Shamanic Verses On the Lake Titicaca
July 25th, 2006
I didn't expect to be sitting on a starlit ledge with an Andean
Shaman for a midnight meditation, but there are stranger places
than Lake Titicaca for this to occur. In truth, I was on a short
excursion from La Paz to meet other travelers on this world's
highest lake (3,802m --12,507ft) straddling Bolivia and Peru.
I'd arrived at Copacabana (like Brazil with a beach, but FAR fewer
bikinis), the lake's Bolivian tourist center. I immediately
puttered across the deep blue waters to Isla del Sol, an island
with no roads and a bit of trekking. After waking to sunlight
rays over 21,000 foot mountains on the other side of the lake,
I hit the trail from Yumani, the island's southern village.
Expecting a solitary day across a Greek island landscape, I
was surprised to meet Drew and Marta, two Peru Peace Corps
volunteers on a holiday weekend. We hiked on the island's
scenic crest route, and then snuck off the path for a lunch
on a secluded white rock beach. We parted as they set up
camp with their tent on a small beachside cove.
My plan was to check into a hostel on the north side of the
island, and then return to Yumani for transport back to
Copacabana. But, as I was hiking into the small town of
Challa, a festivity was a-brewin'. The village men donned
ceremonial shoulders of jaguar skins, and the women were
twirling in multiple red, blue, green dresses and Bolivia's
signature bowler hat. Everyone -- as typical in Bolivian
festivals-- had been drinking. I had to stay.
While watching, I struck up a conversation with Roger, a
local who, as I would find out, was very involved in what he
called, "the rise of the ancient traditions" As we both
left the village square and its profuse, sweaty drinking,
he offered to have me join a "concentration" at one of the
island's holy places. What the hell, right? Sure, I wondered
about an invitation to a robbery or worse, but my instinct
said I'd come out okay.
This is my account of the evening, taken from journal
the next morning:
Roger's mood, as I knocked at his family's front door, was
different than our meeting. More serious -- as serious as one
can look in an Andean beanie hat. For an hour and a half,
we sat in his one-room house, wife and daughter first
watching and then snoring on the room's single bed. I
felt uneasy, some paranoid, as he showed me sketches like
a series of Rorschach ink plots. I eventually learned these were
steps to be a warrior of the true light, in tune with the
earth and the traditions of the Incas and their predecessors.
He showed me a small spiral flipbook and showed other disciples
who'd sat with him. I wanted to give this experience every
chance, but I did doubt the veracity of their devotion.
Roger is 24, and though he's devoted much energy to his
spiritual upbringing, does not have the presence of a guru
More notebooks, writings, lucid but not always accurate
(eg Columbus conquering Peru - it was Pizarro), sketches
of a temple of meditation cabins for his like-minded
followers. I like the temple idea -- and wondered if
the French disciple who'd promised to find the $2000 to
build it would come through. Eventually, after the lesson
on warriors and Andean ways, Roger brought out a ceremonial
bag of coca leaves. He blessed them with sharp exhalations
and brought them to his forehead and chest. Four leaves
for each of us in this manner. We inserted them into a
crack in the floor, for Pachamama (the ever-present earth
goddess). I thought we were off to meditate, but the
lesson resumed anew. He explained the essential duality
in Andean traditions of Intki (sun) and Pachamama. And
then about Lake Titicaca's holiness, being the link between
the two at such high elevation. I felt he was stalling,
which turned out to be the case.
He wanted to wait until midnight (it was now 10pm), as
it was more auspicious to leave. I was less than eager
for another 2 hours of wandering lecture, so I pushed
the issue by declaring my roadweariness. Some minutes
later, we left. I followed him outside the village --
the headdress he'd donned resembled a bunny in silhouette.
Over rocks and down a narrow path on the island's
coastline we hopped.
As we passed a rock marking the entrance to an ancient
city (now submerged), he checked the coca leaves.
Good fortune, so we continued. Just a few turns
further, we arrived at a nearly level slope of grass
and a sitting rock perched on a ledge. He sat down,
in front, putting on a classic Bolivian poncho, careful
not to disturb his feather headdress. I sat down in
front, posture of a pupil. The stars stood out behind
his dark form, with small lights peeking through the
headdress from Challapampa, another lakeside village.
Small waves from the lake broke 30 feet below.
We took more coca, chewing the leaves slowly, and
he led me through movements that cupped the night
in our palms. We stood up at this point -- I
copied him as he began to kick and punch the air
violently. Then, he had me close my eyes with arms
outstretched and head inclined towards the bright
milky way (I looked once or twice.) Behind me and
in front, he was in motion. I heard the sounds of
the water, boars grunting, and the flapping of feathers.
Amidst the auditory chaos, I could barely concentrate.
Suddenly, as I found calm, he pounced, arms around me.
I startled, but not badly, and tried to follow as he
inclined me backwards towards the sky, supporting my
back from below.
After this, I was to stand up, arms at my side, as
he crouched and flapped his arms under the poncho
(later, I found out this was channeling a condor --
bird of the sun). All I saw of it was the silhouette
-- dark against the bi-tonal seam of the lake and the
stars. He seemed a spirit, and with his approach,
I felt a blackness more primeval than sinister (but
still freaky.) He moved close, and suddenly went
into spasm, shaking everywhere and collapsing in a
Then, my turn to move kinetic. I'm
more than a little skeptical that Pachamama liked
my improvisation combo of Tai Chi and our samba
warm-up. But I kept moving, partly for warmth. The
night air, at altitude, is "not warm" despite our
beachside perch. Roger began to play an Andean flute,
melancholy but sweet. Though I didn't feel the
energy he had hoped for, I couldn't help but feel
it was a privilege to trace out the stars between
my fingers to this music.
The haunting, peaceful melody gave way to a
chanting in Aymara (Incan language) as I sat
down in front of him. The shadow of the seated
man in front of me was sharp and severe --
striking against the night sky. On a lark, I
wished for a shooting star and a long bright
streak sliced down across the sky to his left
within seconds. A holy moment, for me at least.
We sat for a long time in silence. Meditation
more typical for me than animalistic channeling.
This pause lasted for 10 minutes or more; I lost
track of time. When it broke, we talked is hushed
tones. He told me of the tests (fear, clarity,
power and death) that we all face. I spoke of
the guarded core of the traveler, as the world
swirls around in flux. Here, I finally felt the
trust that had evaded me since I knocked on his
door. He said we were brothers.
We were to take coca slowly and then go. We walked
silently back to the village, and he told me about
his troubles (tests) with his Bolivian ID, preventing
him from traveling to Peru and Mexico to meet with other
spiritual personalities. I gave him 30 Bolivianos ($3.75)
as a tip and we embraced farewell. It was oddly intimate.
The next day, he was to take a community fishing boat
from the island to Copacabana, and I would slowly walk
back to the southern town, mulling the experience.