South America

An Ecuadorean Rose and a Story of Should to Could..

Bill walks past and sits himself down opposite me at the writing desk. In his late fifties, to early sixties he reminds me of a friendly Grizzly Adams. Heavy set, with thick greying beard and kind, twinkly blue eyes he’s looking at me with a face wrinkled with concern. 

“I really enjoyed our walk yesterday but I’m sorry if I said anything to upset you…” he says. 

I’m absolutely mystified.

We’re staying at the Meditation Centre in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. 

Run by ex miltary, Bernie it encourages longer term stays (you only book by the week or month,) and I like the communal aspect. The rooms are next to each other with tables, chairs and hammocks outside that look out onto the gardens and tranquil, green hills of this sacred valley famous for its health inspiring properties! 

 

Meditation Centre Vilcabamba

 We all sit down and breakfast together (a choice of fresh fruit, yoghurt, oats or eggs and potatoes) in the morning, take part in a guided meditation at noon if we desire and generally have the option to keep ourselves to ourselves or socialise when we feel like it.

Yesterday Bill and I took a little stroll around the small town and then joined some of the other guests at a local juice bar. 

I was a little distracted about leaving the group early to head back to the centre to meet a chico for a date.

Its still so difficult for me sometimes, putting my time before someone else's that around fifteen minutes before I leave i’ve disappeared into my own dream world that make many people misinterpret or indeed, perhaps accurately decide, i’m being aloof.

I have my own insecurities and have often interpreted a person’s behaviour personally. I can see in this instance Bill has interpreted my distraction as dissatisfaction with his company. Its a timely reminder to always try and put myself in the other’s shoes, to endeavour to stay present when i’m in people’s company and give them my full attention.

I assure him that my distraction has nothing to do with him and chat moves on to his struggle around taking a decision about when to return home.  We discuss how paralysing it can be to make any kind of decision when the cold hearted, voice of the internal judge and critic in kicks in with its negativity and relentless shoulding. 

I grew up  with (and still experience when in contact with my family)  a relentless battering ram of  “shoulds.” 

“You should do this,”  

“You should do that,” 

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

 As if there is some model of perfection that I, in all my glorious and human fallibility, is constantly failing to live up to. 

Subsequently that’s how I internalised my own inner voice and its a relentless task master, constantly evaluating the degree of perfection within myself and to what degree i’m successfully living my life, and not letting up for a second. The bastard. 

I’m either a hero or a failure and the black or white thinking that makes any decision right or wrong creates a mental cage that then filters out the whole breadth or different shades of grey of other opportunities, possibilities and choices that I could take in between when making a decision. 

“Try replacing “should” with “could” whenever you notice yourself doing it,” says Bill. 

“For example I should have gone to university to get a degree, becomes I could have gone to university and got a degree” 

Saying the “should” out loud lets me become consciously aware of it and that its just one voice, one opinion. Changing the word to “could” gives the power back to me. 

“I could,”  implies we have a whole, wide, range of decisions to choose from  and reminds us of our own free will and responsibility for our decisions. 

Rather than berate myself with an implied judgement about the quality of the decision that  i’ve made,  “I could”  provides a simple, gentle reminder of “what is” and “what was.” A way of moving gently from judgement to compassion. 

In the gardens of the Meditation Centre there are wild, pink, roses climbing around the walls. 

“Ecuador is known for having the most beautiful roses in the world,”  Bill tells me. 

As we are  at the Equator they are the only roses to grow upwards with long, strong, straight stems. The roses around the rest of the world have to lean, and crook their branches to reach the light of the sun. 

“There’s a metaphor in there somewhere if we look hard enough”  I joke.

“Is there?” asks Bill, “well I think I’ll leave you to find it! ”

 

And find it I do. Although i’m not sure I can take any of the credit. 

A day later I see a quote from Ram Dass, the author of “Be Here Now” about trees in a forest.

When we’re walking through the forest, Dass explains, we see all different types of trees and shrubs. Some get the light through the canopy and others don’t get any. Some grow differently as a result; they are twisted or leafier or just grow low to the ground. We don’t judge any of those trees as bad or lesser just because they get less light and their stems are more twisted. 

Roses have always been my favourite flower, along with wild flowers such as poppies, anemones and forget me nots. I love the velvety petals and deep rich scent and not for one moment did I ever stop to judge the English roses rambling in my garden back home as being any less beautiful or complete for their crooked stems or winding, indirect path they took to grow towards the light.

END


A Magical Fairy Kingdom, Organic architecture and a Lesson in Surrender

MonteSuenos is my new favourite place.  I was just set to leave Vilcabamba, this little sacred valley in Ecuador close to the border with Peru when I discovered this fairy grotto, princess palace of a guest house named appropriately enough... Mountain of dreams.

Three weeks later and so far I’ve managed to haul myself away for 3 days, returning for my birthday because I could honestly think of nowhere prettier in the world I’d rather spend my 40th.

A guest house and artist studio designed, built and created by the artist Meredith Miller and her late husband the NASA astronaut, physicist and lecturer Brian Leary, this magic kingdom manages to combine all of my favourites fairy tales in one, part Wonderland, part Secret Garden and part Neverland -  this is childhood dreamscape that doesn't want to grow up.

Dragon room and Tower Room with Meditation space at the top..

A 10 minute taxi ride out of the sleepy town of Vilcabamba and up a winding road high into the hills, MonteSuenos is surrounded by the mountains and the incredible, restorative energy of the Andes. The three houses and its gardens are one big organic explosion, one long love song to Pacha Mama / Mother Nature.

Soft, feminine, undulating lines make up the buildings, the walls are painted baby pink and  interspersed with  higgledy piggledy Incan stlyle stones.  Winding spiral staircases curl up fairy cottage turrets complete with mushroom shaped rooves that glint with mirrored mosaic under the sunlight. 

Meredith still makes art from a studio in the main house - great,  magical trails of feminine forms that drape out of the canvases in glittery swirls and are embedded with soil from the sacred sites of the Andes and the healing vibration of crystals from the area. Like her art,  nature curves its way inside and out of the houses. The  gold, dappled trunks of Eucalyptus trees form latticed walls and beams to support the rooves.  Slate hewn from the mountainside mosaics the floor. Crystals, dream catchers and huge hunks of drift wood are used to decorate inside and out . Straw roofed huts puntucate the winding path up to the top of the mountain and there are hammocks aplenty with space for dining alfresco in the gardens. 

