The Curious Legend of the Papitos

“Superstition” and “faith” are interesting aspects of human nature.  So many of our beliefs, or disbeliefs for that matter, are formulated around unsubstantiated facts, and still we choose to think what we want to think based solely on what our intuition tells us correct.  I can’t argue with you that ghosts don’t exist when you claim to have seen one, it’s impossible for any singular conclusion to come of it.  And yet, without any scientific merit, we will maintain our speculations until something changes how we feel.

The papitos of Southern Peru are the latest “beings” of the region that have been met with skepticism, their supposed manifestations taking on a variety of forms and purposes.  Considering the Inca empire – whose central operations were based in this area – was a polytheistic civilization that celebrated an assortment of mythical creatures, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a society which venerates its ancestry has generated its own lore.  Or is it lore?  Obviously, that would depend on who you ask.

For those who believe in the papitos, the general consensus is that they’re here for good; to provide services for the native population.  What those services are, though, revolves around what you need.  They have been known to be doctors, psychiatrists, mediums, or business consultants; I’ve heard of requests from clients looking to solicit healthy harvests from the mountain spirits to widows seeking counsel on their grief.  The only issue is that the papitos never stay in one place, they travel from town to town in complete secrecy, setting up shop at random locations for fluctuating durations of time. You have to be lucky to catch wind of their arrival and set up an appointment with an intermediary before they leave for wherever the next destination may be.  What this means, of course, is that if you’re in some kind of medical emergency, a visit to the papito probably isn’t in the cards.

If you’re wondering how it is that these papitos are capable of tackling so many professions, the answer is unknown.  That’s because no one has ever seen a papito before, a clear rationale for the debate over what these social benefactors even are in the first place.  There are three theories that have gathered the most traction; they’re either angels, devils, or aliens, with a fourth, smaller faction hypothesizing they’re nothing more than humans with metaphysical powers.  There’s a solid reason for why they’ve gone undetected so long, and it’s due to how they welcome their patients to the meetings.

Once you’ve arrived at a predetermined venue (usually at night), an enlisted helper ushers you into a windowless, pitch black room and sits you down before shutting the one and only door.  It’s there, in the total dark, that you wait for the consultation to begin.  After a certain period of time – whenever the papitos are ready – they expose their voices from obscurity and start discussing whatever is troubling the customer.  How they enter, no one is sure, but it’s here in the shadows that they perform their miracles, never being seen nor touched.  Whenever they’ve concluded their business, the papitos inexplicably disappear and the operation is taken over by the helper again, gathering payment and closing the transaction.

It’s natural to be apprehensive.  The entire scheme may seem suspicious, especially when you take into account that a majority of the locals that visit these less expensive “clinics” are usually impoverished and desperate, but what keeps the idea alive is that they do (supposedly) work!  People swear by them.  A friend of mine who taught English in Southern Peru recalled a story where the mother of one of her students suffered from crippling back pain, a shooting twinge that constantly plagued her spine.  Doctors were having trouble coming up with a solution to her discomfort, so she figured it’d be worth seeking out the papitos in case they could find a way to heal her.  She went through the whole bizarre process – dark room, strange voices – and was ultimately told a certain operation could be performed, that all she had to do was lay facedown on the ground. She was on the floor for around thirty minutes, not a single hand having touched her, when she was informed the “surgery” was complete.  Yet, when she rose to her feet, all of her aches had somehow dissipated.

The cherry on the sundae?  When she went for a routine check-up with her doctor, he noticed that her vertebrae were straight and asked when she had received an operation.  Creepy stuff.

I could easily approach the subject and call malarky, but the truth remains that this woman is one out of many successful cases.  I have no clue what really went down, I’m just the messenger, but somehow, someway, this fortunate lady is walking around pain-free.  It’s no thanks to a doctor, either, that cannot be disputed.  So, what happened? How is it possible that a seemingly incurable ailment casually rehabilitated itself?  Most likely, there will never be a clear explanation.

