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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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.

Living Amongst the Ruins of the Incan Empire

There is a quote I think of often these days.  It’s simple, but to me it speaks volumes, and it goes like this: “We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.”

Who said this?  Francisco Pizarro did.  He wrote it in a letter to King Charles V shortly before he decimated the Incan Empire, simultaneously attempting to destroy any evidence of its existence in his wake.  What was he talking about?  Cuzco, the imperial capital of the Incans, and the pure marvel that a population had somehow managed to create.  By today’s standards even I am stunned at what such a society was able to accomplish, and so I can only imagine what Pizarro was thinking as he looked down on Cuzco from the surrounding mountains.  Unfortunately, I think I have a pretty good guess.  Without flinching, I believe he thought to himself: “I want this to be mine.”

For a Conquistador that was promised governance by Spanish royalty for any land he took over, I’m sure the deal seemed pretty fruitful.  I bet a few other factors widened his pupils; such as the fact the empire had a well-functioning infrastructure, was rich with precious metals, and was inhabited by people who recognized (and feared) the power their modern weaponry held.  The latter was what brought Atahualpa, the Incan emperor, to voluntarily meet with Pizarro in hopes of discussing a peaceful resolution towards the accusation of being an enemy to the Catholic Church and Spanish Crown.  Of course, this was nothing more than a conniving plan to isolate Atahualpa who, having never seen a book before, threw the Bible aside when presented with the option of converting to Catholicism.  This was the only impetus the Spanish needed to attack, thus unleashing a rain of cannon and gunfire on the unarmed natives that had accompanied their leader.  The result?  2,000 massacred Incans, a captured emperor, and only 5 Spanish deaths.

Afterward, the general gist goes as you would expect; Pizarro’s men pillaged their gold and silver, raped their women, mercilessly killed those who didn’t convert to their way of thinking, and demolished communities in order to rebuild them as “Spanish” (the one they missed, as you may know, being the famous Machu Picchu).  As I alluded to earlier, these Conquistadors literally wanted nothing more than to erase anything Incan from the history books.

All of this from the man who said: “We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.”

It is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.  Those are the key observations of Pizarro that keep reverberating in my head.  On a factual level these words have meaning because it’s true, the Incan empire was so beautiful and they did complete astonishing works of engineering, but on a personal level it’s because I have trouble coming to terms with someone who carried out brutal atrocities when he was fully aware of the majesty that was laid out in front of him.  Acting primarily out of greed, he ordered the complete destruction of one the most impressive cultures history has ever seen.

As I work and live in the Sacred Valley, a region which is a stone’s throw away from Cuzco and was the main agricultural stronghold of the area, I am constantly surrounded by this history.  Ruins – which include anything from watchtowers, to terraces, to houses – are scattered across the landscape in such abundance that many a passerby don’t even bother to look.  Yet there they stand, not only as a stark reminder of what once was, but as an indication of resistance from a civilization who ensured the Spanish couldn’t finish what they set out to do.

I find that to be one of the fascinating aspects of where I am currently living, that I am constantly surrounded by both the magnifcicent creations of human ingenuity and the beastly demonstration of unyielding coercion.  It always amazes me how the beauty and ugliness in the history of this place perpetually co-exists in a bizarre harmony, and that you can see it plainly in front of you in a simple task like walking to the market in the morning.  Never before have I lived in a place as unique as this, and I’d be lucky as hell if I ever get to again.