Llamas and Lost Words – 5 Stories from South America

I have tons of pictures of llamas and alpacas. Like, TONS. (If you’ve been around my Instagram, you’ve surely noticed.) I feel kinda bad that I keep bombarding my poor social channels with all these pictures of fluffy, mean animals, so, in a desperate attempt to overcome my obsession for llamas, I decided to put my best pictures in one huge, llamatastic post. And of course it wouldn’t be me if they weren’t accompanied by little stories (mostly unrelated to llamas – it’s ok, you can chill now).

Enjoy!

  1. The Amboro Creeper – Amboro National Park, Bolivia

Cody has left us to catch his flight back home, and we’re all alone. Our poorly maintained fire barely cooks our pasta all the way through, but finally we’re done, and we sit down for our last dinner in the Bolivian jungle.

Ever since the shadows started to grow deeper, I have felt this kind of tension. As if someone was running their hand on my spine – it’s like being constantly on the verge of a chill running down my body. I’m uncomfortable like something had been painlessly dislodged.

The first night out here, we lay in the tent like little kids in camp, and faithful to the tradition, Cody asked: ‘Do you have any scary stories?’

He recalled the time he woke up in the middle of the night to find an unknown figure standing at the foot of his bed. I stuck to the theme and tell the story of a mischievous spirit – or possibly a gnome, since it was Finland after all – that kept stealing my things and returning them after a while. I don’t think they quite believed me – that’s okay, I’m not sure I believed it myself. Sarah told her story about the man who hid in her room to wait for her to finish her shift at the bar.

To be honest, flesh-and-bone creepers have always freaked me out a lot more than ghosts.

Tonight it’s just the two of us, though. We talk about relationships and life goals with the kind of an openness that occurs naturally in darkness. There is no more wine and the billions of stars above us are starting to fade into a thicket of clouds, so after a while we retire in the tent for the last time.

I wake up in the middle of the night. I’m surfacing into awareness slowly, but my skin is crawling.

It’s dark, but I can see the shape of Sarah next to me. My mind is still bleary from sleep. There is something… something that I can’t quite catch. Through my haze I hear the noise:

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

The sound of footsteps.

It seems to be near my side of the tent. The wind, I think, rustling up the leaves. Or maybe someone on the road, walking up to their farm.

In the middle of the night?

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Soft and slow. Like someone walking in a distance, or someone trying not to get heard.

Sleep wins, and I fall back under.

In the morning it’s easy to believe that I dreamed the whole thing. With the daylight comes peace of mind, and the ants on my spine settle and dissolve. As we’re making breakfast, I laugh about it a little bit.

‘You know, I didn’t want to say anything about it last night because it was so stupid, but I felt really jumpy all night. You know, like really restless and stuff. I guess I’m not made to live in the jungle.’

‘Mmh’, Sarah says. ‘Did you hear the footsteps last night?’

‘Wait, what?’

‘I heard footsteps outside our tent.’

‘Shit, I thought I imagined the whole thing.’ It’s light out, but my skin has started tingling again.

Sarah, being the no-nonsense girl that she is, shrugs. ‘Maybe it was just someone on the road, walking home.’

‘Yeah’, I say. ‘Someone on the road.’

Suddenly ‘m glad we’re leaving.

2. Ipanema Girl Forever – Cusco, Peru

He is taking forever deciding on a sweater that all fit the same. I don’t mind; I like watching him rummage through the stock, complaining about the colour teal as he does so. When we walked to the shop, he held my hand, and it made me feel like I might do something dumb like tell him I’d miss him.

I ask myself: where even is the story in this? There is none. There is only a collage of memories that wouldn’t fit together in a puzzle: memories of long talks and grilled alpaca hearts, of dancing on tabletops (hazy ones of that) and stories about island lights on the still sea, and laying in bed listening to him singing Girl from Ipanema in the shower. There is no punchline, no lesson to be learned, no plot twist or happy ending.

He finally makes up his mind and picks a grey sweater, exactly like the other grey sweaters he has tried on, and instantly becomes one with all the other backpackers wearing their woollen sweaters, wading their way through the llama triangle: Bolivia, Peru, Chile. On our way out, a cheery employee damn near draws blood as she sticks a pin shaped like a Peruvian flute to our shirts.

