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Dancing with the devil: Spirituality in the Peruvian Andes

We met the maestro at the bus stop. I hadn’t known what to expect; face-paint, maybe, or a necklace made of body parts. It was an ignorant assumption to make, influenced as much by my inexperience with shamans as it was by the surreal trip we had taken to meet this one. After a seven-hour spiraling ascent through the Andes, above the clouds and along winding, mist-shrouded mountainside paths slightly narrower than our bus, to the sounds of a Spanish-dubbed double bill featuring La Roca AKA The Rock, I disembarked at Huancabamba expecting to meet a man who was, at the very least, surrounded by flames. Instead, my wife, our translator, and I found ourselves shaking hands with a friendly grandfather in a brown leather jacket, khaki bell-bottoms and dress shoes.

“What do I call you?” I asked him.

“El maestro,” he replied.

“No,” I said. “I meant, what’s your name?”

“El maestro,” he smiled.

The maestro lived in what can be best described as a bare-cement optical illusion. Tucked away behind a t-shirt stand, the ground-level house included a basement and more door-less frames and twisting staircases than necessary, made all the more disorienting by how sparsely and randomly furnished it all was.

Dinner was awkward. The maestro was in high-spirits, booming on in Spanish about how much he was going to mess me up, while our guide Oscar translated excitedly between mouthfuls. “He says he’s going to take you to see the planets,” Oscar chewed.

“Which ones?” I asked.

“All of them.”

“He’s going to make you take the Devil’s pants off,” Oscar said, still chewing.

“Wait, who?”

“The Devil. You will see the Devil naked. And you will dance with him.”

I turned to the maestro, who was leaning towards me, smiling and slowly nodding.

“I don’t know how to dance,” I said to him, somewhat stupidly, and he threw his head back and howled. Oscar shrugged. “I don’t know about any of this,” he said. “I’m just translating.”

The maestro gave us the only tiled room in the house to sleep in. It was as sparsely furnished as all the other rooms, containing a bed, a one-sheet calendar with a picture of a flower-swarmed little girl and a partition with a pattern of what my wife and I couldn’t decide were flowers or skulls. I sat at the window for a while overlooking someone else’s outhouse and thought about what was to come, mainly what state of undress the Devil would be in when we’d meet, and what his crotch would look like. Probably a nest of snakes, I imagined, and, worried, I asked my wife about this, to which she replied, “I can’t believe this is how we’re spending our honeymoon.” She was joking though. She’s a good sport.

At 3 am, we bundled up and left the house, staggering blindly into a pickup at the end of the street. We got to the end of the dirt road as the sun was rising, bringing with it no extra warmth. The wind was ferocious, aligning the surrounding trees with the horizon, knocking our mules into each other as they were brought to us, and then, as we tried to mount them. We stumbled around for 45 minutes, once again traveling along a narrow path with a sea of clouds churning under us, waves rolling over the occasional mountain peak. And then, in a sudden clearing, there was the lake: a black hole between the mountains, wide and dark and superimposed over the jagged rocks. The wind clawed at its surface, slicing it into countless streaks of air and water that swept in all directions. I stared for some time at all that wet static, trying to ignore everyone else staring at me. “Time to swim,” the maestro cackled.

He paced around me, taking swigs from various perfume bottles and spitting at me, chugging tobacco extract through his nostrils from a conch, and shouting to the apus — mountain gods. He placed a sword in my trembling hand, screamed my name, and ground a tangerine against my bare chest. I thought to myself that somewhere, some form of god was laughing at me while another one just shook its head. The maestro told me to get in the lake. I tried to balance myself against the wind as I took off my remaining layers, catching in the corner of my eye sympathetic looks from Oscar and the maestro’s twin assistants. My wife started sobbing; I’m still not entirely sure why.

When I stepped into the lake it was, for the briefest of moments, very cold. Then my nerve-endings exploded, and I lost all feeling. It suddenly became easier to sink to my knees, to submerge my arms and fall into it, face first. Nothing else existed; maybe because it was a spiritual experience, maybe because my mind was focusing all its dwindling energy on fighting off external elements, maybe there’s not much difference between the two. The howling piercing my ears thinned out into a deafening hum, and then silence. My eyes were still open, but the information was all scrambled, glimpses of sky and rock and moving lips and dark water.

The maestro helped lift me from the water when I failed to hear him shouting for me to get out. He hugged me tight, grabbed and thrust my shivering fists into the air, and bellowed out my name at such length and volume, it’s probably still echoing around somewhere between those mountains.

When, an hour later, we got off our shivering mules and back into the pickup, the maestro beamed at me, and spent a long time saying all sorts of nice things, before ordering the driver to stop in the middle of the road and turn the radio all the way up. “Get out,” the maestro said to me. “It’s time to dance.”

So we danced, for a while it seemed, on a dirt path high up in the clouds. I still couldn’t feel my body and my limbs were shaking enough without any music to move them, but I held on to my pants and danced, probably terribly. The maestro danced too, skipping around me and yelling at everything, then hooking his arm in mine and spinning us both. We lost it for a while, and by the time the catlady was done and we were stumbling around, panting, a family had disembarked from their own pickup and stretched out by the side of the road, waiting for us to let them through. I got back into the truck and collapsed in my wife’s arms, she told me she loved me and I passed out, happy and shivering.

That night, after another sparse meal, we were called down to the basement where the maestro had laid out a carpet and placed upon it all sorts of stone figurines and utensils. Behind them stood the sword, propped up against the wall, and in the foreground, a pot in which floated several star-shaped slices of San Pedro. The maestro appeared, dressed in several elaborately patterned robes, and told Oscar and my wife to sit in the corner and be silent, while directing me to a chair under the room’s single window. The lights were switched off and I found myself sitting in a column of moonlight, watching as solemn-faced and chanting now, the maestro slowly approached me. He poured himself a glass from the San Pedro pot and chugged it, poured one for me and I did the same, and then took my seat in the corner while he chanted and stomped around the room.

Somewhere in there, I began hallucinating. Between the shapes darting all around me in the dark — tall, spindly-limbed silhouettes creeping across open doorways, and bulkier, four-legged ones leaning out from the shadows — I was determined to see how far I could take things while still maintaining some degree of awareness.

Even now it’s hard to tell how long the ritual lasted. Words like ‘minutes’, ‘hours’, even ‘months’ seem non-applicable at best. By the time I was coming out of it, though, the maestro was making strange, guttural sounds, and Oscar was leaning over to whisper, “I think he’s had too much to drink,” and then, “I think he’s crazy.” The maestro then told me to approach him and when I did he picked me up and told me to kick the air. I saw no reason not to.

The sun was rising again when we got into bed, but it all felt unprecedented, everything was new. I didn’t think it would last, and it didn’t (personally, I blame the president). But, for a while afterwards, I did feel different. Re-energized, reconstituted. But then again, I’ve never gotten a proper massage, nor do I go to a gym, and I’ve heard people talk about both those things that way. This just makes for a slightly more interesting story.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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