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.


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




The Interview: Building Belief & Inner strength with South Pole trekking Sandra Floate.

I meet Sandra in the beautiful botanical gardens of Bella Tiamantini - a Botanical Gardens set in the humid heat and jungly backdrop of Santo Domingo, Northern Ecuador. The gardens are run by a delightful old couple Don Marcos and his wife Estrella who are committed to rescuing and nurturing over 1000 native plant species from deforested areas of the Amazon, in oder to protect plant diversity in Ecuador.


 I have turned up at the gardens by myself and am not sure what I'm letting myself in for. With relief I see there is another English speaker amongst us! 

Sandra is a softly spoken Aussie from Melbourne with a flush of blond curls around her face, twinkly blue eyes and rosy cheeks. She is sitting outside the concrete breeze block guest bedroom on a plastic stool helping Estrella shell corn.

Welcoming me with a warm smile she speaks with an endearing shy humility about herself and quiet enthusiasm for her time volunteering with this delightful family. I'm about to turn 40 and as the conversation drifts to this milestone of a birthday I ask Sandra (now in her mid fifties) how she felt about turning 40. Apparently she felt that she'd lost some of her physical shape and fitness due to being a full time mother. What did she decide to do to regain her fitness? Renew her membership at the local gym? Nope. Sign up for an extra Pilates class? Nope. No ladies, Sandra Floate decided to go to the South Pole....! 

As a sensitive introvert myself I'm fully aware of the magnificent adventures, physical feats and courageous acts us quiet ones are capable of.. .however I have to admit to still reacting with some surprise when this gently self effacing woman drops into the conversation that when she turned 40 she once led an all female expedition of mothers called The Ice Maidens, on a trek to the Antarctic. 

Excuse me, you did what???? 

Time for an interview! 

WW: OK would you like to start by giving me a little bit of background?  a brief life story! You were mainly based in Melbourne is that right? 

SF: Yes I was born and bred in Melbourne and went to school there. After leaving school I did a diploma in advertising and then travelled for 2 years to Asian and Europe and worked in Londo for a year as a nanny, and then to India, Nepal and then in Australia met and worked an Indian.

WW: How old were you when you were married?

SF: I was 25 and I had two children in my mid thirities and worked in our family business cabinet making business, my husband and I had been in business for 30 years.

And then when I was 40 I did an expedition to the Antarctic. Which is 3 years training for 2 weeks on the ice.

WW: And had you done any training, hiking or professional trekking before then?

SF:  No I was a mother! ...I'm a skier and a snow skier and I've done that all my life so I've always loved skiing i learned to do cross country for Antarctica. We went out and found women and they had to be mothers.

WW:  So you decided to do this trek and they had to be women and they had to be mothers!? 

SF: Yes, we found women and they had to be mothers because there are many constraints when you're a mother to be able to go out and train. You need a sympathetic partner, because men can go off and work and then train in the evening but women  can't do that when they've got children, they cant just walk out of the house and say "well i'm off to go train" five nights a week so you needed a certain sort of sympathetic partner as well to accommodate the expedition.

WW: But it was part of the expedition requirements that everyone was mothers? why was that? 

SF: Because the English group that did it (it was first done by an all female group in Britain)  some of them were mothers and some of them were single. We based our group on 5 english women that did it, and one of them was a mother, and there were different problems for mothers, we had to go away at weekends and leave our children or train at 5am or train while eveyone was asleep and that's hard.  If you have a family you've got to find time train. When you are working part time or full time its very difficult to find the training time. So because the three or four of us had kids we all had to realize the dififciulties in having an expedition as well as the constraints around doing it around family, and having the money. It started as 5 but there were 3 in the end because they drop off.

WW: I can imagine! (laughs)

SF: We all started of from zero fitness.

WW: It seeems like an extraordinary thing to suddenly decide to do...what prompted it?

SF: Just one of the women always wanted to do it an expedition to Antarctica and so she asked around and  I said yes and then a couple of others said yes, and then we just went along with the process without really understanding what that process was... 

WW: Did you know it would take 3 years?

SF: No we just knew it was a lot of training. Then we needed to find all the sponsors, doctors, physios, runners, gym membership...we had 40 - 50 sponsors in the end, plus Quantas (major Australian airline) who came on board.

WW: In order to raise the funds to do it? 

SF: To raise the funds to do it, to get us to South America, tro get us to SA to bring our canoes ( we didn't have sleds we had canoes) because they are round so they are very easy to use. Then we had to tap into...because it's  such a small population who had done expeditions we had to tap into that community. So for example we had conversations with Eric Phillips and Peter Hillary to give us guidance on the best way to do it and complete it. 

WW: And did you also do it for charity?

SF: Yes we raised money for the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne. In the end the flights, our gear (sponsored by Mountain Design)  so we probably raised about $300,000. 

WW: That's incredible, what a fantastic achievement.

