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Luck, Llamas and a Peruvian Shaman


Peruvian children. Copyright: Warren Lieb.In the Peruvian Andes, a 100-year-old shaman waits for me at 15,000 feet. Peering up at the steep jagged peaks of Mt. Waccratanka, I do not believe I will make this 3,000-foot climb. Having lived my forty-two years in Washington D.C. and Chicago, and just moved to New Mexico, I am hardly prepared for this arduous Andean ascent.

 

No hurry. We climb "despacio" – 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, and 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."

Llama train. Copyright: Warren Lieb.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 our twelve waterproof tote bags of tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils and food onto the llamas, who protest by braying and spitting.

"Our climb up Waccratanka Mountain this afternoon will take three hours," notes Carlos. "Drink lots of water, eat snacks, take deep breaths."

Three hours to hike 3,000 feet? I survey our group: ten U.S. hikers aged 30-72 in various stages of fitness. A 40-year city slicker, I seriously doubt I can make this climb.

World traveler George Cohan, 72, is raring to go. So is my 67-year-old husband, filmmaker Warren Lieb. Trip leader Ron Snell, a bronze blue-eyed 40-year-old Adonis, grew up in Peru so he knows what's ahead. The rest of us, seven women, are strong and determined, but inexperienced in hiking to 15,000 feet. Only Carlos, the porters and the llamas trot confidently ahead.

"Much good luck is coming," Carlos calls back. "Tonight the shaman will conduct espacho, our ceremony thanking Mother Earth."

I watch Carlos veer up the trail and out of sight. We climb amongst two peaks. One is blanketed with emerald succulents and delicate yellow flowers, the other snowcapped and ominous black with granite boulders. The tails of our llamas wave us upward, their gold neck bells jingling merrily, as if good luck is just over the next rise.

Although the views are breathtaking, so is this hike. The trail is so steep I wish my body was wrapped in Velcro to hold me on. I'm grateful for my heavy-duty hiking boots, although it's humbling to see the porters scrambling past me wearing only thin rubber soled thongs.

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 simultaneously nurse infants and sort piles of potatoes. Their husbands struggle under loads of harvested wheat, strapped to their backs like giant brooms. Every ten steps, I collapse on a chair-sized boulder, heaving in the thin air until my heartbeat slows enough to go on. The vista reminds me of Canadian explorer/cartographer David Thompson, who wrote "the frowning hills form a scenery grand and awful." And I remember Chinese painter Guo Xi who waxed poetic, writing "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 impressed by these mountains and the hardworking families who live among them. Although I am not rich by American standards, I am 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 bear four to eight children, and spend their lives between the fields, the market and the kitchen, I am stunned by how free my life is from domestic drudgery.

We trudge into camp at dusk completely exhausted. The porters have already unpacked the llamas and set up ten tents in three neat rows. Home never looked so good.

Sitting on the ground is a man who looks like a Peruvian version of Father Time. His copper face is lined 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," he answers. "He is Agripino Usca, from Willoc Village two miles away."

"How did he get here?"

"He walked."

I look into Agripino's deep brown one hundred year old eyes. They are bright as a new borns.

The effects of hiking from 12,000 to 15,000 feet suddenly strike. Nausea and headache force me into my tent. I collapse on my sleeping bag as the roof spins in dizzying circles.

A Peruvian trekker. Copyright: Warren Lieb."You must 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 me 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 in awe 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 moon is a supernatural white, 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,' a gift to Mother Earth. The shaman makes a prayer offering to the mountain gods and Mother Earth, asking good luck for all of us, our llamas, our farms, and the entire Andes."

For three hours our shaman carefully lays out a variety of plants, seeds and symbolic icons. First he spreads red carnations across a large burlap sheet. He passes a cup of red wine over the carnations three times, then makes a first offering to the earth, pouring it 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 whatever blessing we wish to Mother Earth.

"Salud!" cries Carlos, 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.

A variety of grains are then sprinkled: wheat, barley and corn for abundant crops. Then an astonishing diversity of gifts are added: sugar granules, pepper corns, beans, peanuts, dots of colored paper, one communion wafer, black clay, baby vicuna 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 it all up into 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 is ancient-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 or comical (why a starfish arm?), I feel deeply moved by giving thanks to the earth. It makes sense not to take everything we receive for granted, and to hope rebirth will be part of our lives.

I remember earlier that day watching a tiny llama, white as the moon, wobbling after her mother's milk.

"Born just this morning," 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 sacred secret place. I stagger to my tent. Llamas are silhouetted against the moon. As their bells gently bid me goodnight, I feel luckier already.

A Shepard's hut. Copyright: Warren Lieb.

 

I am deeply impressed by these mountains and the hardworking families who live among them. Although I am not rich by American standards, I am 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 bear four to eight children, and spend their lives between the fields, the market and the kitchen, I am stunned by how free my life is from domestic drudgery.

We trudge into camp at dusk completely exhausted. The porters have already unpacked the llamas and set up ten tents in three neat rows. Home never looked so good.

Sitting on the ground is a man who looks like a Peruvian version of Father Time. His copper face is lined 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," he answers. "He is Agripino Usca, from Willoc Village two miles away."

"How did he get here?"

"He walked."

I look into Agripino's deep brown one hundred year old eyes. They are bright as a new borns.

The effects of hiking from 12,000 to 15,000 feet suddenly strike. Nausea and headache force me into my tent. I collapse on my sleeping bag as the roof spins in dizzying circles.

A Peruvian trekker. Copyright: Warren Lieb."You must 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 me 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 in awe 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 moon is a supernatural white, 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,' a gift to Mother Earth. The shaman makes a prayer offering to the mountain gods and Mother Earth, asking good luck for all of us, our llamas, our farms, and the entire Andes."

For three hours our shaman carefully lays out a variety of plants, seeds and symbolic icons. First he spreads red carnations across a large burlap sheet. He passes a cup of red wine over the carnations three times, then makes a first offering to the earth, pouring it 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 whatever blessing we wish to Mother Earth.

"Salud!" cries Carlos, 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.

A variety of grains are then sprinkled: wheat, barley and corn for abundant crops. Then an astonishing diversity of gifts are added: sugar granules, pepper corns, beans, peanuts, dots of colored paper, one communion wafer, black clay, baby vicuna 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 it all up into 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 is ancient-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 or comical (why a starfish arm?), I feel deeply moved by giving thanks to the earth. It makes sense not to take everything we receive for granted, and to hope rebirth will be part of our lives.

I remember earlier that day watching a tiny llama, white as the moon, wobbling after her mother's milk.

"Born just this morning," 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 sacred secret place. I stagger to my tent. Llamas are silhouetted against the moon. As their bells gently bid me goodnight, I feel luckier already.

A Shepard's hut. Copyright: Warren Lieb.