When the Señora Gloria Cabrera Villafuerte needed domestic help, she walked a couple of blocks from her house in suburban Arequipa to a corner where the dilapidated buses that bounce and grind along the dusty gravel road winding down from the sierra make their final stop.
There, she found Alejandro and Teodoro getting off the bus, tired and wide-eyed. “Do you want to work?”, asked the Señora Gloria. Alejandro answered in Quechua: “Arí, mamay” (“yes, ma'am”).
By the time I first arrived in Arequipa a couple of years later, and started helping Gloria's son Hugo with his adventure tourism business, Alejandro and Teodoro spoke fluent enough Spanish, though with a thickish accent. Alejandro had become a competent and patient mountain guide, and accompanied me when I struggled up to the peak of 6,075-metre Nevado Chachani.
Younger brother Teodoro was still frowning over pots in the family kitchen, struggling with lowland ingredients like rice, lamb and coriander. He wanted to be a mountain guide too, and took any possible opportunity to go on climbing expeditions. I bought him some proper boots, to help get him started.
“Thanks”, he said. “Now I just need a decent sleeping bag”.
People from the sierra of Peru are periodically bedeviled by spirits and ghosts that disturb, threaten, or simply irritate. It's not a question of believing or disbelieving; for them the spirit world is just as much a constant, shadowy presence as the monumental peaks of the Andes that hover over their steep, terraced plots of land.
Last year, Teodoro and Alejandro's father was possessed by a gentíl, described as “a spirit, an ancient one, from the times before the Spanish or even the Incas”. The gentíl is said to gradually suck the energy from the person it occupies, to maintain its own life force.
Teodoro made the long trip back up into the mountains, but there was nothing he could do. His father had seen doctors, but they were unable to find either diagnosis or remedy for his wasting illness, and he eventually passed away.
In the months from December to March, which is the low season for mountain guiding, Teodoro now often works in an old, nearly exhausted gold mine near Nazca. The company pays a reasonable wage by Peruvian standards, but one that rapidly disappears in exchange for the inflated food and accommodation costs in that isolated locale. Most of the rest is sent to Teodoro's mother, back up in the sierra.
It’s hard, grinding work, as the miners hack into the earth, breaking up, shifting and dynamiting rock, then sifting through the rubble and dust for the few specks of metal. Chewing coca is compulsory. It fights off hunger, tiredness, and the omnipresent dust. The slog continues day and night.
One night, Teodoro was on the graveyard shift. He and a handful of companions were making slow progress in the dark, advancing no more than a couple of metres over several hours. They stopped for a break and a cigarette.
The men were sitting down, resting silently. Suddenly, before Teodoro appeared a a little man, less than waist high, with a long beard reaching to the ground – a creature that the miners call a chincilico. The chinchilico grabbed the startled Teodoro by the leg and, with surprising strength, dragged him a body-length or more across the ground. Then it disappeared. Roused by the kerfuffle, Teodoro’s companions asked what had happened. They had seen nothing. Shaken, Teodoro simply shrugged and muttered something evasive. But later, another man watched a big rat run past, which no one else saw.
The next day, Teodoro fell sick. His entire body ached and he was laid low. People from the mountains are as strong as oxen, and never stop work frivolously. But he had to go to the company office and ask for three full days off. He couldn’t tell them what had happened – who would believe it? Instead he said that a large stone had fallen on him.
Teodoro says the legend is that if you see a chinchilico in the mine, you must not be afraid. You must not panic but remain completely calm. Politely, you ask the chinchilico to exchange his lantern for yours. If you are not afraid, he will agree. You then request that he also exchange his helmet for your one. When you leave the mine, you find that your new helmet and lantern are made of solid gold.
“So, for this to happen, you have to have absolutely no fear when you meet the chinchilico?”, I asked Teodoro. “That’s right”, he said. “But the thing is, you always get afraid”.