from Chapter 4
Birdmen of the Andes
"Faith is like the mortar holding a wall together." Don José's words seemed to take on a renewed vigor with every mile we drove into the dark mountains. "You don't need to believe in my religion to understand this. Rituals mean little, unless they help open the heart. That is important. Open your heart. Listen to it and follow its commands. Have faith in what your heart says. Without the mortar of faith, even the sturdiest wall will collapse."
We had left before dawn, headed for a town more than two hours further into the Andes than Sinincay. I drove a Peace Corps jeep over roads that sometimes were marked only by horse droppings. Hail slashed against the windshield. Occasionally our headlights exposed an Indian hut or a pack of dogs. Don José shared the seat next to me with two children. In the back were his wife and another co-op member, that member's wife, and three children. Few words were spoken, except for exchanges between Don José and me on the subject of faith. He had shrugged off most of my questions relating to how it was possible for men to fly with responses like "You will see soon enough" and "It is faith."
The air was not only cold; it was thin. The altitude was higher than anything I had experienced in recent months. I began to feel lightheaded. "Can the Birdmen fly only in villages this high up?"
Without looking away from the road, I could feel his eyes. "That has nothing to do with it. You really don't understand, do you? Flying is not just physical; it is also spiritual. I can't tell you about it. You have to experience it. Your experience may be different from mine. Remember this as you watch. When the Birdmen fly, it is to seek advice from dead ancestors. These things are not to be understood, only felt. Perhaps you will feel them as we do. Who knows."
When we pulled into the village I could see from my watch that the sun should have risen. Yet the morning was dark. The hail had turned to a cold drizzle; fog blanketed the dirt plaza. Occasionally, huts appeared, like phantoms, through the fog.
Don José pointed to one of the huts. It was next to the plaza and slightly larger than its neighbors. I parked the jeep in front of it. A crude cross was painted in red above the door. As I turned off the engine I became aware of the dancers.
First I heard the slow beating of a drum. Then the shrill notes of bamboo flutes. I stepped from the jeep into the rain. They materialized out of the fog. Their huge wings flapped in rhythm with the drum, faces hidden by furry masks. The Birdmen. Dressed in skins and feathers--foxes, deer, and condors--they danced in an undulating circle. Their heads swiveled from side to side; above the eye-slits in their masks were the faces of animals whose mouths were agape as though frozen in a moment of inexplicable horror.
The Birdmen danced around two poles painted gold and crossed on the ground. I recognized them immediately as symbolic of the staff given to Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo by Inti--just like those in the ceremony performed by Tupa Inca's priest before his flight over the Pacific! From time to time one of the Birdmen would shriek--the sound of an enraged eagle--and breaking from the circle, rush at the cross. At the last moment he would spread his wings to their full extent, leap, and glide high above the poles to land on the ground opposite and rejoin the circle.
I felt as though I were standing next to Tupa Inca himself, watching a ceremony that occurred long before the first Spaniard set foot in the Americas. The primitive music of drums and flute, the dancers, the very fog itself mesmerized me. I lost all sense of time. I spoke to no one.
A breeze slowly swept the fog from the plaza. Several dozen Indians were standing outside the circle. Huddled beneath somber ponchos, they too seemed lost in the world of the dancers.
When I glanced at my watch I was surprised to see that I had been transfixed by this ceremony for nearly two hours. None of the dancers had rested. Their amazing stamina and the energy of their flights across the poles convinced me that I was witnessing an event that transcended normal human abilities. I felt that these men had in some sense left us to enter into other worlds.
At last, the rhythm of the drum slowed. The dancers' wings dropped. Their bodies bent forward. The wings dragged along the ground making a rustling noise that could be heard between drum beats. One by one, they spun away from the circle into the crowd of onlookers. They were enveloped by men offering ponchos and bottles of trago--cane alcohol. While the ponchos were being wrapped around them, they drank long pulls from the bottles.
Don José ushered me inside a thatched-roof hut where his family and those of the other co-op members joined a group from the village. A trago bottle was being passed around. We spent the rest of our stay inside the hut drinking and sharing food prepared by local families. I felt physically and emotionally drained.
It was not until the long drive back to Sinincay that I had the opportunity to talk with Don José. I inquired as to whether any messages had been received from dead ancestors. "Of course," he answered. "Many messages. But only one for our little cooperative. Soon you will sign a big contract. Then we must work very hard to satisfy it. Very, very hard."