I hold a deep respect but at the same time inherent distrust for horses. The memory of a childhood incident: a mooi river farm, tugging on a pair of reins to no effect until my dad with a gentle pat on the beast’s buttocks had transformed it into two hoofed monster-the straining, wild eyed type you see sculpted into the Trevi Fountain. Needless to say I was flung a few farm fences off and refused the invitation to ever saddle up again.That is until now, only this time I must make do with an ass (and a royal pain in the one at that). Ah the donkey, the horses dim witted (and all together gracious) equestrian cousin. They are as they appear (immortalized by Milne’s Eeo) disgruntled, misanthropic, brazen in their contempt for master and cargo. And so irrespective of how useful they may be in transporting maize sacks across mountain passes their short legs, knobby spines, deficits of attention and direction were simply not built to carry six cumbersome feet of Gringo.
I cling to the string reins, the makeshift blanket saddle. Considering the previous evenings ceremony it feels good to be outside, away from the rancid tobacco snuff, nostrils now free to inhale the more salubrious morning air. As our climb commences, I notice that our band of pilgrims growing in size. Several locals from the surrounding villages traipsing behind, including an elderly gentleman (who no doubt having done this before refuses the offer of my donkey in favor of his more reliable all terrain gum boots.)
Within minutes the mild anxiety of a morning drizzle has turned to all out tempest, rendering my patience and bargain bin poncho obsolete. The cold and wet make for a numb nose and hands, while the encircling mists set about impairing all visibility. The deluge transforms the mountain paths to muddy torrents, whose force our mules are incapable of securing their hooves against. They groan and fart while slipping, skating, at one point, in a spectacle of mud and excrement, I watch in horror as the overweight Peruvian lady in front of me and her carrier capsize completely.
When we finally arrive (three hours later) at the legendary lake of prosperity, fortune and proliferation, one of the maestros henchman (who is leading today’s ceremony, while the Maestro recuperates from his night of demon wrangling) removes a pack of swords and pins them to the shore. Once a makeshift plastic sheet alter is littered with the worshippers belongings and photographs, we assume our positions on the shore of the ominous black pool.
The ceremony begins with more chanting, tobacco snarfing. More perfume projectiling and abajo, abajo, abagooing. Like Mickey conjuring the waves in Fantasia, the black depths respond to our sorcerer’s commands, the wind howls mournfully as a frenzy of foam and white water wallop the beach. Again the more fervent of followers succumb, stamping feet and shaking heads.
In desperate need of a piss, I sneak off in search of a rock or shrub to relieve myself behind. One of the donkey herders halts me mid zip, reprimanding at me for straying from the ceremonial herd and worse for attempting to desecrate sacred soil. Coming to think of it, this is revered land, akin to me wondering into the Vatican and urinating on the pope’s polished marble floor. I apologize profusely, creep back to the group. A bursting bladder further irritation to the day’s string of mounting discomfort.
When I return, the pilgrims at the henchman’s command are tearing off their clothes and plunging into the lakes glacial waters. I can’t for the life of me summon the strength to join them. The below freezing temperatures, bitter winds have quelled any remaining enthusiasm or curiosity I might have come with. My companions no longer seem to me noble and faithful but merely deranged. Their teeth chattering, skin the hypothermic hue and texture of frozen chicken.
I feel overjoyed at this junction, not over the idea of the three return trip on a donkey but for sensing a tangible end in sight. Remounting the donkey I realise (with some disappointment) that the only hallucinations I have had thus far are those pertaining to a change of clothes and warm bed and the only thing we are likely to leave that forsaken lake of fortune with- is a bout of hyperthermia.
We make for a sorry sight: mud splattered, saddle harrased and drenched down to the last thread of our underwear .Not to mention smelling like the Natal Playhouse Foyer during the intermission of a pensioners half price ‘Rogers and Hammerstein’ Matinee.
Traipsing back into Don Augustin’s ramshackle retreat to the sight of my prepubescent driver waiting for me against the door of his beat out old Toyota-is a near tear inducing sight. Oh Hanucabamba, a town that only a few days before felt as if it were the arse end of the world, now (in my sleep deprived fantasizing) feels as if it might be the centre of all civilization.
That night back at the hotel, showered and fed, I switch out the lights and crawl into bed. But my experience in the hills of Las Haringa’s and the gloomy cellar temple of the maestro are not so easily forgotten. From under the door I seem catch whiffs of rotting wood, donkey fart, sour cheese, wet leather, Smokey saddles and tobacco. By the time the door handle has turned to tentacle of brass and tapped me on the shoulder, I realize my sane man faculties are some what out of sorts. I squint, blink, pinch, do whatever one must to resuscitate a dissipating reality but still my sinister poncho watches from his hanger –the grimmest of shadows, the grimmest of reapers. Still my anorak and jersey will not keep still, tussling from wall hooks, armless sleeves groping for non existent necks. A bottle of water sitting on the window sill spins with a whirlpool of ensnared street light while my bed side alarm clock (alarmingly! disarmingly!) has enlarged itself to the size of a small television set. I rise to meet the figure of a boy sitting at the desk in the room. An indigent imitation, dressed in my dirty laundry. ‘Who are you?’ I shout but he just shrugs and sighs, a long dejected sigh that causes him to slink back into his arms. I find in the once vacant bed beside me, the remains of a decapitated ballerina in a pair of heavy duty hiking boots!
Then from the corner of that rampant room, too dim to discern but felt to the point of prickling hairs on the back of my neck, sits the keeper of the keys. I shrug sheepishly (as Pandora might have in front of her recently opened box) remark: ‘Ah Maestro, I think you may have been looking for these.’
To the rattle of shakers, the stomping of feet. His voice stirs, a voice of gravel and honey, calm and authority: ‘Abajo! Abajo! Abajo!’ it intones.
So these demons may retreat and maybe now, finally I can get some god damn sleep.