SF: But the flight costs from Chile to Antarctica is probably about $80,000.

WW: Oh wow, just to fly to Antarctica? 

SF: When you are in the base camp at Antarctica and you go out to the South Pole they've got planes there. If you have a problem they can come and pick you up.

WW: how long did the expedition take? 

SF: It was supposed to be 10 weeks but we didn't get to the south pole just to Antartica, we only lasted 2 weeks. 

SF: We always dreamed to get the South Pole but we didn't get there. We didn't dream it enough... you know you have the image in your brain? It was hard enough just to get to Antarctica, leave our children do all the hard work and the training, get all the money. 

WW: and what happened that meant you had to cut it short after 2 weeks.

SF: At the end of the training there were only 2 of us left out of the 5. We needed one more person and she only joined us 9 months previously. So we didn't have that bond that you needed and she turned inot a bit of a loose cannon. She hadn't as much experience in the snow as us and we had problems with her breathing and her hypothermia. So she was very physical but she hadn't had enough snow and ice training.

WW: Did you have to have another person?

SF: Yes it's best with three. Because if something happens like you fall down a crevasse or something and there's only two people  - you're only leaving one person to make a decision on what to do whether or not to leave you.  Whereas if you have three people you have two people to take that decision.

WW: Oh gosh I see, because of the probability of having to make a  life or death decisions. How do you prepare mentally for that?

SF: We had an Englishman, Roddie, who was a former SAS teacher who would do meditation with us...he was former SAS but turned Buddhist.

WW: Wow he sounds like a good person to talk to. So you would visualize scenarios that could happen?

SF: Yeah we had a lot of discussions around all of the scenarios that could happen, with other people that had done expeditions. Unfortunately also, Quantas airlines lost our gear.

WW: Oh no!

SF: Yeah! So we were 2 weeks in Chile instead of 3 days before we got going, so by that time we were very apprehensive. We had been raring to go so we were really uptight by the time we got going. You only have a certain window of time. Because if you start your expedition too late and you're not quite at the pole they have to come and get you to fly you back to Chile, so we were very stressed by the time we got to Antarctica to do this trip. 

WW: Was there anything at that point in your life that prompted it? Or was it just your friend saying "I'm going to Antarctica do you want to come along?" I'm trying to work out what the appeal was?!

SF: The appeal was, I was reaching 40 and didn't have any fitness because i'd spent all my time looking after children.

WW: How old were your children?

SF: They were 12 and 9. And feeling like I was running out of time and that I might not be able to get fit for something like this. 

WW: I'm turning 40 tomorrow...(laughs)

SF: The possibility of even considering it was way off the planet. But you just start with something and see where it leads to. To know that we actually got there and got onto the ice. We had two trips to New Zealand also in preparation on the Fox Glacier. 

WW: And you were called "The Ice Maidens" - brilliant.

And what lessons did you learn emotionally, how did you overcome challenges in preparation or on the trek? 

SF: Yeah it was very stressful. So it was about being safe because we had children.

And we were looked on differently because we had children. We got emails saying "you shouldn't be leaving your family! blah blah blah" 

Mentally to do these trips -  at 40 and beyond is best. You'll find most expeditions are with older people because you have to have that maturity as an adult to take it on. 

WW: That's interesting isn't it you wouldn't think that would be the case, that you would need to be young and physically fit foremost.

SF: Yeah look at Ralph Fiennes he's just done a night one - he's 65? and he thought he'd do Antarctica in the dark in winter. I mean, that's bizarre!  But there's no limit to your physical age, he's just thinking "I can do that." 

WW: And because he's thinking he can do that he can?

SF: Yeah and because he's older he can, a lot of them are older, late thirties, forties. It's better. 

WW: This is a very small example in comparison but it's made me think of the time that I did Kung Fu in China with a bunch of 18 years. And I did the Shaolin, and it was the same kind of thing, I was really trying to push my myself and I was pretty out of shape and I was crap at it (laughs) but I did it. But lots of people in the 18 - 25 category would come try it for a bit and then drop out because it was too hard and they couldn't be bothered. Just before I joined 7 people dropped out of the Shaolin Kung Fu class so as a then 37 year old woman everyone was expecting me to fold, but out of sheer mental determination (and some may say stubbornness!) I persisted. When you get to a certain point you're proving it to yourself and that mental discipline isn't necessarily always there when you're younger.

WW: Did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn't realized before?

SF: Yeah lots and lots. Mostly mental strength. I"ve had to keep applying that. When I got back my daughter got sick and was very ill for 6 or 7 years. So i had to apply mental strength to keep her well and sane for the years that she was ill.  

WW: And how did what you learnt on the trip help you do that?

SF: Finding that inner strength that I had, that we've all got. Always being tested emotional, physically and needing to push yourself that little bit more. 

SF I had that strength, emotional strength to get through because it was an awful time. If you're children die or get sick its awful.

WW: What did she have?

