Sacred Sites and their #Indigenous Guardians

(The Gaia Foundation)

Over the last five years or so, I have become more aware of sacred sites both locally and abroad.  In an effort to understand my experiences at sacred sites, I have looked for information about the native cultures that lived at those sacred sites.

For example, when I went to Peru and visited Machu Picchu, I was enveloped in the most wonderful energy, but noticed that the energy improved as one climbed higher in altitude.  However, even mountains as powerful as they are, have to be honored from the work of the shaman, and by giving offerings and performing ceremony, the mountain spirits, and their energy are transformed.   “The wellbeing of huacas [quechua word for sacred] depends on the constant flow of offerings from the living to deceased ancestors, and the spiritual domain as a form of reciprocity.” (Staller, 2008, p.276)

Here in Florida, the mounds here as well as throughout the mound culture in the rest of the US, are places of great power and complex energy.  The complexity is most likely a result of years of environmental degradation and disrespect for these special places.  Because there is a highly elevated energy associated with power places or sacred sites, when the land they are on is disrespected or degraded, the energy becomes more turbulent and sometimes very unhappy.  “Sacred sites are living places. They have their own feelings like humans.  And just like humans, they can be happy or sad” (Sabella Kaguna, Custodian, Tharaka, Kenya)

Also in Florida, it is the Gulf of Mexico that is a very powerful nature force instead of mountains.   It is the Gulf of Mexico, the palm trees, plants, minerals and animals among many other things to whom we can offer our thanks.  In historical context, the Seminoles in Florida had core beliefs of giving thanks to the land and having a deep connection with the land as if it is one’s mother.  “Traditional Seminoles consider their environment a sacred source of life, and they themselves believe they are its guardians.” (Caufield, Catherine, “Selling a Piece of Your Mother”, 1998)

As I continue to learn more about sacred sites, I hope to integrate the same beliefs of reciprocity to the land as the native cultures who lived here before us.

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Inkaterra-A Responsible Traveler’s Review #rtweek2013

I would like to share my experience at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Peru since Responsible Travel week is happening from 2/11-2/17/13.  Before I do that, I’ll share some of my ideas about responsible travel:

1) It provides all involved a means of enjoying the place, giving back to the place visited in some way.
2) Travel organizations employ local workers, while providing competitive wages, training and mutual respect in a safe environment.
3) Travelers seek out experiences to commune with nature, learn about the local indigenous culture, and hopefully feel prompted to give back to those cultures, places or people that they learned about during their travels.  The giving back doesn’t always have to be money–it can also be time directed towards their newfound interests gained on a responsible travel trip.

With the above principles in mind, I picked Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel as an example of responsible travel.  At a time when most hotels are the exact opposite of responsible travel, Inkaterra at least makes a steady effort in the areas of conservation and biodiversity as well as hiring local employees.  I visited Inkaterra Hotel in 10/11 and was able to see these principles in action.

It is highly probable that the Inkaterra resort is so serene because of its proximity to Machu Picchu.  However, I will say that by hotel and resort standards, Inkaterra has done an amazing job preserving the natural atmosphere of sacred beauty that is inherently found in Machu Picchu.  Once inside the entrance, it’s like stepping into another small room inside the ‘house’ of Machu Picchu.  The local village, Aguas Calientes, seems miles away.  The plants, trees and animals are lively and serene at the same time.  The environment is truly a sanctuary with its beautiful stone walkways past the Vilcanota River.  Here is a picture I took while inside the grounds looking up at the small mountains along the river:

Inkaterra along the Vilcanota River
Inkaterra along the Vilcanota River

While this is a luxury hotel with its spa, pools, sweat lodge, gift shop, etc., I don’t know too many hotels where it is an absolute joy to   wander the grounds feeling as if in another world.

Inkaterra Sweat Lodge & Pool
Inkaterra Sweat Lodge & Pool

For the responsible traveler, there are many activities which provide enjoyment of the local biodiversity.  There is a fully staffed Eco Center with expertly guided tours through the orchid gardens, herb garden, tea plantation, to name a few.  I was very impressed by the level of expertise and dedication of all of the staff whether they were in reservations, hospitality or in the Eco Center.

My enjoyment of this resort prompted me to search online for more information re:  whether they hired local workers, conservation and other issues.   I found that Inkaterra was awarded the first Green certification from the Peterson Control Union Green Choice Sustainable Tourism Standard.  While this sounds like a distinguished honor, and perhaps it is, I am somewhat skeptical of certification standards in the business community regarding responsible travel.   I did some more digging and was able to find the following:
1) According to http://www.sustainabletrip.org/profile/inkaterra-reserva-amazonica (Inkaterra’s Amazon River location), 86% of the staff is local which supports my observations of what appeared to be mostly local staff at the Machu Picchu location.  I did find a source that stated Inkaterra was “built and staffed by locals” who used local materials.  Profits from other Inkaterra resorts, in both the Amazon and Cusco locations, are put back into conservation.  Source:  http://www.wtmwrtd.com/files/spotlight07_lr1.pdf  (p.27)

2) According to another source, employee salaries are twice the local rate.  I also sensed that employee morale and happiness was apparent in the way employees related to guests.  Staff members seem to be very proud of their work and have a real commitment to this place.  Source: http://tilz.tearfund.org/webdocs/Website/Campaigning/Policy%20and%20research/Policy%20-%20Tourism%20CSR%208%20Pager.pdf (p.4)

These independent online sources support my experience at Inkaterra–a business that knows that without its natural surroundings and local citizens, it would be nothing.  Of course, there is the price tag, which is my biggest complaint simply because quality responsible travel should be accessible to all socio-economic groups.  Perhaps in the near future, there will be more places such as Inkaterra all over the world, offering lower prices without compromising better responsible travel standards.

For more information on Responsible Tourism Week and how to participate, check out Ron Mader’s website, Planeta.com.  Another exciting way to participate is through Google Hangouts.  Check out Responsible Travel Week on Twitter for real-time updates on what’s happening this week.  Facebook also has two wonderful groups, Responsible Tourism Networking and Planeta.com where you can participate and share global views on responsible travel.

Inkaterra at Night
Inkaterra at Night

My Peru Trip, A Year Later

It’s taken a year to process the experiences and lessons learned from my initial trip to Peru, 10/2011.  The deeply personal experiences of my Peru trip to Cusco, Machu Picchu and Urubamba are thanks to the guidance of Dr. J.E. Williams.  It is through his guidance encompassing medical, cultural and spiritual backgrounds that allowed me to have experiences with the Q’ero people, their culture and traditions.

There were many times during the trip where I felt a deeply personal connection to Peru.  This connection was not just geographical, but also spiritual in the sense that I literally felt like I was home.  It was the same feeling one gets when they return after a long journey into the arms of their mother or father.  It is because of these experiences that I will return to Peru, not just as a traveler, but as a friend.

Stay tuned for my upcoming review of Dr. J.E. Williams’ new book, Light of the Andes, which chronicles his own journey to the great mountain, Apu Ausangate.