Thursday, December 9, 2010

Island of the Sun

I’m walking the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca, where the Incan sun god was born. The air is so thin here at close to 4000 metres, it rasps in my lungs at every step, but looking out over the azure expanse to the horizon, I can’t believe I’m not at sea-level. It’s a long, arduous walk at this altitude over the island’s spine to make it to the boat pick-up point by the agreed rendezvous time. The sun is fierce, the island barren. Like the Greek Islands, only blasted bare. Incan memories in the stone. The last days of South America, so I’m feeling everything acutely.

On the boat, I have a puff of someone’s joint, close my eyes, and the sun god beams straight into me across Lake Titicaca, an x-ray of pleasure, lighting up forgotten centres.

And there are places here where you can see the Andes, snowy peaks standing unperturbed in the churn of cumulus clouds. You can watch the collision of these terrestrial and atmospheric mountains, the peaks that remain when the ephemeral ones evaporate.

I spent three days on the altiplano, a stark landscape separated from the Atacama desert, the world’s driest, by a narrow volcanic range. This side almost nothing grows either, and who knows what the vicuna browse on - a few sparse and hardy nubs that push up stubbornly through the stones. There are marbled and variegated volcanic lagoons, smelling of sulphur, in which flamingoes stand, root about in the salt and borax for whatever edible life thrives here. The laguna colorada is vivid in red, cobalt, lime green and I don't so much breathe the air as swallow wind by the gallon, though it’s thin on oxygen, barely feeds the blood. Walking against it, I feel my planetary contingency, my peripheral existence in the lonely cycles of nature. The sun burns, the wind lacerates my lips. We eat and play cards and drink beer in bare shelter against the elements, keeping close to the wood oven as the sky darkens, a vista of stars appears, serene above the battering wind. I leave the others to stand outside and gaze upwards, for as long as I can hold out against the cold. Feel my aloneness.

It interests me, the intersection between place and soul, between inner and outer landscapes. The chemistry between psyche and place. I cannot articulate the altiplano's effect on me. I’m rendered wordless, though I can feel it tear a hole in the thin fabric of my arbitrary cares, that scrap of knots and twists I call my 'self'. All those miles of salt. Twenty thousand square miles of blinding, snowy salt, sucking every drop of water from the air. There's a saline slush a few feet below the crust, which is tessellated with cracks like a leadlight window. In the sandy desert plains further on, strange twisted forms of rock stand out, like a sort of natural Stonehenge. They are erosion’s negative space, the refractory rock left after the scouring. Imagination naturally swirls and collects in the spaces in between these forms, is held and shaped here, as it was in childhood’s playspaces, as it is in Japanese gardens, in sculpture.

I am made silent by this place, blown through by it. But then, having left my travelling companions at the Chilean border, as we drive back through valleys where springs run down, where llama gather to drink the clear water and feed on the rich green algae that clings to and streams from the stone, I find something breaking open inside, something full of a hot, sweet sorrow. I couldn’t even say for what. Synchronicity: Sinead O’Connor comes on, singing: I am walking through the desert/ and I’m not frightened though it’s hot/ I have all that I requested/ and I do not want what I haven’t got. I lean back in my seat and watch the desert judder past and let that thing break, let the tears run onto my cheek and evaporate in the wind.

This is what we travel for, to be changed like this.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I can't believe no one is making any comments.