The Andean Diaries

 

 

Buenos Aires and the New World

We have left Europe behind. Everything we know, all the crusades, the world wars, the feel of home, even the Mediterranean is behind us. And now we were somewhere new. An alien world that bears traces of where we come from. We don’t feel like travellers we feel like extraterrestrials.

But as the taxi drives us into the skyscraper-studded panoramas of that Paris of the Americas, Leila, my daughter, and I, look at each other and we know: these extraterrestrials won’t be feeling homesick anytime soon.

We spent nearly a week in Buenos Aires. Most of our time was spent in the effervescent streets of La Boca. Leila was hypnotized by the swirling mass of colours – “can we paint our house like that, can we, can we please!”

Our house? The phrase cast a dagger-shaped shadow over my heart. Leila wouldn’t be living with me anymore. Or, to be more legally appropriate: I won’t be living with Leila and her mother anymore. Our divorce battle was a bullfight and guess who was the bull? Fucking yours truly.

But this isn’t about divorce. This is about Leila’s dream trip.

During the evenings we ventured out to restaurants near our hotels where we feasted on the famous Argentinian beef and ate so much of it that I needed free-flowing amounts of Fernet Branca to stomach it. It says something about a people whose national drink is a pungent, foul-tasting Italian grenade. A disgustingly effective panacea.

But this trip wasn’t about eating and drinking: Leila, my straight-haired, olive-skinned daughter, was here for nature. Now I know many ten-year-old girls love nature. But my girl’s smart. Real smart. She’s not the girl who loves ponies, puppies and poppies. No, my girl loves natural selection, adaptation, biodiversity, survival of the fittest – hell, nature is Leila’s big-as-fuck doll-house!

And I love her for it. I love her, and… I miss her already.

Buenos Aires is a good city for parks. We went to the Japanese Botanical Gardens and walked along the promenade of the Palermo district. It all felt so strangely familiar. Too familiar for Leila, I could tell. We’d been abroad to Europe before, and Leila was feeling disappointed that we flew halfway across the world for familiar. “It’s like we took the world’s longest detour to get to Paris!” She argued. So after only a few days, we left Buenos Aires. The city of good winds. But we both felt, somehow, in some point in our lives, that we would return. We had that feeling – that duende.

The Long, Long Road into the Wild

I don’t know why I’m writing this. Well I kinda do. My daddy’s a journalist and he told me I should write a diary of this journey so one day I could publish it. I know what he means – but I don’t want to waste time writing! Daddy, I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be a journalist like you.

Ok, so, here goes: we took a long, long, long… bus ride down to a place called Peninsula Valdes. There daddy said we’d see lots of whales. Whales – wow! It was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. We saw huge southern right whales there and we got so close I almost touched one.

They breached close to our overcrowded boat. We were wearing life-jackets and I was sooo tempted to just jump into the water with them. They literally fly out of the water, it’s like watching the Titanic just raise itself out of the surface then sinking back down. I loved it; especially when they ‘sailed’.

That’s a trick only southern right whales do, when they elevate and curve their tails above the surface and just hold it there, as if they’re sunbathing their tail. Scientists don’t know why they do this but maybe it’s just a game they play. Whales are such playful animals. From then on I promised myself never to stop playing games. I mean, if whales that huge could play games, why should I stop playing them when I ‘grow up’.

From the whales we took another long, long, long… bus ride further south, towards the big glacier park in Patagonia. To kill time on the way, I got my daddy to play all sorts of games. Truth or dare. Would you rather. And yes, even Eye Spy. Sorry, daddy.

But he didn’t seem to mind. He was so enthusiastic about everything. He looks really happy. Which isn’t nice, maybe. He’s leaving Ma. So, maybe he shouldn’t be happy. I asked him, when neared the park and huge mountains came into view: “daddy, are you happy?”

And what he said really made sense to me: “of course I am – I’m with you.”

That made me almost as happy as when we saw the big, blue glaciers!

 

The Land of Gauchos and Nazis

There is a defiant eloquence to the gaucho’s way of life. You almost feel like humanity lost something irretrievable when we left behind this lifestyle. The work is damned hard. The climate unforgiving. But when you know a night bursting with radiant stars, and the best barbequed meat on earth is waiting for you at the end of each day, everything is made easier.

Leila loved horse-riding along a landscape so vast, yet caged in by mysterious mountains. She was so curious, as well. She asked the gauchos all types of questions about the animals that lived there. And when they mentioned the puma, god, she was in dreamland.