I take mine off and put it in my pocket. Weeks later, I would pull on those same skinny jeans and find it still there. I would glue it to the corner of my mirror as a reminder that I should start bringing home souvenirs better than halfway romances.

So we trace the cobbled streets in search of something better to do, talking about travel and the apocalypse while we sample churros and ice cream. It is forbidden to talk about things that will come later because that would just put us both in an awkward position. With something so delicate as this, you simply can’t say things like will I see you again? or I wish you weren’t going the other direction. I don’t want to think about leaving but the sand is running out between our fingers, faster and faster. No more private jokes in a cheap room only lit by the relentless back glow of a late-night movie. No more him making fun of my height and holding my hand while I make fun of this cutesy gesture but all the while liking it still.

All that will be left will be him pretending like keeping in occasional touch will keep us close and me pretending that I will be able to leave any piece of him right here. I wonder how he will remember this when it’s all over.

Maybe there is no story here; just a scene glimpsed while absent-mindedly browsing through a book. A man like him will find other arms to wrap around him soon enough, and I suppose that a girl like me will, too. So it goes, that we might trace each other on the map for a while… But then it fades as we forget the little things. He will be another daydream lost to me. To him, I become a hazy memory of a warm girl whose hand he could hold but who now turns into this ghost that is little more than an unmoving avatar and a glowing screen.

Just this remains: Girl from Ipanema, a flimsy flute brooch hanging from my mirror, and all our good intentions.

3. The Honeymooners – Colca Canyon, Peru

Any sane person would probably agree that 4 a.m. is not the greatest of times to haul ass out of bed just to climb a mountain for three hours. These same sane people might add that this sounds even worse considering that breakfast only awaits on the other side of the mountain.

Now I may normally be a little bit crazy, but I must agree with these hypothetical people.

A line of lights is already trailing up the path, just interrupted by darkness in places where groups keep gaps between each other. It’s surprisingly warm; within ten minutes I have shed both layers of llama sweaters that I had imagined I’d need. I feel strong and ready for this. Let’s climb a mountain in the dark! Then again I would do anything for breakfast.

My play-pretend husband is looking a little worse for wear. I warn him that if he faints, I’m going to leave him for the condors. There is little hope I will make it up this path on my own, let alone with him on my back, and I’m too poor to hire him a pony.

I met him where the lights were low and the music loud, looking for a place to go… Wait, no, that’s lyrics to Dancing Queen. Half true, though: I sat next to him in a rowdy backpacker bar in Arequipa, and we got along so well I didn’t even remember to run him through the regular backpacker questionnaire of where from, where to until the next morning. I swept him off his feet with constant sneezing and mean humour. When he introduced himself, I immediately chirped:

‘Hey, I know someone else by that name! He was a dick, though. He literally throws rocks at little children.’ After a second I graciously added: ‘I’m sure you’re not all that bad.’

The next day we treated our hangovers with some queso helado ice cream. It translates as frozen cheese. The vendor swore that it’s not what it sounds like but because he spoke Spanish, I didn’t quite catch what he said it actually was. Not that it mattered, though. I’m a culinary daredevil and I would have ordered it anyway. Never underestimate my love for cheese.

We managed to sneak up on a rooftop overlooking the main plaza. Snow-topped mountains cowering behind the white-washed church set the scene behind us as we were laughing and making out like we were the kind of 17-year-olds that movies belive 17-years-olds to be like. I posed like a French supermodel when he snapped a picture of me in front of all that.

‘Are you gonna show that to all your friends back home to brag that you got on with a hot Finnish girl?’ I quipped.

‘You’re my girlfriend for the day. Would be awkward if I forgot what you look like’, he said. Then we made out some more.

***

Now I’m waiting for him as he’s throwing up behind the bushes. I am secretly glad he’s just as unfit as me. It’s a lot less awkward if both of us die on this mountain.

A shy light has crept into the world and we are not even halfway up when our guide catches up to us.

‘You have to go faster, you’re the last in the group’, he says only half jokingly.

Sure, dude, I’m thinking, but have you SEEN our group? I’m the only girl on the trek. Not that it should matter, of course. What does matter, though, is that the rest of our group runs literal alpine marathons for fun. One of the guys even climbed Huayna Potosi, the freaking Everest base camp level volcano in La Paz! They eat treks like this for breakfast. Speaking of which, we haven’t had any. What kind of feng shui am I supposed to draw my strength from?

