I wait with my friend Pilar on the track near the Urubamba River. Apart from the rush of water, all is quiet. Tourists pass this spot on their way to Machu Picchu. They buy our woven bracelets. It is early morning and we are in time to catch the first of the visitors. We wear the traditional costumes of the Inca and have been in many photographs.
We work for Señor Dezi Sanchez and his wife Guadalupe at the Hotel Eldorado. Pilar says there are plenty of opportunities for girls like us in such a popular tourist resort. I’m not quite sure what she means. That fizzy laugh of hers makes me uneasy. She is a forward thinking girl with much ambition; many plans.
In the evening we sit with the guests at the table and sew string-purses. Guadalupe likes to make it homey for the visitors. Dezi is a dry, bony man who does not often stop talking. It is as if all the fats in his body have gone out on his breath and dissolved into words. He tells us this, he tells us that, he loves to educate. Guadalupe lifts her eyes, she shakes her head. Dezi thinks us girls ignorant and wants to teach us things. Most likely Guadalupe thinks the same though she never bothers us.
So here we are on the long padded seat in the hotel lobby. The windows are open and we can hear the fast rushing water in the river below.
‘Eldorado is a place of perfection,’ Señor Sanchez announces. ‘A secret country filled with gold. Everyone has heard of it; none can find it. Even the conquistadors tried and failed.’
A special tone has crept into his voice and we know he is about to delve into some special wisdom. Sure enough he tells us of the philosopher from France who wrote of the perfection and the gold of Eldorado.
‘Voltaire,’ says Dezi with heavy dignity. It is after his third or fourth glass of chicha that he says this. His voice is now blurred. Pilar and I nod respectfully. Our laughs will come later at the way Dezi feels such pride that a philosopher from France should do this writing about Peru. This is our country. We are full of this secret gold. These are the emotions inside the words of Dezi.
He is an intense man, without humour. Sometimes he drifts into a stupor. When he clicks back to the present he looks at Pilar and me as though to say he’s found us out. The joke is that with me there is nothing to find and as for Pilar, he’d never be astute enough to work her out in a thousand years. From this I conclude Dezi is all talk. It is clear Guadalupe thinks this too. When Dezi rambles on Guadalupe sits with a face as glum as the moon in winter. She will not smile, whatever Pilar or I, or one of the guests may come up with to tempt her. She’ll stare at the top of the curtain, or the wall beyond. Or if Dezi goes on for too long she may go and whisper to the house god which sits on the shelf. And as Pilar says when we are alone, who could blame her? Dezi, meanwhile, will suck in his thin cheeks to the point of disappearance, his face a downward sagging line. His whole being is the exact opposite of Guadalupe who is vast with swaying stomachs, and great arms that thrash far and wide in the space around her body. Dezi and Guadalupe appear to be making a statement just by existing. On occasions their joint presence is almost too much for Pilar and she is unable to keep a straight face. ‘What is it with them?’ she will murmur and I know that laughter cannot be far behind.
Should one of the hotel guests pose Dezi an interesting question, about the Inca say, or the site of Machu Picchu, his needle sharp eyes will go darting everywhere as he tries to come up with the once in a lifetime answer. If he fails to find it he’ll immediately change the subject. He is someone who must teach everyone what is what, and he must always have the last word. I ask myself whether this characteristic is a great strength or a sign of weakness. At the moment no one is speaking.
‘Gold!’ Dezi suddenly announces in a voice spiked with irritation, making the guests jump in their seats. He cannot bear silence. Pilar does a quirky thing with her lip, and I myself, smile inwardly. We have heard this start off before, and know it is the precursor to some tirade. Guadalupe meanwhile puffs out her plump cheeks, her eyes with a slightly hysterical look, as though she can hardly contain herself. And who would be able to withstand the provocations of Dezi? Pilar and I do not look at one another. Dezi and Guadalupe have started up one of their competitive things. It’s too much to bear. I can feel the pain of unwelcome laughter run up the sides of my body.
‘Gold,’ Dezi repeats. He’ll never be quelled, even by his impressive and scary wife, but will go on to the bitter end of whatever it is he wants to drum into our silly heads. For I’m sure this is the way he pictures us.