One night, as I drank mate outside under the Milky Way, I watched her sleeping in her tent. I wondered: will she remember all this when she’s older? But that was a disingenuous thought. That’s not why I’m doing this. I want her, and I know this sounds Romantic (capital R), I want her to defy the court’s orders and come and live with me.
I don’t want to have to see her weekends, as if one of us was a prisoner. She’s my daughter, my flesh and blood. I want to sing her lullabies not write her the Ballad of Reading fucking Gaol.

Oscar Wilde was wrong when he wrote: each man kills the thing he loves. I feel like I’m being killed by the thing I love.

I stayed up all night. I was surrounded by the grand mystery, but all I could really feel were my own petty doubts.

When we made the rocky, mountainous crossing into Chile, cutting through the majestic, ghostly Andes, our first port of call was Puerto Montt. And if Buenos Aires was Paris then Puerto Montt was Berlin.

A city founded during the German influx in the 1850’s during a time of revolution and upheaval in Germany, it has grown and prospered due to its strategic location and recently it went through another growth spurt, due to the world’s almighty obsession with any kind of Chilean fish.

Leila loved using Puerto Montt as a base to explore the surrounding landscapes; from the Chiloe Archipelago to the Nahuel Huapi lakes. But she didn’t like Puerto Montt and didn’t fancy staying there long.

And, in fairness to her, the city wasn’t the major problem. It was more the owner of the small hotel we stayed in.

Sometimes, being a journalist brings out the urge for confession in people. Journalists make the best priests, I’ve often said. And that’s not always something desirable. The owner of our 2-star hotel was an old man called Oscar Westenhöfer. When, during a sad, 2-star breakfast, he found out I was a journalist travelling through South America, he called me outside with impeccable discretion.

We stood outside in the cold morning. I didn’t even have my jacket on. To allay my cold Oscar offered me a cigarette. It felt like putting a frost-bitten finger to my lips. Then, he drew close to me, and said: “I’m a Nazi, you know.”

How is a man, any man, supposed to reply to such a comment? I must have missed that in my Lonely Planet guidebook.

“You see, my father, he was a big man in the S.S. and at the end of the War he fled and came here.” Was he putting on an even harsher German accent just for me? I felt intimidated. “I grew up in Chile, but my heart belongs to the Fatherland. I say this proudly, you see. Though, of course, I have to be careful who hears me. But: if you want to write about me, yes, please, I mean, write about me.”

He began to tell me his father’s stories. He recounted with pride how his father helped ‘disappear’ people in the night, and how he once served as a guard at Dachau. And when he began to go into the details of the dead, naked, emaciated Jewish bodies -“like tattooed matchsticks, ya!”- I stiffened up and excused myself and told him I had to go back to my daughter. He patted me on the back and no matter how hard I showered later, I couldn’t wash off the feel of his dirty, sodden fingers.

When I told Leila about him, she freaked out and wanted to leave. I agreed.

And I would soon learn that the kind of racial supremacy advocated by the Nazis was still alive and well all over South America.

 

A Detour to the Far South

It was another long journey south after Puerto Montt. I was glad to leave that creepy doll-city behind. And despite the never-ending travel, the hours-long bus ride to Punta Arenas, than another three hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, and then yet another three hours to Torres del Paine, we finally arrived!

But all the travelling was worth it. Torres del Paine is the most beautiful place that can ever exist. I so want to live there. We saw a lot of guanacos everywhere. They’re unbelievably cute! And we also saw a puma in one of the mountain ranges. My dad and I were hiking on our own and we were sure this puma was going to hunt us! We edged stealthily away from her territory and kept looking back over our shoulders.

(I didn’t tell my daddy this because it might make him angry, but: if that puma had eaten me up, I would have loved it!)

But daddy had his own problems. I noticed it when I told him how much I hate seeing people in an untouched place like this. And then, on one of our nights staying in a wooden lodge in the park, my daddy got drunk with a couple of indigenous men.
I don’t know what in-di-genous means. But they looked different to other South Americans. They had dark brown skin, small eyes with big, black pupils, a bulbous nose and a broad chin. And they all had black hair like the threads my Ma uses to knit scarves.
My daddy liked these people a lot. The men he drank with in the park – I think they worked there or something – wore big red and black ponchos and bell-shaped hats. But my daddy, he drank too much with them. Later that night I had to stay with him as he vomited in the bathroom.

When he felt better he went to lie down on the bed. Outside our window we could see the stars shining over the nearby mountains. I wanted to go to sleep and dream of pumas and stars but my daddy told me to sit next to him on the bed. His breath stank something nasty but his eyes had a sweet, puppy-dog look to them.