SF: She had chronic fatigue and then depression because her body shut down and wasn't working.

WW: How did it change you? 

SF: Yes it changed my life.

W: How?

SF: I wasn't ever a team player and never played in teams, so with an expedition you have to rely on your team members because they may have to save your life. And that you can do just about anything if you're physically able and believe it. Believe in wanting something badly enough that you can do it.

And making other people believe that you can do it. So that you're getting that people behind you. There was a group of people behind you another group of people helping you to get to the goal.

WW: And your husband was supportive.

SF: Yes very much. 

WW: Great. So now, we're meeting in that was 10 years ago for you...I was 45 years when I did it. Did you do any travelling between then and now?

SF: I went skiing in Japan and a brief trip to Vietnam, but otherwise 

WW: So what prompted you to suddenly go to Ecuador in your mid fifties?

SF: Because I wanted to volunteer in Ecuador and by this time my children were old enough so that I could actually leave them.

WW: And why Ecuador?

SF: The first time was with a friend because it had the Andes, the Amazon and the Galapagos in one country and because it was small. It was supposed to be the 10th year anniversary of our expedition to the Antarctic and i was supposed to come here with Michelle from that trek. We were going to go to Siberia to see lots of volcanoes but we wouldn't have had the culture and in Ecuador we got the culture, the sea, the mountains and the jungle,

WW: And that was a 10 week trip?

SF: No that was a month or 5 weeks and 10 year anniversary celebration of Antarctica. And then  I decided to come back as a volunteer as I felt comfortable here the first time.

WW: And at that point, was that when you were splitting up with your husband ?

SF: No but i was thinking about it, so travel was a way of getting time out from family and friends and husband to think about things.

WW: What advice would you give to women wanting to travel in their forties and fifties who are a bit frightened of going to a country solo.

SF: Sometimes its good to do a quick trip, and then go back. If yo feel comfortable in a country do a quick overview first for a holiday and then go back and see it more in depth. That's what you did isn't it? 

WW: Yeah it wasn't deliberately planned like that, but that is what ended up happening. I started travelling five years ago when I took a month of extended leave off work to travel South America. So I started by doing group tours as well so I wasn't completely by myself. 


SF: Yeah i started travelling when I was 21 and did a couple of years by myself so I already had that inner strength and belief at that age that I could do it and knew at this age I could do it again.

WW: And now you're trying to combine your time between Ecuador and Australia?
SF: Yes by helping out here with volunteering.

WW: How do you support yourself when you're travelling?

SF: I work in Australia and save up to travel. I prioritize the money and go without certain things knowing that i'll need to save up for airfare. I met a lady a few years ago and what she said to me really stuck in my mind...I was just turning 50 and she was 65 and she said? 

You are in the best years of your life right now, after you've had children is the best time you've got left. Because you're still relatively fit, Its a time for yourself  again. You get your time back without commitments and family. 

WW: And you took the decision to split from your husband is that right?

SF: Yes I've made the decision to separate because my husband didn't want to back me in this volunteering.  I felt in a marriage when you get to an older age with a  partnership you should be able to take time to explore other things that you want. Life is for living it's not long and you don't have a lot of good years, they go quickly. Soon you won't be able to . 

WW:  You're volunteering for Bella Tiamantini, what has that brought you? Why were you drawn here?

SF: Because of the garden and the family and i thought i could offer western eyes to help with their project and enjoy a different lifestyle. 

WW: And how do you see the next 20 years for you?

SF: One of travel and splitting time between countries and learning new languages.

WW: Perfect! Thank you Sandra! 














The Interview: Living Legend Lynn Hill on How to tackle fear and achieve the impossible.

Today WanderWomen Club caught up with world legendary rock climber Lynn Hill to talk tackling fear, following your bliss  and how to achieve the impossible….all through the lens of her extraordinary and inspirational climbing career. 

Lynn Hill, Valley Uprising, Discovery Channel

Lynn Hill is a living legend and one of the worlds' best known rock climbers. One of the first women in the sport, by 1986 she had quickly moved into the top ranks.  She redefined what is possible by being the first person (male or female)  to free climb the ascent of the most famous big wall climb in the world  - The Nose on El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, California.  A decade before anyone else.  A true wander women she has travelled the world competing and winning over 30 competitions including the “Wimbledon” of the climbing world (Arco Rock Master) five times.  In 1999 Lynn led a small team of women to the island of Madagascar to do a first ascent up a steep, two-thousand-foot wall of granite. She’s been a guest at the White House, appeared on the Letterman show and is four time winner of NBC Wide World of Sports Survival of the Fittest competition.  

Lynn’s remarkable achievements are featured in the Discovery Channel’s award winning premier of their Elevation weekend series this Saturday April 25th. Valley Uprising explores the evolution of the 50 year old sport from its beginnings in Yosemite Valley, California. 

Now 54, Lynn still combines her love of climbing with travelling the world and motherhood.