Maybe that’s for the best, though. The image of my unfortunate hubby retching behind the bushes sticks to my mind. It’s good we’re not travelling together longer than this, he would never hear the end of it.

Laying in a bean bag chair on the rooftop of our hostel, just a little too hangover still, we had decided that the Colca Canyon trek would be our honeymoon. I sighed.

‘Honeymoon implies that we’re married. That was the quickest wedding ever, I can’t even remember it.’

You’re not supposed to see your bride before the wedding, right? Or the honeymoon? I don’t know which tradition we were following, but we said good night and headed to separate dorms anyway to prepare for a gruelling 3 a.m. wake-up. My hopes for a good bit of shut-eye came crashing down, though, for a force de majeure known and despised by all who have ever stepped their foot in a hostel: English boys.

They screamed. They threw up, both on the floor and the trash bin. They yelled ‘fuck’ a lot. Actually, I think that was mostly what they were yelling. They fought. They lay on top of each other so long that I already thought they were gay lovers but it turns out it was just a friendly strangling match in order to get the puking boy back on his feet. All the while, a group of French were playing cards in the corner. I politely explained to them that I have to wake up in three hours and asked if they could turn off the light, and they didn’t, but they kept playing cards a little more quietly.

When I woek up at three, I turned on all the lights, slammed my locker and spent a good minute massaging plastic bags in my hands.

Revenge is a dish best served petty.

***

As we climb higher, the air becomes thinner and the path more rugged. Horses start to pass us. The only person behind us now is the middle-aged lady that looks like she used to model for Balkan aerobics instructions videos in the 80’s. The Justin Bieber song the guide is playing has been going on at least ten minutes. Wait, does he just have the song on repeat? Poor victims of the tourism industry, can’t even afford headphones or some decent manners. He’s trying to small talk. I am trying to block out both him and Miley Cyrus singing in my head: it’s the cliiiiiiiiimb…

I holler loudly as the top appears behind ponies behinds. We made it! The alpine marathon mountaineers of our group are waiting, looking like they’ve just been doing some light house work.

We arrive in town looking rugged (me), pale (him) and accomplished (all the rest of them). A friendly stray dog latches onto me as we’re chillign in the park in the sun later, and my three-day-husband warns me I am going to get fleas as I scratch the good boy behind his ears.

I sigh.

‘This is exactly why we need a divorce, bae. I can’t live like this anymore. I need to be able to pet as many stray dogs as I want to.’

I spent the rest of the day napping against his shoulder, the bus window, the restaurant wall and a pile of clothes others left behind for me to watch while they go into the hot springs. Gettign back to the hostel and under hot showers feels better than any travel romances. I’m looking forward to a long night in a 10-hour bus to Cusco, in a seat that reclines all the way back. (Joke’s on me – Peruvian busses like to show loud peruvian game shows on night busses.)

Before I leave, I ask him if he’d like to write something nice on my travel diary. It’s a tradition I’ve started and not kept up since Australia. It would be a nice thing to do if I ever remembered to ask for contributions before the people I’ve met are already riding into the figurative sunset. His will be among the only entries from this trip.

It reads:

To my lovely wife Elina! It was such a shame our marriage only lasted three days… But oh what a honeymoon we had!’

 

 

 

4. Way, Way Far Over Here – Uyuni, Bolivia

As I lie here contemplating life, the foreigness of it all strikes me in a sweet, soft way. The wood paneled floors, the nondescript white ceiling above me, it all could belong to a place anywhere else. But it doesn’t: it’s here where high altitude makes breathing hard and temparetures drop to freezing at night, and I’m here too, so far from home that home has ceased to exist for a while.

I feel like a Michelin man under my three layers of llama sweaters; outside, the chill of winter slowly circles the modest little hotel in an attempt to get in. We’ve dragged a space heater in but it is ony a temporary relief since one of the French girls is sick and we all agree that it’s only fair if we let them use it during the night.

There is something enchanting about a place so far removed that I could have never arrived on my own. On the palm of the famous nowhere, on Bolivian badlands, surrounded by strangers turned to friends over crowded bus rides and wine by the bonfire… I lie there until Sarah pops in and informs me that dinner’s ready.

The air is tense with anticipation. We devour our food nervously (I skip the soup – I hate soup), no matter what we’re talking about, the conversation always steers right back to the upcoming feat: the hot springs. As a concept it sounds nice: natural pools under starry skies and the bottles of wine we’ve brought with us from Uyuni. But the implementation? It’s -10 degrees celsius out there, and the ten feet from the changing rooms to the pool seems like a marathon distance.

