The day Papa came back from Nanga Parbat (with his soul-crushing footage, so much beauty wasn’t human), he explained to us over dinner that alpinism had become too technical and that the important things were being forgotten, that he wasn’t going to climb anymore. Clearly believing his words held some kind of promise, Mama grinned like an idiot, but she kept quiet so as not to interrupt. “Man’s communion with nature is what really matters,” he went on, his beard longer than ever and as dark as his faintly deranged eyes. “The chance to reach places God himself has forsaken is what matters. No, not forsaken,” he corrected himself at the start of one of his interminable monologues, the ones he always gave when he got back, before the silence grew again, and with it the desire to set off on a new adventure, “but rather those places He can be found, where God finds solace away from our ingratitude, and our depravity.”
Monika and Trixi hung on his every word, transfixed. Mama too, naturally. We were his clan, the women who waited for him, up until then in Munich but now in La Paz, where we had been living for a year and a half. Leave, that’s what Papa knew how to do best. Leave, but also come back, like a soldier returns home from the war to gather his strength before going again. There usually followed a few months of peace in the house. This time though, having only just bemoaned the state of alpinism, and with his mouth half-full, he declared that he would soon be leaving in search of Paitití, an ancient Inca city buried deep in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. “No one has laid eyes on it for centuries,” he said, and I couldn’t bear to look at Mama, to see how short-lived her hopes had been. “It’s full of hidden treasures buried there by the Incas to prevent the greedy conquistadors from looting them,” he added, although these riches were the least of his concern. The prize he coveted was finding the city’s ruins. It turned out he’d made a decisive stop in São Paulo on his way back from Nanga Parbat and finally had the funds and equipment to set off. “Let’s not forget how long Machu Picchu went undiscovered,” he said. “For hundreds of years, nobody even knew it existed, until bold Hiram Bingham came along.”
Papa knew the names of hundreds of explorers, unlike
me. I was one year off finishing secondary school and had other things to worry about, like what I was going to do afterward. La Paz wasn’t so bad, but it was chaotic and we would never stop being outsiders, people from another world: an old, cold world. We had at least managed to adapt now, having struggled with every single thing at first, including blasted Spanish. Mama barely spoke a word of it, but my sisters were becoming increasingly fluent and I could get by without too much trouble. My other option was to go back to Munich, but the fact that Monika was considering this too put me off, because if she did we might end up living together. She had just celebrated her eighteenth birthday, had recently finished school, and was more confused and angry than ever. With her recurring panic attacks she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters, a bit like Mama in relation to Papa. I’m not going to deny it, it wasn’t a pretty sight watching my sister having one of her hysterical fits. It was shocking, horrifying even. The last time we’d had no choice but to tie her up. Did Papa know about that yet? Had Mama told him in a letter maybe? Or earlier that day, before supper, as soon as they were alone in their room? Despite months of imploring by Mama, Monika just shrugged it off (“It’s nothing,” she would
say. “Leave me be.”), and she refused point-blank to see a psychiatrist or physician.
In any case, ten days after Papa’s return, my sister’s inner turmoil would coincide with another: the archaeologists from the Brazilian institute whom Papa was waiting for told him that they had to postpone the start of the expedition. He either didn’t understand their reasoning or took it as a personal affront, and all hell broke loose in the house. Over the following days we listened to him make endless calls, slam doors, make threats, rant and rave. He spent the rest of the time brooding like a caged animal, like a man who’d lost everything. We girls were on school holidays and had no way of dodging this display of martyrdom. In the end, while Monika and I were helping him in the garden one afternoon, he suggested to her that she go with him. My sister didn’t know if she wanted to study, or what or where she would study if she did. It was she who had questioned his decision to settle in Bolivia, complaining incessantly, even on the boat over. “We can’t just up and leave our lives like this,” she would begin, before really letting rip. “This is no way to do things!” “Not many people get the chance to start over,” Papa would reply, and Monika would say, “There’s no such thing as starting over. Leaving is the coward’s way.” Confronted like this, Papa would fall quiet and his silence gave her free rein to go on, at least
until he lost his patience. When this happened Mama would take me and Trixi for a turn out on deck, and they would go on arguing, sometimes for hours on end. I would come to understand my sister’s misgivings later, the day we arrived in La Paz. I recognized nothing in the city (there were children begging on the streets, native people carting great big bundles on their backs, too many half-built houses to count), and everything seemed unsafe and dirty. It was a couple of months later, with the family now settled in a central neighborhood and Papa having already set off for Nanga Parbat, that Monika’s panic attacks began. That was nearly a year ago. Now, in the garden, to my astonishment she accepted his offer without a second thought.
