In the world’s driest desert, ancient wisdom flourishes eternally | ET REALITY


I was sitting with nine other artists in the middle of the Chilean desert, with the Andean volcanic peaks in front of me and the Cordillera de la Sal behind me. I squinted at the morning sun coming over the peaks, feeling small as it began to illuminate the desert in all directions. Carlos, our host, had spread a blanket on the warm sand and was now setting down a bottle of red wine, a bowl of coca leaves, and four cups.

As a group we prepared plates with organic offerings: edible fruit pods from a carobor carob, tree; chañar seeds; a few slices of apple and orange, before taking turns kneeling on the ground and filling the glasses with coca leaves and wine in a particular order. The cups on the right represented women, life, while those on the left represented men, death, always a duality. Then we moved over a small hole dug in the ground that represents Mother Earth’s mouth, to leave our offerings and talk to her as we wanted.

Here, among the Lickanantay, the indigenous people of the area, we were participating in a reciprocity ceremony called Ayni, a traditional offering made to Mother Earth to ask for her invitation and protection upon our arrival. Carlos, a Lickanantay yatiri, or spiritual and medicinal healer, guided us through the ritual, which was too sacred to be photographed.

He had arrived the day before in the small community of Coyo, in a dusty corner of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, after being accepted into a three-week artist-in-residence program with Wayaka Current, an organization that focuses on the environment, community and contemporary art. I was there to learn and participate in Lickanantay culture and photograph my experience. Exhausted by life in New York City, I sought to understand how ancient wisdom thrives in this part of the world and how I could honor these values ​​in my own existence.

Coyo is not exactly a town; It is rather a collection of winding dirt roads with houses made of clay, rocks and branches taken from the surrounding landscape. To get there, I flew from New York to the city of Calama in northern Chile, where nine stranded people and I boarded a bus and headed into the desert.

As we approached Coyo, Dago, a geologist who was our driver and guide, told us that the air here would “cleanse your lungs.”

After the Ayni ceremony, I took some time to walk through the streets of the community, feeling the temperature beginning to rise as the sun dissipated the morning clouds. At first glance, the houses might have appeared worn and neglected, with cracks and crevices exposing their inhabitants to the outside world. But I saw them more tenderly: each one was made with hands deeply rooted in the earth. The roofs were held up with stones and sticks, and the fences were held together with plastic ropes. The dogs kept the homes safe.

My mind wandered to my house in New York, my apartment filled with trinkets and furniture collected over the years, photographs gathering dust. I live in a brownstone in Brooklyn, where the Lower Manhattan skyline is reflected in my bedroom mirror. I have no idea whose hands built that city.

Drawn back to Coyo by the barking of dogs, I found it difficult to reconcile the fact that, somewhere else in the world, a city was thriving with skyscrapers and lights that never went out. I realized that in New York I move through life in a way that is foreign to this community. And as long as that life exists, this community, in the driest desert in the world, asks Mother Earth if we can continue. Can we come to you for answers, Mother Earth?

The weather was confusing in the desert. The days passed from one to another. I measured his pace in the sunsets and sunrises, in the walks he had taken, in the people he had met. Sandra, Carlos’s wife, came in and out of my days. Her energy was contagious and everything about her was vibrant: her clothes, her laugh, her strength.

Sandra comes from a long line of pastors. We spent an afternoon shepherding with her, talking about her life as we walked with llamas and sheep through the desert. Every day, she and Carlos walk under the scorching sun for hours to feed their animals, walking on both sides of the herd, whistling to keep them at bay. Sandra carried Gaspar, her grandson, wrapped tightly on her back.

One day, we stopped under the shade of the trees, clearing the ground of thorns and thistles to sit while the animals grazed. Sandra told us that our base in Coyo used to be her home. However, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, she and Carlos had decided to move to where they lived now, a 15-minute drive from Coyo, a place reserved for shepherd families with miles of open land and trees that drop seeds for the animals. . eat. With no electricity, hot water, and little to no cell service, the community of families pools their money to receive regular drinking water.

Although Coyo is a humble desert community, it was a comfort to Sandra and Carlos. I had also come to understand this comfort. Sandra told us that at first it was difficult to adapt to a new way of life, but now they felt more connected to nature. While Sandra spoke, Gaspar rolled on the ground and put stones in his mouth to taste them.

I thought again of my life in New York, with its comparable comforts and conveniences: a place where we have exchanged connection and respect for other beings in exchange for a particular form of generosity. But this Life is also abundant. Sandra and Carlos walk through the desert every day by choice, feeling connected to the earth and the sky. In Brooklyn he had seen a mother scold her son for stopping to pick up sticks from the ground. I thought about Gaspar, about how lucky he was to be able to play with the earth so freely.

According to the Lickanantay, yatiris like Carlos are chosen beings who have been struck by lightning, awakening spiritual abilities that the rest of us can access only through the use of hallucinogens. Carlos was stillborn, he told us, until his mother felt a lightning strike pass through the walls of San Pedro Hospital, causing him to cry out to earth.

In Lickanantay culture, the term “pachakuti” refers to a period of social upheaval and transformation. The 2017 solar eclipse welcomed us to the fifth pachakuti, Carlos told us. For centuries, the dominant social order had been that of the Western conqueror, to hide and shame the wisdom of indigenous communities. This new pachakuti frees us from that energy, he said, and renews us with indigenous knowledge to bring harmony with Mother Earth and all her beings back into existence.

The Atacama Desert, abundant in minerals, is also full of mines: lithium, copper, magnesium and potassium. In particular, the extraction of lithium, which is used for electric vehicle batteries and is essential to the global transition to renewable energy, has been at the center of ongoing debates over mining interests, climate change and indigenous rights. .

We drove for miles over bumpy roads to marvel at the landscape: the desert, the lithium-rich salt flats, the mines themselves. Nothing, nothing, until suddenly the landscape opened up and salt could be seen for miles, dusting the desert like fresh snow. We parked the truck and I climbed onto a steep ledge to sit with this landscape, watching the sun set behind the Salt Mountain Range, turning the desert and snow-capped mountains pink.

One morning the heavens opened. At first it was just a few drops of rain, but then the winds grew stronger, the skies became grayer, and the rain began to fall relentlessly. A group of us put on our raincoats and ran out into the street, arms outstretched, to let the rain hit our sleeves.

I took a deep breath, allowing the sweet-smelling air to fill my lungs and cleanse them, like Dago had told us it would. This, I finally understood, was what he meant.

Irjaliina Paavonpera is a photographer who now lives between Sydney, Australia and Paxos, Greece. You can follow his work at instagram.

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