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Arriving at the Marvelous City, a cidade maravilhosa

Arriving at the Marvelous City, a cidade maravilhosa

Posted by on May 23, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

Over the past few months we have written a lot about land and landscapes and forms of learning that emerge from these. It might then seem strange to write about enlivened learninga learning that tends to reconnect to place and communitywithin an intensively urban and highly unequal setting which is the city of Rio de Janeiro.

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Rio sunset, Copacabana Beach, Leme, photo by Udi

We have also been writing about identity, often about indigenous identity, about the traumas of colonialism and the role of learning in healing, in re-signifying and strengthening identities and providing the space and tools for creating other stories and possibilities. All these ingredients, in their particular way, can be found in this vast and complex city of Rio. As groups, say for instance those living in shantytowns, who have been historically marginalized seek to be more fully a part of the city, of its economy, its infrastructure, its culture and its production of knowledge, innovative forms of organization, social action and culture have been created which provide possibility and inspiration.

Of importance to us in our visit here were exciting initiatives emerging in Rio de Janeiros favelas or urban shantytowns, the occupied settlements that pepper the cityscape climbing up the granite hills or stretching outwards in the peripheries. In Rio around 1 million people from its total population of 6 million (1 in 6 people) live in these settlements, some of which date back to a hundred years ago.

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Rio, classic view from Cristo, photo by Udi

I have worked with different groups in favelas since my postgraduate work in Rio more than ten years ago. During this time I focused on children and young people who were living or had lived on the streets of the city, with the incentive of understanding more about how they managed to leave this way of life. I then focused on how young people living in the favelas organise in different groups and projects and create art, media, music in their struggles against inequality. Over the next few posts we will explore an initiative that has been at the vanguard of innovation in developing creative forms of media literacy and production from favela communities and in broadening access to higher education, for its residents.

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Rio, Cristo in the clouds, photo by Udi

I was very excited to arrive back in Rio. It is also my home, the place I grew up. The city could not have contrasted more to the loud animated tranquility of the forest we had left just a few days before at the Peru/Brazil border. There in the National Park we walked through rain-drenched jungle paths in search of giant otters, stayed in an eco-lodge with a tarantula hanging out in the bar and had one of my socks stolen by a forest rat in the night. (I still imagine fondly my disappeared sock serving as bedding for a rat family somewhere in the jungle).


Rio city map

Landing in Rio the murmurs of the forest were replaced by hum and beat of city life, increased manyfold by the coming new year party which draws hundreds of thousands of people from across Brazil and beyond.

On the night we arrived we attend another ceremony, this time with around two million other people, gathering on the shores of Copacabana beach to greet the new year under a shower of fireworks.


New Year at Copacabana beach, photo from http://www.emirates247.com/news/emirates/world-welcomes-2013-in-style-2013-01-01-1.489400

This ceremony started decades back when a few groups from the city’s Afro-Brazilian religious communities (Candomblé and Umbanda), predominantly living in the favelas, gathered dressed in the traditional white to lay offerings to the sea deity Yemanja to bring good fortune in the coming year.

Although members of the Candomblé and Umbanda communities have declined in numbers across Brazil, in particular due to the growing strength of evangelical churches, the outer form of the ceremony remains as most people still dress in white and many light candles in the sand and offer flowers to the sea. Despite the mass concentration of people and the loud music thundering from the stages and the mesmerising firework display, all sponsored by the city council and various corporations, a calm prevails in the sandy stretch as we wait for the Gregorian calendar to tick over at midnight.

I imagine a great global penumbra, a sweeping shadow of time, of midnight, traversing the planet greeted by cheering crowds, each place at midnight. A festive Mexican wave of fireworks and champagne and hugs and kisses. I imagine that festive wave only works in places with a Gregorian calendar or the mass media has penetrated. I guess we all celebrate the passage of big cycles of time somehow and here in Rio we have the help of Yemanja. Maybe that is why people come here, to feel her gentle embrace along these shores as we send her gifts in the hope of a good and peaceful coming year.

