Shivering sweating in my puff jacket next to two kettles, two pots on an iron grid over a cooking fire, its orange glow and a candle to light the small drafty adobe room. I’ve been ordered there by Olga Susanna to keep warm as she prepares a tea from a collection of leaves and green twigs, simultaneously with her daughter-in-law Berlitz cooking dinner. One of the boys, maybe he was assigned to make sure I don’t fall over, is pressed close on this bench where I’m rip tides of nausea. Sometimes they look at me gravely, mostly there is levity and buoyant rising volumes of talk and laughter.
We are a few hundred meters from Kuelap, where I hiked up and spent the day, the bike and my gear left at Pablo’s in Tingo far below. As mistgreys and then the easily underestimated cold of evening came, my judgment and ability and stability for the two hour steep muddy downclimb dwindled. Olga Susanna has been exploring around Kuelap and assisting archeological teams for most of her life, she wears her KP1 ballcap jauntily. She was raised and in turn has raised her family in the lee of its walls, and when her granddaughter sells soup to shivering deteriorating tourists, few details elude her. She insists that I come inside, she vetoes any talk of my descending. With even the produce truck long having left the village until tomorrow, it was settled that I would spend the night there.
Gauzy shifts in attention, pendulum focus, each detail jumps out then sinks in my perception’s pool: Berlitz is in her 20’s, two small children, one a whirling daring cherub, the other with an infant’s awake and alive exploration. Ronald, her husband, holds the baby aloft in beaming pride, over the next day I witness him as involved in her life as any father I’ve known of. He wears mismatched futbol shoes, one Adidas, one something else, mudcaked from feeding the sheep and cow. The boy with me is his much younger brother, the last, I gather, of Olga Susanna’s children, strands of relations interwoven seamlessly, then a sister between him and Ronald in age, she is feeling unwell so we bond in convalescence, she has a colorful dress over her khaki pants with neon pink socks, black pumps, a snapped up denim jacket, a knit cap that she pulls over her nose sometimes, exuding mountain village cool.
Ronald is telling a story about Berlitz joining other women in the village to drink quantities of wine, he’s laughing and she is, too, confessing to liking the thick rich taste of the homemade stuff, Ronald has a grainy video on his mobile showing them carrying on, we all howl and it rumbles my middle uncomfortably. They are in harmony together, visible play and respect and collaboration.
Olga Susanna’s father is hard of hearing, they explain, but without any shortage of things to say. He launches into stories of his youth in guiding mule trains over the mountains delivering salt to villages hundreds of kilometers around, moist half closed eyes gleaming like marbles in the deep wrinkle folds of his handsome face. All the while he cuts reeds lengthwise with a flashing machete, his rough yellow fingernails stark against the haft, thin cords will be worn into twine later in the evening. Olga Susanna leans up close to her father to shout in his ear, yes, he would like some potatoes, we huddle over no two alike soup bowls, the children politely insist that I use the metal spoon even if this means they eat with the plastic. I drink two more brimming cups of medicine.
More stories in darkness, the air has a density that comes from family and community, familiarity. Ronald sets up a place for me to sleep, I go to bed with my body still astral in fever but with my consciousness quiet in the beauty and kindness here. The next morning they brighten at my presenting as visibly improved, I’ll bounce the baby on my knee and airplane her as Berlitz eats breakfast, I’ll listen rapt to Olga Susanna unpretentiously lecture on Chachapoyan history. Our thick hugs and smiles and parting met eyes, then I’m off into the mud for the valley, humbled by the sense of loving vitality above.