The first time I ever camped outdoors; the first time I watched a fragile sheet of ice crack under my breath and slide down the wall of our tent, was right above Tinqi at 14,000 feet in the Andes beside the glaciers of Ausengate. Until then, I’d never lived out of stuff-sacks or burrowed into a sleeping bag at night; never considered bliss to be dry socks and warm feet; and never dreamed of living more than a few blocks away from a Chinese restaurant.
Peter and I were circumnavigating Ausengate – ‘doing anthropology,’ as he called it: trying to find people and a setting for our first documentary. A professional climbing guide, Peter carried both my pack and his on our first day out, and by the time we hiked a few hours from Tinqi to Upis – up from 12,000 feet to 14,500 – he had a headache; the first and only time he said, that altitude ever affected him. Upis consisted of vast fields of stubby-grass and frothy hot springs, carved up by rivers and boulders that leapfrogged skywards into vertical walls of snow. A few thatched houses and stone corrals popped out of the ground here and there, the only hint of human life.
No sooner had we pitched the yellow dome tent – I’d never snapped a tent pole into line or pounded a peg into the ground – and pumped the little kerosene stove – another first – than a small crowd of campesinos gathered round the open flap, hungrily. Women and girls dressed in black dirndl skirts with sweaters of neon pink gazed and giggled, holding their fists in front of their mouths and breaking into shy smiles whenever they caught my eye or Peter’s. They looked like they had lampshades over their heads: black, velvet pancakes with colourful tassels draped around the rim.
‘Why are they here?’ I asked Peter. I suddenly wanted privacy, to drink something hot and go to sleep.
‘Actually they’re asking the same question.’ Peter nursed his headache, stretching out on his mat near the opening of the tent while I stirred bricks of chocolate and powdered milk in a pot of water, waiting for the boil. Peter had worked in the Andes for three years, climbing mountains and doing fieldwork in anthropology, but this area was new to him. The setting sun warmed our nylon cocoon, golden and glittery in contrast to the chilling blues of dusk creeping over the distance.
‘We’re in their living room. We’ve pitched a tent in their living room,’ Peter said. I pictured my childhood home, a split-level house on the Southside of Chicago, filled with a small crowd of campesinos camped out on the carpet beside the sofas.
‘Well, we better give them something to eat.’
‘Right. But don’t just give it to them. It’s better to trade.’ Peter spoke to a man with a bundle on his back, dressed in synthetic pants and no shoes. Reaching for our food bag Peter said, ‘We’ll make them a pot of oatmeal right now and give them rice to take home. Tomorrow that man will bring some potatoes.’
That was how we met Cayetano – standing around our tent in his living room. Cayetano was different from other campesinos. He had a heart-shaped face and olive-black eyes that gleamed when he talked and revved with interest when he listened, as if to say, ‘Show me! Teach me! Take me! Bring me!’ Twenty-three years old with three tiny children and a wife who spoke only Quechua, Cayetano lived near his parents on the other side of Upis, half an hour’s walk away.
I spent my first two days in the mountains listening to Cayetano ask questions as though he were a prisoner from another century. How did Peter climb up peaks? (We showed him the ice axe). How did we get so much money? (We explained the world’s economy). What could he do, to be able to climb the mountain and have money too? (Peter offered to take him climbing, for a start.)
Ten years earlier Cayetano’s family lived and worked like serfs for the owners of their land. Overnight after a coup, haciendas became peasant cooperatives and Cayetano’s father, a respected elder named Julian, flew to the capital city of Lima to represent his people and their land interests. Until then Julian had rarely ridden a truck to Cusco or spent a night in a house with electric lights. Suddenly Cayetano’s childhood swung from one of little hope for change to a future filled with possibilities. As if hatching a scheme, Cayetano seized on us to form a relationship with him by inviting us to stay with his family when we finished our trek around the mountain.
If I didn’t have such a passion for making films; if I hadn’t planned so long to work with Peter in Peru, I’d have quit that trek around Ausengate and gone back to Chicago. Walking at high altitudes made me woozy; walking alone, defenseless. I couldn’t keep pace, couldn’t tell a ditch from a trail, couldn’t recognise the planet; and couldn’t interest Peter in slowing down enough to comprehend my response to the place he treated like his home-away-from-home.
