Andean Soul -PART ONE
On the Pacific slope of the Peruvian Andes human traffic flows two ways: up and down the steep river valleys from villages perched at 14,000 ft. nestled amidst 18,000 to 24,000 ft. mountains down to sea level AND from valley to valley across the high passes that connect them.
Growers and herders have been traveling these routes for centuries making their bodies short and stocky with big chests (for larger lung capacity) and incredibly wide feet. Since pre-Columbian times much of the trade between regions occurred laterally, from river valley to river valley. Textiles, llama and alpaca wool, metals, fruits, grains, vegetables and the many extraordinary tubers including potatoes that originate there were successfully exchanged between high mountain villages.
From the time of the Incans up through Spanish conquest and colonization, the Andean economy thrived without interruption. Then came the overnight industrialization that swept through much of the so called third world in the 20th century. The era of Latin American dictatorships, puppet governments and rampant exploitation began. Suddenly, the economic flow of goods changed from a vibrant decentralized multi-layered lateral distribution to a totally centralized system. Roads were built to connect the high mountain valleys to the coast. Now everything was brought up and down the valleys by truckload and busses through the coastal cities to the capitol, Lima as the central hub.
The Andean way of life was now radically changed. Many villages lost their young men and women to the lure of the city, modernity, factory jobs, the military and for a very few, education. All too many of these young people ended up living in destitute barrios where raw sewage flowed down open canals in the streets where children played and landlord-dealer-pimps patrolled the neighborhoods like little dictators. Disease, poverty and extortion prevailed in these circumstances.
The mission of many well-meaning 3rd world development organizations in the 1960s, 70s and 80s was to reinvigorate the decentralized regional economies that had collapsed in the wake of industrialization. The funds for development were provided ironically from some of the multi-national corporations who were doing the most damage – the oil companies, the mining companies and the banks. But most of this money was poured into agri-business, technology and infrastructure projects that only fortified the centralized urbanization of the country. The rural places were slowly suffocating, bleeding out their most precious resource – the young!
Our mission was to trigger a revolution!
Me and Luis poured over the maps strewn out on our cots. We were to travel over 360 miles in all. At first by bus and truck up the valley and then by foot over the ancient high mountain passes that connected one Pacific drainage to another. Our self-appointed mission was to scope out the high mountain communities at the apex of two immense river valleys; “to take a pulse” on the vibrancy of people living on the rooftop of the world. Luis was certain that the answer to Peru’s crisis lived in these isolated communities. We realized our journey of 12 days would include close to 200 miles on foot as best we could tell from the maps. We were undaunted. Hey, we were 21! What was to stop us?
Luis Aburto was born in Azpitia, Peru. Before this journey he had only ever seen the 12 miles of valley between his village and the coast and the 100km trip up the coastline to Lima. Our journey was going to be as new for him as it was to me. But for Luis it was a pilgrimage, a sacred mission. He was a fiercely passionate young spirit determined to free his country from “500 years of pillage!” he would say. He would explain to me it was the will of his ancestors to be free of foreign domination. I had no idea how much of a pilgrimage our journey up the Andes would turn out to be.
In those days I believed that if you wanted to see change in the world, you had to get out there and make it happen. My reason for being in Peru (I thought) was to be part of a grass roots world movement of decentralized community empowerment. We were there to help make Azpitia attractive to its wayward sons and daughters – economically, culturally, socially, spiritually. To bring them back home. Luis however, believed that the only lasting change that was worth living and fighting for was on the behalf of the divine. It was so strong in him that he would never proceed in important things unless he had a ‘sign’ of some sort. Just about every action, every event, every conversation, dream, change of weather, you name it, was to be read and interpreted as divine directive. It was the lexicon of the spiritual.
I’ll never forget the day for example, Luis came in for the community breakfast with a dire look of foreboding announcing to all of us there that something bad was going to happen that day. We were just waking up, trying to eat a little breakfast and here’s Luis telling us he had a bad feeling about that day.
“Great! Thanks for the cheerful news, Luis. Good morning to you too!”
Sure enough though, about noon that day there was a tremendous earthquake that literally sent waves through the village, knocking down structures and scaring the daylights out of everyone. We later found out that one of the villages higher up the valley had been completely wiped out by a landslide and that a busload of passengers flew off one of the high mountain roads.
