With less than two weeks left here, I am trying to remain present and open throughout it all. That which frustrates me one day easily brings me joy another day—like speaking Spanish. At times I love deciphering what is being said and coming up with a reply, but then there are times when I wish I could just say things the way I wanted to and have someone understand me.
I thought I would come away from my study abroad experience feeling more direction—more guidance. What I really feel is the confidence of knowing that I can be thrown into the unknown and sift my way through it all. It is a confidence in not-knowing.
Having every second of every day planned out is not only boring, but it is depressing. Why would I want to know how everything is going to play out? Isn’t that the point of reading a story? You wouldn’t start a book if you knew exactly what was going to happen on every page. Of course, there will always be that tendency inside of me—the part of me that wants to know how everything will turn out. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from being here in Cusco, it is to surrender to the moment, really release into the flow. It’s all right here . . .
Last Sunday I went to a sweat lodge with a group of friends. Earlier in the year, my friend introduced me to a shaman, and ever since, I have been a frequent visitor.
We all met near San Blas on Sunday morning. Kush came down to meet us and drive us up to his house. Seven of us piled into the back of his white jeep and began the bumpy trek up the winding mountain– the houses growing more and more distant as we made our ascent.
None of my friends have ever met Kush before or gone to his house, so they weren’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know what to expect either since I had never been to a sweat lodge. When we arrived, Kush’s helpers were stoking the fire and setting up a canopy outside with a table underneath for lunch after the ceremony.
The actual structure in which we were going to sit was a circular stone bench, low to the ground and big enough to fit around 25 people. The wall was about 3 feet tall. Blankets and tarps strapped across the top, eliminating any chance for light or air to filter in. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to breathe at all inside. When the stones were ready, we began the ceremony. We lined up outside of the lodge, and Allen, Kush’s apprentice, was smudging with smoke. He then told us that if we wished to connect with the energy of the Cosmos, to walk in a circle counter-clockwise, and if we wished to connect with the energy of the Earth, we could walk in a circle clockwise.
Most of us walked clockwise and ended the walk with a crawl into the darkness of our hibernation. We filled up every empty space inside, and Kush brought in his 1 and 1/2 year old daughter–Cusi ( which means joy in Quechua).
In the center of the circle, there was a pit to hold stones that were going to be brought in from the fire outside. The stones (known as abuelos or grandfathers) were brought in four groups of seven to honor each of the four cardinal directions. Each group was brought in and handled with the antlers of some type of deer. When the first group was brought in, Kush poured water over them, releasing steam over all of us. Our breathing simultaneously grew louder. We all had instruments and listened to the drumming of whoever wanted to play. This was a space of opening and sharing, of being the primal human outside of the world of time and structure. Everything inside was pitch black so insecurities could be shed with relief and without hesitation.
Tears started streaming and rolling. Screams were let out–healing began. We all recognized this as a safe space to let go of all the judgment and self-doubt we’ve been taught to accept since we were young. Any vocal crescendo was contagious. Pretty soon we were all howling like wolves in the night–releasing any past conditioning we were ready to let go of.
When the last group was brought in (after about 2 hours), I knew that this was the last round I could stand to take. My eyes were like jelly at this point. I had to surrender into everything my body was feeling.
Kush shouted “Puerta!” for the fourth and final time. Allen opened the blanket covering the door, as I crawled out I was met by his smiling face in the open air. I said to him, “I feel like I’ve just emerged from the womb.” He laughed and said, “I think that’s the point.”
I immediately crawled over to Lolo, the dog, and laid next to him and stared up at the muffled gray sky, listening to the stubborn thunder in the distance. A light rain started to drizzle, and after everyone was out, we all gathered around a huge bucket of water and dowsed ourselves with it. We then slowly moved inside to eat a delicious meal cooked for us by Kush’s family and friends.
The sweat lodge offered us a chance to realize a connection to our animal side–a connection to the place in ourselves that existed before we were ever told we weren’t good enough. That raw, creative, uninhibited energy. And that energy still exists in all of us, but some are numbed by the constant repetition of expectations of how one should act, how one should think, and so many more soul-depriving restrictions.
Those seeking redemption will find it. It can be found anywhere–a sweat lodge in the Cusco Valley of Peru, the mountains of Montana, or the lakes of New York. Healing is afforded to anyone willing to sit a little more quietly and breathe a little more deeply.
* * *
When I got to the airport in New York City, no one spoke English. I didn’t know anything anyone was saying, but there was a certain consolation in not knowing. No unnecessary anxiety or problems were being filtered through my mind. It was an exciting feeling but also an isolating one. I still managed to get where I needed to go despite not knowing the language. Something ironic about language is that it’s usually the context that helps communicate–whatever is behind the language rather than the words themselves.
