The other night my dad invited me to a reading from someone at the Mennonite church that had just published his memoir chronicling his life from his birthplace in Paraguay, retracing ancestral roots to Russia and persecution there and extending the roots that he himself had stretched into North America at the age of twenty years old. His friends and mentor introduced Erv and then he read a few excerpts of his story. Lastly, he had each of his family members present–children and grandchildren–read stories that they most identified with from his book. I found the whole presentation very touching and an exercise in modern-day storytelling that I had never seen before. Each of the voices took it’s own shape, but through the framework of Erv’s original story.
Our Focus of Inquiry for our Peru six-week course this summer was storytelling and communication. We heard and experienced so many stories during the oh so short time we spent together. Stories of hardship, of trauma, of joy, of love, of privilege, of gratitude touched us from within our group of travelers. And stories with these same themes touched us from outside our group of travelers. Stories have come to us about the magical place called Peru from the high snowy peaks of the Andes, to the dense green forests of the Amazon, to the citadel of mystical Machu Picchu. We learned from people who inhabit all of these spaces, and thus learned a bit more about what it means to be a human in these often broken, bewildering, and besieged times.
I’d like to share with you now some of our time together and I will try to punctuate opportune times with pictures for your enjoyment and increased understanding of our wonderful experience together.
Our adventure began in Lima where, after excited and nervous introductions in the airport, we traveled to our orientation destination in Caraz, a beautiful permaculture eco-lodge called Apu (or Mountain) Eco-Lodge with a view of the Cordillera Blanca. In our three days there, we built a supportive group culture, started learning about Peruvian history and culture, and outlined different course components so that students would be familiarized with our learning goals and outcomes. This course mostly focused on the focus of inquiry outlined above, as well as rugged travel, trekking, home-stays, and developmental studies.
From orientation we went to Huaraz, where we spent two days preparing for our first trek. We went to the mercado and stocked up on supplies and met with the trekking company and our guide to familiarize ourselves with the lay of the mountainous land we were about to trod. Then we traveled to Parque Nacional Huascarán by bus, enjoying the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca glistening and grand, through the dusty bus windows. Huascarán National Park is the highest tropical mountain range in the world and holds close to 660 glaciers and 300 lagoons. We (instructors and students alike) were a bundle of nerves that didn’t know how to diffuse. So as the bus bumped along the road our nerves jostled along as well and we sat in nervous anticipation of what lied ahead.
Upon arrival to Pomabamba we stayed overnight in a friendly and spacious hostal to be greeted the following morning by our three arrieros (Agustín, young and timid, Geraldo, silent and somber, and Zenón, our all-knowing hero), fourteen mules, and trusty emergency horses–Mono and Juan. During our rugged and isolated trek through the park, students learned the basics of trekking, philosophy of Leave No Trace, and how to keep safe (although we did have a few close-calls with symptoms of altitude sickness and some kind of bacteria that most of the group got halfway through our trek) and warm in the high Andes. Students also got the chance to practice camping behaviour by setting up and tearing down tents when time allowed, cooking food, and learning about the park through our guide and mountain enthusiast, Eduardo, and our trusty and steadfast arrieros. We crested mountain passes over 4,800 meters, enjoyed the cool of glaciers, and looked with awe into crystal lagoons. After hiking for a week we concluded our expedition to the park with a short bus-ride back to Huaraz to relax and recover from our rugged adventure in the snow-capped Andes.
After a day and couple nights in Huaraz we changed our surroundings dramatically during a 20+ hour bus ride to Pucallpa, our entry point into the Amazon. We took a short boat-ride down an estuary of the Amazon to arrive in a Shipibo community called Santa Clara where students spent four days and nights in homestays with families who had only this year been catapulted into modern times through electricity and running water. Many families spoke limited Spanish and the cultural exchange was even more meaningful by the fact that houses were normally built with the surroundings in mind, sometimes only three walls enclosed participants from the forest along with their thin mosquitero or mosquito netting. We partnered with an agency based out of Pucallpa called Alianza Arkana, roughly translated as The Shielded Alliance, that collaborates with many indigenous communities of the area with a particular emphasis on the Shipibo people. One of their main projects in Santa Clara is a permaculture project that will eventually reforest the deforested region around the town and provide one meal a day for the local children that attend the elementary school in the village.
After our short but sweet time in the Amazon, we transitioned back to a bustling city as we made our way to Urubamba, a city in the Sacred Valley that is a stop for many people going from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. In addition to learning about Urubambin@s first-hand from host families, during our ten days in this vibrant town, students took Spanish classes daily, worked with local mentors on independent study projects focused on learning about Andean instruments, Andean spirituality, Permaculture, and Andean weaving.
Our time in Urubamba came to an end and we said goodby to our host families and new community partners as we transitioned into the expedition phase of our course where students prepared for a ‘mini-expedition,’ where they would take on most, if not all, the leadership and logistics. Student leaders took us on the three-day trek of Salkantay a sacred apu or mountain that is one entry point to the Machu Picchu ruins. Our expedition took us through the Sacred Valley where we delved into the meaning behind being a traveler versus being a tourist on oftentime crowded parts of our journey as we headed to visit the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. We were fortunate enough to have Favian, a wonderfully joyful guide and spiritual leader. Favian’s quena (Andean flute) playing floated through the air as we took one step after another on sacred ground. His music was a plea to the mountains to allow us to journey safely, purposefully, and most importantly, to secure an invitation to journey at all. On the day we climbed from our campsite up the steps to Machu Picchu park and up more steps to Machu Picchu mountain, Favian taught us much about the quickly fading culture through an impactful pachamama ceremony, a blessing and sacrifice for pachamama, or mother earth at the Incan bridge.
We then returned to the outskirts of Urubamba, where we transitioned into our transference phase of program. We continued sharing our own stories and that of our time together and discussed how to translate what we learned and experienced in Peru to our lives back home. These final days flew by and we soon found ourselves in the heart of Peru–Cusco–basking in the light of the full moon as it sat over snowy Ausangate. In the light of the moon we offered praise, gratitude, and appreciation for the people we had met, the lives that had touched us, the places we had only briefly known, and the impact that it already had on our lives. After saying our goodbyes, we were ready to take our individual stories, now altered by the sacred apus and their inhabitants, out to our respective parts of the world.
Coming back from the place you started from and telling your story is always an interesting exercise that for me never gets easier with time. Hearing Erv and his family read his memoir gave me some hope about how storytelling can be more integrated into our experiences. I’m currently filled with a light mist of sadness because of the people and the places that I always seem to leave behind in a mission to keep moving forward with the tides of time. Sometimes the visibility through that mist is pretty good, but other times that mist clouds my vision and I have trouble seeing at all. I hope that through this account you can see some parts of my story during these last couple of months and I thank you for journeying with me.