Tuesday, September 01, 2009

To the Devil's Cave

The first time I heard the story in the previous post was from Lizbeth's brother Yamil, sitting eating breakfast in the Valle del Fuego in Cabanaconde and plugging him for contacts who could tell me more "ghost stories of the sierra".

Yamil has something of a fascination with things supernatural and was an enthusiatic informant. Among his tales of phantom figures and strange energies, he outlined the odd case of Señor Mendoza. "Why don't you look for the schoolteacher Rogelio Falcon", he advised me. "It was his father-in-law that disappeared"

Later that day I went looking for Rogelio. Yamil had told me that his house was close to a comedor half a block from the plaza, but when I asked in that place, they directed me to a street across the other side of the plaza. While I was poking around there, nervous about intruding on someone's private property, a an elderly señora appeared and I asked her about Rogelio.

"That young man there can take you to him, that one going into the shop", she said, pointing way back across the plaza to a figure that with my much younger eyes I could only just make out.

I wandered across and hailed the guy whom the señora had indicated. Lucio was another teacher at the local secondary school, who was originally from the Tacna region. He nodded in recognition when I explained that I was interested in the disappearance of Señor Mendoza. His understanding of the story was similar to Yamil's, although he added a few more details.

We wandered through the streets of Cabanaconde looking for Rogelio; he wasn't at either of the residences that Lucio knew of, but eventually we tracked him down coming out of the school. Rogelio was tall and lean, maybe in his late forties. He was happy to retell the story of his father-in-law and answer my questions. I have to say, I was taken by how amenable people were to a stranger, a gringo even, appearing at random to enquire into the intimacies of local families .

I shouted Rogelio and Lucio a coke, and we went to sit down in the school yard to talk. Rogelio was sceptical about local tales of ghosts and demons, saying they were "things our grandparents talked about, from when there was no electricity and they took fright in the dark". He didn't really think the devil had lured his father-in-law into the wilderness, either, although he swore that the figure of the devil was clearly marked on the hillside above where they had found the señor. "When we went up there in the morning and found him, the devil was there, plain as day", he assured me.

I was intrigued by the whole story. "Why don't we go up there", suggested Rogelio, as if reading my thoughts. We agreed that we would take a trip up to the devil's cave on Friday, after I had come back from my trek down to the oasis at the bottom of the canyon. I enlisted Yamil to go along as well. Yamil was eager, but nervous. He insisted that if we went, we should aim to arrive at 3 o'clock sharp in the afternoon. This was the holiest time of the day -- the hour Christ died -- and would counteract any malignant powers that might be present.

Friday came around, and to my mortification I had drifted so far into "Peruvian time" that I missed my rendezvous with Rogelio at the school, but I eventually tracked him down. We went to pick up Yamil, who was a little jumpy. He showed me a handful of coca leaves that he was carrying in his pocket as a source of good energy. Then he reached into his other pocket and pulled something out. "Here, Simon, take this", he said. He handed me an entire bunch of garlic.

We walked for maybe forty minutes uphill and west from the village, through the chacras where animals were grazing, on a route which headed up towards the slopes of Hualca Hualca. Near a big rock off to the left of the pathway, Rogelio stopped. "That's where we found my "father-in-law", he explained.

He also pointed out the shape on the hillside that was supposed to be the devil. But to his bemusement, it was no longer very obvious at all. We stood for about five minutes, changing our position and craning our necks, but try as we might, we couldn't see any configuration on the hillside that really looked like the devil.

Our next step was to climb up to the cave itself, but Rogelio said he was going to go back. He pointed out a trail that ran along the hillside across the other side of a stream, explaining that it was an interesting walk that went near an Incan archeological site; he was going to head that way, and if we took that route now we would just make it back to the village before nightfall.

We said goodbye to Rogelio and he started back. "I think he was afraid", said Yamil. Or maybe he had just got sick of playing the tourist guide and wanted to get home.