In the end that’s not what’s important, it’s not like this narrative is the first to bring light to an unexplained phenomena.  When it comes down to the basics we’re an odd species with disparate and peculiar beliefs, not everything we do makes sense.  Instead what the papitos offer is insight into a beautiful and historically complex culture, exhibiting a way of thinking that’s rooted centuries in the past.  It’s fascinating that this greater recognition of folkloric spirits is the residue of a belief system that has permeated through the generations, and that the remnants of dated ideologies have birthed new concepts.  Oddly enough, when you look at in that context it’s totally reasonable.

One day the curtain may lift and we’ll know the reality of what’s going on backstage (I, for one, am rooting for aliens), but until that day comes let’s have fun deciphering the possibilities.  Isn’t that the point of a good mystery?  Let’s dig into a world different than our own and appreciate how a population deals with their own unique bumps in the road, facing challenges that contrast what we’re used to.  Let’s indulge in “faiths” and “superstitions” with an open mind, so that we may enjoy the stories that precede them.  And besides, the papitos, oh man what a cool basis for their “existence”!

What do you think?  Do you believe the papitos are real?

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“Urubamba is so rich, but its citizens are so poor.  We feel ignored; we’re such an important part of Peru’s identity and yet we’re so unappreciated.  I just want the best for my people, is that so much to ask?”

-Pepe Morales, Urubamba Citizen

Keeping the Sacred Valley Sacred

Once upon a time, around 500 years ago, the Inca Empire stood as the largest nation on the planet.  The four districts, or Tawantinsuyu as they called it, that constituted their rule covered an absurd distance that reached as far north as Colombia, went as far south as Santiago, Chile, and even stretched inland into modern-day countries like Bolivia and Argentina.  As a result, the Incas have their stake in history for having erected the biggest native state to ever exist in the Western hemisphere.

In the midst of this impressive expanse of land lies the Sacred Valley, and out of all the valleys that carve into the Andes it’s the only one that earned the name “Sacred”.  Hundreds upon hundreds of other prodigious locations could’ve scored that designation, and yet this modest 37-mile tract of land takes the gold.  Why?

The most commonly known reason is for the Valley’s agricultural benefits; the soil is rich in nutrients, the rain pours, and the sun shines – the obvious criteria for cultivating good crop.  Yet, the fact it had such wonderful farming properties in the region it’s in is what separates it from all other valleys.  Cusco, which was the capital and centerpiece of the Tawantinsuyu departments, was only a day’s trek from the Sacred Valley, thus making it a crucial pipeline of trade, transport, and rest; a pivotal artery that delivered nourishment to the Inca’s heart.

With food production at its core, the Sacred Valley allowed an easy passage for those from the Colla Suyu (southern) district to reach noteworthy municipalities like Ollantaytambo, Cusco, and Machu Picchu.  Such access gave convenient lines to Chinceros and Urubamba, which fostered an industry of exchange for those passing through.  This was especially significant since the Incas didn’t do business with hard currency, it was with commodities like food and tools.  In turn, the abundance of resources that made their way across the valley provided ample means for citizens to have downtime on longer treks and recuperate.

But, as you’re probably aware, it didn’t last.  The Spanish conquistadors made sure of that.  With its destruction the Sacred Valley was in danger of getting lost in the annals of time until the accidental discovery of Machu Picchu (a topic in which I’ll touch on later).  Instead, it continues to be “sacred” in another sense; it’s beautiful, rich in history, teeming with a vibrant culture, and brings mass amounts of tourism to an area of the world that could use the economic support.

While that may not have the same ring to it, it’s importance in the present shouldn’t be understated.  It’s not just about marvelous landscapes or money, it’s a source of pride for the native population.  Here, where conditions aren’t as glorious as they are in developed countries, being able to point to the hillsides and share their ancestor’s ingenuity is an indispensable aspect of life for the locals.  I hear it in their voice each time they talk about it, they speak with passion and conviction, fully aware of the triumphs that are scattered over their cherished land.

