Pushed in the rear seat of a Land rover, I looked around through the sealed windows to see us passing a monotonous prairie landscape. Everywhere was sand and dust blown by the wind.
The wheels of the car cast out into the air clouds of volcanic ash covering our way, creating a gray cloud over us that was visible from many miles away. We rode to the plateau that was at an altitude of 4000m above sea level. In the distance, on the horizon, were the contours of the volcano Ampato. I was in Peru on an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, whose goal was to determine the source of the Amazon.
We had just arrived in the northern part of the country at the sources of the river Mantaro, a left tributary of the Amazon, when suddenly we received news from our friends in Arequipa. They informed us that the natives of the Collowayas in the Colca Valley will celebrate the "Water Festival" connected with the mysterious ritual. The celebrations will take place at an altitude of almost 5000m above sea level at the slopes of Mount Mismi.
Without thinking, the expedition leader, Andrew Piętowski, named me as a filmmaker and a photographer.
“Keep up the amazing opportunity.” he said so that the archaic and unknown rituals could be documented on tape and film. We had less than two days to get to a village of a dozen small huts lost on the slopes of Mount Mismi on the edge of the Colca Canyon, where the living still believe in the ancient deities, which in the rock caves they receive gifts and honors.
To reach the village, Yank, on the snowy slopes of the Nevado Mismi mountain (5656m above sea level), almost half of Peru took a jeep, bus, plane and then at the end, a car. We spent nearly 40 hours, nonstop, on the road.
Our driver, Carlos, who took us from Arequipa, came from that area and knew Yank. It is a closed community which almost virtually no one, from the outside, can access. “It is very hard to convince the natives to allow your presence in their world is.” spoke Carlos. “They do not like strangers.” he added when we enter the village. “Don’t not take any photos, but instead talk with them.” I had a letter of recommendation from Mauricio de Romania, which is a very well liked and respected person. That should have convinced them.
It was late afternoon when, after five hours since leaving Arequipa, we got to the gates of the village. The village looked extinct. Only stray dogs were wandering the narrow streets. After a long search, we found Roberto Carlos, the man that told us about Mauricio. He was to assist us during the trip. After talking to him, it turned out that most people spent the day going to the mountain slopes of Mismi to spend the night there. The village has only a few others and some elders.
In the evening, we were invited to the most impressive cottage in the village. The interior was only one large room. At the door, made of compacted clay, the old natives sat savoring the chicha, coca leaves that are chewed. On the opposite side of the room, just above the table hung a small altar with a statue of a saint and was incensed nonstop by burning candles. They invited us to come in the evening, when a meeting of the elders was set to be held, before we headed to the mountains. One of the topics discussed was to be our presence during the rituals.
Sitting by Zbyszek, I watched the whole congregation. Only the men were sitting at the table. Although no one has noticed us, we waited for the most important person in the village of Yank, Reeve. Young native requested a clay barrel, which they spilled into the giant-liter cups, full of a yellowish fluid, that circulated between the meeting. Some participants also drank hooch and treated the neighbors.
My attention was caught by the walking sticks laying on the table. It may be about four feet long, covered with a silver plate on which the engraved images of ancient deities, such as the sun and moon, can be inputted. On the side, the cross and the scapular of Our Lady was attached. As I learned later, this woman is called Barra and is one of the props used during the ceremony organized on the occasion of a clean mountain stream. Passed down from generation to generation, it is a relic of the ancient village of Yank.
While we sat in the meeting house, Carlos tried to convince the mayor to agree to our presence at the ceremony. The small gifts and a letter personally written by Mauricio had helped.
The noise died down when the mayor came to the hut. He was about forty, well-built with high cheekbones, and in a huge cowboy hat. He took his designated place at the table. He was handed a cup of chicha. He put it in both hands, lifted it up, and tilted it, letting a few drops spill on the ground. He did this because pouring alcohol on the earth is an ancient sacred gesture, addressed to the deities and the spirits of the dead.
After this, the introduction session started. They discussed various topics related to the village and the upcoming festivities. They discussed our presence at the end. Some of them were alright with us staying, but many of the elders were opposed to it as they did not want a stranger to witness the old rituals, revealing their ancient beliefs and traditions to the outside world.
Only through a well-fought conversation with the elders, did they decide we could stay at the ceremony. At the conclusion of the ritual, we celebrated by wrapping incensed sticks in a white shawl, then handing them to Rehidor'owi, which from that moment it was her responsibility for the duration of the rites of the "Holy Water" ceremony.
Leaving the house of the congregation, we were very pleased. Available to us was the opportunity to witness the colorful rituals associated with "holy water", whose roots reach way back.