Meredith Miller

The natural elements come into their own in these surroundings, an open fire burns in the living room of the main house on chilly mornings, and there are bonfire pits outside to keep cosy whilst shooting star gazing at nightime.  A rushing waterfall has been built deep into the mountainside and decorated with moss and ferns and  a stone seated amphitheatre used for movie nights and events overlooks the hillsides.

The flower beds are immaculately maintained yet retain the soft, tendrily overflowing feel of a Secret Garden waiting to be discovered, splashes of bright orange marigolds, bright yellow trumpets and the scent of jasmine and wild roses attract butterflies, bees and humming birds.

Meredith had no experience in architecture when it came to designing Montesuenos, which she did wtih the help of her husband and an Ecuadorean team of workers. And even more brilliantly she had no plan either for how it should look. The outcome is the explosion of her following her creative instinct and letting the building evolve naturally. Something she calls Organic Architecture.

Views from the top

As the daughter of an architect and someone who spent many years working in property marketing, I spent countless hours poring over blue prints, master plans and checking the dimensions on floor plans of some of the largest projects in London. Yet I can't describe how happy it makes me to be in a building that required none of the above, and was allowed to grow naturally and indeed, organically out of the imagination of this remarkable artist.

There’s a lesson in here too for me,  about surrender. What's possible when we give up control and trying to follow our own plan and instead let life lead us where it will, and accept that the universe might have something bigger in mind.  Sometimes the force and flourish of that creative spark has the energy to create something of a scope and scale we could never have begun to imagine for ourselves, not in our wildest dreams. 

Rooms start at $25 per night with a 3 night minimum stay and includes a healthy breakfast of fruit, granola, yoghurt and eggs. There is a communal kitchen with free tea and coffee if guests wish to cook.

Views from Tower Room
One of the beautiful headboards, designed by Meredith
Bath with a view
Meredith's Art

 

END

 

The Interview: Kicking Fear to the Kerb with the Globe Trotting Granny - Connie Giffin

Connie Giffin

If you've ever been plagued with doubts that you were too old, too broke, too scared or just too damn late to discover your purpose in life and put everything you have behind living it... then this interview is for you. 

In 2008 Connie Giffin believed she'd found and was living her life purpose. A  successful, self employed, entrepreneur in her late sixties she was looking forward to handing over the reigns of her three successful businesses to her successor so that she could enjoy retirement and quality time with her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

All that was about to come crashing down when the financial crisis liquidated her clients, her companies and most of her assets and life savings -  over night. Left with nothing except her "financially shaking rocking chair." She decided she needed a new life purpose.  On the brink of her 70th birthday Connie became a student again and embarked on an 18 country tour of the world to research models of best practise in holistic education*. The aim?  She's driven by  a desire to redefine the educational system,  a legacy that won't just benefit the lives of her own family but children everywhere 

I meet Connie in the beautiful Andean hills  of Vilcabamba, in Southern Ecuador. A place nicknamed, appropriately enough, "the Valley of Longevity"  as some of its inhabitants have lived to a 129! Now 72 years young Connie holds a  BA in psychology from Prescott University, a Masters in experiential education from Prescott and is currently working towards a PHD in eco  - psychology, with Akumai. She's got smart, cropped grey hair, twinkling blue eyes and a Southern lilt to her voice that means when she talks about growing up in the forests and lakes of her grandfather's farm, I could listen all day. But make no mistake there is an assuredness and steel beneath the eyes and a voice that means business. Well it's not every great grandmother in their 70s  that loses everything only to reinvent themselves, travel the world and is now gearing up to publish their first book!  Ladies, meet Connie Giffin!

WW: Connie you've had a remarkable life, talk me through your career arc to how we come to be sitting here today. 


CG: From the age of 17 I worked in the corporate world climbing that good ol' corporate ladder. I was a central Office Manager for the Belle and Howe corporation and then in 1976 I  left all that behind me and opened my own first business which was an art gallery. 

After that I took up a traveling sales rep position in Arizona for a national photo company and five years later my former husband and I started another business creating steel and concrete cast stairs by which point I was in my forties. After that I went back to college to finish my Bachelor of Arts in Education, which I completed in 1998. 

WW: So you didn't go to university when you were 18? 

CG: Well I started studying for it when I was 18 but I didn't complete it until I was in my forties. I studied for it at night school which was the only thing I could afford on my income at the time,  but I was always determined to complete it.  And guess what...it happened.

That's one of two things I've carried from childhood. Education is the way to success and nature was my nurturer and counsellor. After I completed that qualification I moved to Colorado and opened my own mortgage business and did the design and build of monolithic homes. 

WW: And that's what you were doing when the financial crash happened?

CG: All I financed was eco - homes, earth friendly properties. That means anything sustainable that no one else would finance. Even though they were more sound, no one would touch it because they weren't conventional so that's what I financed for 9 years.

And I had my art company - a framing company; and an interior design business. I had all three companies going until the big financial crash when i lost all three.

WW: And you were content at that time with the businesses you were running? 

CG: I believed i'd found my life purpose and suddenly all of that was taken from me, if it hadn't of been I probably would have continued on. 

WW: Do you think we can have different life purposes at different stages of our lives then? 

CG: Well obviously it happens! 

At the time I provided a service that was very much needed and there was nothing like it in the US and people were desperately trying to make changes in their lives and build sustainable homes. So at least it was a beginning, i hoped it would be carried on but I hadn't planned to be the one to carry it on. I actually had a buyer for it and i was going to work with her for a couple of years and then sell the business to her, but then suddenly we had no business because we had no lenders. I lost my business, my income, my properties, everything.

WW: I can't imagine how scary that must have been. What happened next, did you start looking for other work? 

CG: So when it was all gone I stumbled around for a while. I applied for work but at my age I could not find a job, or any source of little income and had very little to live on.

WW: What did you do?

CG: I sort of wandered around lost and eventually had the good fortune to do  enough to do a programme with Barbara Marx Hubbard, called the Agents of Evolution. Through that programme, I discovered I didn't want to spend the rest of my life sitting in what I called my "financially shaky rocking chair" I wanted to get up and do something that benefited humanity and I wanted to do something for my grandchildren. 

