When the students saw on our itinerary that there would be an “overnight trek high into the Andes,” they asked for more. “Can’t we do another one?” So before we departed, Maria and I asked World Leadership School to add a day of hiking to our plans. The representative knowingly chuckled, “Let’s just see how this one goes first. It’s hard, you know, climbing at those altitudes.”
Prayers, Offerings and a Shaman
A few nights ago, we gathered in a local lodge where a shaman performed a despacho for our group. A despacho is an ancient religious ceremony of the Andeans in which offerings and prayers are made to the apus (mountains) and Pachamama (mother earth).
Before the despacho ceremony itself, Vidal, the shaman, first talked to us. Maria, my colleague on this adventure, is well-trained in performing despachos herself and translated Vidal’s words for the students. Vidal imparted messages about returning to our spiritual selves, about our connection with the earth and our relationship with each other (“todos son Indios” – we are all Indians). He made an interesting play on these Spanish words while he was speaking on this topic: he repeated that we are all “In-Dios, en-Dios” meaning ‘in God’. This is familiar language to me as a Quaker; there is the Light of God in all of us.
Then the ceremony began. A bag of coca leaves was passed. [It should be noted that the coca leaf is part of everything here: it is used to make tea to cure all kinds maladies including altitude sickness, the locals chew it like gum and it is part of sacred ceremony.] Each of us was instructed to find four perfect leaves; ones that were whole, dark green with strong spines. Then each took a small packet containing symbolic ingredients – these would be our gifts.
The Inca believed in the concept of Ayni – that you don’t ask for something without giving in return. Reciprocity. The coca leaves would represent our prayers and wishes and the packets would be our gifts to Pachamama.
One by one the students approached the shaman at his mesita, a small table with a cloth in which to collect our prayers, two cups and other symbolic items. Each was asked to say aloud his or her prayer. Vidal received the leaves, heard the prayer and gave a response, sometimes even a humorous one. I won’t recount what the students asked for, as many were quite personal. Several shed tears. I asked for the happiness of my daughters. I didn’t realize until I stood before him how emotional an experience it would be. He whispered words of encouragement and I returned to my spot in the circle.
Next, we individually brought our small packets to the shaman. He opened them to reveal things like flower petals, spices, leaves – all items that symbolize things like love, happiness, health, prosperity, peace and others. These were the offerings for Pachamama.
Once our prayers and offerings were complete, Vidal gathered up the sides of the cloth to make the prayer bundle and closed the sacred space. We then went outside where a fire had been built over a chakana, an Inca cross-like symbol. We encircled the fire and the shaman recited his prayers and placed the prayer bundle on the fire. Women were given chicha (a corn beverage) to pour on each of the four points of the chakana and the men poured wine in points that represent the three worlds: Hana Pacha, the superior world of the gods; Kay Pacha, the world of existence; and Ucu Pacha, the underworld inhabited by ancestors and spirits of the dead.
At the completion of the ceremony, the shaman bid us farewell. It had grown late in the night and we were spent. But we stayed at the fire to have a Meeting for Worship. We worshiped in silence as the fire crackled and lit our faces. We let the experiences of the day sink in.
It was another in a series of days packed with unforgettable experiences.
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?
On Top of the World
Napaykullaki! That’s Quechua for hello. Twenty-two students, my colleague, Maria, and I are about to embark on the first-ever Senior Project to Peru. Westtown has partnered with World Leadership School to provide students with what I am sure will be an extraordinary experience. WLS was chosen because its mission aligns so well with Westtown’s. They specialize in offering hands-on experience in leadership, service and cultural immersion.
We will complete a service project (building a retaining wall at a school), spend time within the school interacting with students, engage in leadership training, meet with local leaders and see many historic sites, not the least of which is Machu Picchu. Continue reading “On Top of the World”
We had decided that on the last day we should enter the Praza de Obradoiro in Santiago and come to face the cathedral together. We designated a street where we would wait for all the peregrinos of our group to gather as they entered the city. As members of the group rounded the corner to the named location, they were greeted with hugs and hurrahs by those who arrived before them. The street filled with the sounds of congratulatory shouts, laughter and sighs of relief. Once reunited we walked together down the final stretch of the ancient street and into the plaza that faces the cathedral. It was a powerful sight to behold – not just the monstrous gothic cathedral looming over us – but all of us together, some arm in arm, taking the last steps of the Camino as one. We had arrived. Together.
