Andes Mountain High

The two-hour bus ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo allowed us to behold the Andes for the first time. Gasps were audible as the kids scrambled for their cameras, elbowed their neighbors, exclaiming, “Look at that!” I felt as if I’d never seen a mountain before these; hills and bumps, maybe, but not a real mountain. The imposing rocks jut sharply toward heaven and are something to be with reckoned with, for sure. Be careful here. But they are also majestic and breathtakingly beautiful. Oddly, they also seem welcoming. Perhaps it’s because they inspire such awe that we feel beckoned unto them.

We stopped along the road to take in the vistas and, I’ll just be honest, to use the bathroom. (Will I never again take a trip without a kid asking to stop to use the potty?) We tumbled off the bus and our relationship with the Andes began. Students sat down to stare at them. A few began to meditate. We hadn’t reached our destination yet and already we felt moved by this extraordinary space on the planet. It made me hunger for knowledge about the people who chose to carve (very literally) a civilization into these monstrous, unforgiving mountains.

Our home for two weeks is the village of Ollantaytambo, perched  in small valley where about six craggy peaks meet.  This was an Inca stronghold in the Cusco province and the estate of Emperor Pachacuti. It’s an amazing archaeological site and the footprints of the Inca have not been washed away by time. You can see the Inca everywhere, not just in the ruins that surround us, but in the faces of the inhabitants. You can hear the echo of their voices in the local tongue.

We met our representatives from World Leadership School who, on the first day, sent the students on a Global Issues Scavenger Hunt. The kids divided into teams and, without maps, had to find local products, sites or items. How do you do that without a map? How do you find items that you’ve never heard of before, such as a chakana? You ask the locals. It was a clever way to quickly break down barriers to interacting with villagers, to learn the layout of the town together and to simply learn what things are called. The students relished this competition won not by speed, but by quality of their answers.

Yesterday we hiked the massive ruins built on the side of a mountain, arriving at the Sun Temple. To stand in the Temple and survey the expanse around us left us as breathless as the altitude.  We saw specks of orange rooftops of our little village below. We saw the mountain we will climb for our trek and overnight camping. We saw the granaries of the Inca built impossibly high, magically high, otherworldly high on an adjacent peak. It’s difficult to comprehend the lives once lived nearly dangling from a precipice.

After our descent from the Sun Temple, we were guided to another sacred space in the ruins. There, we sat in silence to meditate and to journal. It was a profound silence broken only by the sounds of birds and the winds of the past and future.

What treasures will the Andes share with us next?

Meditation

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