When I landed at the airport in Cusco, I felt like a celebrity. There were a lot of people holding signs, yelling names, and pushing each other. My host mother was screaming and holding a sign with my name on it. She immediately recognized me and pointed to the gate. We got into the taxi. She asked if I knew any Spanish and I said I knew a little. The cab driver’s smile reflected in the rearview mirror. The rest of the ride home was silent.
This was over a month ago. And today, if you asked me how much I know, I would say the same thing. But I’m not so sure that’s a true statement anymore.
There have been plenty of moments when I have told myself I don’t know enough to hold a conversation– and so I didn’t. I felt safe if I didn’t try to talk at all, but I also wasn’t learning anything. I find that the more often I go into a situation thinking that I am going to be open to talking and listening, the more often I actually do well in understanding conversations.
Learning a language is directly related to confidence. If you speak the language–even when you feel like you don’t know how–the worst that can happen is you leave the other person feeling completely confused, but at least you tried, and you probably made them laugh which is always a good thing. Most often, they will correct you in an attempt to help you.
Two things to remember:
1) Push yourself to speak the language. Try to use it whenever you can. I often find myself talking more than I would normally just to see if I can find a new way to speak in Spanish.
2) Learn to be ok with all the words you don’t know, and learn to be ok with silence. There are going to be moments when you simply just don’t feel like talking, as you would with people who speak the same language, it’s important to remember that if you have the mindset that you need to be talking at all times, you aren’t going to be enjoying yourself, and the conversation won’t flow naturally.
Learning a new language has given me a whole new appreciation for language. Everywhere I go, there is the opportunity to learn. I read billboards, advertisements, labels, flyers, and listen to people talk. I might not have any idea what they are saying, but just hearing the words helps me become familiar with them.
To simplify, it’s really all about taking care with your words and not being too hard on yourself.
Today I walked into one of my classes to find a woman I had never seen before standing at the front of the room. She was talking with my professor, and the level of her voice told me that she had something to say. Something she wasn’t afraid to say. Her confidence was apparent within moments of entering the room. She had the piercing presence that effortlessly attracted the attention of everyone around . . .
When everyone (all six of us) came into the classroom, my professor introduced her as the founder of a project known as “Rainforest Flow.” We had watched a video about this project the previous class.
Her name is Nancy. An older woman from Connecticut. A fashion photographer for L.A. and New York City. She’s photographed Tyra Banks. Cameron Diaz. Anthony Hopkins.
She began talking about how in her late-thirties, after becoming a successful photographer, she wanted something more out of life. She wanted to search for inner truth. She came to Peru to find a shaman deep within the rainforest. Along her journey there, she talked with the local indigenous people. She asked them what they wanted most in their communities, and the response that was repeated again and again was WATER. Clean water. She was inspired to help the indigenous people learn about santiation and hygiene and to help make clean water accessbile to those who asked for help.
She was a very empowering speaker. She mentioned all of the opposition she faced when creating this organization. People told her it would fail–that she was crazy for even thinking she could help–she only had a 2-year Art School degree and everyone else around her–the ethnobotanists, the medical anthropologists–all had PH.Ds.
After living in the rainforest for over a week, and being in Peru for three months, she came back to the States and created “The House of Children” and within 45 days it was registered as a non-government organization.
What she said during that hour was only secondary to how she made everyone around me, including myself, feel.
Something inside this woman knows. Listening to her talk, I feel like the fog has cleared and a mountain has appeared through the mist–the question has revealed itself:
What are you going to do to help the world?
This question always seems so vague and lofty, and really, I don’t think there’s any one wrong answer. Yes, throwing away your gum wrapper will in some way help the world. But there is something deeper beyond it–it’s a daunting question. Our insecurities and feelings of unworthiness rise to the surface. When we think of it, most of our shoulders cringe and shrivel up–hearts caving inward. We feel like we have to do a hundred things to make the world a better place. Me? what am I gonna do to change the world? How can I possibly help? I’m only one person. (We like to think that the more we do, the better the world will be.)
Yes, you ARE one person. Isn’t that beautiful? Now you can either stop there, and sit with your arms folded and think how you aren’t “good enough” to change the world, how you don’t “know enough”, or maybe you don’t “have enough” to give the world, OR you can decide to walk straight into the fears holding you inside your own guilt.
I personally don’t “know” how I am going to help the world, but I can say, after hearing this woman speak, that something shifted in me today. My journey to Peru has just reached a new level. One quote that Nancy said that resonated with me:
“The only sustainable thing we have is human relationship.”