The entire ceremony takes place in the language of ajamara. Some rituals are reserved only for male members of selected families, and are passed on from fathers to sons, who are required to maintain the old traditions so all to the village could have water all year round and the life-giving stream, flowing down from the slopes of mountains Mismi, never dries, as their beliefs dictated.
At about three in the morning, Reeve comes out of a hut. He and his few friends joined at the meeting room, while the rest of the village was high in the mountains somewhere.
The car slowly climbed up the hill from the next hill. Already in an hour, we were on the road. I looked blankly through the frosted glass car. Another sleepless night. Every now and then I lost consciousness and only the shock of the car tore me from sleep. Slowly the eastern edge of the horizon began to appear. The dark purple horizon turned into a “grenade”.
I got numb and cold from the car. I opened the backpack and checked the camera. Everything worked well. Stony desert were around us.
The mayor with a group of friends accompanying him, walked along the narrow path. The only variation in the monotonous landscape of stone cairns was any wanderer going to a stone for good luck.
It was very cold and windy as we went to the slopes. Every gust of wind penetrated into my jacket. I struggled with fatigue. The bad acclimatization induced hallucinogenic sounds of bird wings flapping in my head.
Finally, the left side of the horizon turned purple red. The whole valley was flooded with a golden glow and long shadows were on the west slope of the hill. In the east, a giant sun appeared. Their god, once again, showed the face of their children and animated warmth in his kingdom. My head went through thousands of thoughts as I tried to maintain a constant walking pace.
Then, Roberto, smiling, came up to me and started talking, “They said it is called Yarccahspi.” The whole village was divided into three groups. Women, old men, and children establish camps and prepare meals. Men purify and regulate the flow. The elders celebrate ancient rituals and ceremonies. For a moment, we walked in silence, as if Roberto deliberated whether to speak further. He pulled his woolen cap over his ears, looked at me, and said, “The main deities to whom we honor during this three-day ceremony are Cochamama, the water goddess, Pachamama, the earth goddess who watches over all the earth and raises the forests and mountains and mountains, and Tayta Mismi, a ruler who gives the life-giving water that fertilizes the Earth.
After an hour of forced marching, we entered the valley of the river Yank. The stream flowed down the edges, containing thriving grass. I looked toward the snow-capped summit of Nevado Mismi. The river was lost somewhere up in the white snows of the glacier. On the flat area covered with tufts of grass, the villagers were encamped. Women, wrapped in thick colored ponchos and stretched white hats, warmed their frozen hands in warm flames of the fire. Men stood in groups discussing about something. Someone was carrying dry firewood from the nearby hills.
I sat down on a flat stone near the creek. I was hungry and tired. I felt that I am an intruder, an unwelcome person, and it will be hard to break the barrier between us and the village. I took a sip of cold water from a bottle.
The female dressed constituted of embroidered hats, embroidered shirts, and colorful skirts. Lack of such an important regional accent becomes apparent in men. They were dressed in old jeans, flannel shirts, and faded jackets. On their heads they had felt hats or caps.
The whole village gathered in a central location in the middle of the camp. Wrapped in a white scarf was the decorated Barra panicle. At the meeting, the mayor began a speech about the unity of the village and the water in the stream. In the end, no one bothered us in the documentation of the rituals. After the speech ended, with a thunderous applause, Reeve spoke on the shared responsibility to clean up the stream.
The previously prepared list of men were divided into two groups and assigned each role so. At the end, one of the elders, on a flat stone, brought the smoldering incense Rehidor'owi gave them, added the incense on a stick three times, and finally the incense rose above his head towards the top of Mismi while he was murmuring incomprehensible words. I was impressed. After the ceremonies, the men went to their groups. Each of them was holding a shovel in his hand. At the command of captains, they went up over the stream towards the snow-capped peak of Mismi.
I hid a camera in my backpack and walked in their footsteps. Not being able to keep the pace, I was behind. The altitude and fatigue made me feel like my whole body broke into a cold sweat. I stopped to rest.
In the place where the river took its origin from a glacier, men were standing in a narrow bed of the river, reclaiming stones and mud to strengthen the walls. Above them hung the silent melody of the songs chanted. The captain of the shore watching the progress of work, after a while on his character and all passed on to the next section of the stream.
At the same time, a few miles downstream, the elders began the "Holy Water" rites. James, with a bag slung over his shoulder, plucked corn. He watched them very carefully and chose only the meanest of the grain. While mincing his fingers and blowing on them, he put them on the stone tray called a Sarmar. He added the coca leaves, fragrant herbs, and the sulloi fat tissue which is slightly vikunii. The prepared tray was given to the assistant Pahe, who carried it to the elders sitting near the rocks. Each of them pulling off their caps from their heads, they blow on the gifts while whispering a prayer. After that, Pahe put them into the fire. When the gifts had undergone charring, standing wine was poured over the fire in all directions.
