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Spirits in a Material World

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Thick clouds hover over a lush canyon near Union Potrero
High in the Andes, the separation between earth and sky, between spirit and material world, disappears. I sit in a tiny village called Union Potrero, three hours from Ayacucho, Peru. Outside the adobe hut where I've been staying, I warm myself in the morning sun, careful not to burn my nose and lips again, because the atmosphere is thinner and the sun is stronger at this altitude.

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A condor swoops down into a remarkable canyon near Quispillaccta
Behind me rises Puka Kunka, a hill with a cavernous mouth thought to be a breathing spirit. The people of Quispillaccta, a community made up of 12 villages, often converse with the spirit and throw offerings into his hungry jaws. Magdelena, one of my hosts here, explained that Puka Kunka means "red neck" in Quechua. She explained that although he is a living being, he is not divine. "You can talk to him and yell at him when you're angry. You can't go to church and yell at God," she said.

The Odyssey has brought Kavitha and me here to work with ABA, a community organization working to preserve traditional ways of living such as farming techniques, community organization, and artesanias (the arts). This week we've been traveling to the different villages to gather traditional medicinal plants. Much of the village shows up, with bags of freshly cut plants, to share their knowledge and stories.

Even though I speak very little Quechua or Runasimi, "the mouth of the people," it is soon apparent that for these descendents of the Incas, the spirit world and the material world are interwoven. Pachamama, the Earth Mother, and Apus, the god of the mountains, play leading roles in illnesses and their cures. Pacha, Earth, is a major illness suffered by people in this region. It is contracted from sleeping directly on the ground or from being in a place where vapor rises from the earth. Waspy, another local illness, is contracted by drinking water directly from a stream with your mouth instead of scooping it with your hands or using a cup. I'm told that when people went to the hospital with these illnesses, the doctors could not figure out what was wrong with them and they got worse. Fortunately, in these workshops we've learned about many local herbs that can help treat these and other local illnesses.

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Magdalena, who explained the health effects of angering the spirit world to Abeja.
The spirit world is not only involved with matters of health, but with every aspect of Andean life. Yesterday evening, for example, storm clouds threatened from the East over the mountain. The thunder I heard, however, didn't come from the sky, but rather from the hills around me. "They're cuetes," explained Valeriano, Magdalena's cousin. "Cuetes" are small explosions set off by the campesinos (farmers) to drive away the hail which would destroy the crops. "It also helps to burn bitter herbs, but the cuetes work better," he told me. Whatever they did, it worked, because we only had a few minutes of light drizzle and no hail.

For two nights in a row, after Magdelena and I had gone picking llulo (edible greens) from a steep hill, I had horrible nightmares. Thankfully, I'm not taking Larium anymore, so I knew it couldn't be the source of my scary dreams. "You must have angered a spirit!" Magdalena told me. "When we picked the llullo, you must have reached too high and picked some you weren't supposed to! We'll go back and make an offering of coca leaves today, and the dreams should stop." We'll see tonight if the spirits have accepted my offering!

These are just a few examples of how the people of Quispillaccta are challenging my American scientific reality. There are so many little things that permeate daily life here that don't match up with the purely logical reality in which I was raised. But I can't just dismiss them as quaint, unfounded traditions either. For one thing, Magdalena, Valeriano, and Silverio, who take these customs very seriously, are all intelligent, college-educated professionals.

Magdalena cooks up a meal.
Many of these traditions make sense on the "rational" level for different reasons. For example, garlic is attributed with strong powers to heal both pacha and waspy. Scientists tell us that garlic is a strong antibiotic and booster for the immune system. Other spiritual traditions also make a lot of sense in the science of environmental conservation. The people of the Andean highlands believe that you should not pee into streams or lakes because spirits run in them like fish. This is also a well-known rule of low-impact camping, as keeping stream and lake water clean helps preserve water habitats. And killing dragonflies is certain to bring bad luck because they could be your ancestors.

I'm finding out that ancient wisdom and new science do not always contradict each other. Traditions began for a reason, and I think it is wise of these people to hold onto them when faced with the purely scientific explanations that are taking control of the world. And besides, I have yet to see modern science come up with a way to prevent hail.


Abeja - School's Out! Field Trip to the Ruins
Kavitha - Development or Detriment?: Government "Improvement" Programs in Quispillaccta
Kevin - Treating Myself Like Royalty
Monica - Here Llama, Llama...
Monica - Shape of...a Puma Head! Form Incan City!
Shawn - Soy Vegetariano
Making a Difference - Constant Threat at Big Mountain
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