WW: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today Lynn, its a huge privilege to get to speak with you.  I love this quote of yours: 

Throughout my life, one of the underlying qualities that has inspired me to pursue my vision of what is possible has to do with trusting in what I truly love and believe in.

That sounds similar to Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss.” I think its great that you believe our success in our chosen field is intrinsically linked to doing what lights us up. 

What advice would you give to women still struggling to try and discover what that is? 

Lynn Hill:  Well fortunately for me it wasn’t a thing that i struggled with, to find what I loved.  I naturally gravitated towards that. If someone hasn’t identified that, they need to reflect on what they enjoy because sometimes we have an interest in something and we don’t acknowledge it, a pastime and hobby, but if they have an interest then follow it , explore it and give it the chance to turn into something more. I know that its something younger people struggle with, perhaps because there is so much choice and also that things get obscured by all the other demands of life. But if you really simplify and reflect on what you WANT to do then that's where you can recognise and start developing your passion.

WW: How did you manage to combine focusing so fiercely on your passion and what you love with bringing a baby into the world and the sacrifice or balance that mother hood has required? 

Lynn Hill: I consider it a juggle because you can’t do everything all at once, if you have a child you have to prioritise, so once you’ve sent children of to school you can start doing things yourself.  There’s a real need to do what I call “me time” and that's something we do ideally for an hour or so on an almost daily basis. I still climb three to four times a week and that’s enough to feed my passion. 

WW: I’d like to talk with you about your relationship with fear and how you tackle it. Fear comes in many forms, when we’re trying something new and taking a step into the unknown - what advice would you give on how to manage that based on your experience climbing.  

Lynn Hill: I  think fear is a good guide to keep us alive, we don’t have it we might not take necessary precautions but its also important to not let fear take over and stop you performing how you want to perform. 

So I focus on the solution to the problem.  I do a mental shift and do not focus on the fear but doing what I need to do to resolve that situation. 

If i’m in a dangerous situation on the rock face, I can either move forward to the next hole or I can move back or down climb (which is precarious.) Those are really the only options. There is a visual process that accompanies this. I imagine my hand going to the next hole and grabbing it. If i see that in my mind very quickly then I know its time to go and that I need to act. If i don’t visualise the next move or if I continue to feel awkward and fearful then I know i need to stop, relax, re evaluate the solution and look for another situation.

WW: So you’ve become very in tune with your instincts, about the timing around when its right to pause and evaluate and when its time to act quickly also which I could definitely apply to decision making process in my own life!

You’ve described your rock climbing as a kind of moving meditation, to what extent has the sport become (or was it always) a type of spiritual practise for you?

Lynn Hill: It could be called a spiritual practise but its not a religious experience, there’s no traditional praying or doing it for a higher purpose. But I am tuning into a universal truth, that’s my idea of spirituality. 

 As a human being we have our interpretations and our perspective of a situation and that determines how we see it, and if you take your ego out of it and see the reality of the situation as it is then you’re better able to manage yourself in that situation. 

Climbing is a practise that makes me feel good and centred and I think that when you feel good and centred we’re better human beings; we feel better about our lives and relate to others better.  I think climbing reinforces that kind of honesty and willingness to look at the truth. There’s no hiding on the rock. Your direct action will determine whether you get to the top or not. 

WW: Let's talk about one of your amazing achievements; being the first person to free climb The Nose (El Capitan in Yosemite). In other interviews you’ve said that everyone in your peer group and the climbing community was telling you it was impossible. 

What was the motivating impulse that took you from hearing everyone saying it was impossible to thinking “right i’m going to do that!” and taking the first step.

Lynn Hill: I figured that my experience and my vision might be unique and that I had a chance of being able to do it if I kept an open mind and had a lot of persistence. I had lots of experience on that climb and different experience with other types of rocks and at a higher level from my climbing in Europe. 

Valley Uprising, Yosemite, California.

Valley Uprising, Yosemite, California.

I felt like I had a unique combination of skills and vision that others did not have and that gave me the confidence to find a solution, and that's what I did. I think that’s a very important point. If you want to do something,  if you prepare yourself appropriately and believe in the possibility that you are going to find a solution then that approach in itself will give you the best chance possible of actually succeeding.

WW. Wonderful. Believing that your own unique mix of skills, talents and experience will create a possible solution where others have failed or haven’t gone, I think thats a perfect thought to align with when summoning the courage to venture out and do something new. 

WW: Did you have any female role models when you were starting out? 

Lynn Hill: I had a good friend that I climbed with that i’m still friends with, there weren’t that many role models when I started.  There was a woman named Beverly Johnson who passed away in a helicopter accident in 1994. She climbed El Capitan in 1978 by herself for 10 days. You have to take all the equipment you need, supplies, sleeping bag, drinking water, its hard to manage by yourself.  She was an amazing person, very happy go lucky, very approachable and a nice person; but she was about the only female rock climber that I knew.

