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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.

Peru - view over Cusco

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.

Peru - Sunset point Explorer's Inn

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.

Peru - Tambopata Reserve passport stamp

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.

Peru - Amazon - friendly tarantula

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.

Peru - march of the leaf cutter ants

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.

Peru - boat jourey back on the swollen river after ains

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.

Peru - cows grazing amazon forest

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.

Peru - canopy tree amazonian highway

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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Interculturalidad – Learning Between Cultures (part 2)

Interculturalidad – Learning Between Cultures (part 2)

Posted by on Apr 8, 2013 in all posts, Chile, Peru, PRATEC | 0 comments

Through Grimaldo Rengifo’s connection in Lima with Pratec, we met Elena Pardo in Cusco. Elena is a warm, committed and generous person. After two long conversations, she invited us to attend a Quechua ceremony at the winter solstice (December 20) in the ruins of Saqsaywaman above Cusco, an amazing and unforgettable experience. Knowing we would be in Chile in late February, Elena also invited us to join her in a visit to a Mapuche school she has been in contact for a number of years. Actually her invitation was even more enticing, to join her at a ceremony with some Mapuche people by the Lago Arco Iris (rainbow lake) near the Icalma volcano! Needless to say we were excited about this and faithful to our principle of being open to what arises we took the thirty-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires across the border to Temuco, Chile, about 8 or so hours south from Santiago. We will write about our learning and experiences of ceremony later, but this was a moving event and spiritual exchange between Quechua and Mapuche Elders.

temuco - trani trani.jpg

Trañi Trañi, a Mapuche intercultural school

In our third day in Chile we were invited by Elena’s friend Don Roberto, who was also at the ceremony, to visit Trañi Trañi, a Mapuche intercultural school a few kilometres outside Temuco and be part of two days of meetings with Elena, teachers, parents and students before the school year begun. The school has around 90 students from the surrounding communities and 14 teachers, some Mapuche, a number of whom we met at the ceremony a few days before. Mapuche language, history and culture is taught at the traditional ruca building made of mud and straw which sits by the rest of the school’s buildings. The other buildings are also designed so as not to have corners and the desks are positioned in clusters so that the authority of teacher is not emphasised as in traditional classrooms.

The meetings took place in the ruca and we were treated to a warm and overwhelmingly generous Mapuche hospitality. Around fifty of us from young students to the village elder sat in a circle and greeted each other with hugs and a single kiss on the cheek. When latecomers arrived they also went around the whole circle doing the same. Everyone spoke and introduced themselves. We were left with a warm, affectionate glow and a deep connection to all in the room. A far cry from the often inhospitable conferences, seminars and staff meetings we are used to!

Temuco inside the ruca.jpg

Trañi Trañi, which has been around for over a decade, is considered a model intercultural school in the region. In the south of Chile where most of the Mapuche live and make up a considerable percentage of the population and ownership of land there are around two hundred such intercultural schools. These are a new phenomena only beginning to emerge after the Pinochet era (from 1973 to 1990) and hundreds of years of cultural oppression. Such intercultural schools are beginning to emerge all over the Americas. We visited the wonderful school in the Blood Reserve in Alberta where Kelly ran with teachers and students in the annual race across the prairies. We visited another school in Lamas within the Quechua Lama community, also going on a school trip to the forest with the students, teachers and a local elder who knew the forest. Across these schools and the hundreds or thousands of others like it in the continent there is a constant tension between teaching the national curriculum and the incorporation of local ways of knowing, doing, being. National curriculums tend to offer learning that is completely divorced from indigenous language, culture and history, suppressing these in favor of a Euro-centric national identity.

