The high Andes. I cannot go any higher without oxygen and crampons. Humahuaca, Purmamarca, the Salinas Grandes. We waver between 9,000 feet and 11,000. I have been reborn here, because here in the high sky of an intense cerulean blue, a corona wrapped around mountains that command you to worship their magnificence, is the reason that I came to Argentina in the first instance.
I was never a child.
There is a film, Veronico Cruz: The Internal Debt. Except for Argentinians, I do not know anyone who has seen it. In one searing scene, a boy, a poor indigenous shepherd boy is running across the huge expanse of white salt flats high in the beautiful Andes. A scene and a child I fell in love with and longed to see, a little brown speck moving across the dazzling white sea bed, a sea bed on a mountain range thousands of feet in the thick, heavy, drugging air.
I am addicted.
The Internal Debt was a film that rocked Argentina. Based on the story Veronico Cruz and the poem, Yo Jamás Fui Niño (I Was Never A Child) by Indigenous musician and poet, Fortunato Ramos, it tells the story of an idealistic young school teacher in the dark days of General Galtieri’s dictatorship, sent to the Andes to teach poor indigenous children, one of whom is Veronico Cruz. Years later, the teacher returns to this other world of grinding poverty and hardship and finds that Veronico has joined the navy and is serving on the Belgrano.
Ah. The Belgrano.
In the South Atlantic, on a boat in the Beagle Channel, I met a man who had been on the Belgrano that fateful day. He painted a picture that sank me, of how he listened to 1,093 of his colleagues cry and drown in the dark. As he spoke, I stared down into the same black waters that took them and thought of Veronico Cruz. Galtieri enforced conscription in his drunken war with England over a set of islands and he sent for the cannon fodder, the boys of Humahuaca, Purmamarca and the Salinas Grandes. They had never even seen the sea, never mind the assassinous swell of the South Atlantic.
Gotcha, said the scum British press. I will never forgive them, parasites.
It was time, time to go to the high Andes and look for Veronico Cruz. I took a shared taxi to Humahuaca with Enrique, a local man I’d met in a tourist office. He swarmed everywhere, belly first, loud and knowledgeable, full of pride in San Salvador de Jujuy. I wanted to visit the Quebrada, the Andes of Humahuaca. His car was a land yacht, a geriatric American Chevy. Get in, he said. The car also contained a woman and her daughter, a daughter with mental problems who yanked on my hair for an hour until I gave her a crumbling, wax paper wrapped cookie from the bottom of my bag. If truth be told, I did not expect what happened in Humahuaca to happen.
Call it serendipity.
The Catholic church, the authorities, all tried to quell the indigenous spirit but they never managed it. Not entirely. They could not rob the people of their music, nor their dead in their sky palaces, nor their love of the sky and the earth, the Pacha Mama. A band struck up during lunch, (Enrique had acquired a table right in front of them), a group of local men, with pipes, charangos and drums and one with an accordion. An accordion, of all things.
Go, said Enrique, talk to him.
The musician was selling CDs of his music and some thin poetry books. He was humble and polite. And words fell from my mouth that I had no intention of ever saying.
Call it serendipity.
I came here, I said, because of the Internal Debt, because of Veronico Cruz. And he smiled and said, “I am Fortunato Ramos, I wrote Veronico Cruz.”
Six thousand miles, ten thousand kilometres, years of dreaming. The reason I had come and breathed in thin air was telling me he was the one who was honored that I, a writer from Ireland, felt all of this enough to come to the Bolivian border. Could he please, please give me one of his poetry books, it would be an honor, he said.
I let the kid pull my hair the whole way back.
Argentina (and the world entire) owes a huge internal debt to its indigenous people. I have an eternal one, but I don’t know who I owe for that.