Of course, Papa was trying to kill two birds with one stone: to count on Monika’s help for the expedition, which he’d decided not to delay by a single second, and to put some distance between her and her demons. Having listened to him, incredulous, I declared that he should take me too. “You’re still in school, you idiot,” my sister cut in. “I can miss a couple of months,” I told her, keeping my cool and promptly turning back to Papa. “This could be life-changing for me,” I said, “you of all people know that.” What must it have been like for him, coming home after such a long time spent in inhospitable locations? Was there something we didn’t know that had
made him want to give up climbing? And what was he really after with this business in Paitití? And me, what was I looking for? The chance to skip a few classes? To stand out among my friends and make them seethe with envy when I told them? Not to be left in Monika’s shadow? As if he’d foreseen all this, including the questions I was asking myself, Papa pulled a strange smile as he nodded his consent. My heart froze in my chest and I looked at my sister, who looked at me, and neither of us knew what to say. I suppose it frightened us to learn that he was serious.
“You need to be prepared,” he said after a while. We spoke in German among ourselves. On the rare occasions we were obliged to speak Spanish together, it felt fake. It was getting dark and we’d soon have to go back in. We’d finished weeding the garden—all that was left to do was to tie up the burlap sack and dump it on the street. “Materially speaking, we’re more than ready,” he told us. “We’ve got bite-proof suits, radio equipment, special cases to protect the celluloid, a terrific camera. We’ve got everything we need to reach the end of the world.” He was able to buy all this kit thanks to the backing of a Bolivian ministry and the Brazilian institute, who had agreed to his setting off without their team. “The future is here,” we’d heard him repeat over the previous days. “Europe had its chance and lost it. Now it’s the turn of
countries like this.” He was no longer welcome in ours, regardless of the debt German cinema owed to him. During the Berlin Olympics, in the famous production by Leni Riefenstahl, Papa had been the first cameraman to film underwater and take daring aerial footage, the first to do many things. He’d also spent several years taking impressive photos of the war. Everyone knew about it, and no one better than us. Not for nothing had we moved continents and abandoned our life there. “Materially speaking, we’re prepared,” he repeated in the garden, swinging the burlap sack over his shoulder, “but not logistically, not yet. Nor physically or mentally, and even less spiritually.” Did Mama know? Had they already discussed it? Would we leave without her consent? “It won’t be easy,” he said. “Nobody said it would be. Not for any of us, but we will find Paitití. Paitití has been waiting for us for centuries. We’ll get there whatever it takes.”
Three weeks later the new group had been formed and was ready to set off. Papa was the expedition’s leader, of course. He wasn’t an archaeologist, nobody in the group was, but that didn’t matter, at least not for now. Rudi Braun had been on similar ventures (he was just back from Chaco), didn’t seem tied to anyone, and knew exactly who Papa was, so he didn’t take too much convincing.
He would be Papa’s right-hand man, handling logistics. It took me all of two seconds to fall head over heels in love with him and thank my lucky stars that I was there. An entomologist by trade, Miss Burgl had been based in Bolivia for months studying some insect or another. She would help out in any way needed, and at the same time collect fauna specimens. Lastly, Monika and I would take on a countless number of jobs, including assisting Papa shoot the documentary he’d committed himself to making.
We traveled as far as we could in a Kombi. It crawled along slowly, perhaps because it was so overloaded. That first day we went through Balca and Chacaltaya, stopping every now and again so that he could film or take photos. He had shown us exactly how to assist him before we left, so we were already masters at assembling the tripod, knew all the different lenses by heart, and had a thorough understanding of the camera’s various functions. We arrived in Sorata late in the evening and slept terribly, cooped up in a rented room.
The next morning there were twenty-five mules waiting for us and we loaded each one with packs weighing precisely forty-six kilos. Papa had warned us that any heavier and the mules wouldn’t move. It was hailing and bitterly cold, ten times colder than the city. We had to cross the Cordillera Real at more than five thousand meters altitude. Our faces were frozen, and we were lugging
great rucksacks on our backs. Breathing alone was a struggle.