Masters of two cultures

The commitment to and desire for a truly intercultural education on the part of teachers, students and parents also varied. It takes remarkable individuals, people like those we referred to here, masters of two cultures to really inspire others of the importance of interculturalidad. We saw how rare or transient were the spaces for learning about or sharing the competencies of being intercultural.

temuco - trani trani students.jpg

We came across some wonderful experiences for training teachers such as the course in Blackfoot Ways of Knowing run by Narcisse Blood and Cynthia Chambers (professor of education) at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. (see the posts we have written on this here and here). Elena also organised a course along similar principles at the University of Cusco for teachers, based on Quechua ways of knowing. These initiatives deeply impacted the teachers who took the course opening their lives to inhabiting this space in-between. But both these courses only ran once and were not made regular by these universities. As both Cynthia and Elena related to me, there is a deep resistance of the traditional university to accommodating other ways of knowing.

At Red Crow Community College the Kainai Studies course (one of the most advanced course on indigenous ways of knowing we have visited) the inspiring effects of the course on a number of students from the College we talked to were clear to see. Many spoke of rediscovering their history, their identity, of reconnecting with their ancestors, with grandparents, their land, and most importantly with a sense of pride and value of a way of life that had been oppressed for many decades. But the course has also been taken by non-Blackfoot, people who came to find a renewed connection and responsibility to the place they live in.

In the course of these seven months of traveling and learning from these different initiatives I have become convinced that we are all going to have to learn to be intercultural. We will learn to inhabit a cultural space between the ways we have been educated to see and be in the world within our industrial societies and other ways of relating to place and community, many of which have existed for thousands of years. These other ways may not necessarily be entirely Native or indigenous cultural practices, although we can learn much from them. But wherever they come from, in building sustainable societies we will need to master practices, other principles and values that reconnect us to place, each other and ourselves.

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Interculturalidad – Learning Between Cultures (part 1)

Interculturalidad – Learning Between Cultures (part 1)

Posted by on Apr 4, 2013 in all posts, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, Peru, PRATEC, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

Across our travels in Latin America, we came across a wonderful word and practice, interculturalidad (the process of being intercultural). The term is common in Latin America amongst those engaged in educational initiatives that try to include, or bring together, different cultural knowledges and ways of living.

Currently, attempts to integrate interculturidad learning involves combining two very different cultural worldviews – most often those originating in Europe and found in “settler” or so-called ‘modern’ societies and those that originate in diverse, particularly indigenous cultures across the Americas. I can only begin to imagine what it might be like to have to learn and master two dramatically different languages, ways of seeing and being in the world, sets of values and forms of conduct.

Peru - Merillo school and village.jpg
Quechua intercultural school in Merillo village, outside of Lamas, Peru

The closest to interculturidad learning I have personally experienced was being raised in Rio de Janeiro and learning the local Carioca (locality of Rio) language and ways of being and then moving to the UK at a young age where I had to pick up the various nuances of the British English language and behaviour, the values and etiquette, humour and cultural references. Aside from the language, it was not such a great leap, other than some significant differences around emotional expression and interpersonal relations, but still…

I have gained a kind of competence in these two places, Rio and the UK, navigating through day-to-day life in each place in the way a local might. But these ways of knowing, being, relating, at least within the circles I was raised, are not so very different in their underpinning cosmovision, their fundamental way of seeing and being in the world. This is not such a leap of interculturidad as say between Blackfoot and North European culture that settled and colonized North America, or Quechua and South European culture that settled and colonized South America.

Amongst our journey we have been lucky to have met individuals who are masters of considerably distinct cultures. People who have been living amidst this European-derived settler/colonizing culture and who have also deeply studied these ways of knowing and being in the world, often at a university level. At the same time they have not been completely seduced by this way of seeing/being in the world and have also a deep knowledge and identification with the ways of their indigenous ancestors. These individuals live their lives in this in-between space of interculturidad and many are also deeply committed to teaching others how to inhabit this space.

Encountering mastery of two distinct cultures during our journey

We saw the mastery of two distinct cultures in the re-emergence of Blackfoot Ways of Knowing at Red Crow Community College in Alberta, Canada, with Ryan Heavyhead, Duane Mistaken Chief, Narcisse Blood, Alvine Mountainhorse, Ramona Bighead and Cynthia Chambers. In the field of art we experienced the mastery of two worlds at the Freda Diesing School of Art in Northern British Columbia with Dempsey Bob and other First Nations teachers such as Stan Bevan, Ken McNeil and Dean Heron. We witnessed this in the comunalidad work of Zapotec anthropologist and activist Jaime Luna in the hills surrounding the city of Oaxaca in Mexico.

