where the writers are
playing Indian
Fredo, Juana, and Emiliano.jpg

In a remote valley in the Andes, four of us squatted on makeshift boulder stools around the flat rock that served as our table.  We'd finished dinner -- chicken and rice and beans -- and the interior of the tent still retained heat from the cook stove while outside the cold, damp mist of night crept up the valley to engulf the high peaks.  Juana, the guide, dealt the cards: her idea.  No one else had been too enthused but she'd insisted on playing cards after dinner.  Her game was something like gin rummy only with a lot more rules: endless rules that I think she was making up as she went along.  After only one hand Fredo, the wrangler, excused himself to check on the pack animals.  He didn't come back to the tent that night.  The cook, Emiliano, and I muddled through an hour of desultory play while Juana piled up the points.  When the candle we'd been using for light had burned almost to a stub, I made my excuses citing tomorrow's long hike.

"Don't worry," Juana assured me.  "If you can't keep up, we'll slow down for you."

I bit my tongue, smiled politely, and thanked her.

This trip was the realization of a dream for me: for as long as I remember, I’d been consumed by the desire to explore the Andes Mountains.  To do that, I couldn't just fly down to South America and take off hiking by myself as I would in the US.  Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world and it behooves all visitors -- especially those of us who live in comparative affluence -- to spread around as much money as possible while we’re down there.  The trekking agency in La Paz had provided me with a guide and a cook, with instructions to hire a wrangler and pack animals in the town of Pelechuco before we departed on our seven day hike.

Because of my gender, the agency had hired a female guide to lead the entourage.  In the thirty-six hours that I'd known Juana, the only time she'd been silent had been while she'd slept.  Oh, wait -- she'd snored.  But that snoring was a lot easier for me to handle than her non-stop monologues.  About half of her conversation was empty chatter that cycled like an audio tape so that the same topics -- movies, music, television shows -- repeated at regular intervals.  The rest of the time she crowed about her exploits as a guide: her physical prowess, her woods lore and acumen, her skill at negotiating the most torturous terrain in the Andes while shepherding ignorant tourists.

In her defense, Juana was young -- not yet 25 -- and I later learned that this was the first time she'd actually guided a trek.  Previously she'd been employed as a cook which was, I discovered, a position vastly inferior to a guide.  Undoubtedly, the poor woman was insecure.  But when she became winded after climbing a couple hundred feet to our picnic spot, I predicted trouble later in the trip.

We'd already experience our share of trouble.  An early start from La Paz had been thwarted by an organized protest in the suburbs against increased bus rates.  Our jeep had been surrounded and subsequently rocked by an angry mob and only some quick-thinking and sweet-talking by our driver had prevented our windshield from being smashed.  Later, a late spring snowstorm near Lake Titicaca slowed our road trip to a crawl.  We'd limped into Pelechuco half-frozen, with barely enough light to find the pension.

Most of the first day of the trek had been spent in Pelechuco trying to hire pack animals: it seems that the town was full of llamas for hire but not one horse was to be had.  I asked Juana why we couldn't just settle for a pair of llamas.  She scoffed.  Llamas, she explained, will only carry about fifty pounds of gear.  "And you weigh a whole lot more than fifty pounds," she reminded me.  I assured her that I've never needed to rely on a horse to carry me anywhere and I wasn't going to start now, but Juana insisted.  We finally found Fredo, who came equipped not only with the requisite mount but also a fuzzy-faced donkey named Ambrosio.  After a painfully late start, we only covered a handful of miles that day and were woefully behind on our "hiking schedule."

The morning after our gin game etched crystalline and cold.  We had sixteen miles to cover including a pass of almost 17,000 feet.  An hour into the hike, I insisted on a break, explaining that I always take five minute off to remove the pack, rest my feet, and drink some water.  Again, Juana scoffed.  As the "muchachos" and pack animals left us in their dust, Juana lectured me on proper hiking techniques.  "It's best never to drink water during the day.  Drink a cup of tea in the morning and that will be enough for the rest of the hike."

True to her advice, Juana didn't drink a sip of water all morning but when we stopped for lunch, she didn't look quite as perky as she had when we'd started.  She refused all food and water, instead stuffing her mouth with coca leaves and chewing (and spitting) vigorously while the rest of us ate.  I was actually a little relieved by her condition: the only thing that seemed to slow down her chatter was exhaustion.  But by the time we finally got to the top of that high pass, I knew she was really hurting.  Fortunately, the guys had waited up there for us.  We redistributed the load that the horse had been carrying and Juana rode the rest of the way to our night's camp.