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Rio downpour gets people off the beach during Carnival, photo by Udi

For me it also feels good to be where I grew up, know people, feel embraced by the language and recognise the thickness of the air, the smell of sea, plants and car fumes. Actually, I am reminded now that at least two people in this journey, both carvers, one a First Nations person from Canada the other a Maori from New Zealand, have told me of how the thickness of the air gives them a sense of home. I suppose it is the same for me, shame it had to be such a strange mixture of fumes! But despite the chaos, the inequality, the pollution and lack of security something creative stirs in this place between the hills and the sea and animates the city and its vibrant and hospitable people.


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The forest at the gate of Brazil

The forest at the gate of Brazil

Posted by on May 19, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

Entering Brazil through the state of Acre in northwest Amazonia gives a different perspective on the country. In one way it shows how, like the US, Canada and Australia, this country is also a country of settlers and frontiers-people imposing an economy, government, and set of cultures on a place that had already been inhabited for thousands of years. Coming from this direction into the country, away from the larger metropoles of Rio and São Paulo also reminds me of how much environmental devastation the settler nations have imposed on this vast and beautiful territory through destructive and unsustainable models of development. Though forest regions preserved as national parks or more recently extractive reserves are plentiful in this state of Acre, on the road from the Peruvian border all we see are endless fields of cattle farms with the occasional solitary giant tree standing like an archeological memory. This stretch of our journey also reminded me of the deadly struggles over the forest and people’s livelihood being waged both here, in this corner of Brazil, as well as in so many parts of the world.

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On the road to Rio Branco from the Peruvian border, photo by Udi

Acre is the home state of rubber tapper, union leader and environmental activist Chico Mendes who was murdered in 1988 by a landowner from this region. Chico Mendes was opposed to the large agribusiness encroachment into the forest and the decimation of both indigenous lands and cultures as well as the lands and livelihood of those, like rubber tappers, who had been using the resources of the forest in a more sustainable way for many generations. Mendes was very much ahead of his time, envisioning a different economic model for this region by a sustainable management of the forest through extractive reserves in such a way that hundreds of its products could be used and commercialised without destroying the forest or the ways of life of its people.

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Chico Mendes panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Commemorating the 25th anniversary since his death, economic and environmental policy in the state of Acre seems to have now caught up with this way of thinking and the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve covers 970.570 of hectares of land in the state providing a sustainable livelihood for its forest population. Around twenty other reserves have also been across the country where logging, and large agribusiness are forbidden.

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Biodiversity management within the state of Acre – panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

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Conservation panel, representing the Amazonian region, at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Though large landed agribusiness interests are still a powerful force in the state and in the country, and dozens continue to be killed by landowners each year, significant moves for the protection of the forest have been made in Acre, which boasts amongst the most preserved forest regions in the country. You only need to look at aerial views on google maps to see how just across the border in the state of Rondônia the unabated growth of agribusiness, especially through the cultivation of soy for cattle feed and the raising of cattle, has clawed away at the remaining forest. Yet, the powerful landed lobby in congress continues to stifle efforts to pass strong enough legislation for a comprehensive protection of the forest. At the same time a culture of violence and impunity in the frontiers areas surrounding the forest means that the murders of activists and the expulsion of people from their land continues.

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Agrobusiness panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

We had tried to connect up with local groups active with indigenous communities developing interesting projects in the field of education in this region but unfortunately this was a case where fragmented email and phone communication did not open doors for us. As such we were sorry to have spent only a very short time in what is a very exciting and innovative region developing important initiatives in this field. We are hopeful to return at some point in the future.


The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://blog.brasilturista.com.br/o-acre-existe/

One place we were lucky to have gained access to at all was the Biblioteca da Floresta, the Forest Library. I say lucky because the one day we had to wander about the state capital of Rio Branco before our flight onwards to Rio de Janeiro, the museum was closed. Dropped off in front of the quiet and tastefully designed modern building by the generous owner of the hotel we were staying at, we were feeling disheartened that the one thing we could have seen here was closed. We made our way to the shut building and looked through the glass. A security guard behind the desk inside came out to meet us. Without hoping for much I explained our situation and much to our surprise the guard proceeded to not only invite us in, turn on the lights and say we were free to look around anywhere, but to give us a wonderful tour of the place.


Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

Our guard turned to be quite an angel. He is a former teacher, who had worked in prisons and had also known Chico Mendes personally, he shared with us a number of interesting stories from Acre state. He was very proud of this Library and the people associated with it, such as Marina da Silva another important environmental activist, Acre native and political figure who was for a time Environmental Minister under Brazil’s Labour government but who resigned for the lack of support for her ministry.

Marina da Silva also ran for president in the last election under the Green Party and came third. We will definitely be following her progress, the last initiative she has been involved with is launching another platform Rede Sustentabilidade, Sustainability Network, an open movement that is reaching out across sectors of Brazilian society but which also intends to contest the next election while moving away from the organisational format of a traditional political party.


Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

The Forest Library is a beautiful and well-resourced library, museum, gallery, study and auditorium space open to the public and built by the local government. We were told by our guide the Library was going to be named after Marina but that there was some glitch on naming public buildings after people who are still living.


Studying Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

The Library is well worth the visit if you are in this part of the world, as is the city of Rio Branco. Opened in 2007 the library stretches over three floors with several exhibition spaces. The Library’s goal is to promote sustainability and teach about the region, the forest and the knowledge held about it by local populations. An important focus of the library, and seen in the highly informative museum, is to teach about the history of this region.

The history starts with the rubber boom of the 1800s and the forced labour of indigenous peoples and African slaves to the collapse of the rubber industry in Brazil. This is followed by the rise of different forms of indentured labour in the large farms of this region. The museum provides a map of the various attempts at colonising the forest and extracting wealth from the land through often cruel means. The exhibition also shows various moments and movements of resistance including the union struggle which was led by Chico Mendes. Upstairs the exhibition is about the various indigenous peoples in Acre, telling some of their stories and histories.

Our guard-guide explained to us how this space is used by local high school and university students who make use of the books, computers and study spaces. The Library also runs various events where people directly go and learn over a few days with different populations in the forest, indigenous communities, rubber tappers and others living off the forest.

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The book shelves with seeds and leaves, Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly and the indigenous panels

An interesting temporary exhibition we saw here also showed how the regional government and local businesses were promoting sustainable products from Acre’s forest to an international markets. Showing products such as Brazil nuts, latex, different fruits and oils which could be farmed without damaging the forest and a number of which have been used for their medicinal properties.

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Part of a temporary exhibition on local products Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

We left the museum after thanking our guide profusely. Before leaving Rio Branco we walked through the local market. In one of the stalls selling local plant medicines we saw hundreds of species of plants, fruits, seeds, roots being used untold purposes. How strange that an economic system that champions one or two species, say soy or cattle, can prevail and cause such destruction over such an intricately woven and diverse ecosystem.

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Udi

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Kelly

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By road and boat from the Andes through the Amazon

By road and boat from the Andes through the Amazon

Posted by on May 18, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road, Peru | 0 comments

The day after Christmas, somewhat reluctantly, we climbed on to a bus bound from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, in Peru.  We had spent just over a week in Cusco, staying with a friend of Udi’s who has been living in Cusco for a decade.

Originally from Ireland, Ev is now running her own (fantastic) clothing design shop called Hilo (thread in Spanish).  Her clothing is quirky, unique and elegant.  I am a huge fan – if you ever go to Cusco, do check it out!  She lives high up on a hill overlooking Cusco.  Needless to say, the view is sublime.

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View over Cusco from Ev’s place after a rainshower, photo by Udi

Alongside Ev’s generosity and several Christmas celebrations she invited us to, our time in Cusco was vibrant, uplifting and very full.

Peru - Cusco - lama and Quechua, photo by Kelly

Typical scene in the centre of Cusco, Quechua women and their llama, photo by Kelly

From connecting with old friends, meeting new friends, being introduced to Pratec’s CEPROSI through Elena, participating in a powerful Quechua ceremony (see previous post – Learning in a Quechua Ceremony) and climbing on the sacred Inca stones of Saqsaywaman, Ollantaytambo and Machu Pichhu, we felt disheartened to leave yet another beautiful place we were beginning to felt deeply connected to.  It is hard to continue being open along this journey, especially when it is time to move on.

Surreal rainbow scene unveiled at Machu Picchu after a sudden rainshower, photo by Udi.

Surreal rainbow scene unveiled at Machu Picchu after a sudden rainshower, photo by Udi.

