A meeting of Cultures part 2
Visiting the mountain region of Bolivia in June, which is their winter, does not need as many precautionary jabs as visiting the lowland rain forests but my arm still felt sore from needles as I arrived at Heathrow airport. The specialist nurse who administered my Jabs a few days earlier had asked me if I had any experience of mountains and altitude. I confidently replied that I had, since I lived in Wales as a student, have flown over the Lake District in a micro-light airplane and skied in the Alps. The nurse had tears in her eyes as she replied through her laughter that these weren’t even proper hills when compared with where I was going.
This, together with the advice from Beatriz Souviron, the Bolivian Ambassador in London to strictly take it very easy for the first two days. This led me to expect that we would feel weak if we tried to exert ourselves before our blood had time to create more red blood cells. My work commitments had limited our trip to a not recommended four days actually in Bolivia. Would this be enough?
Now feeling very anxious about the journey I was very relieved to find Kate already waiting at the airport. We exchanged a nervous hug and we laughed at the huge pile of luggage that we had with us. Kate and I have been close friends for 20 years and have worked together on our spiritual path and learning. There are few women with as clear an understanding of our tradition, connection with the great goddess, magic and practical application of the sacred feminine as Kate. Although at the airport she had the same transparent mix of excitement and apprehension on her face as I did.
Over the years I have travelled on business across much of Europe and have become comfortable with negotiating airports and arriving in foreign cities. It is enjoyable but there is always at least some sense of the familiar where ever you go within Europe. South America promised to be very different both culturally and in terms of its geography. This was not a business trip or a holiday. This was a leap into the unknown for both Kate and I, the first diplomatic meeting of two ancient spiritualities.
We hoped that the Bolivians and especially the Amauta would like us. We hoped that our knowledge of our own traditions and culture would be adequate to represent our tradition and all those who put faith in us to make this journey. We carried with us the greetings to the people of La Paz from Amesbury town council, and travelled as emissaries not only of our own small Druid grove, but also of the Pagan Federation, OBOD, and Druid Clan of Dana with 30000 members between them. All were placing much trust in Kate and I who were both new to this level of international responsibility.
Our flight would take us from London Heathrow on a short hop to Schiphol in Holland, and from there transported across a very vast Atlantic Ocean to Lima in Peru and finally from Peru to La Paz in Bolivia. Approximately 20 hours after our departure from Heathrow we set foot on Bolivian soil.
Queuing to go through immigration and customs a member of staff asked me if I would like to see a doctor. I declined, feeling a bit tired and weak is not something that should cause a fuss if you are English. They pointed out that the airport had a doctor equipped with oxygen. I don’t want any fuss thought I. Ten minutes later I found myself sitting on my baggage as much as possible and I had a headache like I had been kicked in the head by a horse. Kate was fine.
We were met at the airport by a government liaison to the Amautas council, who after a big hug of greeting sat Kate and I in a car and offered us both coca tea. This really does help with the altitude adjustment. As we descended from the airport to our hosts flat in central La Paz she pointed out the sites. The town is beautiful at night, with lights stretching up the steep valley walls. I was feeling very sick.
In La Paz we were introduced to Juan and Veronica Pablos our young Aymara hosts and they helped with our luggage and settling in to their home. I nearly vomited in the lift up to their flat and was now turning green. Kate was fine. We managed to introduce ourselves and both Kate and I realized that we were very lucky. Our hosts were beautiful people who took time to settle us in and to teach us the basic protocols of Aymara manners which include how to greet and accept food or drink.
This would be essential over the following days but for me it would be 48 hours of gasping for air and feeling like I had the worst childhood flu before I would get much chance.
Where is the air?
20 years a smoker of 20+ cigarettes a day and little exercise meant that I wasn’t ready for life at 20000 ft. Kate on the other hand doesn’t smoke, is almost vegetarian and works outdoors designing and building community gardens. Kate went shopping and dancing in one of La Paz many street celebrations. At this point I was confined to bed and feeling that I might not recover in time for the Solstice. If that happened then I would let everyone down terribly. I was missing my dear sweet low altitude Albion (Britain) where I could breath properly.
At home if I get sick I can reach out to the familiar energy of the sacred home land and feel that energy respond, so speeding recovery. Here I could not yet connect as the song of the land was subtle and different in La Paz. Druid magic was to be no use then, I would just have to wait it out.
On the afternoon of Sunday 19th June, I was finally recovered enough to walk around, although still weak. Our hosts had been very worried about me but as it was now clear that I was recovered Kate and I were invited to a community ceremony of the Sariri clan to be held on a hillside on the outskirts of La Paz. This would be our first chance to meet some of the people who had made our visit possible.
Our destination was a bungalow with a garden overlooking the valley in which La Paz is nestled. Around 50 people of all ages were gathered there in the garden, where gradually we sat ourselves into a circle. We were introduced to our interpreter Tina, originally from Slovakia, Tina now lives in La Paz working as a journalist whilst studying the Aymara.
