Footprints in Peru, Day 4: appeasing the apus


“I knew you were better as soon as your laugh woke me up,” declares Javier.

Indeed, while my mental facilitates napped through a 13-hour siesta, my body, with the assistance of the antibiotics, regained control of my gut, stomach, head and mind territories. And when I am healthy, everyone knows it for I am a sensitive little creature, who is especially happy when she is healthy. So the sound of my echoing laugh wakes camp to its simultaneous relief and annoyance.

The tips of tents, noses and fingers are all nipped by the frost of 6am at 4,400 meters (14,520 ft), so as soon as the sun steps a foot in our valley, everyone in our party makes a dash for the growing gold streak that graces itself upon one of the rocky walls enclosing our camp. We’re all shifting our feet, stretching our fingers and otherwise encouraging blood to run its warming course when Javier raises his arm and voice to ask, “Would anyone like to learn how coca leaves are traditionally used here?”

This invitation is enough to coax me from the warm rock on which I sun towards the circle surrounding Feliciano, our head porter. I volunteer without hesitation, “Yes! Please. I would like to try!”

Feliciano pulls out a plastic bag full of muted-green and brittle looking leaves. He shows me the contents and then rifles through to find a choice few. I learn later that this process, of selecting the best leaves, is part of the ritual. But I am, as typical, still ignorant at this point, and so after he has carefully selected a few and then offers me the bag, I clumsily grab an ugly pinch full of small leaves and stems, which I now, looking back, realize must have been slightly insulting. Sometimes I have no choice but to forgive myself my clumsy, cultural fopaux.

Feliciano instructs me to put the little layered bundle into my mouth, chew just enough to put my saliva to the task of breaking down the leaves, and then push the little package for safe keeping to the side of my mouth. He then carefully selects another choice leaf and, with it between his two fingers, pinches off a small edge of a little black rock of tar-like substance. He sandwiches this scrape of black paste within the coca leaf and then hands it to me with the instruction to add it that which I have already amassed, like a chipmunk, in my cheek.

By now there is a very distinctive flavor being juiced by my teeth from the leaves. Unfortunately, because I do not have a refined leaf-eating or -distinguishing palette, I’m unable to classify this flavor as anything other than, “leaf.” I do, however, have experience in the dentist’s chair, and as an unmistakable numbness spreads from my cheek to my lips and chin and I begin to wonder if I’m drooling, I recognize the sensation as a sister of Novocain. Then my stomach starts to churn to the same tune as a shot of espresso and I’m overcome by that slightly jittery and attention-deficit symptom of caffeine overdose. Whew! Even a little heat flash passes over and I look around and ask if any the others participating in the experiment are feeling the same effects. They grimace at the flavor and shake their heads, “no,” which is not abnormal: I also get drunk off one glass of wine; as proof to the aforementioned: a sensitive little creature.

Bu the effects of the coca leaves don’t last long. Technically, the chewing process involves constantly selecting and adding perfect leaves and precise pinches of the catalyst (which, in this case, I learn, is the ash of burned quinoa) to keep this yanatin (sacred pair) effectively secreting the stimulant. But I’m still entertained by the buzz which seems quite equivalent to that which the average North American gets from sipping on coffee through a day in an office cube. The difference, I suppose, being that Peruvians don’t have desperate addictions to a drug whose base ingredient happens to be our normally harmless crop. And that Peruvians don’t, then, point the finger at us for being responsible for the bad habits that plague their social elite. And in response, Peruvians don’t declare a “war” and shadow our lowlands with warplanes that drop highly toxic pesticides on the innocent bushes that naturally grow like weeds around our gardens, houses and animals. Yes. I guess that would be the difference between the United States’ and Peruvian buzzes.

My shame and anger at my country make excellent fuel for my ascent up to the 4,672-meter (15,417 foot) pass. On my way, I overhear one woman exclaim that the climb is more difficult than childbirth. Another participant says it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done. The air is thin, but I still manage an unbelieving sigh when I realize there is a 15-year old girl walking in front of me, a 72-year old man on my heels, and a shared goal that has managed to trump that 57 years of age difference with ease. Equally shocking is the fact that our ageless Peruvian porters are carrying twice our haul, yet climbing twice as fast, and doing all this in simple, leather, open-toed sandals. I laugh when I imagine the big mountain retailer brands shuddering at the sight of such tech-less efficiency.

At the top of the pass, I remove the wad of chewed coca leaves and deposit them, delicately and with respect (as I’ve been instructed), on the ground. Javier and Jairo (another one our guides) wave me over to a cairn that the group has constructed by having each person carry and contribute one stone to the rock formation. Jairo hands me a small bunch of perfect coca leaves and says, “Raise it first to Veronica,” and I follow his instructions and raise the leaves into the air in the direction of the mountain Veronica. Jairo then rotates my arms about 40 degrees and says, “and now raise the offering to the Apus.”

