‘There are no unsacred places;/ there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places’ (Wendell Berry, How to be a Poet)
The Sacred Valley was the heart, mind and belly of the Incan Empire, chosen cosmologically, geographically, spiritually, as not only A place but THE place. Here, there is a palpable sense that the energy of place is directive. From arriving in Cusco, I felt lifted aloft for the ride. It was a floating learning ‘by going where I have to go’— unexpected, inward, earthy.
Our first day was a hasty preparation for a trek to Salkantay, the formidable apu/mountain from the Incan salcca (wild), the crown of the ridge descending to Machu Picchu. From Machu Picchu, the Southern Cross’ apex aligns with Salkantay’s summit, rising east and setting west. The Inca designated dark constellations of interstellar dust within a great celestial river (the Milky Way) believed to be part of the earth’s hydraulic cycle. During the rainy season (now) a group of dark animal constellations bringing fertility come to drink from this sacred river, grouping around the summit of Salkantay as seen from Machu Picchu— the toad signaling rain, the serpent for transformation. Machu Picchu sits on an isolated mountaintop whose cliffs spear down to the crashing Urubamba rapids, fed by glacial melt from Salkantay. Salkantay has a deep history as a place for spiritual offering and sacrifice, and also of violent wrath not to be disturbed.
Ingressing into the valley of Soraypampa we walked along a deep gorge with long cascading waterfalls on each side, Nevado Tucarhuay coming in and out of mist before us. It wasn’t long before Keaton began to sicken and stumble, and we set up the tent beside the lonely dirt road when he could go no further. I tended anxiously and ran to the road to flag down a passing pickup truck, the only vehicle in the valley. Edwin invited us to his home and put Keaton in a bed, offering coca tea to sip and Agua de Florida to smell for the altitude. A neighbor working on construction took a break to pick medicinal herbs for Keaton. When we decided we needed to descend for the night, the sky was darkening and an invasion of fog pummelled into the valley. Edwin faithfully piled us into the camioneta and we didn’t even know where we were going, bouncily descending and getting in and out to maneuver the truck through rocky washes in the dark.
I feel grateful for the instinct to ask for help, and even more for Edwin unequivocally setting aside his day to care for us. In new places, I feel a yearning for hospitality, for being welcome, and yet my vulnerability and need to be received by strangers are in part so chosen. I DO have homes, DO have access to healing resources, CAN also be the one who is flagged down, who stops. How complex the factors are to feel welcomed in a place, and yet here in the mountains we were the recipients of such single minded graciousness.
From the wide window of Edwin’s home, he watches year by year the glacier on Tucarhuay melt down. We shared ideas for the program he dreams of starting to bring underprivileged kids from Cusco to Soraypampa for escalamiento (climbing), traditional Andean living, stewardship, conocimiento (knowing) of plants and animals. I prepared a discussion of environmental education Edwin read on the Mollepata radio the following morning. Our message from Salkantay this time was to follow that glacial melt sliding down the mountainside, to take note; our work right now was of healing in pueblo and valley.
Being welcome and grounded in place, I am finding, depends upon relationship with people and relationship with tierra. These are relationships educators are working to heal at Kusi Kawsay Waldorf School in the small Sacred Valley town of Pisac that became our next stop. The school blends traditional Andean pedagogy with Waldorf philosophy and is the last gate on the camino to the towering Incan terraces of the Pisac ruins.
This school was built and the hillside terraced by a collection of dedicated families who often exchange labour or goods for children's school attendance— stone working to build terraces, carpentry, straw for roofing, artesanías. The aulas are arranged in a subtle spiral shape symbolizing the infinitude of time and learning, with typical Incan trapezoidal architecture for doorways, windows and walls. Drawing with a stick in the dirt, Rene described to us the trapezoid as a pyramid of hierarchy with the top removed, indicative of a more egalitarian home. The trapezoidal structure— less rigid, rational, uniform, is remarkable for the ability to withstand seismic events (physical and perhaps also social).
