We’re already breathless. The hill is steep and long; the altitude is 14,000 feet. The puma-stone lake—titi: puma; kaka: stone—lies cold and still below us. It is from this lake the Inca people are said to have sprung. Our host, Santiago, picks moonya along the way and hands it to us to breathe in. It helps acclimate to the altitude, or so we have been told all over Peru. We breathe and follow obediently, the vaguely minty taste trickling down the back of our throats.
We climb up and up through terraced fields, stone fences and small abodes. Tiny, bright orange sheds dot the hillside—government-issue outhouses. Behind me and Erik and Santiago, the rest of my family is strung across the hillside, climbing in pairs with their hosts. Santiago had stepped forward first from the group of hosts, mostly ladies dressed in red and green and blue skirts, and Erik had immediately volunteered us to be his guests. As we puff up the hillside, Erik tries to talk to Santiago. The islanders speak their own native language, and Spanish as a second language. Erik had learned Spanish some 15 years earlier in high school. With one- and two-word phrases and the vigorous motion of his arms and hands, he carries on with Santiago, who speaks also in staccato.
Finally we open a narrow, low gate and enter a courtyard where small, white stones outline a star pattern in a square with scalloped edges in the middle of the floor. Pink flowering bushes crowd along the walls of the courtyard, dropping their petals onto the star. Small children peek sheepishly around the corners of the buildings. But no one greets us. We are ushered upstairs to a room detached from the family’s living quarters. We catch glimpses of women in the kitchen, a separate building in which we can see open flames through the glassless window. Left alone in our room, we marvel at the plants outside growing as high as our second story window. We have four narrow beds, a small table between two of them set with one candle and a ceramic containing salt, and two chamber pots beneath our beds. The walls hold one broken mirror, a couple colorful textiles, a framed license to operate this as a guest house, and a picture of Santiago and his children. The wooden floor creaks beneath our shifting weight as we throw our backpacks on a bed.
We are served lunch of potatoes and rice from small ceramic bowls. Ivan, our guide through Peru, and my dad come to visit us, then we meet the rest of my family at the community center, where kids are playing soccer on the cracked and crumbling surface of the basketball court. My throat is sore from the dry air, and I purchase a lollipop for the climb uphill. Two for 50 centimos, but I take only one.
We climb up and up to the top of the mountain-like island, among the ubiquitous stone terraces to watch the sun dip below the lake and set. Little boys beneath colorful woolen hats play the flute and drum alongside us as we plod uphill. We walk the path like pilgrims. When we reach the top we can see the mountains of Bolivia in the distance. The lake seems to swallow us in its vastness. We are swimming in its depth, as we tower over its surface at the island’s peak. The wind whips our hair about our faces and makes our noses run. My mouth turns purple from the grape lollipop. We sit along the gray stones waiting for a show. Then the sun sprays out color from behind the clouds and we oooh and aaaah and snap our shutters open and close. We lower our cameras and are held motionless in witness. We hold our breath as if the sun will reach out a hand to us and lift us into its chariot. But it disappears and takes the colors, and we are alone atop the island with only thin air to breathe, as if for our witness it must take something away – our own breath. The modest stone temples to Pachamama and Pachatata stand silent in the gray light. Mama: earth; Tata: cosmos.
When we make it back to our abode, Santiago gives us a padlock for the door. I wonder half in jest if it is to keep his own children out, as Ettigar has already come to ask for the batteries from our flashlights when we will no longer need them in tomorrow’s daylight. He explains they are for his girlfriend’s walkman. We are sure he is hording from all of his family’s lodgers, but what are two batteries to us? The next morning, he creeps through our door, and we hand them over. [In later years, I will become a little more cautious about breeding ill manners in begging children.]
In the gathering darkness Santiago comes in and lights a single candle. The room is now framed by shadows. Our sleeping bags on the beds lurk in murky light. In the light of the single candle our faces peer at one another over our dinner—potatoes and rice. And we are transported in time. As we sit by the candlelight we weed out our humanity from the midst of the modern technological world we live in and plant it in this rustic world of life without electricity and plumbing, cell phones and email. We throw shadows on the wall shaped like cocoons. As we eat in the flickering silence, first one wing and then another emerges, and the hollow shell of our computer-age selves drops to the floor where the candlelight can’t reach it.
We can make out the dark forms of the tall plants looming outside like ghosts. Their spectral image raises a goosebump on my neck. I press it with my cold finger while I scoop warm potatoes into my mouth with my other hand. I am tense with cold and put on another sweater. There is nothing with which to heat the room. I wonder how the family stays warm. Then Mary Rosa comes in to dress us.
She hands a long pancho and woolen hat to Erik. She pulls a white shirt with embroidery on the top half over my head. Then an underskirt slides over my neck and shoulders and she ties it into place well above my belly button. Next she secures a bright red, knee-high, full skirt around me. And finally a black scarf over my head. She guides us through the sharp night air to the community center—a small rectangular building with no windows, where the rest of our group is assembled in their skirts and panchos.
We lurk shyly in the dark corners while the local women in their bright green skirts grab us one by one and dance with us in the center of the room. The band plays lively and crisp, the music cuts through the dusty air, the flute a scythe, the drum, played by our own Ettigar, a pestle pounding rhythms into the soles of our feet. We weave ourselves into patterns like the embroidery on our shirts, around the room, under each other’s arms. We could be clowns in a circus veering around the room in costume, our big feet clunking out the incessant drum beat. Erik yanks my arms back and forth as if I am throwing punches at him, so I twist my whole body one way and then another. He wants to see my skirt twirl.