In Peru doing inspiring and courageous work in this sphere of interculturidad were all of those we met as part of the Pratec network (in Lima, Lamas and Cusco although there are many other Pratec organisations in other parts of the country).

Peru - Cusco - Elena interview shot.jpg

Elena Pardo has not only mastered two cultures, she has developed interculturidad education that has influenced all of Pratec. Elena had worked for many years in the Ministry of Education before leaving and founding her own organisation CEPROSI (the Centro de Promocion y Salud Integral), part of the PRATEC (Projecto Andino Tecnologias Campesinas) network, which is active in the promotion and support of Quechua cultural knowledge and practices in agriculture, schools and in the field of health. Her work focuses especially on the food, ceremony and spirituality of the Quechua peoples in and around Cuzco, trying to integrate these fully into schools beyond the mere tokenistic approach that is most often taken.  

Experiences of interculturidad education with Pratec

Pratec generally aims to support and strengthen genuine interculturidad and we learned much about this when speaking with Grimaldo in Lima and then spending nearly a week in Lamas, at Waman Wasi. During the days we spent visiting the work of Waman Wasi, in the upper Amazon region of Lamas, we visited different villages and schools, and school trips, accompanied by either Leonardo or Gregorio who had been working at Waman Wasi for a number of years. One day we went to a Quechua Lama village a few kilometres away from Lamas to visit a school Wama Wasi had been working with. We were met there by a lively non-Quechua Lama teacher who was engaging and well-liked by the students.

It was just before Christmas and the students, ranging in age between 10 – 12 had been making Christmas trees from paper and branches when we arrived.

School in Quechua Lamas village, Lamas, Peru, photo by Udi.

This teacher had been working with Waman Wasi for some time and was open to incorporating the videos they produced on local knowledge and cultural practices into his own teaching. We observed the class watching a video Waman Wasi made with another group of children on fishing and river pollution at another Quechua Lama village. The activity of watching the video, which the school-children had to write about later, was part of the days’ curriculum which was all about the environment.

Peru - inter-cultural school kids watching video.jpg

Though the days’ teaching activities went well and the students seem to have enjoyed it we were both surprised to hear that the teacher, like many others in this region, did not speak Quechua Lama even though he had been teaching in the same village for many years. Thinking back to the school trip to El Monte, to our conversations with Leonardo, Gregorio and Elena Pardo in Cusco, we saw how important it was to have teachers that are committed to interculturidad education. Committed to being, learning and teaching between cultures.

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“What we need are Grandmother’s Universities”

“What we need are Grandmother’s Universities”

Posted by on Mar 21, 2013 in all posts, Peru, PRATEC, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

Grandparent’s school, Quechua village near Lamas, Peru, photo still from film footage by Udi

In Carol Black’s 2010 critical education documentary, Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden there is one particular quote that has returned to me again and again. It is something that Vandana Shiva, the internationally renowned eco-feminist, physicist and activist says at one point during the film: “What we need are Grandmother’s Universities. All over the world.”

Whilst the film brings up a series of profoundly important points that urgently need to be critically reflected on, this quote by Vandana Shiva was something that I kept thinking about. I had read much of her work in the past – on bio-patenting and its disastrous effects on local communities and also her writings of ‘monocultures of the mind’, or how schooling tends to encourage singular and universal ways of thinking and learning, rather than encouraging diversity and plurality. All of the writing I have encountered from Vandana Shiva is provocative, political and poetic. I am a fan. While I was not surprised at her being included in the film as a speaker, I was surprised to hear of her particular focus on higher education – with grandparents as taking the central role of the leading teachers and thinkers.