Yosemite Valley, California

Yosemite Valley, California

WW:  I know that gender equality issues have been important to you over the years in such a male dominated sport, how has that changed (at least i’m hoping its changed) over the last 40 years!

Lynn Hill: It has, there are a lot more women climbers now, young girls and its a sport for people of all ages. Two people climbing together don’t have to do the same climb you just need followers and rope, you don’t have to climb at the same level. I love that aspect, that everyone brings their own style and we all have different dimensions to our bodies, small, large - and we can create our own route.  

WW: You’ve spent such a large portion of your life in the outdoors, what is your relationship with nature and how has it heightened your sensitivity to environmental concerns and changes. 

Lynn Hill:   I respect nature and to me that has a spiritual side.  Its the truth, its the way the world works and you have to observe it. So obviously I want to protect nature and the large companies that are robbing the earth of all the oil and natural gases… I would like for those companies to be more conscientious about how they are getting the energy out of the earth and what we are doing to our earth, air and water or else we’ll be extinct in a few years time.There is already global climate change and i’m very concerned about future generations and would like to see more laws regulating large companies and their actions. 

WW: The documentary "Valley Uprising" airing on the Discovery Channel this weekend is an homage to rock climbing from its inception in the 1960s through to the present day, focusing on Yosemite. She’s the grand dame of the piece, how have you seen her change over the years with regards to the impact of humans on her environment. 

Lynn Hill:  I’ve seen the direct affects of global warming. California right now - I was there in January and there was hardly any snow, three years running they haven’t had enough water, and so i’ve seen climate change. Its getting warmer and we don’t have enough water, we need water to survive. Clean water! I’m also concerned about all of the things that get flushed into the sea that should be treated first. The effect of the birth control pill is changing our fish because of too much oestrogen entering the water. There are lots of problems. 

WW: How do you manage your own health these days, do those concerns follow through with your diet? 

Lynn Hill: I believe strongly in supporting the organic food industry even if it costs more, its the right thing to do for my body. If I buy meat its organic and eggs are free range. Its both healthy and I make ethical choices on how the animals are raised. 

WW: And to keep fit, you still rock climb and do you do any other kind of exercise?  

Lynn Hill: I like to ski, alpine ski, running, mountain biking, yoga to stretch -  I like to keep up my stretching as I  was a gymnast when i was younger. I also surfed once in the last year!  

WW: Your climbing has taken you all over the world do you still enjoy travelling? what do you get out of it now that you are no longer travelling to compete? 

Lynn: Yes i was in France on my last trip,  its great to see friends and I speak French and Italian.  I do enjoy speaking in another language, I feel like a different person. I enjoy meeting new people and seeing different places and cultures and that gives me a better perspective. Travel allows me to have a different perspective on my life as an American woman and to reflect on my own values.  

WW: Has what motivates you in climbing changed over the years? Is it all about the highest peak, beating other people or how important is the journey to the top?

Lynn Hill: At this point,  yes, its become more about the process.  Its my medicine, my moving meditation and my way of connecting with people. I climb with friends more and more and when I climb I feel like a child. Even though i’ve been climbing for 40 years it doesn’t ever get boring to me. 

Lynn thank you so much for your time its been wonderful talking to you. Lynn stars in Valley Uprising this weekend on the Discovery Channel, April 25th 8pm ET/PT - the award winning premier of channel's Elevation series. 

Watch a sneak preview here...



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 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. 
















Ollantaytambo and a Midnight Incan Ruin scramble

Dreamcatcher at Casa De Wow - Ollantaytambo

We walked the ruins at night, it was pitch black, bible black as Dylan Thomas might have said, and there was nothing to accompany us but sound of the green waters rushing past and Posa the dog scampering at our heels.  Posa means puddle and she found a few that night, awkwardly pushing her hot body between our legs making us stumble but not fall. 

I can’t remember much about the walk, the whinny of a horse rearing out of the darkness, the pain in my finger where i’d been stung by animal or plant and the throbbing stars thick in the sky above, shooting behind the picture perfect village, small clouds gathering. 

“Remember when we were children? Dominique? - We have to become like children again….” Roberto, the owner of Casa de Wow  says to me as we leave the house and take a small bridge across the Patikancha river into the back garden of the ruins. He’s a twinkly eyed local with tufty cat weasel beard and deep red poncho and is carrying a recorder.

Patricia has told me that Roberto does a night time tour of the main Ollantaytambo ruins that is free, that he was stood up by a group of Americans who’d said they’d go with him, and that its supposed to be good. It sounds kind of fun and Indiana Jonesish so i agree. Why not? 

 I remember when I was a child, fearlessly balancing on the high beam bars of playgrounds and scampering up apple trees in my nan’s back garden. Little did I realise i’d soon be doing the same, clambering up stony rock faces 8ft high, balancing precariously on the tiny ledges of a 600 year old Incan ruin with a sheer drop. 