At last Guadalupe gives in and chews her tobacco at the other end of the table. Brown tainted spit bubbles squeeze from the corners of her mouth. The visitors look away as it would not be polite to witness such an ugliness, or as Pilar likes to put it, ‘Because it makes them sick as hell.’ All the time Dezi harangues us with his stories of gold Guadalupe does this rapid chewing. Sometimes we see the quick flip of her tongue brown stained at the tip. Her eyes do not indicate she has heard even one word.
This nightly joint performance of the happy couple is both tedious and entertaining. Later Pilar and I will ridicule Guadalupe and Dezi in private and Pilar will reproduce the facial expressions of both of them. Mimicry is one of her talents.
At some point Guadalupe will rise from her seat with many creaks and groans, shake herself out like a dog from the river and if she is in a sweet mood will go in pursuit of the chicha for all at the table. It is a moment Pilar and I look forward to. We watch Guadalupe stomping her way across the floor, her huge shoulders heaving from the effort of movement.
Our name for her is Pachamama and to catch sight of her eye after a glass or two of chicha has slipped down her throat can make you imagine she does have unearthly powers and remind you you’d better be careful not to let her catch you doing anything wrong. For the truth is we’re always wary of her and make sure to obey her instructions to the letter about the selling of the handicrafts, and about cleaning in the hotel, and about speaking to the customers in the right way so they’ll tell their friends to stay here too. Dezi goes on with his intense talking all evening till it’s time to go to bed, sometimes questioning us over a point or two to see if we’ve been paying proper attention. We are good at hearing him with only one ear yet memorising the facts.
‘Who was the philosopher from France?’ he’ll be more than likely to ask before he’ll let us leave the table.
‘Voltaire,’ Pilar and I will chant readily together after we’ve been here a week or two and know the form. The one or two hotel guests will yawn discretely behind their hands and think about bedtime and Guadalupe will chew more rapidly. Dezi will be gratified that he’s made a lasting impression on us and his tight lips will unbend a little as though hovering on the brink of a smile.
Guadalupe is very often hard to fathom. There is a hidden part to her that is sometimes sour and sometimes sweet and she gives very little clue as to which is operating at any particular moment. On the surface she always has the same bullying way about her that makes other people get things done before she can complain. This is useful in a guest-house landlady when you come to think of it. Pilar and I have to eat the leavings as Guadalupe does not like waste, but she never makes us have the worst of them, and also she lets us take some of the fruit from the bowl before it has gone too soft. So I suppose, when it comes down to it we trust her and while it’s true to say this Eldorado is far from perfect and in spite of all the hard work, being here is not such a bad experience.
If anyone exists without layers it is Dezi Sanchez. Maybe he is the exception to the rule of human contradiction. For what you see on the surface is what there is altogether. He is fully occupied with things no one else cares about and if you let him rant on and on and don’t really listen but manage to get the answers right to the obvious questions he’ll fling at you, all will be well.
And so this is how we go on here, month following month, nothing really changing.
Everything has gone very quiet at the table, nobody is speaking, the reason being that Dezi is sorting out the clock which sometimes goes haywire so that the hands move round in the wrong order and the alarm bell will not chime. Three guests sit here and Pachamama is passing round the chicha. The guests are merry – you can’t tell whether this is also true of Guadalupe as she has her fixed, inscrutable look which nobody could penetrate.
‘And everybody has all the gold they need, they think nothing of it,’ Dezi suddenly says plonking himself down at the table, the clock finished. Everyone except Guadalupe stares at him.
‘In Eldorado,’ he tells us somewhat crossly, for to his mind we should have known what he was talking about. ‘Even the children of the poor have gold quoits to play with, which they use and then discard on the street. Gold means nothing to anyone.’
‘Oh,’ one of the visitors says, ‘How unusual. Is that what the philosopher from France talks about?’
Dezi doesn’t reply to this. Pilar and I twigged some time ago that Dezi resents answering other people’s questions even when he knows the answers. He changes the subject at once, informing the guests that in 1932 John Walter Gregory, a famous geologist from London, England drowned in the Urubamba very close to where we are now, when his raft capsized. When someone asks a question about this he immediately starts speaking about the quipu, informing us that use of it as a calculator in Peru dates back to the 7th century. By now the guests have learned it’s best to simply nod.
