Journey to the Living Descendants of the Incas – Part 3
As the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, we were all smiles and began setting up both our sleeping tent and storage marquee. That first day we simply got settled in with our surroundings and got accustomed to the high altitude and the fresh mountain air of the remote Peruvian Andes. We cooked a traditional Hungarian meal of Paprika and Potato Stew for all of us including Francisco and his friends and family – our new friends – living descendants of the Incas. It was almost our version of a ceremony, sharing our culture in a friendly barbeque-like gathering between the neighbours. The clouds once again rolled back in, but not before we caught a glimpse of a magnificent blood-red sunset. The temperature drops very quickly at night here in the mountains, so at 8:00pm, we were in our PJs and our tent. That first night was cool, but we slept well, snuggled up together.
Our second day dawned with the upsetting realisation of finding out that the night rain had managed to creep into our tent and had soaked our jackets that we used as pillows. The only saving grace was that we had rubber insulation under us, which saved our sleeping bags. We escaped our damp quarters and cooked up a pancake breakfast that we enjoyed on a hollow log that the rare and warm sun was gracing its presence with. A number of villagers stopped by to enjoy our breakfast with us. The word had gone around that hot pancakes were on offer and I think that along with the pancakes, the curiosity of seeing the outsiders, was a drawing attraction.
First, a couple of shepherds dropped in who knew Francisco and were out to take their llamas grazing. They indulged in a few pancakes hot off the grill before heading on their way. Next came a young girl who was about the same age as Lalika and I. I watched in delight as her eyes opened wide at the pancakes, and she ate with great fervour with us. Despite the fact that we couldn’t speak the same language, she and I connected in those moments through our mutual love of short stack pancakes and piping-hot chocolate. There were also a number of other children that joined us before the kitchen closed and we began our daily chores.
The Q’ero people have very big hearts and are incredibly welcoming, however, they too have problems where modern life is impacting on them. With all the packaged and plastic wrapped goods that they now use, their living environment has been contaminated, and no one has shown them alternatives to the disposing of their rubbish. This leaves a lot of their beautiful mountainside looking like a basura (garbage bin). This problem is not unique to Choa Choa, as it seems that Peruanos (Peruvians) all around the country have no access to organised waste disposal. The litter chokes the entire countryside, leaving a great blemish on their beautiful country.
Also, in Choa Choa, while they have access to safe drinking water via the government installed water system, they have no toilets and people go close to the river, which is a big health risk, particularly as it runs the risk of washing into the river and contaminating the communities downstream. The government is talking about installing flush toilets for them, however, all this will do is wash the untreated effluent directly into the river, as there is no treatment plan and it will definitely just go downstream then. Dad explained about a solution we know of that involves using dry toilets, which are completely inexpensive, where the output is simply and effectively recycled within months to be able to be used as soil or toilet cover. We actually learned of this solution from a man named Chris Canaday while we were in Ecuador, visiting The Omaere Ethnobotanical Park.
The lukewarm day seemed to slip by as we all occupied our time with tasks like cooking and cleaning. Lalika and I chartered an exploration expedition up the nearest hill and down to the river pretending to be adventurers discovering new and beautiful lands. The funny thing is that now while I am writing this blog, I see that we really didn’t have to pretend to be explorers, for in a way, we already were.
Being that it was Sunday, Francisco and Luis informed us that there was a community gathering being held at the local stone church. We had been invited to come along to the service and experience the religious aspect of this community. So we pulled on our hiking boots and made our way uphill to the largest structure in the village, perched on a rocky ledge looking down on the rest of the dwellings. The moment we entered through the creaking door we were greeted by many smiles from the people sitting in the wooden pews. The minister, who was a local woman, smiled at us and beckoned for us to sit down before continuing. Despite the fact that we couldn’t understand what was being said, I believe we experienced the service nonetheless through the energetic level. The voice of the minister coupled with the earnest and loving faces of the people turned this gathering into a joyful experience. It was nothing like my experiences of accompanying my grandmother to the Hungarian church in Melbourne, Australia. It was entirely different in the liveliness and animation that these souls emanated. I found myself smiling along with everyone else the whole way through. They addressed their God and talked to him through the name ‘Apu’. This too is the word they use for their sacred Father Mountains. We were also treated to an unusual rock concert with the locals using improvised instruments and interesting tones, that I could only gather were a poetic psalm-like adulation of God. After this experience, we thanked the Q’ero people for inviting us to participate in their service before leaving. It seemed like such a meaningful and graceful exit until Lalika and I both slipped on a large patch of mud and tumbled halfway down the mountain to the amusement of onlookers!
