Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part one: the essence of learning.
At least a hundred of you asked: “How was Peru?! Was it fun?” when I returned from a seventeen day pilgrimage to Peru in August. It was difficult for me to answer with integrity: I felt, for the majority of the trip, ‘one step away from miserable.’
I underestimated the rage of altitude sickness (getting off the plane at nearly 12,000 feet above sea-level for the first stop on our itinerary at the legendary Lake Titicaca may not have been the wisest of choices). I underestimated the magnitude of the Salkantay Mountain Pass Trek, which took my poor little legs three days to cover 40+ miles and 15,000 feet of altitude gain (and descent). I underestimated the number of stairs in the sacred ruins of Macchu Picchu, the last Incan stronghold in the Cusco Region (last because the Spanish horses couldn’t manage to walk up the steep mountain switchbacks to find this gem of a palace city. Smart horses.). I underestimated the inevitability of traveler’s GI unpleasantness, the chill of the South American winter (no buildings have heat and windows don’t close) and how tiring it can be to pack and re-pack my one little backpack every morning at 4:30 am to catch our next bus/plane/tour. Saying the physicality of the trip was difficult is like saying Justin Bieber is a little bit popular. But in the end (hindsight is reassuringly forgiving, isn’t it?) the trip was an invaluable learning experience and a cathartic spiritual pilgrimage.
And I discovered something new about myself, about my connection (read: awe) of the earth and its sacredness, about the quality of my personal relationships, and about how I really want to spend my time in this life. I learned. And I was changed. And, of course, I’ve got stories. And some sweet pictures. I read in a guide book that Peru will make a professional photographer out of anyone.
I only used my iPhone to snap pictures and they are incredible. Maybe not as incredibly focused or detailed as Mr. Travel-guy with his 8-pocket vest, zip off pants, and water-proofed-four-lensed-nine pound-camera; but my little digital shots are fairly epic. And certainly good enough for my travel-asana slideshow (go here!)
My adventure trip to Peru was planned with my favorite person, my Ironman, who has set the lofty goal of taking an international trip every year. He wants the total number of countries he’s visited to always be greater than his age. So far, so good. A year ago we started saving (read: selling lots of clothes on eBay, Aparigraha at its finest) for this trip to Peru.
Why? I used to work for an anti-poverty, sustainable community development organization called Outreach International. Outreach International (my friend Josh is their brand manager, check out their website!) has several promising reforestation projects in Bolivia; the pictures of the highlands and the communities who are involved in these development projects captured my heart. I need to go there, I thought. And see the intricately colored textiles and meet these hardworking people and eat their quinoa. And also pet llamas. But then I remembered that it’s ridiculously cold and windy and barren (there’s a reason Bolivians literally wear blankets)… so my thoughts shifted to Peru, Bolivia’s next door neighbor. Where I knew I could step foot in my fairytale of a heaven: The Amazon Rainforest.
As an educator, my favorite definition of ‘learning’ is “a change in an individual caused by experience.” My most formative learning experience? I’m six years old, my hair is not yet permed, I’m wearing a black polka dot party dress and jellies, sitting next to my friend Bekah in circle time, and my kindergarten teacher pulls out a Big Book about The Rainforest. I’m hooked. Our kindergarten class created the rainforest within our classroom confines: covering the walls with trees, hand-painted animal portraits, tissue paper flowers, and creepy-crawly bugs. We listened to cassette tapes called ‘Sounds of the Rainforest,’ we read books about the ecology of water cycles and life cycles of the flora and fauna, we watched video tapes featuring panoramics of the Amazon Rainforest, and we even researched our favorite rainforest animal (hello, Mr. Three-Toed Sloth, your smile is gorgeous!).
Then. The truth came out: thousands of miles of this rich ecosystem, which harbors countless unique species and plants were and are being destroyed by logging, mining, and agriculture companies. Little kindergarten Lisa? Devastated. (I’m sure I cried. I cry pretty easily. Remember this post?). What I learned about the destruction of the rainforest changed me for life: I spent my elementary career organizing penny fundraisers to buy parcels of rainforest in Bolivia for protection, I contributed my allowance to the World Wildlife Fund, I even started the first neighborhood environmentalist club. Some called me a nerd. I called myself an environmentalist. (Pause: do you have time for the BEST part about this story? I wrote a monthly newsletter for our club, E.K.A.D. “Earth Kids All Day” and totally misspelled the word “environment” in all of the issues. Where was spell-check when I needed it? Wait… where was my professional proof-reading dad? Looking back, that spelling mistake is honestly the only part of this episode that I’m embarrassed by. Not the hilarious pictures of me posing by the pile of trash that my ‘club’ picked up in our neighborhood one summer day. No, definitely not those.)
Today, I’m still influenced by the experience of learning about the rainforest. I try to live gracefully, so that my actions have little negative impact on the Earth. I eat vegetarian to reduce the demand for more ‘wild’ land to be converted to meat-producing-agriculture. I reduce my waste by recycling, reducing, and reusing as much as possible and I practice aparigraha (non-hoarding) of the Earth’s resources in countless ways. If you are interested, check out my April Aparigraga Series which offers advice on how you can also live more gently on this Sacred Earth.
My learning experience in kindergarten (thanks, Mrs. Moore) set me on a path that clarified my life’s choices into adulthood. And stirred within my soul a longing that inspired this pilgrimage to South America. To the sacred sites of Peru. To the heart of the rainforest. To the base of a tree where a three-toed sloth stealthily made its way to its morning napping hammock, grinning at two ogling Americans and their silly little iPhones.
If you ask me “How was Peru?” I will tell you: It was not a vacation, it was a learning experience. I learned about the traditional cultures of the Peruvian highlanders, about the medicinal potions of the rainforest shamans, about the sacred ceremonies of the Incan travelers on their pilgrimages to Macchu Piccu, about the Andean religion and the customs of the Guinea Pig delicacy, and about travelling with the person you love (and how to still love them when the travelling experiences are less-than-ideal.) But more importantly, what I learned was this:
If you have a dream, follow it. Focus, commit, choose a badass travel partner, and make it a reality.
What learning experience has caused you to change as an individual? Can you think of one specific ‘learning’ that changed your attitude, your perspective or your habits? I’m so interested: tell me about it!
Stay tuned for Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage Part Two (just a few days away!). Thanks for your interest, support, and hunger to learn.