Steep terraces of Machu Picchu, photo by Udi

Steep terraces of Machu Picchu, photo by Udi

Kelly reflecting on the surrounding natural wonders of Machu Picchu, photo by Udi

Kelly reflecting on the surrounding natural wonders of Machu Picchu, photo by Udi

The Cusco bus station was chaotic.  Although we were the only ones on the bus travel list just three days before, somehow the bus was now completely full.  Waiting for our luggage to be placed on board beneath the bus, a young Quechua woman was trying to convince the bus driver that her enormous bag of grain should also be considered luggage.

It was an all-night bus trip over the windy roads of the Andes Mountain range.  We were to descend over 3,500 metres from the high altitude of Cusco to the lowlands of the Amazon where Puerto Maldonado lies.

Thankfully, in spite of the questionable odours permeating the recycled air of the very crowded bus, we fell asleep quite soon.  I awoke only once and was blessed with a view of ice and snow glittering in the moonlight as the bus wound its way higher and higher into the Andes over what I guessed was another summit.

We reached Puerto Maldonado the next morning.  Very early.  Nearly 2 hours before we were meant to meet other guests also travelling to an eco-lodge we where we would be staying for three days, about 1 hour up the Tambopata River into the Amazon forest.  Unlike the cold thin air of Cusco, Puerto Maldonado is lowland jungle.  It was very hot and very humid.

I have been fascinated by the Amazon rainforest since I was a child.  I remember reading eagerly about the different animals, plants and people that populated this huge, vast region.  I could never seem to acquire enough information.

During my university years, I remember writing a paper in an environmental studies class about the debt-for-nature swap set-up (forgiving financial debt with the promise/exchange of preserving Amazonian forest).  That we were passing through the Amazon, to get from Cusco in the Andes, to the lowlands of Peru and then into Acre, the southwest state in Brazil, seemed to me quite an obvious choice that we should spend a few days there to explore!  This was in spite of the expense that was definitely over our very low-budget norm.

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View of the Tambopata River at ‘Sunset Ridge’ Explorer’s Inn, photo by Udi

I had looked into various options to stay.  Over the past few years there seemed to be an explosion in the numbers of eco-lodges being constructed along the river.  The best deal we found was at the Explorer’s Inn in the Tambopata Forest Reserve.  It is one of the oldest eco-lodges in the area and one of only a few within the Tambopata reserve.  There is also a sustainability ethic that permeates all aspects of the Inn.

Boat ride on the Tambopata River, photo by Udi

Boat ride on the Tambopata River, photo by Udi

The boat ride to the Explorer’s Inn lasted about 90 minutes with a quick stop to have our passports stamped at a ranger station in Tambopata National Reserve.

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Tambopata Reserve passport stamp – definitely my first non-national visa!

It turned out that the couple with us on the boat were also from the west coast of the USA – from Humboldt County, where the last stands of redwood trees still thrive in the thinly protected boundaries of Redwoods National Park.  The Redwoods outside of the park are under constant threat of logging (similar to the Amazon).

Arriving at the docking point for the Explorer’s Inn, we walked up the muddy hill and along the elevated wooden walkway into the main lodge.  Inside, just at the bar area, we noticed a tarantula resting on one of the wine bottles.  We were told it was the friendly bar tarantula. I had only ever seen a tarantula in a glass cage.

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The ‘friendly tarantula’ at the bar area in the main lodge at the Explorer’s Inn, photo by Udi

Alongside a night walk to identify nocturnal animals, a range of insects, plants and frogs; a trip to the macaw and parrot clay lick; an evening boat trip to locate any alligators on the edges of the river (we saw just a pair of eyes), there was also a 10km return walk through the forest to Cocococha oxbow lake to see about finding giant river otters, birds or any other mammals, such as the elusive jaguar.

