Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pago a la Tierra

Last year was tough for our host family—though tourism numbers in the Colca Valley are up (according to the local authorities) it appears that a higher percentage of the tourists are coming on one-day package tours, which leaves the local hotels, restaurants, and artisans almost completely out of the picture. The family’s restaurant, which was open—and full—nearly every day for the first 9 months we were here, is now open only when they have a group reservation, one or two days a week. Tour guides demand a “commission” for each passenger they bring, and their demands are escalating to unreasonable levels.

The family is middle-class, by Chivay standards (by U.S. standards? Our yardsticks don’t even apply). They have two sons studying at the university in Arequipa, and another who is about to start, an expensive proposition any way you look at it. There is a possibility that some of the people in town who are envious of them have cursed them.

What to do?

Obviously, it’s time to start the New Year with a “pago a la tierra,” literally a “payment to the earth.” It’s a common ritual, particularly in January, February, or August, in which sacrifices are made to Mother Earth (“Pachamama”) in order to bring forth blessings, and specific blessings may be asked. It also serves to lift any curses placed on the house or those who live there.

The house was cleaned in preparation, and a well-known “curandero” was imported from nearby Tuti. Sobriety was an issue when he arrived, so he was given a bowl of hearty soup (a common breakfast here) and put to bed for a few hours to sleep it off.

The role of curandero (shaman, more or less) is not hereditary here, as it is in some cultures. Instead, it is acquired by the dubious distinction of being struck by lightning, which enables some people to speak with the “apus,” or mountain gods, and perform the functions of the curanderos. Amanda, who herself can read the coca leaves, had him read the leaves for her this morning, and was satisfied with his interpretation of her fortune for the coming year, so he was given the stamp of approval.

All was in readiness at sundown—the door to the house was locked, and the curandero arranged a small altar, with different offerings representing different desires of the family. Their business plan for the coming year is to keep the restaurant open, but also to open a tourism agency in Arequipa to bring passengers to the restaurant on 1- or 2-day tours to the valley. For this, they’ll need money, a 30-passenger tour bus, and lots of tourists.

A couple of years ago, when they first opened their restaurant, they also had reason to believe that they had been the subject of curses placed by various neighbors, but a pago a la tierra had enabled them to prosper. It came up in conversation that it was well-known in town that at least four people (they could name them) had sold their souls to the devil. Black magic was in the air, and their financing was in jeopardy.

It was clearly time to make another pago.

The offerings consisted primarily of carefully selected, perfectly formed coca leaves, tallow from the chest of a llama, coins, dried herbs, kernels of corn, wine, incense, and an alpaca fetus. Each offering represented a specific desire—more money, lots of tourists, a bus, etc. The fetus was mostly just a particularly appeasing morsel for Pachamama. The offerings were variously placed in a seashell, or on a small square of woven alpaca fiber.

The entire family—including us—gathered ‘round, and the offerings were passed from hand to hand; you were to visualize what they represented, and with all your faith, breathe on them three times. The wine was sprinkled over them all, with an invocation to Pachamama and the local apus, Cotallaully (the mountain above Chivay) and the Puente Inca (Inca bridge), before everyone downed a slug.

(By the way, it’s always good form, when drinking, to offer the first few drops to Pachamama and the local apus).

Then, Enrique chiseled a hole in the concrete floor of the house, until he broke through to the earth below, and built a fire over it. The offerings were burnt, and the fire sprinkled with more wine.

Everyone was satisfied that it had gone quite well, and the curandero was remanded back to Tuti with a handsome payment in hand. The doors were unlocked to let the smoke out—and so our New Year commenced. We’ll let you know how our wishes are realized!

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