Putre is truly a village. An outpost.
The morning is crisp, but sunny. We start driving up toward Lake Chungará, beneath snow-capped mountains and between vast, empty fields marked by streams. Our first vicuna of the morning are walking two-by-two across a bog, and we pull off to watch them for awhile.
There seems something incredibly delicate about them, about the whole scene. I watch R wander a ways into the field, trying to get closer to them, and the vicuna, with a certain courteous grace, subtly adjust their speed and direction to maintain the existing distance.
We know that the Inca and other civilizations here worshipped the mountains, including certain volcanos, as gods, and propitiated them by climbing to extraordinary altitudes to leave gifts and sacrifices ranging from coca leaves and maize through statues and shells to perfect and virginal young humans. These vicuna this morning seem also to be worshipping this distant snow-capped volcano. Or maybe their ancestors modeled for small statues left there. Maybe these guys want to model for statues.
We pause by a military check-point of some sort, but only a huge white alpaca named “Loli” comes out to greet us. We naturally start photographing Loli. S/he quickly sticks a huge head into the open car-door and scarfs down the chocolate bar with almonds I had been planning to have for lunch. Wrapper and all. Then she discovers and rejects an apple and a banana, but continues foraging.
Moving this rather large animal is a bit of a chore. S/he weighs a good deal more than either of us does. And although she’s gentle and doesn’t seem at all inclined to bite, she’s a load. She has her ways of expressing a contrary opinion: she snorts and spits grass at you. [I took a shot in the face – well, more than one, but after the first I kept my mouth firmly shut when discussing matters with Loli.] If that fails to persuade you, she makes a sound that suggests she is about to throw up on you.
Meanwhile we photograph her and pet her, and she admires herself in the car window. When we bribe her with chocolate cookies, her companions rush across the street to join the action.
I apologize: there are many more photographs here of Loli, or of Ragna and Loli, than are strictly necessary. However, it’s hard to be objective when you are battling a creature with the consistency and scent of a sheep, the weight of an ox, and the humorous face of some creature from a distant galaxy.
We pull off and stop. I come very close to taking my back-pack and camera and leaving her the car and telling her I’ll meet up with her later. She’s already out of the car, smoking a cigarette, but just outside the open door so that the smoke blows in. I move the car a few feet to lose the smell, which naturally irritates her more. She hollers at me to go on, and leave her in the middle of nowhere. I’m wondering how, in such a splendid place, we can be wasting time arguing about I’m not sure what. But I know I must be complicit too.
Finally, we drive toward the village. Within moments we round a curve and come out on a small ridge overlooking a long, green, wet valley, where alpaca graze lazily and birds’ shrill calls carry through the thin air.
The still valley captures our full attention the moment the dirt road brings us around the curve. The light catches the green scrub and the small lake in the pasture. Alpacas graze silently all around us, and large black birds nest and forage and quarrel in the pond, and majestic white peaks rise from the ends of the pasture. The air is thin and cool, the pasture full of life at peace with itself.
We turn off the car and wish we could stay forever. We walk a bit. The animals are not terribly interested in us one way or the other. Ragna walks among them shooting video of grazing animals and the birds diligently doing their domestic chores on the pond. One pair looks completely like an angry housewife berating a lazy husband on a Saturday afternoon, and a chastened husband belatedly starting on his appointed chores, in this case gathering more material for their nest and bringing it onto the tiny island they occupy.
I sit for awhile, just feeling contemplative, although I do jot down a tanka:
pierce the thin air, quarreling
But the valley reminds me too of Whitman:
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied . . . not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.
The village, Parinacota, is just around the corner. It’s a sleepy little pueblo. There’s a small Plaza de Armas with a little church at one corner, with the white peaks behind it. The only visible citizens are two or three women selling alpaca and vicuna clothing, or knitting in between customers, and a gentle old man who wanders up to open the church whenever a visitor wanders into town. The vendors are local folks, possibly even from the same family, selling crafts — mostly local products, although a few alpaca sweaters proudly proclaim that they are “made in Perú.” Ragna acquires a hat, and I buy the grey sweater in which I will later sit writing this.
The church is interesting, partly because it has frescos painted on its walls — not on canvas or framed wood, but directly on the walls. The silence all around us is extraordinary.
There’s no restaurant, though, and we’re beginning to guess that we ought to eat something before going on. I’m feeling the start of a headache. We go back to the main road and head for a small restaurant we spotted a couple of kilometers before the turn-off.
The restaurant is simple, clean, and lonely. The proprietress has a small son, maybe three or four years old, with the improbable name of Byron. At first he peeks very shyly at us through the swinging doors to the kitchen, but once he knows we’ve spotted him he’s gaily running around us. My sluggish brain is still contemplating his name, the poet’s, here.
I am beginning to feel the altitude. I have a headache, and when the soup comes I eat it as if it were my first meal in weeks. Meanwhile, I’m also drinking as much mate de coca as possible. It seems to help a little, but not as much as I need.
My head hurts like a sonofabitch. I don’t feel at all addled or disoriented or anything. This place doesn’t seem high enough to cause me severe problems, and I’ve been at this altitude before without them; but recent reading has reminded me that altitude sickness can hit folks who’ve been up to a given level before without problems — and that even experienced mountaineers can fail to recognize it when it saps their judgment. The quarreling and limited nutrients could be contributing to the headache. I’m hurting, and concerned. Ragna has never driven the car, but might need to. The headache is now so severe that I crave any respite from the rigors of driving — even though on an untrafficked rural highway in broad daylight there are no rigors. I suggest to her that she drive.
