The curandero knelt and dipped a dented tin cup into water. His heavy straw hat sloped down over his face, obscuring all but his lips which moved incessantly in some prayer or incantation I recognized as Quechua. Further back a family of men, women, and children circled a shrine consisting of swords and various odds and ends – vials full of liquids, sacred plants, pictures, and Christian symbols. The curandero began to wave a misshapen stick while he sipped from the cup and spit water on the ground in front of him, and the family joined in with their own prayers.
My guide Alvarez, a seventy-something retired taxi-driver, pulled at his orange poncho and watched the ritual with a detached sense of familiarity. My grasp of Spanish was superficial; trying to understand Alvarez’s Catalan or the curandero’s Quechua was beyond me. I could only stare in muted fascination. It wasn’t just the language barrier that isolated me. Standing just outside the circle with Alvarez I could feel a wariness in the procession. The women would occasionally glance up from their prayers in my direction as if nervous, and I knew I didn’t belong here.
I pulled my own borrowed poncho further up my neck as a cold gust spirited across the lake and slammed into us. The Huaringas, or Sacred Lakes, are comprised of fourteen interlocked bodies of water high in the Peruvian cordillera, and are spiritual hubs for ceremonies like the one I was observing.
Ever since delving into the works of Joseph Campbell, Wade Davis, Mircea Eliade, and other ethnologists, I’d developed an interest in shamanism – traveling through South America represented an opportunity to explore the practices of ancient shamanistic cultures. And here I was. On the ten hour bus ride from the border town of Piura to the mountain village of Huancabamba I’d met Alvarez and he’d invited me to this house where I’d stayed with his family and shared their meals (guinea pig notwithstanding). The second morning he’d offered to take me on horseback to the lakes, which draws Peruvians and tourists alike who seek the services of brujos and curanderos (shamans and witch-doctors).
Shamanistic rituals have gained a reputation in North American culture for their utilization of psychotropic plants, foremost in the form of ayahuasca ceremonies. The bitter vine is harvested and boiled with other plants that allows the hallucinogenic compound DMT (dimethlytryptamine) to become orally active, which induces vomiting and trance-like psychedelic states which shamans use as agents for spiritual healing.
In big cities like Cuzco vendors wave down foreigners with discount prices on San Pedro cactus, and tourist agencies tailor expensive ayahuasca ceremonies with “authentic” shaman guides. Everywhere I’d been there was a commercialization of the spiritual experience. Insight and revelation had a price-tag attached, which only cheapened it.
I had travelled to the mountain town of Huancabamba looking for a practitioner who still operated within the traditional cultural context, who was both spiritually and geographically remote from the consumerism of the urban, and whose interests hadn’t been watered down by profit. In a sense I’d found it – but it was a double-edged sword, because although this was authentic and rooted in tradition, I knew I could never be a part of it, or truly participate in it.
The curandero continued to mutter, moving back and forth to the lake, and Alvarez nudged me closer into the ring of people. I immediately felt distrust in the eyes of the family members.
Just then a small girl, no older than six, squeezed between two of the women and stopped in front of the curandero. Her face contorted as if in pain and she began to cry and tug on the curandero’s pant leg until one of the women rushed forward and drew her back into the crowd.
I felt a tug on my shoulder and Alvarez motioned with his head for us to leave.
The eyes of the family followed the two of us as we climbed back up the trail to our horses. I felt as though I’d intruded on something, and without the historical or spiritual framework to appreciate it, my observation of it had somehow sullied the whole process. Even though I knew Alvarez had arranged for me to view the ceremony, and the curandero had agreed, there was a vast distance between our two cultures that had only truly been felt the instant I had been allowed to watch.
I wasn’t sure there was any way to bridge that gap. As we descended the valley and the sun needled out of the cloud cover I felt a sting of regret. I realized at once the naiveté of trying to appropriate a custom, of perceiving the world that could never belong to me, not because I wasn’t willing to experience it but because I hadn’t been born into it.
Alvarez must’ve noticed my discomfort because he didn’t try to engage me in conversation. I let the reins slack and gave the horse the freedom to meander at his own speed. I couldn’t help but wonder if Alvarez had planned all of this in order to shatter my preconceptions, but when I turned in the saddle he was casually chewing the end of a piece of grass.
He smiled a kind of knowing smile, and I returned it. That afternoon I left his house to head back to Huancabamba, but carried with me the recognition that the “spiritual” isn’t something you can merely assimilate. Spirituality is a mode of living, a practice in every sense of the word.