Inés de Suárez

It was in the autumn of 2015 that we arrived in Cáceres, in western Spain. We had set out walking from Sevilla in the south, following the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela, but the weather had turned quite cold and we were not adequately equipped for the conditions. We decided to take a break and return another day; the path would still be there.

But little did I know at the time, that if we had continued walking for another four days we would have reached Plasencia, the birth place of one of my heroines, Inés de Suárez.

‘Who on earth was she’, I can hear you thinking. So let me enlighten you.

Apart from being born in Plasencia in about 1507, as far as I know nothing more is known of her early life, until she married an adventurer, a Juan de Malaga, in about 1526.  Not long after, he left her to go with the Pizarro brothers on a speculative venture to South America.

I have no idea how she supported herself in the interim, but after some ten years of not receiving any contact from her husband, she decided to go to South America to find him, or at least to find out what had happened to him.  In that era, it was not acceptable for a Spanish woman to travel on her own, but she eventually received permission to go, providing she took a niece with her.  I don’t know who her niece was or what happened to her afterwards.

She never did find her husband. It appeared that he was dead, but I am not sure how.  One report was that he had died at sea, another that he was killed in the battle of Las Salinas near Cuzco, between the Pizarro brothers and a rival fighting for control of the city.  In any case, he was presumed dead and she applied for a grant as the widow of a Spanish soldier and was given a small plot of land in Cuzco.  And it was there that shortly after she became the mistress of Pedro de Valdivia.

Valdivia was a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro and he was authorized to lead a small contingent of Spanish soldiers to establish a colony far to the south of present-day Lima.  Somehow, he managed to get permission to attach Inés to his expedition, as his domestic servant.  In 1539, he started with only eleven soldiers, but as they preceded south others joined.  At one time there were about 150 of them.

Pedro de Valdivia (photo from internet)

They travelled south for almost a year, until they reached the valley of the Mapocho River, the site of present-day Santiago de Chile, originally named Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura.   They suffered incredible hardships in travelling through some 1600 km of the Atacama Desert. In the chronicles that have survived the journey, Inés had a significant part in boosting the morale of the soldiers through caring for the sick and wounded.

The site that they eventually chose was already populated and and initially the natives were accepting of the newcomers, or at least they pretended to be.  But when Valdivia was absent on another expedition to the south, the local population revolted.

The Spanish were severely outnumbered, and it seemed inevitable that they would be wiped out.  From a previous negotiation for food supplies, they held seven of the Indian chiefs as hostages.  Inés advised the soldiers to execute them.  When the commander hesitated, Inés herself took a sword and decapitated the chiefs one by one, and had their bodies thrown over the wall.  Or at least that is how the legend recounts it.  In any case it appears that the Indians were so shocked and confused by the action that they withdrew.’

Perhaps it did not happen quite as I have described it, but there is no doubt that she was a heroine in the defense of the settlement.  At that time, she would have been the only woman.

When Valdivia finally returned, they continued to live together openly.  The hierarchy in Lima did not approve of this ‘illegitimate’ union and Valdivia was summoned to attend a hearing in Lima.  The issue was resolved by Valdivia agreeing to summon his wife from Spain and having Inés married off to his lieutenant, Rodrigo de Quiroga in 1549.

Rodrigo de Quiroga (photo from internet)

But all did not happily ever after. Valdivia died before his wife reached Santiago.  He was captured by Indians in a battle in the south and eventually executed. 

Inés settled down to a quiet life as wife of Rodrigo de Quiroga, who eventually became Governor of Chile, not once, but twice.  They died within a short time of each other in 1580 and were both buried in the Basicila de la Merced.

Inés survived all the original conquisadores.

It was not until 2015 that I finally visited Santiago de Chile. Of course the city today bears no resemblance to the original settlement that Inés would have known.

In the Plaza de Armas, there is a statue of Pedro de Valdivia, her old lover, and the church, La Basilica de la Merced, where she was buried, is but a short walk away.

Statue of Pedro de Valvidia in the Plaza de Armas
La Basilica de la Merced

For me, Inés was a remarkable woman. Not only was she tenacious in seeking out her husband in what must have been frontier conditions, but for months on end she survived the crossing of the inhospitable Atacama desert. And shortly after she showed tremendous courage in the face of death. Her example is one for all women.

I don’t know when we will continue our pilgrimage north from Cáceres, but when we do, we will pass through Plasencia and walk in the footsteps of Inés.

Papillon

Perú, 1977

It was in the very early 1970s that I read ‘Papillon’, the alleged memoirs of Henri Charrière, the French convict, who escaped from Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guinea, and who ended up, years later, in Caracas.  I once went to his restaurant in Baruta, just outside Caracas, but by then he had died.