The approach here is grounded in the Andean agricultural calendar. Children learn botany through corn planting, accompanied by traditional Quechua songs about stages of growth. The revival of Quechua through bilingual education is poignant given that plenty of the parents at Kusi Kawsay grew up under the repression of Quechua, depriving them of a true mother tongue. To illustrate the spirit with which corn is approached at the school, Rene described to us the corn harvest with his father when he was a boy. After harvesting, the corn is bundled and set to dry so as to be lighter to carry home. The night of the harvest, Rene slept with his father under the stars beside the corn. Why was this necessary? he asked his father. The corn was a new visitor to their home and like any visitor should not be left alone.
I am learning how our sense of aliveness emerges culturally. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how in the Potawatomi language, the inanimate article is only ever used for non-living objects of human creation; life itself is never shlumped with the inanimate ‘it.’ Last summer my toddler cousin Rowan was picking bark off a tree when I suggested to his astonishment that the tree was alive, and bark was like skin. It became an object of curiosity what was alive and not— the wooden shingles of the house too were from trees and yes, were like skin for the house. But the carpenters bang on the shingles, does this not hurt the skin of the house? Rowan expressed in gesticulations. I said the house was dead and the tree was still alive. But this distinction of aliveness was too much to grasp, perhaps only because in Rowan’s world much more is ‘still’ alive than in my own. Aliveness is learned in childhood, and I hope, can also be re-learned.
The classrooms at Kusi Kawsay surround a large boulder that most schools would excavate in the process of construction, but which this community understands as an apu whose energy is integral to the place of the school. The students have a relationship with this apu, and every day it is a mountain, ship, island, car and more. Rene spent four years resisting the ministry of education mandate to smother the terrain with a concrete slab sports pitch. Instead, children play on soft grass, corn plots, handmade play structures, and the apu. Each breath of the school is a thoughtful resistance of a culture that is globalizing, homogenizing, industrializing, commercializing, urbanizing. The school’s library houses shelves of glossy, uniform textbooks they are issued by the state. Our eyes opened to the way these textbooks forcefully promote a culture that is oppressive, acquisitive, and at odds with the lived reality of the Kusi Kawsay community. The inside cover showed a letter of political propaganda from a Peruvian icon of political corruption on the importance of environmental education. Unrealistic cartoons distort childrens’ bodies and confine gender expressions. Norms of acquisitive consumerism are advertised in the detailing of a ‘normal’ home made of materials that will not go back to the earth, in a non-rural setting, and filled with ‘necessary’ appliances and manufactured goods. Native Peruvian culture is depicted in cute images of ‘buffoon’-like entertainment. There was nothing in these textbooks that made sense for these students’ lives, but the recognition that it was the textbook that needed to change and not the lives. The name Kusi Kawsay is an expression of the intent of the school in Quechua— ‘to live in happiness.’ This happiness is understood to emerge from a relationship with community and earth which both need ardent tending and the teaching and learning of how to tend.
This school was resurrecting a rich tradition of cultural resources to cultivate human-earth relationships, a heritage which I find my own culture to have at best forgotten. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer describes that many contemporary social pathologies (acquisitive materialism, compensations for loneliness) are rooted in a sense of homelessness— both of indigenous people violently separated from their places, and natives of elsewhere not fully arrived. She asks, ‘can a nation of immigrants become native, make a home?’ This becomes a living question of history for me— which traditions of human-earth relation are mine to draw on? Which are mine to create?
Our last night in tiny Pisac, we walked the dark tranquil streets out of town to Kerry’s warm roundhouse and both had our natal astrological charts read. It was shocking and comforting and surprising and unsurprising and devastating and uplifting to hear so many true things told about myself at once. The Sacred Valley is filled with palpable energy, but there are certain sites of really special cosmological and spiritual significance, aligned with the stars and planets in a totally particular way. Natal charts show a snapshot of the sun, moon, planets, asteroids, at the time and place of our birth. This means that we each carry with us— in our bodies and our souls— such a site of totally particular cosmological and spiritual significance.
