If you’ve gone through U.S. customs, what’s the most outlandish or illegal thing you’ve ever brought—or sneaked—into this country? (Assuming any of you would ever do such a thing, of course!) Brined Maltese goat cheese? Horse meat salami? (Ick. I’ll eat a lot of things, but horsemeat is a taboo I can’t get around.) Cuban cigars?
Here’s mine: I once brought in a dried llama fetus I’d purchased in Bolivia. Because it was supposed to be magical.
It’s normal for children to believe in magic, and I was as normal as the rest. Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. The Tooth Fairy. At one time or another, I believed in them all. But normal children in much of the world outgrow such fanciful belief systems, transitioning gradually into a later stage of “normal”: productive adults who leave all that sort of nonsense behind. Unless they’ve had parents like mine.
Did your father have a deep belief in magic and mysticism, with a library of occult—some might say “crackpot”—volumes to support it? Mine did.
Did your mother teach you to commune with spirits by means of cut-out letters of the alphabet and a small glass “pointer” when you were a still a young child? Mine did.
So if you learned you were going to La Paz, Bolivia, would the Witches’ Market have been your first choice of the sights to see there? Mine was. And since I was 14 years old and had a huge crush on some guy whose name I don’t remember now, a love charm was on my shopping list.
It was decades ago, so my recollection is hazy, but everything about La Paz seemed magical to me, exotic in ways I hadn’t experienced before. Traveling there with my mother and a friend of hers, I approached it overland by train, on the way passing Lake Titicaca shining like an enormous silver shield in an unearthly landscape. There was greenery in the city, but, between the altitude (La Paz is in the Andes, about 12,000 feet up) and the cool, dry climate, there didn’t seem to be much. I remember walking the sloping streets and snaking alleys, admiring the crumbling Spanish Colonial buildings. Being awestruck by the unending chain of mountains, air that made me dizzy to breathe it, a sky of crystalline purity.
The market itself was open-air, extending at least two city blocks. There were a few stalls, but mostly it consisted of blankets outspread on the sidewalks, each arrayed with a selection of magical items. Vendors were seated behind the blankets, facing the street and keeping close watch on their wares. There were charms of all kinds, some of which I was probably much too young to be handling. I bought a small love charm carved from a single piece of soapstone—a man and woman about 1 ½ inches tall, standing side-by-side. I also bought a soapstone money charm—a clenched fist.
And then I saw the dried llama fetuses. For good luck. For protection against the Evil Eye. What 14-year-old doesn’t have the Evil Eye staring them down? I had to have one.
Years later I wrote a poem about the experience, which appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Exit 13 Magazine:
WITCHES' MARKET, LA PAZ
Withered as a Hand of Glory,
the dried llama fetus lays
on a blanket under low blue sky,
clenched, baking to a tough brown
turn. Potent magic for sale,
assures the Bolivian vendor.
Its rigid body guards against the Evil Eye.
The witches’ market in La Paz
uncoils across the pavement, sunning
in the lofty mountain air, exuding
muted odors of herbs and stringy things
that look like jerky hacked from
mutant beasts no one has a name for.
The city’s up so high there’s little green
to see, just shades of ochre, stone and rust.
On another blanket are charms carved
from soapstone—a charm for love,
a charm for money. I buy both:
a man and woman yoked
together at the hip, a fisted hand.
I buy the llama fetus too, smuggle it
home wrapped like a mummy
in a winding sheet—La Paz newspaper,
headlines from 1969—entombed
in my snapping clamshell suitcase.
Righteous-faced, sailing past Customs.
Knowing no witch, no evil, I.
After bringing the llama fetus home, I don’t remember having a run of especially good luck, but I don’t remember anything bad happening, either. I’ll never know what kind of protection it might have been capable of, because very soon after I unpacked the thing, it started to smell. I was in boarding school at the time, and a dead dehydrated llama is not something you want to call attention to in your dorm room. Into the dining hall dumpster it went.
As for the love and money charms, I had them both made into pendants and wore them occasionally through the years, whenever I felt I needed one or the other. I still have the money charm:
Did they work? Maybe not in a big, flashy, I’m-trading-my-Tahoe-in-for-a-Lamborghini way, but I felt quietly supported when I wore them. Being born to odd parents like mine probably had a lot to do with that perception. I hope I’ll always perceive the magic around me.
When we left La Paz days later, we departed by commercial jet. The airport was at a higher elevation than the city, more than 13,000 feet. We’d been warned that, due to the thin air at that altitude, the sensation of flying out of La Paz was a little scary. It was, but it was exhilarating too. Tires firmly on the concrete, the plane roared, picking up speed, to the very end of the runway. There, with a sickening rollercoaster plunge, it dropped off the side of the mountain until the air caught its wings. Which seemed to take a very long time. Then it rose into the sky and carried us away through the night.
Good thing I had my lucky llama fetus with me.
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