The Garden House
The Garden House is an extract (3000 words) from my novel, Eternity, that fits in somewhere around chapter five, and explores the protagonist’s arrival in Cusco, Peru.
In the mass of moustached Peruvians, I spot a sweaty man holding a sign with my name on it. I nod to him and the blurring swarm around me disappears into silence.
‘Garden House?’ I wheeze.
‘Si,’ he says.
The man’s name is José. I’m too exhausted to attempt a conversation, so I lean my forehead against the cold glass of the passenger’s window. The first thing I notice are the dogs. Cusco is a city for stray dogs. They move in packs or sleep alone on pavement or even on the street. A shaggy spaniel with a matted brown coat gnaws away at its paws in the middle of the road and José has to honk his horn to get the dog to move. We pass dusty workshops and fruit stalls, produce spread out on blankets or piled into wicker baskets. Outdoor mechanics work with cigarettes hanging from their lips, and young women walk the streets in blue jeans, with black hair tied in pony tails. And there are construction sites, it seems, on every street. Every few blocks there is a work-in-progress, puffing out fumes and dust and sand. The city seems unfinished.
When we arrive at The Garden House, a woman is waiting, perched in the shade and leaning against the great outer wall of her property. She’s wearing denim jeans and a tee-shirt, and her hair is cut short. She smiles as I approach.
‘Welcome to my house, Nicholas,’ she says. ‘I am Maria.’
The comments on Trip Advisor raved about Maria and her sister Eliza’s bed and breakfast. It seemed to me a perfect place to stay before my foray into the Sacred Valley. Maria had arranged for José to pick me up from the airport. She pays him then leads me through the black electronic gate between Cusco and her sanctuary. A flat stone path flanked by fruit trees, rose bushes and shrubs leads up a slight incline from the gate to the front door. The garden is well-manicured and abundant. To the right, a small glass table with chairs sits in a clearing. To the left, the trees and shrubs are thicker, though I spot a two bird baths and a small plaster statue of a child with a vase. The house itself looks like a miniature version of a great Colonial Baron’s complex. The doors are tanned wood, the walls whitewashed, and the windows curved in a Spanish fashion. The roof is terracotta tiles, and the building stretches out wide and long rather than high. Beyond the house rises a green mountain dotted with pine trees. A landslide it seems, has carved a great scar across the mountain’s face.
Maria shows me inside and through to my room. Her skin is well worn leather, and her face, dotted with freckles and charming wrinkles, tells a long story of nurturing and kindness. Outside my door is a small table with a kettle, teapot and a selection of teas. Maria points to a green packet.
‘Coca tea,’ she says. Her eyes are soft. She looks at me like I remind her of another time in her life. ‘Good for altitude.’
I smile and nod. ‘I feel dizzy!’
‘Tell me if you have headache, oh-kay?’
I nod again. ‘I will. Thank you, Maria.’
‘I can only make you a salad for your lunch today. Is this enough for you?’
‘Yes, that’s great. I don’t eat meat.’ I figure it’s easier to just say I don’t eat meat rather than try to explain la dieta.
‘Oh-kay then, please come to the dining room when you are ready, my darling.’
I lay my bags down on the wooden floorboards and collapse onto my bed.
The dining room is decorated with polished dark wooden furniture, soft lounges draped in frilled upholstery, and paintings of horses, churches and country landscapes. I run my fingers and eyes across the ample bookshelf while Maria clatters away in the kitchen next door. The place smells clean, and is clearly vacuumed and dusted regularly, yet still there’s a faint perfume reminding me of an old people’s home. Maria calls out from the kitchen and I take a seat at the dining table.
‘Here you are, my darling.’
She lays out a plate of sliced cucumber, tomato, lettuce leaves, avocado with salt and oil, shredded carrot and beetroot, and lime wedges.
‘Muchos gracias, Maria.’
I sit alone at a table large enough to host a whole dinner party and flick through guide books to South America, seeking information on Iquitos, the gateway city to the Peruvian Amazon.
By the time I finish my lunch, Maria has drifted away somewhere. I’m not sure whether to leave my plates on the dining table or take them into the kitchen. I walk into the kitchen and see a young man I hadn’t noticed before. He looks like a Peruvian street kid.
‘Ah, hola amigo,’ I say as I motion to place my plates on the kitchen table. ‘Es bien?’
‘Yeah mate, just leave ‘em there,’ he says in a cockney accent. ‘Cheers.’
I shift the furniture around in my room so the writing desk faces into the garden courtyard rather than against a wall. I prefer to have a view of nature when I write. It’s not that this garden courtyard is particularly lush, but it’s pleasant, and it’s private. Just as I sit down to work on my novel, a car alarm starts ringing, which sets off a pack of dogs. A rooster begins to crow and then some workers at a construction site down the road start up a jackhammer. Undeterred and sipping coca tea, with breathing still a strain, I tap away on my laptop, trying to cobble together a new opening scene.