If Cusco is the ombligo (bellybutton) of the world in Incan cosmology, Ollantaytambo is the heart. Ollanta runs through with veins of water channels, a living Incan city of arms-width cobbled ways. Following signs weaving through the Incan old town, we came to La Casa de Wow!, a home full of kindred spirits and a place of true arrival. Wow himself led us to the cupola to introduce us to the surrounding apus who appear as figures in the mountains— el Condor, el Dios de la Luna (moon God), la Pachamama (Mother Earth, in a mixture of Quechua and Castellano), el Patriarca de los Inca (the Incan Patriarch) and el Dios del Cielo (sky God). These Gods lay here in the mountains looking over us whether we see their shapes or not. Most sacred, I felt, was that we were identifying forms in jagged cliff and outcrop rock that humans had shown each other for centuries. Place is made sacred by sharing— between earth and sky, human and earth, and most palpably here, among humans across time and history.
In the mornings in Ollanta, I walked to the town market, where every day women in colorful traditional dress sold enormous mangoes, soft avocadoes, granadilla (a marvelous slurping fruit combination of pomegranate seed structure and frog egg globbiness) and much more, pig heads resting on tabletops, pungent cilantro filling the air. On street corners women sold ubiquitous tuna fruit and on a walk outside Ollanta we passed a man harvesting tuna from a cactus using a bullhorn tied to a stick to twist off the prickly fruit. He rubbed one with a corn husk to clean the spikes and cut the red fruit out of its casing to give us a snack for the road. On the way to the market I pass the bread oven, a short wooden doorway on a narrow road with the white letters ‘horno’ painted on the doorjamb. Filling the dark room is a huge wood fired oven and the baker uses a sickle-like hook attached to a long stick to pull out hundreds of buns and dump them into a tall basket. In the early morning the line is out the door to buy six hot breads for 1S (30 cents). In Ollanta we sprout lentils, drink muña tea (a mountain herb), and home cook hearty quinoa.
At Wow’s we met Leticia, Paul, Anna and Zeke, a dear, adventurous family of Friends with roots in Pennsylvania, Argentina and Bolivia. Leticia practices Shamanic Energy Healing, one approach to enlivening a tradition of connection with the earth which she translates into the context of my own culture. Through this connection, my attention was brought to my own relationship with mother earth, a relationship which I have paid little thought to, for all the care I give that other people (students) foster their own relationships with nature. Kimmerer describes the results of a survey she gave her ecology students, in which the vast majority felt unequivocally that the earth would be better off without human presence. This sentiment has been my own prevailing assumption. In taking account of my relationship with the earth, I find it marked above all by guilt (for unsustainable consumption, unintended harms), estrangement, distraction, lack of comprehension, unsteady hopelessness. But I also find intense curiosity, lifelong commitment, awe and reverence, and the exchange of signs of love— plentiful gift giving, words of affirmation, positive touches, time spent together. It was startling to contemplate for the first time that the earth could possibly be grateful for my presence. What acts of reciprocity can convince me this should be so? After all, it seems that restoration of our society’s relationship with the earth is also a matter of attending to personal nature relationships, many times over.
The mountains outside Ollanta are filled with Incan temples and settlements; the Incan capital briefly retreated here during the Spanish conquest. We set out to explore these mountains on an overnight backpack loop, beginning at the Incan bridge in Ollanta and camping at Socma, at the top of a verdant agricultural valley held up by high peaks. On the second morning our trail splintered apart and we continued cross-country into high silent valleys where children ran up and down the stiff inclines herding sheep and llama. A local man began to walk with us, saying he was going to check on his horses over the high pass towards Ollanta, but he mainly spoke Quechua and we could communicate little. As we breathlessly crested the pass I saw my first condor soaring below.
Once over the pass, it became clear that we had truly lost the route, and this man was leading us further from where we need to go to get back to Ollanta before dark. We were 1200m above the town, glaciated peaks ringing around above and cragged vertical cliff below. We chose a steep gully where it seemed least likely that we would get cliffed out on the descent. This bushwhack made a farce of my intention to sit on the earth as a daily practice; the earth wanted me not only to sit on her but to know her all around me, subsumed in high slippery grasses, nettles, cacti with long spines which stuck into my legs, and the smell of mountain mint. It was freestyle hiking, moving in all directions through space, tumbling down with eyes fixed on the pueblo far beneath. Lower down we slid on bouts of scree slide, rolling with bundles of rocks brought to life by our presence. In heat and hunger and thirst we finally arrived in the valley. I felt like a thing of the earth, caring not so much for that line between me and beyond me which is so well preserved by cleanliness and pre-made paths.