At this I turn to him and ask, “What is Apu?”

And he answers, “The Apus are the mountain spirits. We’re asking for their blessing of good weather for our journey.”

I’m intrigued, but don’t ask questions.

Instead I just hold up the coca leaf offering and hope it will appease these mysterious Apus…


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  1. DJ FunkyGrrL August 15, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    …To everyone…
    I do not wish to make an argument out of my comments to Sol, those were just my opinion. My intentions wasn’t to insult her, I think some may have assumed that much. I posted the comments to help Sol. I’ve known her since collegeclub over 5 years. We had our differences then, I apologized for those misunderstandings.

    Regarding previous comments of me, I am a international dj and I own a company. I am not jealous of Sol, I wish her the best. I just do not wish to see her 10-15 years from now living on the streets homeless.

    I also thank the admin of the site for not censoring my comments.

    ** For all others, please contact me on “My Blog” if you wish to comment on my postings. It’s not fair to Sol’s Blog to have a user
    arguement transpire as that isn’t the focus of her blog. **

    I thank Sol and the admin of the site for not censoring my comments.
    I also apologize to Sol, her visitors and the admin if they assumed I was trying to insult her.

    I think Sol is a wonderful person.
    I was just giving an opinion of free expression. :8)

    Ciao Ciao,
    aSa ‘dj funkygrrl’

  2. Will Terrell August 15, 2007 at 6:14 pm


    Sol has made my world better. It was no single thing she’s done. It is the example of her life, of following her heart no matter where it takes her. Over the years her words have opened my mind to new ideas and ways of thinking, and to places I may never get to see.

    Through living examples like hers, I’ve dedicated my life to affecting others, and inspired many to do the same. In this way of following your heart, no matter what it calls you to do – only then are we truly living our lives.

    The truth is, your criticisms have nothing to do with Sol. They are only reflections of your own fears. You’re only upset that she’s not following the rules you think we’re supposed to follow. Sometimes its not about finding answers, sometimes its about enjoying the mystery.

  3. lost-edge August 14, 2007 at 2:45 am

    Americans love their coffee and their cocaine. With both substances there are also rituals that are performed.

    In my opinion, to stay and to go are the same action.

  4. Anonymous August 13, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    DJ Funkygrrl is welcome to her opinions, but a lot of that comment was unnecessary when you consider who it was coming from. Funkygrrl has been commenting on Sol’s blog for at least a year and it doesn’t seem like she has ever been censored.
    Furthermore, as someone who has been reading this blog for so long, Funkygrrl should know (as much as anyone can)the reasons for Sol’s wanderings, not to mention all the lives she has touched and the young people she has inspired. She is not letting the world determine her self-worth; it is quite the opposite!
    That’s all I am going to say…Sol, maybe re-posting the FAQ will help clear up some of these questions!

  5. DJ FunkyGrrL August 13, 2007 at 5:28 am

    Why are you wandering like Moses and his discipies searching for something in the wind? Book you reference so many tmes…”The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho is a
    fable About following your dream” Do you honestly think “Paulo Coelho” is wandering from continent to continent as a homeless pilgram? How can you quote a book in which the author doesn’t follow his own advice?
    You say all this (the traveling) started after you realized no one in this world cares about your life.
    Why are you allowing the world to determine your self-worth? Why are you cheating yourself out of a better existence by wandering in the desert?

    You are searching for a concept, meaning a philosphy to appease your inner being. Are you searching for this: a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means or something you can accept.

    I am a traveler as well, but in the end you are left with photos of people you no longer know, trapped in time. I doubt you keep in contact with these people.

    Besides traveling are you bettering the world in any way? Otherwise, you are running from something. If you were not afraid, you would sit down and talk to others and gain a different point of view on your circumstances. Do you wish to be the person as referenced in Pulp Fiction Travolta’s character when he states…” So you wanna be a bum, eating stuff I throw away?”

    Sol, you are to talented, creative, driven a person to allow your fear to lead you down the road to no where.

    I’m sure you thought of all I mentioned before.
    Have you thought of this part, what have you accompished in the years of your travels that’s everlasting? Could you have done the same thing while having a career, kids and home?
    Please do not list favors or good deeds as those are passing. Have you actually accomplished anything of essence?

    Satan deceived Adam and Eve into thinking they were like God, it (then spirit) laughed as Eve ate the apple.
    Are you the butt of a big universal joke? Have you been deceived into this concept while the rest of the world drives by you.

    …..I will be interested to see if you allow freedom of speech from your visitors or will you censor their comments…..

    Regardless, I wish you the best :8)

    Kisses, dj funkygrrl

  6. Funchilde August 12, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    Glad you are feeling better and that your laughter is ringing through the camp!

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