LLANACCOCHA

Before you continue on, please read Part 1 of this story, when the crew is discovering Chuschi and plans the trip to Llanaccocha. This story starts as we first step foot in La Puna.

 

As I stepped down from the combi I breathed a sigh of relief (with even less oxygen than before) – the ride had been a bit too cozy (cramped) and after so many twists and turns it was refreshing to have my feet planted on solid ground again. Without much ado, everyone grabbed their bags and headed single-file down a path into the treeless landscape. I couldn't spot a landmark or sign of any sort – this was a place you had to be taken to. Before we had gone more than a few meters, Gloria, a young woman who sings and had participated in our workshops, turned back to us and explained that we had to eat some of the earth before entering: for protection, and to ensure that we didn't get lost or taken by the mountains. She grabbed a pinch of dirt and put it in her mouth, smiling but serious. This is a magical place, and nothing to be taken lightly.

 

The journey through the high altitude hills didn't faze the Chuschinos, even weighed down as they were by instruments and supplies. We four women of the documentary crew, however, did notice the heaviness of our film equipment, food, and the jackets that we soon took off. The hike felt infinite, like we were caught in a time loop, as we passed herds of alpacas roaming the hillsides, occasional huts and their inhabitants and a few crisp mountain streams. Once, pausing for a water break at a precious trickling stream, a few women took off their hats and used them as drinking vessels, dipping the stiff brim into the water and using the pointed end as a spout to drink it. Oh, you can imagine our excitement at that scene; we rushed to record this new use for the emblematic hat of the region.

 

A few hours later, we arrived. Dogs barked down at us from a choza (hut) on top of a hill that overlooked Llanaccocha (Black Lagoon). This is the humble home of Francisco's mother, and her family had lived on that land for generations. She seemed unsurprised to see such a group arriving to her home, but I can't imagine how her son had heralded our coming. The women quickly got to work starting the fire inside the thatched hut while the men tuned their instruments. The lake below called to us, ominous, dark and beautiful. And as the men headed down to fish, we accompanied them to get the lay of the land and take some preliminary shots.

 

Water birds swooped and swum, catching fish picturesquely against the backdrop of the dark apus (mountains) bordering the lake. From nowhere, a cold rain begins to fall, and then hail. As we hurry to grab our cameras and the men grab their fish and instruments, the women head towards us, laden with buckets of food. The rain/hail becomes heavy and we flee for some small chozas nearby. After awkwardly shoving ourselves and equipment through the tiny doorway, we all huddle, munch on oca (a boiled tuberous vegetable), and pray for the rain to stop. It slowed down enough for the men to go back outside and fish, and we jerry-rigged a rain cover for a camera, determined to get some shooting done.

 

The Chuschinos had told us that if one takes from Llanaccocha without first making the pagapu (offering), bad things can happen. Perhaps distracted by the newcomers, it had slipped their minds and they forgot to make the pagapu to the land. When they realized their mistake, the men discussed among themselves; it was decided that Francisco and another man would make the offering, with the film crew invited to accompany them. We head towards the far side of the lake, and after a few minutes of walking the rain stops.

 

Where we stop there has been a rock slide; the sheer face of the apu at the far end of the lake is a huge swath of tumbled stone. It happened not too long ago, caused by a mining explosion. The immensity of the destruction took as aback. Here, Francisco makes the pagapu. Inside a nest of rocks, he places two apples, two mandarins, two bananas and grapes as an offering, and places a stone on top of it while speaking words in Quechua. It is done.

Francisco's apparent discomfort with our presence during the offering suggested that the pagapu had never been filmed before, let alone by foreign women. We appreciated the honor of being permitted to witness this ceremonial act, to record it with our cameras and share it with the world. 

 

The group heads back to the lake, but I stay behind, called to get close to the creek that tumbles from a crease in the mountains and flows to fill Llanaccocha. It was an audiophile-biophile's dream – crystal clear sound of crystal clear running water with no human interference. I sat there for an eternity, hypnotized by the grandness of the sound coming through my headphones. I appreciated the beauty of this place, the purity of the water (delicious by the way), and fear that there will come a time when it's beauty is tarnished and waters contaminated by mining exploitation.

 

When I caught up with the rest of the company I learned they had already harvested the jurihuaylla, but that they had saved some sprigs for me. The dry, golden grass surprised me with its simplicity, but its importance for the people of Chuschi filled me with reverence for the plant. I put it in my hat and it felt so much more right than the plastic-fabric flowers did.

 

Now, with the sky clearing and the fishing done, the band readied itself for its performance. Posted up against a rock with the lake in the background, they sang songs for Llanaccocha, songs for jurihuaylla, songs for hats. Chuschi's traditional music, the chimaycha, is characterized by the high notes of the chinlili (small guitar) and the high singing voices of the women. The songs seemed to last forever, repeating the same melodies and refrains in Quechua.

 

After all decided we'd recorded quite long enough, the band of Chuschinos headed up the hill to cook the fish, while we (the film crew) lingered at the water's edge. We were held hostage by the incredible golden sunlight that burst through the clouds, illuminating a scene that few hours before had been exceptionally dreary. Zoom in to the lumpy, humid terrain. Paco (Distichia Muscoides) is a springy ground cover endemic to South America that lives in high altitude wetlands. Its small, sharp-ended leaves create a delicate yet resistant structure that makes for an incredibly therapeutic siesta spot. I was fascinated by this minuscule flora that contained a world within it, inhabited by tiny mushrooms and tinier flowers.

 

We felt reluctant to leave this magical place, but were drawn back up the tall hill by the smell of smoking trout. Under a vibrant pink sunset, we ate and reminisced. Francisco shared the names of all the apus surrounding us, and Crisóstomo expressed his fears that this land will be laid waste by mining. The water that flows from these mountains feeds into Ayacucho (the nearest city), but its citizens don't know, don't care to know. I'm worried how far it's gone now, more than a year later.

 

Suddenly, we were all moving, saying quick goodbyes and sharing our thanks before making our way quickly down the hill and back the way we had come. The sunset had entranced us all, so the long walk back in the dark was an unavoidable reality. But the moon was out, and the mayor had his horse. (Ironically, the truck he came in got a flat tire and had to wait for rescue).

 

The next day, we said our farewells to the sweet Chuschinos who had made our stay so lovely and hopped on a combi, this time heading back toward Ayacucho (called Huamanga by the locals) and on to the next leg of our journey.

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