03 Jul Project World School Family Retreat – Cusco and the Sacred Valley June 2019
Happy July Worldschoolers! I’m Wiley, a 20 year old Linguist and Anthropologist in training, and a past PWS participant and current Intern. The following post is an excerpt from my article here about worldschooling and family as I observed from the recent Cusco and the Sacred Valley family retreat, which took place between the 17th and 30th of June. I encourage people to read the full article as it is decently palatable and quite nutritious, but this section should hopefully provide a good summary of what we experienced and learned during the trip! Also, this post will theoretically have more pictures to look at.
On June 17th, Lainie and I met up with our other participants for a nice breakfast and opening remarks in Ulrike’s cafe on a cobbled street in the Sacred Valley town and expat hub of Pisac, or P’isaqa in Quechua. Our community for this retreat would be tightly knit, but quite small. In addition to Lainie and I, Alice and her 12 year old son Satria, a family of worldschoolers from Australia, were present as volunteers– the idea was that they would get the full PWS family experience in order to be able to facilitate this retreat in the future. Alice is a compassionate and graceful mother as well as a skilled and prolific user of social media (which is really not my forte, so I’m quite thankful for her presence.) Satria is a boy who one may find bright and energetic as he is sensitive and shy, with a passion for digital art and a love of hands on interaction; his presence and advice were to serve as a model for what worked and did not work with respect to kids around his age for future retreats.
Due to extenuating circumstances, this year’s retreat ended up with a small, but tight knit and well rounded group. The families that came turned out to be some of the best participants we could ask for, as well as generally being wonderful people. Coincidentally, everyone but Lainie and I was Australian– Tony, Karen, and their fourteen year old daughter Kate flew halfway across the world to join us as well. Tony and Karen had taken a step back from their business to focus on traveling the world with Kate, which they do approximately six months out of the year. This was to be their first experience in South America, and I believe that they fell in love with Andean culture and people quite quickly as did we. Karen is an adventurous and compassionate mom who enjoys essential oils and some degree of organization, and flourishes in but shys away from the limelight. Kate is a somewhat quiet and incredibly creative teen who loves crafting jewelry, reading, and has quite high endurance for hiking. Tony is a caring and cool dad who loves the two aforementioned very much, and has a knack for construction and community which he let shine on this retreat. Rounding out these wonderful people, we were joined most of the time by Matt, an energetic and nature-loving Scottish man who lives in Pisac with his Peruvian wife Feli, and has been traveling and leading treks around the world (mostly in South America) for years. He was to be our partner on the upcoming Scotland retreat (which was unfortunately canceled due to reasons out of our control) and wanted to learn more about the PWS method and ideology.
After our delicious breakfast at Ulrikes, we loaded ourselves and personal effects into two local taxis and headed half an hour up a mostly dirt road, through a valley and up a sloping plain, to the high Andean community of Amaru. Upon our arrival to Inti Qhawarina hostel, we were greeted with warm hugs, piping hot Coca tea, and a scattering of flower petals by our hosts Elogidio, Rufina, and their family. We got ourselves settled into our rustically beautiful rooms, enclosed by incredibly thick adobe brick walls painted with local colored clays and furnished with warm woolen blankets on comfortable beds, taking the opportunity to play a game of monopoly deal with two of the kids from our host family.
As Amaru is located on an eastward facing slope, the sun rises quite early and begins to set quite early as well– as the valley is blanketed by shadow, one is reminded that they are at more than four thousand meters of altitude as the bone chilling High Andean night creeps in. Putting on extra layers, we waddled down to the dining room to be treated to our first of many incredibly delicious and local Andean meals, which generally were always lead by a warming and rejuvenating soup. The family served us something quite different every night, whether it be Milaneza from fresh local sheep, local squash-like vegetables stuffed with rice and quinoa, or Chaufa (Peruvian Fried rice type dish) of Kiwicha (Amaranth) with local tubers (of which there are more than two thousand distinct varieties.) Following this wonderful dinner, we did our first circle– a staple of the PWS experience– in which family members discussed their expectations and hopes for the upcoming adventure, and were introduced to the infamous circle cards.
Come morning, we found that almost everyone had struggled with a common enemy during the night, that being the night itself and the brittle cold that came with it. These months are, of course, the middle of winter, this being the southern hemisphere. This being said, these months are also the driest, which makes transportation throughout the valley much easier and safer– well worth the transient discomfort of a cold evening. For me this wasn’t really an issue– my home gets much colder and snowier during our equivalent. The rest of our group was not as used to the cold, having to pile layer upon layer and still finding themselves shivering. Host Mom Rufina keenly took note of the struggle and provided us, unprompted, with hot water bottles each night after, but this initial breach in comfort reminded participants that this was a PWS retreat they were on, not a tourist venture nor a luxury homestay.
Our next week was based out of Amaru, divided between day outings to various places and foraging, hiking, and cultural learning at the homestead itself. On one day we learned about different indigenous crops and how they are rotated to ensure maximum sustainability, harvested colorful quinoa of different varieties, and built a watia, an earthen oven, to cook some delicious tubers on the spot.
The next day found us back down in the valley, volunteering at Ccochawasi, a sanctuary and rehabilitation center for trafficked and injured animals. We worked through the morning and afternoon stacking rocks, digging trenches, and securing perches and were rewarded by seeing Ccochawasi’s eagle population move into their new habitat at the end of the day. I wrote a small blurb on Ccochahuasi, as we are seeking to gather more donations for this wonderful place– click here to check it out! Other days included a hike through four big ruin sites near Cusco (Tampumach’ay, Pukapukara, Q’enqo, and Saqsaywaman,) opening our minds to differing theories of construction and occupation and taking in the awesome energies of each ancient place.