The more I thought about it and the more I gave myself some time to let it all settle, I concluded that the way to help my grandchildren was through education. I knew we needed a new educational system but beyound that i didn't know what.

WW: Incredible. So take me through the steps from deciding you wanted to commit to a new purpose - one where you started to look for a new educational system and how you actually started down that path, a path that led you through 18 different countries!? 

CG: There was a college got in touch with me.  They thought that they'd developed a course that I was actually looking for back in 1999 when I completed my BA with them (Prescott University.)

WW: Wait, they contacted you 15 years later??  I'm not sure the administrative systems of many universities in Britain are that organized! (laughs)

CG:  It shocked me! But you know i'm a great believer that when you follow the path you're supposed to follow: the people, the path and the things you need are put before you.  I laughed and shared that I had just lost everything: money, business, properties...everything and I was desperate. He said that in those circumstances the student loan programme could probably grant me about $130,000 dollars. 

I'm very much against our young people having huge financial debts however for someone my age the repayment was really in my favor so I considered it seriously and then checked 44 other different colleges around the US hoping that from 1999 - 2011 they had also become more experiential.  To my dismay they had not, so i woke up the following morning and said "ok, then."

I called Prescott University and said here's the deal:

"I have a new purpose in life and it comes first. I need to hep the children and I need to do that by creating a new educational system.

If you can accept me back on those terms I really need a college as a background for my work and research and I know the college background will open up a lot of doors for what I want to do. 

WW: And so part of beginning to create this new educational system was to research best practise and see what's already out there?

CG: That's right. I put together a proposal for my school and was told it was far too extensive for just one student to take on! But I did all the research myself.  I had a very flexible schedule and my purpose was to locate the most innovative models of holisitic model of education in the world, so I could see what was going on that worked. For my thesis I chose 15 of the most innovative which was a drop in the bucket of all that i’ve been in contact with but those are the ones that i spent the most time, and really felt they had very outstanding models. 

WW: And you visited communities mainly? Sustainable communities? 

CG: I started in England and had a flight ticket out of Stockholm with one date in Budapest in between. The plan was to visit communities that were doing something different, communities, schools, colleges. So I had a big list that I left here with but I left it open, and also had a list of places that i wanted to visit for my book, places such as the Eden Proect in the UK and the Plantagon in Stockholm. In the end I visited 18 countries around Europe as well as America and Canada.

As my trip progressed I realized that although a lot of sustainable communities are into education they are mostly focused on educating the outside world on environmental issues rather than creating something spectacular for their own children. 

WW: Before we get on to chatting more about the actual travel, tell me some more about the places you visited, any stand out models for you?  

CG: I visited La Cite Ecologique in Canada  -  one of the most outstanding models of education I'd seen. 

Another great place and one of the greatest participants was a small community in Northern Denmark, called (in English)  The Essential Teachers Training college. This was a group of people that some years back built the tallest windmill in the world and were told it was impossible.  I had the privelege of going to the top of it while I was there, by someone that had taken part in building it. 

They decided to create a different kind of college and teach teachers how to teach. 

I also spent quite a bit of time in Nice, France while I was there. I sat at a big dining room table outside at the hostel Iwas staying in and there happened to be a family there from Australia.  The mother had homeschooled her son who had ADHD and she'd also spent most of her life promoting homeschooling and small family farming.

WW: So homeschooling and unschooling is another example of holistic education? I was gong to ask what your views are on that? 

CG: Its exactly what we need to be doing,  we need to undo everything that the children have been learning for generations in schools. 

WW: You don't think children need to be around their peers to learn social skills? 

CG: I don't think school is the only way to learn social skills. They can learn those skills in other communities, schools are only one possibility but there could be many others.

This first evening she and i got talking and people seemed to come from all around the world to join us at the table to talk about education so I didn't have to do anything, just sit there and have dinner. 

WW: What about stand out countries in terms of education? Are some countries doing it better than others?

On the whole the Scandinavian countries put a bigger empahisis on education than other countries.

Finland was my number one country. It made a change in its priorities thirty years ago.

They had very few natural resources, their economy was suffering so they chose to invest in their greatest asset, their people. Their purpose was "to give quality to every student." They weren't trying to create a handful of geniuses, they wanted their entire population educated to its fullest potential.

WW:  When put so simply it seems like such an obvious investment and so vital. Yet how many other countries have that as their guiding vision.... similar to how great organizations to work for are also often highly successful because they choose to invest in their staff.

Now lets talk about the travel. Did you have any fears before you set off -  about going on this huge adventure as a 70 year old women travelling by herself? 

CG: No but that's a personal choice I made a long time ago.  I made a decision not to live my journey in fear. So I don't. 

 

A lot of people said: You’re goin to do what?? You can’t do that! 

and I said: Well i’m going to do that!

WW: Any countries you put on the list just because you wanted to see the sights? (laughs) 

CG: I'd say it was combined if there was a country i was interested in i might look real hard so i had a legitimate reason for being there. (laughs)

WW How did you budget and plan your trip? Did you backpack or five star it? 

CG: Well lets say this, I had no money, i had a small student loan that I could use a part of for my research, I had a very small budget.  I spent 10 weeks in Europe and it cost me $5500 and 6 weeks in canada on $1250 and that included my flights to and from. 

I travelled clear across Canada, I had a Greyhound North American bus pass which was $350 for 60 days anywhere in North America and a small discount for being a senior citizen. 

In Europe I flew in to London and back from Stockholm and I got a special first class Global Euro Rail Pass.

That took care of most of my transportation.

I could not get a student airline ticket because i was over 26. I said:  what's that got to do with anything? I am as  full time a legitimate student as you'll have anywhere else?! But they didn't agree, so I changed the booking went back to the same airline and changed one of the flights and got a lower full price ticket! 

WW: And for accommodation? Did you stay in hotels,  private rooms, dorms?? 

CG: The greatest thing i did was stay in hostels all over Europe, they're not for kids anymore. I only encountered one hostel that had age restrictions,

But the hostels were a wealth of resources. Oh I stayed in dormitories, cheapest I could find. It was nothing to be in a room with 12 people and sometimes that was quieter than with two. Sometimes you'd get put next to a nightclub, but overall I stayed in some very nice ones and was very grateful to meet so many friendly people.

