is in the same place where they have been looking for him. They should send the night praying, and scattering holy water, and in the morning they should look again in the same place.

This message from the Spanish curandero was communicated to the searchers back in Cabanaconde, who did as had been instructed.

The next morning, they went out early to search again, on a pathway through the chacras up towards a place called Puqio. There, about forty-five minutes from the village, they found Señor Mendoza huddled under a big rock, below an opening in the mountainside which locals know as the Devil's Cave.

"At first we thought the devil had taken him", says Rogelio. "Now we think maybe he just wandered off in a coma. The place we found him was below the devil's cave, well below. And he he'd walked quite a long way to reach the path, from where he had been on the mountainside. That's where we found his glasses and his blanket".

"But it's true that where we found him, the devil is marked in the rocks of the hillside above. In the morning when we went up there, you could see the form of the devil, plain as day".

Maybe Señor Mendoza had just been absent-mindedly sleep walking. But somehow he survived on the barren hillside, without food or water, for three days and three freezing nights

What is true is that when they brought him back to the village, his wife showed her relief by scolding him: "What were you thinking?", she asked. "Why did you wander off like that and lose yourself in the wilderness?"

The old man looked at her strangely. "But why do you ask?", he said, "when it was you who took me there".

Señor Mendoza insisted that his wife had led him into the wilderness. When he had tried to walk back, she had blocked his path and wouldn't let him leave.

After that, for about a month, the señor kept getting up in the middle of the night and trying to leave the house. His wife, his daughter and son-in-law had to watch out for him, and restrain him when he tried to wander off.

This continued until the family contacted a local curandero. After ascertaining the reasons for the old man's restlessness, the curandero took him back up to the place where he had been found. The curandero performed a ceremony called a pago a la tierra, involving an appropriate mix of plant and animal offerings to the earth. After that, the señor was cured, and he once again slept soundly at night time.

"The curandero said he had left part of his soul out on the moutainside", says Rogelio. "We had to go out there and bring it back".

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Salkantay Trekked: Third Entry

Into the Valley

Once he woke up, Gelmond did well again, nimbly preparing another meal on his stove, while the light faded in pink washes over the mountains and we shivered as the air sank off the icy slopes above us.

Next morning, I was woken by Hugo and Gelmond chatting in the tent next door. It was still dark, so I buried my head in the pillow and tried to continue sleeping, until I heard the sounds of gear being packed, and voices loudly speculating that they might just carry on and leave Simon in the campsite.

I crawled outside to find ice on the tent, and Hugo and Gelmond nowhere near as advanced with packing up as I had thought. They swore they had heard a huge boom shortly before 5am, presumably a chunk of ice separating itself from one of the glaciers. Hugo said he had taken the somewhat contradictory steps of counting down the average nineteen seconds one has before being swept away by an avalanche, and unzipping his sleeping bag to be ready to make a run for it.

I'd put in earplugs during the night to drown out the annoying drone from Mountain Lodge's diesel generator, and hadn't heard anything.

After breakfast, we retraced our steps from the evening before. It was only fifteen minutes walk downhill before the cold started to dissipate and the trees reappeared.

We gradually wound our way down the valley, the vegetation turning lusher, orchids and bromeliads throwing splashes of colour through the trees. Whenever we found a property with space that looked suitable for camping, we sought out the resident señora to discuss the possiblity of working with us in the future.

Hugo's conversation with each local smallholder went something like this: "Listen, I've got a hotel near Santa Teresa, and I'm going to operate the Salkantay trek. I'll bring groups. You should put some sort of table there; use stones for seats so the tourists can sit down. Whatever you do, don't sell your place. Improve, invest. Is that a kitchen you've got there? We'll bring supplies and cook here; how much do you charge? Do you have mules? Definitely don't sell. Hey, you don't want to sell that bit to me, do you? How much do you want?"

The nicest place we saw was Los Andenes, where the local residents had cleaned up and improved ancient pre-Incan terraces that descended in orderly layers to the river, beautifully flat with soft grass, a camper's dream. But by the time we got down to the most popular camping spot at Challuay, Hugo had promised his close collaboration with at least four different families.

At Chaullay we had an extended conversation with the resident señora, who explained that, as elsewhere, tourists could camp for free in exchange for buying something at her shop, or leaving a small donation.

