Last night I returned to Healing House with a big smile on my face after a visit with Angel, from Madrid, Spain. He had asked me out for coffee during a short instant messaging conversation. Originally, the message started out with a question. He had asked if I wanted to come out to a pub night he was hosting on Saturday at a restaurant/bar called “Let’s Go Bananas”. I explained that if I’m still in Cusco, I will for sure, but I wasn’t planning on it. My plan was to leave in a few days for Puerto Maldonado in the jungle and head to Bolivia from there. It was what he said in response to my comment, that piqued my interest and which has inspired me to stay until after Saturday night.
Angel is someone I met a couple of weeks ago after a chance meeting with someone else. It’s funny how these encounters can change the course of your plans and because of this I have learned to keep my mind open to anything that comes along because it could be the catalyst for important changes down the road. Sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere, or at least you don’t think it does until something happens later on. Then you piece it together and go, “Ah, if that didn’t happen then I wouldn’t be here now.”
Ultimately it was my vertigo that started the chain reaction of events. It had been happening in the middle of the night and upon waking in the morning. While lying on my back, I would turn my head a certain way and then whoa, it would happen. My head would spin and if I tried to stand up I would tip over. I felt like one of those bobble heads you put on a car dashboard. If I turned my head too fast it would take a while for the world to catch up. Regardless, I couldn’t just lie around all day, so I tried to manage.
One morning when I was experiencing vertigo, I decided to leave Healing House to get a breakfast sandwich and a freshly squeezed mango/orange juice from San Blas Market, but when I reached the San Blas Plaza I was overcome with dizziness and had to sit down on a bench. It wasn’t long before I was bombarded by a solicitor. They are like mosquitos in a way – when you stop to relax it’s not long before you hear the annoying drone as one of them flies in for the landing in an attempt to suck you dry. It was one of those solicitors who claim to be the original artist of the water colours and leather canvas paintings neatly stacked inside their portfolio. I believed the first one who stopped me, but there are so many of them wandering around that I really have my doubts they are the original artists. If you stop or slow down, watch out because it isn’t long before they zone in on you. One quickly spotted me sitting on the bench. He drifted over and I waved him away explaining that I wasn’t feeling well. He was relentless. “Where are you from?” he asked as he moved in closer. “I’m not feeling well”, I responded. “Do you speak Spanish?” he continued. “No,” I said, shortly. “You speak English?” Ugh. I got up and stumbled my way into the Meeting Place restaurant.
This is where I had my chance meeting with Duane, a man in his mid-60’s. After a tasty breakfast of French toast, heaped with butter and maple syrup, and a freshly squeezed orange juice, I stood in line and waited my turn to pay. Duane was having a conversation with the woman behind the counter. He definitely likes to talk, I noticed. Patiently, I waited my turn, a little annoyed, but mainly to do with my vertigo and the experience with the solicitor. Duane turned to me and offered me a key chain made from a braided rope. I said, “No thank you. It would be just one more thing to carry.”
My response triggered a conversation that would have me sitting and listening attentively in the restaurant for another hour. Duane observed that I must be a minimalist. I nodded and said yes, that I learned to become one after walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. It was then that I realized stuff didn’t matter so much. The important things were non-tangible, whether it was the wisdom shared by the people I met along the way, the faith and spirituality I gained or the synchronicity that happened out of the blue.
It was there in Spain that I learned that magic really does exist. When I was a child, I remember being disappointed that there was no magical world of trees and animals that could talk on the other side of a wardrobe. But now, after experiencing the synchronicity on the Camino, I have changed my mind about the existence of magic in this world. Not that trees or animals can talk. Of course they don’t, but it’s the synchronicity of strange things that line up that has instilled faith in me. Some call it coincidence.
For example, on the Camino, me and another woman, Karen from Winnipeg, walked into the city of Leon together. It is an amazing city with a French-style Gothic cathedral at its centre. It also had some amazing shopping and when you’ve been walking for hundreds of kilometers wearing nearly the same things every day, it’s tempting to want to buy something new. We browsed the shoe stores and said to each other, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to buy a new pair of boots?” “Yeah, but then we would have to carry them.” we reminded ourselves. That night I journaled about it and I wrote:
“León is an amazing city. There is lots of shopping, but I have been challenged with my pilgrim status. So many great stores with so much to buy, but if I was to do that, I would have to carry it. I did buy a couple of practical things – some warm tights to cover my bare legs and feet and a versatile poncho that can also be used as a scarf to cover my head and neck when it’s cold. I would love to exchange my red sandals for shoes that match what I’m wearing better, but again, I’m a pilgrim. Pilgrims aren’t meant to be stylish. In ancient times many of them were common people. Some walked the Camino to lessen their time in purgatory and some walked to avoid going to jail. They carried very little and had to be practical and so should I.
While I window shopped I thought about my red sandals and decided it would make me feel better if I pretended I was like Dorothy with her ruby red slippers following the yellow brick road to Oz, except I’m wearing red sandals following yellow arrows along a famous pilgrimage route to Santiago. Lucky for me I didn’t have the added worry of the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys. Come to think of it, the gargoyles peering down from the top of the Palacio de los Guzmanes did look like they could swoop down on me and carry me away at any moment.”
The next day, I wrote in my journal about a funny coincidence, or what I now believe is synchronicity:
“Upon leaving the hotel a funny thing happened. I had just started striding down the alleyway, my poles clicking the pavement, when I passed a café bar. The lyrics, “Somewhere over the rainbow…way up high…” resonated out of the open door. They stopped me in my tracks. Dumbfounded, I stood there listening and then I laughed and smiled to myself as I recalled the journal entry I had written last night about my red sandals and Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. There are so many coincidental and strange little moments on the Camino. Sometimes I think angels send subtle messages to let you know they are there.”