WW: When I meet American friends they often say to me, Oh i'd love to do what you're doing (traveling) but if I did I'd lose my healthcare...its a bit like a golden handcuffs in the States right? How do you deal with that, I'm guessing as someone who was self employed for so long you haven't had that for a while anyway? 

CG: I don't use healthcare and haven't used Western medicine since 1982 when I ruptured a disc in my back and used alternative means to get well. That's when the doctors and I parted ways.

WW: That sounds like a whole other story in itself!  

CG Yes since I don't spend one penny on that and I ignore it all  it doesn't bother me.  I got well from a lot of serious things through natural methods. I changed my health habits and I look at my health from a preventive standpoint, its one of the reasons i'm sitting opposite you right now in Vilcabamba,  Ecuador. We are in one of the healthiest place on earth and it has all kinds of health benefits. 

WW: Wonderful. So you managed to tour 18 different countries including America, Canada and then Europe. What happened when you got back? 

CG: When I got back and started to  put all of it together I  started to see a pattern forming of what's really underneath the holistic framework and 6 essences of building blocks. Holisitic education was pretty well defined by Ron Miller back in the 60s.  There were 24 groups over the years that really contributed to what we consider holistic education today, for eg Montessori, Friends Association, the homeschooling method, all kinds of different groups, and Ron Miller spent a decade putting together a definition that pooled the elements from all of that and that's what we mainly look at today.

What I discovered from my research which was new was that underneath this framework were these 6 essences that were consistently making up the base for it.

And then this year I learned from one of my participants Dr Michael Cohen that underneath all of that, one of these essences holds the solution to end all human created problems in the world

WW Is that all you dsicovered this year Connie?! (laughing) 

CG: Human created suffering, problems challenges, devastation everything...

WW: Are you going to tell me what that is, or save it for your book?

CG: Oh i'll tell you its not a secret, actually there have been quite a few other people that have proposed as a solution. But what's been missing all these years... 

We saw that reconnecting to nature is how we would get back onto a sustainable path and how war/famine would end because we'd have a complete redistribution of resources and in community people would share  - but no one had really looked underneath that to say: well how do we do that?

I tell you... go spend 15 minutes a day in nature and your life will change somewhat. However what Michael Cohen discovered was 54 sensory attractions. Ways to sense things and his programme and solution is to give us the procedure of reconnecting to nature through those 54 senses, and this as applicable to a tiny child as to someone my age, and its offered as a PHD degree.

WW: Wonderful. So if people want to learn more about this how can they? 

CG: Since publishing my initial thesis I've been busy writing my first book that distills my knowledge in a way that's easy for people to understand. When the book's ready to be published i'll be selling it on my website which will also be a platform for learning that connects young people around the world and educates parents, teachers, schools and colleges on what i've discovered.

And in another remarkable sign of synchronicity,  in the time that that Connie and I are together in Vilcabamba she is approached by a major German publishing house and has just signed a contract to publish her first book. 

I'm helping Connie create her first website and if you are interested in reading more about her work in holistic education, or purchasing a copy of the book when it becomes available then drop me a note with Connie in the subject header on the link below and i'll send you some more details :) 

Contact Connie (click here)

Thanks for reading, I'd love to hear your views on holistic education, travel or any of the above, in the comments below. 

 

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ollantaytambo, a Game of Thrones and Authentic Andean Fayre...

I love reading Game of Thrones whilst i’m travelling. I am, unashamedly, a Game of Thrones geek. The books have my heart. They have been a faithful, easy and strangely appropriate travelling companion constant on my kindle since July 2012. 

Whilst the stories traverse a wide range of continents from the icy cold winds of the North to the soft flowing silks and spicy foods of the Southern isles so do I on my own adventures around this beautiful globe of ours. From Cersei drinking her honey sweetened wine at Kings Landing  to Arya selling baked clams in the shell down the Saltpans, its a fitting parallel for my own travels. 

 Down from the mountains for market day, Ollantaytambo, Peru.

Down from the mountains for market day, Ollantaytambo, Peru.

One day, i’m sitting on the muddy coloured coastline of North Peru picking at ceviche, morsels of raw fish marinated in lime, the next surrounded by the billowing green hills of the Andes. That’s where my story starts today, in Ollantaytambo  - a small town nestled against Pacha Mama’s bosom at the heart of the start of the sacred valley; watching the women come down from the mountains for market day, carrying bright, pink blooms in their caps and the strange, soapily scented bundles of freshly picked herbs from the hills on their back. 

 Ollantaytambo is a tranquil, little town that would give Riverrun a run for its money; surrounded as it is by the gentle rolling hills of the Andes, and flanked on all sides by rushing water, from the rivulets that run down the Pre incan waterways to the foaming, green waters of the Patikancha and Urubamba rivers.

Once the royal estate of the Incan emperor Pachacuti and then the home to the leader of the resistance at the time of the Spanish invasion, these days Ollantaytambo is mostly used by tour buses depositing tourists to view the ruins for an hour or two or for people wanting to take the train from the local station to Machu Piccu.  

However if you can, I recommend stopping and staying a few days in this sleep little town.

One of my favourite things in Game of Thrones is seeing how the temperature, tundra, fashion and most of all foods change from land to land and its my favourite thing about travelling too. 

Here in the Andes the fayre is hearty and comes with some serious carb loading. It’s said to be the birthplace of the humble potato and that they have some 4000 different varieties.  The word Papa (meaning potato in Spanish) is a Qu’echua word meaning “tuber.” Plates often come served up with rice and chips and sometimes a side helping of corn or potatoes too. 

Unsurprisingly the female figure of the Andes tends to be short and large of hip. They need their strength to walk the mountains at this altitude. Quinoa is the other superfood native to the Andes full of energy rich nutrients and minerals. It appears in thick jugs of drink served roadside and soups everwhere. Down by the Urubamba river it grows wild amongst the ruins in great flowing  long stems, the little rusty red stars of its grain just ripening on the stem. 

  Quinoa growing wild, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Quinoa growing wild, Ollantaytambo, Peru


My first night in town is spent at  Andean Moo hostel. 

“Our rooms are $40”  a teenager at the front desk says confidently.

“I want to pay $10” I tell him. 

He agrees. 