I could clearly relate to the logic of her argument. I knew something of the importance of Elders, especially within indigenous communities. I also feel deeply about the devalued place that grandparents and the elderly generally hold within so-called industrialized societies. During this journey, Udi and I have come to understand much more of the importance of knowledge and experience that can/should be valued from grandparents and Elders in communities. We encountered the significance of this from the very beginning of our journey, during our time in southern Alberta, with the Blackfoot community.  We learned about the traumatic experiences of the past, the processes of healing in the present and the future of Blackfoot language and knowledge that is kept but also re-generated and re-claimed with the support and encouragement of Elders.

Interview with Duane Mistaken Chief, Blackfoot Elder and Blackfoot language teacher at Red Crow Community College, photo still from footage by Udi

Interview with Narcisse Blood, Black Elder, curriculum writer for Blackfoot Pedagogy and teacher at Red Crow Community CollegeCurrently, the Elders of the Blackfoot community actively participate in the teaching and learning process within Red Crow College.

Not only were the Elders active in the preparation of the curriculum (Udi has described in previous posts the inspiring story of the repatriated beaver bundle and how this led to the ‘Blackfoot learning with the land’ curriculum that Ryan Heavyhead and his wife Adrienne developed through their own learning of how to traditionally bring beaver bundle ceremony back into practice), they teach and also declare and provide their own degrees which are not provided by the University of Lethbridge. For example, Ryan Heavyhead is recognized as having a PhD in Blackfoot ways of knowing from Blackfoot Elders that is not recognized by the University of Lethbridge.

Ryan and Adrienne, explaining their own Blackfoot learning as keepers of the Beaver Bundle and how this translated into Blackfoot Studies at Red Crow Community College, photo still from footage by Udi

During our time visiting with Pratec, in Peru, this understanding was furthered. Greatly. Udi has described some of this in his post on the Quechua grandfather coming from Wayku (the Quechua village next to Lamas) to teach the Quechua children and young people more about the sacredness and depth of knowledge that is within the forest of El Monte. The grandfather’s knowledge and the Quechua cosmovision was demonstrated by the tobacco ritual he offered to purify each of our bodies as we entered the forest that was once one of the most sacred hunting grounds of the Quechua Lamas. This process of purification is also a process of respect toward the guardian of the forest. It is an act of reciprocity to also be looked after safely – and previously, to ensure a successful hunt.

Quechua Elder providing tobacco purification ritual, El Monte, near Tarapoto, Peru, photo still from footage by Udi

The grandfather also offered many stories of particular plants and animals, how they act as different types of medicines and how we can interact with them, as we ventured through the forest.

Quechua Elder teaching us, telling stories about trees, plants in the forest in El Monte, photo still from footage by Udi

photo still from footage by Udi

I remember noticing his ease of walking through the forest, his feet bare, his body more deeply connected to the Earth. For Udi and for me, we would have liked many more hours of time with him there in the forest, to hear his stories and deep knowledge he has with the living beings that make up the forest. The encounter that we did have, with his knowledge and story-telling, made the forest come alive. I felt a sense of the soul of each individual being in the forest as we passed through in a new way that I had never experienced.

The day before we visited El Monte, Lucho had taken us to a ‘grandparents school’ in a Quechua village 45 minutes outside of Lamas. On our way to the village, I heard Vandana Shiva’s quote echo in my head, and I wondered how much the experience would resonate with her vision.

It was a hot afternoon. The sky was cloudless and the sun felt relentless. We sat with a family in the village as we waited for the grandparents’ gathering to begin. There were five or so children, boys and girls, and a mother and father of three of these children. The mother was molding a bowl from wet clay, her two young daughters helping – one watching and the other starting her own. The bowls would be used during each meal once dried in the hot sun.

photo still from footage by Udi

photo still from footage by Udi

The father had taken a large palm branch and was using a machete to cut and twist various leaves for weaving. His son came over and started to weave the palm leaves with his father helping him, giving him instructions and showing him what to do when needed. The woven palms would be used as mats (typically about 4ft by 6ft – or 1.5m by 2m) to sit on, to put on the walls or even used as walls. Udi had a conversation with the father about what was being taught (weaving and pottery) and how important it was for them as a family but also as a community.