Roberto at Ollantaytambo ruins

I loved nothing more than midnight feasts with my cousin Sarah. We would camp in the back garden and store a host of goodies including a rare and precious treat, Horlicks tablets (sweets made from the malty, milky bedtime drink) letting them fizz on our tongue and whispering each other awake with ghost stories. I can’t imagine we waited until midnight for our adventure to begin and so it was with this one, we left Casa de Wow at 8pm, returning around 10pm. 

We cross the river and turn left to walk back along its side towards the ruins. I can’t see anything except the white dust of the thin path, the river bank dropping sharply on one side. The bright heads of some daisies star the path and onwards he leads, like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn and me a little girl, blindly following. 

He stops to send some blessings to the Apus (the nature spirits that live in the mountains) to protect us on our journey and we curve into the main back gardens of the ruins. 

I whimper in the darkness as I can’t see in front of my nose and the dog tangles between us again.  I’m fearful of the dark at the best of times and the sudden reality of my situation comes to me. He takes my hand and holds it strongly, guiding me along.

This really is an exercise in trust and letting go. I cannot see anything. I am being led into the pitch black by a man I know nothing about. The worst fears rear their monster heads. I could be raped, I could be murdered. Or twist my ankle, fall from the ruins at height. 

My intuition tells me I will be safe and that he’s ok, but I don’t have the same feeling of essential kindness and trust as i’ve had with the shaman on the motorbike and the truth is I just don’t know him well enough. I don’t have enough information, i’ve met him once briefly. 

“We must be like children, we are going on an adventure and we must become like children” he insists again, and as we reach the pale huge rectangles of Incan stone looming out of the darkness I can see why. We jump from one to the next, he leading and holding my hand.

Those halcyon days when we were little there was no fear because life hadn’t taught us how to be afraid yet.

We jump from stone to stone that cross the stream. and then head upwards,  the dog somehow following. The ground falls away below us and I can feel my heart pounding, he has tight hold of my hands.

We take a footing at the bottom and begin to climb. The path is narrow and the ledge is thin with just enough space for a foot sideways. We start to edge along it and climb ever higher and the higher we get the more I realise I am scaling a stony cliff face without a safety net. Steps are roughly hewn deep into the stone, the higher we climb along the perilous ledge the further the fall, there is  nothing bu a sheer drop below onto the rocks of Incan houses below. I wouldn’t do this in broad daylight let alone in the pitch black with a strange man in poncho with recorder for companion.

We are climbing towards tThe Temple of the Condor which is apparently where the Peruanos come to  communicate with their dead. 


Climbing in the inky darkness. I put my hand in a crevice and at perhaps the most precarious point so far, whilst i’m balancing on a tiny ledge 8ft above the ground I pull it out again sharply, yelping in pain. 

Something has stung me, it feels like a bee sting. But I can’t see a stinger in it. In my panic my Spanish deserts me. I make him go and look - I realise in hindsight the best thing to have done would to have checked myself to see exactly what has stung me. Supposing I have an allergic reaction or my body parts start going numb, how are they going to treat me? I dramatically think about them bringing my body out, how did she die, stricken locals will say "she was climbing the ruins at midnight," …. meh it sounds like a pretty cool way to go. 

He takes my finger and tries to suck it. I withdraw it sharply, he may be a “spiritual man” but that is really golng too far. He goes back to shine a light in the crevice and says its a plant. I don’t believe him, i can’t see the double pronged dots of a spider bite or a stinger but it feels too sharp. I believe that it was a wasp of some kind.

I can feel the area going numb and my mind races off with all the possibilities of the numbness shooting up my arm, the hospital bed, the unidentified creature that bit me and baffles doctors. I imagine them wheeling my body out “how did she die” ask tear stained relatives, she was climbing the Incan ruins at midnight…” 

Meh, it sounds like a pretty cool way to go to me…

We have got to our first meditation point. High above us is the Condor’s beak.. 

‘She is like a mother curving over us” he explains

“A mother with her young.” 

He shows me a round stone where i’m to put my forehead to “connect with the mind of the condor.” 

I do this for 2 minutes whilst he plays the recorder. The stone feels cool and calming against my forehead but to be honest all i can feel is the pain in my finger.

“Talk to your heart,”  he instructs. 

Afterward we sit down together on the ledge in companionable silence with Posa at my side and eventually he begins to talk. To talk about how hard he worked in Lima, how his life was nothing but work. No time to feel, no time to do anything, just work and home, work and home. No time to create or feel anything in his heard. Then one day, 5 years ago, he came to Ollantaytambo and bought Casa de Wow and no his life is not like that. 

We stare out at the view. A shooting star dips beneath the hills. The outline of two mountains are in front of us with the clouds of pine trees just visible above the thin stirp of little houses and the glow of the lights from their windows, the sound of the river rushing in frot of them.

