SPIRITS OF THE MOUNTAINS

Locals believe that the snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains are inhabited by the Apus, Spirits of the Mountains. Each with individual characteristics, Apus are called upon for assistance, blessings, and protection. This is my experience of one such ceremony.

Oswaldo swung by my Cuzco office in a rented station wagon right on time. I was immediately overcome by a wave of nerves and excitement as I raced down the stairs to meet him. It was a bright and sunny day, the snow capped peaks were glimmering in the distance and this was to be the day I had dreamt of for years.

I met Oswaldo on New Years Eve 2009 and we became instant friends. He was Peruvian, had spent the past 7 years living in Norway, and had returned to Cuzco to be with his family for the holidays. Over the course of two weeks we were next to inseparable. He picked me up from work to lunch on ceviche and cerveza. In the evenings we’d head to a restaurant overlooking the main plaza to dine, pizza for him and trout for me. One day we drove out into the country side, passing ancient Inca ruins, big air-conditioned tourist buses, and herds of sheep, blasting cheesy Spanish music and singing to our hearts delight. He pulled over, threw me the keys and I took the wheel, driving through tall stands of Eucalyptus and tiny villages as we watched the sun disappear behind the misty blue mountains that surrounded us.  On weekends we danced until the sun came up and when his friends showed up from Norway we travelled by train to show them Machu Picchu and its nearby hot springs. By this time I’d spent many years living, working, travelling and tour guiding in Peru that I’d been to Machu Picchu too many times to count, but it still never ceased to amaze me.

Today was different. Our first stop was the market that he navigated with expert familiarity in our search of flowers, candles and incense which were customary offerings for the shaman.  Next we swung by his house to pick up his mother Olimpia; sweet and petite with white hair and sparkling eyes. We arrived at our destination on time for our 3pm appointment and waited. Overcome by an onslaught of excitement and nerves, I’d dreamt of this moment for more than eight years. Olimpia calmed my butterflies by patting my hand, telling me to have faith and not to be afraid.

In the Quechua language of the Andes, “Apu” refers to a Spirit of the Mountains. Locals believe in every snow capped peak and mountain exist an Apu – each with individual characteristics and personalities that they call upon in ceremonies for assistance, blessings, and protection.

I had first heard of Apus eight years prior while sitting in a coffee shop in Toronto, reading a book about a western woman’s account of her experience in Peru. It left me intrigued and curious to know more. Most Peruvians in the mountain regions believe in the existence of Apus but first hand experience is rare. It is common for people living in and around Cuzco to engage in ceremonies called ‘pagos’ which are offerings to the Apus for abundant harvests before planting, for protection before starting out on long journeys, and in the hopes of having a happy home life before constructing their houses. I’d already participated in countless ceremonies to invoke the spirits of the surrounding mountains, but this was to be my first experience of getting up close and personal. These small ceremonies take place in homes hidden from the mainstream population and not generally open to or known of by westerners. The purpose of this type of ceremony is for those seeking guidance and support directly from the Apus. Visitors come bearing gifts in exchange for their words of wisdom.

Over the years I had heard accounts from a few Peruvians friends of their experiences with the Apus.

Vicente, my favourite Inca Trail guide, told me that when he was six, he went with his mother to seek guidance from the Apus. In the sliver of light that entered the room he witnessed large birds (about the size of a Canadian Goose) with human heads speaking to the dark room filled with people sitting on wobbly wooden benches. This was the same description given by the western woman in the book I’d read previously so when I heard Vincente’s account my heart leapt from my chest with excitement.

Aquiles recounted a story on the first night that we met of how his mother was a severe skeptic until she invited “El Papa”, the Priest, to her house in the countryside where she knew no tricks could be played. Once they called upon the Apus, the sound of wings flapping came from high above them and then landed on the table with thud. In the darkness the Apus asked his mother what her tears were for. Aquiles who was holding her hand didn’t know that she was crying. In the end the Apus consoled her by producing the treasured rock of her deceased husband. His story gave me chills.

Another friend recounted the sound of Apus flipping off beer caps and devouring food that had been given as offerings, but when the light was switched on at the end of the ceremony, all beer caps were intact and the food untouched. Strange.