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March of the leaf cutter ants, photo still from film footage by Udi


The clay lick we visited had only a few scarlet macaws. There were not more birds at that time because there had been a bird-of-prey in the area just before. We did not take any pictures because we did not have our camera with us. This photo is from the Tambopata Wikipedia site of a clay lick – blue-and-yellow macaws, scarlet macaws, chestnut-fronted macaws, mealy amazons, blue-headed parrots and a single orange-cheeked parrot. These birds use clay licks to help them digest otherwise poisonous seeds that they consume. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Parrots_at_a_clay_lick_-Tambopata_National_Reserve,_Peru-8d.jpg

When we left toward Cocococha lake, it was lightly raining.  There were six of us in total – the other couple from California, two guides and us.  We were all wearing long rubber boots that were offered by the Inn.  The walk was easy and flat, along a well-marked trail through thick forest.  About an hour into our journey, however, the light rain became heavier and we were walking in water past our ankles.  I kept trying not to think about the return journey.

Our guide pointed out different tree and plant species along the way, describing different medicinal values.  The bark of one tree in particular, is known to have properties helping to reduce the effects of malaria.  I was the only one aside from him who volunteered to try it.  The taste was strong and bitter.

We arrived on the banks of Cocococha after a couple of hours.  The rain was now in a steady pour.  I had managed to keep my feet dry up to that point.  The couple with us both had to empty out the water that had filled up some of their rubber boots.

We were urged by both guides onto a boat – which was basically two canoes connected together by a plank in the middle.  Three of us climbed onto each side – one guide per couple.  The guides rowed at the back of each.

We were told that the lake had a plentiful supply of piranha and anaconda.  I tried to keep myself pre-occupied with the beauty of the edges of the lake – the trees, the unusual birds that kept coming into view – rather than focus on the rain that was gathering into small pools on the bottom of the boat(s) and consider what it might be like to be forced to take a swim.

Suddenly I spotted a few heads surfacing the water about 200 metres or so in front of us.  There were, in fact, more than a few.  I counted 8.

Unfortunately we did not bring our camera on the walk because of the rain.  The photos of the giant otters below are from two different websites.


Giant river otter – photo from ‘The Circus – No Spin’ blogspot – http://circusnospin.blogspot.com/2012/06/giant-river-otter.html

The guides were also suddenly very excited, explaining to us that there was a family of 8 giant otters living at the edges of the lake.

Giant river otters, or lobo de rio (river wolf) are endangered and it is apparently quite rare to see one, let alone 8!  The guides told us that they had never seen the whole family together.  Due to hunting, the population of giant otters dwindled down to less than 100 in the early 1970s.  The population has risen steadily since then, but they are still considered endangered.

As we approached, they otters came into view.  In fact, they seemed to be heading toward us, swimming at an alarming rate.  They were moving faster than the speed of our rowboat.  All 8 of the giant river otter family were all advancing together toward us, extending their long distinctively patterned necks and making horrifyingly loud screeching noises.  We were invading their territory and they were not very happy!

Giant river otter - Wikipedia shot

Photo showing markings on the neck of a giant otter (notice the teeth!), taken from wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_otter

Giant river otters are around 2 metres long and are known to be aggressive when threatened.  The guides began to turn the boats around.  To say that I felt vulnerable sitting in pouring rain out on small boats that were filling up with rainwater on a lake with angry, screeching giant otters, piranhas and anaconda, is quite an understatement.  We were relying on the strength and expertise of our guides who also appeared to be a bit shaken.

The trail was a shallow river by the time we headed back.  The water was nearly at our knees every step of the way.  The guide in front of us was using his machete in front of him to warn off any creatures in the water.  I kept wondering about the likelihood of snakes, but as luck would have it, we did not encounter any.

As we tiredly walked into the lodge to return our boots, we were greeted by the encouraging shouts of the manager’s little girl who had told the kitchen staff about a pink python that had wrapped itself around one of the wooden beams holding up the main building of the lodge.  The snake was beautiful and seemed very happy just to be hanging out.

I kept wondering what it must be like to be a child and grow up in such an area – to learn about the forest’s secrets and vast knowledges embedded within the soul of each living being.  And also to look at the many tourists coming in and out of the doors of such a place with continuous curiosity.

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Tambopata River swollen from rains, photo by Udi

The Tambopata area surrounding the Explorer’s Inn is a nearly 1.5 million hectare rainforest preserve that is firmly protected from being cut.  In areas where the Amazon forest is not firmly protected legally through some form of legal regulation, it faces serious threats from ranchers, loggers, farmers, etc.