We wobbled and hobbled up the steps of the cathedral to cross the threshold of the edifice that legend says contains the remains St. James the Apostle. The statue of St. James was there inside, waiting for us. Dare I say that most of us, in reality, paid the magnificent shrine to St. James little attention at all. Most did not care in that moment to observe the intricate marble sculptures, the elaborate triptychs, or even the crypt of St. James. We were focused on the fact that the end had finally come, that our weary feet would have to walk no more. We went to the offices of the cathedral to present our pilgrims’ passports and receive our Compostela, the document written in Latin and inscribed with a pilgrim’s name, that certifies one has completed the Camino. The staffers looked upon us with kindly eyes and granted each of us a compostela. The students squealed as they surveyed their precious documents.
The Camino de Santiago from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela took 5 days, and we covered a distance of 70 miles. Did I mention the rain? The hail? The wind? The cold? It was a difficult journey.
There weren’t cozy restaurants and taverns to provide respite during the arduous days. Knees, ankles and feet staged revolts against us. The albergues, public hostels, were primitive but clean, if lacking sufficient heat at night and hot water in the showers. A journey such as this – toward something spiritually significant – should contain elements of sacrifice, though. A pilgrimage is not meant to be a walk in the park. It wasn’t. But it was something better, in spite of – or because of – the hardship. Out of deprivation grow appreciation and thanks.
For me, and I think for all of us – if I dare speak on behalf of others – the Camino de Santiago was an extraordinary experience, one that will never be (can be) forgotten. In between moments of fear, strife and pain a sense of togetherness and connectedness blossomed. We held each other up, urged one another to go on, managed to laugh when laughter seemed impossible. And beneath all that rain, friendships grew. The blisters and swollen ankles will recede in our memories. What we will remember is connection, perseverance and laughter. I am incredibly proud of this resilient, spunky, funny group of students. We did this amazing thing together.
The Pain In Spain
The sun did rise as it’s supposed to on the second day of the Camino, but it was never obvious, obscured as it was by ominous clouds. We set out from Portomarrin at 7:30 in the morning, stopping for a few moments for cafe con leche or orange juice and a small pastry in town. And it was uphill from there. The next few hours were always steadily -and sometimes sharply- up. By the topographical map of the Camino, 15.8 km of our 25 km trek that day was ascendent.
The pain came early on this day because of this constant rise of the trail. Hamstrings (dubbed stringos de jamon by the students- maybe you had to be there…) were stretched to their limits. Shoes soaked by rain and mud exacerbated the already painful blisters from the day before. And then there was the rain: the steady, pelting, freezing rain. As we trudged through it I kept thinking about Forrest Gump describing the rain, “We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.” Yea, Gump rain it was. I used little things like this to keep my mind busy and to keep myself from getting too discouraged. I’ve been around students long enough to know that stress can be highly contagious.
The first steps on the Camino are toward obtaining the pilgrim’s passport, a document that is stamped along the way to show that you have actually walked to the cathedral in Santiago and not, say, taken a taxi. Was it a sign that the first church we came upon in Sarria was closed? We’ll see. We wandered through the streets and came upon a convent that answered our ringing of the bell. We purchased our pasaportes de peregrinos and the caretaker carefully impressed the stamp that signified the beginning of our journey.
Our start was a slow one. The students stopped to admire the beautiful vistas and buildings in Sarria, organizing themselves for group photos. In spite of the late start, our packs felt light and spirits were very high. We were ready for this. Vamos!
The trail quickly ascended and the rigors of the Camino began to reveal themselves almost immediately. The air became misty. The crisp morning temperatures became more frigid. The physical abilities of each person of also made themselves known. After about an hour, we were not walking as a group, but in small groups with those whose paced matched our own. The Camino is, in one way, how we imagined it would be: surrounded by verdant fields, hugged by medieval villages, traversing lovely forests. It’s also something completely different than any of us could have imagined. Continue reading “Buen Camino”
I am Lynette and together with Teacher Jorge we are chaperones on the Senior Project/Spain Exchange program. Our grand adventure consists of two parts: walking the Camino de Santiago and studying the language, culture, art and architecture of Spain in Barcelona.
We will begin our trip with the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. This pilgrimage has been made by the faithful for about a thousand years, and follows the path of legend that St. James the Apostle’s remains made. St. James’ final resting place was Santiago (which means ‘St. James’) around which the cathedral and city was built. In the middle ages the Camino was a strictly religious rite, but in the 20th century people began to come from all over the world to walk the Camino for reasons as varied as the individuals who undertook it. An estimated 200,000 pilgrims (peregrinos in Spanish) don their backpacks and make the trek to Santiago de Compostela each year. The Camino was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Continue reading “Peregrinos”