Cultural Musings from Peru

One of my favorite things to do is to take in all of the little cultural musings that make a place a place. Taking in the nuances of a place helps me to consider what makes it unique. Reflecting on how it compares to “home” encourages some critical thinking about why things are the way they are in each place, what I can learn, what I would change, how am I now changed. It also keeps the experiences alive, so when I think of a story or look at a picture, I can feel the memory. (*uses of the word “they” in this post are obviously generalizations and I don’t mean to speak for an entire country. It’d be like someone visiting the States and saying, “they” seem to like Starbucks.)

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And so here are some of the nuances I noticed in Peru:

– Even more so than other South American countries, there seemed to be a great amount of curiosity and concern about my solita status (single and traveling solo).

“Solita?” Si. 

“No estás casado?” (You’re not married?) Nope. 

“Tienes hijos?” (Do you have kids?) No again. 

“No te gusta hijos??” (You don’t like kids?) Yes, I love kids. I have an awesome nephew. 

Sometimes this was followed by a marriage proposal.

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Peak Experience

Getting through the length of this post may take as much effort as it took me to climb the mountain I’m about to tell you about. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and the most physically challenging thing, so I cannot help but write in detail about it. I summited a 5530m mountain; that’s 18,140ft. I say physically challenging, but I’d have to say it was equal parts emotionally, mentally, spiritually and culturally challenging and fulfilling as well.

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As luck would have it, I did find a hiking partner this time around and we met up in Huaraz, Peru, the trekking hub of the Cordillera Blanca. It is a common training ground for the Himalayas due to the number of 6000+m peaks and technical climbs in the area. Relief! I have someone to go out adventuring with me again!

The town of Huaraz itself is just barely over 10,000ft, which helps with acclimatizing. We also did a 5 day trip, the popular Santa Cruz trek, as a warm-up. It took us up and over a monster pass and down a valley, green all around us and then the white peaks towering over us.

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Apparently Paramount Pictures was as impressed as we were; they picked this peak out of the garden of stunners to be featured at the beginning of their films. (photo below)

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So conquering Mount Ishinca started with a conversation that my friend had with a German mountaineer who blessed our mountaineering experience levels as suitable for this adventure. I felt like such a bad ass before we even left town, such was the flavor of prep conversations. We were actually using the words ‘crevasse’ and ‘col’ in sentences referring to our trek, words I’d previously read or heard in the likes of Everest documentaries. Not to mention that every time you sign into a national park is a chance to be who you want to be, and we signed in as “aventurero” and “escritora” respectively. (or adventurer and writer)

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My Dance with Machu Picchu

I am not a fan of overuse of common facebook phrases, but I can’t help it here…”Machu Picchu was the low light of my travels” – said no one ever. But honesty might be the single most important thing, honesty with others of course and especially with yourself; so I have to be honest.

It felt amazing to arrive in the Sacred Valley. I energetically felt the “sacredness”, especially arriving fresh and raw from the jungle. And in spite of this, I felt a gap, something missing (Hint #1). I had a strong feeling that I was meant to be sharing this with someone, a friend, family, a love. Someone to try on fun llama hats with me!

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I returned to Cusco after my time in Pisac with hopes of meeting a travel buddy also seeking an adventurous, remote journey to Machu Picchu, to go it alone and really connect with how the Incas approached the land. Bonus if said travel buddy had a tent! No such luck, no such serendipity (Hint #2). In the mean time I enjoyed wandering the narrow, hilly streets of beautiful Cusco, full of eye candy, leg workouts and traditionally dressed women with llamas. It sure is touristy, but wow is it beautiful. It makes up for every tourist with another beautiful vista of tiled roofs, cobbled streets, ancient churches, bustling markets and a plaza that just makes you sigh.

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Finally, against everything I know to be true about myself, I booked a tour. A tour! I have since realized that it is a form of travel that many people enjoy or even rely on. I respect that. I however, am not one of those people in most situations. I like being able to figure things out and explore, following my intuition, senses, my heart. It can be fun speaking to locals, seeking the details of how to go about an adventure, preparing for it, owning it success or failure. If you have ever camped, it is entirely easy to safely approach Machu Picchu on foot without a tour. And I intend to go back and do it. But for whatever reason, I went against my gut and booked a tour.

