Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Trail of a Lonesome Gringo (VIII): Montanas por la Noche, Cochiguaz and the Infinite Beyond

This adventure, I think, starts the night before.  It is late and I feel uneasy; there are couples hanging around the hostel and I don’t particularly feel like attempting to socialise in Spanish, though I know it is always good for me.  Instead, I drink some beers, hack away at the computer which seems to be intentionally and continuously shitting itself just to spite me (sometimes even attempting to eat my writing, the bastard; though I guess for three-hundred bucks I can’t ask for much).  Anyhow, I decide that climbing a little way up that mountain in the dark is a grand idea; and it turns out I was extremely correct.  With a plain old bread roll, a pack of nuts and a beer I head up, in the pitch black, not really waiting for my eyes to adjust.  It’s a challenge but I feel my way, I see the shadows that represent the paths meandering up and gauge the loose soil beneath my feet, all the while managing to stargaze at the same time.  Walking in the dark can be surprisingly easy, if you get a feel for it; I think you can kind of extend yourself out into it, feel for safety rather than think for it.  I stop several times: once to eat the peanuts, which proved to be an amazingly noisy activity in that extreme tranquillity; another time to lie down and stargaze; and one last time to meditate.  What seems like tiny noises emit from the little town below.  Barks, laughter, conversation; some car and bus noises.  It’s a magical feeling being in total darkness on a mountain, sitting above a town listening to bits and pieces of noise float about, while the galaxy hovers above, stars shoot across the sky.  I feel a bit like everything, actually.  The presence of the mountain is more evident, too, in this stillness.  I see it in a different light, so to speak.  It shows me new things, this time; it is I and it, together in a more intimate way.  Sort of like going home with your lady-woman, as opposed to being with her in a social situation (excellent analogy, Chris).  Getting closer.  And we’re all together actually, She the mountain, She the infinite sky, She the endless cordilleras; She the All.  Paz.  And a lot of it.  And then that little voice: So here you are, old boywhat did you want to do now?  My mind stills and the slight breeze which would normally seem freezing is a soft hand, falling over my being.  I feel the soft dirt with my hands and can hear it avalanching down, a miniature landslide in the cold silent night.  Everything is shaded with a blue, not from the moon, but from all those fucking baffling and beautiful stars in the sky.  Estrelllas is the word for ‘stars’ in Spanish; I really think it’s one of those words that sounds like it should mean stars anyhow.  One of the ones which, if it sat amongst other Spanish words I wasn’t familiar with, I could pick easily as meaning ‘stars’.  After eating the peanuts I’m kind of glad this oaf has stopped interrupting the peaceful night (there’s something about the crinkling sound of a wrapper that just doesn’t fit in here…).  I lie on back and watch, because my neck is getting sore from being unable to take my eyes from the sky and its uncountable sexy bits.  So many shooting stars I feel guilty for seeing them all. Cool mountain dirt.  Blissful.  Thoughts come and go as they do; things pop up.  In a deep moment of meditation I am awesomely interrupted by the boisterous squawking of some mountain birds—they must nest nearby.  My heart bursts through my chest, veins and bits and pieces still connected, and tries to make its way across the mountain and back down; but I pull it back, like reeling a fishing line in.  Lucky, there is something on the end.  I re-settle as the noises of the birds echoes, fades.  Passes.  Something more comes to me after some time and I take it as the thing I came up here for.  I stay forever, but get up and leave to go back down.  My eyes are stuck in the sky but my feet have pre-organised this with my soul so I can amble down safely, thoughtfully, empty.  Tomorrow, I will go to Cochiguaz.  I’ll get up early and despite my concerns, hitch a ride.  I sleep peacefully and dream about lots of things.  Mejor.

