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New Year over Lake Titicaca


It’s five a.m. on the 31st December and Puno, a lakeside town in southeast Peru, is stirring. Coral pinks and tropical aquamarines creep into the sky. As I slowly come to life, I gaze up at the rafters tied with strips of llama skin and try to guess which sound will break the silence first. Closely following the dawn chorus of birds come the cries of children playing an impromptu soccer game by the railroad tracks.

An Altiplano home

I watch them through the window. The game includes all ages of children, and I’m relieved to see that the small children are swooped out of the action zone when the game moves their way. We have electricity in the hotel as do most of the houses here, but old habits die hard and this is a land that starts the day when the first light appears. The one-room dwellings where many of these families live aren’t big enough for playing inside, so the kids are outside as soon as it is light. Having heated and lighted space for leisure is a luxury we take for granted. The traders, too, are already arriving and setting up their stalls on the sidewalk, first laying down the cerise and blue woven cloths that serve women as baby slings, backpacks, and, now, a cloth on which to arrange their trinkets. We bartered with them yesterday to buy the yellow underwear which we plan to wear at midnight tonight, a Peruvian tradition to bring good luck for the New Year.

Before we start on the day’s adventures, we enter the dining room and find an enormous table spread with red and orange cloths. The smiling staff help us to a cornucopia of breakfast foods: quinoa, oatmeal, maca, or wheat porridge, fresh mangoes, papaya juice, bananas, oranges, white crusty rolls, butter, strawberry jam, and strawberry yogurt. There is hot water in a thermos flask and a variety of teabags, including anise, coca, black, and lemon. We sit with our breakfast tea gazing out through the picture window at the distant mountains across the lake.

Lake Titicaca from Sillustani

We leave the hotel in a private combi, a tour bus, to go up the mountain and visit the chullpahs of Sillustani, some pre-Columbian funeral towers high above Lake Umayo. Where the Colla tribe had buried their chieftains in cairns, tombs made by piling up rocks over the corpse, the Incas had come along later and erected their masonry blocks into towers over and around the original cairns, thus forming a huge phallus over the symbolic womb that had enclosed the dead.

Scientists still have no idea how the Incas carved these huge slabs or hoisted them into these massive structures. It’s like looking at a jigsaw puzzle, seeing how the massive stones had been fitted together without modern lifting equipment. Only two of the stones that have been carved with 12 angles have ever been found, and one is here at Sillustani. The other is at Macchu Piccu.

The tour guide, Jesus, encourages us to crawl through one of these towers, first through the phallic outer shell and then passing through the womb-like cairn. There’s an awful symbolism in acting out this fertility rite and becoming reborn on the last day of the old year. Maybe it’s the influence of the puma, the condor, and the serpent whose recurring images belong to the ancient religion of Peru, but I spend a lot of time here thinking about symbols and spirits.

The scenery is akin to that of my native Pennine mountains in Britain, albeit on a much larger scale. There’s purple blooming heather and tufts of moorland grass, faded, and bleached at the tips. Alpacas graze alongside sheep and are accompanied by shepherds holding the large crooks that have been used since ancient times for hooking lambs that have got into difficulties in ditches or holes. When we hiked to the top of one hill, the weather turned stormy and we saw a shepherd sheltering from the lightning and rain by sitting in the lee of a drystone wall. These walls were built to form fields or sheepfolds where the animals could be herded at night to keep them safe, or at shearing time. It’s an ancient art and skill to construct drystone walls and in Europe, the skill is dying. The stones have to be carefully balanced on top of one another so that the walls are strong and sturdy, but also so that the wall does not resist the wind but instead allows it to blow through the cracks. The old shepherd sitting patiently in the shelter of this wall has deeply etched lines on his face that suggest he’s hoed a hard row all his life. He has a timeless quality that calls forth primal memories. The image of shepherds tending their flocks resonates throughout our culture. His passivity makes him part of the wall, as he waits for an angel bearing good tidings to appear.

