Two snow-capped mountain peaks loom above the village of Cancha Cancha. One snowy crest guards each side of the valley like a boundary marker. Stone houses nestle into the end of the valley and the surrounding mountains surround them like a bowl. A river runs through the center of this basin, and the stone walls and dwellings of Cancha Cancha follow its contours. The outside world seems impossibly far away in this landscape of green fields, grey cliffs and mist-shrouded glaciers.
I hiked up into Cancha Cancha on Saturday. I was accompanied by Johnny, a Mosqoy student who served as my
Quechua interpreter, meeting assistant and travel companion. The trail follows the river and winds through thickets of trees. On the way up we passed clusters of alpacas, scraggly sheep and curious cows. There were also a few children playing by the river bank. They were wearing bright red woven ponchos and traditional toques, but playing with shiny modern toy cars. The children stared shyly at us as we passed, then broke into huge smiles when Johnny greeted them in Quechua.
When we arrived in the village, we were welcomed by a weaver on her way to the meeting. She accompanied us to the house where the meetings are held, wading barefoot through the icy river while we made our way across a makeshift bridge. The women were gathered in the yard waiting for us. Their vibrant skirts, shawls and hats really stand out against the muted green and grey backdrop of their surroundings. We held most of the meeting indoors because it was pouring rain. But after a couple hours, the sun burst through the clouds so we headed outside for some sunlight and fresh air. It was here in the yard that we asked about the mountains. Johnny wondered if it is possible to go all the way up to the glacier for a closer look. The women tsked and shook their heads, becoming quite animated and speaking all at once in Quechua. Johnny spoke with them a while and then translated for me.
The women said that it is physically possible to hike up the mountain, but insisted that we shouldn’t attempt it. Apparently those who climb that mountain don’t come back. A long time ago, the peak used to glimmer like gold and silver when the sun hit it. The women said that the mountain has a treasure at the top, and people have tried to get to the peak to see what it is that shines in the sun. However, the mountain gets jealous when people come too close. So the mountain takes their lives to protect its treasure, and to discourage others from attempting the climb. The peak no longer glimmers in the sunshine, because the mountain has gotten tired of people trying to climb it and has decided to hide its treasure. It is better to
respect the mountain’s wishes and stay away so we don’t become its next victims.
As Johnny explained to me, every element of nature has its own soul or spirit in the Andean worldview. Humans must recognize and respect these spirits if they wish to live in harmony with their surroundings. The women’s warning about the mountain’s jealous nature was a perfect example of these beliefs. For me, the anecdote was a fascinating peek into their spirituality and their understanding of life. It also served as yet another reminder as to how very different their world is from mine. We thanked the women for the meeting and for explaining about the mountain, then packed up and hiked back down to the highway far below. On the return trip I saw our surroundings with new eyes, and wondered what stories are held in each rock, each hill, and each curve of the river.