Mysterious pedlar strikes an odd note on the Altiplano
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.