“Trying” to change the world just to “get somewhere” couldn’t be any more egocentric. Our minds would like things to be the way we think they should be–that is rarely, if ever, the case. Everything is always changing, and it’s frustrating to know that you may be of little help. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of an open heart, an open mind, or an open ear. Listening, feeling, talking, laughing, being in the present moment. These are just a few things that every person enjoys. Who doesn’t like to feel like they belong somewhere? Ultimately for any change to really occur, we have to dissolve and rise above the barriers between ourselves and others that our minds have created out of fear and “individuality”.
We are all scared, lost, and confused in some way or another. The most valuable thing you can give the world is your openness–your willingness to surrender and come down from the dark castle of your mind and into the warmth of a smile.
P.S. Here is the link to Nancy’s Project:
Before I left for Peru, a friend of mine put me in contact with a woman who lives in Cusco. She is originally from Tampa, but she is 100% Cusqueña :). She has been a guiding light for me here in Cusco. She has introduced me to a local Peruvian Tribal Fusion band named “Amaru Pumac Kuntur” (who actually just made it to the finals of Peru Tiene Talento!!!!) which I’ll explain the meaning of later. She has shown me around Cusco city and has acted as my Spanish/Quechua dictionary. By knowing her, I am getting deeper into the heart of Cusco more than I ever would in just four months.
Today I went to Tambillo with Lisa for her friend’s birthday party. It was about a 20-minute taxi ride up the winding mountain road until we came to a long dirt road. Looking down into the valley, the city of Cusco looked like thousands of scattered Monopoly-houses.
The wind and the sun blinded us.
We arrived at the home of Lisa’s friend. In the back, there was a sweat lodge in the process of construction where everyone was sitting and enjoying food. A circular stone-structure with remnants of cloth overlaying in a tipi. There were just a few of us, and I already felt like I was one of the family friends they had known their entire life.
The Peruvian way of life is much more inviting. Strangers are simply friends you haven’t seen in a while. It seems like everyone’s got some catching up to do. No one is made to feel like an outsider here–simply another piece of the puzzle. Even the neighbor’s dog came over and was welcomed with chicken bones, chomping down until there was nothing left.
Everything is slower here. I’ve heard talk about being on “Peruvian Time”, and it’s actually true. Time works in different ways here. There is no rush to do anything and trying to make plans will just cause you frustration and chaos. There is an emphasis on enjoying the present moment rather than sticking to the routine schedule. America–take lessons, please. There is hardly any rush to do things here, and things still get done. This has been a total process of surrendering for me. Having to take public transportation multiple times a day has taught me how to let go of control–there are some things not worth stressing out over, and it’s important to learn how much control of a situation you really have (and you’ll probably find, surprisingly enough to your mind, that it’s not much).
After we left the party, we walked a little way up the path to a place called Amaru Machay. Amaru means snake in Quechua (the original language/language of the Incas). In Inca tradition, there are three worlds: Amaru, Pumac, Kuntur. These are the worlds of the snake, puma, and the condor. The Snake is the internal, subconscious world. The Puma represents the world right here before us: kaypacha. The Condor represents the higher world.
Amaru Machay is also called Templo de la Luna. It is a pre-Inca archaeological site. It is considered to be the womb of Pachamama (mother Earth). It is carved inside of a rocky hill. The opening is in the shape of a vulva. Inside the opening directly to the right, there is a petrified snake and above that there is a carving of a larger snake. A crack of skylight leaks in from up above and shines onto a flat altar which is big enough to stand on. We weren’t allowed to wear shoes inside so I was barefoot. I felt charged standing upon the altar–pathways in my feet opening up and releasing tension. This is a very sacred place. Lisa told me stories after we had left (thankfully) of dark magic being performed there. People have been lured up there and killed. Decapitated bodies. Dead children. I guess there is darkness to every light. In any event, there was such a palpable spiritual/magical energy to it that is incomparable.
Peru is a mystery I’m not sure I’ll ever get tired of unfolding.
I have been in Peru for about two weeks. When I first got to the airport everything seemed so unreal. I felt like all the strings around me had been cut. I felt as if I had been given a new life. Some would shy away from traveling because they are afraid to be alone, but from the moment I left my family at the gate in the airport, I had an unusual feeling of confidence. Sure, I was physically alone because there wasn’t anyone else beside me, but I didn’t feel lonely because I knew I had myself. And really, being there for yourself is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. It’s amazing–the depths you can reach when you know that you can no longer go back–that you have to grow–that you have to experience life.
I chose to study abroad because I knew it would be a life-changing experience. I wanted to be completely thrown out of my comfort zone and immersed in a different language to prove to myself that I could find my way. There is only so much growth that can be done in one place. When you are in a new environment, you start to notice more and more of the world around you, but you also notice your own habits (and maybe even how they aren’t helpful for you anymore). While venturing into unknown territory with a bag full of habits and fears, it is harder to hold on to them than it is to make a change for the better. You have to adapt to the world around you. You have to let go of the way things used to be–the way you think they “should” be. But that doesn’t mean you lose yourself. It actually gives you more room for creativity to be yourself. As you grow aware of the world around you, you grow more aware of yourself.