As we drove along the highway from Puerto Maldonado toward the border of Brazil, the views looked uncannily familiar.  This was in spite of the fact that I had never been to this part of the world before.

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Cows grazing on deforested Amazon area, photo taken from moving car, by Udi

I remember as a teenager and young adult feeling an intense sadness seeing photographs and films of sections of the Amazon forest being clearcut with the primary purpose of converting the land for cattle-grazing.  Its aftermath appeared as an eerie open space with intermittent canopy trees left to listlessly stand and provide thin areas of shade for the overheating cattle.

The road we drove on was only just recently paved.  For at least 50 kilometers on either side of the highway was grazing land.  I noticed the intermittent canopy trees and felt the exact feeling I had felt 20 years earlier.  It was a feeling of mourning and loss.

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Along the Amazonian highway, just across the border into Acre, Brazil, photo taken from moving car, by Udi

Udi reminded me that beyond these 50 kilometers there were vast areas of protected forest.  The Amazon is under continual threat from different types of intrusive development – logging, mining, ranching, dam construction…The pressure and threat of deforestation will not end anytime soon.

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Learning in a Quechua ceremony

Learning in a Quechua ceremony

Posted by on May 12, 2013 in all posts, Peru | 0 comments


Ceremonies can be somber or festive.  They can mark the passage of time, celebrate people, places, significant events in the life of individuals or historical episodes. As Judy Atkinson, a wise Aboriginal scholar has written in her wonderfully engaging book, Trauma Trails: Recreating Songlines, the purpose of ceremony is “uniting hearts and establishing order”. Ceremonies may also involve, often quite subtly, the transformation of the person, initiating them into new cycles, perspectives, connections. On a larger scale this may also mean the transformation of communities.

The relationship between ceremony and community has been especially visible in places where ceremonies were banned through colonial occupation and religious intolerance. For the Blackfoot, prohibited to leave the boundaries of the reservations ascribed to them on their own territory, they were banned from visiting their own sacred sites and holding ceremony for more than a century.  For the Quechua, it is only during the last few years that ceremonies are once again allowed to be held in the places created by their ancestors, used freely hundreds of years ago for this purpose of connecting to place and to the cycles of the earth, moon and sun.

Within each place we have visited so far along this journey, we have listened to the importance of ceremony of past and present. We have also experienced and participated in many ceremonies that have enabled our bodies (hearts and minds) to become more fully immersed in the places we are visiting, to connect more deeply with the people we are meeting and the land beneath our feet.

We had not expected that ceremonies would be such an important ingredient in enlivened learning and in transforming identities. We want to explore this dimension of ceremony over subsequent posts. As a way of beginning, this post describes a ceremony in Cusco, Peru.  We write this through both of our experiences.  Each of us have unique experiences of the same event. The significance of ceremony is collectively yet uniquely felt, bringing us closer to each other and also to each of ourselves.

The pictures in this posting are not our own.  They are from other sources on the internet as indicated on each photo.  We did not bring our camera into the ceremony.  The experience, rather is imprinted quite strongly in our minds and hearts.

A view of the series of walls that characterize Saqsayhuaman.  Cusco is visible in the background.  This photo is from KimMacQuarrie.com - The Last Days of the Incas Peru Tour 11

A view of the series of walls that characterize Saqsayhuaman. Cusco is visible in the background. This photo is from KimMacQuarrie.com – The Last Days of the Incas Peru Tour 11


It is the 20th of December, the day before the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year here. We walk up the winding path from the edges of Cusco towards the temples of Saqsaywaman on the steep hills above the city.  Our steps are dimly lit by the overcast night sky. We see no one along the way until we meet a family of four, waiting to by the edge of the site of the ruins equipped with bags of offerings and blankets.  We introduce ourselves and they invite us to join them as they make their way into the site.

We were invited here by Elena Pardo, the Quechua education activist from CEPROSI, one of the smaller organizations associated with Pratec.  In our conversation she mentioned other activities she is involved in beside her work on the rejuvenation of Quechua culture in the education system. This entails working with a number of Quechua groups and organizations to revive Quechua ceremonies related to the Quechua Calendar and in the places that were important to these communities. Saqsaywaman was such a site in Incan times and we are here to join others in greeting the new cycle of the sun.