In the dark Pilar and I lie awake for a time in our alcove off the hall behind the wide meshed curtain. We hear the prolonged sex romps of Guadalupe and Dezi, the squeals and fast breathing followed by silence, followed by a deep growling rumble. We think of bears in a cave. The snoring gets louder as the night progresses. Each time the same pattern. At last we too drift off.
There is a day Pilar and I go up to Machu Picchu with the hotel guests. They have extra tickets we can use as they wish to take some photos of us at the archaeological site. Guadalupe gives us permission and receives a payment for our time. She is happy. Pilar and I put on extra layers of skirts so that we will look festive in the pictures. I wear a woven montera, Pilar looks tall in a bowler hat. It suits her face. She looks quite wonderful. Later, I realise I am not the only one who thinks this. We climb the steep path upwards. I am looking round me at the tall trees and deep undergrowth and listening to the cry of birds who call out warnings to one another at our approach. Pilar is very happy. She is giggling with the two guests, who are men of around thirty years of age. One is nice looking with curly hair. They tell us they are from California. Aidan is the name of the nice looking guy and the other one, who seems fairly serious and wears glasses, is Jared. The photographs they are taking will be for an American travel magazine. Pilar is especially pleased to hear this and looks forward to having her picture out there. She thinks of how many people will be looking at it. The climb is tiring and dirt from the track clings to our ajotas and works its way into the creases of our toes. We are hot in our native costumes and stop every few minutes to breathe in air. I notice Pilar is very friendly with Aidan, the curly haired guy and when we make these stops on the path the two of them stand murmuring to one another and laugh about something together which they do not share. Jared stares at them and is not too happy, I think. Pilar is hardly aware I am here I see and I think how quickly she can change and turn herself into a stranger.
Here is the plateau of Machu Picchu which they call The Lost City of the Incas. The guys we are with say it is so beautiful it takes your breath away. I see even Pilar is moved by the wonder of this place. We stand in a little group near the gateway to the Temple of the Sun, facing a long stretch of grass. Each side are huge stone walls. As we walk slowly along, rays of the sun burst out suddenly. It seems right to me that we see the sun give its blessing to this sacred place. The peaks of the granite mountain which towers above us, are streaked with zigzags which flare quickly like yellow sparks. We look at all these ancient royal and religious constructions – the Temple of the Three Windows, the House of the High Priest, then pass on to the agricultural area with its many terraces and Funeral Rock. Here we are by the hanging gardens, passing along wide avenues, seeing the canyon deep to our side. And at all of these sites there are photographs taken of Pilar and myself. We stand this way and that. By a stone wall; under a colossal gateway; within the frame of the mountain. I never thought to be in so many pictures and I wonder if I’ll ever get to see them and whether they will capture for me the uncertain way I am feeling surrounded by all this ancient past and this uneasy present. Part of me does not wish to ever see these photographs, another part longs to as it will be something to remember. Suddenly I think of my home far north in Cajamarca and long to be there in that known world. I say to myself that I will write to Mother this very day. How I miss my two brothers at this moment and I wish they could be here with me seeing the sights I see. But no, really I would rather be there with them. Machu Picchu is a fabulous gone-world but my life at home is much more precious. I know I am uneasy because of Pilar. She has hardly spoken to me since this curly haired Californian started taking an interest in her. People would say I am jealous and I wonder if that is true. Perhaps there is a little jealousy in me, but then Pilar is my close friend and how terrible it feels that this closeness can suddenly be as nothing when a guy steps into the picture. I know it is because of feeling hurt by Pilar that part of me does not want to see the photographs taken here. I will never wish to be reminded of how things were in my heart.
I glance across at Pilar just before one of these photos is taken. The camera is raised, the face of the photographer is all smiles; we are silent, the click has not yet come. I don’t know if I am smiling, but I think perhaps I am not, because inside I am not. It seems to me it is always better to look the way you feel as if you hide your true self, the real you may be brushed over and forgotten. Pilar’s smile is wide and looks genuine. Her teeth gleam, her eyes sparkle. It is as if that this is the whole of her. And it is true to say she never wonders about anything outside the moment, and does not seem to get anxious about what will happen next. She is someone with great ambition, I sense this. But she doesn’t waste time worrying about when and how what she wants will arrive. She must have some great instinct that tells her everything. I have always wished I was like Pilar since I first met up with her in Lima. Standing here waiting for the photo to be taken the truth hits me forcibly that I never will be in the least like her so I should give up wishing it. So probably I am frowning if anything when the click comes and the little red light flashes out of the camera.
