One River and the Deer

On the path from Pisac to Cusco, Peru

Charlie and I returned to Arequipa after our trek through Colca Canyon. In the city Charlie and I shared a dormitory room with Andre, a Colombian vagabond. One of the most eccentric and animated individuals I have met in my travels.  Andre shared tales from his journeys and tips for how to get by with no money. Living on the road Andre managed to pay for bus tickets, booze, beds, and food by selling crafts made out of recycled cardboard. He discussed his experiences trading classes in recycled craft making with food vendors at markets for bowls of soup. Andre’s passion is teaching poor schoolchildren how to make money by constructing and selling belts and wallets. This skinny, Columbian traveler radiated an eccentric, yet genuine freeness as a human being.  He seemed truly untethered and possessed the placid outlook of someone already liberated from the bindings and monotony of daily routine.

From Arequipa Charlie and I caught a night bus to Cusco. As the bus climbed high into the Andes, I awoke to the realization that there would be no heat on board and that I would have nothing but the shirt on my back to keep me warm. I shivered through the night, balled up in my seat as we slowly passed down the one lane dirt road. We frequently lurched to a stop behind long lines of red brake lights, as the freezing rain began to ice over the windows. The night later gave way to a cool, damp morning as the bus descended down into a lush agricultural valley. While in the U.S. the highway infrastructure is extensive and elaborate, it seems that in Ecuador and Peru, one high-narrow mountain pass is all that connects most major population centers.

No exit ramp from the freeway marked our entrance to the Cusco.  Rather the highway gradually slowed as the sprawling city steadily clogged the once empty road. We entered the congested edges of Cusco around nine in the morning, and got off the bus.  We then immediately departed the city on a colectivo bound for the small market town of Pisac.  We arrived in Pisac around noon and made our way to the hectic town center. It was Sunday, the market day the town is famous for. Craft vendors had set up a sea of stalls from which they hawked beautiful textiles, hats, bags, ancient artifacts, figurines, and other local goods. The central square was lined with outdoor food stalls selling choclo con queso (a large kernelled variety of corn with a slice of fresh cheese), typical plates of roasted potatoes, stuffed peppers and chicken, and frothy mugs of a Pepto Bismal-colored beverage. Within the square was a maze of piles of produce and bulk food. We wondered past sacks containing dozens of varieties of potatoes, jars of local honey, bags of spices, kiwis, bananas, mangos, tomatoes, papaya, avocado, onion, freshly baked bread, bags of coca leaves, lime sticks, and innumerable other locally produced items. 

The majority of the tourists from the tour buses milled around the network of craft stands.  Occasionally, the odd foreigner ventured through the food market that existed mainly to serve the more basic needs of the locals who had come to barter for produce and eat lunch at small stalls. The tourists who pointed their Cannon DSLR’s cameras (with huge macro lenses) at the Quechua women surrounded with their sacks of potatoes and coca, clearly considered the spectacle in front of them to be a novelty, almost like a zoo. As I waited to buy a hot pepper that had been breaded and stuffed with cheese a pushy a young Spanish women stepped in front of me and berated the old woman who was busy preparing a plate of food for another customer. The vendor ignored the young women until she was finished with the plate.  The vendor then nodded to the women who had gone ahead of me.  The impatient Spanish woman then helped herself to a plate of peppers and brusquely tossed a coin on the wooden table. Many visitors, it seems, are so caught up in the spectacle of the market that they act as if they believe that the bazaar exists simply for their amusement and gratification. 

I soon made my way into a side street lined with stalls of trinkets. An American man haggled with a local women over the price of an “Inka Kola” tee shirt. “You want ten dollars for this? This shirt isn’t worth ten dollars here, it’s not even worth ten dollars in America!” He barked in exasperation. I noted that tourists either seemed overwhelmed or overly aggressive as they bartered for goods that are so cheap that they would be considered practically free at a store in the United States. As I examined a table containing ancient bone flutes, ceremonial wooden cups, and Inca ax heads, a man passed by video camera in hand, busy in the process of filming everything in his path. He swung the camera in my face before panning down across the table and into the face of the vendor who I had been chatting with before turning down the street.

The expectations of tourists shape the market, and I wonder whether most visitors understand this. Do visitors understand that the women in traditional dress would not be leading their brightly decorated llamas around if it were not for the tips they receive from photographs? Two little girls in traditional dresses each holding tiny lambs inquired whether I would like a picture. I replied no thank you, and I watched as a nearby tourist, a woman, quickly accepted their offer. “Two pictures for a sole, ok?” She said in English as she bent down to pose with the girls.