We arrive with the family in a natural grassy amphitheater and walk around a semicircle of some thirty Quechua persons clad in colorful ponchos and hats. The group faces East and on the ground are blankets covered with offerings of drink, foods, leaves and incense. Our sense of foreignness is soon dissipated as we are warmly greeted. The night grew colder and sitting on plastic sheets we were offered blankets.

Over the course of the next few hours we sang, instruments were played and we walked around the ruins in a line with the masters of ceremony offering incantations at various points around the site. Unable to resist the cold and damp of the evening we retired to bed promising to return in a few hours before the sun came up.

This is wider view of the flat and open area in the middle of Saqsayhuaman where the majority of the ceremony took place and where we greeted the sun.  The photo is from Melissa, posted on  the 20th June, 2011 'In Awe of Cusco and Machu Picchu' on the CIEE Study Abroad in Peru blog - http://study-abroad-blog-lima-la.ciee.org

This is wider view of the flat and open area in the middle of Saqsayhuaman where the majority of the ceremony took place and where we greeted the sun. The photo is from Melissa, posted on the 20th June, 2011 ‘In Awe of Cusco and Machu Picchu’ on the CIEE Study Abroad in Peru blog – http://study-abroad-blog-lima-la.ciee.org



I feel apprehension climbing the steep path leading up to the ruins of Saqsaywaman.  I am not clear if the tenseness I feel through my body, particularly the bottom of my stomach, is due to us sneaking onto the site after hours, the possibility of us encountering a gang of thieves as we had been warned, meeting a group of people for the first time during a spiritual ceremony and/or the lack of certainty I feel about whether we were genuinely invited (I could not communicate directly with Elena due to language constraints).  Perhaps it is a combination of all of these.

The path climbs more and more steeply.  The dim light blurs the sharp edges of the stones placed beneath our feet.  Suddenly, on our left, mammoth stones come into view, in the shape of high walls.  I stop to admire the beauty in their carefully planned (at the time), yet not fully understood irregularity.  Peru, especially Cusco, has experienced many earthquakes over the past several hundred years.  These stones, many of which are at leas twice my height and width have remained intact through all earthquakes.  There is nothing gluing them together.  They rest together like a perfectly fit glove.

Photo demonstrating the size of some of the largest stones and their perfect fit - from http://www.ancient-mysteries-explained.com/ancient-inca-vestiges.html

Photo demonstrating the size of some of the largest stones and their perfect fit – from http://www.ancient-mysteries-explained.com/ancient-inca-vestiges.html

The moonlight and the dim electric lights create a glow around the interlocking giant stones.  I am in awe.  It is my first time into these ruins.  My anxiety lessens.  I feel a gathering resolve amidst the excitement to be attending a ceremony in such a spiritual place.  My nervousness drifts into the thinning clouds resting in the silvery moonlit sky.

Udi gently reminds me of time and we walk further.  The path flattens and we encounter a group of 4 people closely gathered.  They are all female – one child and three adults.  They are awaiting further notice as to the exact site of the ceremony.  Many minutes later a call comes.  We are invited to follow them into the centre of Saqsaywaman, one of the most spiritual sites of the Incas before us and for the Quechua with us.

Walking through tall boulders at first, the view from inside Saqsaywaman becomes more visible as we enter a large empty field-like area.  There are chanting sounds, many people are dressed in ponchos and woven hats.  I notice many people are barefoot in spite of the cold.

There is a blanket with dried flowers, candles, a couple of large shells and other objects spread across the blanket.  One of the large shells is picked up and blown.  We are beckoned to come and sit closely to the four women we followed in.  They hand us an extra blanket for us to keep warm.  I notice we are the only non-Quechua people present, but I feel a strong feeling of inclusiveness amongst all of there together, as human beings, rather than as separate identities.

We walk in a circle several times around the blanket as a large drum beats, keeping our pace.  The elder man beating the drum is also carrying the drum.  We stop and form a semi-circle around the blanket.  An elder Quechua women deliberately approaches each person, waving feathers and slowly blowing incense smoke on each of down our bodies and chanting spiritual wishes.  I feel an incredible rush of warmth and strength as she stops briefly in front of me.

