Posted by René Volpi on Sept. 8th, 2010
I wasn’t going to cry. Instead I took a long sip of too-sweet Pisco and lemonade and leant back against the cold kitchen counter-top. He appeared not to notice the jagged edges of my smile as I nodded and thanked him for telling me.
He led the way out of the kitchen and back in to the party next door. I topped up my drink, and followed.
It hit close to the bone, I suppose, because it was something I’d thought might be true, once or twice. The jokes about bricheros had started way back in my Spanish classes, sitting about in the patio laughing and warning the new students about charming Peruvian men and women sweeping them off their feet while emptying their wallets.
In a more serious moment my teacher had described the procession of female students that had fallen head over heels, passing through her classroom detailing passionate love affairs in halting Spanish, only to be left bereft when the local heartbreaker tired of them and moved on to the next gringa.
My boyfriend Gabriel and I always joked that he was Cusco’s least successful brichero as I stretched the last of my vacation budget with S/.25 (US$9) a night shifts at a bar. Yet, at least at the beginning, a small part of me that wondered. And even when I was sure, when the trusting side of me won, I felt just as sure I knew what people were thinking.
Brichero and gringa, hand in hand in the Plaza de Armas, her smiling from ear to ear, blissfully adrift in Latino love, him cheerfully enjoying the small luxuries of a life paid for in crisp dollars.
But with our friends, our familia cusqueña, with its almost-brothers, extended cousins, drop-by unannounced, perpetually forgiving closeness, I always felt at home and unjudged in that group. So when Jose led me, riding high on a wave of Pisco and cheer during Gabriel’s birthday, into the kitchen to talk in private, what he told me left me cold.
“Everybody thinks that. I mean obviously not us,” us being the core of the group, “we’re your friends, but everybody else, they all talk about it. That you’re the silly gringa, that the boys are taking advantage of you with the hostel.”
I was silent, the counter-top a cold line across my back. He went on to tell me just who thought that my male business partners and my boyfriend were systematically draining me of the endless fund of money I presumably, as a Westerner, had.
Many of them were in my living room, drinking my vodka and dropping ashes on my floor.
I’ve been utterly disarmed at times by the generosity and openness of the people in South America. But as in Thailand, in Morocco, in Guatemala, I’m also keenly aware of my status as an outsider, a tourist from a rich country, somebody who gleefully spends in a day what could sustain a local family for many. Guilty myself of fighting to wait on tables of Americans (good tippers!) with other waitresses back home in Australia, I find it difficult to blame them. But that night in the kitchen, I felt jolted out of my own skin.
Earlier that week, I was in the office working while our security guard Javier distracted me with idle chatter. My passport was sitting on the desk and caught his eye. He asked if he could flick through it; I nodded, distracted by a stack of invoices to be recorded and filed. He paused at my stamp for Colombia, horrified.
I’d been to Colombia? More to the point, my father and brother had allowed me to go to Colombia?
I searched for diplomatic Spanish, reminding myself that he means well, is concerned for my safety. I found myself letting out a disgustingly girlish giggle, protesting ineffectually that really it’s quite safe these days and the people were lovely. I attempted to explain that my parents had in fact said very little, that as far as they were concerned I was more capable more capable than my brother. His expression didn’t change; my protests faded into silence.
He exclaimed again as he reached the visa for Cambodia, and once again I was no longer myself, I was White Western Woman in Peru.
Gabriel’s birthday, before the kitchen, when I still wore an unforced smile.
Maria arrives with friends, quite early in the night (by Peruvian standards at least). Introductions are made, and another round of the endless cheek-kissing that characterises any South American social encounter. She sits across the table, looks over at me and Jenny, two gringas sitting in a circle of Peruvian boys.
“So, whose girlfriends are you?”
And in the kitchen, with Jose, that’s who I was. Token gringa girlfriend, perhaps slightly stupid, certainly incapable of looking after herself, and her money. Swept off her feet by the irresistible Latino man, to be pitied, perhaps, not to be known.
Flooded caves, helicopter crashes, and armed rebels couldn’t stop these rescuers.
1. The Belay
In 1953, a team of eight American mountaineers was stuck on K2 in the middle of a blizzard, when one of its members, geologist Art Gilkey, collapsed with a pulmonary embolism.
