by: TERESA RUIZ ROSAS
For José Enrique and Nolan
‘What Is This Commotion?’
– A print by Francisco Goya from the series The Disasters of War
We were travelling from Puno to Cusco along the solid railway built by the British to bring minerals and wool to the coast for shipping to Europe. It was renowned for its defects but still safer than the bus, and the plane was too expensive.
Josecito was five years old. He looked at the lake with delight, seeing the barges and reeds swaying slowly, as though waiting for something. Enchanted, he said that blue was his favourite colour. He’d never seen so much water except for the sea. This was an immense body of water; it merged with the sky, eliciting the little one’s joy and respect. Looked down on through the windows it was full of liquid subtleties and moved with a gentle, omnipresent rhythm whose mechanisms would forever be a mystery to us.
‘Mummy, are we on a train or are we floating?’
I took the opportunity to teach him something. ‘Lake Titicaca, Josecito, is the highest navigable lake in the world . . .’
He looked at me, looked at the lake and began to understand.
We had to change trains at Juliaca, a railway crossroads and a place of rampant commerce and open sewers. Not a hint of lake to redeem it.
We waited in the open air. Josecito was freezing. He peed in one place, I peed in another and we devoured our snack. An old man with a smile stained green by coca leaves offered us steaming tea from the dented cap of a Thermos flask.
The cold in Puno settles in one’s emotions and dispels fear. We were so grown up. Both of us.
We sat in the carriage’s ‘luxury’ seats. It was less than four hundred kilometres, but the train was so slow, Josecito said, that it seemed to be coming rather than going.
‘Lots of things fit in a train, Josecito.’ He was sleeping in my lap.
It was 1989, some myths had been forgotten and others were starting to be respected.
Josecito enjoyed our journey. He’d never seen chickens as passengers, nestled in the skirts of squat women. Nor had he learned the trick of how to tie bundles when you don’t have much to put in them. He had no idea that while some played cards or shaved in their compartments, others were hanging from the doors (they’d ‘forgotten’ their tickets). These people would experience the pleasure of a freezing purple grimace on an even purpler face if they weren’t caught and pulled off first.
Josecito was spellbound by the sicuri musicians, strumming their Andean melodies for loose change; the women with their hats and plaits offering traditional clothing ‘at cost’; and the furtive vendors of corn with cheese and watered-down drinks, who weren’t much older than he was.
He looked at me hopefully, raising his eyebrows in expectation; I didn’t want to get him something of such doubtful provenance. Habit engenders prejudice.
We went back to our seats.
‘Forget the corn and dried bread,’ said a helpful Bolivian woman. ‘It’s twelve, we’ll be getting to Ayaviri soon where we can eat kankacho, the tastiest food in the universe. Very nice.’ She registered my shock. ‘Don’t tell me that you’ve never tried it.’
‘What?’ I asked in panic, regretting having chosen to travel in such turbulent times. ‘The train stops in Ayaviri?’
‘Oh, it’ll stop . . . but no one will go without their kankachito, don’t worry.’
‘Isn’t Ayaviri controlled by the Sendero?’ I looked at Josecito as though someone were trying to steal him.
‘Yes. But kankacho is sacred.’
She seemed like a healthy, well-fed person. I didn’t dare to ask anything else, so I was treated to an explanation of why the meat, cooked in clay, wood-burning ovens, was a delicacy that transcended good and evil.
‘The livestock around here is the best in the world. It’s because of the salt in the land,’ she announced with the confidence of someone instructing the uninitiated. ‘The marinade with spicy uchucuta and black beer enhances the flavour of the meat, and you sprinkle it with panca chilli flakes, but the essential ingredient is the salt in the Ayavira land, which enriches the pastures. That’s why the flesh of the little animals is so tasty. Kankacho is made from chubby male sheep; they say that the ewes’ flesh is too tough,’ she said laughing and looking at her husband out of the corner of her eye. ‘There’s nothing in the world like kankacho.’
‘Oh . . .’