My experiences and contemplation are eerily reflected in the book One River, which I have been reading in the slower moments between our journeys. The book was written by Wade Davis, a man who was earlier mentored by the famous plant explorer Richard Schultes. The focus of the book by Davis is ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between plants and people. The book describes the adventures of Schultes, Davis, and Tim Plowman (another of Schultes’ students) as they ventured through the northern Andes and Western Amazon identifying and documenting the uses of medicinal, edible, and psychoactive plants. I read about these amazing individuals and their impressions of the vary cities and mountains I had visited two years earlier in Ecuador, the grimy city of Lima, the same rivers I traveled in the Amazon, as well as the city of Cusco and the Sacred Valley.

Through some odd coincidence I often found myself reading passages describing the very places I was then visiting. While in the rain forest I read about local cultures and Amazonian botany. While in Pisac I read about Davis’ own impression of the tourism of the Sacred Valley the 1970’s.  He wrote, “At a corner plaza I came upon a German couple haggling with an old women over the price of a hand-woven belt, intricately detailed with figures in flight. The Germans were unwilling to pay 60 soles, the price then of a cup of coffee in Munich... Just a decade earlier it was common to see herds of llamas being watered at the fountains of the city. Now only the odd one appeared, usually as an attraction for tourists.”

Before leaving school in Vermont, one of my professors recommended that I identify an author to emulate, and through my reading dissect how they constructed and articulated their ideas. Thinking about it, I feel I share a common perspective with Wade Davis, and I feel great gratitude that his book has come into my life. Davis writes poetically and with humor, empathy, and intelligence. He is insightfully critical of many of the forces perpetuating environmental and cultural destruction in South America. He manages to discuss philosophy and recount the intricate details and wisdom of the many isolated cultures of the South America, in a manner that is lively, never dry or cumbersome.

My interest in anthropology and South America stems from a book by another of student of Richard Schultes. I read Tale of  Shaman’s Apprentice by Mark Plotk when I was 16 years old.  I was struck by the idea of indigenous cultures possessing entirely different worldviews and frameworks of existence.  I was disgusted by tales of the exploits of colonial “explorers” with imperialist aims, and I found great inspiration in these travelers and scholars who lived more harmoniously with the world and sought wisdom from the indigenous groups that they met and lived with. Their goal was to acquire knowledge of plants, cultures, and places unknown to the western world, rather than to exploit the labor or resources of indigenous peoples.

Reading Tale of A Shaman’s Apprentice profoundly shaped my interests and trajectory in life. It has surely informed my perspective and expectations as a traveler. I am engaged by the idea of peoples and communities meeting their daily needs without diminishing the bounty of the places in which they live. As I travel I am both fascinated by evidence of sustainable livelihoods as a reality but also struck by signs of the growing disintegration of such ways of living with the land. In the Amazon I began to realize that the anthropology texts that had inspired me might no longer describe the reality of the places I was visiting. I began to see that every moment in the rainforest is impermanent, and that the reality of a forest is often fleeting as trees are felled and land cleared.

In the 1940s, Richard Schultes wrote, “Until the unsavory veneer of western culture surreptitiously introduces the greed, deception and exploitation that so often accompanies the good of ways foreign to these men of the forests, they preserve characteristics that must only be looked upon with envy by modern civilized societies.” Writing like this fed my romantic conceptions of indigenous peoples. Other anthropology texts are more critical however, and one quote from One River in particular highlights an internal conflict that I began to experience as I observed the reality of ongoing destruction in the Western Amazon “As romantics…we idealize a past we never experienced and deny those who knew that past from changing. We forget perhaps the most disturbing lesson of anthropology. As Levi-Strauss said, ‘the people for whom the term cultural relativism was invented, have rejected it.”

As I left the rainforest, I thought about the “untouched” indigenous people of the Amazon that I had yet to see, and hoped that, wherever they were, they understood the immense value of their traditional knowledge of the forest. Even as I begin to gain a more sophisticated understanding of these cultures, I maintain a deep admiration for the descendents of cultures that have lived with the forest for centuries, maintaining their communities in a delicately balanced relationship with nature. They have sought equilibrium during recent centuries, as other human activity has become a force for ecological obliteration.

