My destination, the village of Brun in Pakistan's Kalash Valley, lies at the top of this hill, but as I struggle up the steep trail my way is blocked by an elderly man wearing a feather in his cap. Quickly, several other men with feathers stuck in their caps surround me. They are courteous but firm. They want to know where I have come from and how I got here.
At this moment a voice booms from the loudspeakers of a mosque in a village below and echoes throughout the valley. It is the azan, the Muslim call to prayer. But these men pay it no attention.
The feathers in their caps are a warning sign to Muslims who live in this area that these men are infidels - nonbelievers in Allah. For me, the feathers affirm that I have found the people I have come to see, the Kalash of Pakistan, an enclave of polytheistic animists who have preserved their ancient culture in a modern state founded on the principles of Islam.
With a few words of English and much use of sign language I try to explain my presence. I tell them that I started out from a small town on the Afghan-Pakistani border and rode with some companions in a jeep for 15 miles over the treacherous winding roads of the eastern Hindu Kush mountains to the village of Ayun. From there I walked three hours, alone, along the valley trails to reach my present destination. I also tell them I have come to witness (and, if they will allow me, to participate in) Chaomos, their annual religious festival.
I am not sure they follow the details of my journey, but it soon becomes obvious they realize my companions during the jeep ride must have been Muslims. The old man who stopped me on the trail lights a sprig of juniper and encircles me three times with its pungent smoke. My contact with the Muslims has made me impure and consequently unworthy of entering the village for its Chaomos festival.
But now the sacred juniper has purified me. The tension fades as quickly as the wisps of the cleansing smoke. The Kalash shake my hand and welcome me: ''Ishpata, baba. Prusht taza?'' (Welcome, sister. Are you well?)
Then they lead me to their village and to the two-story mud and stone house of one of the villagers, Bumbur Khan, father of eight children and master of at least a few English words. Bumbur Khan, miraculously, has an empty room in his house, where I am invited to sleep during my visit.
This is my initiation to the Kalash. The Muslims refer to the three Kalash valleys of Rumbur, Birir, and Bumboret as ''Kafiristan,'' which means ''Land of the Nonbelievers.'' Originally, Kafiristan encompassed a large area spreading across the border into Afghanistan, but in 1896 the ''kafirs'' of Afghanistan were converted to Islam at swordpoint. (That area is known today as Nuristan, which means ''Land of Light.'') Their compatriots in what is now Pakistan, however, retained their traditional beliefs and never converted to Islam. Over the years the number of Kalash in the three valleys has dwindled to about 3,000, but their culture has remained intact.
The official policy of Muslim Pakistan is to respect the rights of its minorities, and there is communication and commerce between the Muslim and Kalash communities. But there is also, as might be expected, friction. Instead of one God (Allah), the Kalash religion embraces a pantheon of gods and godesses. The Kalash sacrifice animals to their gods and have a love for song and dance and a penchant for wine. None of these things endears them to their Muslim neighbors.
For now, however, the problems of a minority people surrounded by a Muslim majority are set aside. It is December, the winter solstice, and the changes in the heavens signify that the annual festival of Chaomos is at hand.
Chaomos is both a solemn and joyous occasion and goes on for several days. During the festival period, all the five-year-old Kalash boys and girls are initiated into the clan. It is also a period of purification for the adult men and women and a time to make offerings to the spirits of their ancestors. It celebrates the annual return to the valley of Balimaiyan, the demi-god who comes to count the Kalash people and, if he is pleased by what he sees, to take their prayers back to Tsiam, the mythical land from which the Kalash believe they originate.
In the evening of my first day in the village, I sit with Bumbur Khan and his family in the living (and sleeping) quarters of his house. I enjoy the dinner that Guljon, his wife, has prepared. It consists of thin crepelike bread and goat's cheese, portions of which have already been shared with the spirits of the family's ancestors. In preparation for the coming ceremonies, bits of bread and cheese have been left on the nearby hillside where carved effigies watch over the mortal remains of the ancestral dead.
Guljon, like all the Kalash women, wears the ''kupas'' or headdress made of seven rows of cowrie shells, buttons, and beads. She wears the long black dress known as ''cheo'' which is tied tightly at the waist with a sash, forming a billowing front.
Guljon, her husband aiding her sign language with his small store of English words, is curious as to why I have come alone. ''Where is your husband?'' she asks.
I explain I have no husband. She finds this incredible, and laughs even more to learn we are both 29. Already she has eight children to care for, half of whom are the sons and daughters of Bumbur Khan's first wife, now deceased, who was also Guljon's sister. After the death of a wife, it is common practice for a Kalash man to marry his wife's sister.
Afer dinner I sit on a low wooden stool next to the fire and crack walnuts with a stone. There is no chimney, so the large room is filled with smoke that burns the eyes. The low stool is peculiar to the Kalash culture, for traditionally Asians sit cross-legged on the floor. From time to time the small children and I snitch walnuts from the large wooden baskets we are quickly filling.