Three generations of wise women led a community ritual, which initially consisted of a Coca leaf ceremony. The women, with great care, each unfolded a cloth containing Coca leaves. Each cloth we learned has a weave unique to the family which tells of their clan and landscape origins. Male a female leaves would be chosen in equal proportion, usually two of each. The male leaves have a pointed tip, the female have more a rounded body.
The selected leaves would be presented to another guest of the circle in the right hand and accepted with the left hand, as it is believed that this is the direction in which energy will naturally circulate between people. With a little bow of the head, eye contact and a smile, the gifts are exchanged. So many of these gifts were for Kate and I that our cheeks quickly became stuffed full like those of a hamster collecting nuts, as once accepted then one is supposed to place the leaves in the side of the mouth to chew gently.
In Celtic lore, eye contact is offered to allow another to know you and reciprocation is expected. In modern western society we struggle to make eye contact with strangers when required to show sincerity at an interview or when listening to show interest and attention. In our society today it is too easy to be accused of staring. Staring can be akin to prying into another’s business or invading their space. No-one will make eye contact with a stranger on the London tube for example.
In all human contact however when two people meet and really look into each others eyes it is an exchange of energy, compatibility and truth. I liked that the Sariri people offered these open windows to themselves through which I saw in them a sense of humor, curiosity, and warmth of bright unclouded spirits. On the evidence of this alone I could decide that the welcome that Kate and I were receiving was genuine, and shared by all.
One of the Aymara leaders, Fernando Huanacuni, arrived and joined the circle unobtrusively. Our interpreter Tina explained that Fernando was a very important leader of the Aymara. I studied him from a distance and how he interacted with others in the group. He appeared shy and certainly did not strut around pushing himself into the forefront of the circle as might some Druid ‘leaders’ that I know. He waited for others to speak to the circle until eventually it was his turn. To this point I had been very impressed by the clear, direct and almost poetic style of the women.
When Fernando started to talk, in Spanish, I realized even without interpretation that this was a great man of spirit. The tone of his voice, the humble yet powerful delivery of clear message of wisdom, the poetic Aymara style of speech yet more impressive through this man. In ancient times a Druid would have learned the art of public speaking, to the point of high art, and I am considered among the most articulate of my present day peers but Fernando is more. I could imagine Jesus Christ or Mohammed or Buddha having a gift like this man.
Then Fernando stated that at long last the Druids had come to visit the Aymara, that we were brothers, and that this was a historic meeting of people’s: And he invited me to stand up and speak.
I knew that even at my very best, which I certainly wasn’t feeling, I could not evoke the same eloquence to match Fernando. I simply spoke from the heart, saying how happy Kate and I were to represent our ancestors and our grove, the orders of OBOD and the Pagan Federation, and finally to greet our brothers and sisters of the Aymara. It was enough thankfully.
Kate was watching closely how the women interacted with their group and each other. The elders let the younger women speak first and have a turn at leading aspects of ceremony. The elder women were respected by all, who hung on their every word and gesture. We could see how the wisest were nurturing the youngest, each of whom had a role and responsibility to the group.
Both Kate and I were offered a ‘healing’ at the bottom of the garden intended to help our spirits recover from a long travel. The details of this I must save for our Druid colleagues, for what transpired was not planned for, and would only be understood by elders of our path. It is sufficient to say that after this event, both the Amauta and the Druids had experienced the energy and power of the other and there was no doubt remaining that we were compatible traditions of great substance. The experience for me was powerful and positive, surprising and life changing.
We were then introduced to the Aymara tradition of ‘offerings’.
In the Druid traditions we have long since ceased to make ceremonial offerings. At least on the surface; we still will gift a poem or a song, or give up a vice, leave wild flowers or ribbons at a sacred place. It is a mere echo of a tradition from times when offerings were perhaps more misguided. The Gods of life have never required us to extinguish life to show appreciation; we believe that they would rather that we appreciate the gift and live life fully. If we should sacrifice anything, it should be our selfishness, ignorance, greed and ego.
Aymara offerings seem to involve the breaking up of sweet stuff very much like icing, and reading from the broken pattern of the sugar some meaning before carefully rearranging the pieces. We never understood the meaning of the reading or the intent of the rearrangement. Kate and I were each honored with a ‘sugar cake’ over which the most senior Amauta fussed for some time. The rest of the community made do with one offering between them.
Wood for a fire had been laid down at the bottom of the garden, overlooking the mountains. As the sun set and dusk deepened rapidly we processed anti clockwise around the firewood with Ladies spilling a gift of alcohol into the wood and gentlemen to the Earth beside it. The sugar cakes were then carried and placed on the top of the firewood with great care not to disturb the arrangement of the pieces. Finally the fire is lit and people sing.
From the other guests to this ceremony, two French, one Spanish and one Mexican we learned that being granted access to something like this from the Sariri clan is the dream of a lifetime and very rare. At around 1am we returned to our hosts flat in the centre of La Paz. There would be a short sleep before the next day (Solstice Eve) and our schedule would be completely full.