I’d dreamt of this moment for years and it had finally come. Oswaldo, Olimpia, and I stood outside in the sunshine waiting. Finally the door opened and an old woman came out wearing a big traditional skirt and a white top hat with two long braids cascading down her back tied together at her waist.  To me she appeared to be in her mid to late 80s and moved at a snails pace down the stairs and then disappeared down the street. Our turn had come.

As we entered the room to where we were to receive the ceremony, I was immediately overcome by the thick smell of incense and sweet-smelling flowers.  Surprisingly and not surprisingly, the shaman appeared to be an ordinary guy wearing a flashy Hawaian shirt. He got up from his white plastic chair in the corner of the room to greet us and introduced himself as Cesar.

The room was small, dark and made of adobe, with pictures and paintings of Jesus, Mary, saints and angels.  Crucifixes hung all around and on the floor were big vases full of beautiful arrangements of flowers, offerings from previous visitors.  Beside the chair where Cesar sat was a wooden table acting as an altar covered with more bouquets of flowers, bottles of coca cola, beer, candles and incense.

Oswaldo and his mother sat on a wooden bench opposite the altar, making space for me in the middle.  The door was shut and a heavy wool blanket was hung over the door making it so dark I couldn’t see the tip of my nose.

Cesar, Oswaldo and Olimpia began by reciting a prayer in Spanish. The only thing I could think to do was to say the Our Father in my head, still etched in my memory from my elementary school days.  We sat in complete darkness and within minutes the loud sound of wings flapping overhead followed by loud thuds sounded on the table in front of us.  They had arrived. The first Apu introduced himself as the Apu of Salcantay.  He greeted and welcomed us and began by speaking to Oswaldo by saying that all would be well for him in his travels back to Europe. The Apu said that he had visited a doctor in Norway who would help him with his health issues and that he would be protected.  With a few good belly laughs and advice for Oswaldo, it was my turn to speak.

I explained that I had spent the last three years in Canada raising money through events and campaigns in order to find a house or a piece of land to build a home for children from poor families in Cuzco. After months of searching, I had been unable to find something suitable and in our price range.  The Apu of Salcantay listened and then called for another Apu to help me. Within seconds the tremendous sound of flapping wings and again a loud thud sounded on the table. He had arrived – an Apu named el Doctor de la Suerte, the Doctor of Luck. Yes this was actually happening. With a higher pitched voice, the second Apu presented himself and thanked me for my big heart and the work I had been doing to help the children of Cuzco. He told me that he would help me find a beautiful house for the kids and help me be successful in all my efforts in Peru. They told me that they would have news for me within three days and that I should return on Saturday.

Finally a third Apu appeared with flapping wings, loud steps and a deep old voice. He was there to answer the questions of Olimpia who broke down in tears asking for them to care for her family, to guide Oswaldo on his way back to Europe and to bring him back to Peru soon.  I rubbed her back in the darkness hoping to comfort her at least a little.

In a blur of nerves and excitement I remember all of us laughing. They were funny, all three cracking jokes, making me feel comfortable in this totally foreign situation.  When we all said what we came to say, the Apus bid us farewell.

Time with Oswaldo flew and the morning after our visit with the Apus, he departed to Chile before heading back to his life in Norway. Two days after our visit with the Apus, I picked up the local flyer to find the description of a property that was exactly what I had spent the past several years searching for. The amount?  $150,000 USD which was the exact amount raised in our fundraising efforts.

When Saturday came instead of going back to see Cesar and the Apus as they requested, I was on a flight up to Ecuador for a last minute work assignment. So while it’s difficult to say whether I whole heartedly believe that it was the Apus that spoke to me, or whether Cesar was actually a talented ventriloquist cheating believers out of 20 soles, bouquets of flowers, bottles of coke, beer, candles and incense – what I do know for a fact is that after years of planning events and campaigns to raise the funds, innumerable visits to falling down houses, properties and land in and around Cuzco – two days after my visit to the Apus our dream house appeared.  The exhaustive search that had taken years of blood, sweat and tears to accomplish was finally complete.

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