The Retreat is Launched

(Note: the Wi-Fi has been out for more than 24 hours. It has to go through seven towers to get here and people steal the antennas. So I will be doing several posts in a row to catch up.)

This morning, Karyn taught her first yoga class for our newly arrived community, and after breakfast, we met as a whole group to get to know each other better and to set the container for the workshop.

But before we did that, we had Gonzalo come in and tell us more about Sach’a Munay. He shared some of the legends of the mountains and told us about the mountain spirits, the Apus. This whole area was once burial grounds, even pre-Inca. “That’s part of what makes it special.”

Gonzalo told us that Sach’a Munay can be translated in many ways in Quechua, the local language. It can mean “beautiful tree,” “spirit of the forest,” and “loving spirit of nature.” The locals speak Quechua as their first language, many don’t start learning Spanish until they are 10 or 15 years old, and some don’t learn it at all.

Gonzalo told us more about the food program the retreat center sponsors for the local children, many of whom are anemic, some of whom live on a diet of only potatoes. The non-profit associated with Sach’a Munay helps to feed these children and provides supplements for anemia.

Although Sach’a Munay is self-sustaining and supports the local community in myriad ways, Gonzalo said, “From a commercial point of view, there’s no sense in all the money we’ve put into this place, installing special crystals underground, things you can’t even see. But we’ve put all this effort into making this place sacred. The vision is to create a beautiful place to expand consciousness and to help people grow as human beings.”

After Gonzalo’s talk, and some questions and answers, I opened the morning session with an edited quote from travel writer par excellence Pico Iyer: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and to learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. We travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

“Though it’s fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the “tourist” and the “traveler,” perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don’t….

“For me, the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving my beliefs and certainties at home, seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle….[Travel frees us precisely because it] whirls us around and turns us upside down, stands everything we took for granted on its head. The first lesson we learn on the road, like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal…

“…Travel spins us round in two ways at once: It shows us the sights and values and issues that we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty. For in traveling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we’d otherwise seldom have cause to visit.

“On the most basic level, when I’m in Thailand, though a teetotaler who usually goes to bed at 9 p.m., I stay up till dawn in the local bars; and in Tibet, though not a real Buddhist, I spend days on end in temples, listening to the chants of sutras. I go to Iceland to visit the lunar spaces within me, and, in the uncanny quietude and emptiness of that vast and treeless world, to tap parts of myself generally obscured by chatter and routine…

“We live more simply, with no more possessions than we can carry, surrendering ourselves to chance.

“Abroad is the place we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love. We live without a past or future, we are, for a moment at least; up for grabs and open to interpretation… Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing… people cannot put a name or tag to us. And because [of this], we have the opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves–which explains why we often feel most alive far from home…”

Then we talked about why we all had chosen to come thousands of miles to be here, why we were willing to deal with altitude adjustment and the discomforts and uncertainties of travel, and the dominant theme was how travel cracks us open, enables us to discover and embody new parts of ourselves, deepens our empathy, increase our sense of connection with people everywhere, and support us in breaking our habitual patterns.

I invited everyone to do a simple gratitude practice while they were here—so they could more fully appreciate the beauty and awe of this environment and the growing bonds of our traveling community. I set the groundrules for the workshop and established of our community values—respect for each other and the culture we’re visiting, flexibility, curiosity, and taking small risks outside of their comfort zone everyday.

After our mid-morning break, I introduced the basic concepts of travel writing and we talked about how different traveling as writers can be. Then I I gave everyone a small notebook and some homework– to go out for a walk in the afternoon, recording sensory details, much as I did on my walk the other day. I instructed them to go out alone or if in pairs, to walk in silence, and to use a notebook, rather than a camera to take in the area surrounding Sach’a Munay—either into the woods and up toward the waterfall behind the center or out into the village that surrounds this place.

Tonight we’re having a traditional despacho ceremony with a local shaman, an Andean of gratitude and letting go, which should go nicely with the concepts introduced this morning. I’m really looking forward to it myself. This is all new to me, too!

And tomorrow, in writing class, I’m eager to hear what people observed on their walks and how it felt for them to journey out into the world, notebooks in hand.

Enjoying the view during our morning break from writing class.


Look at those mountains!

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