Outside my door is  a little spiral staircase going up to a roof terrace so  I take up a cup of coca mate and plonk down in one of the wicker chairs and watch as the sun slowly sinks behind the hills.

The village sits at just over 9000 ft making it considerably warmer and more clement than Cusco. The novelty of no longer having to go to bed fully clothed with a hot water bottle will take a while to wear off.

When I wake in the morning the sunlight is just cresting the peaks in an ever mystical light. The wind has picked up and the energy from the rushing water that surrounds the town is palpable. 

I spend the morning climbing the free ruins called Pinkylluna and then make like a local and head to the mercado (market) for a 3 soles ($1) fruit juice and lunch.  

The ground floor is where the fruit stands, grocers and odds and sods stalls are set up. Its also where the butchers lay out their wares. Today the animals have just been cut up and the counters are awash with blood and  thick, fatty hearts, lungs, tripe and every other conceivable body part.

 

On the first floor are the Jugo (fresh fruit) counters.  I order a “mixto" for $1. A mixed juice combining, apple, papaya, mango, melon and banana. When I query the long soft spikes of Aloe Vera sticking out of a tub, she offers me some for free deftly slicing off the dark green skin and wobbling a shivering, transparent triangle into the blender. I proceed to the second floor for a  $2, 2 course lunch. A thick ,gelatinous soup with bits of vegetables and then rice and chicken.

For my second night i’ve found a new place to stay, Casa De Wow has an enormous dream catcher hanging in the reception and beds made out of huge tree trunks. Patricia an American volunteer from Chicago greets me at the door and offers me free lemon and honey for the cold i’ve picked up. I spend the rest of the afternoon curled up in bed amongst piles of huge Incan rugs.

Ollantaytambo, Peru, Guinea Pig catching

The following day Patricia asks if I want to see some guinea pigs. Chickens, horses, pigs and cows were only introduced to Peru at the time of the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century. Prior to that the people got their meat from their native species, alpacas, llamas and guinepigs. 

The latter are  called Cuy in Peru - another onomatapoeic Qu’echuan word that mimics the animal’s high pitched squeak.

She takes me right next door where an old Peruvian lady Juliana and her husband sit at a table shelling corn.  We take a peek inside their home, which has dirt walls, a smokey fire stove cut into the side and grass on the floor. Around the perimeter dart several blurs of white and orange fur including one tiny little baby that stops and shivers in the corner. 

“Oh so they have them as pets here?” I ask Patricia.

“Oh no” she says,

“they’re keeping them to eat them.” 

 Ah well. - they better run fast. 

My first and to be frank last taste of Cuy was 5 years ago when I was first in Cusco, it tasted greasy with a strangely, pungent flavour. On public holidays you can see them burnt of their fur and spit roasted whole, propped up in displays with carrots and tomatoes wedged between their rodenty front teeth. It doesn’t make them look more appetising. 

After a 3 hour trek into the sacred valley to see some alternative Incan ruins - Puma Maka i’ve built up another appetite. 

Ollantaytambo, Peru, Mountain Trout Ceviche

Down towards the train station by the river there is a cafe where the waitress (a surprisingly smiley young woman) recommends the ceviche. Its probably wise to save ceviche sampling for beachside resorts where the fish comes fresh from the sea but here the gamble pays off. The trucha is mountain trout and native to the Andes. It comes served rustic Andean style in thick, pink, meaty chunks atop slivers of sweet potato and accompanied by cancha black corn kernels. Its delicious. 

For my final night I change accommodation again and find a hostel on the way out of town that has prettily tended gardens, with hammocks by the river. The dorms are the same price as most single rooms in town but the views are worth it. 

I spend my morning breakfasting in the sunlit gardens and reflecting on my short little stay from my hammock.

I had been feeling low again at Healing House. My intention when I first arrived in Peru was based around getting warm, healthy and into nature and yet that somehow slipped by the wayside. After a month or so  my days seem to be spent huddling against freezing temperatures, avoiding the constant influx of new visitors to the house and comforting my sorrows in a seriously bad habit of daily coffee and carrot cake. I decide to take action  and  I’m so pleased I listened to myself and brought myself somewhere sunlit and tranquil.  It might not sound much but listening to and then prioritising what I need and want in any given moment is such a new muscle right now that i’m training. 

From sitting on the roof terrace with a cup of mate watching the sunset, to shooting star gazing from an Incan throne at midnight, to breakfasting in riverside sunlit gardens, to ceviche and sopa, I’ve really managed to sample the best of all worlds for my short little stay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Traditional Incan Ceremony for Pacha Mama

 

Her Hips Don’t Lie

A beautiful green humming bird hangs off a fuchsia stem, the lights are coming on all over the hills and a fire still smokes in the garden of Healing House - the dying embers of an indigenous Incan ceremony to honour mother earth. 

The feminine shapes of the continent have been inspiring poets from Chilean Love Master Pablo Neruda to El Gabo (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) to Shakira. But its not the tiny Colombian hip shaking temptress that is worshipped in these parts. Here there is only one woman to rule them all.  She lives in the Andes and her name is Pacha Mama (the Peruvian cosmic Mother Earth goddess.) 

Its only a short walk from San Blas,the arty ‘hood in Cusco where I’m staying to her domain. Steep steps rise ever upward towards Cristo Blanco; the white statue of  Christ  on the hillside that overlooks the town;  the surrounding Incan ruins of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced appropriately, Sexy Woman)  and the gentle rise and fall of the surrounding fields. 

The mountains of the Andes are extraordinary: soft, undulating waves of palest green that loom high into tall slopes only to drop away again in pleats and folds. 

So far i’ve explored her generous curves via horseback  (on a “trusty steed” ironically named Peregrino - Gunpowder) and even attempted to rock climb one of her many faces. I’ve sat on the grass, with my woollen alpaca socks off, soil under my soles, cradled in bird song and the lazy humming of bees, outstretched and embraced in the comforting folds of Mother Earth’s arms. 

The Q’ero People

Earlier today under a bright blue sky and fierce mountain sun, the residents and staff of Healing House run by Nicky, have been joined by three indigenous Que’ro people from an inidenous tribe in the Andes. They have come down from the hills into Cusco today to share with us a ceremony where we will offer up a “Despacho” or gift, to Pacha Mama.

