She won’t miss her dance, the cheeky bugger! Sally roars with laughter, tears flowing down her face. And Epifany laughs with her.
Staring back from the mirror at them is an ogress, dressed in a gathered, red skirt and a white blouse with balloon sleeves and large, embroidered flowers. The blouse is bursting at the seams, revealing a thermal undershirt with underarm sweat pads. Cinched around the waist Sally never had is a black chumpi belt, hand-woven in colorful wool; peeking from under the layered, tulip skirt are cargo pants and a pair of hiking boots.
There’s no way in hell Epifany is gonna be able to pull that overhead blouse across her mighty bust! But Epifany, a small Quechua woman with long, black braids and a round, smiley face, keeps pulling and wrestling until everything falls where it belongs.
A smell of sweat from the well-used blouse rises to Sally’s nose – that’s too much!
I laugh, too, even though I’m not in the best mood; Sally and must be sharing.
Of all people.
On this 2-day trip of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, I was supposed to do a homestay with the same family as Pablo, but as they had only one room available, I took the American lady’s place (an arrangement I’m not very happy about).
At least, the island is pretty, as far as I can tell after following our hosts, women in colorful skirts and black shawls, up a green hillside dotted with stone terraces and Inca-style pathways.
The Amantaní Island is a large, green hill ascending like a turtles’ shell from the depths of Titicaca waters. It has a couple of villages along its slopes and an ancient shrine at the top. The views are breathtaking – essentially, layers of a light blue, a brown, a sparkling white and a deep blue.
The room me and Sally are sharing is small and simple, just like the whole house we’re staying at. It has no electricity, running water, or heating – light is supplied by kerosene lamps, water by a well in the garden, heating by a pile of thick, wool blankets.
A hand-woven rug decorates an earthen floor, and crocheted curtains decorate tiny, cell-style windows. Outside, there’s a backyard with a black kitchen, a vegetable garden with patches of corn, potatoes and quinoa, and an outhouse.
The first thing we do on our arrival is handing over the gifts we bought for the family in the port of Puno this morning, mostly foodstuff like flour, sugar and rice.
Lunchtime. The kitchen is a small, dark room with hay on the ground, wooden shelves on the walls and a plastic bucket for dishes next to the open fireplace. Running around are guinea pigs.
We’re served the local staple, a quinoa soup, and potatoes with vegetables and a fried egg. Tiny, wobbly stools serve as seats. There are no tables – what for, when you can use your knees?!
Epifany and her husband keep apologizing for their modest home, I keep dismissing it. Sally keeps commenting on everything – that we look like a tribal family gathered together by fire in a cave.
She’s kind of right – everything about this ‘ancestral’ place feels strangely familiar. The sounds of spoons clinking against the plates, the squeals of guinea pigs rustling in the hay, the flickering light of the fire on the walls. As if time did a U-turn.
After lunch comes a mandatory hike around the island.
The cobblestone pathway we’re climbing along is one of many on this island with no roads and cars. Running in all directions across serene hillsides with eucalyptus and cypress trees are lines of walled terraces, built thousands of years ago by the first local Quechua.
The lake stretching around is enormous, the size of Puerto Rico or Cyprus, an endless surface of a dark blue. It’s the world’s highest large lake, a mythical place where Andean civilization began. That and the unknown that surrounds it, it being the home to some of the greatest cultures of the ancient world, have always drawn people’s fascination.
And the legend of an Inca treasure buried in it.
“Tons of gold the Incas threw in the lake so the Spaniards won’t find them,” exclaims the Australian guy. “A golden chain 800 feet long and as thick as a man’s wrist, among other things! Just imagine finding it!”
First, he’d have to solve the problem of diving for two thousand feet at a sea level of twelve thousand feet, informs him John, or bring his own decompression chamber.
“You’re such a detailist!”
The pathway ends with a tall stone arch, which is the only thing separating me from the steep dive the path takes from here all the way down to the main village.
Waters glittering with light, glaciers poking the sky, terraces gracing the hillsides – no one passes under the arch without taking a picture first.