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The girls I hiked with were super friendly and good company, although we had different hiking abilities and outdoor experience. The guide, on the other hand, had a serious case of machismo and often told me I was wrong when I asked questions and such.

“So I saw some Incan mummified children in a museum, who were sacrificed…” “No you didn’t.” Really, hmm.

“I read at the Machu Picchu museum…” “There isn’t a Machu Picchu museum.” Interesting because my ticket stub here says…ok whatever.

They proudly fed us way too much food which sadly reinforced this uncomfortable feeling I kept experiencing about feeding the perceived fat (bellies) while taking from the perceived fat (wallets) of the Westerner tourist in Peru.

But Hint #3 that this just wasn’t my time for Machu Picchu came from Mother Nature herself. After a gorgeous first day of a 5 day trek, we woke up to an equally gorgeous foot of snow. Beautiful for memories, devastating for our trek. We would be forced to return to Cusco (first time in 10 years they say) while stewing just as much over the loss of our money which would not be returned as the bitter reality that we’d be reaching Machu Picchu on a bus, quite different than the Incan approach.

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I contemplated whether I should just count my losses and start over some other time. Ultimately, I did take the train to Aguas Calientes and walked the 400 meters of vertical steps to the entrance. I got choked up when I filed into the site and was able to find a perch overlooking her on time to watch the shadows transform to gold as the sun crested the peaks of maybe the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. (and I’ve seen A LOT of mountains!)

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I spent the day using every ounce of strategy to navigate against the crowds and it worked as well as it could. I climbed Machu Picchu, la montaña, which is actually the name of a peak opposite of its striking sister, Waynu Picchu, the back drop to every Machu Picchu photo. It did offer stunning views and give me a sense for what the Incans navigated to create this sacred city. Man, they built huge steps for short people! This was a workout day. And ironically, it was 90 degrees without a cloud in the sky (although I did get a glimpse of snowy Salkantay in the distance, the namesake of the trek we had started.)

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LLamas act as the landscapers at Machu Picchu, happily munching away on grass and posing for pictures. I tried hard to picture an Incan village/sacred site in action. I hope the central patch of perfect green grass was a futbol pitch! The masonry is truly astounding. The history, the views, the immensity of it all…it really is everything you dream about when you put it on your “Do Now” list (the term I like to use instead of bucket list).

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In retrospect, I realized that I went from seclusion in the jungle with like-minded people, operating by sun and candlelight, following the rhythms of nature…to the most sought after tourist destination in South America. Oopsies! So maybe my timing was off, however, I have learned a lot in processing that and was still “wowed” along the way. Maybe it hasn’t been the highlight, but it did shed good light in my life and on this journey.

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Picture Perfect Pisac, Peru

I’m back! Note to self, don’t break a MAC computer cord in Argentina where you cannot purchase apple products. And now for some long overdue posts…

Following my adventure in the jungle I was grateful to have my friends Doug, Jake and Joe from the retreat traveling with me for a week. We set out to explore Pisac, Peru, which is near Cusco in the Sacred Valley.

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We met an amazing man, a stone shaman of sorts, in a rock/mineral/crystal shop who oozed “elderness”. Following his advice we rose at 4am the next morning for what would be one of the most breathtaking full moon to sunrise hikes ever.

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After a steep climb through impressive, ancient agriculture terraces that I loved in equal parts for the ingenuity and perseverance as for the beautiful lines they created in my photography, we were rewarded with new views and Incan ruins to explore around every bend as the rising sun worshipped them with golden rays. Something feels so magical abut rising so early and waking up with the sun, like you have some secret hours in the day that you’ve somehow earned. We had the place to ourselves and took advantage of the opportunity to have breakfast on the terraces, do a fun jump photo sequence and practice some Andean breathwork above the valley.

