As I mused on ‘The Travellers’ Dilemma’, I spoke about the difficulty of truly detaching from the moto – physically, mentally and emotionally – and connecting with essence of one’s surroundings. The small village of Chavin de Huantar, nestled at the confluence of two mountain valleys on the eastern flanks of the Cordillera Blanca, has provided me with the space to achieve this.
When we arrived in Huaraz, Chavin was not even on our radar. But as we walked past the numerous tour operators in the town centre, we kept seeing it listed amongst the various attractions on offer – and the name kept ringing a bell. Then I remembered – a friend in Pisac had spoken of it. In the early part of the 20th Century, the vast and ancient Temple of Chavin was rediscovered by archeologists and much of it has since been unearthed. Dating back nearly four thousand years, it pre-dates all other known South American civilisations. It was from here that other Andean civilisations emerged; indeed the name ‘Chavin’ means ‘centre’ in the local Quechua dialect.
We were very fortunate to spend a day at the ruins with a local shaman and guide named Martin. When he was a boy, his father was the guardian of the temple and as such, the family’s home was in the ruins. Martin thus spent the first twenty-six years of his life there. His life is intimately intwined with it: he now works as a guide there, as well as conducting the ancient shamanic ceremonies that were practiced there fifteen hundred years before Christ; he has assisted the numerous archeological digs that have taken place there, and in doing so has absorbed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the temple’s history; and his first daughter was born amongst the underground galleries below the temple, beside The Lanzon – a three metre tall, carved granite statue of the deity worshipped there in ancient times and considered the most sacred place in the entire complex.
It is a remarkable site and is considered on a par with Jerusalem or Mecca – a deeply sacred place and the spiritual epicentre of ancient South America, to which pilgrims came from across the Andes. Yet is was discovered by a remarkable coincidence. Long buried as a result of earthquakes, landslides and nature’s inevitable process, its presence was unknown to the locals, some of whom lived directly on top of it. A visiting archeologist was having lunch in one such house, when he noticed the table on which the food was served was made from a granite slab with intricate carvings on it. Greatly excited, he asked his host where he had found the granite. “From my garden,” was the reply. Hence the temple was rediscovered.
Four days in the village has been good for the soul. Surrounded on all sides by towering valley slopes, there is a sense of isolation from the rest of the world and all its distractions. Life is simple here, and the pace slow. Children play together in the streets, even well after dark. Friends sit in the shade of the plaza, chatting, spinning wool, knitting, or simply watching the world go by. The local culture is prominently manifested through the tradition dress – notably the hats – worn by most of the women in the village: a living tradition, not consigned to a museum, woven into the fabric of the more modern aspects of life which has inevitably permeated the mountains. The motos have been parked up as we wander the streets of foot. And a landslide further down the valley has left the village without internet.
This simplicity of life and the all-pervading sense of real community – set against the backdrop of the Temple of Chavin – have brought into sharp focus just how much we in the West have disconnected with the essence of life. These people have little, yet you can’t help but think that they are happy. Instead of chasing wealth and prestige, they live in a harmonious community; they all know each other, they share their space with each other. They are also much more connected with the land around them. Their food isn’t grown anonymously in distant fields and presented wrapped and packaged in supermarkets – it is grown in the local fields on which the people work.
It’s been a blessing to spend time here. To slow down, reflect, to disconnect from the clutter that we routinely allow ourselves to be distracted by. To be amongst – albeit as an outsider – people that intuitively value community, people who really see each other, who see the human behind the face. We Westerners are lucky to be given the opportunity to observe a different way life, and to be reminded that our so-called ‘development’ isn’t so developed afterall in the aspects of life that really matter.
We could all learn a great deal from the likes of Martin – a man who has chosen not to be seduced by the offers from wealthy foreigners to bring his shamanic services to foreign lands, but has instead chosen to commit himself to his local community, the temple in which he grew up and the incredibly rich heritage, both historical and spiritual, upon which his village and community is built.