The rooms had enough room for a bed and small bedside table. They were about six foot square, which meant that you could put your head on one wall and have your feet rub up against the opposite wall. Not bad for me at six foot one inch, a little worse for Brad at six foot three inches, and a catastrophe for someone taller.
Squat toilets below us on the ground floor, no showers and no electricity. But at sixty cents a night who could raise a complaint? We prepared our beds in readiness for sleep, then went below to have something to eat and drink with the owners. They produced a visitors book which became the conversation centrepiece.
We also bought four extra bottles of drink. Paying deposits on the bottles far exceeded the price of the drink itself. There was also an extensive verbal assurance that the bottles would be returned. It was only early afternoon, but we were both fatigued and, with heavy rain outside, retired to our beds, Brad listening to some music on his walkman and me writing some letters, trying to convey some of the drama and geography of the previous days. How could I even hope to explain these sights and events? After a thousand strokes of the pen, I fell asleep. My only movement for the night was to get inside my sleeping bag. The nighttime sending temperatures to the lower. I slept for fifteen hours that night, which rather pleased "The Champ" who had regularly done ten or twelve.
During the next day we would prepare our supplies for our next trek as well as get the rest we still needed. We would be leaving the following morning.
We had been given directions for this walk by two Dutch people we'd encountered one night some weeks before. A chance meeting in a cafe! There were no sign posts pointing the way, and all we knew was that it should take five hours to get there. It would be fifteen hundred metres up from Tingo and about sixteen kilometres walking.
From the moment we started walking it was all guesswork. The trail was nothing more than a mule track, which would continually bring us to a point where we would have to choose between three and four branch-off alternatives. We had a general direction in our minds, upwards, and that seemed enough. That was until six hours had passed! It had been nearly all uphill. Like six continual hours of the exercise called "step-ups" that we had come to hate at basketball trainings. Our legs were tired, our lungs were straining for air and we were soaked with perspiration. The views were magnificent and the weather repentent.
We stopped and sat. The scene below and beyond was taken in, but we were both exhausted. We could see a small house on the side of another hill, so we thought that directions could be the order of the day. After reaching the house and warding off the somewhat savage dog, we pieced together a part-sign language, part Spanish conversation that soon had us retracing earlier steps. We had also run out of water and had only another couple of hours of light left. Not even a square of chocolate seemed to lift me, so I had five instead!
It was here that Brad showed the inner strength, as I became the one dragging behind. I had never felt so completely exhausted in my life. I had come to a complete standstill, bent over with my hands on my knees, sweating and gasping for air. I knew I needed water too! Brad assured me that he could "feel it in his bones" now and, looking up at him, I could feel that here was a true friend. Engaged in a support system, totally without any justification, just the desire with hope. I could always count on Brad when the chips were down.
After what was just twenty minutes, but seemed like an hour, we saw, way up above, what was a massive stone wall. Another half an hour passed and, with the sun just nearing the last peak on the horizon, we made it to the ruins. There was a small building just below it which, upon inspection, was revealed to be the beginnings of a hostel. A rough and ready affair for people who would make this walk.
Standing on the verandah, as if to welcome us, was José. He showed us the smile of a friendly man, and told us he was the caretaker here. He also revealed a crate of mineral water and cola, which seemed as valuable to us, and our thirst, as the ruins above.
There was one large room with a wooden double bed in one corner. We were too tired to cook dinner, so with a quick snack, we lay side by side on the bed, talking a little and reflecting on the day's effort.
It wasn't a good night for me, although my concern for waking old "super-sleeper" was duly wasted. Stomach cramps and vomiting and slight temperature were the order of the night. Post-script to exhaustion.
I was restless and couldn't sleep. My head ached, but I didn't have a headache! I felt hungry and thirsty so, in the wee hours of the morning, I fumbled through my pack, firstly finding a candle and then, once I had light, soon had a snack prepared. We also had our fully replenished water bottles and the cool water hit the right spot. It wasn't long, though, before my body was saying that it was going to reject the food, and I found myself outside vomiting again. It seemed never-ending, and I was glad whatever it was that was upset would now be out of my system. Surely this was all!
Next morning, after managing to get a meagre amount of sleep, I was up, weak but feeling good. The surrounding views were astounding and the air was thick with sweet oxygen, almost edible.
