Ollantay, Balancia

Here is my rule, when balancing rocks: once you pick up a stone, try to use it. Otherwise you will waste your time looking for the perfect piedra, rather than understanding the weight and shape of those you hold.

A decade ago, mas o menos, my brother and I crested the back of some (I’m sure) sleeping puma in the Incan mountains, a day or two before the sun gate, before Macchu Pichu, and saw a field of sprouting stones. As if Moebius-drawn. Balanced by anonymous hordes. That must have been the first time I tried building an inuksuk, when the meme of balanced rocks first was sculpted into the substrate of my mind. Later, I would see the work of gravity glue in the Boulder river.

In Lyon, seeing that post about a job teaching in Peru, I felt in my hand the weight of a place, an unfinished thought, I’d been carrying all that time.

Our guide, and the porters carrying our food and tents when we hiked the Inca trail, were probably from Ollantaytambo, or one of the villages near here. Early in the morning, in the plaza de Armas, they throw gear and themselves on vans and trucks and head to Aguas Calientes. Maybe they drink macha or instant coffee, or munch the ubiquitous sandwiches with bread, avocado, and cheese. There will be stray dogs, and later, tourists, sitting on benches with backpacks, cameras, maybe guitars, patronizing the gradually opening hostels, restaurants, and tiendas. Nearby, off the south-east corner, is the market, and also where you can catch collective taxis to Urubamba. All of that, the plaza and market, along with the neighborhood where I live, Pilco Wasi, is new, not part of the ancient city. There is always construction, music from radios.

I’m leaving for Bolivia today, or at least to Cusco and Puno, and want to post some of this before I go. I have no tickets, reservations, or even clear idea of where I’m going, but I need to cross a border. I started telling people a while ago I was going to Copacabana, so now I guess I am.

This blog is a stone my own digital self is holding. It has its own weird voice and balance. It’s time to start working on these towers again. I’ll be talking about books, as always, but lately the texts I have followed have been paths through mountains, ruins and pools and terraces and rivers.

Par ejemplo: if you turn right along the Patakancha river, taking the nicer, narrow old streets outside the city (there might be ducks or children playing in the irrigation/sewer/laundry canals, or slow paced old women with plaits and stovepipe hats and bright red clothes, with at least one baby slung in a blanket on her back), avoiding the bottle-neck of tour buses going towards the Temple Hill, and then take the right path when the road forks along a stream, past farms and cottages, through dust from passing combis, little motor-bike taxis, then outside of one of the mud-brick houses will be a pole, the end of which is wrapped in red plastic, like a representation of a torch, or flower. This means that there is someone selling chicha inside. Actually, one of those red flags might means that there is only chicha nearby—sometimes you have to follow a trail of several poles, around corners or up hills, before you reach the woman or man with a large pot of fermented maize, milky yellow, powerfully alcoholic, full of energy.

If you want chicha, then, you walk down the steps to poke your head into a small, dark shed and ask “ai chicha?” and the two or three women who were visiting in Quechua wave you inside and give you a plastic cup with an extra dollop of foam. Stacked firewood, religious paintings, a small child that stares from the doorway, and cui, or guinea pigs, which if you express an interest in the woman will feed, causing such an alarming and adorable cacophony of bird-like chirping whistles. The chicha is one sol—about thirty cents. The guinea pigs are five.

Refreshed—maybe the high-altitude sun has moved now a bit beyond its zenith—you make your way past a shrine to Choquequillca, and then just after a wooden bridge, you can slip down from the path to the tranquil stream, and play troll, stacking rocks, reading, or strumming a mandolin.

Sometimes the rocks I balanced the last time will still be there, standing. Usually not. Once or twice others had made their own stacks, and that was best of all. I pick up a rock, and figure out where it wants to go. I follow my rule, and try to use whatever it is I’m holding.

Now I have to choose the next life-thing to balance on top of the thirty-seven years I’ve already stacked (and watched fall, and reassembled). My fingers know the angles of my past I want to carry, to present against entropy, above a stream, below a wind. When I look down what I see in my grip is this: an ability for languages, experience wandering and listening to the world, a professional interest in open software and courseware, an advanced degree in literature, and…

“What do you really want to do?” My aunt is asking me that question. This was more than two years ago, just before the wedding. I was there with R and my then-future in-laws, having seen buffalo grazing a long grass prairie and had a mid-summer soaking of Kansan fields and sky. They have a barn full of restored tractors and antique farming equipment. After getting married, we were moving to Turkey, and then to France, to follow her post-doctoral research. I didn’t know this then, but a year and a half later we would split up, and I would fly first to the Dominican Republic, and then to Peru.

Sometimes balance is impossible, what was beautiful collapses, and a rock you thought essential, integral, slips away into the river. Sometimes you have to move to a different place. My wife and I are getting divorced.

“I don’t know,” I said, trying to be honest. “It has something…something to do with stories.”



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