The desert is a dangerous place. We recently went on a peregrination with the Huicholes to Wirikuta, a sacred place in the deserts of San Luis Potosí. Every two years they make the peregrination to collect hikuri (peyote), which they use in ceremonies and for medicine for the two years. It also helps them raise funds for the tribe. Karla has been planning this trip for a while, but I joined at the last minute – actually, the night before we left – because her driver pulled out. So we left on Saturday – along with Lola, Ana and Hugo, who traveled with us – and stayed the night at a friend’s house in Querétaro. The next day we joined the caravan.
As I said, the desert is a dangerous place. For example, a fist-sized fly might invade your car as you’re driving along a straight and narrow road, and the efforts of the driver to remove the monstrous insect with his over-sized sombrero might cause the car to drift off the road and down the embankment, crushing scrub and flinging loose stones and nearly flipping over. That would have been the end of the journey, because the car weighs a couple of tonnes, but I’m not the kind of driver that flips cars.*
The peregrination involves traveling to sites sacred to the huichol (Wixáritari in their language), which were invariably waterholes. This makes sense – in a desert, waterholes are going to be considered holy. There, the shamans gave people blessings with water from the sites. They also blessed vehicles, chanting and spitting water over the engines and keys. The pilgrims left offerings at the sites, such as candles with ribbons, handicrafts, and other things. I thought it was strange to leave man-made objects in these pure natural sites, but Karla pointed out that the rituals kept the sites important to the huicholes, and that protects the waterholes from more serious contamination.
We drove long into the night. During the day the wide desert surrounded by mountains on the horizon is majestic, and the sunsets are awe-inspiring, but at night the view from a moving car is desolate. Eventually we saw a long uneven row of red lights stretching across the horizon, blinking in unison. The line was too long to be some town’s decoration; the lights blinked across about a third of the horizon. Rigel insisted the lights were on ships, bobbing out on the sea, and because it was dark and we had no idea where we were we couldn’t definitively say she was wrong. We could only point out that lights on ships aren’t all red, and don’t blink on and off in unholy unison. All we could do was continue driving with that spooky and unnerving sight haunting the night on our left.**
The desert is a dangerous place. When you’re camping in the desert there are no toilets, and to relieve your bowels the best bet is to walk away from camp for 10 or 20 minutes and hope you find a clump of cactus big enough to squat behind. We’ve been scouts our whole lives, and we’ve taken the kids camping plenty of times, so this wasn’t an issue for us. Of course sometimes, in the dark, in the process of preparing the site you might get turned around 45 degrees or so. Normally this doesn’t matter, but in a place where everything has spines the consequences can be horrendous. I won’t go into excruciating detail, merely mention that some of those shrubs have long spine-covered branches that can go right between your legs as you bend, so always double-check your surrounds.
At one point we all chipped in to buy a lamb, and the peregrination went to the Cerro Donde Nace Las Lluvia – the hill that births the rain. Beyond this, we were told, the true desert began. Here there was a ceremony for the sacrifice of the lamb to appeal for our safe passage. The blood was used to bless things much like the water was, and to write symbols on the rocks of the hill. The children were quite upset about this, having already tried to feed carrots to the lamb. Rigel insisted it was not just that an animal was sacrificed for our safe passage, so Karla suggested we could make a blood sacrifice without killing anything. Rigel got very excited about that, and they used blood from Karla’s menstrual cup. Rigel used it to draw a lamb on the rocks.
We traveled down unpaved roads within an indigenous reserve, and made camp a short way from other groups on the peregrination. There was a scuffle to find or clear places for the tents and cars and fires, and as the sun went down we cooked pasta for the first meal of the day. You can tell we didn’t organise the meals, because there’s no way we’d conclude that food that needed to be boiled was the best choice to take to a desert. Anyway. Since the large bus that was bringing most of the huicholes couldn’t get down the rough roads of the desert, I drove back to the town to give some people a lift. In the dark there is only cactus shrub lining the ruts in the car’s headlights, and I could only hope the guide was good enough and the area uncomplicated enough to not get lost.
That night there was a ceremony around the main campfire, and the night resounded to the cacaphonic murmur of the blessings of the shamans and the rhythmic stamping of the feet of the crowd as they danced. Everyone contributed a stick of wood to the fire, and hikuri was passed around in a pot. The huicholes joked and laughed in their own language.
The desert is a dangerous place. The ceremony went all night, with people dancing and eating hikuri. So people were tired and high when they went to evacuate their bowels. In the morning there was a wide semi-circle of effluent just a couple of metres outside the campsite, and one unfortunately-place steaming pile in a path directly between two tents. It made us long for the days when all we had to watch out for were spines.
The next day we missed the caza de hikuri (hikuri hunt); the huicholes left early to scour the desert for the cactus and were gone most of the day. We took the kids out for a hunt with some of our friends who know the rituals. Hikuri are small cactus, just a little nubbin on the surface with a root system, normally growing under bushes or in the midst of other cacti. Traditionally, the first one that is found is left in the ground, and an offering placed around it – ours consisted of a candle, an “eye of god”, some chocolate and some home-grown tobacco. Some songs were sung to celebrate the hikuri. Then we searched for more of the cactus. The kids became surprisingly good at it, finding a dozen or so between them. I found four, two of which I gave to Karla and two which I left, and then I started collecting them. I came back with five. In the harvesting process the top of the hikuri is cut off and the roots left behind so the cactus regrows. In addition to the first one, any hikuri with flowers is also left behind.
Karla stayed awake all that night trying different recipes for hikuri, and went most of the following day before the lack of sleep caught up with her. That day we drove to Real de Catorce, which requires driving through a very long mining tunnel before arriving at the town. I was exhausted and had a headache, so Karla took the kids on horseback to the next place on the peregrination while I slept in the hotel. After so long in the desert we all loved the flush toilet and hot shower in the hotel room.
That was the end of our peregrination, bar the drive home. We stopped in Querétaro for a dinner held in honour of Hugo Blanco, the old man who was traveling with us, who turned out to be a very important and respected Peruvian agrarian reform activist. He’s had a serious life, being gaoled for his activism, deported from his own country, and barely escaping Pinochet by being smuggled out of Chile by the Swedish consulate. He’s a very interesting activist, who incorporates environmental protection as a necessary component of improving the lives of indigenous and working people.
We left Hugo in Querétaro after the dinner and drove back to Cuernavaca. We were stopped in Toluca by some police for a bit of extortion, but Lola called her brother and, after speaking to him on the phone, the police waved us on. I’m not sure what happened, but I’d like to learn how to do that myself. Coming over the mountains to the west of Cuernavaca we passed some fire trucks and police cars parked by the road, and later saw a line of small, recently lit fires from the road into the forest. Cuernavaca has experienced an unusual and sudden burst of forest fires that have threatened the outer suburbs and burned nearby towns, all in the week after the parliament passed a law allowing the governor to sell land in state-owned reserves. There’s a common train of thought that the fires are deliberately set to devalue the land so there is no opposition to its sale, and the police are there as part of the project.
Cities can be dangerous places, too.
* Although, to be fair, I can no longer say that I’m not the kind of driver that runs off the road.
** The following day, while driving down either the same or a different road, we had no way of knowing, we saw a huge installation of electricity generating windmills, and realised these must be the source of the blinking red lights.