We each held three coca leaves in our left hand. The shaman approached, and gave us each his blessing as we blew three times on the leaves.
It was the most nondescript of places, a plain, dimly lit room in the basement of a hotel, empty except for chairs. Our group had come to meet with a shaman, a Peruvian mystic versed in rituals and spiritual beliefs going back to the time of the Incas.
Our guide acted as a translator and gave background on the shaman. He suggested that shaman was a western term to describe the medicine people of the high Andes, introduced by hippies looking for the insight these people provided. These shamans called themselves p’aqos, and their focus is on spirituality and a communion with Pachamama, or Mother Earth. They are feelers rather than thinkers; they look for that communion via their heart and intuition rather than their mind, finding energy through their connection.
We were present for a Despacho ceremony. This rite is oriented around giving thanks and is highly symbolic. The concept is, what you take from the earth you should return to the earth in gratitude so it can be reborn.
While our guide gave us background info, the p’aqo (sounds like “paco”) laid out his tableau. From time to time the p’aqo described what he was doing in Quechuan, or the guide would ask for clarification on a point. As part of his setup, the p’aqo stuffed wads of coca leaves into his cheek in quantities that would impress a squirrel, perhaps finding stimulation there.
Coca leaves are an important part of Peruvian culture, especially in the highlands. Tourists come to know them as a potential preventative measure for altitude sickness, and find them freely available in the Cusco airport and some hotels. They can also be taken in tea form (tastes something like Japanese green tea) or in candies. These leaves provide the basis for the drug cocaine, but being unrefined have only a tiny fraction of the potency. I stuck one or two in my cheek from time to time but there was no effect – perhaps I did not use enough. Despite that, they are illegal to possess in the United States and could pose issues in a drug test.
The coca leaves are quite unrelated to another popular drug with a similar name, legal in all places but sinful in some, the cocoa plant that provides all that chocolaty goodness.
But for the Peruvians, while cocoa is appreciated, coca is more significant. It doesn’t just help with altitude, it helps with cold temperatures and fatigue from hard labor. Its content may help, it has 180 chemicals (alkaloids), including a few dozen antioxidants (with some unique to coca), all major vitamins and minerals in considerable quantities, proteins, and fatty acids.
In the days of the last Inca kings, the leaves were sacred, and that spiritual connection remains. It is a key part of the Despacho called k’intu, with three leaves having distinct symbolisms depending on the context of the ceremony:
- The three worlds in the Inca cosmos: kay pacha (this world or the middle world), hanaq pacha (the heavens or upper world), and ukhu pacha (the lower world)
- The three divine attributes of human equilibrium: llank’ay (work, labor, industriousness), munay (love), and yachay, (wisdom, intuition)
- There are other trios corresponding to life forces and healing energies or “magics”.
The symbolic value is to show recognition and intent – what good is gratitude without it?
The other contents of the offering vary, and it’s not so much what the contents are, but what they symbolize that you are grateful for. Examples might be:
- Sugar – for sweetness and love. For the shamans, it can also represent the snow on the mountain tops – a place of wisdom where heaven and earth meet.
- Rice – fertility and abundance
- Lentils – good health
- Nuts or corn – sustenance
- Raisins and dried fruit – the memory of our ancestors and loved ones lost.
- Play money – affluence
- Candy sprinkles – to celebrate life
- Flower petals – for healing
As the shaman came to each of us, it was a moment to give thanks for what we have and what we have had. For the shaman and those with the right intent, the ceremony transcends the symbolic and enters the spiritual and energetic realms where one finds balance with the earth. At the close of the ceremony, we turned to each of the others in our group and thanked them for their presence.
Whether or not we believed in the mysticism that underlies the Despacho ceremony, there was a palpable sense of spirituality in the room as we said our thank yous to the shaman, and moved onto the remainder of our day.