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In town we made some amazing acquaintances as well. If you ever visit Pisac, be sure to seek out Kaneye at the “Whole in the Wall”. You can taste the love, dedication and wholeness in her baking and hear it in her voice. What started as a quest for gluten free bread quickly became a new friendship…and yes, amazing gluten free bread too! Pisac is also known for its extensive handicraft market. I spent some time talking with local artisans about their natural dyes, weaving designs, and handmade products in hopes of striking up a partnership to put others in touch with their talent and artesan wisdom. Stay tuned!

Another hike took us into some unplanned snow. Very atmospheric, very wet and cold. What occupied our conversation most though was whether or not the sweet, locally dressed woman with a child strewn on her back had left her herd of alpaca with us with a smile and hopes that we’d take them for the day. As we captured the subject of debate on camera, the alpacas didn’t waste time debating that all they cared about was finding the nearest grass to chow down on. Lunch is served! We weren’t able to herd the alpacas and still hope that we didn’t disappoint our new friend. Ah magical Pisac!

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Deep into the Amazon I Go

The air is so sweet and so dense that you just want to eat it. This was my first impression of arriving to my 5 week stay in the Peruvian Amazon. My senses were overwhelmed in the best way possible. I had my own little hut complete with mosquito netting, a desk, candles and a hammock. It was about a 15 minute walk into the jungle and I spent much time there writing, being and listening to the symphony of sounds flow with the time of day.

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I had met a couple of acupuncturists while hiking in Argentina who had told me of this place in the Amazon. It is winter in Argentina and I decided it would be a good time to give myself the gift of my own space and time to soak in my experiences from this year. And of course being deep in nature is the best place to do this!

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There was life everywhere! When the sun shone through the canopy, all the different leaves and vines and life would light up with a bright glow. You can quite dramatically feel the vibration reach a unique intensity around you. There were hummingbirds, ducklings, butterflies by day and tarantulas, bats, cockroaches and spiders the size of my head by night. I only saw a few snakes…no anacondas!…but I’m sure many more were hanging out. To be clear, the mosquitos did not discriminate between day and night; they were relentless!

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We spent our time doing everything from yoga, Qi Gong and other body work, to dream work, meditation, walks in the jungle and incredibly refreshing swims in the river (a tributary to the Amazon!) with the piranhas. Playing music and singing were a huge component as well, and perhaps my favorite.

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The jungle has immense healing properties that we were able to experience. There are many sacred plants there that are known for their healing properties. It was like that saying “there’s an app for that” except, “there’s a plant for that” no matter what you were trying to address. We ate so clean and so healthy and also worked with different plants and teas depending on our personal health needs. All meals were cooked over open fire and enjoyed by candlelight. I feel completely detoxed and am experiencing energy like I have never felt before. You can check out the movie Sacred Science for some more insight into this place and the healing stories that it has supported.

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We had many ceremonies, sometimes with local/indigenous shamans, aimed at collective healing and transformation. In the last such ceremony as we were holding an all night vigil, I was feeling intense gratitude and was focused on sending love to my family. I literally thought, “I hope they can feel this love right now.” A few days later when I left the jungle and checked my email, sure enough I had received a note from my Dad about this. During that same night, at 2am, my parents woke up to an owl that had flown to the window and was wildly hooting away, trying to get their attention. They both said they could tell its message was something in relation to me. Don’t call me Harry Potter or anything, but things like this really do validate my belief in collective consciousness.

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If I had to choose three words to describe my experience, I’d say intense, awakening and community. This month gave me the opportunity to connect with nature and like-minded people to continue discovering, learning and growing in such a unique way. Every person and every situation has something they can teach you. How cool is that? I’m grateful for the experience to focus on the art of living and tapping into my connection to all that is alive.

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With experiences like this, it takes me quite a bit of time to process and integrate it into my natural way of being. So while I could gush about how amazing it was (and it was), I really believe it will be in my day to day life that I feel and live the discoveries and practices I experienced in the jungle. I’m now off to make my way down through the Sacred Valley, home to some old rocks you might know as Machu Picchu, en route to Argentina.