While most Himalayan mountaineers would leave behind a climber too incapacitated to move, the rest of Gilkey’s team decided to try to get him off the mountain. They began descending the mountain, lowering Gilkey, wrapped in his sleeping bag, ahead of them. Suddenly, one climber lost his footing and began sliding down the side of the mountain. As he fell….
, he snagged on two other pairs of roped climbers, pulling them down with him.
The team would have fallen to their deaths if Pete Schoening, who had been belaying Gilkey, hadn’t caught them. In one of the most impressive shows of strength in mountaineering’s history, Schoening managed to hold onto the rope, stopping the climbers’ fall and belaying five of them to safety. The only casualty was Gilkey, whose rope snapped in the fall.
Later in life, Pete Schoening narrowly avoided another disaster when he dropped out of a Mountain Madness expedition to Mt. Everest due to poor health. His group would be one of those caught in the 1996 Everest Disaster, made famous by the book Into Thin Air.
2. Rescued from an underwater cave
Underwater caves are one of the most hazardous environments for divers. They’re dark, disorienting, and far from the safety of the surface. Most experienced cave divers have participated in a body recovery at some point, but very few have ever brought back a live diver.
Of those few, Steve Gerrard probably has the best story. In 1991, Gerrard participated in the rescue of a diver named Gustavo Badillo, who had become lost deep in Riito de Acarite, a flooded cave system in the mountains of Venezuela. With no backup equipment or cave diving training, Badillo was stranded in an air pocket, and facing what must have seemed like a very brief, very unpleasant future.
Gerrard was in Florida when a friend of Badillo’s contacted him to ask for his help in the rescue. While Gerrard didn’t expect that Badillo would survive, he agreed to come, and he and partner John Orlowski packed up their gear and hopped a chartered flight to Venezuela.
Incredibly, Badillo was still alive when the pair reached him the next morning, 36 hours after he had ventured into the cave.
3. Escaping from Kyrgyzstani rebels
Tommy Caldwell is famous for his big wall climbs in Yosemite, but he faced a whole new kind of danger in 2000, when he, then-girlfriend Beth Rodden, and two other friends were taken captive by armed rebels while on a climbing trip to Kyrgyzstan.
While their captors acted friendly, the climbers found out from another prisoner, a Kyrgyz soldier, that the rebels were dangerous, and had killed before. If Caldwell and Rodden had any doubts, they were extinguished when the rebels took the soldier behind a rock and executed him.
After spending six days on the run from Kyrgyz army patrols, the climbers saw their chance when the rebels left them on the edge of a cliff, with only a single guard watching them. In an interview, Caldwell recounted what happened next:
So I ran up behind him and grabbed him by his gun strap and pulled him over the edge. We were probably about 2,000 feet (610 meters) above the river, but it’s a cliff that is pretty sheer. We saw him fall 20 feet (6 meters), bounce off this ledge, and then fall basically into the black abyss below. I totally panicked. I broke down. I couldn’t believe I’d just done that, because it’s something that I never morally thought I could do and I never wanted to do. And Beth came up and, you know, gave me a lot of comfort as well as Jason and John.
After overpowering their guard, the four fled, finally finding their way to Kyrgyz army camp several hours later. Back in the US, Caldwell is still climbing, and is now working on freeing a new line on El Capitan, Mescalito.
4. Four days in the caverns.
Discovered in 1986, Lechuguilla Cave is a 55-mile system of hundred-foot-high cliffs and intricate limestone formations that penetrates deep into Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The system isn’t fully mapped, and cavers have been surveying it for decades.
Emily Davis Mobley was on a multi-day expedition to the cave in 1991 when a falling boulder hit her, shattering her leg. While the team doctor stabilized her bone and treated her for pain, Mobley was still left unable to move. Getting her out would entail one of the largest cave rescues in history.
For over four days, dozens of cavers worked to get Mobley out, sometimes as much as 16 hours a day. In some tight passages, rescuers had to get on all fours and pass her stretcher over their backs.
Mobley managed to stay in good spirits throughout the rescue, sometimes entertaining the people carrying her stretcher with renditions of songs like “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog.” The effort succeeded in the end, and Mobley was evacuated to a medical center in Carlsbad.
5. Walking off a chopper crash
Dave Hahn has received awards for the many rescues he has performed on Mt. Everest, Denali, and other peaks around the world. One of his most epic took place in 2002, when the helicopter that was carrying him and ranger Chris Olson to rescue an injured climber crashed on Mt. Ranier.