“I’m sorry about tonight, Leila. I’ve not been a good daddy.”

“It’s – ”

“ – This is why your Ma wants to leave me, you know.” He turned his face away and I could hear him sniffling. I put my hand in his. “Don’t ever be like me, Leila. Do something with your life. Help people. Like the indigenous people here. They have such a hard life. They were conquered by the Spanish 500 years ago and still they live like slaves in their own land. It’s not fair. And no one says anything. Do something for them, Leila, make them your purpose.”

His words became ever more slurred until he finally fell asleep. He never gave me the chance to tell him: daddy, I don’t like people. When I grow up, I want to help nature. I want to be a naturalist like David Attenborough. People scare me. Daddy… I’m sorry.

(I’m such a bad daughter.)

 

Santiago and Valparaiso

“He was the man, no doubt of it, without heritage,
Without cattle, without a flag.”

“Is that Neruda, daddy?”

“You’re right my genius.”

“What man was he talking about it?”

“The Indian, Leila.”

We went to visit Pablo Neruda’s home in Valparaiso – La Sebastiana. The day was clear, sunny and cold. And the house, like a ship moulded into an iceberg, felt open and full of wind. The same winds that blew in from the Pacific, from distant Easter Island and the ashen monoliths.

I walked around his house in a trance. For a non-religious man this is the closest thing to visiting a shrine. I hadn’t read Neruda since my university years, but now, as if on the wings of Chile’s frigid air, it all came back to me.

I remember what passion he used to stir in me, a socialistic flame that brought wicks of poetry to even the darkest alcoves. His beloved Chile, his immaculate loves, and his empathy with the underprivileged Chileans who were treated like aliens in their own ancient lands.

I am from the South, a Chilean,
A sailor
Returned
From the seas.
I did not stay in the islands,
A king.
I did not stay ensconced
In the land of dreams.
I returned to labour simply
Beside others.

Those words, which I saw written in a book in the souvenir shop, filled me with newfound passion. It’s all I’ve seen over my travels in South America. The melancholic, life-loving Indian trying to labour simply, and yet, his lands are taken away from him by kings with big dreams, his way of life still threatened and oppressed, so that his entire ocean of dreams consists of a meagre ripple. And even that is too far out of his reach.
And yet, here I am, pitying myself because I never made it as a big-time journalist. Was that always my dream? Son-of-a-bitch! It wasn’t the case when I was in university. All I wanted then was long afternoons reading poetry, fighting for just causes and drinking with salt-of-the-earth people. Nothing more.

I’ve spent my whole life chasing phantoms. And now, the one thing I ever needed – simplicity, that ‘simple labour’ – is being taken away from me. My life is falling apart. All because I wanted so much more, wanted to be so many people, but never myself. I could never see the golden mines buried right under my nose. And now I’m losing it all. My family is slipping from my hands.

But maybe now it’s time to start over again. Rewind the tape. Reincarnate my dreams. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: There are no second acts in American lives.

But this, Scotty, this is South America!

We returned to our hotel in Santiago later that evening. A grim sunset poured over that rushing metropolis. The mountain peaks glowed like termite mounds as the dying sun set behind them. Our hands were full of souvenirs we had brought back from La Sebastiana as we walked from the bus station to our hotel.

As we skirted along the borders of the Parque Forestal and the imposing Fine Arts Museum we felt our bags being snatched away from us. Shocked, we looked around and saw two young, hooded men running away as fast as they could. Leila began to cry and panic. “Run after them daddy, call the police, please, do something!”

“Leila, listen, look at me: there’s nothing we can do now. Besides, if those men were desperate enough to resort to stealing, then they probably need those things more than we do.”

“But they’re just f-f-fucking souvenirs.” Her lips struggled like a hummingbird’s to force out her first ever swear word.

“They cost money, Leila. They know that.”

“But it’s not fair! Why steal from us, what did we do to them!”

“Absolutely nothing. You’re right, it’s not fair.”

I didn’t know what else to say to her. I took her in my arms and she lay her quivering cheeks on my shoulders. I rubbed her tense shoulders but she wouldn’t loosen. I’m sorry, Leila.

“Leila, you want a piggy-back ride? You do. You know you do! Come on, you’re such a good gaucho.” She smiled and as she climbed up on my shoulders she was herself again. And the world, with all its inequities and shortcomings, just melted away. Son-of-a-bitch I love this girl!

