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 comes a whole array: sugar granules, peppercorns, 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, and colored wool. Then 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 had watched 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 Spence Lieb has written guidebooks on Seoul, London, Trinidad, Chicago, Santa Fe, and Florida. She won the 2002 Grand Award for excellence in travel writing from North American Travel Journalists Association. Her monthly adventure column, "The Globetrotter" appears in The Moultrie News, Charleston, South Carolina. Read her adventures at: www.moultrienews.com. (Click "travel.")
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Finding Maximón in Guatemala by Luke Armstrong
The Singing Shamen of Tuva by Dominic Hamilton
Other South America travel stories from the archives