At around 7am Kate and I were taken to a TV studio in La Paz. The channel was the equivalent in the UK to the BBC, with their breakfast program watched by most of the country as they awake and start a new day. We were wearing our Druid robes for the interview and were asked about the Druids, Stonehenge, Why we were visiting La Paz etc. From that moment on we were becoming famous.
From the TV studio we were taken to the Government buildings in the very center. We admired the Grand former colonial style architecture, as we entered. Armed guards asked to see our passports. We hadn’t brought them with us. This caused a short delay but in a short conversation between our hosts and the security, which I couldn’t follow, we were waved on. Inside this beautiful old building gathered many of the Amauta council. We sat, introduced each other, shared coca leaves and drank tea. This was deeply touching for Kate and I. The wisdom and kindliness of these elders was palpable.
One of the Amauta was a specialist shamanic healer. Kates specialty being plants and healing also, they bonded immediately and if excitement at meeting a kindred spirit could make sparks then there was lightning in the room. We presented the Amauta with our gift, the disc created by Andy and Michelle back in Amesbury depicting the trilithon of Stonehenge surrounded by three hares for the wise tradition of the Goddess. They loved it. Were very keen each to hold it. And had to decide in rapid order who should have the privilege of guarding it for each represented a different people.
It was explained that others of the council were missing because these were from far-flung reaches of Bolivia who could not attend our meeting and be home in time to officiate solstice celebrations. We understood entirely. In the same situation back home we would struggle to muster a fraction of the capable druids on the eve of solstice. That so many had come to greet us and talk with us was a great show of respect to us.
After leaving the government building, still accompanied by our interpreter and guide Tina, and our Amauta medicine man, we went out into the town square. Here hundreds of Aymara were dancing and processing past. Apparently they had gathered to express exasperation with a new law that vehicles traveling to Tiwanaku must be under 15 years old to be more fuel-efficient. Practically every taxi and bus in La Paz is over 15 years old, no-one would be able to get there if the rule were enforced.
We were welcomed by a senior member of the British embassy team in La Pas Claire Demaret, who was kind enough to seek us out and this had the very positive effect of making us feel supported.
Tina took us to her favorite restaurant for lunch which served home-made soup. We still had our Amauta friend the medicine man with us and he pointed at every plant decorating the restaurant and explained to Kate and I its medicinal properties. Kate recognized a couple of the plants from her studies and noted that he was spot on. When I asked him how he would know the properties of a plant, the answer he gave surprised me. In addition to tradition passed down from parent to child, and many years of practice, he could ask a plants spirit with his own spirit and receive the knowledge directly.
I wondered if this is how our own herb lore had originally been derived, with spirit interaction.
The way to Tiwanaku
After rushing down our food we raced across the town centre on foot to the meet the coaches that would take the Sariri Aymara to Tiwanaku. La Paz sits in a crack at the centre of a great plain surrounded by mountains. When it rains seven rivers flow down the streets of La Paz. The journey up the side of the valley to reach the plain took us past the fast expanding ‘Upper La Paz’ to travel across the dusty plain for many miles. Looking out of the window we could see small farms, many with mud walls and thatch roofs. Llama and cattle wandered in the fields of sparse grass.
Inside the coach the community chatted excitedly, sang traditional songs or dozed.
Our first destination would be at a place called ‘the village’. Fernando explained to me that in ancient times only the priests could enter the Tiwanaku temple for winter solstice sunrise. The other pilgrims must stop at a ridge to go no further, and once there was a small village here. It is a special place for the Aymara he said. As our coach trundled to a stop on a ridge over looking a vast plain with three perfect mountains looking like pyramids on the horizon I couldn’t wait to get out of the coach and breathe fresh air.
As soon as I set foot on the soil of ‘the farm’ I was instantly moved to tears with emotion. To explain, this place literally contained a torrent of ‘energy’. It felt to our fey senses something like swimming with dolphins, standing to watch a perfect sun rise, jumping in puddles, watching a spring lamb taking its first steps, Glastonbury tor, Avebury, Tin Tadgel in a storm and Stonehenge all combined. This was the raw wild energy of our Mother Earth in such abundance! I was literally stunned. Fernando seeing the look of emotion on my face wandered over to me. I asked WHAT IS THIS place?
He smiled knowingly and knelt to draw in the dust. He drew the ridge where we stood. The three mountains on the horizon, the three dots for the temples of Tiwanaku behind us.
The sun, he explained, rises up the side of the first mountain at winter solstice, the second at equinox, the third at summer solstice. He drew three lines to show the suns line to where we stood. The drawing in the dust, and this great Tiwanaku landscape, actually draw the universal druid symbol.
I did not know how it might be possible, but in this moment I received a knowing that the ancestors – OUR ANCESTORS – had once visited this place long ago.
More pictures are available to view at: http://www.stonehenge-druids.org/bolivia-2011.html
To be continued in part 3