One of the most anticipated experiences for our group was the opportunity to learn about Andean healing from an indigenous herbalist.
On a sunny Andean morning, Juan (not his real name to protect his privacy) arrived at the renovated monastery where we were acclimating to the high-altitude environment. Along with his wife and two children, he set up an extensive display of living plants, herbs, vines, flowers and native grasses, as well as concentrated elixirs, soaps and salves made from extracts of the living pharmacy that was in front of us.
After a 30-minute presentation describing his family history and how the herbs are grown and prepared, the group was encouraged to sample lotions, taste the elixirs and ask questions regarding the traditional healing of everything from common colds, coughs, headaches and rashes to specific conditions that included diverticulitis, diabetes and even cancers.
Not surprisingly, however, he also emphasized the role of personal responsibility when it comes to choices of diet and especially our “inner” pharmacy of thoughts and emotions. I think it’s fair to say that everyone who took the opportunity to immerse themselves in the experience came away with an even deeper respect for the indigenous wisdom that Juan shared with us that day.
Women Running The Show
Following a late-afternoon drive over up the winding switchback road that leads to the Chincero Valley, our group arrived at one of the most inspiring destinations of our entire journey—the high-altitude Quechuan women’s co-op in the town of Chincero.
As the sun set over the towering peaks that surround the valley, the temperatures quickly dropped and we welcomed the local tradition of hot coca-leaf tea that greeted us as we arrived at the communal compound that is home to the women’s co-op.
In the rich light of the late-day sun, Quechuan elders, mothers and children—all women—greeted us warmly with a demonstration of how Andean wool begins with the shearing of local alpacas (no animals are harmed in the process) and is then cleaned, dyed using local insects, plants and minerals, and then spun into the yarn that is woven into intricate patterns of traditional Quechuan scarves, table runners, ponchos, gloves, warm head coverings and some of the finest textiles available in the world today.
The co-op is a beautiful model of cooperation between men and women, as well as community members in a uniquely Andean way. In this particular co-op, the women run the details of the business and creating the products, while the men work for the women in a variety of ways to sustain the business.
In 2015 I invited a friend from a United Nations NGO to join me for a visit to this particular co-op. I wanted her to meet Marlene, the woman and visionary that organized the community.
Since I met her in 1989, Marlene has worked to preserve the Quechua traditions of weaving in the modern world of machine-generated textiles.
As a result of the 2015 meeting, Marlene was invited to the UN in New York to participate in a meeting of indigenous people from throughout the world struggling with the same issues. Marlene’s warmth, language skills and heartfelt desire to help her people inspired each of us and demonstrate the power of localized living in a world where centralized communities are becoming unsustainable in the emerging world of extremes.
A Step Back In Time
Lake Titicaca is one of the most mysterious lakes in the world. At 12,500 feet above sea level and covering over 3,200 square miles that overlap the border between Peru and Bolivia (the border runs through the middle of the lake) Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world.
Before his death in 1997, the explorer Jacques Cousteau, and the crew of the famous research vessel Calypso, explored the lake and documented life forms such as the giant toad, measuring approximately 24 inches in length, and mysterious archaeological sites under the water that had never been known in the past.
From our hotel on the Peruvian side of the lake, the new-ish catamarans have cut the travel time from the shore to the ancient islands of the lake nearly in half from 3 hours to just over 90 minutes.
Our destination on the most recent trip was the mysterious island of Taquile, and a visit with the families that have developed a way of life based upon a uniquely Peruvian code of living known in the Quechuan language as ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla, (“do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy”).
The island rises from the floor of the lake to 12,900 feet above sea level and covers an area measuring 3-miles long and 1-mile wide. There are about 2,000 people living in the community that is governed as 6-geographic sectors that determine everything from land ownership to crop rotation and ultimately influence dating and marriage practices.
The inhabitants lead meditative, yet productive lives based upon terraced farming and the weaving of unique textiles. Legend states that the inhabitants of this island maintain a close relationship to a greater family in the cosmos—one that continues to influence their traditions of longevity and healing.
The Power to Thrive in A World of Extremes
Today we find ourselves living in a world of extremes. And because the world is changing, it makes perfect sense that the way we live and the way we think must change as well. It makes perfect sense to live resiliently and adapt to the world that’s emerging rather than to impose the obsolete thinking and unsustainable solutions of the past onto the problems that we face.
If we have the wisdom to recognize the reservoir of knowledge preserved among the world’s indigenous traditions—some of the most resilient people on Earth today— we have at our fingertips the time-tested principles that we can apply in our lives today.
Clearly, I’m not suggesting that we need to live primitive lives. I am suggesting that the principles of natural healing and localized community— localized sources of food, localized economies and the sharing of local resources, are the key to sustaining us today.
As we allow ourselves to recognize the wisdom of our past as a global resource of time-tested knowledge, something wonderful awaits us all—we discover that we have the power to thrive in the chaos of a changing world. And it all begins with our willingness to accept our role of continuity as a vital link in the ancient chain of human experience.