On returning to Francisco’s, we received an invitation to his brother’s house to meet more of the family for a unique Coca leaf ceremony. We crossed the creek by the light of our iPhone torches and entered another bluestone house, slightly larger than Francisco’s that was lit by hanging LED lights. Here we met Francisco’s brother, his wife and their three children ranging in ages from 4 to 20, as well as the grandchild of their eldest son. They invited us to sit around in a circle. The night began with Francisco carefully laying out the Coca leaves onto a small rug. The rug was in the middle of the circle on the floor. Francisco, taking great care, selected the leaves and arranged them with a precision, the meaning of which was lost on me, but he handed everyone a neatly tailored bunch, almost as if dealing a set of fanned out cards. Luis explained that they were blessing the leaves and we would now take part in chewing them. He let Francisco’s brother start and then we all partook. The coca leaf is a very sacred plant to the people of the Andes and highly misunderstood in the western developed world due to its narcotic and cola-induced abuse. It is part of the Inca culture, a way in which they pay tribute to and connect with Pachamama (Mother Earth). Chewing the leaf has no narcotic effect. In fact, everywhere in the highlands of Peru, Coca leaf tea is used as a natural remedy for altitude acclimatisation.
We spent a good part of the evening conversing and connecting with Francisco’s family. We spoke on many topics, with Luis interpreting expertly, including the challenges of modern living. Francisco’s brother and wife expressed sorrow at the destruction of their beautiful surroundings. Lalika and I taught Francisco’s 11-year-old nephew how to play chopsticks with our fingers and all the while we chewed on the interestingly sweet Coca leaves. When the night came to an end, we bid goodbye to the family and returned to our tent, where the moment my head touched my frozen pillow I was asleep with the warm flickering torch as a night light.
We awoke to frost stuck to the front of our tent and all the surrounding hills powdered in snow. Today was a day that would prove to be especially memorable. It was to hold the sacred experience of the ceremony and blessing conducted by the Paq’o (Healer, Shaman, Mystic, High Priest) Francisco at the top of the Guardian Mountain of Apu Huairani. We ascended slowly and soon passed 4700 meters high. We kept crossing streams that were pristine, originating directly from the mountain itself. The llama were chewing the grass casually, without even looking our way, as we made our way higher and higher. We finally arrived at the stone altar that had been there for generations of ceremonies, conducted by the Paq’os who lived and walked through these mountains.
It was here that Francisco began what was to be a two-hour sacred ceremony of careful and traditional blessing and offering to the land. It was an offering made in complete energetic harmony with the surroundings and with great respect for Pachamama and the Mountain protectors. Many of the religions of the world have ridiculed and even held as a blasphemy the ceremonies of deep connection that humankind has with the land, but up until that moment, when we were ready to make our offering, I can say that I never experienced such an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for all creation and life.
It was at this precise moment that the sun, with all its radiance, shone out directly over us and our ceremonial altar, warming us all with its glowing rays. This symbiotic act was the first time I truly felt my undivided connection with the energies of creation and its oneness with the powers of the earth. This moment demonstrated to me a notion of divine timing, something in us all. We thought we had started out late that day, but this had clearly shown how everything had converged into that perfect moment. We received our blessing before our offering was burnt and we all hugged each other. We experienced eternal gratitude and for that moment, glimpsed the vision of our unity in humanity, a vision that will sustain us on our journey ahead and continue to grow and resonate with ever-increasing strength every day.