From Ollanta, we pressed to the depths of the Sacred Valley, to the ‘mind’ of Machu Picchu. Our bus ascended the Abra Malaga, the hallucinogenic (colloquial: awesome) pass guarding the eastern edge of the Andes, which looks as fantastical as it sounds, shrouded in mist. We then plunged into humid jungle on a single lane dirt road carved out of cliffside. A perilous ride, we crossed waterfalls washing across the path, rumbled over landslides, and avoided potholes which fell into scree along the vertical edge of the Urubamba River gorge, roaring class V rapids below, jaws open. All my muscles were tightened when we arrived at last at Hidroelectrica, to begin a several hours walk to Aguas Calientes along the train tracks, looping around the majestic promontory of Machu Picchu.
The morning of our climb to Machu Picchu was thick fog and heavy rain, and the trail was almost desolate. Our experience here in the rainy/low season has somewhat maintained the rhythm of winter— a sense of contraction, inward-looking, slowness, seeing close-up. We began by exploring with near-sighted admiration, as the complex Incan canal/ irrigation system performed in full force. Throughout the day, fog lifted artfully to reveal human structures and the mountains they call towards. Every aspect of the being of this place reveres the surrounding apus, trapezoidal altars lifting my eyes up to trapezoidal peaks beyond. Most of what is thought about Machu Picchu remains impassioned speculation (and it was never found by Spanish chroniclers), but this settlement was likely built under the Inca Pachacuti in the late 1400s, the same Inca who expanded the Tawantinsuyu (Incan territory; the ‘four walls of the world’) as far as now northern Ecuador, with Cusco as the symbolic center.
In the afternoon sunlight, the place was magnetic— such a singular, sacred NOW amidst long journeys of arrival and return; a testament to the power of inspired human creation and unity of purpose. On the stairway to the ‘hitching-post of the sun’, there is a sign that reads ‘no detenerse’— do not pause, or translated literally, do not un-have oneself. In the presence of such mystery and majesty, how are we not to pause? How are we not to un-have ourselves?
Detenerse is also ‘to detain, to apprehend’, another condition in which the self is un-had. There is a pull here between people losing selfhood to place, and place losing selfhood to people. For all the history of sacralization of place, Cusco is too a site of desecration, and both sacralization and desecration continue at once today.
The Sun Temple, Qorikancha, was the spiritual center of the Incan empire. It was once clad in 700 solid-gold sheets, and life-sized replicas of the empire’s flora and fauna in solid gold filled the courtyard, which was bordered by temples to the rainbow, stars, thunder and moon. High priests monitored celestial activities from an observatory and the architecture itself served as an agricultural calendar, the sun shooting through the ceremonial niche on the June solstice. Qorikancha exemplified the Inca’s exclusive use of gold in adoration, and gold mined never left the empire.
When Cusco was sacked by Pizarro in 1532, the captured Inca Atahualpa offered gold from Qoricancha as ransom and was killed anyways. ‘Struggling, battling between themselves, each soldier angled to get off with the lion’s share of the treasure [at Qorikancha], laying waste to jewels and altars’ (Galeano quoting Miguel León, my translation). This was the beginning of a long history of colonial and capitalist exploitation in South America by European nations then the United States, ‘the poverty of man resulting from the richness of the earth.’ In 1650, nearby Potosi (in now Bolivia) was an opulent city with extreme wealth in silver mining, one of the largest and richest in the world, with a population ten times the size of Boston. In Venas Abiertas, Galeano describes ‘this city condemned to nostalgia, tormented by cold and misery, is still an open wound of the colonial system in America.’ The exploitation and desecration of natural resources for political power and wealth is a continued history; as I left Qoricancha I was handed a flyer for a protest against the corruption of private businesses siphoning public funds in the construction of a new airport in Cusco. The protest was to take place in the plaza where Tupac Amaru, who led an indigenous uprising of now mythical significance, was tortured and quartered by the Spanish in 1781 by having his limbs tied to four pulling horses. It’s all part of the same story.