One River is an academic work that tells the story of botanical discovery, and one comes to see these ethnobotanists actually pursued spirituality as much as science. For many cultures in the Amazon psychoactive plants serve as a window into existence– an intermediary between nature, humans and other plains of existence. Schultes and his students became aware of the significance of the spiritual understanding of the indigenous groups they studied. While ethnographers often attempt to remain disconnected from their subjects, it is clear that the years Schultes and others spent living within indigenous communities and ingesting the sacred plants of South America had a profound effect on their view of reality and the world of plants. Davis quotes the anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff, who described ayahuasca (a psychoactive brew made from a rainforest linea), “[T]o drink yage…is to return to the cosmic uterus and be reborn. It is to tear through the placenta of ordinary perception and enter realms where death can be known and life traced through sensation to the primordial source of existence.”

I am interested in the connection between spirituality and cultural conceptions of the environment.  Insights into the worldview of isolated cultures mesmerize me. Descriptions of the beliefs of groups like the Inca have informed my interactions with wild places, such as mountain lakes and passes. As Charlie and I ventured to a high Inca ruin known as Huchuy Qosqo, Davis’ reflections on Inca spirituality and masonry formations transformed my view of the massive stone structures surrounding us. “When the Inca mason placed his hands on rock, he did not feel cold granite, he sensed life, the power and resonance of the earth within the stone. Its transformation into a perfect ashlar or a block of polygonal masonry was service to the Incas and thus a gesture to the gods, and for such a task, time had no meaning…if the stones were dynamic, it was only because they were part of the land, of Pachamama.”

Charlie and I continued above the ruins on an ancient trail constructed by the Inca, through a narrow gorge filled with sheep and a cool crystalline creek cascading over rocks. After climbing four thousand feet above the village of Lamay and the valley floor, we reached a high mountain pass that looked out over a valley of golden páramo, within which an azure mountain lake was cradled. I had read about conceptions of the spiritual energy of the high Andes but until that moment I had not fully felt or understood what Davis meant, “ For the people of the Andes, the earth is alive, and every wrinkle on the landscape, every hill and outcrop, each mountain and stream has a name and is imbued with ritual significance. The high peaks are addressed as Apu, meaning lord. …Other sacred places, a cave or a mountain pass, a waterfall where the rushing water speaks as an oracle are honored as the Tirakuna. These are not spirits dwelling within landmarks; rather, the reverence is for the actual place itself.”

We descended to the lake, and set up camp at 14,000 feet among the ruins of an old stockade. The air began to chill as the sunset, and a group of villagers came past, driving llamas, cows, and sheep down a worn trail. Before I fell asleep, I stepped out of my tent and witnessed a ghostly landscape around me. The valley shimmered in shades of grey as the full moon cast shadows from the rocky walls that surrounded the tent.

In the morning we awoke with the expectation of hiking to Cusco.  We had hoped to ask directions from one of the local shepherds. But at eight in the morning with the valley still deserted, and Charlie feeling ill, we decided to rely on our compass and a basic map. Of course, the trails of Andes were not created recreation use.  Rather, they are the lifelines that connect isolated villages to the outside world. These paths are the only means of transport in regions lacking roads and cars. Often they are difficult to decipher and navigate. We climbed up a rough trail over another high pass, marked by two cairns of rock. We gazed across the horizon and the numerous folds of the ridges. No clear path led down into the valley, but with no better option we chose to drop into the deserted basin. We followed a dried up riverbed as the valley sides tightened until they became walls of a steep gorge. Charlie began to feel even weaker, and we paused on the edge of the dry creek bed and rested as I considered whether we should turn back or keep faith with the notion that the creek would wind it’s way down to the valley of Cusco.

I became hypnotized by the wind swept sky of torn storm clouds passing over us, absorbed by the high ridges encasing us on both sides. The sounds of pebbles falling from above roused me. I craned my neck upward expecting a rockslide. Instead, an animal, a deer, was climbing up the steep scrub in great vertical leaps. It passed behind a boulder and emerged with the sight of its magnificent antlers sending a shot of adrenaline through my body. The deer scrambled higher and higher in graceful and powerful bounds over the scrub and loose rock. Pausing, the buck stared back down the gorge at us. Then it turned and was gone.