A tiny woman pulls my dad into the center of the room. Her black head scarf reaches to her heels, encased, bare, in open-toed sandals. Her head reaches to my dad’s belly button and her hands are like cat’s paws in my dad’s. When the song ends, she bows and leaves him in the middle of the dim room. At the next song, I take him out for a spin. He moves his feet up and down erratically and keeps telling me he doesn’t know how to dance, that he can’t keep the beat. I count the beats out for him, 1-2-3-4, as we step to the side, forward and back, swinging our arms through the kicked-up dust.
A single kerosene lantern lights the room, but it’s as if we breathe fire; we light up the room with our laughing breaths like our feet are tethered to our mouths. We must seem ridiculous fumbling with each other in awkward lurks and lunges; indeed we are, having been dressed like dolls in bright woolen hats and embroidered head scarves that drip off our heads.
And we smile for pictures. Me and my dad and Ivan. It will turn out that I was holding my beer right in front of my face, my smile half hidden by the neck of a Cusquena. We smile at the silliness of our costumes, jeans sticking out from beneath our skirts. We smile at the good fortune of our mutual company. We smile because we are in Peru, with the waters of the Titikaka surrounding us.
We pick our way home in the dark. Mary Rosa seeing by the light of the Milky Way, we by the imposing ball of light thrown out by our flashlight. We are concerned with following the narrow, rocky path and do not look up. Mary Rosa says buenos noches and we spill into our chilly abode.
Erik and I take off our costumes and head for the outhouse. As we cross the courtyard and unlatch the creaky gate, I squeal with contentment. The sound of my small voice echoes off the walls, bounces off time, returns to me like an arching arrow.
As we push through the gate we look up, and we reel back on our heels, stupefied. Our breath catches in our throats, hanging there suspended until we swallow the beauty and breathe again. It is a sky of fables, the stars like heaven’s waterfall, foaming on night’s shore. It is raw, it is powerful, it is so heavy on our shoulders our knees buckle and we sit on the low stone wall. The stars are so dense they’re like the alpaca’s wool. This is the Milky Way. It’s so beautiful I could cry. We can’t speak; I can’t even blink. We are swallowed in the sidereal depths. The whole night had been about some glimpse of culture, and then suddenly we looked up and the cosmos fell on us. The world of macro and improbable, the world of star dust from which we all emerged. I am filled with the hope of infinity. The stars are so many that the mythical creatures of the Peruvian night sky are not outlined by stars but by the empty spaces between them.
As I look back at our window where our single candle burns, I am struck by the juxtaposition of the rusticity of one candle lighting a small room while outside 10 billion infernos blaze, piercing the vacuum of space, illuminating the whole island, the whole lake, the whole of Peru and South America. We are many miles from any electrical lights; we are Inca reading the tales of the stars through the clear, black night air. On the stone wall they built, we bathe in the same celestial shower.
At last the cold reaches our bones and nudges us inside. I arrange my lair, with my sleeping bag on the bed and two very heavy blankets folded over, one across my feet and one across my middle. I’m snug as a bug in a rug. I can’t stop thinking about the stars; I am entombed in the silence of space. For many moments I can’t move. When I can finally turn over on my side, I curl up and cradle in my arms the memory of dancing, the smell of the kerosene lantern. And I sink into my bed, through the wooden slats, through the floor, through the story below, into the belly of the island. The waters of the Titikaka lap at my toes and my back, floating my hair. The taste of moonya rests lightly on my tongue. “Amantani:” I whisper the word like a secret as I fall asleep. I dream that I am a bride in a bright red skirt with a veil of stars stretching behind me farther than I can see. I summon Pachamama and Pachatata to oversee the wedding. Then I awake to empty one Cusquena grande into the chamber pot. I climb back into my sleeping bag and fall into the cavernous space between my world and the world of Amantani.
In the morning, as I cough uncontrollably in the courtyard, Santiago gathers eucalyptus leaves. He sticks one in his mouth and chews half of it. Then abruptly takes it from his mouth and pastes it on my left temple. I blink back my mirth. Soon another leaf is pasted with spit on my right temple. I thank Santiago. Erik claims I don’t cough the entire way down the mountain while the eucalyptus resides on my head.
A breeze whispers to us a reminder of the floating islands we passed on our way here, islands made of countless reeds bundled together and anchored in the shallow lake bed. Erik and I meet the rest of my family at the boat and I wonder if they saw the sky. We are all tethered together by the commonality of dancing with strangers and wearing their clothes, of breathing dust and lantern-lit shadows. I want to think that the stars were Erik’s and my secret. But everyone is exclaiming over them.
As the boat starts its motor and pulls away from the island, I wave farewell. The nerve between us snaps and Amantani is vaulted into the realms of memory. We chug slowly into the deep waters and I remove the eucalyptus leaves from my head—they no longer seem appropriate. I take my seat on the boat, where I will watch the island shrink and disappear. I drift in and out of drowsiness until we dock and tumble back onto the shores where our suitcases sit in the hotel to remind us we are transient, that we have passed through like clouds.