photo still from footage by Udi

The grandparents ‘school’ occurred several times per week, after the hours of formal schooling, offering different learning experiences for the children, but also adults, that were not offered within the school. These various activities, central to Quechua ways of knowing and being are not a priority within the walls of the classroom in spite of the claim of Quechua ‘inter-cultural’ learning and teaching that is offered in all schools in the area.

photo still from footage by Udi

Photo still from footage by Udi

After nearly an hour, some kids came and ushered us into a house. We entered a large room and were shown to a seat along a long piece of wood that had become a bench. There were 5 women sitting against woven mats that were lining one wall. I guessed they were aged between 30 and 70. There were 9 children in the room, girls and boys, the youngest looking about 4 years of age. Colourful threads of yarn were tied around posts and several girls were beginning to weave – belts, blankets, skirts, etc.. Another little girl was working with a very old woman, the grandmother of the ‘school’ to spin cotton – again for different types of clothing. Several younger boys were on the far side of the room with the grandfather, weaving mats from palm leaves, similarly to what we had just observed outside.

photo still from footage by Udi

The grandmother came to speak with us, her face in a constant smile, tremendous warmth emerging from each line on her beautiful face, touching all parts of me. Udi had a difficult time understanding her Spanish and once Lucho came in we were able to converse more easily. The little girl who was spinning cotton seemed nervous next to us and I was told later that I had cat eyes which scared her. We moved around the room and were shown slowly and deliberately the different forms of artistic and practical materials that were emerging. There was gentle interaction between everyone in the room and quite intense concentration. These gatherings happen at least 3 times per week.

photo still from footage by Udi

A little while later, the grandmother took us outside to show us her medicinal garden. I was really excited to learn from her as I have always been keen to learn much more about natural healing. She gave us a tour, describing the great variety of plants outside. Her wisdom and warmth were captivating – as were her descriptions of the multiple plants and their healing benefits.

photo still from footage by Udi

There were many there that supported all aspects of pregnancy – from helping with fertility and conception, to health during pregnancy, healing during miscarriage, to reducing pain during delivery, to speeding up the birthing process. There were plants there to be used as anesthetics, antiseptics, pain-killers and basic nutrients rich in various vitamins and minerals. She told us that in addition to weaving and spinning that the children come to work with her out in the garden, cultivating and nourishing the plants – whilst learning about the various ways they heal and nourish them. I wanted to attend this school – this grandmother’s university!

photo still from footage by Udi

Weaving hats, mats, walls from palm leaves; spinning and weaving wool; embroidering complicated and colourful patterns onto materials for skirts, tops; cultivating medicines for every health complication, particularly for women; cultivating foods from their chacra for sustenance and nourishment… I know I could greatly benefit from such a wealth of knowledge. I doubted that either grandparent could read or write in our measured forms of literacy. Yet – the forms and depth of literacies I had just experienced far exceeded my own.

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Inter-weaving people and the land: Choba-Choba and Comunalidad

Inter-weaving people and the land:  Choba-Choba and Comunalidad

Posted by on Feb 28, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Peru, PRATEC | 0 comments

The terms choba-choba and comunalidad come from different cultures and places (Peru and Mexico).  Yet, they share a common bond of inter-connection.  In this post, Udi and I tell a bit about how we came to learn something of these different (but similar) ways of being and understanding the world.

Village outside of Lamas, Peru, photo by Kelly


Our first morning in Lamas, in the Northern Amazonian region of Peru, Udi and I walked the ten minutes from the Hospedaje Girasoles guesthouse (highly recommended by the way), through the far end of town and down the reddish-coloured mud hill that is surrounded by forest on one side of the road, to the entrance of Waman Wasi.  There was still a cool breeze in the air but the tropical sun was gathering strength.

