If you are ever looking for meaning and acceptance in Northern Peru, don’t go to Huancabamba. I stepped off the bus and was greeted by the cocked leg of a slightly tetanus-y looking dog. Night was falling, and I did the rounds of the taxi offices at the station to try and find out what there was to do.
The trouble with hidden gems is that most of the gems are pretty well hidden. No one spoke English, and my Spanish had only improved to the extent that when I ordered a sandwich I was no longer being slapped. Suddenly an apparition of the tourist officer in Trujillo appeared before me; ‘only the shamans will show you any hospitality’ she sang, before evaporating. With this in mind, I approached a wooden hut adorned with advertisements for holistic healing and rituals. ‘One shaman, please’, I chirruped to the man, who snarled, made a quick phone call, and ushered me into a taxi.
Bowling along through a dark, wet Peruvian backwater with a stranger who probably – if not definitely – owned a banjo, I began to feel that ‘off-the-beaten-track’ wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Through a variety of hand movements and grunts, I eventually established that my conveyer was taking me to Maestro Curandero, a local shaman or ‘witch-doctor’ who specialized in back pains. I arrived at a roadside shack about thirty minutes outside town. Maestro Curandero received me on the doorstep. He looked about fifty, with a weathered face and dark, perspicacious eyes. He wore a poncho and sandals: the garb of a true rustic. He informed me that for the next twenty-four hours I wasn’t to eat any salt, sugar, meat, spice, grain or dairy product, and then ushered me into a ‘bedroom’ that looked like somewhere you’d be water boarded by Boko Haram. My roomies were a couple of elderly Peruvians who were there to have their arthritis cured. The three of us were told to sleep for a couple of hours on our straw mattresses, then be up and outside at midnight.
The ‘operating theatre’ was a concrete patio covered by a tarpaulin; there was a stuffed badger-type-thing hanging above us. The Maestro set up an array of vials, feathers, and skulls and began chanting some sort of liturgical rap. The next three hours, the Maestro whipped us with palm fronds, energetically fondled us, made us sniff ointments, chew twigs, and drink liquefied cactus. In retrospect, it was character-building, but sitting in the freezing cold being hit in the knee caps with a bamboo cane with no food or company except that of two old arthritic Peruvians and a dead badger was not a classic Tuesday night itinerary.
At 3 a.m. we staggered back to our bedroom, half expecting to find James Bond having his balls whacked by Le Chiffre, and went to bed.
In the morning, Maestro Curandero led me uphill for about seven miles, through driving rain and woodland, to a freezing mountaintop lake. He told me to take my clothes off and get in the water, so I did. He proceeded to spit some green potion on me while maintaining fierce eye contact. I got out, dressed, and we walked back down the mountain as if nothing strange had happened.
As I got on the bus to leave, feeling slightly violated, I could have sworn a sudden wave of clarity and contentment swept over me. Admittedly I hadn’t eaten anything for two days and I was still picking bits of bark out of my teeth, but something about the Maestro’s raw simplicity and purity of spirit cheered me up. Here was a man who wasn’t corrupted by mod cons or distracted by social media; the Maestro was a product of another time, another age, another culture. Then, as the bus pulled away, I saw him playing Crossy Road on his iPhone and I changed my mind. My smile became wistful, and the beaten track, I decided, was fine with me; I belonged there. It was time to go home.