Silhouetting in the distance is Taquile Island, one of the three iconic islands on this side of the lake, our goal tomorrow.
The most famous of them are the Floating Islands inhabited by a unique indigenous group that, according to legend, migrated to the area of Lake Titicaca thousands of years ago from the Amazon. Unable to find land of their own, they were forced to live on water, where they built small islands using local totora reed.
The islands look like giant straw mattresses, and walking on them this morning on our way here felt like walking on spongy ground that rocks like a waterbed. It was so unusual it took a while to get used to it.
Short men in black pants were busy repairing the reeds’ rotting bottom layers, chubby women in gypsy skirts were busy preparing food on stone fireplaces. Scattered around were a dozen cute reed huts with solar panels and totora souvenirs, laid out on the ground before them.
How can they take the cold in those doll-like houses?, was what I couldn’t stop thinking about, until I learnt that the Uros people don’t feel cold because they have black blood.
We took a ride in one of the balsas, traditional reed boats made famous in the 1970’s by the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who tried to prove by sailing in one of them that ancient civilizations from all over the world had made long sea voyages in similar reed or papyrus boats, establishing contacts with each other long before the traditional anthropology admits.
Extraordinary feats, both the islands and Heyerdahl’s crossings of the ocean.
The square of the main village is lined with pastel-colored houses and a sturdy, red-roofed church. Pointing to a distant horizon at its center is the statue of Manco Capac, the legendary founder of Cusco and the Inca Empire.
Following his direction, I end up outside a local handicrafts store.
Sitting on stone benches all around are old, village men, knitting.
I stare at them, not knowing what to think.
And the guys just carry on, knitting, purling, slipping, casting on.
And chatting and laughing, as if this was the most normal thing in the world!
And it is, at least on this island where knitting is men’s work.
It’s so important for them that they learn it at the age of 8.
The thing is, without that skill, they’ll never get themselves a wife since local ladies are pretty fussy about marrying a guy who can’t knit.
To win their heart, the guys have to take a test consisting of knitting a hat so solid no water drips through it. This way, by drinking the water out of it in front of their future fathers-in-law, they prove they’re accomplished knitters, which is a quality considered the foremost in a man!
Hey, what’s up, social media feminists and gender equality activists?!
We, too, have received from Epifany’s husband a gift of chullo, an Andean alpaca beanie, with a pompom at the top and ear flaps on the sites. He knit them in a special pattern, and we’re supposed to wear them all day long so his family can tell us apart from other visitors.
Do we really look all the same to them?!
When I leave the store, an old man in a black hat sweeping the square shouts at me. He’s pointing to a woman, collapsed on the wide stairway by the wall.
“I just wanted to sit down in the shade a bit and stretch my legs, tired from all the walking,” she explains while I help her lean back against the tall wall that takes up one side of the square.
Then the group of old geezers showed up, knitting needles in their hands.
“They looked with their black pants, white shirts, black vests and those colorful chullos with huge pompoms like some characters out of a Walt Disney movie! No way in hell I was gonna pass up a chance like that,” Sally jumped to her feet and got the camera ready.
At that moment, an agonizing pain shot through her body, doubling her up like a folding chair. The pain was so intense and unexpected, it knocked her back down onto the staircase and kept her nailed there.
As fast as it came, it went away.
“Probably just an irritated bladder,” she breathes out slowly, trying not to move. Caused by using the family’s bloody outhouse, draughty like an English castle!
“The wind was blowing through the cracks in the boards so bad I lost all sensation in my thighs and fanny. And the damn toilet had no seat on it!”
One of the perks of living like a Mennonite, I say, and she laughs.
Feeling a bit better, she decides to head back and take some rest before “the whole thing has any chance to blow up.”
I get up with her; looks like my hike around the island is over, too.
On our way out, Sally nods thanks to the old man in the black hat on the square. But he just grumbles something to himself and continues sweeping.
Up yours too, Sally mumbles back.
Since the houses on the island are kept unlocked, we don’t need a key to get in. Epifany makes Sally a tea of muña, a medicinal plant with small minty leaves that is great for digestion problems and general well-being.