Road down to Waman Wasi, photo by Udi

We were meeting Gregorio, one of the three main members of staff at Waman Wasi, who was taking us to several chacras that morning a few kilometres outside of Lamas – to meet with families working the land through choba-choba.  Gregorio lives in Wayku, the Quechua Lamas section of the town and travels often to meet with different Quechua families around the region.

View of Wayku village from the top of Lamas, photo by Udi

The evening before, there had been a brief introduction to the cosmovision and activities involved with ‘choba-choba’ and its association with ‘chacra’ – during Lucho’s overview of Waman Wasi’s work presented to a group of European students.  Udi and I had an understanding that the ‘chacra’ was similar to the ‘milpa’ in Mexico –  land is cultivated in a way that imitates and is intimately connected to natural processes.  In a chacra or milpa, Rather than planting one crop as tends to be the agricultural norm, different types of foods are planted together (typically maize, beans, squash and chili) with the intention of nourishing the land as much as to nourish those eating from it.

Steep hill of chacra cultivated through choba-choba

Choba-choba to the Quechua Lamas is the way that family members and friends came together to cultivate the land, dividing up responsibilities in accordance to ability and strength.  Through choba-choba, there is no need to pay anyone from the outside to help with planting and cultivation as choba-choba entails reciprocity and abundance.  The idea is that all that is needed is already there.  Every person, regardless of age and gender gives to the process and also receives.

Outside the wooden gate of Waman Wasi, Gregorio stopped a passing motor taxi that is basically a seat for 2-3 (depending on size) positioned on the back of a motor bike.  Udi and I hoped in and the motor-bike-taxi sped away.  The warm breeze enlivened our senses with smells of a myriad of plants and trees as houses and buildings almost immediately disappeared, the road windings its way through hills and valleys of intense green.  We stopped 25 minutes or so later and Gregorio led us down a dirt road, telling Udi that we would be walking for a good half an hour or so…

Along the walk, Udi and Gregorio were deep in conversation, about the nuances of the land in the area, about different agricultural processes and techniques of growing food, about the continual deforestation in the region, about the insidiousness of mining companies and the weakness of the government condoning their exploitative modes of intrusion and extraction, about the importance of the chacra and choba-choba, about different species of plants that we passed along the way.  I was envious of Udi being able to converse so freely in Spanish.  I was catching about 15% of the conversation and yearned for much more.  Udi generously broke the flow of conversation many times to translate some of the missing details.

Gregorio describing chacra plants with Udi and I, photo by Kelly

View along the walk – chacra and mountains, valleys, photo by Kelly

A thatched house came into visibility amidst thick trees after at least 45 minutes of walking, and we stopped to chat with a young woman sitting outside.  Her infant little girl was sleeping and we spoke until there was a soft cry emerging from her house.  She offered us chicha the drink of maize/corn and water that is consumed in every type of context in Peru – restaurants, houses, schools…

Following Udi and Gregorio into the village, photo by Kelly

We walked further, through thick forest and down steep chacras where a view of the surrounding landscape was alive with undulating hills of greens, a diversity of foods growing within them.  Suddenly there were people – children and adults, male and female, at the bottom of a steep hill, in a line, working with what looked like small sickles, on the ground.

Choba-choba, photo by Kelly

After a series of holas and handshakes, we sat down and spoke with the eldest members of the family.  They spoke to us about what they were doing.  They were planting beans and maize on that day, but would return later to plant chillies and squash when the moon was right.  All of the children and young people were related within the family.  On most days, the children and young people went to school in the mornings and came back to work on the chacras in the afternoons.  This was the first planting that had been done in this chacra for several years as it had been lying fallow to re-nourish. Chacra and choba-choba occur in alignment with lunar cycles, a sophisticated and ancient form of knowledge which is ignored by the vast majority of the world.

Sitting and chatting with some members of the family, photo still by Kelly

More chicha was offered, the taste was refreshing, slightly sweet.  We said good-bye after 45 minutes or so and the elder man, the father of the family, walked us through another thickly forested area to visit with another choba-choba.

