Saturday, February 17, 2018

Long, Cold Night

Mummies of Coqueza (Repriese by Nancy Lundebjerg on

The earth shook as the mountain spewed another plume of white smoke.  I looked over at my wife tending our two babies and wondered what sacrifice the mountain gods might demand.  The mountain rumbled again from deep within its belly and sent a shiver down my spine.

It had been days since the Shaman had set out to climb the mountain followed by the last of our young men bearing small gifts from the village. Our older son was among them, he barely qualified as a man yet the Shaman had demanded he join the pilgrimage.  The mountain rumbled again and another plume of smoke spat up into the air.

I looked up from my musings and met my wife’s eyes. She made not a sound but I knew she wanted to pack up our babies and head for our mountain cave.  She had been a child of the mountain and I had wooed her down to my village at the edge of a vast white plain. She came with a dowry of five llamas but I loved her for her warm brown eyes and wide smile. She was my everything.  The mountain rumbled again.  

I looked past my wife to my uncle sitting blindly in a corner of our hut with the sun shining through a window lighting up his face. He had been like a father to me and was the last of that generation. He offered no advice as to whether to go or to stay.  Another plume of smoke escaped the mountain.

We should set out now my wife said as she quietly tended our babies. They laughed and giggled not sensing our fear and oblivious to the rumbling of the mountain.  I looked out on the white salt sea and debated setting out in search of a place to shelter far away from the rumbling mountain.  A smell like no other had entered our small house and the plumes of smoke had gotten darker and more frequent.  The sun was sinking slowly to the west and I knew that fleeing to our mountain cave would need to wait until the sun rose again.   i motioned to my wife that I would be gathering wood for the fire that we would need tonight.  

When I stepped outside, our last remaining llama looked sadly at me as if to say you sacrificed my brothers and sisters for nought.  I tended to his needs — simple though they were.  I gathered logs and tinder and returned to my family.  Tonight we would eat and be warm for who knew what tomorrow would bring.  The babies were finely sleeping and so we settled in for a long night.  The mountain rumbled.

I woke disoriented by the smell in the air and murkiness of the light.  I gently shook my wife and said pack up the babies and then went to wake my uncle.  He just blindly stared at me, then gently shook his head.  It was his way of telling me that he was too weak for the journey up the mountain.  My heart broke at that.  I gathered the few possessions that we would bring with us to our cave.  Some grains, a bit of meat. I looked at my wife as she gathered up our babies.  

We loaded up our llama, the most important member of the household and set off on our journey up the mountain. We took the main road through our small village and our neighbors came out silently to wish us farewell. I knew that they believed that the Shaman would be successful and were determined to be there to greet him upon his triumphant return.  The rumbling had gotten stronger, the smoke more frequent, and the smell more intense but they were not to be moved.   We walked up the trail where we had first met but did not pause in our march.

It was as if the sun had bowed down in service to the all powerful mountain god.  The day was dark yet there was not a cloud in the sky.  Upwards we climbed towards our cave.  We hoped we would be safe but we did not know.  The mountain rumbled one more time, I looked up and gently urged my wife and our llama to pick up the pace.  She and I each sheltered a child in our arms.

Finally we reached our cool dark cave.  We had come here in our youth to escape the prying eyes of our families.  It was much as we had left it after our last visit to provision it should we need a hiding place.  That trip had been after my daughter died, a sacrifice to the mountain god.  Upon seeing the first smoke streaming from the mountain, the Shaman had chosen her and several other young girls. They had gone up the mountain because that is what we did when the Shaman called. He had come back.  She and they did not.

We settled the babies together on a mat and brought our llama in with us.  Somehow in the cool darkness of the cave the rumbling seemed further away and we were no longer unsettled by the plumes of smoke streaming endlessly from atop the mountain. We built a small fire and settled in for another long night of restless waiting. 

I fell asleep listening to the rumbles of the mountain beneath me and with the smell of the smoke in my nostrils. When I awoke it was to the still, inert forms of my wife and my babies.  Our llama looked at me with his soulful eyes. I drew one last breath and hoped that my son would not suffer the same fate as us.  

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Feeling Small

Salt Wind Sky Air Sun
Endless blue white horizons
We leave no footprints

Airstream on the Salt Flats by Nancy Lundebjerg on

When I wrote this, I was sitting in Airstream Trailer on the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.  The vast expanse of the salt flats really drives home the fact that we humans are but tiny specks on the face of this earth.  Our journey to the trailer took the better part of the day as we left from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) climbing up to through the Andes to the border with Bolivia.

Along the way, we stopped at the Emerald Lagoon, a geyser field, and the Red Lagoon.  As we drove up to the latter, Eric, our guide, told us that it had shrunk significantly since his last visit just 3 weeks ago. Bolivia has been in the grip of a severe drought for the past several years and the lagoon is surely the worse for that. It is an important nesting site for 3 types of volcano flamingos (James, Andean, and Chilean) that call the Andes home and to seeing the lagoon this way drives home the impact of climate on natural habitats. 

Flamingos, Laguna Colorada (Bolivia) by Nancy Lundebjerg on

As for the salar, it is a vast expanse of white nothingness that is ringed by volcanoes and mountains.  Because there is nothing for your eye to grab on to, it is supposedly easy to play with perspective – somehow making small toys look huge and humans look small once you master a tricky bit of photography.  For the record, I did not master it.

During the rainy season, the salt flats flood, creating a mirror that reflects the sky and everything in between.  As I was planning this trip, I was torn --- if the salt flats were flooded, our airstream would be parked up in the mountains and if it was dry, we’d be alone under an endless sky.  Both scenarios were equally appealing.  As an avid photographer, I longed for the mirror.  As a seeker of solitude, the airstream parked in the middle of nowhere was calling my name.  On this trip, the solitude won.

Our days were spent roaming – climbing to the top of a cactus island seemingly floating atop the white sand like an alien ship.  We went to see the mummies high up on the side of the volcano and visited a cave with strange formations that had been discovered by local children and turned into a small tourist attraction by their enterprising parents.  We hiked a mountain pass and ambled along the edge of the salt amongst a herd of llamas.  All the while we were fueled by the excellent food of Issak the camp chef. Our sleep was marked by strange and wild dreams.  Perhaps caused by the altitude or perhaps by the medicine we were taking to combat the altitude.  Three days stretched endlessly yet passed by in a flash until suddenly it was time to go.

The Llama Stare by Nancy Lundebjerg on

One wonders what early humans living on the side of the volcano thought when they happened upon the salt flats.  Did they see it as an inhospitable expanse of land to be traversed much as  North American families traversed the Great Plains in covered wagons searching for a better life for themselves and their families?  Or was the mirror a portal into another world, a parallel universe so to speak?  A place where one could reach out and touch another, maybe better, version of oneself?

And what of that family mummified in a cave on the side of a great volcano?  The legend is that they died during the great, cold dark that followed a large volcanic eruption and were buried there together by other members of their village.  Yet, their facial expressions looked much the same as those that I had seen in Herculaneum --- legs contracted to their torsos and mouths open in a primal scream as if gasping for air amidst the ashes and fumes. We leave with a promise to ourselves to investigate the legend further.  Like most such promises, I suspect it will go unfulfilled when we plummet back into our daily lives.

Mummies of Coqueza by Nancy Lundebjerg on