Sally climbs on her bed, bathed in sunlight, and closes her eyes.
When she opens them again, the sun is gone.
She looks at her watch, confused. 3 pm!
She slept for over 2 hours!
She sits up and reaches for her clothes. The next thing she knows, she’s on her knees on the floor by the bed, seized by a violent spasm. A steel fist is clutching at her abdomen, squeezing it like a teat. She’s gasping for air.
After an eternity of pure hell, the pain’s gone. Only the runaway heartbeat proves it really happened.
Epifany and I are sitting in the small yard outside, scraping potatoes for dinner.
“Everything’s all right?” I ask when Sally comes out.
“Well, I’m ok but no parties for me any time soon,” Sally says with a trembling voice. “My bladder is still a bit irritated. I took some pills but for the peace of my mind – do they have a doctor on the island?”
I turn to Epifany. She shakes her head and smiles, the smile accentuating her distinct red cheeks caused by higher red cell concentration, as revealed my guidebook.
“They had a doctor assigned here by the government, but no one ever went to see him. Except during festivals, when men got plastered, fell off the terraces and broke their bones. After a year or so, the doctor went back to the peninsula and never returned.”
“What do they do for medical care, then?” Sally continues.
“There’s a curandero on the island, a shaman who does home visits.”
“Yeah, a healer is what they call them here in the Andes. They’re experts on herbs, and heal by connecting with the higher world,” I explain and point with my chin to the house door.
Sally has to run her eyes across the frame several times before she notices a dried llama fetus, hanging from it.
“They bury llama fetuses under foundations of new houses, or hang them above doors as a protective amulet. People believe it brings happiness, good health and fertility to the house and its residents.”
Sally’s eyes stop on Epifany’s apron, covering an advanced pregnancy.
“How on earth do they give birth here?!”
“Midwives,” I translate.
“And if there’s complications?”
“There’s never any. At least Epifany doesn’t remember.”
Epifany keeps talking.
“When she was pregnant with her first son, a doctor in Puno told her that the baby was facing the wrong way. That she’d have to give birth in a hospital. She and her husband didn’t want to and got scared. Not knowing what to do, they turned to a local curandero. He ran his hands over Epifany’s belly for a a bit, turning the baby into the right position. She had a problem-free birth at home.”
Sally opens her mouth to say that a dried animal embryo, bringing good luck, is a folk superstition and that wrongly positioned babies often spontaneously turn, but changes her mind. The handful of pills she’s taken are finally kicking in, and she’s feeling real goood.
“Back in Cuzco, they still have hospitals and doctors, right?”
“If you wait till tomorrow, we can even get you an English-speaking one,” I smile. “And if not, don’t worry, the curandero has always your back!”
Sally forces a laugh.
I can see she looks much better now which is good – we have a busy night ahead.
A night that starts with a soccer game between the team of locals and the team of tourists. It is done and over with surprisingly quickly. The score? 12:2 for the local team!
“You’ll always outplay them in drinking beers!” Sally won’t stop rooting for our players moving on the field like TB patients on a walk test.
(That’s what thirteen thousand feet above sea level will do to you, if you try to move faster than a lawnmower.)
That she overdid it a bit with the pills, she realizes at dinner, when she won’t stop shuffling potatoes around her plate. She’s got a couple of them – a red one, a purple one, an orange one, a yellow one, and if she didn’t know this black fattie was a potato, too… she’s hooting with laughter. Or this long curved one….
The community dance hall is situated right next to the soccer ground. It’s a large room with a black lacquered ceiling, yellow-painted walls and a concrete floor. It has a small stage in the corner, where a local band of musicians are tuning their instruments.
Uno, dos, tres! The leader of the band gives a nod with his head, and the musicians strike up their pan flutes, quena flutes, bombo drums and charango guitars.
It’s eight o’clock and the dance has just started!
Our hostesses wearing richly embroidered costumes and tire sandals are sitting across the dance floor from us. They’re shy yet brimming with anticipation – they love to dance!