Photo of a Quechua man blowing into a shell.  Photo taken from a flickr site - peace-on-earth - taken on the 8th January, 2006

Photo of a Quechua man blowing into a shell. Photo taken from a flickr site – peace-on-earth – taken on the 8th January, 2006



We got up at 4am after a couple of hours of sleep and made our way up the hill again. Dawn was starting to break over the surrounding hills of Cusco. Reaching the site again the semicircle had doubled in numbers and we were no longer the only non-Quechua. After more music and incantations people were invited to offer their prayers to the rising sun Inti and to the earth Pachamama – both sources of life. Some spoke and expressed their gratitude in Quechua others in Spanish, offering libations of drink to the earth and to a small fire lit in a clay pot.

The ceremony was concluded with every member of the group hugging everyone else and wishing them well. The master of ceremony, a Quechua Elder, also expressed his gratitude for everyone being there including the non-Quechua, reaffirming our common humanity and the importance of working together to bring renewed spiritual life to the earth in these times of crisis. As we later hugged he addressed me as ‘little brother’.

We walked down the hill with Cusco looming larger with each and our hearts reconnected to something larger than ourselves, and to others, brothers and sisters from these Andean mountains also wanting a better world where we live in more harmony between ourselves and with the web of life that sustains us.

Photo taken in 2011 at the International WINHEC (World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium) Education gathering.  An international ceremony took place at Saqsaywaman to celebrate the occasion with indigenous (and non-indigenous) peoples from all over the world.

Photo taken in 2011 at the International WINHEC (World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium) Education gathering. An international ceremony took place at Saqsaywaman to celebrate the occasion with indigenous (and non-indigenous) peoples from all over the world.



I awaken startled, my heart racing from the shock of the alarm we had set just three hours earlier.  Udi and I want to return to the blanket and circle, to join the ceremony once again, up at Saqsaywaman, before the rays of the sun become too pronounced over the horizon.  Ev and Pepe join us – the four of us venture back up the steep path to Saqsaywaman.

The haze and rhythm of the last couple of hours during which we were walking around the ruins together, was running through my mind like a slow motion film.  After a few hours sitting and walking around the blanket, two of the elder men had started playing Quechua flutes and we formed a sort of queue with each of them at either end, all of us between them.  We had walked in silence, with the exclusion of flutes and a drum leading us around the ruins, stopping us at different points to offer prayers of gratitude to ancestors and Pachamama.

As the first rays of sunlight hit the huge Inca stones that morning, we step into the open center of the ruins where we had first followed the four women to, 9 hours earlier.  It was around 5am.

This time, there are at least 50 people – possibly twice as many people as we had first encountered.  Many non-Quechua people had joined the original group.  Everyone is facing us and I feel a bit shy, hoping we are not interrupting too much.  As we move closer, we are welcomed with warm smiles and motioned to join the far right side of the semi-circle.

One of the Elder Quechua men I recognise from the evening before walks to a small fire that has been lit in front of the blanket.  I can now see the colours of the clothing, the blanket, visibly.  He is wearing one of those hats that have a tail on top with an explosion of the bright colours that are woven beneath the exquisite beading that covers the hat. He is still barefoot.  This is particularly noticeable with his trousers  reaching just past his knees.

Photo taken of the preparation of a Quechua Pachamama (Earth) ceremony - from the blog culturalimmersion.org taken the 13th October (not sure of the year)

Photo taken of the preparation of a Quechua Pachamama (Earth) ceremony – from the blog culturalimmersion.org taken the 13th October (not sure of the year)

One of the elder Quechua women, I assume the same woman who had given each of us blessings the night before, joins him at the fire.  They put incense as offering on the fire and toward toward the sun’s rays welcoming the new day, the Solstice.

I am unable to understand much of anything that is spoken, but I feel expressions of love – there are many tears of emotion and warmth from many of the people that approach the fire to offer gratitude to the sun and Pachamama, the Earth.  My whole body feels alive, pulsing with energy.  I feel a profound sense of gratitude from within the community gathered for the ceremony.  It takes root in me.  I also feel deeply connected to every single person present and yet I have no idea who they were, where they were from, anything about their stories…

An image of Pachamama from http://chicagocares.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/pachamama.jpg

An image of Pachamama from http://chicagocares.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/pachamama.jpg

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