I’m sweating already and no one seems to be acknowledging my existence by the side of the road.  Except a friendly dog; but after a while it frightens me because it’s eyes are red and it keeps howling at nothing and quite frankly there is a part of me trying to remember the symptoms of rabies.  It drooled on me.  Or did it?  Do I have any open wounds?  But it is friendly; and it doesn’t seem to crazy, just a little weird.  I know heaps of weird people who don’t have rabies.  Hmm.  I am still thinking of Rodrigo’s words: something bad could happen to you; or something good.  Pretty ambivalent, right?  But it was more the way he said it.  Far more there than the surface buns.  And here I am, failing a bit; but it’s still early and I am determined to get to Cochiguaz; I can’t leave this place without getting there.  I think of the quirky restaurant in the centre; the weird healing aspects of the place and the strange people.  I will be surprised, however.  Finally a ute stops.  The old man yells something and I go to open the door to hear him and realise there’s an old lady in the passenger seat and she’s probably terrified that some dude is trying to open her car door, so I assume he said ‘Cochiguaz’ and jump in the back.  My first hitch!  I feel as safe as a child in a pram being pushed by some unknown Chilean people.  Actually, I’m not as afraid as I thought I’d be.  The old hitchin’ has been built up a bit for me; much fear, but in reality, if you get a ride with some peaceful people, and it feels right—todo bien!  And so we tumble on down the road and I gaze at the mountains slack-jawed.  Blissful sighs.  We stop—not in Cochguaz.  O well, only five kilometres more.  I start walking.  I go past some hippy-lookin’ Chileans and ask how much further and the chick one speaks real slowly, like a Chilean hippy probably does; she mentions the restaurant and the spa.  Hmm.  Not much more.  I say hola to the dude who smiles and we have a little mutual laugh at our respective situations: he and her waiting for a ride in the dust, me charging on through the dust.  Nice.  Onwards I go and eventually there is the sound of a car, which I didn’t expect this far out.  I was set to walk.  I stick my thumb up and the ute pulls over and so begins my day.  A young man is in the drivers’ seat, though he doesn’t look that young; he’s chewing something and a great bulge protrudes from the side of his mouth and his teeth are all caked with something green, but his smile is very friendly.  There appears to be an entire family in there.  He asks where in Cochiguaz I want to go and I so no se, no se!  Because I don’t actually know.  So after a few seconds of non-communicating he gestures for me to just jump in the back, which I happily do.  We go through the town, which seems pretty dull really; oddly, we don’t stop, and this concerns me initially, but then the feeling passes and I feel fine.  He’ll probably just drop me somewhere at the top, so I can walk back down.  He does stop.  But he gets out and approaches me and after establishing that I speak English asks me whether I want to go with him and his family to their place, chew some coca leaves, some natural tobacco and some Argentinian tea.  I mumble in hesitation, pensive, thinking and ask him about the town.  He says all there is is a big rock (gestures toward the mountains) and some restaurants and spas.  Which is I guess what was expecting.  So I say yeah I’ll come with you.  It’s six kilometres further on.  Mother, you would surely kill me; but when you get a feel for someone, especially a feeling they won’t murder you, it’s okay to go ahead with things like this.  It felt fine so off we went, rough-and-tumbling it up the road.  More scenery, slacker jaw.  Dogs chase the ute.  Where am I going?  Something bad could happen to you; or something bad.  Hmm.  Or something beautiful.  We get out at a property right at the top of what seems to be a poorer area.  There is a grand-looking half-construction atop a hill, next to which appears to be a small camp.  Which it is.  A man is atop the construction, which is something like hexagonal with a smaller protruding second story in the middle—almost ceremonial.  I help unpack all their things.  I was half-expecting to arrive at a camping ground, but alas, it’s just a camp next to a home-in-progress.  The guy’s name is Emmanel.  He is twenty-five.  Up on the second story is his step-father, Pato (Patricio).  Out of the care come his two sisters and his mother.  I will later learn that these people are infinitely warm, interesting and skilled in various ways.  After we unpack the gear I feel sort of awkward, but apparently I’m the only one feeling that way.  Emmanuel shows me around the house.  It’s been under construction for two years and they hope to have it done in another year.  Pato, at around fifty-five years, has built this house more or less single-handedly.  I’m later told he is an amazing man in varioous, freakishly strong for his age (stronger then Emmanuel), self-educated in­—apparently­­—building houses, and almost anything else.  