“Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”
I awaken after a night of intense shivering attacks in the tent. It is, after all, close to 5 thousand meters in altitude here at the makeshift pilgrimage town of Qoylluriti on Ocangate mountain. The air is thin enough to make me hyperventilate while trying to keep warm in the sleeping bag. And yet, outside sleep thousands of pilgrims with nothing on them but plastic sheets or ponchos. I see a woman huddled behind our tent who has no shoes on, lying on the ground and completely without protection. What are these people made of? Their fortitude both amazes us and humbles us, we who are five of a very small number of non-Quechua speaking participants in this ancient festival of the snow (Qoyllu) and of the star (Riti).Getting here had not been easy of course but that was expected. What I had not counted on was the power of what I was about to experience. The wave had hit me.
Amnon, our Israeli cinematographer, was awake in the tent too and we both soon realised we had to get moving. The glacier had three huge crucifixes on it and when the sun hit them with its first piercing rays the festival would climax.The previous night had been spent at the bottom of the mountain where truckloads of pilgrims were arriving from all over Peru. It felt like a wild west town full of horses, dust, and hastily assembled stalls selling everything a pilgrim might want for the journey up the holy mountain. Arriving at midnight from Pisac we were told it was customary to start the hike at dawn. My four companions had thus decided to sleep in our vehicle where space was very limited and I knew for certain I would not get a wink. It was therefore a good time to see if my rental sleeping bag was really fit for minus 10 degrees centigrade. So I rolled it out behind the white van we had rented in Pisac to get out there. The smell of human excrement lightly pervaded the entire area. People were singing and dancing, drinking tea and diligently preparing all around despite the fact that it was past midnight. On this pilgrimage singing and dancing are central to one's prayers to the Lord of the star and the snow. In ancient days that Lord had been a great overseeing mountain spirit. Now it was Jesus Christ. I had bad dreams that night. There was some kind of sleep too though.The smell may have been responsible for the visions of very nasty entities coming to get me...tough shit.
Thankfully our film equipment was on a horse's back and not ours. By the time we had left the ramshackle village of 'pilgrim's progress' services and had a view down on to it from a few hundred meters it was clear we would suffer the effects of high altitude. Walking with a back pack, fully clothed and covered in my trusty poncho that had seen so many years of previous action in Peru, I soon realised that though the path was not overly steep it most certainly led higher and higher. That was the point. That meant that breathing got harder and harder. Around us , behind us and ahead of us hundreds and then thousands walked. They walked with children. They walked with grandparents. They walked in rubber tires cut into shoes.
Some carried kitchen equipment or huge drums for the diverse ceremonies. All shared the copper brown skin, solid white teeth and thick black hair that every Quechua speaker is in natural born possession of. I mused that black was not the original colour of humans but rather this - what the American plains Indians had shared in genetic background for millenia and what the whites had called 'redskin'. It was a decidedly haunting colour for me. It was so much more realistic on this mountain than my own pale skin colour. The sun, when it did come up was obviously going to be very intense. Meanwhile, it was the pilgrim's job to focus on that most simple and difficult process called 'one step at a time'. We would get there. We all would. Nobody would get left behind for sure so it was simply a matter of time. We had that.
This was not a race, but a procession towards a simple kind of glory that most of we so called advanced nations have long abandoned as nievety. How could a pilgrimage, a simple procession up to a glacier accompanied with much fanfare, really have any impact on reality, on our health, our finances or our homes? Our sense of the magical seems to have atrophied to the point of cryogenic stillness. In short we are fast forgetting the power of the human heart wherein that most mysterious of all entities, the soul, most certainly appears to dwell. It was the energy of that heart, multiplied by what I estimated at 20-30,000 pilgrims, that was to propel the wave that hit me from the glacier. It was a wave of something very rarely felt and even more rarely reported. It was that wave of energy that humans can produce at certain times in certain places when they remember who they are. It was a wave that had no location in space or in time. Call it love. It hit and I buckled. And we got it on film..