I started writing my novel while I was living in an innercity Melbourne apartment with Jessica, my ex. We both grew up in Perth but moved over together to get a fresh start. The initial seed for my novel germinated in my mind, as most of my best ideas did while I lived in Melbourne, as I was walking through the Fitzroy Gardens. It was an overcast afternoon, and I was listening to old Terence McKenna lectures on my phone. I remember streaks of sunlight cutting through the clouds to dance across the dark waters pooling below the statue of the River God with the great open clam shell atop his shoulders. I can still feel the magnetism of the old Morton-bay-fig trees, those immobile dinosaurs with colossal winding roots.
Over the past few years I’ve made little time to write, so my novel is a sad and vaguely connected bunch of characters and scenes and themes and locations and dialogue and descriptions all mashed up and floating around my head and partially spewed out over about thirty different documents across multiple word-processing platforms and saved on three different external storage devices that I can remember. But I’m carrying a healthy ambition to finish it on this trip. I’ll finish it for sure.
The jackhammer starts up again.
Eliza and Maria swapped sometime between lunch and dinner. I couldn’t tell at first, but when Eliza started talking to me, I realised she was a different person to the woman I had spoken with at lunch.
‘I am making lentils for dinner tonight,’ she says. ‘I am making for myself and for the cleaning staff as well.’
Eliza’s English is stronger than Maria’s and her voice is slightly lower in pitch. Her hair is longer as well, though just as dark. Her eyes a little more cutting.
‘I’m sorry that we don’t have something more substantial to offer, but would you like me to make some for you as well?’
‘Yes please. Lentils are perfect.’
‘I was in Cusco five years ago,’ I say. ‘It seems like there is a lot more development going on around the city now.’
‘Yes.’ She frowns and looks out the window into her garden. ‘You will notice the difference even more when you go into the city. There is more construction in Cusco and also in the Sacred Valley. It is almost impossible to stop the progress.’
In the morning, having slept well and long, I practice some yoga. The floors are hardwood, so I maneuver my blanket into a kind of mat, to save my knees from the floor. I stretch in the dark morning, with red light piercing through the blinds, giving my practice a warm and sacred, if not a little ominous, feel.
In the dining room, Eliza lays down an omelet before me.
‘So, you were in Cusco before,’ she asks, sitting down on the chair next to me. ‘Why did you choose to return?’
‘I’ve wanted to come back to South America ever since I left.’ I take a mouthful of omelet.
Eliza looks on wistfully, as though watching a small child.
‘I don’t really know where this journey is going to end up. It’s a great feeling, but at the same time, it’s kind of daunting. Two of my friends are going to join me in a couple of weeks. We are going to hike the Inca Trail.’
‘I will get you one book then.’ Eliza dashes over to the bookshelf. She hands me a tattered copy of Turn Right at Machu Picchu. I turn the book over in my hands and read the blurb on the back. It recounts the journey of a travel writer following the path of the young Yale professor Hiram Bingham III, who climbed the Andes Mountains of Peru in search of the lost city of the Incas. I don’t really want to read it. I’d rather keep reading Slaughterhouse-Five. But for some reason I don’t want to disappoint Eliza, so I smile and thank her.
‘What will you do before you hike the Inca Trail?’
‘I’m going to the Sacred Valley this weekend. I’m going to stay in Urubamba.’
‘What are you going to do in Urubamba?’
I hesitate. ‘I’m going to be doing some ceremonies.’
‘Ah,’ she gently nods, ‘Ayahuasca.’
I smile. ‘Yes. I sat in two ceremonies in Urubamba five years ago, and I’m returning to see the same shamans. They are a mestizo couple.’ I pause to consider my words. ‘My first time with them was a transformative experience.’
‘Ayahuasca is a spiritual medicine,’ she says. ‘It is to be approached with respect.’
‘Do you have experience with it?’
‘Yes, Nicholas. I have drunk the medicine. And both of my children have drunk the medicine also. My son is an apprentice Ayahuascero. He is training in the jungle. There is a growing community in the Sacred Valley that uses Ayahuasca. There is a very good bilingual school there, that takes in children without much resources but also services much of the expat community.’ Eliza gazes out the window into her garden. ‘One time, when I sat with Ayahuasca, I shared the same visions as another woman in the ceremony. We did not know each other before the ceremony, but we were connected by the experience. Another time, the shaman could see my visions during the ceremony. He told me this afterwards and I was astonished. There can be difficult times though, when other people in a group bring bad energy with them. So, you must be careful of who you drink with.’