Except driving; that he’s only just learning now.  Emmanuel’s mother, whose name slips my memory, is a Kundalini Yoga maestra who has been practicing and teaching for something like twenty-five years.  One of her daughters, Ser (which means ‘to be’ in Spanish) is following in her footsteps, and will soon return to the United States for a second time to teach Kundalini.  The other daughter, Cielo (which means ‘sky’) is very little and it practicing her English skills for a spelling bee.  I help her at one point, reading out English words so she can spell them back at me.  Am I in an awesome dream?  So, initially, after saying hello to everyone and having a quick look at the house, Emmanuel starts work.  I am not obliged, but he invited me to help, which I’m more than happy to do.  It all interests me quite a bit.  The house is primitive by some standards, but extremely well-built away from those standards.  The methods are just different and there are a few things I learned which were really interesting.  It has a concrete base, above which is a wooden frame, with posts running up the main corners.  Wire grills run across the walls, between which long sticks are placed, some horizontal, some vertical, some diagonal.  Later, mud-brick will be applied to consolidate the walls, as well as so foam insulation at some points.  The roof is corrugated iron.  Parts of the house needed to be bought, obviously; but much of it was gathered around the property, which is surrounded by nature, beyond which the Andes lay until Argentina in one direction and vertically up and down Chile in the other directions.  Emmanuel first takes me up an improvised ladder to the second floor, where this amazing native-looking fellow works tirelessly.  They move some corrugated iron together while I take in the view up here.  Emmanuel rolls some cigarettes and insists on some coca leaves, both of which I accept.  Before I know it I’m charging on natural tobacco and coca.  He prepares the coca using a white powder which I initially speculate could be cocaine; but I doubt that would even make sense.  I ask him about it and he says that the coca is acidic while the powder (like flour) is alkaline and that the reaction between them is good for chewing coca.  I’d heard that people mix growth from rocks with coca for the reaction so it seems to make sense to me.  He chews a tonne at a time and apparently I’m obliged to chew his way.  It’s pleasant and the charge is pretty darn evident.  I sit for a while longer.  Pato loves old rock music and Pink Floyd’s Money screams from a small player.  Awesome.  He has a kind soul, this old man; and an air of deep mystery, kind of like them all actually.  After he starts cutting the corrugated iron I descend, using a rope to guide my light-headed self back down to the ladder.  Emmanuel then gives me a spade and takes me a few metres from the house, down some stones and into some bushes (where luckily, he doesn’t kill and bury me).  All the while I can’t keep my eyes off this whole scene.  What a place!  So over next to the fresh water stream, from which fresh mountain water comes, there is a big pile of stony sand and a large frame with wire mesh.  We talk a while between shovelling the sand through the mesh, which filters the bigger stones out and makes a fine powdery sand which is going to be used to make a cement for the walls of the house.  This comes free of charge, from the mountains up above; it is washed down the stream and shovelled out and then put through the mesh.  Endless supply.  I’m more than happy to help shovel it through, collect the finer sand and carry it up to the house in a bucket.  It feels good to do this work.  It doesn’t feel like work.  We go slow and stop and chat all the time, drinking mate, chewing coca and smoking tobacco.  Emmanuel tells me a lot about himself.  He used to take a lot of psychtropics, as he terms it; and smoke a bit of weed (there is a green leaf on his shoulder).  But not any more.  He comes across as a very hard-working man, fairly rational—but the more I speak to him, the more I see his rationality is counterbalances by a thick spirituality, an all-pervasive spirituality which is not really named anything but is just the way it is.  He talks of the energy of the mountains and the water around us; we speak about religion and how what he partakes in is not religion, but gnosis, or learning of all different types of wisdom.  Pato is apparently very Hinduistic in his ways, like his wife; but they are not religious.  They seem to breathe the spirits of this natural place the same way a lot of us breathe the dirty air in the city.  He talks of his addictive personality, admitting a pretty heavy propensity for coca leaves, but only in the last seven months.  He talks of other types of addictions, always referring back to his addictive personality.  He talks like someone older and I often find it hard to accept that he’s my age.  He lives with his girlfriend who teaches Arabic dance and has a child from a previous relationship; together, they have two kids.  