We took a day to stroll around Cusco, revisiting many of the PWS classics like a pan flute making workshop with local luthier Sabino Huaman, a nutritious vegan lunch at Green Point restaurant, and a stop for afternoon Picarones (sweet potato and squash donuts deep fried and coated with fig syrup) before returning to Amaru. Yet another day saw us in the weaving village of Chinchero, where we harvested potatoes at Edzon’s family farm and learned about weaving in the traditional style as we have in years past. Our visit fell near the summer solstice, and Edzon’s family blew us away by preparing us a soup in the style of Chiriuchu, a holiday dish that includes several difficult to obtain and expensive ingredients like fish roe, seaweed, and guinea pig. Their amazing hospitality towards us was likely a result of the relationship we have cultivated with the family over the years; Lainie has seen their kids grow up as they have seen Miro grow.
Our last two days at Amaru were more slow paced, yet just as rewarding. Our host and village headman Elogidio took us further up into the Andes, to a lake called Kinsaqocha (“three lakes” in Quechua) around which we hiked– as we reached the yonder side of the lake all of the noises of the world fell away, and we were bathed in high mountain stillness, accompanied by the occasional shepherd, alpaca, or wallata duck. Our last night at Amaru was marked by a round of singing and storytelling together with our host family, though notably one-sided– next time we must be sure to bring stories and songs to share with them, as the kindness, warmth, and compassion they showed us will surely stick with our group members through their continued travels.
Departing Amaru early in the morning on the 25th, we made our final descent down the terraced shield of quinoa, tarwi, kiwicha, and potatoes back to the town of Pisac where we took a series of bumpy, cramped, and markedly uncomfortable colectivos (think a crowd funded taxi van) to the quiet town of Santa Maria in the high rainforest district of La Convención within Cusco province. Some people, including yours truly, were not in the best of health at this point, so this journey served as another reminder of the occasional discomfort we would need to endure along with the joys of learning and community building during a retreat.
After five hours to Santa Maria came another hour long drive along a dusty dirt road on the side of an impressive cliff, as we navigated to our next night’s lodging at the hot springs village of Santa Teresa. After a much needed soak in natural geothermal waters, a huge meal accompanied by some “Cusco sours,” as Alice put it, and a good night’s sleep, we headed higher up to a locally run coffee farm in the hamlet of Lucmabamba.
After a tour of the farm culminating in tasting some absolutely fresh and delicious coffee, Lainie and I saw off the rest of our group as they headed up a Qhapaq Ñan, or an Inca Road, to an ecolodge with a breathtaking view of the surrounding high jungle, including Machu Picchu. While Lainie and I did not participate in the hike up, instead returning to Santa Teresa to prepare food for the next few days, I hear that it was quite grueling– around four hours up, up, and up. The families were certainly quite challenged, but they pulled together and got through the ordeal, pushing their bodies and minds out of the comfort zone to develop and hone themselves.
After a beautiful night under the unsullied stars at the ecolodge, the families headed down into the valley to meet us at a hydroelectric station, the starting point of the most used walking path to Machu Picchu. Another eight miles along a flat and relatively easy jungle path put us in the town of Aguas Calientes, where we booked into our hostel in preparation to visit the ruins the next day. These last two days pushed our families to their limits physically, whether they be dealing with little experience hiking or deteriorating joints. Upon reflection, however, the families felt quite accomplished over what they had done, able to see the beauty in what they had achieved together. Come the next morning, they took a comfortable bus up to the stunning, albeit tourist-packed ruins of Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu is undeniably a physically incredible site, but the level of commercialization and commodification of culture surrounding the site that has increased exponentially over the past years can be quite hard to stomach. For our participants, it was in stark and obvious contrast with the culturally immersive, local, and small scale nature of the rest of the retreat. We left Aguas Calientes by train right after the families returned from the ruins, journeying back to Cusco for the last days of our time together. Arriving at our comfy hotel in the historical district, we had a dinner of delicious North Indian food before hitting the hay early, in anticipation of a rest day wherein the families could decompress a bit from the action packed adventure of the previous few.
After a much needed day of rest, our families got together in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas to meet local shaman and curandero Cesar, another Cusco resident whose relationship with PWS goes back years. As he has in the past, he took us to the wooded natural area above the city to conduct a Despacho, a ceremony that involves channeling our energy (both positive and negative) into a delicious and elegant present for Pacha Mama (Mother Earth,) who would consume our gift through fire and bless us and the world with peace, light, love, and plenty.
As usual, Cesar read each member of our group intuitively, responding to their needs and teaching us many lessons about the troubles of modern life, connection to nature, and need for constant rejuvenation of the self. We left the despacho ceremony feeling refreshed, buzzing with energy and light, which carried us through to our final evening– huge burgers, crispy onion rings, and happy hour drinks at Fuego, a local American style BBQ restaurant. Here we did our final circle, and each participant gave a heartfelt compliment to three other group members.
Final circles are always powerful moments where the community that has been knit together over the retreat recounts and affirms its own existence, but this one in particular was quite moving due to the huge difference in age and relationships between participants– parents complimented children on their growth and courage, children complimented parents on their compassion and strength, and I complimented Lainie on her unceasing optimism and drive for community learning and cultural immersion.
We saw families off over the next day– many warm hugs were had, and tears were shed. We left the retreat with high hopes for the next year and coming retreats, knowing that families would have much to look forward to in this magical land.