Celebrating the solstices has been an important part of my life for many years. I didn’t expect that it would continue to be so here in Peru. How very wrong I was. I’ve become immersed in a community of people who are dedicated to revitalizing the ancient Andean vision of the cosmos and our place in it. I have the very great honor to be included in this community. I’m part of a women’s circle that does women-only ritual on the new moon, and ritual open to women, men and kids on the full moon. I’ve written a few songs for our ceremonies, with more planned. It’s so funny—when I went into Peace Corps, I imagined myself being a very different person. Not so. I’m still me, songwriting and all, just at a higher altitude.
I was invited to take part in a winter solstice ceremony on June 21. We met in Huancayo and sorted ourselves into a flock of minivans and headed up and up to one of the two highest areas of our region: the Huaytapallana massif. These glacier-capped peaks have been the eastern edge of my world for the six months I’ve been here. Back in the states, I used the San Juan Mountains to orient myself; among them mount Taylor, the northern sacred mountain of the Navajo Nation. Here, it’s the Apu of Huaytapallana. An apu is a sacred place—often a mountain—that is an elder sibling, a repository of power, a protector that is often called upon to witness and share a ritual. For months I had looked forward to meeting Huaytapallana in person.
After more than an hour of travel, we came to a place where the road was too damaged and steep for the vehicles to make it, so everyone got out to walk up the hill.
To pass the time, musicians played and people danced and drank. I joined in.
Some local herders came along with their horses and watched from the sidelines. Horses! Kristi has been longing to get on a horse ever since we got to Peru. Chasqui negotiated for us, and the men agreed to take Kristi and me on up to the ritual location on horseback for 10 soles apiece. It was an unexpected pleasure, riding along high up in the mountains with beautiful views.
We passed an icchu-grass home.
The family’s llamas regarded us with curiosity.
I was pleased to see that the forest service had posted numerous signs to urge people to take care of the environment. They used the "authority of the resource" strategy. In this sign, the apu Huaytapallana asks the visitor not to throw trash. As I used to teach in my environmental psychology class (in what feels like a different life now) people are more responsive to this kind of appeal than the kind that uses "the authority of the government", as in 'don't throw trash or we'll throw you in jail'.
I had forgotten that riding a horse can get uncomfortable, especially with unfamiliar tack. But it was worth it; we were so happy. We did feel suitably guilty to be culturally insensitive—the gringas on horseback leaving everyone else behind. Our guilt evaporated when all the vehicles, having surmounted the difficult part, passed us one by one, with people smiling and waving and taking our pictures. We were the last to arrive at the lake.It’s a stunningly beautiful place.
Everyone marched along the road around the lake to the place selected for the ritual.
The 'table' grew and grew as more people set up their mantas.
The ritual began, with many prayers to the sacred mountain. Also, one of the priests proposed to his partner during the ceremony,
Another recited a very moving poem to the coca leaves,
And a musician from Argentina played Native (north) American flute. I talked with him the next day, and he’s a friend of Carlos Nakai, perhaps the most famous Native American flute player from the United States.
During the ceremony it began to snow! Our first snow (well, grapple really) in Peru.
We had made friends with the people of the neighboring manta. This woman is a talented singer, and I really enjoyed her voice.
They invited us to join our manta with theirs for a prayer
And then we went to do our offering. All the people fanned out over the hillside in small groups.
We drank beverages and the musicians in our group played and we sang.
One of the men offered prayers
And then we buried our offerings in the Pachamama, the Mother Earth. It was a time outside of time. Sublime.
Twice, avalanches cascaded down the face of the glacier and all the people shouted back to the mountain. But it was also sad. The glacier is dying. You can see its former extent. It is now half the size that it was a few decades ago. If things go as they have been, in a few decades the glacier will be gone and the Apu will stand naked without his manta of snow.
After this, we went to the lake. Some brave souls were bathing in the lake. I doused my head with water and thanked the lake for a profound day. We ate our lunch and then returned to the vans to go back down the mountain. It was a tough trip home for me, as the altitude and energy and chicha had given me a headache, which was not helped by the lusty singing of folksongs in the van on the way home. But connections went well, and when I finally got to bed, I slept soundly and dreamed of mountains. It was a wonderful solstice.