Sillustani funeral towers over Titicaca

It’s easy to indulge the fantasy of being lost in time and space, of being back in a purely agricultural society. We saw more of these age-old scenes with women or children watching the herds of llama. When we gave an eight-year old shepherdess some fresh fruit, she told us her name was Vanessa. I wondered what she thought of all day long as she watched the herd. At my age, the highlands seem like a great place for meditation, but I can’t imagine any children I know being content to be so alone with the sky, and the mountain spirits, and the beasts. To me, it’s never boring, for you only have to turn a few degrees and you see a different view. The air is so clear that you can see for miles into the distant peaks and the gently moving clouds throw shadows on the mountains as though trying out a different garb. I can imagine the sky asking: Do you like it this way, or that? Our cameras never stop whirring with this ever changing panorama. Later, as I review my 700+ photos, I ponder the modern dilemma of recording an experience rather than living it. My soul might have benefited more from a day like Vanessa’s, spent alone with the mountains and clouds, rather than from trying to record visual images.

Human remains in a sacred cave

The indigenous peoples buried their dead high in the mountains, in caves on inaccessible peaks. They believed that the dead could get closer to the spirit of the mountain that way. A more practical reason for not burying them might be that all the arable land was needed for cultivation, but I like to think of the caves being full of benign ancestors looking down on us. Families used to visit them once a year, taking food and gifts—and maybe they still do, for it would be hard to forget the dead when they’re perched high above you.

We bring gifts to the living, handing out chalks, pens, flashlights, candy, fruit, and sunscreen to kids who have few material goods. In return, they pose for photographs. We learn to recognize the posers, the cute little girls who know that if they clutch a lamb and gaze winsomely at us, we’ll surely take their photograph and give them a few coins. Even if they have never heard of Little Bo Peep, the pose of shepherdess comes naturally to them. They hug the lambs and cradle them as though they were dolls.

A shepherdess in highland Peru

Llamas, potatoes, and corn, that’s just about what life boils down to in rural Peru. On the way down the mountain, our tour guide stops at a shepherd’s compound. He describes a day in his life for our benefit and, then, as he’s a shaman, he prepares a New Year’s Eve spell for us. The compound consists of two one-roomed dwellings linked by a fireplace and is surrounded by a wall. The living quarters are low, small, and dark: one for his daughter and her family and one for him, his wife and two boys. The homes are built of dried mud blocks and they remind me of the wattle and daub cottages of medieval England. The only light is a thread of llama skin that has been coated in tallow, like the wick of a giant candle, dangling from the ceiling. One side of the hut is taken up with a bed in which the family sleeps. The other has the loom and pieces of fabric and rugs made from llama wool, which the shepherd works on while there is light. His wife’s bridal and communion shawl hangs up there, a finely embroidered and fringed piece that looks incongruous in this smoky setting. The shaman has also hung up his daughter’s school certificates here; it’s the family parlor with treasures on display.

I buy a rug from the shaman because it reminds me of the ones my grandmother used to make. She spent hours pulling strands of wool through hessian backings. When she was alive, I didn’t appreciate the love and toil she had put into her many-colored rugs and did not want to display them. My new llama rug is beige, brown, and black, the natural colors of the llamas, and it won’t go with my color scheme. Yet, it means more to me, having seen the whole production process, than the mass-produced stuff that I can readily buy. This shepherd has clipped the wool, which is only done every two years, spun it, and woven it into a rug. It retains the smoky smell of his house.

Modest rewards from witchdoctoring

After the shaman has demonstrated his deadly accuracy with a slingshot and a rock that could kill a person as well as marauding pumas, he offers us his food. There is a wheel of creamy llama cheese that looks like Brie but is a little chalkier. Unfortunately, there is no crusty bread and red wine, but there are homegrown potatoes, small and knobbly from the rocky ground. If there’s one thing Peru does well, it’s potatoes—there are hundreds of varieties. After the repast, the shaman offers us some gray clay that’s supposed to help with digestion and then he gets on with the spells. He burns herbs and ground powders in a handmade bowl and makes sure we each inhale the fragrance and immerse ourselves in the smoke. He asks where we’re from and sends blessings bouncing back to Tennessee for my husband and I, Lima for our son, and Scotland for our daughter. Once again, I’m too busy with the camera to fully absorb the rites and his chants. Will I never learn to trust my memory and enter fully into the experience, rather than distancing myself through the lens?

I think the view from this mountain and the visit to the shaman/shepherd might be my favorite of all we’ve seen. It’s a fitting end to an old year. Our guide has told us that the dead were always left in caves from which there were magnificent views. I like that idea and I like the thought of the dead looking down on us, not from an intangible heaven, but from a cave in the mountain. I’ve felt very close to my dead, to my father and my grandmother all day long.

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