When we returned to Francisco’s home we found his niece, Juana, with her husband and eight-month-old son, Manuel Quispe, sitting by the fire. When we entered, they jumped up from their seats and came over to Francisco, asking him to translate for them. Turns out, they were asking Mum and Dad to be the godparents to Manuel, who had not yet been baptised. We were quite surprised at the request and truly felt honoured. We agreed that they would return in the evening for the blessing and name giving ceremony. It turned out to be a truly unique and beautiful experience for all of us, as Manuel’s heart and radiant smile were enough to light and warm the entire village. And thus, by the light of the candles and stars we became a part of the Q’ero community through this connection of family and compassion.
Despite the fact that these first three days were a magical experience, the weather literally dampened our enthusiasm as we were isolated to spending our whole second last day moping around inside Francisco’s home, trying to keep warm by the fire. The reminder that our grandmother was coming to visit us in Miami from Australia in two months buoyed our spirits. It had nearly been a year since we last saw her and Lalika and I, having such a close relationship with her, we missed her more intensely now. I suppose this is the only downside to travelling for such long periods of time, but this is offset by our adventures and the video calls that make it possible for us to see each other. However, here, we didn’t have the luxury of the latter. We drowned our miseries in mug after mug of hot chocolate, until there was no more. Then, we pestered Dad to make more, so that we could enjoy warm drinks while we daydreamed of hot sunny beaches, about eating our favourite vegetarian burger in our favourite Sports Bar in Miami, and of hugging our grandma and taking her on adventures with us, grand and filled with fantasy. I seemed to forget what a beautiful mountain area I was in and was oblivious to the golden sunset outside as I sank deep into the recess of my mind to dream. It must have been all those hot chocolates.
Our final day in the village had my good spirits rushing back to me as the sun shone out brilliantly in the morning. We were going to visit the local school here in Choa Choa! We had spent the early morning packing up all our supplies and saying goodbye to the members of the community, for after visiting the children and teacher, we would be making our way up and out of the valley on a 15 kilometre hike to the next village, from where we would begin our return journey to Cusco.
The horses were back, patiently waiting to be loaded up with our belongings. Juana came running over to Mum, calling out to her, “Comadre!” Holding out something in a woven material sack, we understood that she wanted to give something to us. Her genuine and heartwarming smile spoke a thousand words. She gifted us with some of their potatoes, grown on their home plot. To Mum, this was one of the most precious gifts of unconditional giving. Giving from the heart, from their livelihood, from their sustenance; the energy of which reinforced that we are forever bound.
The students came running out of the large classroom in a powerful hoard when they saw us coming. It seemed like a tsunami of children but once they were within inches from us, they all abruptly stopped and instead simply looked at us curiously with keen but shy eyes. First, we went up to the teacher, and he welcomed us with a large smile beaming from his face. His smile reached from ear to ear when we began handing out the study supplies to the children. Their shyness slowly seemed to wear off and they opened their arms to us as we gave out the erasers, pencils, pens, sharpeners and writing books that had made the 300 kilometre or so (180 miles) journey with us. Peals of laughter and exclamations of happiness rang out loudly around the schoolyard, and I felt a warmth inside that grew with each excited “Solpayki” (thank you) that the children yelled in their native language of Quechuan.
After we had handed out the supplies and the adults were talking with the teacher, a little girl took my hand and drew me over to a small circle of other children who were playing hopscotch on the rock pavement. I took part in the game, and even Lalika gave it a go to the delight of all the other onlookers. But our time there soon ended, as Luis made his way over to let us know that it was time to leave, time to move on.
I found this interaction to be a very rewarding experience, and my heart felt the warmth of the children as we waved goodbye to them. No longer shy, they waved enthusiastically back. We hauled on our packs and began our journey back to the heart of what we call civilisation. After this whole experience, I am not sure what this word actually means.
As we made our way up over a large hill, and the bluestone village of Choa Choa disappeared from our sight, I had mixed emotions. I felt pangs of sadness from leaving behind what I now considered to be our Incan family. The people we had connected with during our short stay here in this beautiful secluded part of the world were back in the valley and I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to see them again. As I saw the track ahead of us and the peak of the highest mountain waiting to be climbed, a sense of trust comforted me and the knowledge of the upcoming adventure took away the sadness. Instead, my usual adrenaline began coursing through my veins and blood giving me renewed life. I was determined that one day I would return and could not help but be excited about what was waiting to be discovered, just around the next bend.