The Q’ero people live in one of the most remote regions of the Andes up to altitudes of 4500m in small, humble one room dwellings without access to electricity or running water. 

Their mythology states that they are the direct descendants of Inca Priests living before the colonisation by Spain. Their story speaks of a premonition of the invasion and a forthcoming dark age. They sent representatives from their tribes far away into the mountains to preserve the wisdom of the Incan way of life.

The Incan Empire was eventually defeated by Spanish conquistadors who built Catholic churches on sacred Incan sites but somewhere in the cool, dark hills of the Andes the mystical Qe’ro people lived on, passing down from generation to generation the magical rituals and their reverence for their cosmic goddess Pacha Mama (mother earth) and a whole host of other mountain spirits - the Apus. 

Juan and his brother have been invited here to host one of their sacred ceremony to Pacha Mama.  Decked out in brilliantly bright pink, red and black woven garments, they are joined by wife and 4 year old daughter Senticka who are clad in traditional female Quechan dress  of big, bunched skirts and brown felt hats.

A Despacho Gift

We sit in a semi circle and lay out our own sacred objects and ornaments to be blessed as part of the ceremony.  I take off the necklace i’m wearing, a gold plated tantric star representing the divine masculine and feminine.

This concept or yin and yang is present in the Quechan traditions too and the masculine and feminine here will be represented by offerings of red and white carnations whose petals are carefully laid out along with along with llama fat (a sacred animal to the Q’ero communities) coca leaves, incense, money, sweets, some candy in the shape of ears of corn (another valuable commodity) money and even some pink wafer biscuits. 

 “Despacho” is quite simply and literally a gift for Pacha Mama that will contain wishes for abundance and prosperity along with all of our own individual wishes and blessings. Juan places all of the items in an intricately laid out pattern onto sunflower patterned wrapping paper along with two ribbons, one red and one white that represent our path in life. Grain with raisins on top is also placed into the offering, representing negative energy with the sweetness felt when the heavy energy is displaced. The Q’ero believe that we can offer up all of our heavy energy to Pacha Mama. She’s a sturdy broad. She can take it. 

Juan and his brother cleanse their hands with Aqua di Florida, a scent made out of flowers and alcohol and popular in Shamanic ceremonies. The bottle is passed around along with a bag of coca leaves, we take six each and whisper our wishes into them.  One by one we then go up and kneel in front of the Qu’eros whilst they bless us, taking our leaves and blowing blessings through them onto our bowed head, chanting in Quechan. When they have finished our leaves are also carefully placed in the gift wrap along the ribbons.

Juan continues to bless the package, chanting in Quechan and ringing two clear bells and splashing more Aqua di Florida over our sacred objects which are also blessed.  Once the final chants and blessings have been made we take back our objects before the gift for Pacha Mama is wrapped up in different coloured cotton string that represents the rainbow, a sacred national emblem of the Cusquenans. 

After the ceremony is complete the Despacho is unwrapped onto a fire and then burnt.  It is considered rude to watch the fire while it burns so instead the Q’ero sell us some of their wares, fine alpaca hats that feel authentically wrought and are decorated with condors, closely woven bags and bracelets. Apparently we only discover after if the Apu have granted our blessings. Here’s hoping.

How precious and sacred our access to mother nature is. How unconscious we are in our treatment of her throughout so much of the world. 

The myth continues that the Q’ero people would receive a sign when the time was right to come back down from the hills and share their wisdom and ceremonies with the people.

That sign came in the 1950s but at a time when the world feels at crisis point and warfare, terrorism, death and disaster seem to be escalating at a terrifying pace perhaps more and more of us need to be sharing the worship, reverence and gratitude that the Qu’ero people feel for mother nature and our dear planet, before it is too late. 

An appropriate thought for International Women's Day! 

 

 

Mrs Madrigal and Gender Bending in Cusco , Peru

Healing House, Cusco

Did you ever think in a million years, you’d end up at a gender bender party in the mountains of Peru? 

Asks Aimee a fresh faced, 22 year old Aussie with blonde hair and mountain tan.

People. I can honestly say… not.

We’re sitting in the sunlit gardens of a placed called Healing House in the arty San Blas ‘hood of old Cusco town in Peru. 

At 10,000 feet high, Cusco is the pretty little village in the mountains where travellers arrive to to acclimatise before doing the Inca trek or similar to Machu Piccu. 

I was last here 4 and a half years ago. 

When the Bug Bit

Peru was the place where the travel bug bit. 

I remember waking up in Lima and wandering the streets enchanted by the bright yellow churches against a cloudless blue sky. I couldn’t believe how relaxed and comfortable I felt in this most foreign of places watching old Peruvian grannies with their long dark plaits boiling quail eggs on street corners

And now finally, after almost 5 years I’m back. 

Less than three months earlier i’d been lying on my couch of my south London apartment feeling flat, hopeless and completely depressed. 

Being back home in London after travelling for the previous 19 months had been painful. I’d developed a skin crawling anxiety about being back in the neighbourhood where I was born and repeated  all the same old destructive patterns I thought i’d managed to kick to the kerb. Another long distance relationship with an emotionally unavailable man and another marketing job that gave me no time to myself had left me questioning how I had managed to so swiftly rebuild all the old bars of the cage that had kept me captive in the corporate world before. 

Escape #2

 I decided to extricate myself with a one way ticket to Peru. 

Realising how lonely it had felt living and working by myself in the big city all I knew was that I wanted to find an intentional community in the mountains, near nature, where I could continue “the journey.” 

I landed at a hostel called Pisco and Soul  Pisco being the local grape fuelled liquor that makes the national cocktail Pisco Sour  - with absolutely no plan or onward itinerary. Down the street I find a building with a bright yellow sign attached called Healing House. An intentional community for people to raise their vibration, a yoga studio and accommodation all in one. I decide to check it out at their donation only yoga class on Sunday followed by brunch cooked by volunteers in the house. 

Healing House. 

The walls of Healing House are a bright sunshine yellow and the yoga studio and accommodation is built around a shared kitchen, herb garden and  communal lawn for sunbathing. 

The girls who’ve volunteered to make breakfast bake fresh banana bread, oatmeal with stewed cinnamon and apples and brew pots of deep, dark Peruvian coffee for the brunch while I soak in the sunshine, listen to the sound of the wind chimes;  watch the rise and fall of the dark green hills of Cusco in the distance and admire the bright orange star bursts of marigolds, tiny purple borage flowers, mint, lemon verbena, and feathery fronds of the fennel tree in the herb garden.  