Stunned, I contemplated whether the leaping deer had been an apparition. Soon, I was snapped back into the reality and necessity of finding water and a reliable path forward. We decided to continue down into the steep gulch and scrambled downward into the dried bed of a creek. We passed under branches thick with thorns and down ledges of waterfalls. Upon reaching a precipice twice our height we were then forced to look for a way to climb up the walls of the gorge. We began to scramble upwards. I slipped as my hand wrapped around tufts of golden grass that offered the only handhold in sight. It was clear that if either of us lost our footing we would tumble all the way down to the creek bed. Neither climbing a thousand feet up the wall of the gorge, nor continuing downward over the waterfall and running the risk of being pinned even farther below in the waterless gulch, seemed reasonable. Our only alternative appeared to be backtracking for hours up the steep valley, to the high pass, and to our old campsite of the night before. I felt as if we were trapped in a hellish conundrum.

And so we began the arduous journey back to the lake. Once over the pass and thoroughly exhausted, with the rain beginning to fall, we decided to follow the path where we had observed the shepherds leading their alpacas the night before. While the slopes of páramo had appeared as “hills” in the distance they were in reality thousand foot mountains. The immensity of the landscape had fooled and humbled us again. After several hours of walking our track turned into a road of volcanic sand, and we arrived at the outskirts of a village of destitute appearance.

A woman stood within an enclosure of stone walls. I inquired in Spanish the name of the village. Her response was unintelligible to me, and we walked closer as she ran to the gate. She spoke rapidly in words that I was unable to decipher. I realized she was speaking Quechua. She began to make the gesture of eating as she began to say “pan, pan, pan”. I understood and inquired whether she wanted food. I handed her a large wheel of brown bread and a block of cheese, and we continued down the narrow path of rough cobbles. Never had I felt such an intensity of human necessity. In a daze, we passed through the village, guarded by barking dogs and down a path where raw sewage made each step treacherously slick. We crossed paths with a man. We stopped and shook hands. He seemed utterly surprised by our presence but then kindly pointed the way to a village that we knew from our map. Three lambs led our way down a more established path. Charlie was sick and now appeared as if he was on his last legs. Late in the afternoon we arrived in the larger village of Patabamba. We managed to hitch a ride from a passing car and just in time. Charlie later remarked, “That spot is where I would have collapsed”. A half hour later, utterly exhausted, we arrived back in Pisac.

A few days later, we made our way back to Cusco and picked up our good friend Evan Karge at the airport. We organized our gear and left the next morning on a five day rafting trip down the Apurimac River. We had been invited by a Peruvian guide to join a group of river guides on a trip down the Black Canyon. As we floated down the river, lovely periods of tranquility were interrupted by stretches of sharp intensity and gusts of adrenaline as we passed through class four and five rapids. Exiting one stretch of white water we dropped into enormous hole that jammed our guide’s ore into his ribcage and launched him out of the raft. The guide struggled to stay above the water as one of the accompanying kayakers paddled to pull him to shore. Ashore, the guide gasped for air and was in great pain. Yet, he continued to guide our raft for the next three days with what later turned out to be two fractured and one wholly broken ribs. Our guide was sure that if his life jacket had not softened the blow that the shaft of the oar would have gone straight through his abdomen.

Yet, despite occasional danger, there was peacefulness. Days passed and the magic of this isolated place and river began to settle over us. The river proved to be the only means of accessing this entirety of a hidden wonderland. The last evening on the river, we camped on a sandy beach, surrounded by the high walls of granite cliffs. Sitting around the campfire our guide cracked open a beer and poured some on the ground and whispering “Apu, pachamama” as he stared up at the high peak above. His offering to the Incan spirits illustrated his spiritual connection to the land, a connection that too often seems absent from the culture I grew up in. He explained that Apurímac means “speaker god”, Apu being the supreme spirit of the land, and speaker referring to the sound of the raging rapids.

Tired from the day of hard paddling among those rapid, under the scorching sun, I retreated to my sleeping bag. Under the starry sky I opened One River. As I read the final chapter I learned of Wade Davis’s own journey down the Apurímac River. Invited by his friend, a skilled white water guide, Davis made his way down the treacherous river collecting plants and marveling at the remote canyon and boiling rapids. A shiver ran down my spine as I read. Just as our journey down the Apurímac was coming to a close, so had the travels described in Davis’ book. As we made our way back to Cusco I pondered the power of these ethnobotanists’ written stories and the improbability of the way in which Wade Davis’s words had so poetically paralleled and foreshadowed my own journey of the past month.

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