Puno, Peru – On the shore of Lake Titicaca It is the winter solstice, and the alarm sounds at 4am waking me from a deep, dreamless sleep. I dress as quickly and warmly as I can before preparing a tea of coca leaves and heading out the door. The streets of the city seem abandoned except for a few fighting drunks and the usual army of bored, wandering police. Up at the plaza the trucks are already waiting, and I help to load them with the heavy sacks of cow dung and myriad breads and other offerings for the ceremony in which we are about to participate.
We drive quickly up away from the city center and the lake, to higher ground and a small knife like overlook upon which a few people are already gathering in the darkness, appearing on foot as if from nowhere. The ceremony’s leaders, dressed in traditional garb and communicating in Quechua, hurriedly begin arranging the dung from the bags into a large circular pyre, glancing every few minutes at the eastern horizon and placing each piece of the tower with the utmost thought and care, sometimes dismantling and reassembling whole sections that don’t pass muster, the architecture of the thing based on a system of judgment that I am totally unable to see. By the time the pyre is complete and being lit more than a hundred people have appeared and surrounded it, and as the flames grow the orations begin being made to the Pachamama, Earth herself. These are spoken mostly in Quechua but some are in Spanish as well, and as I listen it strikes me as wonderful that nothing is asked of her, actually nothing at all. Appreciations are expressed, and offerings made, but all without a single entreaty for return.
Before long the fire is enormous and its circlers are preparing the physical offerings, small statues and scenes of symbolic significance, showered in coca leaves which have been kissed and pressed against our foreheads before being placed. These are then thrown into the fire, which blazes as though writhing in its own private ecstasy, and the crowd chants and prays with hands held high, walking away to the East, the young helping the old and feeble across the boulders and through the passages along the way. Reaching the cliff’s edge and looking out over the enormous lake, I see the first blaze of sunlight crest the mountains, and its orange and warming light begins to thaw my frozen lips. Aromatic woods are ignited in smoke vessels, and passed from hand to hand among the participants. Then the entire community begins to greet each other, welcoming one another to the New Year with enormous smiles and an almost visibly radiant vibe of warmth and Love.
It cannot be anything but quite clear to all of them that I am from somewhere far outside their culture, yet they have included me in the whole of this ceremony from its beginning as though I belonged there as much as any of them did; and they include me now, embracing me, kissing me, and wishing me well in the year to come. This is community; this is communion.