Needless to say, however, Leila wanted to leave Santiago. She didn’t even want to stay for skiing. So after only a few days there, we headed north.

 

The Longest Country in the World

I remember learning in school that Chile is the world’s longest country but I never really knew what that meant.

Now, I know.

We spent days travelling north, always north, past the Andes, down rocky coasts, through the driest desert in the world the Atacama, and in and out of cities that were half-European and half-landscape. We spent a lot of nights sleeping on buses, and in the cramped cosy cabins my daddy would read me stories before we went to sleep.
He told me stories of the Mapuche Indians, of spirits that created the cosmos, and of scary evil-rat monsters called the Colo Colo. He would also tell me about Peru, our destination, about how the Spanish defeated the Inca Empire, and how the Incas were the Romans of the Americas. I loved his stories. And I loved those nights on Chilean buses.

We got so close, but… why did he never tell me the story of why Ma and him were breaking up?

When I thought about that the dark landscape outside terrified me. It’s like that darkness blanketed my life too. I knew as much about what’s going to happen to me as I knew about the Colo Colo that roamed Chile!

Despite all the amazing things and places I’d seen in Chile, I was happy to make it to Peru.
Souvenirs of the Conquest

“Daddy, let’s invent our own high-five!” That was the first thing Leila said to me when we crossed the hard-shelled border into Peru.

“So, up high, get it, ‘cos we’re like so high up, down low, which is like the coast, now… a roundhouse-five, ‘cos, well it’s just cool.”

Imagine doing this as we rode through a never-ending highway surrounded by deserts on either side, on a bus full of locals and tourists alike. It was so ridiculously camp. But fuck it.

Peru seemed to have brought out Leila’s playfulness. I jotted down some examples because I couldn’t not:

Piggy-back rides in a barren frontier town.

A karate competition on the shores of a thin lake on a desolate roadside.

Poking our tongues out at a church in Arequipa that was elaborate as a poncho.

A cartwheel competition on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

An impromptu dance contest at the foothills of Cordillera Apolobamba.

And, perhaps most touching of all, Leila bought a hand-made, indigenous notebook from a roadside market and inside she wrote me a note, beautifully decorated and coloured, saying: “You’re the best dad ever.”

I’d never felt happier.

Yet it was a happiness full of clouds ready to burst into a horizon-shrouding rain. Will she still think the same way when she’s out of sight? Will she still be as playful when I see her on weekends? Will she still worship me when she’s living with her Ma? And if she doesn’t, what the hell do I have left?

One night, as we slept in a hostel in the Quechuan town of Pacchanta, I asked Leila, “be honest, Leila, how do you feel about your Ma and I not living together?”

“I don’t know, daddy, my heart’s too soft, I can’t understand.”

I sighed, “I wish you can stay with me.”

“It’s not up to me, is it?”

“I know.” She didn’t say it. I was fishing for it. She would only say it jokingly. But it would have meant the world to me. Daddy, I’ll run away from Ma and come live with you. Why didn’t she say it? Maybe because this is all my fault.

We stayed in Pacchanta, deep in the Andes, longer than we planned. Leila loved the mountain ranges, the guanacos that wandered everywhere, and she was delighted when we made friends with a Quechuan family and they took us into their homes, making us a beautiful meal of lamb, maize, corn and guinea-pig (though I kept them away from Leila). Then, Juanito, an eight-year-old boy, took Leila to see their animals. We spent a whole day with this incredible family.

I spent time talking with Illari, the grandmother of the family, the mater-familia, and she told me how most of the people in the village spend their days outside, that homes are merely night-time shelters and storage spaces. She took me to meet Maria, a young woman who is learning the art of writing in textiles, using a small loom and a llama bone as a pick to weave images of condors, mountains and other symbols of her life.

“You mean, this is how you tell stories, through weaving?”

“Yes, we have done this ever since we ruled this land.” Illari replied mournfully.
She told me – and later in the night I told all this to Leila – how Ausangate, the tallest mountain peak in southern Peru, was for them a sacred spirit, to whom they give offerings and attribute the bounty of their daily lives.

I asked Maria where the other young people were. Sadly, she replied they migrated into the cities, Cusco or Arequipa, to try and make a better living. “Why did you stay, Maria?”
“This is my home. I have everything I need.” When she said that I instantly hugged her. I don’t know what came over me. Luckily, she didn’t mind. If I could, I would have told Leila, let’s forget about everything and live here the rest of our lives, just you and me.
On the day of our departure Maria gave Leila a gift: a beautiful poncho with intricate weavings depicting Ausangate, a condor, a small flock of llamas and small, smiling people. Maria put it on Leila, ever so gently, and she told her, in a soft Spanish which I translated: “this poncho has the spirit of Ausangate in it, may it always protect you wherever you go.”