Led by an arriero named Nasario who packed our gear on his horse, Peter wanted to keep Nasario happy (he knew the trails). Nasario wanted to keep the horse happy (by crossing grounds with plenty to graze and drink). And I didn’t think I could be happy until both of them stopped and spoke these words to me: ‘Princess! Princess from Chicago! Welcome to the Land of Ringing Ears! Hold hands now and don’t breathe too fast. Take it real, real slow.’
On the morning of our third sunny day of six hours of walking – just before climbing our second 17,000 foot pass – I sat down in a field overlooking a small lake and told Peter I simply couldn’t move. Nasario stopped nearby, examining the sole of his shoe.
‘I can’t go on. Not another day.’
‘What do you mean you can’t go on? You’re walking.’
‘It’s too beautiful. It’s going by too fast.’
‘We’ll slow down. I won’t go ahead where you can’t see me anymore. I promise.’
‘No. I’m missing everything.’
‘We’ll take more breaks.’
‘I can’t move.’
‘You mean physically?’
‘I just can’t move. I have to stay here. I have to see this.’
I pointed to the transparency a hundred meters below me, hypnotically-blue: a lake. It could have been stocked with colourful fish, tropical flowers and diamonds. Real pink flamingos lazed along the edges. I pointed to the horizon spreading in every direction with green meadows and grazing llamas, encircled by orange and brown dunes rolling like pastry cream into bedrock and glaciers; all blindingly clear and focused to infinity in the haze-free air, higher than anywhere on the continental U.S. My ears stung, probably from the pressure, and the veins in my temples throbbed, maybe from never having been anywhere that didn’t cut off my peripheral vision. I blamed the beauty for paralysing me and the air, burning hot and shivery to the bone. Stricken with quiet and radiance that beat palpably in my eyes and ears, I splayed my arms and legs across the ground. Even the horse quit grazing to look up at me.
Night skies in the Andes never sleep. Stars shoot sideways and drop, leaving trails. Sometimes the Big Dipper hangs so low on the horizon you want to jump back, in case it lands at your feet. And every night another planet bulges in a new shade of red or green. When Andean people look at the sky they don’t just trace lines from star to star. They watch the spaces in between, spaces made up of interstellar dust called dark clouds. Dark clouds are filled with information. They take the shape of condors, foxes, llamas or toads and change with the seasons, telling people when it’s time for a sacred ritual, or time to sow potatoes. That’s one of the ways Andean people see the world: they bring meaning to negative space.
While I could barely distinguish rocky pastures from potato fields, or stone boundaries from distant creeks, or the true dimensions of hillocks, boulders and fields of scree, people here not only understood the night sky, they had every corner of the land mapped out in their heads and named according to their sacred meaning. Mountain spirits known as Apus decided how much snow would fall in winter and how high the rivers would swell in spring. All year long the Apus talked to each other, plotting people’s fortunes; plotting the outcome of the harvest.
One night several weeks after our first trek around Ausengate, when we’d settled into the stone house where he stored potatoes, Cayetano, Peter and I stepped out into the freezing air. Our heads turned upwards and we stared. The sky exploded with constellations, galaxies and racing stars. I tried to imagine what Cayetano thought and saw when he looked at the stars, compared to how little or how much I knew.
‘Tell me Compadre,’ Cayetano broke the silence. ‘A man has walked on the moon, right?’ Peter answered affirmatively and we turned our eyes to the moon, bright but pockmarked like a chocolate chip cookie. I imagined Neil Armstrong walking up there, like balancing on a silver dollar.
‘Compadre,’ he said, shifting his feet from side to side, ‘Just tell me one more thing I want to know. Is there pasture on the moon?’
Epilogue: Fast forward since the 80s when we first met him and today Cayetano Crispin is known as a great guide around Ausengate. He has a small hotel in Tinqi and a vehicle. Findable on Google.