Along the way we came across dozens of shrines, little piles of smooth stones carefully stacked in such a way as to survive the harsh climate. Whenever we passed one, the muleteers would scatter coca leaves around it and murmur prayers in Aymara. One of the muleteers explained to me that the shrines were there to honor Pachamama, the goddess of the earth, and to acknowledge the mountain spirits. I struggled to catch what he was saying through the round ball of coca he held in his mouth, a habit he shared with his fellow muleteers. They sucked on those leaves for hours on end. Apparently the sap gave them strength.
New mules awaited us at the summit. The muleteer in charge wanted Papa to pay more than the agreed amount on the basis that his people weren’t happy, and the two of them wasted an hour negotiating. Papa mixed up his languages when he got angry, making it even more difficult to understand him. German, Bavarian, Italian, and English words all tumbled out together in a hopeless gibberish. I offered to interpret but he refused to accept my help. In the end they agreed on a figure, him conceding three thousand pesos.
A few hours later some sinister-looking individuals turned up, headed for Tipuani in the search for gold.
Papa’s whole bearing changed in an instant, and Rudi, who had been bringing up the rear, moved forward to back him up. I shivered with excitement at his gallantry, or perhaps I was merely trembling at the wind that had begun to whip around us. We couldn’t afford for any mules to fall behind. In an effort to help I counted them over and again, but I couldn’t get past thirteen or fourteen without falling out of line, something that wasn’t advisable given the conditions. Every now and then the bandits would ask questions, but on the whole they were unnervingly quiet. I began to imagine the worst (that together with the muleteers they would run off with our belongings, chopping us to pieces first), but half an hour later they wished us luck and drifted off in another direction.
It was getting dark as we approached Yani. The small adobe houses seemed to be piled on top of one another. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a bleak little village. The children roamed the dirt streets barefoot and with snotty faces. They looked at us as though we were ghosts and didn’t return our hellos. How they didn’t freeze to death was a mystery. Our problems came back to haunt us when a few muleteers and their animals disappeared. By the time we arrived, there were just six or seven of them. Papa went ballistic. The lead muleteer explained to him that his missing men had gone home for the night and would return first thing the following morning.
There was another argument and the muleteers were eventually summoned. Not long after that, the luggage was out in the yard, covered by a canvas sheet. The villagers skulked around, no doubt wondering who we were and what we were doing there. Papa became paranoid and ordered us to keep guard. Monika was the first to put herself forward, well armed with her air gun. Miss Burgl and I prepared dinner while Rudi and Papa disinfected the room where we would sleep. It had a straw roof. Inside, the walls were covered with old newspapers, some from as far back as the forties.
In the middle of the night Rudi woke me, stroking my head. “What’s going on?” I asked. “It’s your turn,” he replied. “Ah,” I said, springing up, elated to finally have the chance to talk. “Is anyone still milling around?” I asked. “Just two dogs that have been sniffing our packs for hours,” he said. I wanted to believe he was smiling but couldn’t tell in the darkness. “Get some rest,” I said before leaving the room. A few hours later I woke up at his side, at which point I did see his smile as he wished me good morning. We were alone in the room. Outside you could already hear Papa ranting. On the wall, an article about the war caught my eye. I could recall very little from that time, and asked Rudi if he remembered more. He was tying his bootlaces and only replied that we oughtn’t be late. He stroked my head again when he
left, but more in the way one strokes a pet than a woman. It’s possible he thought I was too young for him, or that he was scared of Papa, who, incidentally, insisted that day we address him by his given name. Hans, we had to call him, as we would a stranger—Hans and only Hans. Outside, the darkness was just beginning to lift and the muleteers and their chief were demanding yet more money. Was this what it would be like every day from now on? Did they take us for fools?
“For crying out loud be men and stick to your word!” Monika bellowed. An awkward silence hung in the air for several seconds before they all broke into laughter, even Papa, who ruffled her hair proudly as she too began to laugh. With that laughter the matter was resolved.
We set out again. Part of the route had been cleared centuries ago by the Incas. It was terrifying to think of it—it was fascinating and sad. It was all of these things too, to realize that we were lost in the heart of a foreign country, so far from home. The expedition had only just begun and it was easy to lose perspective, to forget that what we were doing day in and day out was part of a bigger plan, that all our efforts were directed toward finding a lost city in the rain forest. Paitití. I had to keep repeating it to myself like a mantra: Paitití, Paitití, Paitití. I was doing just that when I became distracted by Rudi and Monika’s whisperings. On the days when she was in good
spirits I envied my sister’s lightness, her ability to make friends with anyone. I couldn’t understand how her good nature could have such a terrible flip side. It didn’t make sense to me that the sunny and the despairing girl were one and the same.