We left there feeling we had discovered the true heart of the Americas.

 

The Navel of the World

Cusco. Cus-co. Cuz-co. Cusico. Cusi-loco. Cuisino-loco.

Sorry, I’m bored. I’m bored waiting whilst my daddy – on the way from Pacchanta to Cusco, on a detour through the amazing Amazon – chatted with a couple of American evangelists. They were here to bring the word of What’s-His-Name to the tribes of the Amazon. My daddy took issue with this. They, in turn, were trying to convert him. And me. I was almost tempted to make the sign of the cross and sing out hallelujah just to get rid of them.

But my daddy had a better idea. He whispered in my ears: “Leila, you’ve seen the Exorcist haven’t you?” Umm, no. “Don’t mess around, I know you have. It’s alright. Just do me a favour. Act like the girl in the film. P-lease!”

And so I did. And there I was, in the Amazon rainforest, screaming at the top of my lungs, my eyes rolling, screaming ‘fuck me, fuck me’ and pretending to be noxious, to the horror of two soft-spoken American evangelists. My daddy then picked me up, threw me over his shoulder and took me away, saying to the shocked evangelists, “you see guys, she’s hopeless!”

It was great fun! My daddy’s a fun guy. I wish my Ma was fun like him.

From there we made our way to our final destination in the whole trip: Cusco. Cusco was an old city. It was grey when we got there. The colour of the skies matching the fat greyness of the old Incan buildings and the immense stones.

The history of Cusco is so overwhelming that my daddy, for the first time on the whole trip, hired a guide. I didn’t like her. She was a local Quechuan. She wrapped herself in so many layers of ponchos and shawls she looked like a walking carpet. Her voice was hoarse and manly. She was brash, her mouth never empty: she either smoked a fat cigar or chewed coca leaves. She scared me.

But daddy liked her. I think daddy liked her a lot. I don’t like it.

 

Marisol

Cuzco is a city that demands silence. Wherever you go you see the pessimistic faces of a people defeated 500 years ago and still living in the shadows of defeat. The enormous Plaza de Armas is a Baroque moon that eclipses the smell of defeat underneath its giant frame. The grey hills around Sacsayhuaman impose a timeless solitude on every stone and brick. And on the indigenous faces of the vendors in San Pedro market, you can tell that all this timelessness is taking its toll.

In Cuzco it is very easy for a traveller from distant lands to feel like he doesn’t belong. I had felt it elsewhere on our journey, but never quite as strongly. I don’t know why but Cuzco has left me speechless.

We would have left sooner than we did if it hadn’t it been for Marisol. Our guide. A Quechuan woman born and raised in Cuzco. She showed us around all the main sights. Leila looked bored and even I wasn’t taken in by Marisol’s hoarse torrent of dates, facts and names. What I was interested in were the places Marisol took us at night.

She took us to the outskirts of the city where the “ancient locals”, as Marisol called them, lived. There we met people that reminded us of the families in Pacchanca. One family brewed chicha – the Peruvian corn beer – and it felt so wonderful that I even let Leila try some. She didn’t look impressed, but bless her she was polite.

She took us to Sacred Valley, where she lived in meagre conditions with her family and there her family treated us to a feast of adobo, a pork stew made with chicha, huatia, potatoes roasted in the ground, cuy, guinea pig meat (which, again, I had to conceal from Leila), choclo con queso and of course lots of chicharrones. It was a luxurious feast for a family living in such humble conditions.

“If you can’t eat well in this shitty life, might as well bury yourself.” Marisol explained to me in her typical hurricane manner.

As the chicha began to flow Marisol, that coarse, tragic beauty – I think she was only 25! – revealed her secret talent: singing. I won’t say she sings like an angel. She’d kick the shit out of me if I did. No, she sings like an erupting volcano. Her mannish voice, however, perfectly captured the spirit of the Sacred Valley and Cuzco. It was ancient, pessimistic, yet defiant.

Leaving Leila with Marisol’s little brother, Marisol took me for a walk into the valley. We went for a long hike and we talked for hours. Marisol told me about her struggles to get work in Cuzco. She said it’s hard to get work in any industry apart from your family’s industry, unless it’s in tourism – “because there, Quechuans are the money-makers.”
She also told me how hard it was for her to be accepted even within her own community. “People say I’m a lesbian because of the way I talk and drink – and so what if I was!” I thought to myself she’s too beautiful to be a lesbian. She said, in any other country her personality would have been celebrated and admired, here it was “like some fucking taboo.”