Most people would have stopped there, but Hahn and Olson told rangers by radio that they planned to complete the rescue. After evacuating the helicopter’s pilot, Hahn and Olson continued up the mountain on foot. Along with four other rescuers, the pair stretchered the victim partway down the mountain, where an army helicopter picked them up.
“They were feeling strong and completely prepared to continue with the mission,” park spokesperson Maria Gillett told the Seattle Times afterward. “They’re pretty tough guys, aren’t they?”
Not all cultures believe in burying the dead in the ground. Here are 10 unique ceremonies from around the world.
The modern dictionary defines the word ‘burial’ as placing a body in the ground.
But burying the deceased was not always the case.
Just as primitive man has long worshiped the four elements of Earth, Sky, Water, and Fire, so too have these elements taken their place in burial practices as diverse as the different tribes of the earth.
The way mankind deals with its dead says a great deal about those left to carry on.Â Burial practices are windows to a culture that speak volumes about how it lives.
As we are told in Genesis, man comes from dust, and returns to it. We have found many different ways to return. Here are 10 that I found particularly fascinating:
Air Sacrifice – Mongolia
Photo by Viacheslav Smilyk
Lamas direct the entire ceremony, with their number determined by the social standing of the deceased. They decide the direction the entourage will travel with the body, to the specific day and time the ceremony can happen.
Mongolians believe in the return of the soul. Therefore the lamas pray and offer food to keep evil spirits away and to protect the remaining family. They also place blue stones in the dead persons bed to prevent evil spirits from entering it.
No one but a lama is allowed to touch the corpse, and a white silk veil is placed over the face.Â The naked body is flanked by men on the right side of the yurt while women are placed on the left.Â Both have their respective right or left hand placed under their heads, and are situated in the fetal position.
The family burns incense and leaves food out to feed all visiting spirits.Â When time comes to remove the body, it must be passed through a window or a hole cut in the wall to prevent evil from slipping in while the door is open.
The body is taken away from the village and laid on the open ground. A stone outline is placed around it, and then the village dogs that have been penned up and not fed for days are released to consume the remains.Â What is left goes to the local predators.Â
The stone outline remains as a reminder of the person.Â If any step of the ceremony is left out, no matter how trivial, bad karma is believed to ensue.
Sky Burial – Tibet
Pounding the bones. Photo by Rotem Eldar
This is similar to the Mongolian ceremony. The deceased is dismembered by a rogyapa, or body breaker, and left outside away from any occupied dwellings to be consumed by nature.
To the western mind, this may seem barbaric, as it did to the Chinese who outlawed the practice after taking control of the country in the 1950’s. But in Buddhist Tibet, it makes perfect sense. The ceremony represents the perfect Buddhist act, known as Jhator. The worthless body provides sustenance to the birds of prey that are the primary consumers of its flesh.
To a Buddhist, the body is but an empty shell, worthless after the spirit has departed. Most of the country is surrounded by snowy peaks, and the ground is too solid for traditional earth internment. Likewise, being mostly above the tree line, there is not enough fuel for cremation.Â
Pit Burial – Pacific Northwest Haida
Haida carvings. Photo by Turbulent Flow
Before white contact, the indigenous people of the American northwest coast, particularly the Haida, simply cast their dead into a large open pit behind the village.
Their flesh was left to the animals. But if one was a chief, shaman, or warrior, things were quite different.
The body was crushed with clubs until it fit into a small wooden box about the size of a piece of modern luggage.Â It was then fitted atop a totem pole in front of the longhouse of the man’s tribe where the various icons of the totem acted as guardians for the spirits’ journey to the next world. Â
Written history left to us by the first missionaries to the area all speak of an unbelievable stench at most of these villages.Â Today, this practice is outlawed.
Viking Burial – Scandinavia
Viking’s ashore. Illustration Long Beach City College
We have all seen images of a Viking funeral with the body laid out on the deck of a dragon ship, floating into the sunset while warriors fire flaming arrows to ignite the pyre.Â
While very dramatic, burning a ship is quite expensive, and not very practical.Â
What we do know is most Vikings, being a sea faring people, were interred in large graves dug in the shape of a ship and lined with rocks.Â The person’s belongings and food were placed beside them.Â Men took their weapons to the next world, while women were laid to rest wearing their finest jewelry and accessories.Â
If the deceased was a nobleman or great warrior, his woman was passed from man to man in his tribe, who all made love to her (some would say raped) before strangling her, and placing her next to the body of her man.Â Thankfully this practice is now, for the most part, extinct.