At nightfall we set up camp in Tolapampa. There was a stream nearby. The others didn’t want to come with us, so Miss Burgl and I went by ourselves to take a dip. It was the first time we had bathed since leaving, and she was still a stranger really. She asked if my feet hurt. I told her I was absolutely fine, although the truth was my whole body ached. She asked me if I missed Mama. I told her I did. She asked me what she was like. “Melancholy,” I said, a somewhat ridiculous answer, but I couldn’t come up with another one. I was too embarrassed to mention the great balls of phlegm Mama had begun to cough up and which my sisters and I inspected as if they were newborn creatures. “We’ve got company,” Miss Burgl said. One of the pigs belonging to the family putting us up was standing a few meters away, watching us. Later, when I relieved myself, it barely waited until I had left to dig into its feast.
I was awoken early the next morning by the sound of Papa rummaging around outside. Was it three days ago that we had left La Paz, or only two? And how much longer until we reached Incapampa, where we would set
up base camp? There was so much to do I didn’t even get the chance to ask. I had barely spoken to anyone over the first few days, least of all my sister. “Silence is key,” Papa kept repeating. “Explorers know how to listen better than anyone, know to stay alert to their surroundings. Listening is just as important as looking, even more so,” he told us over and again. Now, in the small hours of the morning, I could hear him pottering about outside the tent. Not long after, he appeared with a few plates of juicy sliced fruit and oats.
We were on the road again at seven, and by eleven a blanket of thick fog had descended upon us. Papa shouted at the group to concentrate and stick closely behind the person in front. Two muleteers near me began to talk in Aymara. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but their voices were relaxed and made me feel strangely calm. “We’re heading down now!” Rudi bellowed. “Careful not to slip.” I liked the way he spoke, firm and tender at the same time, unlike Papa, who was just firm. We were already wearing our green rain forest suits and the mounting humidity told us we were getting closer with every step. We looked like lost parachutists. We looked like soldiers searching for a war, or interplanetary beings. Every now and then the fog lifted and we could see the hills rolling out toward the east, covered by a carpet of trees that stretched out endlessly. Papa took
every opportunity to film or take photos while the rest of us were forced to stop and wait, or to pretend we hadn’t noticed the camera was on us, or to film him, who in turn pretended to not notice us as he got on with this or that. Somewhere down below was Paitití. I still repeated it to myself from time to time: Paitití, Paitití, Paitití. Rudi, I also said to myself. Rudi, my love. Rudi, my life. I had convinced myself he was single, but the thought of Mama made me accept that perhaps there was someone somewhere waiting for him. I don’t know what possessed me to speed up even to the point of overtaking him, but as I did, a snake emerged from the undergrowth. Rudi threw rocks at it, sending it slithering back into hiding, and asked me to go back to my place. I couldn’t even look at him for the next few hours.
We arrived in Pararani in the late afternoon and nothing there resembled anything we’d seen the previous night up in the mountains. The plant life was lusher and the floor covered in moss, the houses made out of the bases of tree trunks and palm leaves. The settlers were kind, friendly people. I was sweating profusely under my green suit. “Me too,” Monika confessed when I told her. We set to work together, blowing up the rubber mattresses in the hut where we would be sleeping. If La Paz had seemed deprived up until then, these villages were ten times poorer. “You OK?” I asked. “Fine,” she said. “You?”
“Yes, fine,” I said. “Do you think you’ll make it?” she asked. “As if it were even that hard,” I replied. A few hours later, we were eating our dinner of tortillas and sauerkraut. Papa had managed to get hold of twelve men with machetes to help clear our path through the forest, and he seemed in good spirits. He told us that we’d reach Incapampa at the latest by two the following day, that it was a miracle we hadn’t had any setbacks up until then, that he could already hear the hum of Paitití in the air. “What a good ear you must have, because I don’t hear a thing,” Miss Burgl said, and we all laughed.
That night I fixed it so that Rudi slept next to me. I gave him a kiss on the beard as I thanked him for what he’d done earlier with the snake. We were at the start of something, that much was clear, but we didn’t know what. We were at the start of something and our only option was to go with it. Outside you could hear the buzz of the horseflies and swarms of mosquitoes. Rudi played dumb and didn’t respond.