A few nights ago, we gathered in a local lodge where a shaman performed a despacho for our group. A despacho is an ancient religious ceremony of the Andeans in which offerings and prayers are made to the apus (mountains) and Pachamama (mother earth).
Before the despacho ceremony itself, Vidal, the shaman, first talked to us. Maria, my colleague on this adventure, is well-trained in performing despachos herself and translated Vidal’s words for the students. Vidal imparted messages about returning to our spiritual selves, about our connection with the earth and our relationship with each other (“todos son Indios” – we are all Indians). He made an interesting play on these Spanish words while he was speaking on this topic: he repeated that we are all “In-Dios, en-Dios” meaning ‘in God’. This is familiar language to me as a Quaker; there is the Light of God in all of us.
Then the ceremony began. A bag of coca leaves was passed. [It should be noted that the coca leaf is part of everything here: it is used to make tea to cure all kinds maladies including altitude sickness, the locals chew it like gum and it is part of sacred ceremony.] Each of us was instructed to find four perfect leaves; ones that were whole, dark green with strong spines. Then each took a small packet containing symbolic ingredients – these would be our gifts.
The Inca believed in the concept of Ayni – that you don’t ask for something without giving in return. Reciprocity. The coca leaves would represent our prayers and wishes and the packets would be our gifts to Pachamama.
One by one the students approached the shaman at his mesita, a small table with a cloth in which to collect our prayers, two cups and other symbolic items. Each was asked to say aloud his or her prayer. Vidal received the leaves, heard the prayer and gave a response, sometimes even a humorous one. I won’t recount what the students asked for, as many were quite personal. Several shed tears. I asked for the happiness of my daughters. I didn’t realize until I stood before him how emotional an experience it would be. He whispered words of encouragement and I returned to my spot in the circle.
Next, we individually brought our small packets to the shaman. He opened them to reveal things like flower petals, spices, leaves – all items that symbolize things like love, happiness, health, prosperity, peace and others. These were the offerings for Pachamama.
Once our prayers and offerings were complete, Vidal gathered up the sides of the cloth to make the prayer bundle and closed the sacred space. We then went outside where a fire had been built over a chakana, an Inca cross-like symbol. We encircled the fire and the shaman recited his prayers and placed the prayer bundle on the fire. Women were given chicha (a corn beverage) to pour on each of the four points of the chakana and the men poured wine in points that represent the three worlds: Hana Pacha, the superior world of the gods; Kay Pacha, the world of existence; and Ucu Pacha, the underworld inhabited by ancestors and spirits of the dead.
At the completion of the ceremony, the shaman bid us farewell. It had grown late in the night and we were spent. But we stayed at the fire to have a Meeting for Worship. We worshiped in silence as the fire crackled and lit our faces. We let the experiences of the day sink in.
It was another in a series of days packed with unforgettable experiences.