 

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Nicky, a lean, tanned and toned athletic American has run Healing House for the last four years along with her partner - a gentle Peruvian called Alvaro.  Her intention is to create a space for conscious people to come and raise their vibration. A Vinyassa yoga instructor and Reiki Master,  she practises what she intends with strength and kindness. 

“It can be painful…awakening…”  she says,

“But you’re here now, you don’t need to do it alone.” 

I try and avoid bursting into tears in gratitude. I’d like to keep the cool Brit facade (if i ever had such a thing) intact for at least a few more days!  

I move in for a month and have fallen in love with my new bedroom. walls and a large skylight that the sun streams through.   There are gold sun shaped mirrors on the wall, a little writing desk and a table laid out with candles and Pablo Santo, a scented wood  native to the Andes that the locals burn to cleanse the air.

How I Live Now

The days roll by effortlessly by. I pick fresh flowers from the garden (asking permission first) and make teas with the herbs. 

The  yoga studio weekly schedule includes daily hatha and vinyassa classes,  kundalini and workshops in sacred dance, Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Vipassana meditation. All of which are discounted to 10 soles (£2) for residents. 

Sunny days are spent lolling on the grass sunbathing watching the girls soak chia seeds and shell cacao beans. 

Outside on the steps of Healing House Placida and Juliana, old Peruvian ladies in traditional dress with long dark plaits and sun weathered skin, weave belts for passing tourists. 


 

One day a week the “yoghurt” lady comes to ladle out thick, white chunky freshly home made yoghurt from a big bucket; other days the “peanut butter man” swings by offering a highly addictive paste that i’ve taken to eating straight out of the container. Food freshly made with no use or sell by dates.

Meals in are simple affairs, often I just scoop out the soft flesh of an avocado (a different beast to the impenetrable hard, green ones of my British supermarket)  and smear it on freshly baked bread with olive oil and salt and lime with produce bought fresh from markets in San Blas and San Pedro. 

Meals out often gravitate towards La Boheme, a French cafe with hostel attached that does devilish crepes such as salted caramel and dark chocolate and mango and a great glass of red wine. Greenpoint,  a Vegan cafe whose set menu of freshly made, organic salad bar, homemade bread, soup, main course and dessert for 12 soles (£2.50) is the best value in town is always  a popular lunch option. 

On Tuesdays at the house there is a meeting for residents and staff to discuss, share or offer their news and a “pot luck” lunch where everyone brings a dish. Normally the table heaves with pasta, salads, quinoa (the magic grain local to the Andes ) and fresh mango and chocolate brownies. Although someday pot luck means 7 different types of bread. 

Afterwards the house offers a  free health clinic for Local Peruvians where I get to practise my reiki on unsuspecting Cusquenans. 

Peru’s answer to 28 Barbary Lane

Gradually I get  to know the cast of characters in this little intentional community.

There’s Maria the dark haired wise cracking west coaster. She’s the House Manager who plans to retreat beachside in Belize to avoid the Cusquenan cold with her Peruvian husband Alejandro, who she married after 2 month whirlwind courtship. Ricky, an ebullient Aussie who bursts into Healing House in a  blur of coloured wraps and shawls, manages the website and schedules. Stephanie, a rosy cheeked German brings a gentle sensitivity to my favourite yoga classes in the morning and Larissa a salty, west coaster has me intrigued with talk of her Shamanic soul integration journeys. 

Often seen soaking up the sunshine in the wind chimes and marigolds of Peru’s answer to 28 Barbary Lane, is Healing House’s very own Mrs Madrigal.  Michael Michelle, a transvestite Kundalini teacher with a penchant for purple.

And finally there’s Aimee of course.  Part time tell it like it is , laugh out loud Aussie part time Barbie girl whose past life of Champagne quaffing in body con party dresses complete with bleach blonde blow-dry and luminous pink lipstick seems a million miles away from the make up free, fresh faced traveller i’m used to chatting to now. 

Despite the 17 odd years in age difference we seem to share the same silly sense of humour, inept awkwardness around men and a past punctuated by the dark clouds of depression and anxiety. 

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Gender Bending in Cusco

Today’s Sunday Brunch is in honour of Michael Michelle’s 51st Birthday. He is  residing over today’s proceedings resplendent in a tight leather purple pencil skirt  matching lipstick and manicure. To celebrate we’re having a costume party with the theme of “experimentation in gender.”

Aimee and I sit watching,  sweltering in heavy suit jackets and ties with painted on glittery moustaches as Maria strikes a pose in red sequinned hot pants and Marilyn wig,  Michael Michelle totters around in patent stilettos to top people’s drinks and Chris wafts past in full make up and a girls silky negligee. 

“ I mean honestly, did you ever think you’d be  here, at a gender party in the mountains of Cusco??”  asks Aimee again.

No i can honestly say I’d never dream it in a million years. But right now I can also honestly say, there’s also nowhere else i’d rather be. 


Valentine's Day in Cusco and the Meaning of Love (that's all)

Give Love...

In the side streets of Cusco a strange, vibrating energy is building. The street sellers have moved from touting tamales and ears of corn to red gladioli and heart shaped candy. The jewellery and painting people are out in full force: 

“Hola Mami, necklace for you? Not now? Maybe later, later??”

It is Valentine’s Day - called El Dia del Amore y La Amistad in Peru. The Day of Love and Friendship. I like the inclusion of the latter. As this year i’m distinctly and very happily without the former. The day also marks the start of Carneval so there are children running around with threatening looking barbie pink water pistols and teenagers chucking flour bombs. 

No one knows quite how long this phenomenon will last, although most agree it goes on longer than it should and gringos would be wise to wear waterproofs.

Love is something i’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Who doesn’t. Most of the time. But mainly because for the latter half of 2014 I decided to try and get this whole “self love” thing under the belt. 

Oh I thought I had this licked ages ago but yet another relationship where I fell for flattery instead of consistency and  words instead of action, and gradually relinquished my own boundaries and needs came at an age and a stage which left my self esteem in shards. 