For dessert, I dig out the tiny bottle of miner’s sugarcane booze we’d bought in Potosi just for this purpose and we take turns looking for encouragement from the cap of the bottle.

The show is go.

Faint laughter and quiet chatter drift into the dressing room from the pool. I change quickly; socks are the last to go, and as soon as my bare feet touch the stone floor, I’m dancing on tiptoes to keep warm. In the silky darkness, only outlines of people are visible. Bottles of wine and microfibre towels line the edge.

I slide in, careful not to slip on the round, smooth stones at the entrance. Warmth embraces me at once. My skin starts to tingle as my body is trying to adapt to the sudden change of temperature. I plunge my arms in, grinning like a madwoman, embracing the warm water back. Small droplets of ice are starting to formulate on my beanie and the lost strand of hair that hangs loose from my hairdo.

Sarah and I are sitting on the further edge of the pool, clinking glasses together time and time again. The only source of light is the modest motel on the top of the hill, but its bare windows only cast a wan square of light that doesn’t dare leave the vicinity of the building. When I glance up, I can see the galaxy in her best dress posing for us. It takes me a while to locate the Southern Cross – it lies tilted on its side here, only adding to the absurdity of the situation. The night air is below freezing but I am sitting here with my tongue tied on sweet red, in a bikini, next to a girl I got to know when I was 19 and drunk in a hostel dorm in Brisbane.

This is why we go far away.

I try to count shooting stars. Sarah has a supernatural talent of seeing every one of them. When one falls through the sky, I follow the tradition and think, ‘I wish for a travel romance.’ Then on a second thought add, ‘I wish for a travel romance that doesn’t end badly.’

After a few half-hearted love wishes I remember my medical condition and rather guiltily ask the skies: ‘Umm, if this gum infection could also go away, that would be dope.’

And then, after I’ve run out of wishes because there is nothing more to wish for – because everything is right here and good – I think to the next star: ‘I wish we’ll see more llamas tomorrow.’

5. The Curious Case of Blood and Bones – La Paz, Bolivia

You can only hope this isn’t the first time some of these people see llamas, I think as the tour group passes the first stalls with dried llama fetuses hanging high like grim windchimes. Under their stiff bodies, the tables are filled to the brim with love potions, amulets and incense. This is the Witches’ Market, and the llamas with their dead skeletal limbs and glossy eyes are a source of great magic.

Our guide is a young guy whose enthusiasm is only partly an act. ‘Even in modern-day Bolivia, rituals have a great meaning to the people’, he explains.

‘When you crack open a beer, you have to spill some on the ground for Pachamama – Mother Earth. Do you know what Bolivians do when they want to build a house? They pick the lot, and then they invite all their friends and family over and have a huge party on that ground. Lots of beer is spilled, food is had, Pachamama is happy.

But when you need to build something bigger, like an apartment building or a bridge… Then you have to find a witch doctor. He goes into the dark alleys and lonely streets, those nooks of the city that even a local doesn’t usually see. He goes where the homeless are gathered around a garbage fire and he joins them. As the night goes on, he makes friends with one of the men. He is old, alone and depressed, and he is more than happy to have his share of the stranger’s bottle. They talk; the stranger puts his arm around the homeless man’s shoulder. Did he know there was going to be a big, private party later? No? There would be lots of beer, lots of food for him. The stranger could show him.

They stumble to the party together. It is a strange place for a party: a half-prepared construction site in the middle of the city, with the foundations laid out for something that might in the future be a tall, straight-backed corporate skyscraper. The homeless man is already drunk, and now he’s being served even more. And food! He hasn’t felt this happy in years.

Maybe at some point during the celebration he stumbles too close to the open hole in the ground; maybe someone pushes him. But the next morning all signs of the party have been cleaned up, the concrete foundation has been finished, and no one has seen the man ever since.’

The guide laughs to break our stupored silence. ‘Of course it’s all a legend’, he reassures. ‘It’s just something people came up after some buildings here were demolioshed and they found human remains in the foundations.’

‘Anyway’, he claps his hands together. ‘Let’s continue the tour.’

As always, thanks for reading guys! Anyone out there who shares my undying love for llamas?


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