Luck, Llamas, and a Peruvian Shaman
In the Peruvian Andes at 15,000 feet, a 100-year-old Shaman waits for me. Peering up the steep peaks of Mt. Waccratanka, I doubt I can make this arduous Andean ascent.
“No hurry. We climb despacio, slowly slowly,” says Carlos Infantas, our Quechua guide, who sports both his ancestor’s regal cheekbones and a pink Disneyland fanny pack. Carlos has spent his life climbing the Andes. For him, 3,000 feet at a 45-degree angle is just a pleasant stroll.
“Follow the llamas,” Carlos encourages me. “They lead us to the shaman.”
On cue, ten fluffy doe-eyed llamas come bounding over the spectacular hills. Four porters in matching red and gold ponchos and hats shout “schuta, schuta!”—”go, go!” They look more like Peruvian movie stars than camp outfitters. The porters rope twelve waterproof tote bags of tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, and food onto the llamas, which protest by braying and spitting.
“Our Waccratanka Mountain climb will take three hours,” notes Carlos. “Be sure to drink lots of water, eat many snacks. Take deep breaths.”
“Much good luck is coming Sharon,” Carlos calls back. “Tonight the Shaman will conduct Despacho!”
What on earth is “despacho,” I wonder, watching Carlos veer up the trail out of sight. We climb among two peaks, one blanketed with emerald succulents and delicate yellow flowers, the other snowcapped and ominous with black granite boulders. The tails of our llamas wave before us like flags, their gold neck bells jingling merrily, as if good luck is just over the hill.
Although the views are breathtaking, so is this hike. The trail is so steep I stop to breathe after every few steps. My heavy-duty hiking boots hold me onto the trail as porters wearing thin rubber soled sandals scramble past. They’re dragonflies, I’m an old sloth.
We pass farms, where children outside thatched roof huts squat with dogs and pigs in muddy front yards. Women swaddled in wide pleated skirts and petticoats nurse infants and sort piles of potatoes. Their husbands struggle under loads of harvested wheat, strapped to their backs like giant brooms. I collapse on a chair-sized boulder, heaving in the thin air until my heartbeat slows. The vista reminds me of Canadian explorer/cartographer David Thompson, who wrote, “The frowning hills form a scenery grand and awful.” My favorite Chinese painter Guo Xi had this advice: “Wonderfully lofty are these heavenly mountains, inexhaustible is their mystery. In order to grasp their creations, one must love them utterly and never cease wandering among them, storing impressions one by one in the heart.”
I am deeply humbled by the hardworking families who live among these mountains. Although I’m hardly rich by American standards, I’m a millionaire in comparison to these farmers. My house, car, clothes, food and opportunity to travel enrich my life beyond their wildest dreams. And since most Peruvian women have four to eight children, they spend their lives between the fields, the market and the kitchen. Childless, I am free to wander the planet. What different lives we lead. I am blessed to be in their presence.
At dusk, we trudge into camp completely exhausted. Hours ago, our porters unpacked the llamas and set up ten tents in three neat rows. Home never looked so good. On the ground is a man who looks like a Peruvian version of Father Time. His copper face is lined as deeply as the curving mountain trails I have struggled up. His full purple lips reveal a smile of rotten teeth.
“Is this our Shaman?” I whisper to Carlos.
“Yes. “Agripino Usca, from Willoc Village two miles away.”
“How did he get here?”
I look into Agripino’s deep brown one hundred year old eyes. They are bright as a newborn’s. Hiking from 12,000 to 15,000 feet, I collapse on my sleeping bag as the roof spins in dizzying circles.
“Sleep now,” cautions Carlos, handing me my water canteen. “Sleep, the sickness will quickly leave.” In my dreams, llamas fly among the stars, circling the moon like Santa’s reindeers. Hours later they land on my tent with a crash.
Carlos is banging a pot lid, calling us to dinner. Among the tents, sleeping bags, water bottles, down jackets, long underwear and medicine kits, our porters have stashed ingredients for a gourmet dinner: spinach and cheese soup, steamed fresh trout, boiled rice and sautéed bananas swimming in chocolate sauce. We dine inside a large screened tent, our faces lit by candles flickering from Inca Kola bottles. After dinner, we stroll through our campground, an undulating field of bone-breaking mud holes, spongy lichen, and soggy piles of llama scat. We gaze at snow-capped Veronica Mountain towering above us at 19,000 feet. We are filthy, nauseous, and exhilarated by our day’s accomplishment. Carlos shows us the Southern Cross, Orion and The Big Dipper hanging low on the horizon. The huge moon is supernatural, bathing the entire valley in a luminescent glow. David Thompson’s words again come to mind: “We all believe the Great Spirit speaks to you in the night when you are looking at the moon and stars, and tells you of what we know nothing.”
“Por favor,” whispers Carlos. “Please be present with the Shaman. He will make Despacho for us now.” Like obedient campers, we file back into our dinner tent, now transformed into a circle of aluminum camp chairs. Our Shaman sits cross-legged on the cold tent floor, unfolding dozens of tiny newspaper packages. Carlos explains, “This ceremony is ‘pago a la terra,’ gift to Mother Earth. The Shaman makes a prayer offering to the mountain gods and Mother Earth. He asks good luck for us, our llamas, our farms, and the entire Andes.”
For three hours our Shaman lays out plants, seeds and red carnations across a large burlap sheet, then passes a cup of red wine over the carnations three times. This is a first offering to the earth, Carlos explains, as the Shaman pours the wine outside the tent. Chewing a coca leaf, he asks for permission to begin the ceremony. We each chew a coca leaf and sip wine from a seashell, offering blessings to Mother Earth.
“Salud!” Carlos calls out, offering his wine shell to the four mountain corners. Next, the Shaman selects perfectly formed coca leaves, spreading each with a pat of llama fat, and placing the leaf just so until all the red carnations are covered. “So new trees will grow and new animals will be born,” explains Carlos.
Grains are then sprinkled—wheat, barley and corn—for abundant crops. Then sugar granules, pepper corns, beans, peanuts, dots of colored paper, one communion wafer, black clay, baby vicuña feet, gold and silver bells, a tiny crucifix, one starfish arm, crackers, cotton balls, colored wool. Coca leaves inserted into an orange, and silver keys to unlock the future complete the mix. Our Shaman ties the strange concoction into a square, which he decorates with three baby carnations. Holding the package over his head, he offers a prayer in Quechua.
“He gives thanks for help in making this ceremony,” translates Carlos. “Despacho was practiced by the Quechuas, the Incas, and today by our weavers and farmers. Always, good luck comes, ” he concludes.
Although some of the ingredients seem strange—why a starfish arm? I love giving thanks to the earth. Why should I take everything for granted when I’m blessed with incredible abundance?
I remember watching a tiny moon-white llama that morning, a bloody mess struggling to breathe, to stand, then wobbling after her mother’s milk. Miraculous.
“Just born,” Carlos had whispered, awed. “I never saw one so new.”
Our Shaman disappears into the cold starry night to bury Mother Earth’s gift in a secret place. I stagger to my tent. Llamas are silhouetted against the moon. As their bells gently bid me goodnight, I know after this night, my life will be blessed with good luck always.
* Sharon is author of guidebooks on Seoul, London, Trinidad, Chicago, Santa Fe, and Florida. Her monthly adventure column, “The Globetrotter” appears in The Moultrie News, Charleston, South Carolina. When not globetrotting with her photographer husband Warren Lieb, she loves being home with her friends and her little white cat, Sage. Read her adventures at Moultrie News.