One minute he was taking me on romantic weekends away, the next he was pulling away.  His words were amazing yet his actions told me i came somewhere between the unopened post and his weekly shop on his list of priorities.  I’d say, his morning coffee but i have a feeling that that  probably had the edge. Every time I withdrew, he came close. Words are the best friends of people like him and as I gradually realise… myself too. For those where the intimacy of, the commitment of action, has us running for the hills. 

But that’s what i grew up with. Words. Not action. Those three little words were wheeled out easy enough but always (and still do) come with conditions attached. I love you meant I need you, I want your attention, I reward you for doing something for me. They and any affection or attention that came with it was withdrawn in a sulky, obstinate haze when my needs, wants and feelings tried to take centre stage. 

The Stars and the Shadows Between

Incan astrology at Qori Qancha Sun Temple, Cusco, Peru

The Incans were great astrologers. They based their calendar around the moon and studied the starry froth of the Milky Way (which they called the heavenly river) for signs of rain.

Qori Qancha  - the temple to their Sun God Inti, on the  Avenida del Sol, was the heart of their worship before Spanish Conquistadors took their land and tried to suppress their faith by constructing the Santa Dominga Catholic Church atop.

It’s still one of my favourite places to visit. The lower levels are built around a cool courtyard with a mix of Incan stones and Catholic paintings. The upper levels shows the great gold plate they positioned in honour of Inti the Sun God and paintings that depict their study of the stars. 

As well as joining the dots of the stars to create shapes like The Plough they also worshipped the darkness between, forming shapes from the shadows between the pin points of light. 

Its a strange form of astrology, between the stars they see a serpent, llama and even a toad. 

It takes an entirely different perspective to come from seeing the light to the dark around the edges, a total refocusing of the lens.

Shining Light 

I didn’t want another heart break to stuff me up inside but somehow it did.  I wilted. I was frustrated at myself for not having listened to my instincts, the small, still voice within. I was angry at not standing up for my boundaries. I knew everything I should have done but didn’t. I shoulded myself within an inch of my life and I was so busy shoulding myself about what I should have done differently I didn’t have the focus or perspective to question why i’d behaved the way I had. 

The critical voice in my head came at me with cudgel and claw. Overnight my mind became one of the most hostile places to live on the planet, worse than any Rio favela or Mongolian desert plain. And there was no escape. What were these dark pockets of sadness, and anger and vulnerability that had so far stayed hidden, I was so intent on revelling in the starlight of work accolades, friendship or the beamed light from a beau.  

I never really “got” what people meant when they said shine a light on your darkest parts as that illumination will dissolve the fear.  What does that actually mean?  In practice?

It was a simple realisation in the end.  The light is love. Shining the light on those dark parts of ourselves we would deny is accepting and loving all of ourselves exactly as we are. If I can 

accept the strange and dark places within me, then a number of miraculous things happen.

Afraid of the dark

I can recognise with self compassion that those feelings of loneliness, anxiety, sadness, depression, anger, shame, are in all of us to varying degrees.I become less judgemental of others too. I see instead, our own shared suffering as human beings and feel more connected to the whole.  

I think we’re all afraid of the dark to some degree. To expose ourselves to possible rejection or abandonment for who we really are. But it was finally by exploring those dark bursts that led me to pull back the curtain from the Wizard of Oz and see the scared, lonely, anxious little girl who had been calling the shots in so many areas of my life up until now. Instead of scolding and shaming her further I  started to learn to give myself what was missing before. To learn how to take action and lovingly parent those parts of myself with care and from accepting my feelings came a growing sense of trust in my own ability to know what is best for myself. 

Because as fanciful as Valentine’s day is and as romantic as the very best words are, love isn’t words. It is action. A lot of action that was missing from my life and actions that I needed to learn from scratch. 

Love in Action sign, taken at Findhorn, Scotland.

Love in Action

Love is support. A willingness to stand by and for myself when i’m struggling or working something out without judgement and with compassion. 

It is protection, it is taking right action to remove myself from people, places or things that would hurt me. It is saying NO.  I will no longer accept this behaviour from you. It is leaving that  and those which makes me feel bad and moving towards that and those who make me feel good.

It is a compassion, a willingness to put aside judgement and embrace the dark and the light, to remove labels  and see us all as human beings suffering , in pain and in joy as we struggle through life on our own journey with our own baggage and our shit and say that’s ok. This doesn’t make me less than or better than anyone else. This doesn’t make anyone else better or less than me. 

  • It is celebration and praise. It is saying i did this and I did this well.Well done me! and 
  • it is acknowledgement, and recognition for effort and even more importantly, simply just for being.
  • It is action through honouring. To say I listen to myself. I hear myself and my feelings and opinions count. I accept them as they are and validate them as is without trying to change them, alter them, ignore them ore renegotiate them to make others happy. I’m going to take the best action to get my needs met and have my voice heard. 
  • It is contribution:  It is saying here I am and this is what I am and what I have to give. It is valuable and worthwhile for the world.  
  • It is courage - whole hearted living and a commitment to vulnerability in the moment in spite of those who  may try and tear me down. To get up again and say there are still those out there that would like me to be courageous, to be me.For me i’ll be me, for them i’ll be me. It is sharing and learning to be intimate by sharing my inner world with those that I deem safe because I believe i’m worthy and deserving of being seen, whole, imperfect and loveable. 
  • It is soothing, nurturing, affectionate and caring. Its offering a hug or a cuddle or holding someone’s hand just because. It is allowing someone to comfort me or to ask for help and support and to not need to give anything back because I believe right in that moment that I am worthy and deserving of receiving their love.
  • It is absolute congruence and support to stand by what I feel, think and then do in spite of what others might think because my opinions and what I believe counts. I am valuable and my needs matter and I will do my best to get them met. I will speak my truth and allow it to be heard. 
  • As my first month in Cusco comes to an end so to does my reading companion for the first month The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and what better sentiment to express the unravelling into the dark and awareness of the light i’ve found: 

“Just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of colour across the sky - so the space where I exist… is exactly this middle distance; where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”

I hold myself in compassion and do not judge the shape or darkness of my shadow, I recognise that it outlines my brightness, its what gives me depth and sensitivity, vulnerability and courage.

Maybe those Incans were onto something after all….for me too, it feels like just the beginning of the journey into love. 

Happy Valentine’s Day One and All.