Our last week in Peru we rose out of the Sacred Valley to Arequipa and the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world. To arrive in the marvellous mountain village of Cabanaconde, we took the slowest bus on earth for eight hours through eerie volcanic desolation. On this trek we met new friends, breathless awe, and expansive silence. We began to understand the myriad factors that are necessary to undertake a wilderness trip, which are easy to take for granted in the US, England or New Zealand— physical/ mental health (after struggling with parasites and altitude sickness), physical safety (on this trip we avoided some hikes because of warnings of assaults), a hospitable relationship between hikers and locals (which we haven’t always found), and the ability to independently find one’s way (amidst splintering unsigned mountain paths of local use). All of these factors finally and joyfully came together on this trek. We slept in simple hospedajes in small villages in the canyon and found such kindness from the local people we met who harvested tuna fruit, avocado, apples and corn in the canyon.
When we walked back into Cabanaconde at the end of our hike, a funeral procession was advancing through town. The man leading carried a black cross, ‘Luisa Álvarez falleció 1.3.17.’ Behind him, hand in hand, a row of older women with heavy blue shawls, followed by the band— a solemn drum beat, trumpet, and weeping tuba. Neighbors stepped to their doorways as the procession passed. The iglesia and plaza of Cabanaconde are set against searing pink mountains, beyond which lies the world’s deepest canyon of Cotahuasi. My heart was softened and opened returning to this sweet town in the fresh mountain air, spring-like in the last days of rain. I wandered around, stopping at the tienda where the dueño asked me to read off the weight of a heavy sack of potatoes a mother dragged in, pausing at an embroidery shop on the plaza where a man crafted the traditional colorful, heavily embroidered brim hats, vests and skirts that all the women wear. In the evening I sat by the fountain as an old man played the flute in the supple breeze.
We know it’s time to go home when our hair is growing over our ears and our 2 oz. supply of Dr.B’s soap is almost gone. Culminating (but really continuing) an unexpected journey, I have in mind the hummingbird’s teaching to travelers: ‘to drink the sweet nectar, and to make the impossible flight.’
Books I have read while travelling in Peru:
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)
‘After all, there aren’t two worlds [indigenous knowledge and western science] there is just this one good, green earth.’
Eduardo Galeano, Patas Arriba: La Escuela del Mundo al Reves (1997)
‘A broken memory allows us to believe that richness is innocent of poverty’
Eduardo Galeano, Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971)
‘The latin american colonial economy gave forth the greatest concentration of work force then known, to make possible the greatest concentration of wealth that a civilization had given forth in the history of the world.’
Doreen Massey, ‘A Global Sense of Place’ in Space, Place and Gender (1994)
‘We need to ask whether our relative mobility and power over mobility entrenches the spatial imprisonment of other groups.’
Johan Reinard, Machu Picchu: The Sacred Center (1991, 2002)
Pantastico Hostel and Bakery
El Encuentro Vegetarian Restaurant (10S Menu!)
Green’s Organic balcony seat
San Blas Plaza and Market
Refugios Salkantay (run by Edwin), www.refugiossalkantay.com
Hostal Pisac Inca
Pisac artesanías market
Kusi Kawsay School
Kerry Moran’s Depth Astrology
Lagos Kinsa Ccocha day hike
Chicha Morada juice
La Casa de Wow!
Horno de Leña
Ollanta produce market
Pumamarca day hike
Camping Municipal (15S/carpa!)
Mercado San Camilo
Omphalos Vegetarian Restaurant (10S menu!)
Pachamama Hostel, Cabanaconde
Colca Canyon trekking (Cabanaconde-Llahuar-Llatica-Malata-San Juan de Chucho-Cabanaconde)
Margarita’s Hospedaje, Malata, Colca Canyon