A lot of families here operate differently than I’m accustomed to, the whole concept of “opportunity” and “career-growth” is often lost amongst the necessity to farm, work, and provide for your household.  As an adolescent it’s way more problematic to branch off, pay for an education, and leave your parents on the highland to do backbreaking labor; sadly, the future rarely shines as bright here as it does in other parts of the world.  With little to look forward to except years and years of toiling in the soil, what do they have?  The glory of a time past, reminiscing in the marvels that their own bloodline created.

If something as simple as a venerated homeland can offer someone a sense of belonging in an otherwise tedious lifestyle, wouldn’t you still consider it “sacred”?  I know I do.

The Business of Misrepresentation

The house we use here in Urubamba is falling apart, it has been since the very beginning.  The list of defects seems boundless; the showers are of glacial temperature, all of the faucets run, our stove shoots plumes of ash, and within our first week here the sink in the boys bathroom fell off its hinge and shattered on the floor.  We’ve been confronting our landlord about these problems around twice a week for two months, pleading with him to get all the facilities running properly.  “Yes, of course,” he says, as if his responses are always pre-recorded, “I’ll have someone on it tomorrow afternoon.  The most important thing for me is that you’re comfortable!”

To this day, nothing has been fixed.  It hasn’t even received inspection.

Our trash collector is a five minute bike ride away from where we live.  With a house that lodges 25 people, 20 of which are teenagers, you can imagine how much garbage we accumulate (it’s a lot).  We’ll call him in the morning to confirm the pick up: “Please come by in the afternoon, we’ll be waiting here with your payment.”

“Great!  I’ll be there!” he usually replies, only to never show up.  His excuse?  “Oh, my apologies.  Today wasn’t a good day.”

You may be starting to sense a pattern, so allow me one more parable.  Last year when I was traveling around South America I would always tell the bus company I wanted a direct route, no stops whatsoever.  I’d buy the ticket, and the common outcome would be six or seven stops, the complete opposite of what I had requested.  A girl I met was telling me her tagged luggage was stolen from under the bus during one of those unspecified stops and how nothing was done about it.  Their reaction towards our complaints?  Essentially, it went like this: “Whoops!”

I find this aspect of the culture, how businesses function, to be one of the most curious.  That’s because if any of the aforementioned situations transpired in the United States, they’d be out of business.  Fast.  The landlord wouldn’t be able to find tenants, someone who actually collected trash would collect the trash, and the bus company would have zero passengers.  Yet here it seems as though falsifying information to please the client – and subsequently not following through – is accepted.  Even when I ask directions for somewhere simple, like a restaurant, the person I ask will point off into the distance and say: “It’s over there.”

“Over where?” I’ll inquire further.

“There,” they’ll point.

“Do I need to turn anywhere?” I’ll ask, confused.

“Just go that way,” they’ll reply, finger still outstretched, “you can’t miss it.”  And needless to say, I always seem to miss it.

Over the course of my time living in Urubamba, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that this distorted truth stems from a good place; that they want to please you.  No one wants to look you in the eye and say I don’t know, instead they’d rather give you an answer and try to lead you down the right path.  As Southern Peru is a shy culture, perhaps they just feel uncomfortable letting you down.  As for some of the larger companies, it could be that there isn’t an infrastructure to deliver astounding customer service; like in the example of the bus company, maybe there simply isn’t a way to recover the bag.  “Whoops!” just might be the best answer they have.

I don’t know what the real answer is, and maybe I don’t need one.  Cultures differ, and this is just one of those characteristics that contrasts what I’m used to.  It’s these small nuances, the pockets of diversity, that make our species so interesting; I don’t have to understand it to enjoy it.  In the interim, I have no problem taking advantage of “Peruvian time” and showing up 30 minutes late.  Instead, I finally might have found a culture that goes by my schedule!

“I climbed all the way up the mountain with a torn knee so I could feel the land’s spirit.  I was hoping its energy would help me heal faster.  When I arrived at the top and pressed my body against the snow I could sense a power from within the ground revive my leg, urging it to rehabilitate.  It was then I knew all the pain and agony from the ascent was worth it.”

-Nico Jara, Program Coordinator