After censing Barry and the prayers, Pahe went to stand near the fire. Under it, he pulled the gifts left here a year ago. There were three bottles, the wine, "water of Mismi", and the "bad water". Once again, he put his hand into the mouth and on the stone were a bird skeleton and corn. After combustion of the corn, water, and wine, Samar began a long ceremony for filling bottles, beautification of the fat, herbs, and coca leaves, the imposition of fat on the skeleton of the bird, and trimmed two corn cobs and coca leaves. After censing and reciting the formula, Pahe put all the gifts of the cavity and then set on it a little apacheta. A few hours on the first day, ceremonies came to an end. Now it was just a five-mile trek down the slopes up to the camp.
The camp was abuzz. Roberto took us to the natives, who had just stirred the soup in a huge pot placed over a fire. In the dense yellowish broth, swam several varieties of potatoes, corn, and the chicken. The soup is drawn with a ladle and poured into metal bowls.
The soup tasted great. At the end we had the left leg of a young chicken. As soon as I put it in, I felt the sweet taste of blood. Of course, at an altitude of nearly 4000 m above sea level, nothing could continue cooking well. I did not dare to continue consuming the chicken so I gave it to a wandering dog.
I was awakened by a blast of freezing wind that rushed into our tent. I poked my head outside where silence reigned. The camp was still asleep. The whole area was covered with a carpet of frost. Huddled around bonfires the family slept, covered with wool blankets. The natives survived the night in landfills, which protected them from the cold blasts of wind.
I went to a nearby moraine in the east as it began to brighten. In the valley, where they sat down in Collowayas, vapor mist mingled with the smoke of bonfires. After wards, the slopes of the mountains faded out the morning light of dawn and just hid in the deep recesses of shadows. Lady of the Night Quilla was the ruler of Inti.
Only now I realized that I'm witnessing history. Here on the slopes of the sacred mountain for the people, Collowayas celebrate the dedication and sacrifice of ancient rituals to uphold traditions. They do not heed the hardships of camp life, and like their ancestors centuries ago, they follow the trail along the creek to bow to the gods of nature Tayta Mismi, Cochamamie, and Pachamamie and honor them and beg the favor of a good harvest. The Zpewnić life-giving stream that never dried up is what amounted to the death of the village.
I made some nice shots and went back to camp. Suspended over a fire pot and black with soot, water was already bubbling. The native Young pulled out a handful of dried coca leaves from a bag and threw them into the boiling water. These are corn tortillas with fillings.
Most of the men were already done with lunch and met around the ground. Barry, the mayor began the morning meeting speech as men stood in two groups, upright listening intently. The mayor pointed out the many shortcomings in cleaning the stream, rebuked some for refusing to work, and explained responsibility.
The sun was already high when the incensing ceremony began. Sitting on a rock and sipping hot tea, I watched the preparations for the march. Of course in this work, dominated the women who brought mules and horses that run wild through the night grazing in the nearby hills. Women rolled blankets on the ground and curled their belongings into them. Pots, dishes, some clothes were put into baskets which the horses and mules were burdened with. They extinguished the fire.
The sound of the laughter was accompanied by continuous provocation preparations. Suddenly someone's spoke the password and the caravan moved forward. Prior to each family, heavy animals went rushing followed by the women. A long caravan of color stood out against the desert landscape of a single-color sierra which was sparkled with the rays of the sun.
The huge monolith stood like a sentinel in a place where a small mountain stream fell into the river Yanki. In its shadow, a burning fireplace roared in celebration. Laying on the stone was a tray of corn. When I got there, Pahe was in the prominent place at the wall of the monolith. When he finished, he put the tray down and began to dig. Under a thin layer, he placed a stone slab. He pushed her under it and they laid next to one another.
It is only now that a small cavity appeared. He turned and asked for Barre, which set the aperture and then censed its interior. From the mouth, he pulled three dark lumps. They were rancid remnants of lam figurines made of fat vicunii. Everyone just looked at them trying to read information stored on them skillfully. Bardzo had formed this Jamas lam figurines to decorate them with seeds of herbs and golden crumbs. The resulting was three small images of llamas placed on hand-woven material called manta, and given to the Elders. After that, they censed them and put them into the pit.
When the last of the elders finished censing, the celebrant looked at me and I had the honor Incensing Barry. Pahe gave me a burning Sarmar of carbides. When he added to them, herbal smoke burst with a vengeance. I felt pleasant warmth in his hands, hovering around a pleasant smell, he went to the celebrant, who was holding his head high above the Barre. I looked into the distance, the horizon sparkled on the glaciers of unknown peaks. The air was crystal clear. I bowed my head and censed a staff three times.
