Looking around on the bus, there seemed to be a cyclone of ailments. One woman had an oxygen bag while many others had acupuncture needles spiking out from their heads like enlightened porcupines. The woman in the seat across the aisle from me complimented my hat saying she never wears them because they don’t look good on her, but that she actually likes mine and would maybe wear it. She spoke so fast and turned away that I don’t know if I responded or if she cared.
A deck of Oracle cards was being passed around on the topic of destiny and how our time in Peru fits into it. It felt like too broad of a question, but I remembered how destiny, a word I’ve sort of grown to hate, is always changing. Everyone was demanding to see what others around them got, not because they were interested in others’ destinies, but to wow with their own.
My teacher came unsteadily down the aisle of the bus countering its direction of movement. She leaned over the seat in front me and asked if I wouldn’t mind explaining the card to a French woman who also happened to be blind. A little nervous, I approached Elise indicating my presence so she wouldn’t be startled. She smiled almost making eye contact with me. I began to read to this woman her destiny.
The card actually didn’t feel right, like it wasn’t hers, but I began describing it to her anyhow. I realized that I had been saying colors when in fact I had no idea if she’s ever seen them. So somewhat smoothly I changed the reds and yellows to “warm” colors and observed as her face changed in recognition.
We sat close like gossiping mates on a school trip. Her French accent made mundane conversation sound buttery and luxurious. She told me that this was the card her 16 year old son picked the other day. He was supposed to be in my seat, but he drank too much last night and was very ill. She confided that she was so upset because “A parent should never have to see their child in that state. He reminded me of his father.” I wasn’t sure how to reply, so I offered to spend the day with her in his place. She said “magnifique.”
The air changed as we ascended in Pisac. I had heard a pale man in a brimmed hat and baggy clothes tell another of similar appearance that this is the “mini Machu Picchu only less crowded.” It predates the Inca civilization. Elise got a kick out of our tour guide and imitated him rolling his r’s. I tried not to think about breathing. The air was so thin that it felt like there wasn’t any.
Instead, I narrated to Elise our surroundings of mountains and terraces. It was a fun little challenge to find the best way to do justice to the setting while keeping in terms for a non-native English speaker. We all climbed up to a plateau as I counted to Elise “one, two, three, step up. And one, two, three, four, up.” On the plateau we had a few minutes to open sacred space for ourselves while the native shamans prepared a despacho and fire for us. They chanted a call and the wind gusted a response.
In the distance a deeper, more hollow sounding flute held notes for an indefinite amount of time. Going into ceremony gave me such a thrill of balancing power and humility. The same tingle of high elevation. The fire took longer to start due to the altitude, but it remained blazing as it began to downpour. I oddly felt completely dry under the thunder. Many people went into fight or flight mode. Elise was shivering. I made my presence known to her, but she already knew it was me, and I offered to take her to shelter.
Halfway down, we ran into the flute player continuing his soundtrack to the place, and she stopped. She broke from my arm and approached him almost kneeling. “This is so beautiful. Thank you. What is your name? Can I take your hand?” she said. The flute player paused to translate in his head and offered his hand between her two. I watched her meet him merely as a bystander. I smiled with a ‘gracias’ that was more for his kindness than his music.
At the base near the bus, locals had set up to sell their goods. It was an exit through the gift shop. Another flute player played this time to the chaos of desperation to make sales. Elise acknowledged the man and with certainty, said “That’s not him”, and the imposter, slightly confused by her blunt disinterest, continued to play.
We arrived at a big marketplace in the center of town, and everyone pushed through the crowds to be shown our meeting spot. Elise taught me that when guiding someone who is visually impaired to walk slightly ahead instead of side by side. This was almost easier, only I couldn’t see where she was stepping. I rushed to not fall behind the group, and she almost fell. Vibrant woven scarves flashed in front me, young girls holding baby alpacas for photos, and every step was like gathering tokens in a video game.
The group was instructed to meet outside The Blue Llama Cafe at 2pm. I planned on staying in the same square to make it easy. Everyone dispersed frantically to collect as much stuff as possible. I asked Elise what she would like to buy and was slightly surprised to hear she wanted a sweater. Escaping some pushier vendors, I spotted a shop piled high with woolen things. She immediately picked up a bright rainbow pinstriped blanket and opened it.
I described a sweater to her, and she pondered my word choice of ‘classic’. After feeling a small snag, she swapped the one in her hand for the same beneath it. Then she put it on pleased with the fit and told me to find one. I picked a similar one in pattern and tried it on. She patted me down like I was in airport security. “Too big” she said.
I half translated for her encounter with the shop man. She bargained him down over 20 soles by agreeing to take the blanket in addition to our two sweaters. When I tried to pay her for my sweater she used the same fierce and short strategy that secured its low price. She simply told me, “It’s an offering”.
A flute player approached us excitedly. He looked vaguely familiar, but in no way would I have recognized him had Elise not addressed him. She knew he was the same man she met in the mountain. Her sense of knowing amazed me. He brought her to a comfortable spot to sit in the corner of his shop and presented her with various sized flutes to play. Every two notes was off as I browsed the feathers.
A large, dark man in a brimmed hat with a scar on the right hemisphere of his face from the bridge of his nose diagonal down to his jawline asked if he could make some recommendations. He made all of the leather, beaded handles for the feathers and explained what the condor feather represents according to its colors. I held each one he handed to me and felt the black one to be mine.
He told me that feathers are powerful tools for shamans and demonstrated its use that mismatched the off-key flute playing behind him. He blessed it before wrapping it in paper for me. The room seemed to shift like I was in thin air again. Elise called to me ready to go.
In the crystal shop, Elise picked up and held each one silently assessing it. With her purchase of three, and the shop man gave us each a stone chakana southern cross pendant as a gifts. Every time she pulled out various bills from her pocket, she knew just what they were. The top one, “This is a 20.” The man gave her change and she declared, “I should have a 5.” I can’t imagine having to be so trusting.
It was almost 2, but we hadn’t strayed too far from the Blue Llama. I remember earlier that day someone said the way to distinguish llamas from alpacas is that llamas are perkier. They have upward pointed tales and long necks. Alpacas have drooped tales and short necks. The Blue Llama coffees I bought for us made my mouth feel furry, but Elise sipped with joy.
Back on the bus, Elise asked if she could pick another card since the other one was for her son, and I read it to her. While we relaxed waiting to depart, she told me about her practice as an osteo-therapist and how she loves to heal by feeling.
After we parted ways, my teacher came to see how my day went. She was a little worried because no other group member wanted to give up their day to Elise. Feeling the open space by my right arm, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that she was my day. I honestly can’t say I remember any distinct features about her appearance, but she felt like the sound of the flute in the mountain.
*Names have been changed for privacy.