Consequently, I learned to pay more attention to Luis’s premonitions and divination skills!
I always wondered what he thought about the adventure we were about to embark on?
The Saint of Cachuy
We set out wearing tire sole sandals, carrying rustic canvas backpacks packed with wool blankets, a change of clothes, bread, dried fish and canteens. None of the backpacking gear I was accustomed to back home in the Rocky Mountains. This was going to be different. We were going ‘native style’. Any food to be had was going to be given to us along the way by the good graces of the people we would meet. “We’ll be provided for”, assured Luis.
The first day we traveled in the back of a flat bed truck way up the valley to a little village at the base of the trail to Cachuy. In the tiny mud thatch house we stayed in that night, our hosts told us of the Ascension of the Saint of Cachuy. Now thousands of people come to the tiny village of the Saint in the annual pilgrimage celebrating the miracle of his ascension to heaven! We would be the next two pilgrims to visit the site.
We woke to the reliable crowing of roosters, braying of burros and smell of freshly baked bread and set out before the sun rose. We were told it should only take us half the day to get up to the village. As we ascended the trail overlooking the river valley below an elderly man passed us at quite a clip, blessing our journey on the way. He was walking barefoot. So Luis decided it was a good idea to do the same in respect to where we were going.
We continued barefoot.
We walked for hours. We were not to stop to rest or eat or drink. In the late afternoon, well past ‘half a day’, the old man who had passed us going up was now coming down with a load of beans in burlap sacks strapped on his back. He blessed us again without breaking stride saying that Cachuy was ‘not far’.
Now I grew up in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. By the time I was 19 I had climbed over a dozen 14,000 ft peaks, slid down glaciers, and soloed the wilderness for days…But that was nothing compared to this. Here we were climbing to a village located at 14,000 ft. with elevations towering above it! This was a different scale altogether. Besides that, we were trekking the Peruvian Andes, the home of the Incan Empire! And…and…we were barefoot for God’s sake!
Luis was ecstatic, totally in his element.
It was his belief and determination, however crazy and other worldly it seemed, that kept me going. I couldn’t feel my feet by this point. I could barely feel anything. And honestly, I don’t know what finally got us to the village some three hours later! But there we were, sitting on the steps of the tiny chapel dedicated to the Saint of Cachuy looking up again at the most incredible starry night.
I kept thinking about the elderly man we met twice that day. His face is still clear to me to this day! These were the Quechuan descendents of the mighty Incans. The mountains cause their inhabitants to be somber, reflective, kind hearted souls, simple and transparent. But in no way are they superficial. They knew details and nuances about the mountains that would astound even the most avid mountaineers back home. This was their home.
Why do the high mountain people of the Andes and Himalayas wear such beautiful embroidered colors: pink, turquoise, purple, fluorescent green, yellow and orange in contrast to their desert surroundings? And the soulful music of the Andes! How beautiful! When you are there you understand it. The panpipes, the charangos and mountain harps – haunting, soulful tributes to the Great Mother, the Great Father, the millions of years and the starry universe that seems just beyond one’s grasp.
After a while another elderly man came to greet us and simply invited us to stay in their home for the night. We followed him by starlight to a small hut lit by candlelight where we were warmly welcomed by a lovely woman whose face seemed to tell a thousand stories in a glance. She spread out a blanket on the mud floor right next to their bed. Few words were spoken before we fell into a deep, deep Andean sleep.
Andean Soul -PART TWO
We woke the next morning to the mouth watering smell of what we found out was fried guinea pig meat, which we had for breakfast before we were given a sweet send off by our hosts. Down an immense valley we walked following well traveled paths leading us back to the narrow dirt road along the river valley. We got a ride on a typically overcrowded bus with people, goats, chickens and even a pig, up, up the valley all the way to the town at the terminus called Yauyos. The bus driver was playing the Beatles on a tape deck held together with twine and duct tape. We got there just before dark.
We spent the night in a ‘motel’ room with no water or electricity. Too tired to care, we crashed on cockroach infested mattresses. The next day we were to present our papers to the mayor of Yauyos before moving on, so we were informed by La Policia in the motel office. It was a necessary formality as a precautionary measure against infiltration of the Shining Path guerilla movement. I had already been introduced to the Latino cultural love for making everything ‘official’, so we were prepared for the ridiculous ceremony of signing and stamping documents in the mayor’s office for the next hour. We were clear to proceed!