It’s like a painting he says, the mountains, the houses the stream. All those stories, all those lives being lived out behind the little, yellow rectangles of their windows. I can see why he left his fashion business in Lima.

“We are far from the problems of the world,” he says…

 “Money for moneys sake. Money alone destroys. Here we are far away from money, war, fighting here we are far away from it all.”

“Here i am a king in my heart. Here i am an Incan Emperor.”

The stone is cold underneath my weary muscles and as we get up to descend I realise how tired I am and how dangerous that could be where precision footing is everything: 

I tell him i’m tired because I’ve already trekked 3 hours to Puma Marku (thank goodness for the lift back!) and he holds my hand tighter. 

I can feel the poison going up my arm. I say dramatically.

"You will be ok" he says, 

“how do you know?” 

"Because you have  buena energia, a good spirit." 

I’m not sure I quite want to rely on this.

As we descend we come to another place where there is a cut out of rectangle in the stone and a split, rub your hands and put them on either side then press your forehead into the stone he says. I can’t help thinking a little cynically that he’s just making me look like a fool but I do it anyway and find the darkness strangely comforting, i see the flower of life shape form behind my eyes in green. 

I do and see darkness and then the flower of life shape seems to form in green behind my eyes. Yes he says that is the triangle connection between your two eyes and your inner eye, i look up again and try and take a photo of the great condor beak above us, but even knowing how to know work my flash it is no use. This time nothing comes out except two giant lunar like circles.

‘The Incan spirits don’t like to have their photo taken,”  I say.

“No,”  he agrees…”they don’t.”

Our final meditation spot is the Incan throne that his son Stephen mentioned to me at breakfast. 

It is a roughly hewn seat carved into the rock.  He pulls off his poncho and lays it out. It look like a throne, i’ll give him that. Its been cut sharply into the rock with degrading rocks on either sides. He demonstrates by jumping up onto it. I’m balancing on a tiny ledge clinging to the side, frightened where i am so its hard to concentrate, he says the Incan king came to sit here to look out and rule his people. 

To get up into the seat I have to put one foot up and get given a leg up by him the rest of the way. The drop is sheer and we are balanced very precariously beneath the seat . i have to push all of my weight into him and then get into the seat, scrabble around precariously and put my hands on the two arm rests 

“You are an Incan princess,”  he says, beaming up at me.

 i laugh nervously. The seat isn’t at a complete right angle and although i’m not slipping i still feel precaroius, still it is a good spot for a little bit, and then I get down and we begin the descent.  

I’m more confident this time, taking his hand and letting him lead me back along the little white path  -  back past the horse where I lose my footing for a moment and fall onto one knee, past the rushing water and the weeds and tall grasses on either side and finally onto the road again. 

“I live!” I exclaim, laughing, and we hug. 

“You have a perfect spirit, a good spirit,”  he says, delighted. 

My intuition told me he was safe but not quite as trustworthy and kind as the shaman on the motorbike. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others. I made a huge assumption in thinking tht Patricia owned Casa de Wow and was Roberto’s romantic or business partner or both. As it turned out she was a volunteer there and had only been there two weeks and had never gone on the “nighttime tour” herself. I was fine on our little trip and he took good care of me, but later on during my stay Roberto made a pass at Patricia and started getting stoned and coming back to the house drunk. Had I known any of that I wouldn’t have agreed to take my life in my hands and climb up Ollantaytambo in the pitch black with him!  As it was I survived to tell the tale, and as far as traveller’s adventures go, I think it’s a pretty good one. 








Puma Marka and a Motorbiking Shaman

My hero, Freddy the motorbiking shaman.

I’ve been staying at Casa de Wow, in Ollantaytambo and the heart of the Sacred Valley, for a couple of nights now.  I’m drawn by the sparkly green and pink fairy lights and the dimpled and smiling Patricia who greets me, a Chicago born teacher who I later discover is volunteering here.

I already love it  - they serve eggs and homemade marmalade for breakfast and don’t charge extra for goodness sake! 

Stephen the bushy haired 18 year old son of the owner asks if i’m going to visit Puma Maku, and to sit on the Incan throne. I have no idea what he’s talking about. 

“Oh  Puma Maku is a real beautiful walk” says Patricia, who has the air of an outdoorsy person who knows what she’s talking about.

“Its considered to be an even more sacred site than the main ruins here but the Peruvians don’t let on because they don’t want tourists to know about it.” 

I head off optimistically along the road out of town, it looks simple enough on the map. 

Hah! Famous last words for me. 

Patricia has drawn me a rough map, apparently you can either get a taxi or collective out of town and  up the hill, hike straight up the sharply ascending slopes (for the very fit) or do what I decide to do, and take the scenic route along the river and then head up at the last minute. 

Apparently it only takes 2 - 3 hour round trip. The rest of this article is probably my advice on what NOT TO DO on a day out for a hike.