Local dances turn out surprisingly simple. Standing opposite each other, you either hold each other’s hands and shuffle your feet forth and back to the music, or – in a more sophisticated version of it – lunge your body forward with one leg bent at the knee and the other stretched behind.
(Kind of looking like group wedding dances when everyone’s hammered.)
Sally gets up to get a beer. She’s been craving one for ages now, a nicely chilled, frosty Cusqueña. Who would blame her – after all the dancing she’s done with Epifany, her mouth feels like a dry llama embryo!
A long snake of dancers, making its way through the room; a sky covered with billions of stars of the good ol’ Milky Way; freezing air with 0% oxygen – that’s her last, clear memory.
Then flames of fire shoot up through her and tumble her to the ground. Darkness takes over, the distant drumming of her heart being the only sound permeating it.
Strong male arms wrap around her to help her walk. With every step she takes, waves of pain are sent throughout her body.
The shapes of the night float in and away from her like a ship appearing through a mist and disappearing in it again.
In the light of candles, we put her on the bed and undress her. She wants to move but can’t – there’s pressure on her chest as we keep her down. Cool air pours in, as the door keeps opening and closing casting scary, flickering shadows on the wall.
A round, moon-shaped face floats into her visual field, and stirs up familiar memories in the far spheres of her mind. She knows the face. She’s seen it countless time in souvenir shops all over Asia. The still, expressionless face lingering in higher worlds.
Now it comes to life. The eyes are but two dark slits, the mouth a brown ring emitting dense, aromatic smoke. A slow, monotonous singing floats above the room, its deep, hoarse sounds making her feel strangely reassured.
She catches a sliding movement around her body – something soft is being rubbed against her.
She cringes. And again. It tickles. Someone is touching her abdomen with what feels like a silk scarf.
Now, distressed, high-pitched squeals penetrate the ocean of mist enveloping her. She looks up into the parchment of a face above her, and the singing stops.
Sally’s open yet unseeing eyes fall on me, standing at the foot of her bed. I’m mesmerized, still as a statue, staring at the scene happening right on the floor before me.
Something wet glistens back from the mirror leaning against the wall, and a red stain starts devouring the newspapers, spread out on the floor.
The man is on his knees, opening with his fingers an incision made into a tiny, furry body. In a quick motion, he reaches in, moves his hand around and rips something out.
Sparks of pain explode in front of Sally’s eyes. Before she faints, she recognizes in the man the old, grumpy guy sweeping the village square earlier that day.
Then a merciful darkness takes her.
When she comes around, she needs a bit of time to get her bearings back. It’s already morning; there’s a steaming cup on the table before her.
Still feeling numb, Sally takes a sip of the hot infusion, prepared from the herbs the curandero’s left for her, and attempts to recap the events of the last night.
She fails to. She’s not able to say what happened, what was reality and what was a product of her tortured imagination. In this bright, sunny morning, everything just seems so… surreal.
She looks around the room, pausing on the mirror and the floor by the bed; no indications whatsoever of any witchcraft happening here last night.
I’m not much help – knowing her attitude towards the unscientific, I prefer to flee to the kitchen.
All that matters right now is that she’s feeling good. Better than ever before, as she put it. No trace of cramps, pain, hot flames. Nothing. Even the occasional feeling of an uncomfortable heaviness on her lungs from too much smoking has disappeared.
Probably just a bad case of a bladder infection, she decides, or an inflamed colon, the whole thing.
Yet… there is one guinea pig missing in the kitchen.
Her eyes slide down; and a clay mug placed under her bed, filled with water and a broken egg.
To absorb the bad energy of the “mal de ojo,” explains Epifany. Of the “evil eye.”
Right, Sally grins, I had a curse put on me, didn’t I?
I promise to keep the whole thing to myself. Not that it really matters – our tour ends here. From Puno, we all fly out to our separate destinations.
All but me – I’ll be leading my first independent tour of South America, a tour that starts in Bolivia and ends in Brazil.
Makes sense, Pablo says over a mug of huajsapata, a local cocktail made of hot red wine, pisco, cinnamon and cloves. Makes sense to be trained on Peru and run tours of Bolivia and Brazil.