We walked the ruins at night, it was pitch black, bible black as Dylan Thomas might have said, and there was nothing to accompany us but sound of the green waters rushing past and Posa the dog scampering at our heels. Posa means puddle and she found a few that night, awkwardly pushing her hot body between our legs making us stumble but not fall.
I can’t remember much about the walk, the whinny of a horse rearing out of the darkness, the pain in my finger where i’d been stung by animal or plant and the throbbing stars thick in the sky above, shooting behind the picture perfect village, small clouds gathering.
“Remember when we were children? Dominique? - We have to become like children again….” Roberto, the owner of Casa de Wow says to me as we leave the house and take a small bridge across the Patikancha river into the back garden of the ruins. He’s a twinkly eyed local with tufty cat weasel beard and deep red poncho and is carrying a recorder.
Patricia has told me that Roberto does a night time tour of the main Ollantaytambo ruins that is free, that he was stood up by a group of Americans who’d said they’d go with him, and that its supposed to be good. It sounds kind of fun and Indiana Jonesish so i agree. Why not?
I remember when I was a child, fearlessly balancing on the high beam bars of playgrounds and scampering up apple trees in my nan’s back garden. Little did I realise i’d soon be doing the same, clambering up stony rock faces 8ft high, balancing precariously on the tiny ledges of a 600 year old Incan ruin with a sheer drop.
I loved nothing more than midnight feasts with my cousin Sarah. We would camp in the back garden and store a host of goodies including a rare and precious treat, Horlicks tablets (sweets made from the malty, milky bedtime drink) letting them fizz on our tongue and whispering each other awake with ghost stories. I can’t imagine we waited until midnight for our adventure to begin and so it was with this one, we left Casa de Wow at 8pm, returning around 10pm.
We cross the river and turn left to walk back along its side towards the ruins. I can’t see anything except the white dust of the thin path, the river bank dropping sharply on one side. The bright heads of some daisies star the path and onwards he leads, like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn and me a little girl, blindly following.
He stops to send some blessings to the Apus (the nature spirits that live in the mountains) to protect us on our journey and we curve into the main back gardens of the ruins.
I whimper in the darkness as I can’t see in front of my nose and the dog tangles between us again. I’m fearful of the dark at the best of times and the sudden reality of my situation comes to me. He takes my hand and holds it strongly, guiding me along.
This really is an exercise in trust and letting go. I cannot see anything. I am being led into the pitch black by a man I know nothing about. The worst fears rear their monster heads. I could be raped, I could be murdered. Or twist my ankle, fall from the ruins at height.
My intuition tells me I will be safe and that he’s ok, but I don’t have the same feeling of essential kindness and trust as i’ve had with the shaman on the motorbike and the truth is I just don’t know him well enough. I don’t have enough information, i’ve met him once briefly.
“We must be like children, we are going on an adventure and we must become like children” he insists again, and as we reach the pale huge rectangles of Incan stone looming out of the darkness I can see why. We jump from one to the next, he leading and holding my hand.
Those halcyon days when we were little there was no fear because life hadn’t taught us how to be afraid yet.
We jump from stone to stone that cross the stream. and then head upwards, the dog somehow following. The ground falls away below us and I can feel my heart pounding, he has tight hold of my hands.
We take a footing at the bottom and begin to climb. The path is narrow and the ledge is thin with just enough space for a foot sideways. We start to edge along it and climb ever higher and the higher we get the more I realise I am scaling a stony cliff face without a safety net. Steps are roughly hewn deep into the stone, the higher we climb along the perilous ledge the further the fall, there is nothing bu a sheer drop below onto the rocks of Incan houses below. I wouldn’t do this in broad daylight let alone in the pitch black with a strange man in poncho with recorder for companion.
We are climbing towards tThe Temple of the Condor which is apparently where the Peruanos come to communicate with their dead.
Climbing in the inky darkness. I put my hand in a crevice and at perhaps the most precarious point so far, whilst i’m balancing on a tiny ledge 8ft above the ground I pull it out again sharply, yelping in pain.
Something has stung me, it feels like a bee sting. But I can’t see a stinger in it. In my panic my Spanish deserts me. I make him go and look - I realise in hindsight the best thing to have done would to have checked myself to see exactly what has stung me. Supposing I have an allergic reaction or my body parts start going numb, how are they going to treat me? I dramatically think about them bringing my body out, how did she die, stricken locals will say "she was climbing the ruins at midnight," …. meh it sounds like a pretty cool way to go.
He takes my finger and tries to suck it. I withdraw it sharply, he may be a “spiritual man” but that is really golng too far. He goes back to shine a light in the crevice and says its a plant. I don’t believe him, i can’t see the double pronged dots of a spider bite or a stinger but it feels too sharp. I believe that it was a wasp of some kind.