‘My mouth is watering,’ she sighed, and her eyes danced. ‘We’ll get to Ayaviri soon. We’ve just passed Melgar.’
‘With or without the Sendero, people need to live. Kankacho is income. It means cash. One train a day, once on the way out and then when it comes back again.’
‘Of course . . .’ I had always been in favour of life. Lamb was my favourite meat, and I’d tried kankacho fifteen years ago.
‘Let my husband get it for you. You shouldn’t get involved if you’ve never bought it before. You have to be quick, give them the exact amount so they won’t stiff you with the change. It’s expensive, but it’s a big portion with huayro potatoes and pickle. It melts in your mouth. You’ll never forget your first kankachito for the rest of your life. It’s a great food,’ she informed Josecito.
She sounded like an advert.
Josecito smiled at me. He loved good food.
Then the indescribable happened.
Ayaviri was in the hands of the Sendero Luminoso. The police station had been abandoned. The rubbish piled up alongside the line revealed the mess things were in. There was barely a soul in sight. There was something else different about the area. Was it more desolate than other inhabited strips of the Altiplano? I’d been there years ago, amazed by the baroque Saint Francis of Assisi Cathedral, which I would have expected to find in a major urban centre.
I was trembling. I didn’t know whether to force my eyes shut or to stay alert. One heard things, read statistics and saw images. Everyone knew someone who’d had something happen to them or been sent to the morgue, and travelling with your child isn’t the same as travelling alone.
I was hugging him, my beautiful Josecito, wrapping him up in my arms. We looked out of the window, still trembling. He told me that he’d give his life defending me. He was sorry that he’d left his plastic revolver behind. Children knew what ‘Sendero’ meant; they knew what a black balaclava was.
‘Let’s use our thoughts to call the Martians, Mummy, so they’ll come to rescue us!’
Not even the engineer knows whether he pulled the brake as the train snaked its way around the Andes at the challenging height of four thousand metres above sea level. Maybe he did for thirty seconds. Hands with wrinkled, filthy banknotes appeared through doors and windows. They received, with choreographic synchronicity, hot, tempting portions of kankacho wrapped in newspaper that bore news of Sendero activities. Urchins hopped on to bargain in corridors filled with passengers drooling Pavlovian saliva. Then they jumped from the moving train. Deals aren’t done that quickly on Wall Street or in Frankfurt, not by the fastest broker in the west.
The smell of the meat spread to impregnate itself in every corner of the green, ponderous, perennial – in places pestilent – train. I was anxious to open our package.
The feast was long and silent. We were all equals (that old dream). We ate our kankacho with our hands along with the potatoes and moraya pickles, greedily gorging ourselves, proudly foregoing ceremony, with lamb fat all up our arms. We licked our fingers and smiled radiantly with stuffed cheeks. I’d never felt so complicit with my fellow man, we didn’t need to look each other in the eye.
‘Mummy! It’s so good! Let’s get some for Daddy!’
We were in La Raya. Legend has it that this was where the Inca trapped the wind. We couldn’t buy anything.
I looked at him, so sweet and satisfied, and thought of his future vegetarian father. I asked myself if the Bolivian woman, who was tucking into her second kankacho, was really going to Cusco to see her grandchildren or if she just wanted to stuff herself with the memorable lamb.
We arrived at night. The station was busy, and we were exhausted by the long journey. For a few days I forgot about the terrifying presence of the Sendero Luminoso in my country, about all the different fronts of the fighting. But then I opened a newspaper from Lima in a busy Cusco café. In the old imperial capital people were careful about what they said. It was logical.
Translated by Kit Maude
Teresa Ruiz Rosas was born in 1956 in Arequipa. In 1994 she was shortlisted for the Herralde prize and in 1999 she won the Juan Rulfo prize from the Cervantes Institute in Paris for her short stories. Her books have been translated into German and Dutch. Apart from writing, Teresa Ruiz Rosas translates German and Hungarian literary texts into Spanish. She lives in Cologne.