Peru sees herself as one of the world’s cradles of civilization, bragging rights for where advanced cultures first emerged. That’s not the way I learned it back in the day in Central Florida. But, when you’re here, surrounded by her monuments, epic street life and stories of streets paved in silver, the grandeur of this place is durable. Seductively, Peru flowers in places the culture I come from does not.
I’m in Lima’s Museo Larco, which surveys 4000 years of Peru’s pre-Columbian archeology, history and art. It is late on a Friday night and I have the museum almost all to myself. I’m in one room (of several) that displays funerary dress, specifically, cups that caught the blood of human sacrifice. Mordant. These resonant objects stand out with the qualities of something that is still emotional and alive.
Other exhibits have royal pre-Columbian gold and silver headdresses. The wall text says precious metals represent everything I need to know about Peruvian ancestral beliefs. In a dirt-colored world…metal flashed with duality, evanescence and spirit. Gold was sun and male. Silver was moon and female. The effect on a typical person must have been god-like. Designed to impress, the tall headdresses would have reflected sun and firelight in a harsh parabola. In my imagination, wearers floated amid the energetic disturbance of flash blindness. It must have been magnificent.
The Smithsonian online defines a puja as, “The act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals”. My wise friend Lisa defines a puja as her part of any great undertaking.
During puja, there is usually a symbol which serves as the transition object for gaining access to the divine. This object is not the divine, but believed to be filled with the deity ’s cosmic energy. This receptacle for spiritual energy affords the experience of direct communication with spirit. Peru is one of those transition objects for me. If I’m here, it is likely I’m feeling spiritualized.
My mother thought I would be either a preacher or a politician, which would seem to require way more decisiveness than I recall posessing most days. Still, she identified something real. Younger me had certainty. A corellary is that abstract thinking confounded me. Like, how could a thermometer read five degrees below zero when we all know nothing is less than another abyss of nothing? Algebra challenged, I could do the math but the utility of it escaped me.
I earnestly believed god was the contained story taught in Sunday school and read at the foot of my bed. Over the years, education took me away from simplistic understanding. Critical thinking formed a different relationship to the divine. However much I know that pushes me toward atheism or agnosticism, I have always been a connection junkie. I want to feel, to relate, to be filled-up. I want to believe.
The first time I came here was as a guest of the government tourism association. They fed me Peruvian ceviche and took me to Machu Picchu, which rearranges everyone who goes. Peru has one of the fastest growing middle classes in the world. It has a stable if imperfect society of kind, warm, soulfully engaged people. But it is the uninterested-in-modernism bits of Peru that keep bringing me back.
Outside of Lima it is typical to see women, especially, dressed traditionally in petticoated skirts and tall-crown, pleated hats that communicate marital status, among other things. On market days, they’ll carry bundles of herbs to sell for making what is an acquired taste I can only describe as bitter Andean pesto.
As an American, I can (or rather, used to) point to a proud history of democracy and rule of law. From time to time, movies, fine art and technology place us at the center of the soft-power world. Peru doesn’t have the proud politics and modern arts we do. But it does have an unshakable culture of belief. God is a spiritual contagion you can catch from Amazonian plants. Shamans take on your darkness in Christ-like transubstantiation. Family is all-important. Nature is ever present. Magic is real. Peru is saturated in the divine.
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