I can feel the area going numb and my mind races off with all the possibilities of the numbness shooting up my arm, the hospital bed, the unidentified creature that bit me and baffles doctors. I imagine them wheeling my body out “how did she die” ask tear stained relatives, she was climbing the Incan ruins at midnight…”
Meh, it sounds like a pretty cool way to go to me…
We have got to our first meditation point. High above us is the Condor’s beak..
‘She is like a mother curving over us” he explains
“A mother with her young.”
He shows me a round stone where i’m to put my forehead to “connect with the mind of the condor.”
I do this for 2 minutes whilst he plays the recorder. The stone feels cool and calming against my forehead but to be honest all i can feel is the pain in my finger.
“Talk to your heart,” he instructs.
Afterward we sit down together on the ledge in companionable silence with Posa at my side and eventually he begins to talk. To talk about how hard he worked in Lima, how his life was nothing but work. No time to feel, no time to do anything, just work and home, work and home. No time to create or feel anything in his heard. Then one day, 5 years ago, he came to Ollantaytambo and bought Casa de Wow and no his life is not like that.
We stare out at the view. A shooting star dips beneath the hills. The outline of two mountains are in front of us with the clouds of pine trees just visible above the thin stirp of little houses and the glow of the lights from their windows, the sound of the river rushing in frot of them.
It’s like a painting he says, the mountains, the houses the stream. All those stories, all those lives being lived out behind the little, yellow rectangles of their windows. I can see why he left his fashion business in Lima.
“We are far from the problems of the world,” he says…
“Money for moneys sake. Money alone destroys. Here we are far away from money, war, fighting here we are far away from it all.”
“Here i am a king in my heart. Here i am an Incan Emperor.”
The stone is cold underneath my weary muscles and as we get up to descend I realise how tired I am and how dangerous that could be where precision footing is everything:
I tell him i’m tired because I’ve already trekked 3 hours to Puma Marku (thank goodness for the lift back!) and he holds my hand tighter.
I can feel the poison going up my arm. I say dramatically.
"You will be ok" he says,
“how do you know?”
"Because you have buena energia, a good spirit."
I’m not sure I quite want to rely on this.
As we descend we come to another place where there is a cut out of rectangle in the stone and a split, rub your hands and put them on either side then press your forehead into the stone he says. I can’t help thinking a little cynically that he’s just making me look like a fool but I do it anyway and find the darkness strangely comforting, i see the flower of life shape form behind my eyes in green.
I do and see darkness and then the flower of life shape seems to form in green behind my eyes. Yes he says that is the triangle connection between your two eyes and your inner eye, i look up again and try and take a photo of the great condor beak above us, but even knowing how to know work my flash it is no use. This time nothing comes out except two giant lunar like circles.
‘The Incan spirits don’t like to have their photo taken,” I say.
“No,” he agrees…”they don’t.”
Our final meditation spot is the Incan throne that his son Stephen mentioned to me at breakfast.
It is a roughly hewn seat carved into the rock. He pulls off his poncho and lays it out. It look like a throne, i’ll give him that. Its been cut sharply into the rock with degrading rocks on either sides. He demonstrates by jumping up onto it. I’m balancing on a tiny ledge clinging to the side, frightened where i am so its hard to concentrate, he says the Incan king came to sit here to look out and rule his people.
To get up into the seat I have to put one foot up and get given a leg up by him the rest of the way. The drop is sheer and we are balanced very precariously beneath the seat . i have to push all of my weight into him and then get into the seat, scrabble around precariously and put my hands on the two arm rests
“You are an Incan princess,” he says, beaming up at me.
i laugh nervously. The seat isn’t at a complete right angle and although i’m not slipping i still feel precaroius, still it is a good spot for a little bit, and then I get down and we begin the descent.
I’m more confident this time, taking his hand and letting him lead me back along the little white path - back past the horse where I lose my footing for a moment and fall onto one knee, past the rushing water and the weeds and tall grasses on either side and finally onto the road again.
“I live!” I exclaim, laughing, and we hug.
“You have a perfect spirit, a good spirit,” he says, delighted.
My intuition told me he was safe but not quite as trustworthy and kind as the shaman on the motorbike. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others. I made a huge assumption in thinking tht Patricia owned Casa de Wow and was Roberto’s romantic or business partner or both. As it turned out she was a volunteer there and had only been there two weeks and had never gone on the “nighttime tour” herself. I was fine on our little trip and he took good care of me, but later on during my stay Roberto made a pass at Patricia and started getting stoned and coming back to the house drunk. Had I known any of that I wouldn’t have agreed to take my life in my hands and climb up Ollantaytambo in the pitch black with him! As it was I survived to tell the tale, and as far as traveller’s adventures go, I think it’s a pretty good one.