Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part three: walking slowly.
I’m a really slow walker. I’m a painfully slow walker, according to my sister. I love to dawdle, and gawk, and sigh, and look, and hum, and sing, and pray, and meander. And maybe take a few steps forward. Slowly. Guess where this was not super welcome/ expected/ appreciated… on a four day trek up the Salkantay Mountain pass in the Cusco region of Peru. Apparently, when you have more than 30 miles and 12,000+ feet of elevation gain/descent to cover in a few short days to get to Machu Picchu, you walk at a quick clip. Even if you have short legs and are still sick to your stomach from some apricots bought in a local market the week prior. No time for meandering. Only to time for putting one foot in front of the other. Again. And Again. And Again.
The four day trek (sleeping in tents along the way! yay!) through the Salkantay Mountain Pass in Peru was the highlight of our Peruvian adventure (see this post to figure out why I was in Peru).
The trek was challenging. My adventurous spirit was squelched by altitude sickness. But it was remarkable. Why? I learned, for the first time, how to truly offer every step I take as a walking meditation.
We left our backpackers hostel in Cusco at 3:45 am on a Peruvian winter morning and by lunchtime we were deep into the remote trails of the Andean cloud forest with our native guide Edson and a group of seven fellow hikers. We did not choose the traditional-tourist ‘Incan Trail’ hike to Machu Picchu. We yearned for a more secluded, intimate experience. The Salkantay Trek follows a remote footpath and pilgrimage route for native Peruvians who paused to worship the glacier capped ‘Savage Mountain’ on their way to Machu Picchu. For hundreds of years, Quechua, Incan, and other tribal Peruvians have put one foot in front of the other on this same trail. They probably walked much faster than I did.
In Andean cosmology, mountains are Gods. Their peaks are the highest point of contact with the Milky Way, which is the most sacred living space of Spirit. Nevado Salkantay summits at 20,574 feet above sea level and the Southern Cross illuminates its highest peak at the height of the rainy season. Rightly so, Incans believed this wild, uncivilized, unconquerable mountain governed the fertility of the region. Had I known that the mountain pass I would stumble up (thank goodness my Ironman carried our water in his backpack) was christened ‘unconquerable,’ I would have prepared for the physical demands of the hike more seriously. (As it was, I mostly prepared by walking our dog Russell and up and down our hilly block a few times. Better luck next time.) But I did it.
The weather was pristine. The day before we arrived at the pass, trekkers were caught in a snowstorm; Salkantay hid behind dark cloud cover. I’ve read narratives from Peru-lovers who’ve hiked Salkantay three times (masochists) and never been granted a clear view of its jagged peak. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when we turned the corner of the trail and landed ourselves in the shadow of the most sacred mountain in the region. We were blessed.
Just a few miles earlier on the trail, our group paused to perform a native Andean ceremony. It was the most remarkable moment of the entire journey. It was a welcome respite, a much needed break. After several mornings of pre-dawn wake-up calls, wearing mittens to breakfast, and eating pancakes by candlelight in the cook tent, I was a little tired. (Actually, the wake-up calls were one of the best parts of our fully-guided trek. At 5:00 am, we’d hear a gentle knock on the outside of our tent and a sing-song “Buenas Diaaaas” signaling that steaming mugs of coca tea would magically appear right outside our zippered door. That’s room service.)
Still, after two grueling days of hiking at altitude (much, much faster than I would have liked, thank you very much. It’s not that walking is difficult. It’s that walking FAST is shockingly unnecessary), I was tired. I was ready to give up. I was counting steps. I was making myself deals and setting impossibly low standards: just make it to that next rock, just make it through the next five minutes, just make it to the next micro-break, just make it through the end of the next story this chatty Santa Cruz hiker is telling. I was exhausted.
Finally, we stopped. I sat down. I sat my meditating-loving butt on a mossy boulder and refused to get back up. My Ironman prodded me to get stand up and bundle up. My day pack transformed into weightlessness as I layered on extra vests, gloves, hats and adorable Peruvian knitted legwarmers, struggling to keep my body temperature comfortable. (Why I actually thought this trip would be comfortable is still baffling.) The view was stunning. I decided I was staying right there. I didn’t know where ‘right there’ was. In fact, turns out it was six hours away from camp. I still had an entire day ahead of striding up hill and tottering downhill: putting one foot in front of the other.
Our guide Edson gathered our group together to teach us an ancient Andean tradition. Even though I didn’t want to take one more step, I got up and hobbled over to the group, eager to participate. Edson spread a small stash of coca leaves in a wind-protected crevice of a nearby boulder. He showed us how to choose the best leaves; two leaves in the right hand and three leaves in the left hand. He explained that we were approaching the mountain pass and it was now the time to offer our journey as a sacred pilgrimage.
It was a light bulb moment. My job is to teach people that movement is prayer. And here I was: treating this hike as arduous– something to be conquered and endured. The Mountain was not be conquered, it was to be revered. The trek was not to be endured, it was to be offered. I held the coca leaves gingerly in my mittened hands, and remembered this poem:
“I appear in the wind, in soil, in stardust, in the sun,
I appear in mountains and desert rain
I am the star
and I am the stone.”
(Find it here: ‘Be Love Clothing’ )
These words eloquently remind humans that the Spirit of creative forces is manifested in every phenomenon, not limited by our cognition and rational mind.
It was a light bulb moment. I learned that experiencing the living pulse of nature, in true reverence, is learning to hear in my own racing heartbeat the rhythm of the living earth. It means listening to the wind. Listening to the moving water. Listening to the hummingbirds. Listening to the stories written by hundreds of pilgrims’ feet scribed in the mud of this footpath.
My mindset changed completely. Moving forward was no longer a battle of will. Walking forward was now an act of deep reverence. Every step was an offering. I was honoring Creation in every step. For the next six hours, I barely spoke a word. I was immersed in continuous meditative prayer, using this mantra with every step:
“I offer you the breath in my lungs. I offer you the sound in my heart. I offer you the sweetness of my Spirit… Let me be silent. Let me be still. So that kindness and grace may hover over me.” (Adapted from Carolyn Myss and Andrew Harvey. You may need this book.)
With this mantra, I was not struggling. Now I was on a pilgrimage, sharing this experience with the history of the Mountain and the Spirit of nature. I found renewed energy. I actually wanted to walk forward, to move, to breathe, to offer. I wanted the trek to never end. (Until I saw our campsite off in the distance. Then I was super excited to curl up in my tent and nap before dinner.)
It was the most powerful experience, to practice true walking meditation. I hope that every day I wake up for the rest of my life, I will remember to use this mantra:
“I offer you the breath in my lungs.
I offer you the sound in my heart. I offer you the sweetness of my Spirit… Let me be silent. Let me be still.
So that kindness and grace may hover over me.”
What can you offer today? Think about and let me know. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for the next part of our journey: the Sacred City of Macchu Picchu!