Just before Lake Chungará we pull off to contemplate another extraordinary landscape: unreasonably blue lakes filling holes in a barren brown landscape, like worshippers approaching their god, a huge white volcano nearby.
As we reach Lake Chungará, there’s a high mirador overlooking the large lake and across it toward various volcanos in Perú, Bolivia, and Chile. It’s a splendid perch, and we stop to enjoy it. Moments later, we’re joined by a young couple from Lima. They’re equally enthralled. They start shooting pictures of each other with the lake and the ring of volcanos in the background, and I offer to shoot one of the two of them, with their camera. We all express our sense of wonder. He asks how we are, in this altitude, and we all exchange reports on that. We chat about the fact that Ragna’s from Iceland and he was an exchange student in the Faroe Islands.
A minivan also pulls off, and people spill out to take a look and shoot pix of each other, although a couple of the passengers aren’t up to that. While their guide points out the volcanos (in Chile, in Bolivia, and straddling the borders), and picks and shows people, including us, an aromatic plant, one middle-aged bald gent is giving up his lunch, his breakfast, and most of what he ate last week – and I wonder whether we all might follow suit, like the audience at the county-fair pie-eating contest in an early story by Stephen King. Even the aromatic plant heightens the urge, but we resist.
We continue on. A kilometer or two further, we stop. We’re at water-level now. On the right there’s a small snack-stand and some people selling sweaters and gloves, and on the left we can walk right to the water’s edge. Between the road and the water are vicunas; and on the lake’s surface, just beyond the near shore, are flamingos, which I’d not supposed were cold-weather birds, but rather imagined standing around in Florida or the South Sea Islands.
Carefully we walk out toward them. Ragna’s trying to shoot some video. I sit awhile, craving the stillness but also just a contemplative moment. This is truly another world, and the whole day one you do not forget. I begin to feel as if moments like this, and like Laguna Paron, are like a specific vitamin without which our spirits lose their vigor. I savor this one.
Someone calls Chungará the highest lake in the world. [ Writing this back in Arequipa, I get curious. I doubt Chungará is the world’s highest lake, but how close is it? One web-site lists the highest lakes in the world, although the list is inclusive, in that it lists very small volcanic pools or lakes of which no one seems to have a photograph, although they appear on maps. Chungará appears 29th. If a lake were defined as requiring 1 hectare of surface, or perhaps somewhat more, Chungará would rapidly move up the list, perhaps to within the top ten. Someone’s You-Tube site has a video pan of part of the lake, and claims it’s the highest in the world – and perhaps under some definition it is, although I doubt it. At http://www.andes.org.uk/peak_info_6000/ojos_info.htm there’s a small photograph of what may be the world’s highest lake of any size. Ojos del Salado, on the Chilean-Argentinian border, is said to be the world’s highest active volcano, at an altitude given variously as 6870 or 6893 meters; and on its eastern flank, at 6390 meters, there’s a permanent crater lake of about 100 meters in diameter – just a pimple on the rump of Chungará, of course.]
The drive back is another chamber of wonders, as the late afternoon light paints sparkling tableau after sparkling tableau of icy valleys and back-lit vicunas drinking from streams. We descend into Putre on a back road, among horse-riders and shepherdesses and sheep. We pick up a hitchhiker, a local farmer whose dogs cheerfully race along behind us, and drive him to Putre’s little Plaza de Armas, which we haven’t yet seen. A few old folks sit settled on the benches, and the almost violently beautiful light from the setting sun streams through where it can to the Plaza, turning even walls and streetlights and benches into art.
We eat in the restaurant down the street from the hotel. Warm atmosphere, slow service, decent food.
The night is one of the worst of my life. Sleep evades me. I have a dull headache, though it’s milder than during the day. That Ragna and I still aren’t on particularly good terms exacerbates all this. And she’s having an equally frustrating and sleepless night.
It’s cold. Even so, I’d go for a walk; but the courtyard gate is locked; and although I could leave by the front door, getting back in might pose problems. At home, I’d get up and write, or read, or watch some old flick on TV, or work, or snack. Here, none of those seems available. I consider setting up computer and hard-drive out in the hallway, where there’s a table and electric outlet I used during the morning while waiting for Ragna; but it’s too cold, or I’m too lazy, or it would disturb the folks sleeping in the room nearest the table, or it would irritate Ragna, or I just don’t have anything to say that I’d want to read in the morning. Or all of these.
When I do sleep, briefly and fitfully, it isn’t real sleep, but my mind frustrating itself by continually trying to accomplish some task without adequate resources. I seem to be working on photos, trying to save them, but unable to do so because we’re still out driving around and I’m not really on the computer. But everytime I start to drift off, my mind wakes me up by trying to save those damned photos.
Ragna is equally unhappy. Holding each other, perhaps making love, would soften the night’s harshness for both of us, but tonight it’s the farthest thing from our minds. I am figuring we’ll drive down the mountain in the morning, and maybe continue right back to Arequipa, where she’ll fly on to Lima and Reykjavik. She interrupts my thoughts by announcing exactly that plan.