J OUR­NEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY Heads in the clouds

Ju­dith Elen ven­tures into the hills above the world’s high­est nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­way, Peru’s Lake Tit­i­caca

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

T’S mid­night and freez­ing. Stars blaze vi­o­lently over­head. I’m on a rocky out­crop high above Puno, on the edge of Lake Tit­i­caca in the Peru­vian Andes, with two or three dozen fig­ures in shad­owy, shift­ing groups, all lo­cals. Jagged sparks from a bon­fire stab the dark, fit­fully lighting our faces. This late June night is the long­est of the year, the win­ter sol­stice. Men muf­fled in heavy capes beat drums, blow breathily through pan pipes ( zam­ponas ) and dance a stiff-legged stomp. Cries punc­tu­ate the icy air, trans­lated by my guide, No­lia —‘‘Help me, Pachamama; help me, Pachatata’’ — as the dancers call on the earth mother and fa­ther at this cru­cial hinge of the year.

The fire makes dark cut-outs of the Quechua mu­si­cians who take turns blow­ing through a conch shell, call­ing on the spirit of the lake. The shell rep­re­sents one of the four el­e­ments; there is a con­dor’s plume for the sky, a bull’s horn for the earth, and then there is the fire. At sol­sti­tial rit­u­als else­where in this land, ru­ral el­ders will gaze at the con­stel­la­tions in a cen­turies-old prac­tice to pre­dict the agrar­ian year and the out­come for their crops.

Here an elder kneels in front of the fire, hold­ing high the of­fer­ings we give him be­fore lay­ing them out on a blan­ket: coca leaves, spe­cial sweets, old coins, dried al­paca foe­tuses or al­paca meat, can­dies dis­solved in wa­ter. In the ear­li­est mo­ments of morn­ing, with the first glim­mers of light, he will set the ob­jects alight, re­leas­ing our hopes and wishes to the realm of the spir­its. Each gift has a mean­ing. I’ve been given a hand­ful of coca leaves for him to of­fer on my be­half, a prayer for health. I may need it, dizzy with the alti­tude and the deathly cold.

I have ar­rived in Puno, cap­i­tal of the Peru­vian Al­ti­plano, the An­dean high plains, a cou­ple of hours ago, af­ter a 21/ hour flight from Lima, via Cusco, to the air­port in nearby Ju­li­aca. It’s by happy ac­ci­dent that I’m here on the day of the sol­stice and No­lia has brought me up the pre­cip­i­tous hill­side that over­looks Puno to be present at the an­nual rit­ual. I have a headache be­cause of the alti­tude, and am breath­less and a bit un­steady, but ex­cited to be here.

In three days, No­lia says, small fires will be lit in the streets of Puno, at the door of each house, to wel­come the re­birth of the year with danc­ing and drink­ing.

We do it in my fam­ily,’’ she tells me in re­sponse to a query about the be­liefs of the young. I be­lieve. It’s good for my busi­ness, for health.’’

The Al­ti­plano, Peru’s poor­est re­gion, is a place with its head in the clouds and a thick car­pet of dust at its feet. In this coun­try of sub­lime sites — Machu Pic­chu, the Sa­cred Val­ley of the In­cas, the Ama­zon and Lake Tit­i­caca — everyday life can be a rus­tic test­ing ground for sur­vival.

Across Peru’s re­gions of trop­i­cal rain­for­est, snow moun­tains and arid coastal plain, a tiny pro­por­tion of land is arable. Vil­lagers on Taquile Is­land in Lake Tit­i­caca cook and work on earthen floors and till their small, steep patches of land to pro­duce na­tive pota­toes, maize and quinoa. Fine dust coats their bare feet and legs just as it cloaks the streets of Puno. Even in Lima, Peru’s so­phis­ti­cated cap­i­tal, peri­patetic shoe pol­ish­ers are in con­stant de­mand.

Last year, the In­ter­na­tional Year of the Po­tato, the UN cel­e­brated that dusty lit­tle standby for the hun­gry of the world. Pota­toes were first grown in South Amer­ica, prob­a­bly Peru, and there is ev­i­dence that they orig­i­nated near Lake Tit­i­caca. What food could speak more elo­quently of the earth? But the na­tive pota­toes that grow here are dir­ten­crusted gems, com­ing in hun­dreds of shapes, sizes and colours, from deep pur­ple­black to rose-pink and golden.