He tells me about how Pato built their house, again single-handedly, and how Pato is his best friend and an amazing man (at this point I really wanted to have more tools in my Spanish tool-kit, because this Pato guy was not only giving off an air of brilliance, but seemed to have affected Emmanuel in some pretty heavy ways—and he looked like Miagi from The Karate Kid!).  I ponder it all and ask a thousand questions.  Now, he says, he lives his life for his family, for work—he is a very hard worker.  But not in a senseless laborious way; he has passions.  He has worked in agriculture, has helped with various houses in construction, works presently at the biggest observatory in the region (where they do ground-breaking scientific research) where he gets paid quite a lot for what sounds like odd jobs, even when he isn’t actually at work (awesome).  He wants to start preparing land he has at his home further south, growing chillies and fruit trees.  But all this slowly, he says.  Poco y poco.  They’re all vegetarians here, except him, but he only eats a tiny bit of meat, he says, and only fresh.  We have lentils for lunch, but not Emmanuel because he chews coca all day and eats in the afternoon.  I sit with the family for a bit and we talk in broken English and Spanish for a while.  Ser needs to learn some English for when she goes to the U.S but she seems reluctant.  Amazing goat cheese from down the road and an off-tap lentil dish with dried fruits.  Amazing meal.  Earlier, Emmanuel took me to a little lake nearby which he said had immense healing powers; it was water from the icy mountains and was extremely cold.  I wasn’t going to go in, but he insisted and I felt like I needed to for some reason.  He assured me it would cleanse me.  So we stripped down and in he went, not seeming to feel the cold.  I was about to jump in when he mentioned casually that it’s best without ‘my boxer shorts’; and just now I remember his earlier comment about killing off the ­e­-go (the ego), which clearly remains somewhere beneath my underwear.  Oddly, it feels perfectly natural to take them off.  He literally does not blink an eye lid; it’s like bathing with an indian.  But fuck, that water was cold.  I have never, ever felt such coldness.  My bones ached.  I felt the cold slither through my soul and into my brain and every internal organ.  Gasping uncontrollably he tells me I have to go under the water three times, so I do, very dementedly.  Christ, I will never forget that feeling.  Something certainly happened when I entered that water.  Such intensity.  I didn’t feel the same all afternoon.  I still don’t.  So I helped him a while longer before sitting down a bit, gawking around the property and at the machine-man up there on the second story, smashing together a beautiful house like it ain’t no thang.  What a family.  The sun slowly falls and I’m told that Petro needs to practice his driving, so they’ll drive me all the way back to town.  Such people.  We all sit together at their little camp and I ask Emmanuel’s mother about Kundalini and she says one thing that sticks in my mind because it’s something that makes endless sense to me in many ways.  It has to do with posture.  She put her hands on my head and my back and straightened me out and pushing her chest out in demonstrations said, most important is HEART FIRST.  So many levels run through me.  Heart first.  Straighten the fuck up and put your heart first.  I’m keen to learn more.  We wait by the fire for Petro to finally descend but he seems to be enjoying air-guitaring to rock music instead of coming down.  What a guy.  Finally he descends and we sit around a while more, chatting.  I speak to Petro quite a bit, despite not understanding him.  Such a kind man.  There is so much peace here.  It makes me think of a lot of things about myself and my life (how could it not?).  They start the car and Emmanuel’s mother gets me to translate some lyrics from a beautiful Kundalini-inspired song by an English singer.  The littlest sister, Cielo, reads it easily.  Clever folk.  I thank them vigourously and me, Emmanuel and Petro get in the car.  They invite me back when the house is done and I get some contact details.  We drive bumpily off into the night, Petro fumbling through gears across unsealed mountain roads.  I am tired but I feel great and am happy to be silent the whole trip while Emmanuel directs Petro in operating a manual car—the car is Petro’s mind you, but he hasn’t yet learned how to use it.  Amazing for a man who seems so adept at everything else!  We say some serious goodbyes and they both have a sincerity to them which saddens me a bit to leave.  As I wait at the bust stop to catch the bust one town across, some dogs come and sit with me; I think they just like the company around here.  Then the father of the family that owns the hostel I’m staying at pulls up in his car and like clockwork the days ends with a free ride back.  There are butterflies flying about inside my head and I feel rejuvenated.  Something bad could happen to you; or something good.

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