Into the Jungle
Okay, so here we are, a group of adventurers in a bus riding along a very bumpy road headed to the jungles of Peru. It was not the road we were originally supposed to travel on since due to the unseasonably heavy rains, that road was covered by landslides. What would have been a five hour trip turned into more than eight hours. Ah, well! We were told that plans often change while traveling in Peru, so most of the time I was prepared to just to go with it. In fact my mantra was, “go with the flow.” I’d give myself an A- on that one.
This first leg of our travel into the jungle was to a stopover point in the Cloud Forest that was the halfway point to our ultimate destination. Here in the middle of the rain forest was a lodge with hot showers, flush toilets, and comfortable beds with mosquito netting. Not bad!
The first group of about 12 had spent the prior week touring the artifacts at Machu Picchu and various other sites. Machu Picchu is the best known of these ancient structures, yet there are actually hundreds of these scattered about Peru. We had the good fortune to visit three of them, including Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo (o-YAN-ta-TAM-bo) and Saqsaywaman (SAX-e-WA-man), and now we were headed into the jungle, on the other side of the magnificent Andes.
Earlier that day three new travelers had joined our entourage in Cusco for the second half of the two week tour, specifically for the rain forest and three nights of ceremony at the Traditional Medicine Center of the Machiguenga. One of those joining us was my partner and soon-to-be wife, Jesseca. We were both thrilled to be with each other again after being apart for a week.
She told me how things were at home, and I told her about the first part of the tour, recounting the immense scale of some of these stones that had been in place for well over 10,000 years. Many of these were over 200 tons! An even deeper mystery at one of the sites is how these huge stones got there, since they were formed from the mountain across the valley. Various explanations, scientific and metaphysical have been offered, but none of them being fully satisfactory.
My take? I like the story that there were giants about 13,000 years ago that brought advanced techniques to humans, helping them create a functional city in these mountains. They had powers beyond our own, one of which was levitation. That’s how the stones got there. No way to prove something like that, but it’s a soul satisfying narrative for explaining the inexplicable.
I also shared told Jesseca how during that first week we participated in ceremony on two occasions with two different local shamans. At Machu Picchu we held ceremony with Hermano, who had also served as a guide for us as we toured this magnificent and mysterious city of the past.
Hermano and the rest of us first sat on a clearing in the midst of this ancient stone city. Hermano brought out coca leaves—the leaves of the plant from which cocaine is derived. Put aside your western mind on this one—it’s not used as a drug at all. That is far from its original purpose as used by the Quechoa, the people of the Andes. It’s been bastardized of course, just like tobacco has been throughout the world. Yet for the Peruvians, particularly the Quechoa people of the Andes, it’s a revered and sacred plant.
Coca leaves are often used to make a tea and visitors are often welcomed with a cup of this brew. Another method used is to put a few leaves in your mouth, chew them to a pulp, then slip them in that crevice between your cheeks and your gums. Sort of like chewing tobacco. . Not all that tasty though. Imagine taking some leaves from a tree and masticating them and holding them in your mouth for several minutes. You get the picture.
In addition to the sacredness of the leaves of this plant, it serves a couple of very practical functions for living at 10,000 to 13,000 feet or more above sea level. First, it thins the blood, and by so doing, helps the body utilize oxygen more effectively and efficiently. Second, it diminishes hunger, which can be very helpful when food sources may be sparse at times. From my experience it definitely did make it easier to walk around at 10,000 feet above sea level without getting completely winded and exhausted.
So the ceremony with Hermano started with a ritual blessing with the coca leaves. There were a lot of leaves on the blanket that Hermano and his two assistants were sorting through, apparently looking for the healthiest ones. Eventually Hermano held three of the best ones together in front of him about a foot away, fanned out much like you would three very small playing cards.
Through our guide’s translation, he told us the way to do this blessing was to hold the leaves like he was, then set your intention and take a breath. He then exhaled that breath and intention into the coca leaves. We continued to follow his lead as he then held the leaves downward, thanking Pachamama (Earth Mother), then upward, thanking Pachatata (Sky Father). After this he circled his hand holding the leaves up and around toward the mountains, thanking Apu (the spirit of the mountains), then held them to his heart and thanked his spirit.
When I did this with he and the group, I felt a deep reverence for the Earth and the heavens, and could actually feel the presence of the spirit or god of the mountains as this sacred ceremony proceeded. Hermano gave us each a small bundle wrapped in a cornhusk, which he had blessed.
About this time on the precipice just a few feet above us a security guard came along and said something to Hermano. The guard came to enforce the law prohibiting any kind of ceremony or worship within the walls of Machu Picchu. Yes, ironic that within this sacred ground it was illegal to do a ceremony like this. The guard did, however, tell Hermano of a relatively private spot in which we could continue.
We wandered over to the secluded area the guard had suggested. From there was a magnificent view of the valley below, with the Urubamba river threading its course through the crevice 2000 feet below us. We gathered in a circle and as Hermano smoked some tobacco, he blew it on the packages wrapped with cornhusks, then went around to each of us individually. He placed the piece that had been ours over our hearts, blew tobacco smoke on them, and offered a blessing in the Quechoa language.
It felt like a very holy moment, one where Spirit was awakened in each and every one of us. I felt a surge of power come into my heart and body as my eyes welled up with tears of gratitude. I had no doubt that the ancestors of this land were with us, particularly evident during the ceremony, with smiles on their faces, pleased with the reverence with which this took place.
Once he’d completed this with everyone, he informed us that he would take these offerings to the river far below and give them to Urubamba. We soon gathered ourselves and left that spot, everyone quietly contemplating what had just occurred, eventually preparing ourselves for the next part of our sacred adventure.
. . . to be continued