As we started off towards the cave, Yamil produced a battered packet of tobacco from his pocket. "You know how to roll these?", he asked. "Sure", I said looking a little bemused. "Well, can you roll one?", he said, handing me the packet. Tobacco smoke would ward off the malignant spirits as we got closer to the devil's lair, he assured me. I went along with it for the first few puffs, but then handed the cigarette over to Yamil. Scrambling up a hill at 3,500 metres above sea level is taxing enough as it is.

When we got up to the top, we found that there was not one, but several, possible "caves". One was a wide, shallow cleft in the hillside at ground level. There, we found clear evidence of a pago a la tierra, an offering to the earth. There was an empty bottle of wine and other items strewn on the ground, ticker tape of the kind thrown round at carnival hanging from the rock, and in the centre of the opening, a large gob of a waxy substance -- llama fat. In front of the cave was a broad flat stone that looked like it might have been artifically smoothed. From what I've learnt later, this probably served as the mesa or table of the curandero who performed the pago. Around a bend in the rock to the left, was a little pile of animal bones, which from later information I'm guessing were rabbit bones.

Up the rock face to the right was another cave-like opening, narrower and deeper. We scrambled up there, but didn't find anything of particular interest.

Yamil wandered back and forth, scrutinising his surroundings like a professional mystic. "On this side, there's nothing evil", he opined. "I just feel...power". He wandered up and peered at the llama fat. "This place has strong energy", he nodded sagely. "I think this isn't llama fat...it's the fat of a vicuña". I grunted sceptically. Yamil walked round to the side with the rabbit bones. "Oh, I don't like it here", he reported. "This is malign".

We took photos of the hillside at various distances, on the way up and the way down. Eventually, at middle distance, I became convinced that I saw the figure of a face. Meanwhile, Yamil was discovering various creatures and demons appearing at various places in the hillside. We struggled to point them out to one another, but it seemed we were seeing different things.

We only had about half an hour of daylight left, so we decided to head back to the village. Back in Cabanaconde, we downloaded the photos, zoomed in, zoomed out. The photo at the top of this post seems to clearly show a face, if not a demonic one. As we zoomed in on the pictures we had taken inside the higher-up cave, Yamil began to discern a number of details in the rocks around where I was crouched posing for the photo: a grinning cat-like demon here, the face of a soul in torment there.

Yamil was excited by the images that appeared in the photos. "This is a genuine discovery", he assured me. "We can take tourists up there". I was amused, but skeptical. Look long enough at a rocky hillside, and you'll find anything you want, I reasoned.

Yet, when I've shown people the image at the start of this post, they've spotted the "face" almost immediately. A couple who I've shown the upper cave photos to have also spotted the "soul in torment" without too much trouble.

Strange forces at work on the mountain, or figments of overworked imaginations? What do you think?


terence said...

hhhmmm..I guess I can see a 'face' but probably only because I'm looking for it. Still the story keeps intriguing me.

Susan said...

I can see the faces too and they look quite sinister to me, but if I hadn't been looking, I'm not sure whether I would have interpreted them that way. But then I am quite suggestible!

Cecilia said...

Well, I saw the face as clear as day the moment the page loaded before I even started reading. I actually assumed it was a prehistoric rock drawing. I can't imagine how anyone couldn't see it immediately - it positively jumps out. On the other hand, I think some of my prior experimentation with certain substances may have permanently predisposed me to see faces and animals everywhere.

I don't think the face looks particularly evil though.

Simon Bidwell said...

Well, the face seems very clear to me too, now, although it is more prominent in that particular photo -- I was struggling to point it out to Yamil when were actually up there. It was also most visible from the middle distance; when you were actually back down on the path it was quite small and wouldn't have drawn your attention, so I'm sure it wasn't the 'devil' that Rogelio and co had seen. Again, the frame provided by the photo makes it seem more obvious and dramatic. I also didn't think it looked very evil at the time (more Easter Island-ish really), but now it does start to seem more devil-like.

In my experience, seeing faces and animals can be brought on by extreme tiredness: I recall on the way back from climbing Nevado Chachani I was seeing all kinds of people, llamas and pumas appearing in the rocks of the desert. No experimentation with substances required (unless it was some unknown after effect of Diamox).