‘There,’ says Aidan.
‘Right,’ says Jared.
It is the last photograph.
Sometimes I wake in the night and see Pilar is not here. Her sleeping bag lies empty by the wall. After one week she does not even take the trouble to put in an appearance at bedtime. The routine is that after we have sat at the table with Guadalupe and Dezi and whatever guests are staying in the hotel, Pilar and I then go and clean in the kitchen, scouring the cooking pots and putting everything away for the morning. But now, when we go in the kitchen Pilar just fiddles around with some put or other pretending to be busy, as I see it, but letting me do almost everything on my own. And all the time this is happening she’ll have one eye on the door and will be listening out for some sound from the hallway. She puts on lipstick more than once and studies her face in the silver side of the cooker. I see all this going on but say nothing. I suppose I hope that when the two guys from California leave the hotel, things will go back to how they used to be. The men show no sign of leaving however and it is clear that Guadalupe is pleased. But another thing I notice is that Aidan and Jared don’t seem to be getting on as they did when they first came, and when I have been hanging out the washing or cleaning the floor in the upstairs rooms I have heard raised voices and the sounds of ill humour. It makes me gloomy as I know by some instinct this is connected to Pilar. At the same time as hoping all will go back to normal once more I have also started waiting for the end. As I fear, one day it comes, and very abruptly.
I wake early as I usually do and at once become aware of a loud banging somewhere. Pilar is not in her sleeping bag of course and after some minutes I hear her voice coming from upstairs where the guests sleep, and she is kind of screaming. Jumping up and hurriedly putting on some clothing I rush to the stairs. Aidan and Jared are fighting up there on the landing and Pilar is pressed against the wall and crying and screeching at them to stop. Guadalupe and Dezi soon arrive on the scene and Guadalupe shouts in that voice she keeps for bad situations, which would make anybody fall flat on their face at the very least. Dezi coils himself at the base of the stairs as though about to spring on whoever ventures down it first. Guadalupe sends me away to dress in my native costume telling me I must go at once to the track as it is nearly time for the tourists to begin going up to Machu Picchu. I change into my outfit quickly trying at the same time to listen to what is said on the staircase for there is the sound of further commotion. When I come out of my alcove I am in time to see Pilar and Aidan run down to the hall and go out of the front door of the hotel.
I am unable to linger or find out anything more and reluctantly go to the footpath above the Urubamba and wait for the first batch of visitors. Eventually, when I return, all is quiet. Jared is sitting in the garden nursing his jaw and reading a newspaper. Dezi is busy polishing up the gold sign of the Hotel Eldorado to a high finish. Guadalupe is nowhere to be seen and I guess she has gone to her room for a lie down as she does whenever something has upset her nerves. I learn over time, what I knew at once anyway by instinct, that Pilar has run off with Aidan and won’t be returning.
Juanita has come to work here and she sleeps with me in the alcove with the loose weave curtain. She is a pleasant girl of fourteen, just a little bit younger than I am. She laughs less than Pilar and is quieter in her ways. I am glad of her company I suppose, though it is not the same as having Pilar back. Jared, the friend of Aidan left the hotel after two more days had passed during which I think he hoped to see Aidan come back to look for him. But Aidan did not. I do not know where Aidan and Pilar have gone but I hope things will work out for them. I accept now as well as I can that Pilar did value me as a friend but that in her eyes a friend is not so valuable a thing to have as a lover and perhaps there are many that would agree with this. I wish she had said goodbye properly to me but I think I am coming to see that life is not always so neatly organised. Pilar had to go when the moment rose up for that to happen and she could not spend any time on thoughts for me. I do not wish to say this is good or bad but I am sure I would have done things differently. I don’t expect to see her again. It is a loss but one I am resigned to.
Now Juanita and I dress in the native Peruvian costumes and wait for tourists on the river path. We wash the floors and clean out the bedrooms of the Hotel Eldorado. When evening comes we talk politely to the guests at Guadalupe’s evening table. We sew bead purses to offer for sale in the morning and listen with one ear while Dezi’s informative talk roves from Atahualpa to Zaramamma and everything in between.