Water Makes the World Go Round
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She passes harmlessly through cloth, but breaks down rocks and creates canyons. Everyone needs her to live, but she has the power to kill. She always looks downward, rolling around or pushing through. She wears many guises -- rain, snow, frost, hail, steams, springs, and lakes.
For people who live by subsistence agriculture, like those in Quispillaccta, Peru, water is something to be respected and protected. Their crops and animals need rain to survive, but hail or frost can be more damaging than a drought. Water, like everything in nature, is a living thing to these traditional Andeans. Hail, springs, and lakes all have personalities and play a role in the daily life of the people. During Puquy Uku (the wet season), plants are maturing and it is warmer. Right now is the beginning of Usyay Uku (the colder dry season). The harvest has just begun, and the people ask, through ritual and cuetes (small explosions), that the freezes and hail hold off until they are finished harvesting their crops so that they won't be destroyed.
Even in Usyay Uku, water springs from the ground all over these hills, keeping them moist and green. But that doesn't mean that people here take it for granted, the way we often do when we turn on a faucet. In order to keep a spring from drying up, certain indigenous plants must be planted at its source. Offerings are also made on special occasions and during times of drought, when everything is drying out. A pair of oranges is given to Apu, the god of the mountain, while the traditional gift for Pukaqucha, a deity of the water, is a pair of sweet limes, a carnation, two candles and two kinds of coca leaves rolled and tied in a cornhusk. Good thing our water systems don't require that -- our countertops would sure be crowded!
The people of Quispillaccta are very careful to not defy their springs or lakes. This created some problems when the government came in with their development projects like the canals and reservoirs. Even some of the people who agreed with the purpose of the projects wouldn't work or allow their children to work on them. To go against the nature of the water is bad luck, and many illnesses and deaths by drowning are attributed to defying the water spirits. Waspy, for example, is an illness women get from falling into or washing their clothes in springs with strong spirits. The symptoms are similar to becoming pregnant -- headaches, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting.
People blame the failure of many of the government's projects on this defiance of the water spirits. Silverio and Magdalena both explained to me that cement is poisonous to the springs, and they will dry up. In my time in Quispillaccta, I saw several cement dams with no water behind them. The springs, I was told, dried up and then moved further downhill, past the dam. The one lake that was still dammed near Cuchoquesera had taken the life of a young college student from the village and some livestock. Magdalena told me that divers came from Ayucucho to find the young man's body, but never did. The Quispillacctans, like their Incan ancestors, use rocks and earth to make their dams. Silverio took me on his motorcycle to see this lake high above Union Portrero, which was dammed up by locals with rocks to make it grow larger and drain more slowly. Even though he still kept a respectful distance from it, he said that it was a good protector of their livestock.
Lakes are individual beings, like the hill Puka Kunca that I wrote about in my earlier article. They tend to be female, they are sisters, and they are all enchantresses. One deity of lakes, Paqcha, is known as a trickster and a murderer. Women tell stories of seeing beautiful clothing and ribbons by the shore of a lake. Women, and especially young girls who donšt know better, can be lured to the lake and taken by her. Men, traveling alone, tell stories of being offered food or love by a beautiful woman by the lakeside. Only men who turn her down return to tell the stories!
Because rain is so essential to the life of the animals and crops, there is much knowledge and concern about it. Instead of switching on the weather channel, though, they just look around them. Everything is a sign, it seems, to those who know the Andes. For example, Magdalena pointed out a black snake, "That means that the rain is going to continue. In the dry season, they get more yellow." Later, she drew my attention to a bird song: "sik, sik sik!" That means rain will continue. When the rains are over, the chiwaku sings "wawqicha, wawqicha, wawqicha!"
In this world of spirits and nature, I feel lost and in awe. The fabric of life is woven tightly with the world around, sparkling with golden threads of spirits and deities. Tomorrow, we leave these traditional communities to head for Cuzco. Now that I have been awakened to the presence of both spirits and nature's signs, I wonder if I will see them outside of this place.
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