I arrive in Putre after a non-eventful bus trip north to Arica and an equally uneventful day and night in Arica. Although I am sure that Arica has its’ beauty, after the magnificence of the desert, it all looks a bit bland to me. My host for the evening, a Californian called Franklin who now runs a hostel in Arica, tries to convince me otherwise, but what I experience is a grimy port town. I spend a few hours wandering, where I pick up on a trail of messages spray painted on the footpath- messages that I begin to follow, and this adds a tiny bit of intrigue to what is essentially a noisy walk along a busy road. I also stumble across the practise run for the carnival that will be held the following week. Communities from the surrounding areas, of which Putre is one, have descended on the town to rehearse. Despite this touch of colour and music, to be honest, I am tired. Tiredness has crept under my skin and it feels old, like I have been dragging it with me, a hidden passenger, all the way from Australia. The exertion of the last week in San Pedro is now kicking in and I am looking forward to getting to Putre where I can rest and do some walking by myself.
The next day, the bus takes me about two hours inland and 3,500 metres up to Putre, which sits on the border with Bolivia and Peru. My travelling companions are a group of german tourists, one of whom is suffering pretty badly from altitude sickness, and lots of Peruvians, who I am guessing are going home. Putre turns out to be a cozy little town, sleepy even, nestled lovingly in the folds of a valley. On the bus I start talking with a woman who, as it turns out, is working at the place where I will be staying. We walk together from the where the bus drops us off and I am pleased to see that the hotel is quite a bit out of town. The silence here is divine, and as we walk along the dusty trail, a gorgeous herbal smell keeps wafting past. The trail is lined with a bush that is producing a lemony, thymy, lavendery smell that I wish I could bottle and drink. It is the smell of clean air and sunshine….. My accommodation is a delightful cabin with wooden floors, a very comfortable double bed, fluffy blankets, and a private bathroom ~absolute luxuries in relation to where I’ve been staying. I am so happy. I simply cannot wait to have a hot shower and a siesta in that bed! I walk into town and have lunch (the best precursor to an excellent siesta). I order lomo a lo pobre. It is absolutely delicious. The cook is Peruvian, so the onions are spiced right up. Also, they serve the aji with a type of pumpkin bread called sopapilla. Warm and comforting, I devour it with the crunchy tomato and onion salsa that they serve me. I enjoy this meal thoroughly before settling in to my huge bed for a delicious three hour siesta. There is an absence of human sounds, all I can hear are birds and the breeze moving through the bushes. I am in absolute heaven.
Putre has a tourism office that gives you advice on doing walks in the area, so the next day I head in and have a word to the fellow working in the office. He gives me the run down and says that that afternoon he can accompany me on a short hike (3 hours round) up to a cerro for sunset. I say yes and head off to lunch where I meet an Austrian guy who decides to join in as well. That afternoon we meet Wolfgang and Tony, a hilarious Italian/German, and head off to the cerro. Christian, the guide, is an absolute delight to walk with. He guides us up and down, following an ancient trail. As we pass by piles of rocks constructed by others who have walked the same trail, Christian explains their significance. These are rocks left behind by people, travellers walking past. Each rock symbolises the emotions felt by the walker at that moment as they walk the path. The piles also function as markers of paths or deviations from paths. This was a pre-christianity tradition of the people of the mountains, and with the arrival of christianity, rather than eradicate this custom, crosses were often placed on top, the objective of which being to integrate christian symbolism. I have been making my own little stone piles for years when I walk, usually at very emotional moments. There is one, for example, that I built on Lanzarote in 1997 during a particularly difficult time. Today I pick up a stone to add to the pile and I centre in on myself to see what emotion I am feeling. Gratitude.
The path takes us along streams of water, through a cave. We skirt the edge of a mountain and periodically I pause to look back on Putre, each time it is further and further away. Light clouds are rolling overhead, and with these clouds comes the thought that they will obscure the sunset, but i don’t really care.
