At the top of the world we could see as far as we pleased. It was winter at that place and it was not hot. Yet the sun was close enough and we had to take care with our skin. I wore a hat with a wide brim, long-sleeved shirt and sunglasses, stiff jeans and shoes bought for the occasion. I had more clothes in my rucksack. Towards the east, past the mesa, shimmering and unreal, we glimpsed remote snow-covered mountain ranges. Our guide told us that rich Argentineans used to go there to ski. It wasn’t without dangers, but they were rich and did not think of the bad things, the things that can happen.
Here there was no snow. Too dry. I felt slightly dizzy, strange, but knew that it was because I stood four thousand metres closer to heaven than I was accustomed to. The few primitive houses we sporadically witnessed were not different than they had been two thousand years ago. Or three thousand years. The gods were the same. It was so flat up here, that if it hadn’t been for our heavy breathing, there would be no way to convince our minds of the height. I wouldn’t have been surprised to lay my ear to the ground and hear a faint licking of waves.
With all this available space, it struck me as tragic that all the people who had once lived here, or lived by travelling here, had been pulled towards the capital where they lived on top of each other in decrepit slanting houses that cost them a lifetime of salaries, angles askew and if the rains hit hard, the houses tumbled down, as in some cruel fairytale, down into the valley on top of the rest of the houses already doubled up, and everything was poverty except from the few who lived behind fences protected by armed guards, blood and an elevated caste. The white are the problem, our guide said. White was his word for those with Spanish blood. This, at least, is the opinion of many, he said, hedging his sentiment. I worked hard, studied for many years, and now I have a good job and can take care of my family. I’m doing OK. I am surviving well, our guide said.
We both expressed as clearly as we could that this was a good thing indeed, in the overcompensating way that people from better economies have of encouraging those of more modest means. Our guide smiled, and as usual, I could not tell whether he secretly were laughing at us; whether he smiled in a mutual feeling of insight, or if the twitch around his mouth were caused by a bitterness we would never be able to share. Soon it was time for him to leave us, but first he put up our tent. So that we didn’t have to.
Are you sure this is what you want?, he asked. The nights get cold, but you have sufficient clothes and I can see your sleeping bags are of a high quality. This is good. However this place is not the same in the night, after it is dark. They say the air is so thin here that the spirits of the dead cannot soar higher, up to the heavens. They are trapped here and they can’t find their way to the mother of all, who would welcome them. The spirits, they roam free here on the meseta- yes, plateau – and there is nothing to stop them, no trees or walls or mountains, so they run in circles, never finding the way to the earth mother. Imagine that a spinning top has been started and it never stops, swirling forever without resistance.
I raised my eyebrows. All day he had talked about the religious traditions of his people, what they had done a thousand years ago, or what he presumed that they had done. Whenever we saw a ruin and asked about its meaning, the answer was unfalteringly that it had been used for religious rites and ceremonies. The sun, the moon, astronomy; everything gods and goddesses, and the people here had built their lives around them, for them.
He had gathered several armfuls of thin firewood and had thrown it all in front of the mouth of the tent. You can by all means light a fire , he said. There is not much vegetation anyway, so there is no danger. Be careful, though, if the wind gather the strength, as you say. He looked upward at the sky which still was pale blue. It is going to be colder, he said.
The dust he whirled up as he left followed the car for several kilometres in a continually increasing tail and remained on the horizon long after the car had disappeared. I turned to my wife and held her. She let me hold her. Then we begun to look around, as if for the first time.
Everything was completely quiet, as if the thin air forbade the sound to breathe. The sound of what, I thought. I escaped from the illusion. We heard our own steps on the hard soil, sometimes sand, sometimes scattered tufts of hardy grass. A couple of kilometres back, we had seen llamas graze, so there had to be arable land a few places. Of course, I thought, just look at the ruins of the clay houses. How else would people survive here? People need grass.
It is not clay, had the guide said when I had pretended to be familiar with the local building techniques, but excrements. That was their way, how it was done before.
Do they still build in this way?, my wife had asked.
Those who still live here, yes they do it in the same way. Not many of them are left now. Things haven’t changed. Just fewer of them. Fewer people, less life. He held his hands open towards us, half in resignation, half to include us. This is our land, he said. What we have left. Less life, fewer people. Many gods. Maybe the gods have also moved to the city. At this point I began to fear neither my Spanish nor his English was up to the task, so I released him from the conversation.
The dust from the car had almost disappeared now. I was hoping for a bit of wind. I began to stack some of the bigger pieces of wood until they formed three quarters of a pyramid. I placed dry weaker twigs underneath. My shoes were covered in sand. Such a pity that there was not more grass around here. I thought about the gods trotting useless and restlessly back and forth. Spinning, a trail of smoke. I thought about everything that had once been here, had existed. I looked around for more firewood, there must be more someplace. Already by the thought of fire I could hear the heat crackling and smell the heat and I fumbled for my lighter. I had been tempted from the moment he threw the wood in front of the tent. I wanted to light a fire on this continent. As the night came I wanted to see it burn.