Featured writer: Susan Butterfly Stone
That was the one word the young Peruvian man beside me said as we started the climb down from Don Alonzo’s casita on the outskirts of Cuzco, late at night, on our last day in Peru. Looking down at the street 100 feet below, in the pitch black darkness, with just a small flashlight to illumine the narrow and sometimes near-vertical steps, my fear of sheer drops made confidence hard to muster.
The day had started by breaking camp early, high up on Apu Ausangate, one of seven holy mountains in the Sacred Valley, and the trip down to Cuzco had taken the whole day. One horse, two feet, and two buses later, at 8 pm, dusty, grimy, and dead tired, we arrived at the casita for an apu calling, a rare and sacred event.
Rare, because there existed only a handful of altomesayoqs able to perform one. Altomesayoqs are shamans with the “high mesa power”, those able to communicate with the male spirits, or apus, who the native Indians, the Quechua, believe live in the holy mountains. Sacred, because during the ceremony you are in the physical presence of the apus, manifesting in the form of great birds, their voices and the flapping of their wings so close you could touch them.
The apus chastised us for coming to them in such a state; next time, we should be more rested, they said. Yet they shared their wisdom, and Don Alonzo made a beautiful despacho (a ceremonial prayer bundle) afterwards, without compare. So, dazed from the day and the apu calling, I held onto my young guide’s hand and put my feet where he put his on the steps, as I had done often in the previous two weeks with other guides, and safely reached the street.
And in the days and months that followed, I’ve thought often of his one word to me: confidence. How it wove through my time in Peru, and how it weaves through my life now. And how the Quechua learn confidence early there; they need it to survive, literally.
There is no faking it in the high mountains. You either climb the rockfaces or you fall; you either wrest your food from the rocky soil, coming into ayni (the Quechua concept of right relationship) with Pachamama, the Earth Mother, or you don’t eat; you either learn to have faith in yourself so that you may be of service to others, or the whole tribe suffers. You learn where to put your own two feet to stay alive. There is no room for fear, no room for excuses, on those narrow rocks.
Yet the apus are wide and Pachamama is strong, and if you have confidence, they will support your every step with all of their being. They will.
Perhaps that’s why altomesayoqs are so rare; what a supreme act of confidence it must be to call down the apus into physical form, to come into pure relationship with them for a few minutes so that they can manifest their spirits into voices, and guide us along.
Then it comes to me: we could all be altomesayoqs, if only we would come into ayni with ourselves, believe in ourselves, develop our confidence, support ourselves. Know that we are supported, and watch our dreams manifest as if carried on the wings of great birds. We would be solid as rocks.