She explained that the residents of the entire route, from Mollepata to Playa Sahuayaco, have formed the Cooperative of Alto Salkantay. The Cooperative advocates for the community and tries to ensure a common front, for example requiring that mules be charged out at no less than S/. 30 per day.

Ten minutes away across the river was the third in the chain of Mountain Lodge hotels. The señora said that the locals felt cheated because they had sold the land to a Peruvian, who had on-sold it to international investors. She said gravely that the relations with the Mountain Lodge people weren't very good, and that there "could be problems". It seemed that there had been all kinds of promises made, such as bringing electricity and building a school, which hadn't yet been delivered on I was having visions of another interesting development studies case study, but we had to move on.

Hugo's contribution was to sing the praises of the Pelton wheel, which his brother Alan had installed at Hugo's Lodge, and which powers the whole property using only the power of falling stream water. He told the señora about a second-hand Pelto that he knew of, going cheap. "You can generate your own electricity", he assured her. He promised to bring her tourists as well.

Another hour, and we prepared lunch in another pleasant grassy area beside a farm house with a shop, pigs and dogs, before heading off on our final stretch. The route on the way to the village of Playa Sahuayaco ran past some basic hot springs at Collapampa, where we dithered for a while. We had heard rumours about a road that descended from this point, and Hugo in particular sniffed the chance of a smoother, more rapid journey to Playa -- though everybody we asked insisted that the road was no quicker than the traditional mule trail.

Across the river above the hot springs there was indeed the end of a road, but the only way across was a 'bridge' of flimsy tree trunks stacked loosely, a couple of metres above some vicious rapids. While we were lingering, some locals came down from the road and stepped gingerly across. But I couldn't see us finding any way to cross with our heavy backpacks. It just wasn't worth risking death for a dubious time saving. We learnt later that there had been a locals had knocked down a more substantial bridge, to stop motor vehicles usurping the arrieros' traditional business carrying cargo up the valley.

It was only day two of the trek, but by mid-afternoon some of us had begun to fray around the edges. Hugo had declared, not without some pride, that he was "completely unprepared" for the trek. He had chortled at my and Gelmond's modern gear: his only nod to convention was a nice soft shell jacket, which he combined with cotton t-shirts, jeans, and a backpack best suited for daytripping. When it got cold at night on the pampa, he begged to borrow my chullo to warm his head. To take his share of the load, Hugo had agreed to carry the 4-man tent. Without enough space in his pack, he carried it along under his arm, and unsurprisingly lost his balance and slipped several times on the way down from the pass. On day two he somehow manged to stuff the tent inside his backpack, which meant that he at least stayed upright.

He also sang the praises of his boots, which he claimed had lasted eight years after he picked them up second hand for a pittance. But as fine a job as they might have done, the Salkantay trek was a bridge too far. On the second morning Hugo noticed that a hole had appeared in the bottom of one boot, and by lunchtime the whole sole had collapsed in. He began to hobble a little, and his feet got wetter with each stream we crossed.

For my part, I was embarassed to find that a large blister had developed on my right foot. Surely my feet weren't that tender -- and weren't my thick, soft, $35 Icebreaker trekking socks supposed to protect them? The best I could do was blame it on the pressure resulting from my backpack's poor weight distribution. To my chagrin, I had to admit Hugo had been right to make us skip the first day of the trek.

The afternoon wore on, and the trail seemed never-ending, rising and falling alongside the river as the countryside slowly became flatter and more civilised. We asked the arrieros coming the other way about transport to Santa Teresa, and they shook their heads and said the least scheduled service left Playa at 5 o'clock. It was starting to look like we would have to spend the night in Playa, a huge disappointment after we had spent the day imagining hot springs and soft beds.

As the sky turned dark, Gelmond stirred himself for one last effort. He lengthened his pace, striding off around the bend and into the distance. I in turn slowed down a little to keep Hugo company, and winced each time the ball of my right foot bore weight and rubbed at its expanding blister.

Finally, with the path becoming flatter and smoother in the moonlight, we rounded a bend and saw twin points of light suggesting -- could it be -- a medium-sized vehicle. I ignored my blister and sprinted the last 200 metres to the village. There was indeed a waiting minvan -- Gelmond had made it just in time and had held up the kombi.

We climbed in gratefully. The twenty-five minutes ride to Santa Teresa was as rough and bumpy as you'd expect on any back country Peruvian road -- but for once, getting thrown around the inside of a minivan didn't give me any cause for complaint.