The central square of Pallasca is deserted and silent in the glaring white sun of the high Andes.
An old colonial church, built in 1625 by the Spanish monks, is crumbling, rotting away, paint peeling, walls slowly cracking and disintegrating, ghost houses surrounding the plaza abandoned and boarded up, save for a few, and the little crooked streets of cobblestone and dirt and clay run off into the labyrinth of Pallasca carving their way through a maze of decrepit, hollow houses covered in red tiles, broken, overgrown with moss, some now used for pig enclosures, pitiful laundry drying in the icy cold rays of the highland sun as the wind sifts the dust and the debris like a blind, vagrant wraith from the days of the past.
On the corner of the plaza, under a looming shadow of a Spanish villa, an old Quechua woman sits selling Andean herbs and bananas that had long gone black, her face half-covered by a wide-brimmed hat, squinting, dozing, she has been dreaming open-eyed, not noticing the dust and the sand that the wind had kicked up in her face, as if she herself had become a part of Pallasca, a stone in the cobbled street or an old wooden banister of a decaying gallery or a heavy silver ornament on one of the windows, long gone now, long forgotten.
Walking the crumbling, narrow streets smelling of moist earth, pig shit and sunsets, we abruptly come to a halt, this is where Pallasca ends, suddenly, in a pile of rock and stone, next to a rambling clay brick house, covered in soot, crippled and misshapen, the roof almost touching the ground now, and out in the yard overgrown with wines and coarse highland grasses, on a bench made from grey stone, maybe a tombstone – a strange lopsided obelisk – there is an old couple sitting. She is knitting a woolen mantilla, humming to herself softly, her fingers wrinkled, gnarled from arthritis. He is looking out at the menacing jagged peaks of the Andes, painted crimson and scarlet by the setting sun, his head trembling a little. They smile, and nod, and wish us good evening, good evening.
We stay with the Captain of Pallasca, in his white palatial nineteenth century house right next to the old church. There’s a small boy running about in the courtyard and there are voices of women and a strong aroma of soup emanating from one of the inner chambers of the mansion, and somebody is listening to the radio in the labyrinth of rooms upstairs, and a heavyset, black- haired girl is picking ripe red tomatoes in the dark green jungle of the inner garden.
The courtyard cobblestones are now broken and worn, the Spanish galleries rotting before our eyes, collapsing, supported by wooden poles and scraps of metal, the stairs creaking and decaying, the rambling, crumbling mansion bound together by nothing but the iron will of the Captain. Our room has a high ceiling, there are two beds at the opposite walls, mattresses moldered, covered in threadbare blankets, and in the middle of the room there is a small wooden cabinet piled high with photographs and medals. There he is, the Captain: young and lean and handsome, standing tall, solemn, shaking the hand of the President, saluting the General.
Once a Spanish gold mining hub, Pallasca had since become a ghost town, had fallen through the cracks, its young leaving for Chimbote and Trujillo as soon as they could, its old slowly, dutifully dying. Merely six hundred people remain, quiet, weathered, smiling in disbelief, sitting around on curbs and broken benches, pious, staring at their own hands.
Five decades ago, Pallasca had been cut off from the world, with one dusty narrow mule trail going up the mountain, and the good citizens of Pallasca rode donkeys and mules and walked and had never seen an automobile. Then the Captain arrived. Stationed in Pallasca, the Captain became hellbent on changing its destiny.
“Millions of soles had been allocated to build a road, a real road to Pallasca, and millions had been stolen by thieving politicians. All five Peruvian presidents, crooks and scroungers, all of them! They should have their hands chopped off or be put to hard work. God damn! Well, I would have none of it. Pallasca needed a road to connect it to the Pacific and the Amazon, money or not. And I was going to build it”, – the Captain tells us, leaning on the gallery banister, his voice booming. He is old now, so old, but still strong as an ox, his back straight and his hands calloused, he speaks in perfect Castellano, his face is marked but his dark eyes glimmer as he talks.
“We had no machinery and no technology, but we had vision and discipline. People have no vision and no discipline these days! God damn! I said to the Pallascans, each of you will build ten meters of the road, and it doesn’t matter who you are: a merchant, a peasant or a teacher, or a child, even. Every living soul in Pallasca had to build their ten meters. Women would bring us food out on the face of the mountain. I had not slept in months, months, I tell you – but the road was built”, – the Captain speaks hotly now, and behind him, there is an old black and white photograph, framed: the Captain, laughing with pride, carried on the shoulders of a cheering mob, waving the Peruvian flag, the first automobile entering Pallasca just behind him. June, 1973.
“Everything ages, everything crumbles and perishes… Pallasca is dying now, but I won’t move. Carajo! I will hold this place together with my bare hands, even if the Pallascans are leaving, I tell you, vision and discipline! I wrote to the Australian embassy and asked them to give me a pair of koalas: there are forests around Pallasca, immense woods of eucalyptus trees, the koalas would breed and the tourists would come, those ridiculous little bears would attract travelers, just like the Pandas in Guayaquil, you see, and Pallasca would flourish once again. We have built the road, god damn it! We have built the road”, – the Captain says, as he wishes us a good night and vanishes into the darkness of the second floor, into his chambers and into the glories of the past.
Deadly silence engulfs Pallasca as the freezing cold Andean night descends all around it. The Captain’s palace, leaning heavily on the old church, sighs and whispers in the darkness, and in the crooked cobblestone streets, during the witching hour, steps of Spanish ghosts fall soundlessly into the velveteen blackness of the night.
“…the only thing that gave us security on earth was the certainty that he was there, invulnerable to plague and hurricane . . . invulnerable to time. For he had not survived everything because of his inconceivable courage or his infinite prudence but because he was the only one among us who knew the real size of our destiny” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Autumn of the Patriarch
Special thanks to: Captain Orlando Bladimir Alvarez Castro, Pallasca, Peru