COMING INTO Arequipa after Lima reminded me of driving into Skagit after downtown Seattle. The country opens up into plains and terraced crops, lorded over by sharp-peaked mountains. The river Colca snakes through canyons which look like a giant knife ripped into the dry ground. Although we had risen early and were feeling the effects of the 11,000 foot elevation, we wanted to explore the city and find the restaurants and monastery. Our lively guide Jessica buoyed us with her energy and led us through the city squares, through festival booths honoring Paccamama (Mother Earth) with various art pieces and earrings. Compared to Lima, I noticed more space for walking, more women in traditional Quechua dress with docile lambs in their arms. One of these women saw my face brighten and she bee-lined across the street, plopping the lamb in my arms before I could haggle price. Feeling its heart beat and hearing its small protesting bleat blew my heart up like a balloon, it was completely worth it.
Fields of corn and potatoes and onions carpet the surrounding area like scrubby blankets of green and gold. The peaceful nature of the old city center and the churches and mountain sentinels in the background brought us to a quietness different than Lima. The Santa Catalina Convent was a bright maze in a city of white buildings, all made of “sillar”—the volcanic dust that can be formed into a porous stone. (There was also a legend that it was called the white city because of how many Spaniards lived there, and the racism that established a hierarchy between lighter-skinned Europeans and the indigenous people). Vibrant orange, Moroccan blue, and bursts of geraniums and bougainvillea. Hushed voices and kilns for pottery and dark, ashy kitchens, smoke-holes opening up to the stark blue sky. Established in 1580 to “shelter a select group of the religious order”, the monastery was a reminder of the Catholic control that came with the Spanish.
–>The indigenous Quechua respect the dead in their culture because death is a part of the earth’s balance. Light, dark, life, death, upper world and underworld—these things are necessary. The Quechua and Incan culture would wrap their dead in heavy tapestry, surround them with important artifacts, gold and silver. The way I understand this sacred balance is that yes, to the Inca there is still good and bad, but death is a stepping stone in the process of life, like a valley is necessary for a mountain.<–
Winding up to the staggering height of 16,000’ we summited Colca pass and stood looking out over mountains, valleys, cloud puffs and thousands of rock stacks balanced along the summit. These are a way of showing Paccamama thanks for everything she is. It means something more when you know the unified meaning of all these formations and that each person built it for a similar purpose.
After the summit, our bus wound down the other side to where a group of women were selling their homemade wares. Jessica, our guide, had brought Inca Cola to share with these ladies, each of which she knew by name and it was beautiful to share a moment of commonality with people we had never met even with a language barrier. After buying a few things we set off for Colca Canyon.
Coming into the canyon was a beautiful sight: sheer cliffs on both sides, vultures wheeling above, a dark green river rushing along the canyon bottom. Arriving, we wandered through gardens and beside trumpet flowers where giant black humming-birds were feeding. I had a sense of guilt and sadness that just outside the small city was a resort created for tourists where most Peruvians would never visit.
I did feel an utter sense of calm after staying there a day, mostly from the absolute beauty of the cliffs and country we woke up to each morning. Because of little light pollution, we were surrounded by more stars in the hot springs than I thought possible. The stripe of Milky Way yawned above, planets jolting out of the black sky like search lights; I feel the depth of my being connect to the wild so much stronger when the stars burn above.
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The morning of the 11th we wandered through an outdoor market and visited a Catholic wedding in a church. The bazaar was full of new, unfamiliar types of potatoes and fruits. One tuber was a vibrant shade of pink and shaped like a lumpy finger but tasted delicious.
I didn’t mind the 5 hour bus ride through the mountains again, it was good to watch the slate mountains give way to ice and snowy peaks, and to while away the hours with thoughts of all we’ve learned so far. Even in the wildest areas in a wasteland of mountain peaks, there are groups of people living and working. A scattered herd of llama, a warmly-dressed shepherd in Adidas and sweatpants sitting on a rock overlooking the barren fields, condors swooping above. A metal corrugated house framed by crumbling bricks and various work animals, llama and cow, background of a small child tossing a kite into the wind. Or a cluster of houses surrounding a giant ornate church, packs of dogs chasing each other outside. I am struck by the resilience and tenacity of the mountain dwellers, many of whom do not have running water or electricity. But also the struggle of the government in establishing the economy and pouring funds back into its cities; it seems every politician and president we learned about ended up using their funds to their personal advantage in spite of assuring to alleviate poverty. Many of the young tour guides we spoke to were passionate about politics and the local elections which were beginning to ramp up, and determined to work toward a solution for the impoverished neighborhoods that would not drain the economy or overtax the civilians.
