Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part three: walking slowly.

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. 

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walking into the cloudy abyss…

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).

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our camping sites along the trek in Peru were insanely beautiful

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.

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one step at a time, for many days and many miles

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.

 

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the landscape was rugged and gorgeous

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.

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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.

 

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.

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There was Navado Salkantay or ‘Savage Mountain’, just over the next pass.

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.

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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. 

 

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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

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.

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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.)

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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!

-lisa

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We made it. Two thumbs up.

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part two: art of impermanence.

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part two:  art of impermanence.

(location: Island Amantani, Lake Titicaca, Peru)

Our first adventure site in Peru (see previous post if you are wondering why I’m in Peru) was a lake excursion to the unique islands on Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable lake in the world.  It is breathtaking.  (You can learn about Lake Titicaca here).

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Lake Titicaca from Island Amantani

What’s marvelous about Lake Titicaca is not only its size, but that it is where worlds collide.  The urban bustle of Puno (if you’ve ever been to a developing world city, you know that ‘bustle’ is a nice way of saying ‘chaos’) contrasts starkly with the absolute stillness of ancient agrarian farmsteads on the islands in the lake.  The lake is the birthplace of the Incan civilization according to Andean mythology the first God of the Incans was born from these waters nestled at an altitude of 12,500+ feet.  Viracocha emerged from the lake to create the sun, the stars and the first people.  Quecha-speaking descendants of these first Incan people still live on the secluded islands today and maintain the traditional ceremonies of honoring the sun at special times of the year from the top of their highest island peaks.

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legit fesitval. school was cancelled on the island for two weeks for this traditional festival

Our Lake Titicaca tour included three stops so we could learn about the cultures of three different island communities and stay in a local home on Lake Amantani.  After stepping of the rocking boat in the shimmering sunlight of mid-afternoon, we stood awkwardly on the banks of the lake while we were assigned host families with whom we would spend the night.  Our host mother was the tiniest person you’ve ever seen in your life.  Her mantle-adorned head barely reached my shoulder… and I’m not tall to begin with.  She led us, wordlessly, grinning, to her home on the side of terraced fields.

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walking up the path to Mathilde Maria’s home

Having no common language, we communicated brilliantly with smiles, shrugs and nervous laughter before settling into our guest room.  My Ironman had to duck to get in the doorway.  Classic.  Air BnB in Willy Wonka’s Shrinker-machine.

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Air BnB, Peruvian style

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note the height of the doors

A quick lunch of quinoa soup (score) and then it was up the mountain, walking the path that would deposit us at the peak of the island: the place where the Spirit of “Pachatata,” or Father Earth, resides.  On the other side of the valley rises “Pachamama,” or Mother Earth.  Modern inhabitants of the island venerate ancient Incan ruins and traditions on these barren, wind-swept peaks.  They, clearly, are used to walking up-hill at altitude: I was repeatedly lapped by grandmas carrying bundles of corn on their backs, babies in their arms, and who knows what else in the folds of their giant skirts.  I’m pretty sure you could fit a lamb in each pocket.  But the ‘45 minute leisurely walk’ up to the highest point of Amantani Island was worth it.  It was uncomfortable, but it was worth it.  Until you’ve seen a sunset at the top of the world, you haven’t seen a sunset.  

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the sun setting over Lake Titicaca, view from Pachatata, Father Earth

As the sun disappeared behind the Andes-framed expanse of water in front of us (cordially stealing all prospects of warmth and the feeling in my fingers), my Ironman and I mimicked the sacred tradition of circling the Quecha priests’ ceremonial site four times.  As I walked, unsteadily (thanks, Altitude Sickness), head bowed against the harsh wind, fingers tucked in my armpits for warmth, I noticed the worn path beneath my hiking boots and thought: all manner of feet have walked this path.  Bare feet, hooved feet, truck-tire-bottom-sandaled feet, touristy-Solomon-shoed feet, hiking-boot-clad feet.  Literally, since the beginning of (Incan) time, feet have been circumnavigating the highest point on this island, praying for blessings.

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This revelation was humbling because it reminded me of the impermanence of life.  I like to tell my Vinyasa yoga students that the only thing CONSTANT in life is CHANGE.  Circling the weathered stone walls of this tiny temple was an act of showing up to celebrate the impermanence of life: of the inevitable setting of the sun, of the slow rising of the moon, of the constant movement of the waves, of the gently persistent wind.  And it was an act of reverence to the fleeting nature of my own life, which is a short blip, but an important blip, in the grand scheme of the universe.  It was an act of yoga.

“Yoga, like art and like music, is understanding the art of impermanence. 

It is a way of learning the spiritual discipline of showing up for a sacramental event even if you don’t know what your experience will be, how your performance will be received, how your spirit will be expressed, or what you will learn.”

 

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ready for anything

Here’s my lesson: Although life is sacred, it is fleeting.  Although our troubles are arduous, they are fleeting.  Although our blessings are unlimited, they are fleeting.  There is an art to embracing the sacredness of creation and the sacredness of impermanence without futility overshadowing this lived experience.

And there is an art to showing up.   Even when it’s freezing and your fingers are numb.

Even when your head is about to explode.

Even when you don’t speak the same language, and you don’t know how to count the local currency, and you don’t share many of the same customs: there is an art to showing up: ready for anything.  You never know what you will learn.

So, here’s my question to you: When did you ‘show up’ to an experience, feeling totally underprepared, but ready to live life to the fullest?  What unexpected blessings or unexpected stumbling blocks arose?  What did you learn?  (If you don’t have one of these moments… book a plane ticket, quickly!  There are so many places to explore in this world!  Better yet, just walk outside your workplace and strike up a conversation with the first person you meet… you never know what your experience will be and what you will learn!)

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“Yoga, like art and like music, is understanding the art of impermanence. It is a way of learning the spiritual discipline of showing up for a sacramental event even if you don’t know what your experience will be, how your performance will be received, how your spirit will be expressed, or what you will learn.”

Can’t wait to hear back from you,

-lisa

 

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage part one: the essence of learning.

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. 

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photo cred: ME!

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!)

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my Ironman

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. 

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little lisa in kindergarten

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.

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photo cred MAD

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.

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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.

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the walls in our Eco-lodge room were open to the Rainforest!

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.

-lisa