Climbing into the clouds of Peru's Andes Mountains, a quest to meet a shaman brings new appreciation for life's overlooked fortunes.
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. I'm a city girl from Washington D.C. and Chicago. How could I climb 3,000 feet?
"No hurry. We climb despacio, slowly slowly," says Carlos Infantas, our Quechua guide, who sports both his ancestors' 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!"
Heavy Breathing to Reach the Shaman
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 and 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.
Camping at 15,000 Feet in the Andes
At dusk, we trudge into camp completely exhausted. Hours ago, our porters had 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 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 new born.
After a hike that has taken me 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.