‘The place in Iquitos where I am staying offers San Pedro ceremonies. Do you have experience with the cactus?’
‘I don’t think it is a good idea to use San Pedro in the jungle. Ayahuasca is from the jungle. It is the jungle medicine. So, the jungle is the best place to use it. San Pedro is from the desert in the north. So, the desert is the best place to use that medicine. I don’t think that it is traditional to combine the two.’
In the taxi to the centre of Cusco, visions pass through my mind of life in the Sacred Valley, teaching English classes at the bilingual school, and monthly Ayahuasca ceremonies.
And then the Plaza de Armas slaps me across the face with car horns, police whistles, tourists, locals, school kids, church bells, and more jackhammers. A terrible and grating scene. The air is thin with oxygen but thick with car exhaust fumes.
The hills that encircle the city of Cusco are just as Eliza had said. Vast areas of forest have been cleared to accommodate the wave of construction.
I soon develop a profound headache.
After strolling listlessly around the town, stopping regularly to catch my breath, and becoming somewhat intentionally lost, I ask for directions to the San Pedro markets.
Outside in the sun, vendors splay fruits and vegetables atop coloured fabrics on the concrete floors or on trestle tables, as businessmen, children, couples and tourists wander past, eating fried potato snacks or smoking cigarettes. Inside is dark except for the areas that are neon lit, and the floors are dusty and black and there are endless lanes of wares: trinkets and scarves and tapestries and beanies and wooden sculptures, all that usual Peruvian stuff that attracts tourists like flies to a llama turd. But there are also lanes of Tupperware and shoes and ties and leather bags and sacks of rice and buckets of cheese. Locals populate the dining section. They sit on simple wooden benches in rows out the front of each eatery. The chicken vendors seem to be the most popular. There’s roast chicken, fried chicken, chicken soup, various other soups with gristle, fish, vegetables, offal or something equally strange.
I choose a bowl of soup and explain as best I can that I want only vegetables. A local couple smile when I sit next to them.
‘Hola amigos,’ I say with an upturn of my chin.
On my last day at The Garden House, I decide to stay home rather than venture back into town. I drink my morning cup of coca tea in my room then do my morning yoga stretches. The room smells of mango, cabbage and isolation.
In the dining room, Maria brings my breakfast. The Macarena plays from somewhere down the street.
‘Can I bring you anything else, my darling?’
‘No thanks, Maria.’
She always calls me darling.
Despite a few pangs of loneliness, I’m feeling buoyed, and not just because of Maria’s mothering. I finished reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu earlier in the morning. Throughout most of the book, I was feeling like a complete gringo for booking another hike on the Inca Trail rather than taking some kind of rugged adventure like this guy Mark, the writer and protagonist. He spent his days hacking through the jungle like Indiana Jones with this roughasguts clichéd Australian guide named John Leivers. But I came to a passage near the end of the book where Mark asks John how he felt about the Inca Trail and John Leivers says: “I never said I didn't like The Inca Trail. The Inca Trail is fantastic!”
That made me feel better.
Later on in the book, Mark has a conversation with Johan Reinhard, the author of Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center and Johan says: “Mark, you can't finish The Inca Trail and not know that this was the point of a pilgrimage.”
When I read that line, I felt intensely satisfied. It somehow validated my feelings at the end of my own experience on the Inca Trail five years prior. It was ten days after the weekend when I first drank Ayahuasca with the mestizo shamans. I’d been hiking with the crew for four days and I was standing alone in the shade of the afternoon, on the stone balcony of the little house that had provided so many tourists before me with the classic Machu Picchu photo-opportunity. I gazed out at the vast and magnificent mountains, then down at Machu Picchu herself, straddling the saddle between two great peaks, the Urubamba River slithering around in the valleys below. Up on that mountain, looking down at a lost city of magic and wisdom, cradled between great monuments of natural beauty, for the first time in my life, I felt something greater than myself at play. A great energy moved through my body. I’m not a religious person but when faced with such experiences, an atheist lacks any appropriate language. For lack of a clearer way of expressing myself, that day, I felt the touch of God. Whatever you want to call it. Whatever it is. I felt it. And in that precious moment all else in my life was swept aside. All worry, doubt, fear and confusion fell to the depths of the valleys below. I left behind memory of my past, and the dark shadows of terrible and unexplained sadness. It all just fell away. And in its place, I found wonder, and awe, and excitement, and love. Deep, enveloping love. Ecstasy. The pure joy of being. I felt it in my guts. I felt it well up in my throat. I felt it running down my cheeks. I felt it with every breath. I felt it tingle in my toes and in my fingers. It pumped through my heart. And with each pulse, it coursed through every single fragment of my being. It was the first mystical experience of my life, and the day my heart exploded with divine love.
And I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.