Perhaps that is why the Inca so loved the sun and the Maya built stairs to the skies, and conquistadores clambered up hills to thrust crucifixes into high ground. We want to be free of the earth's embrace. Sprout wings. Fly. We long to see through the eyes of the condor.
Imagine then, this native Peruvian, whose feet are most comfortable on terra firma, joining a photographer's expedition to survey her home from the air. That was the position in which I found myself one autumn day, as I hung on for dear life in the rear of a Pilatus Porter, the breast of our tiny craft beating against the current.
We flew over the Callejón de Huaylas, a verdant canyon that cuts through two mountain ranges—the majestic, snow-peaked Cordillera Blanca and the rippling, brown spine of the Cordillera Negra. This is the cradle of one of the earliest known civilizations of Peru, the Chavín, whose highly developed notions of agriculture informed the later genius of the Moche and Inca cultures. (Qosqo
, the Inca would later call their perch in the Andes: umbilical of the world.) The Callejón is also in the stretch of mountain that boasts one of the highest peaks in all of South America, the spectacular Nevado Huascarán, whose 22,205-foot (6,768 meters) summit lords over the valley, and whose ice and snows have alternately nurtured and extinguished all life below.
Latin America is full of such paradoxes. We leap to tell visitors that our countries hold a smorgasbord of landforms—coastline, desert, jungle, mountain, marshland, archipelago—all in defined geographic spaces, and often in dramatic contiguity. The white promontories of the Andes are not far from the impenetrable canopy of the Amazon, where every November the jungle floor is deluged by floodwaters, and jaguars are forced to swim with the pink dolphins. Not until I was flying 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) above the earth did I see how close and interdependent those landforms truly are. A few minutes in the air can take you from the vernal cliffs of Lima's seaside suburbs to the windblown desert of Chan Chan, the once grand citadel of the Chimú; or from the unforgiving rock over which the conquistadores labored to the green vales of Cajamarca. All of it, interconnected. One.
For all the history that has spooled below, for all the suffering that still plagues the region, the view from above is calm and neutral—and the terrain it reveals, seamless and whole. It is, I can't help but think, Latin America as the Great Liberator Simón Bolívar dreamed it, a vast land made one by the spine of its cordillera, by the intricate vascular system that flows from its dark Amazon heart. There are no borders in this America. No nationalities. One zone merges into another, towns and cities come and go, valleys yield to mountains, and high snows trickle down to feed an emerald forest.
Bolívar's dream of a unified region, a place where all nations would gather to form a stronger people, never came to be. He died in exile, despised and penniless, and Latin America forged ahead in all its splendid diversity.
Yet Bolívar was not alone in dreaming about Latin America. It is a place, when all is said and done, built on dreams. The fearless seafaring Alacaluf of Tierra del Fuego and the Aztec of Mexico dreamed of greatness and, with considerable struggle, won it. As did the inventive Moche, the Maya, and the Inca. And then, when Spain turned its hunger westward, all Europe dreamed of what wonders it might acquire. Latin America soon became the object of wholesale fantasy. Fifteenth-century sages imagined a land populated by Pygmies, Cyclopes, fierce warrior women, and sullen, dog-faced men. They fancied a world replete with magical realities: The fountain of youth. A paradise of the senses. Gold.
Even before Columbus set sail, he worried his old copy of Imago Mundi
and dreamed of a land unlike anything he knew. Then, in the 16th century, as the territory Columbus had chanced upon was being settled, Sir Thomas More imagined the Utopia it might become.
The dreamscapes in Robert Haas's photographs hark back to that spirit of discovery. To the force of the imagination. For, despite all the hard business of life in Latin America—despite all the realities on the ground—we are a people who long to rise, who seek the sky, who patiently await the magic. Even if it will never come. Why else would we scratch lines into the parched clay of Nasca that only a winged creature might see? Why else would we pile stone on stone at Chichén Itzá to mark the sun's passage through heaven?
At one point, as Haas and I soared through the skies, I glanced down and saw the sugar fields of Trujillo where I had played as a child, the rugged Pacific coast my brother and I had explored on horseback, the dense rain forest canopy under which my forebears had struggled against all odds to ride the Amazon until it coursed out to sea. All of it at this remove seemed oddly divorced from the sturm and drang of family history, free of the human condition. Something happens when we look on the earth in that way: Mankind becomes a mere anecdote against that staggering canvas; we see ourselves as we really are—bound to the natural world around us. Mites upon a mighty orb.
Since the age of the Inca, we have believed that we spring from the soil as surely as seeds—that life in this volatile home holds the promise of plenty or the shock of seismic upheaval. The earth can feed us. Or destroy us. We are at once the blessed and cursed inheritors of a fierce and bountiful land.