The Supernatural in Memoir

02 Jan
I’m a scientist who always frowned upon new-age beliefs that crystals heal, that mountains house supernatural powers, humming will bring universal peace, and other hogwash. I set out to document in The Gift of El Tio that building a mine in Bolivia would alleviate poverty, and that development takes priority over protecting cultures. I discovered a huge silver deposit and if it required the move of an indigenous Qu

"The Gift of El Tio" by Larry Buchanan and Karen Gans

“The Gift of El Tio” by Larry Buchanan and Karen Gans

echua village, so be it.

Imagine how caught off-guard I was when told it was not solely I who was responsible for this discovery. For the past 400 years the Quechua have passed down word of a prophesy that in the year 2000 the people of San Cristobal would receive a gift, a gift that would make them rich in silver, given to them by their god of the underworld, El Tio. I made my discovery in 1995, close enough for the villagers to believe this gift was it.

Our memoir documents the life of a 1000-year old Quechua village soon to be destroyed and the impact that change would bring. Befriended by Senobio, a character in The Gift of El Tio, I learned ho

w very significant the supernatural is in the lives of these people. To write their story without including their beliefs would give an incomplete picture of who these people are. The Quechua of southwest Bolivia believe rocks are their direct ancestors, they are living souls that speak, feel emotions and have distinct personalities. Most are benign, never failing to offer good advice; others come alive at night to cause grievous harm. Every mountain is a mallku, a wise god; every cliff a demon or spirit; every rock an ancestor. At night the tales flow of the mischievous rocks, those Achachilas, blinding old people or making them deaf; of little blonde girls with cloven hooves luring men to their deaths; of those who commit suicide, zombie-like condemnados, roaming the earth in their wormy, bloody rags in their vain search for peace. How could we possibly ignore this important element of the Quechua culture and hope to give a full picture of their lives? They believe in spirits as we believe the sun rises in the east; they have lived with the demons, sprites, monsters, ghosts, and yes, the condemnados, their entire lives. They know they exist; they have no doubts.
In a culture that has no written history, story telling is a fine art, such as the story related to us by the village nurse, Octavio Lopez Colqui:

“Late at night you hear it. ‘Squeak, Squeak.’ It is trying to move. Oye, listen, very quiet, you hear it again. ‘Squeak, Squeak.’ Not loud. Very soft, like a campanita, a little bell. Getting louder, ‘Squeak,’ with each footstep, moving toward the village. Somebody will die this night. We hide under our blankets.” Octavio pulls his hands over his head, his bronze, weathered face staring into the flames as we nudge closer to each other.

“We call it El Ataut, perhaps it is Ataud, I don’t remember. Like a box but with four legs, no? Patitas we call them. We use it to carry the dead from the village up to the cemetery. It stays up there.”
Karen leans forward, “Have you ever seen it moving yourself?”

“No, no, never, very few people, only certain ones can see it move, but I have heard it many times, yes many times,” he says, cupping his hand to his ear to hear the distant sounds.

“It is made of wood, all of it, bound with some nails and cuero but it is old, the pieces rub together and it squeaks. I know it walks. You see the patitas. They are rounded, well rounded, worn by so many nights of walking through the rocks. Rounded, rounded, like this, and scratched. Yes.” Octavio demonstrates by curling his right hand into a tight fist and rubbing it with his left, laughing softly.
He leans forward as we huddle next to him to avoid the winds. The smell of llama and earth feels warm and comforting. “You hear it getting closer and closer. ‘Squeak, Squeak, Squeak,’ each time louder.” He leans back and laughs, “We put rocks against the door. We hide in the corners. You hear it walking down the streets, yes, up and down each street, up and down every one. And then…it stops.”

Karen and I react the same. “In front of somebody’s house?”
He nods his head. “Yes, then you wait…some time…some time. And you hear it. Again it starts to walk, away from the house. Back up the street, up the hill to the cemetery.”
“Carrying the dead?” we ask in unison.

He shakes his head. “No, no, not the dead. It steals el alma, the soul of the one about to die and carries it to the cemetery. It is Ataut’s duty. He must bury it in the shadow of the cross.”
“And, the person whose…?”

“Claro, of course, they die soon thereafter,” he says, shaking his head and spitting on the ground. Then he smiles, “That is the way it is.”
Karen and I snuggle a little closer. Three people had died in the past week. “That Ataut must be very busy,” I say.

larry and karenOctavio shrugs his shoulders, nods and smiles. “That is the way it is.”

This is just a taste of the Quechua belief systems introduced to us during our stay in San Cristobal. We invite you to read The Gift of El Tio and join us in our remarkable experiences – often unb

elievable, but true!


The Gift of El Tio is co-written by husband and wife team Larry Buchanan and Karen Gans.  The above blog post is written by Larry Buchanan.  To purchase the book, go to


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Posted by on January 2, 2013 in Uncategorized


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