Mys­te­ri­ous ped­lar strikes an odd note on the Alti­plano

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - YOUR HOLIDAY - Nori Jemil

FROM a dis­tance he seems like any of the other men on the road­side.

Wrapped up against the cold, Alti­plano air, he is cov­ered with a thin layer of dust, wait­ing for what seems to be very in­ter­mit­tent pass­ing trade. On near­ing him I be­come more aware of the deep crevices in his face, weath­ered like the moun­tains be­hind him and dark­ened to the same red hue by years in the out­doors.

The llama stand­ing be­side him snorts then turns side­ways. The pro­trud­ing front teeth are slightly yel­lower in the an­i­mal than the man, but both have a sim­i­larly coarse, white mane and star­tling pro­file.

He lets me take a pho­to­graph if I agree to buy some­thing from him, but it’s dif­fi­cult to know what he’s ped­dling. I’m un­sure if the small, chalky rocks in front of him are his wares or just part of the land­scape. I speak some Span­ish but the words don’t ap­pear to reach him. He con­tin­ues to tend to the llama.

His more spher­i­cal com­pan­ion is do­ing ev­ery­thing he can to keep us there. With sur­pris­ing dain­ti­ness and a grin, he demon­strates one of the small clay pipes he has ly­ing on a ta­ble top, trilling a whim­si­cal tune with ease. Like Hamelin chil­dren, the mu­sic lures us and we each buy one. Af­ter sev­eral at­tempts at play­ing, my two friends and I walk back to our ve­hi­cle, manag­ing to pro­duce only dis­cor­dant, breathy sounds rem­i­nis­cent of some­thing dy­ing. We look at each other, then at the pipes as though they must be bro­ken.

I glance back at the ven­dor. He is smil­ing broadly. His friend con­tin­ues to look away to­wards where the road dis­ap­pears, a bend around the ver­tig­i­nous red cliffs and then it’s out of sight. He has seen all of this be­fore.

The pipe still sits in my liv­ing room, never hav­ing pro­duced a sin­gle note, though not through want of try­ing. It’s a re­minder of that road­side; a lit­tle mo­ment in a much longer ad­ven­ture through north­ern Ar­gentina.

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