This is one coincidence among many that I have experienced and the reason why I now choose to live my life with an open heart and an open mind to whatever and whoever comes along. They are a source of learning and guidance to me. You just never know what experiences can come out of a chance meeting. So, it’s the people. They have become an important and necessary part of this journey.
While I sat with Duane and explained my story beginning with the Camino and ending with my arrival in South America and what I am learning here, I also got to hear his story. He is an ex-Mormon who used to be a computer programmer, but who quit his job to do something more meaningful. He created an organization called The Galileo Foundation which helps the local people and children of Peru who are in need. He comes to Peru twice a year for a couple of months at a time. His life has been greatly influenced by others such as Buddha, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and the Peace Pilgrim, a woman who had her own life changing experience on the Appalachian Trail and who now travels North America on a peace mission. He quotes them often and has memorized prayers such as The Prayers of St. Francis. That struck me since the first time I had ever heard that prayer was at my aunt’s memorial in June. Duane would again recite the prayer the next day during a meditation as five of us sat in the hills of the Sacred Valley. It was the flock of doves that spontaneously erupted from a nearby tree that made the meditation especially surreal to me. They swirled around us as we sat quietly. The cooing sounds and the soft flapping of their wings enveloped us – a symbol of peace. Auntie Carole popped into my mind and I smiled to myself.
Duane had invited me to come along with him and three others to Pisac in the Sacred Valley. They were going to visit a mountain village community and a school there. I met him that morning at the cathedral in front of the Plaza de Armas. Surprisingly, he had some gifts for me, the minimalist who wouldn’t take the key chain the previous day. It was a book, a Buddhist book actually. He had no idea that I had practiced Buddhist meditation for several years. He also gave me a bag of vitamin C, a few sheets of quotes that he had typed up and the key chain I turned down the day before. I gladly accepted them all.
Duane’s goal is to inspire others, to kindle their fire. He recited a quote by Plutarch, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” He said, “Real learning is helping others to kindle that fire.” He is full of such wisdom and compassion for others. He carried a bag of round pan breads with him and he handed them out to homeless people as we walked towards the bus. When we arrived, three others were waiting, including Angel who I met for coffee last night. Duane flagged a van. We all climbed in and headed off on what was to be a very enlightening day. Duane asked us each to share our stories of how we ended up here in Peru. Each of us told inspiring stories of change and breaking away from the routines and trappings of our old lives. We all wanted to do something more meaningful.
Above from left to right: Me, Jeremy, Nadia and Angel
Above from left to right: Jeremy and Duane with the children
Above: The village school
Above: The classroom
Above: Duane handing out red licorice to a village family
More images from the Mountain Village in the Sacred Valley
My plan was to go back to Pisac with my flute and play for the children, but then after the trek to Salkantay, I came back with a new responsibility, the little emaciated peregrino puppy that I later adopted out. That situation got me thinking about why I am here, what I am looking for and the traveling I still want to do. Maybe it is time to leave Cusco, the stone city that has stirred my emotions so much. I have met so many wonderful people here, but it is too easy to leave my pack sitting in a corner and settle back into the same routine that I left not very long ago. The urge to move and turn the page in this adventure is tugging at me.
Last night, as Angel and I spoke of our plans, he told me that if I go to the jungle I will need rubber boots and a jungle shirt. The jungle shirt, meaning a loose, long-sleeved shirt to prevent the mosquitos from biting and the rubber boots to protect me from snake bites. Really, snake bites? Uh, yeah…it’s a different world there. You have to be mindful of the wildlife such as snakes, crocodiles, tarantulas, insects and jaguars. Angel showed me a picture of the hunting knife he bought. Not that he’s planning to use it. He’s a vegan and wouldn’t dream of hurting anything, but when it comes to protecting his life while he’s working in the jungle it’s a different matter entirely. He will be volunteering in a reforestation and animal rehabilitation project in Manu, the most biodiverse jungle in the world. Part of it is protected. Nobody is allowed to enter that area. There are said to be tribes living in its depths who have never seen a modern man. They have no idea that the chaos of Cusco even exists.
So, where will the road lead? Which path along my journey will I take? These are questions that still remain to be answered. Originally, I was planning a jungle tour to Manu, but when I asked Freddy, a South American Explorer’s Club tour guide, if I could stay there longer after the tour, he said no, that it’s not possible. Then, he said he could leave the cook with me at the lodge for an extra couple of nights at $80 US per night, however it wasn’t really the experience I was looking for. After mulling it over for a while I decided that yes, I would do the four day tour. After all, I wanted change. Then I could come back to Cusco, make my way over to Lake Titicaca and then into Bolivia.
When I returned to pay, someone else was manning the desk and they inspired me to consider a different plan. Why not head to Puerto Maldonado, a city in the jungle about 12 hours from here? He said when I get there I can stay in a hostel and then book a cross-border tour down the river into Bolivia for cheaper. Yeah! What an adventure that would be. So that was the plan, until I had coffee with Angel last night. So, you see, the people you meet along the way can influence your plans. Which road to the jungle do I take? Do I take the one to Manu to volunteer or the one to Puerto Maldonado for the cross-border jungle tour into Bolivia? Or, do I stay here in Cusco for a little while longer? Is there opportunity here? For sure there is in the Sacred Valley helping in the mountain village communities. Right now, my mind is reeling with so many different choices.
Which of the three paths I take still remains to be seen. A decision will be made after the weekend. Saturday, after Angel returns from Machu Picchu, I will go with him to the project office and see if there is a volunteer project which inspires me and how much it will cost. Most of all, I’m keeping an open mind and heart and I’m excited to see where the journey takes me from here.