I set off at 2pm, far too late in the day. Patricia has estimated its a 3 - 4 hour round trip. But she doesn’t know my fitness levels or indeed, tendency to just “amble along” or take regular breaks. 

I leave with little water, as she’s said there are shops along the road. There are not.

The thing is these aren’t official ruins, they haven’t been got at by the tourist board of Peru, there are no swing door Banos (toilets) or people selling water and hawking fizzy drinks and popcorn either at the ruins or along the way and just one, large sign at the main road pointing up the hill.

Still i’m in a joyous mood when I do head off, ignoring the toots from taxis and follow the road along the bright green gushing river. I feel like i’m deep at the heart of the Sacred Valley now, the soft, green mountains loom high on either side, beautiful yellow butterflies bounce in the hedgerow and the only people I pass are the odd shepherd with his sheep, donkeys and cows. 

After about an hour or so I pass the deeply stepped Incan fields that are raked high into the mountain peak with a tiny little staircase winding precariously up the middle. I can just make out the bright, blur of farmers working there. 


Puma Marku Ruins

On spying a patch of thick grass interspersed with bright white stones. I detour off the road and down for a quick break taking off socks and shoes to feel pacha mama beneath my toes. Its bliss, i feel nothing that i can describe better than unbridled happiness. the sound of the Rio de Patanchaka roaring below me, the hot sun on my face, the tranquil hum of bees and butterflies. I lie happy and complete eat my banana, drink some water and then get up to go. 

I carry on walking for about an hour, occasionally checking with the odd passerby i’m going in the right direction and follow the sign that directs me off the main road and up the hill.

About an hour and a half later and I have absolutely no idea where I am. I ask a shepherd and he points to a winding goat track above me, after a 20 minute detour I realise this may well be a short cut but i’d be safer to keep to the main road. 

I pass a woman high in the branches of a peach tree and shout out to her to check i’m in the right direction, she nods. 

I’ve realised that my timing has been a little optimistic and that really this should be a morning hike. 

After a couple of hours its 4pm and I make an excutive decision to turn back at 415. I know that the sun sets around 6pm and I don’t want to be stuck in the hills in the middle of nowhere when it does. 

Eventually I flag down a passing motorbike and ask the way, God bless the man, he turns his bike around and offers me a lift up - I estimate it would have been at least another 45 minute hike. When we arrive he gestures to the setting sun and urges me to look at the ruins very quickly then take a shorter route back for safety.

Its sound advice but having struggled with finding the bloody place I’m a little nervous relying on my skills to fathom out the short cut! 

Ollantaytambo, Puma Marku ruins

I start striding up the hill towards the rusty coloured ruins. It truly is the most beautiful place, surrounded by mountains as far as the eye can see. I look back down the hill and he is still there. He gestures that he will wait for me and give me a lift back into town. The man is a saint. 

I’m so worried he may leave I literally do a quick whizz round the bricks and a flurry of snaps and start fighting my way down the hill again through chest high ears of corn and furrows thick with weeds as i lose sight of the path in my haste. 

When I get down again he is waiting for me on the path, his helmet is off and he has the deep, dark skin of the native Q’echuan and is wearing the typical alpaca Peruvian hat with tassels in fetching shades of pink. He has a strong nose and deep set dark eyes. 

It doesn’t even occur to feel afraid al alone in the middle of the Andes with this man, that i’m now hitching a ride back into town with. He has kind eyes and women’s intuition goes  a long way on the road when it comes to making spur of the moment spontaneous decisions as to who to trust. I’d rather take my chances with this chap than be left to the elements at any rate. But I can tell he’s got a good heart. 

He introduces himself as Freddy and gives me a business card. He performs San Pedro ceremonies, the man isn’t just a saint, he’s a shaman! 

If I enjoyed the walk here then I love the short, 20 minute ride back into town. Tearing down the mountain paths on the back of a motorbike belonging to a Shaman seems to be the perfect way to have visited the ruins. We pass the woman in the peach tree and the shepherd with his cows lazing by the side of the road. The sun starts to cast shadows deep up the mountain side as eel hurtle down the road passing tinly little red farm houses and fields and fields. He stops a couple of times to gently point out sights to me, the dizzying raked Incan steps I walked past on the way here, a rushing waterfall, a rock that looks like the face of a man. 

Hike to Puma Marku

When we arrive into the centre of Ollantaytambo he brings his hands to his heart in a thank you and I repeat the gesture and give him a hug. And he’s off in a cloud of dust, my shamanic knight in leathers on a motorbike. 

I crawl in the door, dusty and aching to Casa de Wow and Patricia says “Ooooh I wondered if you’d find it, because its quite tricky to see, and only really known to the Peruvians…” 

Yeeeeeees so i’ve discovered! still I may not have spent as long as i would have liked actually seing the ruins but whizzing through the Sacred Valley on the back of a Shaman’s motorbike has made the trip well worthwile.