Just as I hoped, with ankle pain slowly subsiding and memories of wheelchairs fading into the mist, I’m beginning to understand a few of the many lessons learned on my recent trip to Peru.
Peru lives up to its lore. The high peaks of the Andes, rising to the clear blue sky, capped with snow and ice, surround the mountain traveler with whisperings of ancient spirits. Indeed, the mountain people listen to these whisperings, looking to the apus for wisdom and guidance.
Life is not easy above 8 or 10,000 feet. Certainly not for a traveler like me, used to life at a comfortable 514 feet above sea level. But I’d venture a guess that it’s not at all easy for the mountain people of Peru, who endure sun, wind, sparse resources and challenging growing conditions to live in this place so close to the heavens. Though life may be difficult, so many faces in the Andes radiate kindness and joy.
One of the beautiful shamans traveling with us, at every opportunity, would decorate me with kisses and hugs, speaking (singing, really) Quechua words I could only understand in spirit. Tucked in her long and bubbling string of words, I could always discern, “Apu, apu, apu!” Doña Asunte shared her loving hugs and melodious blessings of joy so freely. Mountain joy in her every step.
Of course, we learned about the Inca people at every turn. Those endless stone steps I mentioned, along with so many magnificent stone structures, told the story of this short-lived civilization, which was nearly decimated by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. Their buildings, aquaducts, crop terraces, temples, houses and sacred places speak of a creative, ingenious people with a strong sense of collective purpose.
The Inca people used every resource wisely, and for the common good. Food was stored, for example, in great, open, stone granary buildings (above photo), high on the steep mountain slopes. Cooled by mountain winds, with crops layered in Andean wild mint to preserve freshness, these buildings were collective resources. As a people, should hard times hit, they knew they could feed themselves for 20 to 30 years.
Quinoa, potatoes, amaranth, corn (with magnificently huge kernels, no less) are among the crops tended carefully—completely with hand tools—in tiny mountain fields, even today. The collective culture is, I believe, largely gone—at least on the scale of the Incas—but the generosity of spirit remains. I know this first-hand. Having been pushed up hills, along bumpy, torn-up cobblestone paths, in rickety wheelchairs, I encountered only grace, smiles and laughter.
Here at home, I’m struck by our complacency with our individual-centric culture. We’re trained at an early age to look after ourselves and find our individual success, stability and happiness. Yes, we’re also taught generosity and charity, but there’s an unmistakable egocentricity that flourishes here. Me first.
Does it make sense—and is it possible—to create a world in which the collective wellbeing is of primary importance? Where the needs of every person are met? Where “health” has a community meaning as well as an individual meaning? Where we each understand that our personal actions affect the health and wellbeing of our friends, families and communities? Where we care about strangers? Where we are all one people?
I certainly hope so. I think our survival depends on it.
Do you think a stronger dose of “We First” might help us? How?