by Edgardo Krebs
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 11, 2007; Page C02
After learning of the death of the Peruvian shaman Nazario Turpo, killed last month when the small bus he was riding in turned over in the Andean night, lines from “Beowulf” describing the burial of a Viking warlord kept ringing in my mind:
A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour, ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.
Something about the unadorned elegance of the Old English poem’s description seemed to evoke the loss of this singular man.
Nazario Turpo was a Quechua-speaking Indian from Pacchanta, a cluster of households in a valley dominated by Mount Ausangate in southern Peru. Nazario was a peasant, indistinguishable in that respect from many other Andean Indians who make their living herding alpacas and llamas, planting potatoes and weaving. He woke up every day before dawn to fetch water from a brook and, thus, set into motion another regular day of hard work in the household and the fields. He was married, and had four children and several grandchildren.
Two things made Nazario different: He was the son of Mariano Turpo and, like Mariano, he was a paqo.
Convention and ignorance would lazily translate paqo as “shaman,” a word that has us trained to picture an almost caricaturesque wise man, straight from central casting, capable of miracle cures and spiritual ministrations, of going, with his herbs, chants and rattles, where Western medicine and religion do not tread.
In the unforgiving world of the Andes, dominated by space, sky and silence, a paqo is the person who has learned how to converse with the apus, the forces stirring in the mountains and valleys, dominating everyday life. Nazario could read the sacred geography that is always impinging decisively on the familiar human landscape. Being a paqo is a gift, a calling that very few receive.
Mariano Turpo had attained the highest rank as a paqo, but he was also an activist for his community. He realized that Peruvian Indians like himself lived in a nation-state, and that their voices would be heard only if they joined the fray of Western-style politics. This was a dangerous road that Mariano followed persistently, despite many humiliations and setbacks. He would seek out politicians, local and national, always accompanied by another Indian who knew how to read and write in Spanish. “My father talked,” Nazario remembered, “and my godfather wrote things down and read documents.”
Nazario was slow in taking to his father’s path. It happened only after he had turned 40, when a bolt of lightning left him unconscious on an Andean trail. Such an extraordinary event is interpreted as a favorable sign from the apus, and Nazario’s life changed. Mariano took him high in the mountains for a week after that and began the rituals of purification and training that would gradually transform Nazario into a paqo.
I met Nazario Turpo on several occasions in Washington, where the path of his father in search of recognition and self-representation eventually led. He came most of the time invited by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He was a consultant, working with curators to explain and give context to objects in the museum’s collections.
There was nothing false about Nazario. He did not need to pretend. There was no mistaking that he was a man of substance and authority. He had seen and lived through much, and he knew many things. But he did not put on a show or take himself seriously — not in the reverential way some Westerners who approached him were wont to adopt. He loved to drink Coca-Cola. He wore jeans. He used antibiotics when available and needed. There was no electricity in his house in Pacchanta, but he followed world events on a battery-operated transistor radio. He was well aware of 9/11, and during one of his visits to Washington in 2003, wanted to see the damage at the Pentagon. He also understood climate change, and was concerned. His bread and butter as a farmer were at stake. He could see the effects of global warming in the melting snowcap on Ausangate. He had another word for it, but was quick to adopt our own definitions when addressing audiences in Washington.
When it came to discussing those deeper things he knew, and playing chess with an anthropologist, Nazario was a flinty intellectual, unsparing in his exactitude, in the articulation of ideas. He was a botanist, a philosopher and a historian of a way of seeing the world as old as the oldest symbols in the stunning pieces recovered by Andean archaeologists.
He was doing well of late. Many tourists in Cuzco asked him to do despachos for them, offerings to the apus. That was Nazario’s geography, his history and his obligation. If the circumstances were right, and he faithfully observed the rituals, he could mediate between the sacred and the profane for anybody. For the first time in his life, he was confident that he could make enough money to buy a small place in Cuzco and send his grandchildren to school.
The last time I saw him, I was recovering from surgery. He put his hand on the scar and said, “You have to get well. People are full of light and they have a lot to give.”
Edgardo Krebs is an anthropologist living in Washington.