After the breakfast staple of oats and hot milo, it was up to explore the pre-Inca city which lay above. These massive stone walls were the most formidable in prehispanic South America. The exclamation mark of long forgotten masons. Once on top of this fortress, we were in total awe. The stonework and planning here were beyond their time, the views were beyond justification purely with words. "Awesome" is a typically American adjective which sounds right in this instance.
The afternoon was spent exploring some caves which José wanted to show us. A stopover at the local school eventuated in a game of soccer in the paddock surrounding the school. Shoeless, toothless, but happy children, scampering in every direction; shouts of "pase-me" and wild scenes whenever a goal was scored.
I wished I knew what they were thinking, because I could feel by their laughter that this was a true novelty to them. They loved it and, afterwards, as we sat and regained our breath they would come and stand close by. One of them was stroking my arm and others pawing at my legs. It was warmth, but moreso it was the hair on my arms and legs! Their parents would have very little bodily hair, other than on their heads. Here I was with plentiful hair, even a beard!
It had been a full day. Nighttime was drawing its curtain, and so it was to another gourmet delight. This time we called it something that sounded French and exotic, but the reality was that it was again the infamous spaghetti and tuna with tomato soup flavouring. It was a very practical meal, because the spaghetti and the packet soup were light and the tuna was canned and would keep in hot or cold weather.
The following morning we set off onto yet another unknown path with no real sense of direction. All our directions were, indeed, very intuitive. There were no maps or sign posted trails here. The first hours were spent weaving through the tops of the peaks, and then with four hours' consistent rain, we began descending into the lush valleys. Then the slow climb up the other side. Up, down, up, across, down and up.
The trail became quite muddy, slippery underfoot, and for this reason it became as hard on the body going uphill as it was going down. Now the muscles were tensed in case of slips and with due reason. Over the course of the coming hours we were both to have at least one full tumble and quite a few near miss slips. The trail was only a mule width here, and at the height of some crests the roll down the side could have been serious, if not fatal.
We had passed only one person in our first five hours of walking. An old Indian lady, who had looked up from tending her garden in the same manner of surprise as we had, seemingly appearing from nowhere. "Where do they come from, where do they go?" she must question.
We passed through three small villages during the course of the day's walk. Each had its own special beauty and the names of Longuito, Maria and Quinzango will always have meaning from this walk. We walked all day. Easy walking in comparison to the initial walk to get to Cuelap ruins. The rain made us damp, but with my pure wool T-shirt underneath, I was never cold. The sun would shine spasmodically and the day had balance to give us many pleasures.
The cluster of houses on the side of the hill above meant that Choctomal was within sight. There would be no hotels here, although we had been given the name of Carlos Cruz, as a man who would give us shelter for the night. A small gift would be the goodwill which was needed to maintain this system. We eventually found Carlos. He welcomed us into his home.
Pocket-sized, with the stern features that all the highland Indians bore. He had strength, but his smile was open, hearty. Lowering our packs to the ground felt good and gave the unusual sensation that your movements had become accentuated, that you were bobbing up and down as you walked. Your legs had failed to compensate for the lack of weight upon them. An imagined member of the ministry of silly walks.
Two small children appeared. Glazed innocent looks with their large dark eyes; expressionless faces. Barefooted and dirty, they sloshed their way over the muddy ground to beside Carlos and looked up at us. Mum soon arrived with another little one, a baby of just some months, securely in her arms. Two other men would come to greet us over the next hour, one was Carlos' brother and the other a neighbour. Their greetings were honest and their handshakes had the strength of people who lived close to the earth. Subsisting with the land. They asked from it as much as they gave.
There was an inspiring array of flora and fauna here. Outer sprinkling of leaves of a massive tree called the Amazon. And there, perched on one of its branches, was Carlos' house. It was a fairytale house. Of unique character to us, but typical of those we'd seen in the previous villages.
Its construction was original, typifying man's creativeness by using readily available materials. The infra-structure was of timber, mostly long and straight limbs five centimetres in diameter. They were tied with a special vine, as strong as rope, to give the overall stability. Smaller brush was then placed all over the walls and, eventually, a mud plaster would be applied to both sides. When a thatched roof was placed on top with an overhang to keep running water off these walls, you had an effective, well insulated house that would last forever.