Fire Burial – Bali
Fire consumes all. Photo by Barnacle Bikers
On the mostly Hindu Isle of Bali, fire is the vehicle to the next life. The body or Mayat is bathed and laid out on a table where food offerings are laid beside it for the journey.Â
Lanterns line the path to the persons hut to let people know he or she has passed, and act as a reminder of their life so they are not forgotten.
It is then interred in a mass grave with others from the same village who have passed on until it is deemed there are a sufficient number of bodies to hold a cremation.Â
The bodies are unearthed, cleaned, and stacked on an elaborate float, gloriously decorated by the entire village and adorned with flowers. The float is paraded through the village to the central square where it is consumed by flames, and marks the beginning of a massive feast to honor and remember the dead.
Spirit Offerings – Southeast Asia
Row of spirit houses. Photo by Marc Aurel
Throughout most of Southeast Asia, people have been buried in the fields where they lived and worked. It is common to see large stone monuments in the middle of a pasture of cows or water buffalo.
The Vietnamese leave thick wads of counterfeit money under rocks on these monuments so the deceased can buy whatever they need on their way to the next life
In Cambodia and Thailand, wooden “spirit houses” sit in front of almost every hut from the poorest to the most elaborate estate.Â These are places where food and drink are left periodically for the souls of departed relatives to refuel when necessary.Â The offerings of both countries also ask the spirits of the relatives to watch over the lands and the families left behind.
Predator Burial – Maasai Tribe
No after life. Photo by Demosh
The Maasai of East Africa are hereditary nomads who believe in a deity known as Enkai, but this is not a single being or entity.
It is a term that encompasses the earth, sky, and all that dwells below.Â It is a difficult concept for western minds that are more used to traditional religious beliefs than those of so-called primitive cultures.Â
Actual burial is reserved for chiefs as a sign of respect, while the common people are simply left outdoors for predators to dispose of, since Maasai believe dead bodies are harmful to the earth.Â To them when you are dead, you are simply gone.Â There is no after life.
Skull Burial – Kiribati
Chilling out. Photo by aargh
On the tiny island of KiribatiÂ the deceased is laid out in their house for no less than three days and as long as twelve, depending on their status in the community.Â Friends and relatives make a pudding from the root of a local plant as an offering.Â
Several months after internment the body is exhumed and the skull removed, oiled, polished, and offered tobacco and food.Â After the remainder of the body is re-interred, traditional islanders keep the skull on a shelf in their home and believe the native god Nakaa welcomes the dead person’s spirit in the northern end of the islands.
Cave Burial – Hawaii
Cave burials. Photo by Extra Medium
In the Hawaiian Islands, a traditional burial takes place in a cave where the body is bent into a fetal position with hands and feet tied to keep it that way, then covered with a tapa cloth made from the bark of a mulberry bush.Â
Sometimes the internal organs are removed and the cavity filled with salt to preserve it.Â The bones are considered sacred and believed to have diving power.Â
Many caves in Hawaii still contain these skeletons, particularly along the coast of Maui.
The open sea. Photo by Spirit of Albion
Since most of our planet is covered with water, burial at sea has long been the accepted norm for mariners the world over.
By international law, the captain of any ship, regardless of size or nationality has the authority to conduct an official burial service at sea.
The traditional burial shroud is a burlap bag, being cheap and plentiful, and long in use to carry cargo.Â The deceased is sewn inside and is weighted with rocks or other heavy debris to keep it from floating.Â
If available, the flag of their nation covers the bag while a service is conducted on deck. The body is then slid from under the flag, and deposited in Davy Jones locker.
In olden days, the British navy mandated that the final stitch in the bag had to go through the deceased person’s lip, just to make sure they really were dead.Â (If they were still alive, having a needle passed through their skin would revive them).
It is quite possible that sea burial has been the main form of burial across the earth since before recorded history.
The Final Frontier
Today, if one has enough money, you can be launched into space aboard a private commercial satellite and a capsule containing your ashes will be in permanent orbit around the earth.
Perhaps this is the ultimate burial ceremony, or maybe the beginning of a whole new era in which man continues to find new and innovative ways to invoke spirits and provide a safe passage to whatever awaits us at the end of this life.
That’s all folks!