But despite her boyish loutishness she was a fantastic listener. As we walked through the armadillo-skinned mountains she asked me about Leila and my own story. “I’ve never heard of a father travelling with his daughter halfway around the world. Why are you doing it?”

“I want to give Leila an experience she’ll never forget. An experience only I can give her.”

“So she doesn’t forget you?”

“That’s right.”

“You don’t have to worry. A daughter can never forget her father. Even when she hates him.”

“I don’t want her to hate me.”

“Shame. Because then, you’d stay with her the rest of her life.” She laughed a laugh that seemed to reverberate around the tough surface of the mountains. Who is this banshee?

Then, she said something which suddenly made her pupate into more than just a travel acquaintance: “I wish I knew a man like you before. If I did, I could tolerate everything.”
Suddenly, she was no longer a guide. I had hit travel-gold, a blackjack, a royal flush: I had fallen in love in Cuzco.

 

What I Saw in Cuzco

“Daddy, I don’t want to stay here anymore. I want to go see Machu Picchu.”

“We will tomorrow, Leila. But tonight Marisol’s family has invited us to stay with them. They’re throwing us a party and everything. It’d be rude to turn them down, don’t you see?”

I could see, of course I could. But I still hated it. The whole time daddy’s with Marisol he ignores me. And I don’t like feeling lonely so far from home. Sacred Valley became a nightmare for me. So deep and old and dark – I was suddenly homesick, like, a lot.

And I was scared my daddy would come to me next morning and say, “listen, Marisol asked us to stay another night…” then I’d lose it, I don’t care, no way!

That night, during the party, which was held at Marisol’s small, humid house, most of the street came over to drink, eat and talk. At the back of the house they had a big earthen barbeque going in the ground; whoever came over threw their food into it then everyone shared the meal. There were lots of potatoes going round, and meat, and I think – is that a guinea pig?

I must be dreaming. The altitude is playing tricks on me.

But what I saw next wasn’t a dream.

After spending some time with a newborn baby – Marisol’s cousin – I was feeling tired so I went to find my daddy. He wasn’t anywhere in the house. Nor out back near the barbeque. I was sure he’d be there. So I went outside, into the cold, star-kissed street. It was a beautiful night but also lonely.

I looked a few doors down the road and still I couldn’t find him. I was getting scared. And freezing. Where is he? He should know better than this. And then… I found him.
On the edge of the road, near the desert that crawled its way to the dark mountain… he was with Marisol… kissing, yes, I’m sure of it! I could see them in the starlight. Kissing, kissing so much – I know what I saw!

I couldn’t stand it. I ran away. To where? I couldn’t run to my room or to my Ma. In such a big, lonely place, I couldn’t find anywhere to be alone. So I ran as far as my feet could take me. I don’t know where I ended up. Up a mountain or in the desert. I don’t know. All I know is I spent the whole night there, sat with my knees up to my chin, hugging myself, and asking the stars over and over again: “why is daddy cheating on mummy?”

I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t know if I should hate him. I really wanted to. And I think I did a little. But then I felt guilty and I hated myself. Maybe this is my fault? And maybe my parents are divorcing because of me? In school they told me it’s not my fault. My parents told me too. But they’re just saying that to make me feel better. It’s just bullshit!
I spent the rest of the night hating myself somewhere outside Cuzco. I didn’t go back to Marisol’s until morning. And my daddy didn’t even know I was gone.

Later that morning, we set off for Machu Picchu.

 

In the Heights of Machu Picchu

“The dead realm lives on still.” Those were my first words on the peaks of Machu Picchu.

The air was thin and I felt as if hungover the whole time. But none of that could take away from my elation.

“Neruda?” Marisol told me with a smile as wide as the cordillera. I nodded. “Rise to be born with me, brother.”

“Neruda.” I smiled back at her.

“Leila, tell me, what do you think?” I asked with beaming joy etched all over my face. She merely shrugged and walked ahead of me.

“I’m worried about her.” I whispered to Marisol. “She’s been like this the whole way here.”

“I wouldn’t worry amor, it’s probably the altitude. It’s not easy for a little girl.”

“Maybe you’re right. Leila! Listen.” I ran up to her, put my hand on her shoulder and suggested: “why don’t you rest here for a while? Marisol and I will go ahead and when you’re ready you catch us up, okay?” Again she shrugged her shoulder. I took it as a sign of compliance. So Marisol and I went ahead.

