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    We are travelers


    NascaMy trip to Peru started in the bustling city of Nasca. My plan was to visit the enigmatic Nasca Lines that for two millenniums have spread over 500 square kilometers in the desert planes of Ica. The designs, etched in the surface of the plains and whose complexity can only be appreciated from the air, have intrigued scientists, archeologists, and others.

    The bus I took from Lima was full; there was only one empty seat. When I set off I understood why - the window was broken. Even though it was almost summer, when night fell it was very cold. The temperature contrast on the desert plateau took me by surprise; all my clothes were in the suitcase, which was in the baggage hold and out of reach. I spent a good while shivering before the man seated next to me (who was wearing a heavy wool coat) asked if I wanted to change seats. I thanked him and offered him a piece of cake that I had bought. He accepted graciously, and asked me if this was my first trip to Nasca. He told me that he was a teacher in a village and was returning from visiting his parents in the city. We struck up a spirited conversation, which helped the journey fly by, despite the discomfort. Before saying our farewells, he gave me the address of the school where he worked and invited me to visit him.

    The first few days in Nasca were spent waiting for my turn to fly over the Lines. At that time of year, there was only one light aircraft that flew the route, and it would not operate until it had a full load of passengers. I decided to take advantage of the time and explore the city's surroundings: the impressive Cantaayoc aqueducts, the Cachiche Witches' houses, the forest of Piedra de Los Frailes. One afternoon, I decided to visit the teacher. When I arrived at his school, the children had already left with the exception of one student who was still at his desk, counting his fingers and writing in his exercise book with obvious difficulty. Juan, my traveling companion, was happily surprised to see me. He explained that he still has work to accomplish, but if I didn't mind waiting, we would later accompany the student, Atauchi, to his home. "He lives in a very beautiful place in a remote area. It is really worth the visit, trust me."

    I gladly accepted the invitation, and offered to help him correct papers, which were writing exercises. The students had been asked to write about their favorite Nasca figure and give the reasons for their selection. Only a few of the children had seen the Lines from the air. The flight was too expensive!

    When we left the old broken down school building, Juan went to an equally old and rickety motorbike that was parked at the door. I asked, "Are all three of us going to ride on that?" Their laughter was the only answer I got. I got on behind Juan, and little Atauchi sat in front with his hands on the handlebars. Atauchi's face lit up. Juan told me, "This is his favorite moment of the day."

    We traveled several kilometers along a dusty gravel road. There was nothing but desert on both sides of us. When we reached Atauchi's house, his was there cooking something that smelt delicious. He invited us to stay for dinner. Juan often did so when Atauchi's father, who was a miner, came home early. When Atauchi went to bed, the three of us went out onto the porch - wrapped up in blankets - to drink some pisco, a strong, local grape liquor. It is drunk with lemon juice and egg white. Very tasty!

    "Pisco means bird in Quechua", the miner explained. " It is made from Quebranta, which is a grape that only grows here."

    "Is your son's name also Quechuan?", I asked.

    "Yes it is. It means ‘he who brings us fortune'. My name, Libiak, means ‘shining lightening bolt'. Our names speak of nature and life; we don't inherit the names of our parents, as many of your people do... each of us has their own name."

    "So, it is important not to lose your culture?" I inquired.

    Before answering, Libiak looked at Juan and smiled widely. "When I was a child, we made our toys with clay, animal bones and stones. We learned from our elders to listen to the songs of the animals that brought good and bad news, to speak to the stars, the moon, and the earth, and to know the plants. I have tried to teach these things to my son. I want him to understand our ways. Who but he, and others like him, will raise their voices for our people in the future? But now everything is different, everything is disappearing. Like the Lines in the Pampa! Trucks enter the plains at night to get around the weight control limits of the Pan-American Highway and they destroy them. You know? Recently I learned that Atauchi and other children go out to the Lines on their bikes and act like guards by taking down the license plate numbers of the trucks. He has never really seen the drawings, there isn't enough money to take the plane ride, but he defends them as if they were his own and that fills me with pride. He believes in his heart. The Pachamama has started to speak to him; soon he will be a man."