I wanted my trip abroad to be completely different than anything I was used to before. I have always wanted to go to South America. It always seemed like a place of mystery to me. Something inside of me knew I would visit someday. When I first started looking at programs, I was open to all of them. I scanned through lots of study abroad programs all over the world. Greece. India. New Zealand. None of them felt right for me. I decided to stop resisting this feeling deep inside of me and began looking at programs in South America.
I have taken one year of Spanish in college, and all of the programs that I saw in South America only offered classes taught in Spanish. I wasn’t at that level of proficiency yet. I eventually found one program that offered classes taught in English: Cusco, Peru.
The program that I chose was through IPSL (International Partnership for Service-Learning). Part of the program involves living with a Peruvian family, and another part involves service-learning projects within the community. I knew both of these would help me (or anyone) learn more about the culture and language.
During my time in Peru, I hope to learn to speak Spanish, to visit ancient ruins, and to visit the Rainforest!! I’m sure I’ll be adding more to this list as time progresses.
So I guess to end this post, I’d just like to encourage anyone who has a dream that seems so unattainable to never give up hope. Keep going, keep working toward it. Things don’t happen instantly, but eventually they DO happen. They take time, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit around waiting for “someday”.
Creating dreams and watching them turn into reality is what life is about.
Someday is everyday.
So let me catch up on the past month that I’ve been here.
Arriving in the UK was really exciting and overwhelming. I wanted to explore immediately. To meet people and see new places. I spent my first couple days tired and jet-lagged while attempting to experience everything. A word of advice: don’t do too much too fast. You have 5 whole months to explore! If you don’t slow down, you might end up sick and in the hospital waiting room in the first week like me.
Besides feeling terribly ill for my first week, the UK has been great! I’ve had a lot of opportunities to visit different cities and see all the sights. So far I’ve been to Windsor, Canterbury, Oxford, and all around central London. I’m taking a class called British Life and Culture which had given me a lot of great opportunities to meet other international students and go on some really interesting tours.
I’m really glad that I chose to study at Kingston. It’s really fast and easy to get to central London. London is a great city if you’re interested in fashion, music, art, sports, food; anything really. Camden market is great for shopping on a nice warm day, there are so many people just playing music on the streets, many of the museums like the Tate Modern are free or discounted for students, and walking along the Thames there’s tons of cafes and street vendors selling great food.
Attached are pictures from Central London. Pictures and details from my other trips to be posted soon!
Me by the Tower Bridge
skate spot along the Thames River
Carousel by the London Eye
St. Paul’s Catherdral
So the past week has possibly been one of the biggest nightmares for those of us studying abroad. The few inches of snow that has surfaced in the past couple days, although seemingly nothing to those of us from the States, has resulted in a Holiday Season Fiasco!
Starting with Saturday, Dec. 18th, the overly anticipated arrival date of my family in London turned into a disappointed night alone in the amazing flat my mom rented in Kensington for our family’s holiday :/. I arrived early at the flat on Saturday so that I could stock the fridge with groceries for when my family arrived that night. However, a phone call saying that their flight had been canceled from Washington crushed my hopes; Heathrow Airport completely shutdown!!! I spent that night weather-watching and taking numerous phone calls from my mom with updates of their travel agenda. My poor family had to rebook their entire flight for Sunday night and then spent the remainder of their time in a hotel Washington.
Sunday was spent preparing for their arrival and hanging with a few friends around the Kensington and Notting Hill area, my cheerful mood was deterred when I got the news that United Airlines canceled their rebooked flight and was told them they would most likely be unable to fly out until Thursday night arriving on Friday, Christmas Eve morning. A fantastic family holiday spent in London came to a crashing halt! Monday afternoon my mom told me that the whole trip was off and explained the difficulties not only in trying to arrive in Heathrow, but also the fact that a 12 day long trip spent site-seeing, touring museums, going to shows on the West End, and dining out was now diminished to less than 6 days, 3 of which fall over the holiday weekend :/
As of yesterday, I have been informed of my family’s inability to come visit and also booked a flight last minute home on Christmas Eve. What will probably be the most hectic and exhausting travel experience ever, I have to fly Friday morning from Heathrow Airport to Dublin. Then after switching planes I have to then fly from Dublin to Boston, to then have my my mom and sister pick me up to drive 5 hrs. back to Syracuse, NY. If all goes as planned I have my fingers crossed in the hopes that I will be with my family come Christmas Eve. I know that many of my friends and fellow abroad students have had great difficulty trying to return home, there have been numerous delays and cancelations of over the past 3 days and all anyone wishes is that we make it home in time for Christmas!