Peru: The North Coast, 1978 – Guest Writer Steve Olivier
March 25, 2011
NOTE: Text and photos by Steve Olivier – thanks for sharing!
During one of my first trips to South America, when I was rash and wild -now I am just wild, not rash, heh, heh – we traveled from Costa Rica to Bolivia on a shoestring. We hitched hiked most of the way. It was an amazing trip; meeting an incredible array of people, wizened old Quechua women, shaman, archaeologists, teachers, activists, and more. It was a real education. We climbed high, high into the Andes. Watched condors fly through turbulent winds 19,000 feet above sea level as huge blocks of ice crashed down ice falls thousands of feet in height. We trekked through the remotest parts of Peru, sections of the old Inca highway rarely seen by any but the Quechua who still use these ancient byways. We spent six weeks in an area of northeast Peru so remote that the kids would flee in terror as we walked into their villages, having rarely seen a white person before. Explored Amazonia with dugout canoes and rafts. We were wild kids exploring the wildest parts of the world.
We explored ruins from ancient civilizations barely known to the world. The Inca are the famous civilization from that part of the world. But they were only the latest of a long, long string of amazing cultures that stretch far, far back into the mists of time, thousands of years. The Paracas culture created the most incredible weavings; they invented every known weaving technique found anywhere in the world, before the birth of Christ, finer threads than the finest silks.
River oasis in the deserts of coastal Peru provided the birthplace of many hydrologic cultures as the Nile did for the Egyptians. The Chavin culture built amazing cities two thousand years before the Inca arose. They built their cities high in the mountains on trade between the tropical jungles and cultures of the Pacific coast.
I was studying anthropology and Latin American Studies at the time. I had taken a year off university to explore this part of the world. I was a wild renaissance man with an insatiable curiosity about the world. I read everything, from anthropology, to zoology, and everything in between.
The Chavin culture had numerous carvings of men holding San Pedro cactus. I noticed that even in areas where it was not native it grew around the ruins. I had also seen it sold in the local herbal medicine markets. I asked an archaeologist friend of mine working on some Chavin ruins what he knew about it. It turns out to be a strong psychotropic drug that has been used in shamanic rituals for thousands of years. Now, it is used in much lower dosages for headaches. I was curious about its effects. So I decided to takes some while exploring ruins from the Chimu culture. I went to the street market where hundreds of herbal remedies are still sold and talked to an old Quechua woman selling San Pedro and asked to buy some. She sliced off a small section. I gave a small giggle and told her I had a really, really bad headache, and so did my friend. She laughed, yelled over to her friends, soon the whole market was laughing at these crazy gringos. She handed over a huge chunk and told us to be careful.
We prepared it according to the vague instructions my friend had given me. We skinned it and boiled it in a pot. When finished it had the look and consistency of green, slimy mucus, mixed with super glue, and had a flavour worse than the description. It was truly the worst tasting thing I have ever tasted, and to make matters worse it stuck to your month like super glue. Urgh! We finally got some down by coating our mouths with honey before and after each shallow. We didn’t really know what to expect. The literature was sparse and vague, but knew it had been used for over 3000 years by healers in the area.
We hopped on a bus and went down to the ruins of Chan Chan on the coast near the city of Trujillo.
1) The Pan-American near Trujillo: looking sketchy
These are incredible ruins of a people living a thousand years before the Inca, while Europeans were struggling through the Dark Ages. We soon realized that we could not stay there. The drugs were taking hold with a vengeance. It turned out it was a strong hallucinogen in the beginning. Walls and murals were dancing and transforming before our eyes. We fled the ruins and people and hiked miles down the deserted beaches. Past ancient ponds dug in the sand, where Papyrus was grown. To build “paper” rafts, rafts that had been used for thousands of years, and are still being used today. The reeds, cliffs, and waves danced before our eyes, shifting colour and shape. We sat beside these ponds built 2000 years ago and tried to feel, commune, comprehend their lives and perceptions. It was a powerful experience swept along by drugs, history and culture. But it would not end. We were high for over thirty-six hours! We spent the whole night out on these wild beaches. We walked miles north. Finally by the next morning the hallucinations had mostly subsided and we started back.
2) Pyramid of the Moon – Moche site, Trujillo. Note the mountain behind seems to have been shaped into an equilateral pyramid – coincidence or not
As we climbed a dune I saw a small black hole far off in the distance at the base of some soft sandstone cliffs. We were still unprepared for civilization so we decided to investigate. As we got closer I could see it was a man-made entrance. It was a narrow cave cut deep into the rock. It measured eighteen inches wide by two feet high, just barely wide and high enough for me to crawl within. I was still feeling the effects of the drugs I had ingested more than twenty-four hours earlier, but curious about what I would find within. My shoulders barely fit between the walls and as I crawled inside my back scraped upon the roof. As I entered the crypt my body blocked almost all the light. It was too dark to see where this dark tunnel led. My heart pounded in my chest. Drugs inflamed fearful thoughts of mystery; curses, snakes, spiders, and the unknown. We were miles from the nearest home. My friend yelled, asking what I saw, and pleaded with me to return, but I could not turn, the only way out was backwards. I wanted to see what the darkness held ahead. Brushing spider webs aside I crawled toward the last remnants of light. Nothing yet, just dangling webs and dark narrow walls. I could not see.
I pulled a pack of matches from my pocket. I would light a match and peer ahead. I could not crawl while holding the match, so I crawled in darkness. Each match would light four to five feet of tunnel. When the flame sputtered I would crawl another few feet, as far as I had seen with the match.
After a hundred feet the tunnel made an abrupt left turn, absolute ink-black darkness greeted me, no light turned the corner. I had burnt half my matches just getting to this point. I could not see a thing. It was miles to crawl out backwards! My heart felt like a jackhammer. I was fully in the grip of imagination and terror. I was struck, frozen by fear. Yet, part of my mind was determined to go on. I slowly chanted, “fear is the mind killer.” Finally I forced myself to carry on. My matches were more than half gone I’d be crawling back in darkness. I lit a match and peered into the darkness, my matches were running low so I crawled a bit farther into the inky darkness after each match went out.
Another fifty feet of slow crawling seemed an eternity. I could hear strange echoes of my friend screaming for me to return. Adrenaline flooded through my veins. I lit a match. I thought I could discern an end. It seemed the tunnel just ended. I couldn’t really tell. As the flame died I crawled forward, finally stopping after crawling further and further without light before stopping.
As I light a match I gasped in horror. My hand sat inches from the edge of a precipitous drop. The tunnel didn’t end but dropped into a tomb. If I had crawled six inches farther I would have fallen through darkness fifteen feet into a shear walled tomb. I looked down and could see bones, some skin and hair; the desiccated remains of a person buried centuries before. I was finally gripped by uncontrollable terror. I imagined falling into unknown darkness, falling, feeling bones, hair, skin, as I landed. I imagined the terror I would have felt trapped in a honeycomb shaped tomb I couldn’t have climbed out of. Imagine if I had dropped my matches in the fall, feeling through bones, and hair, in darkness. I maybe pretty fearless, but even this was too much for me. I don’t think anyone has ever crawled backwards quicker.