Chicha, photo by Kelly

We walked for another 30 or so minutes, up and down steep hills, some forested, some chacras, my legs becoming increasingly tired under the increasing strength of the sun.  Another line of people came into view – different ages, male and female, near the top of a steep hill.  The arrangement was similar, some people were actively pressing their sickles into the ground, digging up the dirt and putting in different small plants and seeds whilst others were resting.  There were again a series of friendly holas, warm smiles and handshakes.

Second choba-choba, photo still by Kelly

Within both choba-chobas was an atmosphere of joy and conviviality.  The heat, which at that time was intense, did not seem to increase anyone’s irritability.  Rather, there was lots of laughter and joking around.  This is not to say that the work everyone was doing was not difficult.  It was very difficult, exhaustive and physically demanding.

Choba-choba conviviality, photo still by Udi

The atmosphere of doing choba-choba work is within a framework of sharing – not just within the family – but with other families in the area and also with a deep sense of reverence to the nourishment of the land.  This reciprocal form of nourishment has been at the cultural core of Quechua life and is a far cry from industrialized forms of agriculture that is extractive and dependent on monetary exchange, rather than nourishment to all those humans and non-human beings involved.

The term choba choba is a Quechua word that means ‘hair with hair’ (choba means ‘hair’ in Quechua Lamas).  The significance of the meaning of choba-choba comes from the interweaving of hair braids that occurs during marriages.  This notion is extended to the interweaving of people, communities and the land.   One choba-choba inter-weaving of the land with people influences the next choba-choba and so on, strengthening the social fabric of communities.  Gregorio, through his work with Waman Wasi, helps to strengthen choba-choba, providing materials (sickles) when needed, visiting continually and sharing fiesta and laughter.


Cut to the deep green undulating hills above the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. This is where we met Zapotec anthropologist and community activist Jaime Martinez Luna in his village of Gualetao birthplace of the only indigenous Mexican President, Benito Juárez, serving five terms between 1858 and 1872. We first came across Jaime in the chapter he wrote for a book called New World of Indigenous Resistance. The book is a collection of chapters by writers across Latin America in response to transcribed interviews with Noam Chomsky on the history and continuing legacy of colonialism, state and corporate power in the continent, and the effects on and responses by indigenous communities.  Interestingly, the majority of the chapters focus on education.   We found this book in a wonderful bookshop, Amate, in Oaxaca.  Jaime kindly replied to our email inviting us to his village, nestled high up in the hills an hour outside of the Oaxaca.

photo by Kelly

To get to Guelatao, we take a taxi 5 miles or so outside Oaxaca city to the ‘place to get a colectivo to Guelatao’ which apparently every taxi driver in the city knows.  We are dropped off rather suddenly in a car park that has a long bench in the corner.  We join the other 3 people and wait.  After 30 minutes or so of conversations with a couple of the people also waiting and the woman running the small shop in the corner of the car park (selling tamales and sodas), a car pulls up.  We are both given the front seat and so configure our bodies in a way so as to endure the hour of driving.  After only 5 minutes we have left signs of human habitation behind.  The air is clear, the sky is more blue – we pass steep hillsides – evergreens and scrubby trees filling it all in.  We notice evidence of mining in the distance and recall seeing in the news how two Oaxacan activists were recently killed protesting mining activities.  There are also milpas (or chacra to the Quechua in Peru) – golden maize that have dried on their stalks.  We are continually reminded of the intense importance of maize here – fiestas, foods of all kinds for all meals of the day…

Drive to Guelatao – view from front seat of colectivo-taxi, photo by Kelly

We are tightly positioned together in the front seat for over an hour.  Although uncomfortable, it gives us a much better view than had we sat anywhere else.  The car stops quite suddenly.  We have arrived at the entrance to the Guelatao village.  There is a small road leading up a steep hill.  We immediately walk to the top of the hill to check out the village.