We were in the clouds. I couldn’t believe it. This is a city built in the clouds! As Marisol and I walked solemnly around the imposing walls and delicate structures I felt as though I was beginning to understand the reason behind the Quechua melancholy and pessimism I’d seen all over Peru. For a civilisation that could build Machu Picchu to be defeated and subdued; that must be hard to take.

It was as if, if it’s possible that all this be overthrown, then nothing is impregnable. Nothing is eternal except defeat. And the simplistic lives the Quechua’s so proudly live today is a humble submission. It tells you, yes, we built this once, but now we’re happy tending to our llamas and making a living.

I don’t know how it’s possible to stand on Machu Picchu and not feel a burning hatred for the Spanish conquistadors and the armies of missionary monks that followed.
Marisol took me to a spot few tourists knew about. We were literally hanging off the edge of Machu Picchu, the clouded mountains spread out before us like a deep vein. There, I made love with an heir of Machu Picchu. Hell, there is ecstasy even in defeat!
About an hour later, as we returned to the touristic routes (are we the new conquistadors now, and perhaps the most insidious?) I began looking for Leila. She should have come to meet us by now. I couldn’t find her so I went back to look for her where I’d left there. And holy hell she wasn’t there!

I suddenly began screaming: “Leila! Leila!” A guide nearby shushed me, but then I ran over to him: “I’ve lost my daughter, she’s gone, please help!” Marisol heard me and came running over. Her eyes looked as ghostly as mine. And I loved her all the more for it, well, I would have done, if I wasn’t being eaten alive by guilt.

“Leila! Leila! Please.” We looked all over the old fortress. Casual tourists joined in the search too. Suddenly, the clouds, the silhouetted mountains and the sullen stones became a symbol of my defeat. This is my downfall. My ugly fall from grace. What a horrible, pathetic, weak man I am!

It’s all my fault. It’s no wonder my marriage failed. I couldn’t help myself. I got carried away. All the drinking, the partying, the drugs… just because I was fucking bored? With a wife and a daughter like that – I had no right to be bored! And now, because I got carried away with this Indigenista passion and with Marisol I’ve lost my daughter. What a wonderful story I have now. Where were you when your daughter got lost? Fucking an Inca guide!

I have to make this right. I have to find her. I will, I will find her – and this will never happen again! I’ll be graceful in defeat, like Machu Picchu, not a man-slut, for god’s sake. I’ll be graceful, I’ll be graceful – “Leila!”

We looked for over an hour. Marisol, in the meantime, had contacted the police. I won’t lie, the thought that kept on thundering through my mind was: what if Leila becomes another Madeleine McCann? Machu Picchu is near the Amazon. There are insurgency groups there. Like the Tupac Amaru group and the Shining Path. If they dared touch her I’ll fucking kill them. Even if it kills me!

But before despair could utterly transform me into a suicidal murdered, a beam of hope emerged out of the dark clouds. A German tourist, a young, blonde backpacker, came running up to us: “I found her, I found her! Your girl. She is up Huayna Picchu.”

Marisol gasped behind me. “What? What is it Marisol – what’s Huayna Picchu?”

“Huayna Picchu is the peak above Machu Picchu, it’s a dangerous hike, very dangerous.”

“How do you know she’s there?” I asked the German.

“I saw her going up there about an hour ago. I remember, because I thought to myself, why is a girl going up Huayna Picchu alone? Then I heard you guys were looking for her and I know it must be her.”

“Ok, thank you – listen, Marisol, you stay here in case it’s not her and she comes back here, I’m going to see for myself.”

“Be careful, won’t you?”

I ran to the foot of the trail and I began the ascent drugged by adrenaline. I climbed up deathly stairs, so steep and large I climbed on all fours. I went round vertiginous paths without walls the river below gaping like a hungry crocodile ready to pick me off. Then more steps, into narrow gorges and razor-thin ledges; if I put a foot wrong this would be my resting site. And I couldn’t do it slowly. I had to rush. I had to get to Leila.

I don’t know if the altitude sickness or the terrifying vertigo: but when I had to descend down narrow steps without any barriers or nothing separating me from the infinitely long way down – I nearly fainted. Get up, get up you piece of shit!

Awful thoughts began coursing through my mind. What if something happened to Leila when she was climbing up here. It’s so dangerous, and she’s just a child. And why, why would she even do this? It’s not like her, she’s so well-behaved, so smart and trusting – this isn’t her!