In his memoirs, he wrote of his experiences in escaping from the notorious prison on a raft built of coconut shells, eventually landing on the Guajira Peninsula on the coast of Colombia.  There, for some time, he lived with two Indian women.  Whether factual or not, the account had no small part in my desire to travel and to experience something of Central and South America.

In 1976, I travelled across the Pacific on a Greek passenger ship, from Sydney to Panamá, via Auckland and Paapete (Tahiti), and eventually on bus, country by country, through the plethora of Central American countries, to the US, eventually ending up living by the beach at Marina del Rey in Los Angeles.  There I was able to rebuild my savings by working at odd jobs, mostly dirty tasks that were uninteresting to the local unemployed.

But the great consumer society held little attraction for me, and a few months later I headed back south, intent on going as far as my meagre savings would allow.  In those days, local bus travel was relatively inexpensive and basic accommodation was easy to find.

When I reached Panamá, I was unaware that the roads ended there, and that there were none south through the Darien Peninsula; there was, and still is, a 160 km gap in the 48,000 km Pan-American highway, that runs from northern Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina.  The only way of crossing from Panamá to Colombia was by plane, or by boat, east along the Caribbean coast, or south along the Pacific.  I flew to Medellín and from there continued on by local buses, hopping from place to place through Colombia and Ecuador to Perú.  Early Christmas day found me on a bus heading south from Lima.

With its colonial walls built from white volcanic stone, I found Arequipa to be a most impressive city, especially in the Convent of Santa Catalina.  And in Puno and Lake Titicaca, at 3827 m, with its floating islands and colourful Indian culture, I felt as if I was in a completely different world.  But sadly, my funds were running low, and as much as I wanted to continue into Bolivia, I had to turn back north.

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Arequipa,with Misti in the background

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One of the floating islands off Puno

Unfortunately, the next morning my funds became more depleted.  As I was boarding the train to Cuzco, I became involved in a scuffle between some men trying to leave the train and as others trying to board.  It was eventually resolved, but fifteen minutes later, I realized that the money that I had had in my pocket was no longer there.  I had been robbed.  Fortunately, I had money in a dirty sock in my bag and some more in the sole of my shoes, about enough to get me back to California.

I loved Cuzco and I would have stayed there much longer if I could.  The Inca history, with the Spanish culture imposed upon it, I found most fascinating.  During my first morning there, I went to a bookshop to thumb through a local history book – I could not afford to buy it.  I overheard an elder American tourist asking if they had any postcards of sexy women.  I was all ears, for the man looked as if he would have had apoplexy if an attractive woman passed within 100 m of him.  It turned out that he was referring to the ruins of Sacsahuaman, a fortress just outside Cuzco.

The next day I went there and what an impressive monument it turned out to be, with its massive walls built with huge multi-sided stones, all fitting together as in a jig-saw puzzle, so tightly fitting that a thin knife could not be inserted between them.

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Few people go to Cuzco without also taking the day-trip to Machu Picchu, and I was no exception.  The train was heavily fortified, with many armed soldiers.  Once there, I ignored the buses that traveled the zig-zag road to the ridge, but climbed up the old Inca trail.  After wandering the impressive ruins, I tried to climb up to the peak that overlooks Machu Picchu, but a heavy thunderstorm cut it short, otherwise I could have easily slipped and slipped on the greasy stones and ended up in the Urubamba River a long way below.

machu-picchu-ciudadela

With regret, I left Cuzco on a ramshackle old bus, destination Lima.  I was the only ‘gringo’ on the bus, but I had the consolation of a seat beside a beautiful young Indian girl.  Unfortunately, she spoke little Spanish and I spoke even less. All day we seemed to be descending into a valley with a steep ascent on the other side.  The bus coughed and wheezed and seemed to be on its last legs.  It was dark when progress ground to a halt.  For a while we all sat and waited, while the driver fiddled with the engine.  Eventually, one by one, we all descended to stretch our legs and empty our bladders.  The sky was clear and the stars were crystal clear, but it was very cold.

I was wearing only shorts and shirt and I was not prepared for cold.  But the lovely little Indian girl offered to share her blanket with me, and I gratefully accepted.  I eventually understood that she was a maid in a house near Lima and that she was returning from a short holiday with her family in Cuzco.

As the night wore on and the bus remained stationary, the occupants slept, and the driver and his assistant continued to fiddle with the engine.  It was more comfortable if I put my arm around the girl, and she soon slept with my other arm around her waist. Eventually at some time in the night, the engine roared into life and we jolted and jerked our way closer to Lima.  And we kissed in the dense night light.

The morning came too soon; I felt as if I could have spent the rest of my life with my arms wrapped around that little Indian girl, but it was not to be.  Her destination arrived, she descended, we kissed a long time and she walked away.  She never looked back.  As she turned a corner, I wanted to run after her, but my courage failed me.  I climbed back on board the bus.

I have often wondered if Henri Charrière ever had the same regret when he left the Indian sisters on the Colombian coast.