Mural and bust of Benito Juarez, Guelatao, photo by Kelly

After briefly capturing the beautiful view which stretches across miles of rolling hills and mountains, we explore the lagoon, the government building, the giant statue of Benito Juarez and mural – we ask a woman at the shop where to find Jaime.  His office is just around the corner where there is a sign ‘Foundacion Comunalidad’.

photo by Udi

Jaime is inside and invites us in.  He is very tall and lanky.  His voice is deep and melodious, Leonard Cohen-like.  We are not surprised discovering later that he is also a singer, a musician and has published many cds.  Jaime speaks with a different Spanish, very slowly, enunciating each syllable with purpose.  Kelly is even able to understand much of what he is saying!  We arrange to meet later, to record a conversation by the laguna.  In the meantime, we find a restaurant to sit and write and enjoy some home-cooked Zapotec food.

Jaime, walking along the laguna in Guelatao, photo still by Kelly

During the hours we spent with Jaime, he taught us a great deal about the key word we had discovered across chapters in the book he contributed to, and also in a number of conversations we had across Latin America — comunalidad. As Jaime says in this book:

Comunalidad is a way of understanding life as being permeated with spirituality, symbolism, and a greater integration with nature. It is one way of understanding that Man is not the center, but simply a part of this great natural world. It is here that we can distinguish the enormous difference between Western and indigenous thought. Who is at the center – only one, or all?  The individual, or everyone?

Recorded conversation with Jaime, photo still by Udi

Jaime, like many others we talked to in our journey in Canada, Mexico and Peru, were highly critical of the school as an institution that has historically destroyed the cultures of original peoples across the Americas. As Gustavo Esteva put it, in his own contribution to this same book:

The Indigenous State Forum of Oaxaca in 1997 stated that the school had been the main instrument for the destruction of indigenous cultures, dispossessing them of their way of being and seeing the world to ‘Westernise’ then.

To counter the destructive effects of the school indigenous teachers and community activists have been advocating for interculturalidad in schools, an intercultural education that grounds students in and in between two cultures. A key concept in this struggle for intercultural education in Oaxaca has been comunalidad a word that the State Education Act of 1995 added as a 4th guiding principle of education, alongside democracy, nationalism and humanism. (Jaime comments in his chapter that this may have been a response of local government fearful of the Zapatista uprising of 1994).

Jaime’s Fundacion Comunalidad is working with schools, teachers to re-learn comunalidad as a notion, a practice, a cosmovision.  The emphasis is on bringing this into all aspects of the school, not only in the teaching and learning, but in the ways that people relate to each other – within the school and beyond the boundaries of the school – with the community and with the land and non-human world around them.  Jaime explained to us sitting by the laguna in Guelatao that comunalidad consists of four interrelated ingredients:

1. Territory

Territory involves knowing the land where one is, the place that sustains the community, its history and stories, its plants and animals, not unlike what the Blackfoot where also teaching at Red Crow around place-based learning and traditional foods.

2. Work

Work involves the different kinds of jobs and skills that people from the community take part in and which is not necessarily only about an individuals’ work and skills. This can also be about collective or cooperative forms of work such as the choba choba in Peru, or the mutirão in Brazil.

3. The organisation of the community

The organisation of community life in indigenous communities and around Oaxaca happens through the various assemblies and individual roles of responsibility, cargo, which take charge of different aspects of the community.

4. The fiesta.

Lastly, the fiesta is the celebration of work, of the community and the land, also having as Jaime points out, a spiritual dimension. It is the culmination of community life and comunalidad.

Poster outside of Jaime’s office, Guelatao, photo by Kelly


There is much more for us to learn about both choba-choba and comunalidad.  By being immersed for the time that we were in Oaxaca, in Guelatao and in Chiapas and hearing repeatedly the term comunalidad, we began to learn, to feel, what it meant – the significance of it.  Then by walking and pausing within the chacras around Lamas with Gregorio, we learned more about not only what comunalidad means, but could better comprehend and value the cooperative and communal gift-practice of choba-choba.

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