I dragged myself up and carried on with yet more urgency. I had been climbing for nearly an hour and I still hadn’t made it to the top. I was beginning to believe there wasn’t one. That this mountain was some kind of Olympus and it goes on forever. I was exhausted, terrified and in pain. I did the only thing I could then, the only thing that gave me some kind of control: I shouted at the top of what was left of my lungs: Leila!

“Daddy!”

“Leila? Leila!” Am I imagining things? Did I really here her voice?

“Daddy, up here!” No, no I’m not delirious, fuck.

“Wait there Leila, I’m coming, I’m coming.”

I ran up the last few stairs-of-death ignoring the vertigo and the heights, and after a few minutes’ climb, I found her.

“Oh my god Leila!” I ran up to her and lifted her up in the air and hugged her manically, my tears flowing down her cheeks, her shoulders, her back. I kissed her like a demented hummingbird. I didn’t care. I was the happiest man anywhere in the world – who was 2,720 metres up in the sky, anyway.

“Are you alright, Leila, are you alright?”

“I’m fine daddy, apart from the slobber on my face.”

“I’m sorry.” I laughed and reluctantly put her down.

She began walking away from me, her shoulders stiff, her arms limp. She walked to the edge of the small plateau we were stood on and sat down. I followed her and sat down beside her. Beneath us was Machu Picchu. It looked so small. So desolate. The people crawling through it like a line of ants. This must be the vantage place of the gods.

“Daddy, why are you and Ma breaking up?”

“Is that what you’ve been thinking about the whole time you were up here?”

She nodded quietly.

“Well, it’s complicated – ”

“ – Well un-complicate it, daddy. I want to know. I deserve to know.”

“You’re not wrong. You know, it’s funny, I’ve been putting off this conversation for so long, been dreading it for so long, but now, I feel strangely calm. It is complicated though, it’s true. I was hoping to wait until you were older so you can understand. But, what I can tell you, to ‘un-complicate’ it, is that I cheated on your Ma.”

“Why?” She asked with her wide-open eyes fixed onto some distant point. She didn’t once turn to look at me.

“Because I was weak, Leila. I realise that now. I couldn’t appreciate what a good life I had. I thought I needed a better one. I made a mistake, Leila. And I’m losing you for it.”

“I know what you did with Marisol.”

“What? How? Hell, I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re too smart, Leila. Too smart. This whole trip I’ve been wanting to teach you so many things. I told you to write a diary, maybe one day you’ll publish it and all that. But you, you’ve taught me the greatest lesson of all, Leila. I need to fight. I brought you on this trip hoping you’d want to live with me. But that’s cruel. A girl shouldn’t have to choose. What I’m trying to say, Leila, is that when we get back home, I’m going to fight for your Ma. I want us to stay together.” I could see her pupils suddenly expand. Though her body remained unmoving. “But you have to help me. Would you?”

She nodded her head quietly. And then she took a big breath before she said, almost smiling: “on one condition.”

“Name it.”

“That I don’t have to be a journalist.”

“What? I thought – ”

“ – I don’t want to write about people, daddy. I don’t get people. I don’t like them. I can’t understand you let alone someone from another country.”

“So what – ”

“ – I want to be a naturalist.”

“I see. Nature’s less complicated, isn’t it?”

“No. It just hurts less.”

“I’m sorry about all of this, Leila. But, I am proud of you. No matter what you become.”

“Really?” She said with a sudden excitement as if it was suddenly Christmas morning.

“Yes. I don’t really care what you do when you grow up. As long as you’re happy.”

“I don’t think it’s that easy, is it.”

“It is, Leila.” I put my arm around her. “You just have to look down to see what’s under your nose every now and again.” I looked down at her, and she looked at me. “That’s all you need to be happy.”

What did I see when I looked under my nose then: my daughter’s gracious smile and Machu Picchu nestled into the clouded Andes. What more could I want? Nothing, you son-of-a-bitch, nothing.

Climbing Down Huayna Picchu

I’m not going to write anymore. I don’t need to. I’m not going to be a journalist. Daddy says I don’t have to. I love my daddy. We walked all the way down Huayna Picchu holding hands. I wish we could’ve stayed up there longer. Just me and him. But he said everyone was worried. I didn’t mean to cause a stir. I just wanted to be alone. When we got down Marisol was waiting for us – anyway, whatever, bye!

 

 

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Something from Justin 😉

    Like

    1. justinfenech says:

      Many thanks for this!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. justinfenech says:

      Many thanks for the reblog!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s