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–>I wrote some while I was on the train and was able to encapsulate much of how I felt about the spirituality and people of Peru, especially the Quechua and Aymara people. However, I want to delve more into how it really affected me, and how I was able to understand a small part of it from an outsider’s perspective.<–
Personally, a reoccurring issue for me was about how much energy is spent on money and the pursuit of money. Isolation and fixation on earning as much as you can is widespread in our society, making it all too easy to fall into pursuing money for money’s sake. And while I fully agree that economic comfort affects both personal life and emotional and physical well-being, I am concerned that we are spiraling further and further from our human spirit and the necessity to find quiet spaces and attend to our wellness outside of finances alone.
Being in Peru, there was a lot of poverty due to many complex social and political reasons that I do not pretend to fully untangle. Many families subsisted on very little, had few possessions and limited sanitation, water and electricity, some of whom lived far from any towns or cities in Andean villages. They did not have typical access to internet or cell service, or many other communication abilities that I often take for granted. Political figures more often than not took advantage of the corrupt system and used tax funds for their personal benefit, accepted bribes from companies seeking political influence such as construction company Oldebrecht, or inflated votes to suit their own wishes. There is no graph or statistic that can provide an algorithm of the spirituality or kindness of a culture, and I know the proof of my experience lies with my own account and with actually visiting and listening to the different narratives of the people.
When I was in the mountains of Peru, at the ancient Inca ruin of Moray, our guide invited us to dwell for a long two minutes of silence sitting in the temple of mother earth, or Paccamama. I had many issues and anxieties swirling around my brain, many I was not even aware of, but considering the peace of the earth and the beauty of its resources and wildness I fell into true silence, quiet in mind and spirit. This quietude was unbroken by any hate, shame, or guilt, the breeze and sound of birds faded to the distance. I did not think about my failure, or what I needed to add to myself to be worthy.
And through this tranquility, I saw myself as a tree surging out of rocky soil, reaching out branches like a bird’s wings. I don’t usually see myself as a strong being, but having this vision from mother earth, from God in a sense I had never felt, I know I am strong. It reminded me as well of the kindness of the earth: something forgotten so easily in the wake of natural disaster and war and unrest. All these are also true of our world, but the beauty of the Andes and the growing stewardship of the land in Peru filled my heart with hope. And hope is essential for growth.
All of this is to say that I can’t fully explain my experiences of the supernatural or transcendent world. Every time I try to nail down the spirit-world I realize it essentially resists labeling and a boxed-in identity. However you might recognize it—God, or a higher power—is bigger than I can explain, and I realize the commonality with other cultures more now than ever. We are searching for presence and life outside the everyday physical and I fully respect the Quechua and Aymara people for the examples I saw of unabashedly confronting their fears and hopes, beyond material discussions like the weather. I remember one man we met came from a poor background growing up in the mountains of Cuzco, with one parent and little opportunities for education growing up. But he was one of the strongest and most optimistic individuals I have ever met, telling me to “never give up hope, never admit defeat in the face of your fears, keep following your dreams and the things you love”. I was struck by this. He was finishing up his degree at a university in Puno on a scholarship he earned through academic testing and continued to keep through maintaining his grades, and he still visited his mother in the mountain district. And he was telling me, someone he barely knew, to never give up hope.
Mother Teresa spoke this: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
I believe as Americans we have a poverty of loneliness, isolation and dying hope. This can create havoc among us just as any kind of poverty and I only hope we can work daily, with small personal steps, toward nurturing hope and kindness in our hearts. Only when it exists in us can we continue to instill it in our homes and social groups. And when we realize the constant growth of material possession and money is not proportionate to peace and purpose.
However, ending on a lighter note, sometimes it is the smallest knowledge of hope or action of love that can change my perspective. Let us not be discouraged and remember actions that change someone’s view of humanity, no matter how small.