Walnuts were formerly a major source of income for the Kalash. Now, however, the trees they once owned belong to their Muslim neighbors, who obtained them for a low price when the Kalash fell behind in their payments on money lent to them by these wealthier neighbors. So, today, the Kalash must purchase the walnuts that have become a traditional food during the Chaomos festival.
As we sit, talking and shelling, Bumbur Khan's young son Janap teaches me the Kalash words ''dreebo'' for uncracked nuts and ''deja'' for shelled ones. Zeba, the five-year-old daughter, has more important things than walnuts on her mind. Tomorrow she will receive her first kupas, signifying her initiation into the clan. In her excitement, she dances a crazy jig across the earthen floor.
There is so much warmth and happiness here that I am sad to leave, but I am too exhausted to stay awake any longer. I climb down a wooden ladder to my room below and fall into my bed.
The next morning I stand in the dark recesses of the crowded Jestakhan, the temple dedicated to Jestak, goddess of home and family. From behind an ornately carved column, I watch as Zeba receives her first kupas. (Her brother, Salim, receives his first tunic top in a kind of pre-initiation rite.) Young Zeba wears her kupas proudly and smiles down at the new, bright pink, plastic shoes her equally proud father has given her as an initiation gift.
We move outside the Jestakhan, where solemnity gives way to song. The women and girls stand in a circle clapping their hands and singing songs of praise to Balamaiyan. The men and boys soon form a similar circle, and singing and dancing continues tirelessly throughout the day.
In the evening, I return to the Jestakhan. Bumbur Khan points out a newly built pyramid of wooden sticks (the ''kotik'') outside the temple. This will be used in the evening ceremony to honor the Kalash ancestors.
Before long, all the villagers have gathered outside the Jestakhan. The women place baskets filled with nuts, fruits, breads, and berries on the ground. Bumbur Khan explains to me that when we move inside the Jestakhan, the ancestors will come to suck the taste from the food left outside for them.
As we file into the temple, a woman gives each of us three sticks from the kotik. When all have entered, two men hold a hand-woven blanket up to the doorway to keep evil spirits from entering. In the center of the temple a fire is burning. Someone lights the three sticks carried in from the kotik and passes the fire along to the sticks of another. In silence the flame is passed along to the sticks of all present until the entire temple is flickering with lights.
We wait silently for the ancestors to come for the offerings left for them. I can almost believe I hear them sampling the food out in the darkness. The Kalash men have no doubts about it. Suddenly they dash out of the Jestakhan and ceremoniously smash down the remaining sticks in the kotik. The ancestors have come -- and gone.
The next day I follow Guljon and the other Kalash women to an icy stream -- nearby but far enough away to be out of eyesight of Kalash males. We build a small fire of twigs on the snowy bank and heat a shallow pan of water. One by one, as the pot steams on, we use the water to bathe. The women also wash their long hair in the stream, deftly twisting it into the five braids called ''chui.'' They laugh at me, for they seldom have seen a woman with short hair.
The day proceeds leisurely, but by afternoon the women reassemble in the village. It is time for ''Shishaou Suchek,'' the purification of the Kalash women. For this ceremony, each woman is given five pieces of special bread baked earlier by the men in a distant field away from the sight of the women, or in a cattlehouse where women are forbidden to enter.
The man who has passed out the ritual bread now touches a juniper branch to a fire and circles each woman five times. The smoke from the juniper surrounds each woman like a misty wreath, until all have been purified, including me. Guljon has, for the occasion, placed a kupas on my head, which I wear far less elegantly than little Zeba does hers.
The following evening is the time for purification of the Kalash men. I am not allowed to witness this ceremony, for it entails sacrifice of 20 goats to Sajigor, the god of sheep and shepherds, and his temple is forbidden to women.
As the men return to the village from their purification rites, the women form circles and begin to sing songs. The men counter with their own circles and good naturedly return refrains in kind.The songs grow more and more lively and continue far into the night.
The festival days pass, and all too soon it is time for ''Chanjah-Rat,'' the torch procession that marks the close of Chaomos. Now the Kalash people march from their villages carrying lighted branches. Standing on the high ground of Brun, I watch the line of flickering lights grow in the valley below as the marchers from one village join the marchers from the next. Soon, all the Kalash people from all the villages will be joined together in procession.
When the noisy, exhilarated marchers reach Brun, Bumbur Khan's family and the rest of the villagers are ready for them. So am I. Bumbur Khan has chosen a thick branch for me and has directed my plunging it into a roaring bonfire to set it aflame. In the darkness, amid flying sparks and cascading embers, I join the Kalash in their procession.
As I stumble uncertainly along the Kalash Valley trails with my friends, I fondly hope that Balamaiyan will accept the pleas and prayers of these historically beleaguered people and that they will be left free to celebrate their joyous festival of Chaomos for all the years to come.