Labour and time were two considerations that took on a different perspective up here in the Andes. Their carpentry lacked all forms of precision and their cuts were all done with an axe, but their houses stood strong and grand. These roofs were heavily thatched, layers of the passing years and with the current thatching being quite old and, therefore, quite flat, had a smooth sheen like that of a siamese cat's fur.
There were no windows, and just two time-weathered doors stood guarding the inside.
We were asked if we would like to stay the night to shelter from the rain, which was starting to gain momentum again. We carried our packs inside, stooping over to pass under the lowered height of the door, and moving into the one large room which was the house. If the outside hadn't been magical enough, then the inside surely was.
My senses were going wild as I panned like a movie camera. There was a wild concoction of smells. The only recognisable one being damp earth. With no windows it was dark inside, but my eyes began to adjust. For the romantic in me, it was an absolute feast. The uneven earth floor with mother hen leading her chicks across it, the blackened walls angled, below which the charcoaled remains of a fire existed. There was a solid looking log with steps accurately chopped out of it, leading up to a mezzanine floor. Our ceiling, someone's bedroom. A straggly unkept dog enquired at the door and, with little interest, turned and walked off.
"Quieres comer?" interrupted my studies. We were being asked to eat with them. I looked at Brad and knew immediately his thoughts would be the same as mine. We didn't really want to risk eating here, but how could we refuse the generosity of such poor people. They were desperate by my Australian standards of living, but I felt deep down that here were truly rich people. True hospitality. Humanity.
We left the building we were in and were led quickly through the now heavy rain, across the muddy ground to a smaller version of the main dwelling. Carlos showed us inside and then left. It was a small room barely two metres square with a small fire in the middle being tended to by Mrs Cruz. The raw features of two small children sitting beside their mother reflected the flames. Flickering from underneath a large pot. It gave us the only light for the room, the door being closed behind us to keep out the rain.
I turned in the silence towards Brad, who was staring into the flames and studied his face momentarily. He had shown great qualities over the last couple of days and, although we had had our disagreements, I knew that nights like tonight would live with us for the rest of our lives. I knew also that, like me, he wished that he could see what existed inside the pot. We had been careful, sometimes even to the extreme, of our eating and drinking habits and here we were about to eat something which we couldn't even see. A lucky dip, the surprise packet; fried hepatitis with side order of diphtheria?
Two guinea pigs wandered in through a small hole in the wall and sniffed at the pot before being invited to leave. Almost as if choreographed by Groucho Marx himself, we simultaneously turned to look at each other. SAY NO MORE!!
We handed her our bowls and she heaped on a generous portion. Spoonful after spoonful we ate. At first I would eat slowly trying to distinguish individual pieces of what seemed to be a type of stew. My imagination was more than happy to join in on this little experience, and soon I was tasting all sorts of oddments, like chewy llamas' eyes, the insides of rats. After several mouthfulls I figured this wasn't the best way to eat, so I just ate.
With no lights, there seemed little else to do after dinner except rest the bones. We found an area of the floor that had a little scattering of hay on it and lay our sleeping mats and bags on top. It was good to be getting out of our damp clothes and into our warm sleeping bags. It was with a sigh of deep contentment that I stretched out into my bag, wiggling to find the best form in the hay below me. It had been a wonderful day, full of adventure and to be told that we were the thirtieth and thirty first "gringos" to ever visit Choctomal, and the first Australians, was just topping on the cake. My sleep was deep with contentment. A pioneer.
It was morning. Someone had opened the door and sunlight beamed in. Speckles of dust and hay flickered in the beams of light giving a magical feeling. Almost tangible. Stars captured from the previous night.
I could see out the door, the sky was blue. A large pig snorted at us as he slopped past. The sound of the cocks crowing in the distant. The different whistles and chips of hundreds of birds filled the trees that surrounded the house. They celebrated warmth, splashing in the pools of water left behind by the rain.
After presenting the family with some gifts, and getting some general directions, we left for our final day's walk back to Tingo. It was nearly all downhill, but our legs were saying they had had enough and so we were happy to reach Tingo in about five hours. A tap shower, and "junkies" feast of biscuits, oranges and lollies and we felt on top of the world; a sugar feast!