It was no small consolation afterwards to be invited to the mayor’s house for breakfast. In his home he was a different human being. He graciously prepared eggs, bread, goat cheese and this magical medicinal drink I had never encountered before. After drinking one cup of this delicious hot tea that seemed to fill my body with strength and uncommon well-being, I asked what could it be?
“Pure chocolate!” he replied.
A little while later he sent us on our way fortified, knowing what we were about to face. In a state of euphoria Luis and I practically skipped out of Yauyos up the herding trails above the tree line into the high tundra once again.
The first time I ever saw a llama in the wild was on this trail near a goat herder’s corral and hut. It came leaping from behind a tall stone wall as we were filling up our canteens in a small stream. I was so excited and awestruck by this magnificent animal when behind it came an old woman throwing stones and waving a stick cursing the llama for drinking her goat’s milk! My romantic moment dissolved as Luis broke into hysterical laughter.
We continued on our way knowing we had to get over the pass by the end of the day to avoid a cold and windy night.
We climbed and climbed, this time wearing our rubber sandals, up and up, watching the river valley recede and finally disappear behind us, and wondering which next summit would reveal our pass. It was getting late. It was getting windy. And still no pass. Dusk was coming and we could go no further. So we decided to make camp in the high tundra with no cover, very little to eat and drink, and inadequate bedding as we would soon discover.
We ate our standard fare, drank a little Pisco Luis bought in Yauyos and watched as the stars appeared in their overwhelming fireworks. We were camped at 16,000 feet in the Andean summer; the Cordillera towering above us another 6,000 feet; we had no sleeping bags of any kind, just wool blankets and sweaters, we were hungry and now a little drunk from the Pisco, the 180 proof alcohol Luis insisted would keep us warm. As evening progressed we began to feel the cold, but fell asleep exhausted nevertheless.
Some time later, we both woke up startled. We were freezing! It was bitter cold and windy and we were hungry, tired and trembling in convulsive shivers. We both lay there looking up at the most incredible night sky, feeling as if you were floating through space, that you could practically touch the lights beaming down on you – on the verge of hypothermia! Without thinking twice we started hugging each other trying to generate some heat between us.
Here we were, two men from two completely different worlds, his in fact very conservative when it came to men displaying warmth for each other, laying under the Southern Cross on the rooftop of the world frantically hugging each other for hours until came the first hint of dawn.
As soon as the light changed Luis leapt up from our dismal night and started setting fire to the tundra bushes all around us. It would take him 5 minutes to get one to ignite. It would burst into flames for about 20 seconds and then be gone, leaving a smoking charred stub where once lived a fragile bush that probably took a hundred years to grow.
I couldn’t join him. My environmental morality would rather have me shivering on the frozen ground under a wool blanket. I had already broken my vegetarian ethic by eating guinea pig and dried fish. I was not going to start burning down the Andean tundra. Meanwhile, Luis was having fun jumping from burning bush to burning bush trying to shake off the night’s icy grip! He thought I was an idiot. He was right.
So I watched the sun’s rays descend from the snowy glaciers above down into the boulder fields and moraines, down into the tundra above us and then I took off up the mountain to meet the sun’s warmth! When I got up there and started to thaw out, I smiled as I saw about two hundred charred stubs left in Luis wake. Looking out over hundreds of miles of mountains put things in perspective!
I could see the pass and its sheltering boulders just 1000 feet above our camp only 20 minutes away!
Today we headed over the pass below the mystical mountain called Llongote, the most beautiful peak I had ever seen. The pass itself was truly a threshold from one world into another. We were now facing the Andean interior. Luis stopped to write a prayer on a tiny piece of paper and lodged it into one of millions of cracks in these huge stone sentinels that marked the pass. Looking closely I noticed thousands of tiny paper scrolls in the rocks, thousands of prayers and blessings sent out by the extraordinary Andean souls whose stories our lives were now intersecting. I then wrote something and jammed it into a crack in the rocks ~ Thank You Life, Thank You!
Where would today lead us? We had no idea. Only that our destination was the next village down the valley, the village of Ayaviri! Onward to Ayaviri!