Las Huaringas: with the Shamans of the N.Andes
At the beginning of June I travelled to the Northern Andes, in a mountain chain known as "Cordillera del Wamani", site of fourteen lakes that have long been believed to have curative and magical powers. I wanted to find out about shaman initiation rites, participate in a ritual and inquire how they communicate with the spirits of the mountains and of the lakes. The lakes, called "Las Huaringas" meaning sacred lakes in Quechua, are site of pilgrimage for people from all Peru, bordering countries and abroad. Faith, I was told, is essential, and every one comes with the belief they will encounter health, good luck or prosperity. It was said that before visiting the area the traveller had to perform an offering to the spirits of the Apus (guardian mountains). The Northern end of the Andes is a humid region with green mountains, pastures of grass. Local people dressed in their big, blue ponchos and black hats, riding their horses through the green pastures, seem to be emerging from a legend. Life goes on in a slow rhythm, and even time seems to stop in that part of the world.
As I got off the bus from Piura to Huancabamba - a rough and hairpin 10-hour ride from the coast to the mountains, I felt the fresh scent of rain and green grass. Locals call the town “Resbalapampa” meaning “the town that walks” – due to its location on a geological fault between the peaks of Guitiligún y Pariaqaqa, the town constantly changes location. Clouds had blanketed the valley, and fog was spreading like fingers on the foot of the Andes. I was crammed between the driver and other local in a decrepit car carrying five other people to the house of the maestro Cipriano Surita in the village of Yumdé. We started driving at dark through thick mud. The sound of salsa music coming from the radio was conflicting with the solitude of the green mountains. The car lights were covered with mud, and the driver had to keep his head out the window as he was driving. In the darkness of the night, not knowing where I was going, I could not help laughing by the craziness of the situation. We eventually arrived at a point where I had to stumble over rocks and roots in the mud and dark with my backpack to the house of the maestro. There were about fifteen other people waiting. We were each invited inside to talk with the maestro. As I stepped towards the door I felt behind me suspicious eyes following me and I heard people say: “Well, what would she have to talk with the maestro?!” It seemed strange for them I had come alone more so that they couldn’t place myself, they thought I was from Lima. The maestro was a normal, smiling man of about forty, not the mystical figure I had imagined. A little confused, I explained I wanted to take part in the ceremony.
While waiting for the ceremony to start at 10 pm, we were served a cup of tea and cancha (roasted corn). Then followed a long waiting. Some people tried to rest on the dirt floor inside the house, having as a neighbour a turkey that was peeking his head through the hole of the door. Others were chatting about other experiences, about how it was going to be. The waiting was heavy, the air humid and fragrant, lulled by the sound of the river by the house, and the distant barking of dogs. Cold crept in with the night as we were waiting for the maestro to start the ceremony.
At about 10 pm we sat down on the floor of the veranda, bundled up in blankets and warm clothes. San Pedro cactus was boiling in a pot and I could hear the clinging of the pots as the assistants were preparing it. Energy-giving stones, shells, swords, statues, skulls were arranged at the mesa. The right side represents the positive side, the justice, while the left represents the negative forces, the temptation. All the objects serve for the maestro to communicate with the patients. He also communicates through the ingestion of San Pedro, a hallucinogenic and psychoactive cactus used to "enter the space above", and to diagnose the illness of the patient. This cactus, along with other plants such as Daturas and Colens, were used by cultures as old as Chavin (1300 BC). Evidence is found on ceramics present at ruins of Nazca and Sipan. Besides the objects, we were told to put our own objects at the table-people brought family clothes, photos or a piece of their homeland. This totally confused me - I had no idea we had to bring something. All I was able to find in my backpack was a photo of my home mountains.
First, the maestro and his assistants took San Pedro sniffling it through the nostrils and spreading it in the four directions. Then, from left to right, we were each given a potion of the warm, bitter preparation of San Pedro. We were then given a shell in our left hand. The maestro, in the middle of the courtyard, facing the mountains and the lakes, started to invoke the spirit of the mountains, lakes, sacred plans, ancestors, and tabacco. The shells were filled with tabacco (a mixture of alcohol and herbs and perfumes), which we had to sniffle through the nostrils (it goes right to the brain). We were then given more tabacco this time in the right hand, did the same or rub our to throw away the bad things. Then we were sprayed with perfume to rub over our body. Full moon filled the courtyard with magic light as we said prayers, repeating after the maestro. Before midnight we were given a little break before the maestro would start working with each of us. We were told that we weren’t allowed to sleep until dawn. If one of us dozed off, an assistant would come with a little stick and wake us up.
After midnight, we were each called in order in the back of the house to be given the "purification". A man with a sword welcomed me, rubbing the sword on my body and head, to throw away the bad things. The followed another one with a stick, “purifying” the hands, arms and legs. Then we were ready for the ritual. Each of us had to wait for our turn- a painful wait of long hours in the cold that had gotten bitter. When my turn came, it was dawn. I was called in the back of the house where I saw the shining face of the maestro, with his poncho and sword, in a trance. He told me some things about my life, asked me about my career. The roosters were singing and it started pouring down. In a solemn voice, maestro told me: “Daughter, now you receive the benediction of Mother Nature in this pour of rain”. He told me he would give me a "flourishment" for good luck. In the light of the morning, aligned on the veranda, we were again splashed with perfumes and powders, and given plants and perfumes according to each one’s illness. The ritual finishes before dawn, and it is normally followed by the trip to one of the lakes. Maestro chooses the lake according to the needs of the patients. That morning, however, it was raining at dawn and after weeks of raining the trails were bad and we couldn’t take the trip to the lake that day. Therefore we took the trip the next day, after another sleepless night and a slightly similar ritual. We headed for a smaller lake, Virgen del Carmen, where pure water come from a waterfall on a rock wall. At the lake we had the flourishment, then we had to enter the frozen water and rub our body with a crushed herb that is supposed to bring good luck and health. Then maestro poured over us bottles of freezing cold water that came from a little stream in the rock, supposed to be the purest water. After the bath I felt renewed, the sun came up the maestro did the chanting, in an explosion of joy. Everybody was smiling and seemed happy. In the fresh air of the mountain I felt invigorated. I ran down through pastures of icchu grass in the solitude of the mountains and felt like in a dream.
The origin of the lakes comes from a local legend. It is said that once a mute and a deaf went into the mountains to look for a lost city that was supposed to be golden and full of riches. They crossed the mountains and found couloirs through which they got indeed to a hidden city with many riches. Wanting to come back they couldn’t find the way, and they arrived at some beautiful lakes from where they are said never to have come back. I couldn’t find an answer to what gives the medicinal properties to the lakes. The maestro told me that people discovered their properties and used it for centuries. When the power of the lake is used to produce bad, the lake looses its property. The maestro told me that each lake has its own spirit, a power and curative property. Each lake is considered to be feminine, spouse of the highest hill that accompanies it (a masculine entity). Maestros usually go to Laguna Shimbe (White Lake) or Negra (Black Lake), the most well known ones. However, it seems that the spirit of the biggest lakes has been maltreated, misused by “black” shamans in the last years. I do have to say I looked at the whole ceremony with a sceptical eye. I saw it from the perspective that I got while practising yoga in India, and from that angle the ritual lost its meaning.