Oh my god, it feels so good to move, and to move in unison with these lovely people, who are also so happy to have their feet on the earth. My body feels like an engine propelling me forward in time to the crunch crunch crunch of my feet on the ground. Breath moving in and out, arms swinging, joints articulating, bones holding me upright. I inhabit my body in this moment, as if i were inhabiting an organic machine, the product of evolution. I am doing what humans before me have done for millions of years, and I feel connected with everyone that came before me, simply, through this action of walking.
We get to the top just as the clouds begin to roll away, revealing a soft summer sun, dipped in gold. The top of the cerro is adorned with a cross, wrapped in blue fabric with a mirror placed at the front, as if it were a face. When I walk up to the cross I see the clouds behind me mirrored there, a constantly changing reflection of nature. Once a year this cross gets collected by the people of the town and taken down to the local church where it stays for a week, with the locals keeping watch over it, before being returned once again to the mountaintop. Christian refers to it as a ‘velatorio’, which is what happens when someone dies and people sit with the deceased for a period of time before burial or cremation. Wolfgang and Tony are involved in an animated conversation in German, but Christian and I sit and allow the sunset to wash over us. For a second, I fight the feeling that I will throw myself off the edge. Rather than move back, I push myself to sit right at the edge, to sit inside the feeling. I believe that my fear comes from a lack of trust in myself, a fear that I cannot control myself, that I don’t have dominion over what my body does. This is an important realisation as I sit at the edge, I file it away.
The sun starts to dip, and its’ soft light bounces off the underbelly of the cloud overhead, casting a pink light across the mountains. The time has come to go down, the light disappears quickly, and we walk back along the trail in the darkness, which opens the space up for a deeper conversation that I get lost in and which we continue over dinner….After dinner I walk back to La Chakana under the light of a crescent moon and I feel a little scared. It is the fear of that which I cannot see, the fear that still, every now and again, makes me check under my bed, just as I did when I was a child. The monster coming out of nowhere. As I walk I focus on the feelings of safety in the arms of the mother, and the feeling of the earth beneath me supporting me. The only way to overcome fear is to sit with it and move through it, as hard as that is sometimes to do….
Another day, Christian offers to accompany me to the start of a longer hike that I want to do alone. He meets me at 7 am and we walk together for about an hour, where he gives me some loose directions on how to go about finding some pictographs that are on a rock face about three hours away. I set off, not really caring if I find them or not. I trust in my sense of direction and am just happy to explore. I know that if I get lost all I need to do is get out my compass and head East. So off I walk. Across a field, and, coming across a path between fields I decide to follow it as it is going in the general direction that Christian had pointed out. Hummingbirds fly past me and I greet them. After a while, the path starts to head down, so down I go, following the sounds of the river. There is a crossing and I just have to sit there and let the sounds of the river wash over me for a while. The water is crisp and happy as it runs, singing, across the rocks, down it goes, the sound deepening as it approaches the fall….I continue on the path, which is now headed up and around the mountainside. The memory of that dodgy bloke in Vicuna flits across my mind, but something has shifted inside me since then. This place is safe, how could such a divine place not be…. I walk and walk, listening to the sounds of my footsteps and my breathing. I stop and add rocks to different piles along the way, remembering what Christian told me about the travellers adding their emotions to the path that they travel. I add love, energy, family, peace, and importantly, gratitude to the piles that I find. They also help me to mark my path for the return journey. After quite some time I come across a house and, walking past I start heading down again. At this point, my intuition tells me to turn around, that I’ve gone too far. And yes, it is true, when I walk back past the house I realise that it is set close to a giant rock wall that I suspect is where the pictographs are. Sure enough, I walk up to the rock face and there they are….
The walk back is equally wonderful and along the way I stop to give way to a man who is riding his horse, mustering four cows along the narrow mountain trail. We have a fleeting conversation before each heading in the opposite direction. He leaves me with a lasting impression though. The encounter speaks to me of the simplicity of life. The ways that we complicate ourselves with things we convince ourselves we must have/need/do…. I pause once again at the river to absorb its tinkle bell song, before following the camino back. Although by the time I get back to my cabin I am absolutely knackered, I feel satisfied to have done it by myself, to have followed my feet and Christians loose directions without really caring what the outcome was….. only the joy of one foot in front of the other.