No card games that night: Juana stayed in her tent while Fredo, Emiliano, and I poured over our maps charting an escape route in case Juana didn't recover from the day's exertions.  The next morning, however, Juana declared herself fit to go.  She even accepted water from my canteen at every hourly stop.  This time when the "muchachos" passed us, Emiliano's normally stoic face flashed into a quick smile.

Deprived of a significant portion of her conversation -- Juana could no longer lecture me on hiking technique -- she soon settled on another topic: Emiliano's stupidity.  She'd been treating him like an imbecile the entire trip: I don't think she'd addressed him once by his name, merely bellowing "Muchacho!" whenever she wanted him.  At first, I couldn't understand her dislike of the cook: she got along fine with Fredo the wrangler.  But that evening during the gin game, I realized the root of her problem while I was looking at their faces: Emiliano was Quechua.  In the Bolivian highlands there are two main indigenous ethnic groups: the Quechua who are the descendants of the Incas and the Aymara.  The Aymara were one of the few pre-Columbian people who were able to resist colonization by the Inca empire.  Quechua and Aymara people are physically very distinct: Juana and Fredo were obviously Aymara, Emiliano was not.

Although I found her ethnicism offensive (more offensive even than her self-aggrandizement), I realized that her life-long prejudice wasn't going to be erased just because some crazy gringa told her not to do it.  So besides scolding her a few times when she bellowed "muchacho!" in my ear, I resorted to biting my tongue during some of her worst tirades, and tried to be as nice as possible to Emiliano to make up for her rudeness.

Contrary to what Juana said, Emiliano was not dumb.  I'm sure he'd figured out why Juana was so nasty to him but no matter how rude she was, he always responded to her with an almost servile docility.  He'd even do things to help her without being asked.  I found him incomprehensible.  The man hardly ever spoke to me -- his Spanish was heavily accented and sometimes Juana insisted on "translating" his words into "real" Spanish although I had no trouble understanding him.  I thought maybe he was shy with me because of the language problem.

One morning at dawn as I watched orange alpenglow slide down a snow-covered peak, I heard a shepherd playing the flute to his flock: old Inca music so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.  A moment later, Emiliano ducked out of his tent.  He seemed surprised to find me awake and up.  For a few minutes we sat together in silence.

"It's beautiful," I finally said.

Emiliano smiled.

I tried to maintain our connection.  "Do you miss your family?"

"My wife --" he began but stopped, thought for a minute, and then continued in another voice.  "She doesn't like for me to travel like this.  Foreign women --" he stopped again but this time left the thought unfinished.

I was confused at first and almost asked him for an explanation, but when I realized what he'd meant I must have blushed deep red.  I kept my eyes focused on the daylight that was spreading across the face of the mountain and because of that I'll never know if Emiliano was confiding in me or offering his services.

The nightly gin rummy games continued, the rules ever changing, Juana always winning, and Fredo a permanent spectator.  On the sixth night, our last night on the trail, I decided that I'd had enough.  I remembered an old party game from the north woods, always a hit after the first keg of Hamm's had been consumed.  I explained the rules to my companions.

"Everyone gets just one card.  You don't look at your card -- you hold it up in front of your forehead so that everyone else can see your card.  So each player knows everyone's card except his own.  And then you bet that your card is higher than everyone else's."

Even without the Hamm's the game was a hit.  Fredo apparently trusted that the rules would remain constant and he joined in.  We used dried beans for poker chips and the cuffs of our knit hats to hold our cards and soon the tent was exploding with laugher.

As Emiliano raked in a pile of beans that he'd just won, he casually asked me, "What do you call this game?"

Giddy from laughter, I abruptly returned to sobriety.  Looking from brown face to brown face, I realized how politically incorrect the game’s name was in this situation.  But I was too dumb to think of anything else to say. "It's called 'Indian.'"

"'Indian?'"  Emiliano looked shocked, confused, and even a little offended.  But then a wide smile broke across his face.  "Oh, like the North American Indians, right?  With feathers on their heads."

"Yeah, yeah," I hastily asserted.

Emiliano beamed.  "I guess we're all playing Indian tonight, aren't we?