Not far from here a few years ago there was a fight for water. Farmers from the village Coporague had there channel stopped and brought water to their village surrounding the plot. Dispute could not soothe the talks and it escalated to a fight. Launched in from a slingshot, a stone fatally wounded one of the Yankis. Ultimately, however, the dispute was up to the residents of Yank. Every year, during the 'holy water' ceremony, the whole village remembers the brave native who gave his life for the biggest treasure of the village: water. At night, two huge bonfires were lit in the camp. Everyone brought something to share with their neighbors. Mainly it was the chicha in clay and wineskins. They cooked over a fire and a low percentage of the alcoholic beverages were from potato flour.
Because of the decreasing temperature, more and more people went to the fire. They began shouting into the air, singing, and dancing. The blood in their veins was under the influence of alcohol. Chicha was singing and dancing and all destroyed and shattered walls, and the unity of the village was maintained.
The cold morning mist still hung over the tent, while on the outside calling could be heard. We searched for Roberto and spoke to the sleepy Zbyszek. After a moment his head appeared again, this time with concern in his voice. Roberto disappeared.
I jumped out of my warm sleeping bag. Outside, a group of people followed in all possible directions. As Roberto learned, a group of friends was playing late into the night. Well after midnight, Roberto said he was going to go and since then no one had seen him. The night was cold as evidenced by the still ice-bound Mayor Sam who said with concern in his voice, "If you fell asleep somewhere, intoxicated with alcohol, you could not survive the night and will freeze." After two hours of exhortations, the Mayor finally announced the cessation of further research.
Today was the last day of the "Holy Water" celebration.
All women were at breakfast as soon as possible in order to go down to the village Yank to prepare for tonight's fiesta. Men had to approach the place where there was a major source of stream Yank.
Just before, someone was spotted heading out on the slope of a nearby mountain. The silhouette became even more familiar the closer it was to the camp. It's Roberto; someone found him and he was alright. The silhouette was Roberto, who, after yesterday's game had the idea to visit his uncle who lived nearby. So glad his uncle's nephew that gave him some llamas visited. It is a burden that is still dripping blood as Roberto carried it on his back.
A trickling mountain stream led us to where the chasm in the rocky moraine was.
The trumpets and beating drums make me turn my head. Coming up to the source, were two groups of men. They marched in single file evenly on both sides of the stream. The first one carried a banner. At the Mayor’s sign, the young man entered the stream, soon joined by a second. Standing in the water, they began to decorate it with flowers. They took out the folded flat stones and repeated this step eleven times because there were so many stone pairs. Midfielder put them on the embroidered tablecloth.
At the same time, among the elders, two silver cups combined with decorative chain were standing. One was filled with wine, the other with water. Each was dropped after drinking a few drops of either wine or water.
As I learned later, the ritual at this point is assigned to only one family from the village, namely only the male branch. From father to son, the duty of caring for these stones is passed down. The young man made some formula, he took off with the first pair and the upper stone lying beneath sprinkled white powder, put a couple of the coca leaves in, and covered it. He was alternately sipping wine with the water and splashing it around to repeat this process until all the stones had disappeared in the recesses of rocks. At the end of a censing, he was beating the source and out of the creek.
After two hours of walking from the source, we went into a huge valley, almost perfectly flat. The center informed me Roberto was scheduled football game. I did not think this was possible at an altitude of about 4000m above sea level which has a scarcity of oxygen. You can’t run or even play, yet the court was determined. Stones were used as pillars. Seats for the audience were a nearby moraine. With both groups ready, captains chose teams and started the match.
Before the end of the first half, Roberto approached us and told that is was the time we went down to the village. We went across the great slabs of rock, crossed the small ravines, and climbed to another record. After an hour's march, we saw the hut village of Yank in the bottom of the valley. We left the stream on the right side and started to walk down a path that ran through the terraced plots. We walked across a small hill and found ourselves at the 20 meter waterfall.
Here, in the square drainage ditches, women were waiting in their best clothes. In their hands, they gripped the huge flat heart-shaped pastry topped with wreaths of leaves. It was to be an award for the most distinguished personages of the village.
In the distance sailed a trumpet, a sign of the approaching men. The elders, who arrived here not long after us, came to a small lagoon formed by the waterfall.
Barre was immersed in it and someone threw flowers. They brought smoking incense. The sound of drums began a parade in which the whole village took part, even a squad of soldiers from a nearby garrison. The orchestra was playing, banners were borne in front, the cross and Barr, which are elements of old beliefs connected with the present.
The fiesta began to take up the whole night. Chicha was pouring in torrents. Mayor Sam, accompanied by two older honored "Hearts", which hung on his chest, came up to me with a liter jug of chicha. At that moment I could not refuse, I had to pour it in myself. My head began to hum. Dances, music, singing, and everything began to circulate to form a whole. I sat on the grass and leaned against the trunk of an old tree. I fell asleep.
Text and phtos: Edward J. Bochnak