    "What is the Pachamama?" I asked.

    "Think about when you walk in a natural environment; the feeling of tranquility you get is the Pachamama, who is happy to see you and welcomes you. Pachamama gives life to humanity. The Pachamama teaches us to love everything. It tells us that work is a supreme virtue; if we do it with love, we will be sacred. The invaders created laws of life for us that do not respect the earth. We belong to Pachamama like the plants or the birds, and we have an obligation to protect her."

    On the way back to the village, Juan told me the story of the miner's family. His wife had died in childbirth. Atauchi had only been attending school regularly for a few months. Atauchi and his father had arrived in the village two years ago from Mollehuaca, in Arequipa, which is in the souht of Peru, where both of them had worked in the gold mines.

    "In some areas of Peru it is common for children to work. Atauchi started working as a ‘ranchero' (ranch hand), taking the men their lunch, when he was six years old; he walked more than 10 km each day carrying water and food. Later he became a ‘burrero' (burro driver), looking after the animals. When they moved here to work in ‘La Gringa', the old mine, I learned of the situation and went to talk to Libiak to try to convince him that this would cause his son serious harm. It was very complicated. He is a good man; he left the mountains and has traveled the entire country looking for work. He adores his son, but in despite of his own common sense, he adheres to the ideas regarding children instilled for centuries by his culture: if you are part of a family, you must help to maintain it; it is your ‘obligation', and the sooner you do it, the better."

    "And can't the government do anything?" I inquired. 

    "It is not that easy. In this case, for example, there is a gap in the legislation; the law does not cover traditional mining methods. Furthermore, those of us who defend the indigenous culture must understand that native people themselves have developed their own strategies of survival. The violence they suffered has left very deep scars; most of them think that the education we want to give their children will cause them to lose their roots. Many of the projects to improve the welfare of the Andean people fail because in reality we do not know how they think. I believe that values are not transmitted by words, but by the actions of everyday living. And I think that it is in the recognition of this reality that acceptance and amends between cultures can be established. I wanted to show Libiak that education is compatible with respect for his customs, and through our passionate discussions we became friends. He has taught me more about myself than a mirror could.

    The next day, more tourists arrived in the village. There was only one more seat to fill in the airplane and it occurred to me to repay Libiak's hospitality by inviting his son to fly with me. When I arrived at his school to pick him up, he was already waiting for me at the door. As soon as we boarded the plane, he stuck his tiny nose against the window and there was no separating him from it. During the half-hour flight, he moved only once to clean the condensation from the window with his hand. At our feet we saw the beautiful, mysterious drawing on the plains of Nasca. I understood Maria Reiche, "the Angel of the Pampas", a woman who had dedicated 50 years of her life to studying and protecting the Nasca Lines. As soon as we landed, Atauchi, who had not said one word during the flight, started to run and jump shouting at everyone he encountered, "They are so beautiful! I saw the monkey and the spider and the lizard! They are so beautiful!"

    His joy touched my soul. It's a shame that his joy lasted such a short time. As we were returning to the village, we saw Juan coming towards us on his motorbike. There had been an earthquake; Libiak was trapped in the mine with three others. While we were in the air, we had not noticed anything.

    There were many people gathered around the mine entrance: miners, neighbors, friends, and many crying women. I wanted to take the child away, but Juan disagreed, "He has to be here, even though you don't understand it that way."

    Indeed, I did not understand it. Atauchi did not cry; his face was red and very serious, and he just stared at the foreman who was speaking to the firemen recently arrived from Lima. Night fell, but no one moved from the spot. Bonfires were lit, and food and blankets were brought. At daybreak, Atauchi asked Juan's permission to climb a nearby hill. They went together, hand in hand. When they got to the top, the small boy sat on the ground, took four stones in his hands, and closed his eyes. A few seconds later he started to sing in a low voice, marking the rhythm with the stones. It was a beautiful song. A prayer to the Pachamama!

    When we returned, Atauchi went to sit with the women. One of them hugged him, and there they stayed until the long-awaited news came. It was four in the morning, a Thursday - the fourth day of the week - when we learned that the four men had been saved.