The lake, the world’s high­est nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­way, is wreathed in myth and Inca leg­end; when I told peo­ple at home where I was headed, they were not sure it even ex­isted. But here I am, al­most 4000m up in the Andes, in the open back of a small ferry, chug­ging be­tween wa­ter and sky of the deep­est blue, from Puno to Taquile Is­land, which takes about four hours at a steady pace, so vast is this lake. The sun burns and glit­ters and wa­ter­birds flock to the lake and its reeds.

No­lia and I will stay overnight with an is­land fam­ily on Taquile. We dock be­side the packed-stone jetty with the rocky hill­side loom­ing above us, its steep sides darkly scal­loped and hemmed in stones. Fam­i­lies farm small ter­raced plots and keep sheep, goats, chick­ens and the oc­ca­sional cow. To reach the vil­lage we face our first chal­lenge: 500 rough-hewn steps, an­gled and dusty, which in my breath­less state are ne­go­ti­ated slowly and with fre­quent stops. I am happy to see the lo­cals also take rests on their skip­ping, en­er­getic trips up and down, of­ten with large wrapped bun­dles on their heads or slung across their backs.

Ev­ery­where the Quechua women and chil­dren are heav­ily en­veloped in woolly tops and vo­lu­mi­nous skirts of hot pink, pur­ple, green, turquoise and red, more per­pet­ual en­vi­ron­ments than clothes. Shawls, of­ten black, fall from heads to the hems of skirts.

We reach the top to find steep, walled path­ways thread­ing through the vil­lage and be­tween strips of land that are dry-stone bor­dered and marked off with bushy green­ery. Views are pre­cip­i­tous and breath­tak­ing in their wide ex­panses of sea and sky.

Our home­s­tay is a mud-brick house with an up­per level of bed­rooms, where we and the fam­ily sleep. There are no com­forts but the sin­gle wooden beds are lay­ered with rugs, al­low­ing us to sleep warmly, and the view from the small win­dow of my shared room, and from the stairs that cling to the ex­te­rior wall, is of the lake, al­ways spec­tac­u­lar, and mes­meris­ing at sun­set and dawn.

We eat an evening bowl of rice and fried po­tato chips topped with a fried egg, its yolk the colour of the set­ting sun. This chicken has been scratch­ing the dust for blades of grass. Be­fore we re­tire for the night we, too, stand in the dirt out­side the mud wall that en­closes house and court­yard and gaze at the stars.

While No­lia trans­lates, the fa­ther of the fam­ily tells us about the har­vests, the plant­ing and ro­ta­tion of the sim­ple crops. Ev­ery­thing de­pends on the move­ments of the stars and ev­ery­thing seems of a piece, the black sky stud­ded with span­gled con­stel­la­tions, and the rough earth at our feet.

Home­s­tays are eas­ily or­gan­ised and in­ex­pen­sive, but they are a chal­lenge to trav­ellers used to crea­ture com­forts. There is no plumb­ing and the toi­let is a cor­ru­gated-iron out­house be­yond the court­yard wall. There is no run­ning wa­ter for wash­ing and a pan of wa­ter is a pre­cious com­mod­ity. Bot­tled wa­ter is one of the things the lo­cals have to carry up those stairs.

Many vis­i­tors choose a daytrip to the is­land, re­turn­ing to the com­fort of a ho­tel in Puno, but the night sky seen from here, like the ris­ing and set­ting sun, is mem­o­rable and worth the brief dis­com­fort.

In the morn­ing, we walk high, dusty path­ways to the walled vil­lage square for break­fast. Sit­ting in the sun on what feels like cas­tle bat­tle­ments, we eat an un­likely jam pan­cake (eggs are also on the menu) and drink weak cof­fee and restora­tive coca mate, the tea

Check­list

Lo­cal fer­ries to Taquile run daily from 7am (a four-hour trip) from the main port in Puno, with re­turn trips un­til 5pm the same day; about 15 soles ($6.60). There are also reg­u­lar trips to the Uros Is­lands. Pi­ramide Tours or­gan­ises stays on Taquile Is­land. More: www.ti­tikaka.com. Casa An­d­ina op­er­ates ex­cel­lent ho­tels in Puno Plaza (Casa An­d­ina Clas­sic) and on the shore of Lake Tit­i­caca (Casa An­d­ina Pri­vate Col­lec­tion). More: www.casa-an­d­ina.com; www.peru.info. Su­san Kuro­sawa’s De­par­tureLounge col­umn re­turns next month.

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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