Trekking and Dancing: Lessons in Spirituality and Solidarity

Two weekends ago Sophie and I went to Chimbote to visit Jen, a friend of mine from college who is working there as a missionary. I’m not sure exactly what a missionary’s job entails; all I know is that Jen will be living there for the next two years in a house with other missionaries, working with a parish in the city.

While I was growing up (although let’s be honest, I’m still nowhere near “grown up”), I always imagined that I would do something like that with my life. I thought that I would end up living in areas of poverty and amongst marginalized communities, fighting injustice and saving the world. But while I was studying abroad in El Salvador, living with a group of students and focusing on living simply, intentionally, and in solidarity with the poor, I felt like I couldn’t do it. I liked my standard of living in the United States. I didn’t like working through churches and sharing my feelings and doing organized reflections. And it made me really question what I valued, what I was going to do with my life, and how I could somehow balance all of those elements.

Being in Chimbote brought up those same feelings. I could not live for two years working at a that parish like Jen, and I started feeling guilty all over again. But then I spent a week in the Peruvian towns of Huaraz and Huari, and now I think I’ve found some semblance of reconciliation.

I’m not a “religious” person. I don’t attend services, I’m not sure what I believe, and if I do read religious texts it’s for academic purposes. But being up in the mountains, taking hikes and treks to isolated areas and seeing the incredible scenery around me, it’s the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had.

Afternoon trek in Huaraz
Afternoon trek in Huaraz

The town of Huaraz is a trekker’s paradise. It’s located at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, about an 8 hour bus ride north of Lima. On every block you can find a company that offers tours, treks, rock climbing, ice climbing, etc. Or, you can do as Sophie and I did and ask locals for good day hikes that don’t require guides. On our first day, while we were acclimating to the altitude, we did a short hour and a half trek up to a wilderness lodge. The trek took us first through some small towns, allowing us to see life in the “campo,” away from the tourists. Then it took up further into the mountains, places where no one else was walking and no one else lived. There’s something empowering about being up there without a guide; just the two of us, doing our own thing, experiencing this incredible place. Our turnaround point was at The Lazy Dog Inn, a remote lodge where tourists can stay if they want to spend time in the peace and quiet of the wilderness.

Sophie at Laguna Churup
Sophie at Laguna Churup

Once we became acclimated, Sophie and I took ourselves on a more challenging trek, up to Laguna Churup. We took a collectivo out of Huaraz to a small town called Yupa. From Yupa, we took a foot trail for an hour and a half through the town to the base of the trail that lead up the mountain to the Laguna. From that point, it takes 2 to 2 ½ hours to get up the mountain to the Laguna, depending on how fast you walk and how often you stop to rest. The trek was ridiculously steep. At one point we found ourselves scaling rocks next to a waterfall. At several points I found myself thinking that we had lost the trail; that this couldn’t possibly be the way; that it was too steep. But once we made it to the top, it was all worth it. Laguna Churup is beautiful. Over 14,500 feet above sea level, the water is pure and blue and surrounded by rocks and snow-capped mountain peaks. Maybe it was the endorphins, maybe it was the lack of oxygen to my brain at the high altitude, but at that Laguna I felt so at peace with the world and myself. For me, it was truly a spiritual experience. (The hike back down, on the other hand, was a disaster. Rain, hail, thunder, lightening, and then a wrong turn at the road. We were cold, soaking, shivering, and lost somewhere in the Andes. Eventually we made it back. Sophie describes it all in her blog.)

Along with finding a source of spirituality in my life, last week helped me (at least partially) come to terms with the idea of solidarity. I spent a whole semester in college pondering over this term, but for those of you who haven’t, it’s a complex concept and worthwhile to think about. As an abstract term, solidarity means (and I had to look this up in an online dictionary to try to explain it), “A union of interests, purposes, or sympathies among members of a group; fellowship of responsibilities and interests.” As a practice, “solidarity” is more difficult to define. How does one live in solidarity with (in this instance) the people of Peru? Especially if those people are living in houses with dirt floors or no running water or no electricity? How does one live in solidarity with the people of Puno who are dying from cold? Solidarity was always a source of confusion for me while in El Salvador. I stayed with families out in the campo living off of two dollars a day, without water or electricity, and I couldn’t do it. Not for an extended period of time, anyway. So if solidarity doesn’t mean equality, what does it mean? How do I live it?

My new answer: Dancing. Peruvians love to dance. And last week we saw yet another example of this at a festival in the small town of Huari (I’ll give you a brief rundown here, but more details on the festival can be found in Andrew’s blog). It’s called the Virgin of the Rosary Festival, and it lasts 18 days (and 18 nights. Seriously. It never stops). We were there to experience two of them, and I was completely exhausted. Peruvians from all over the area come to eat and drink listen to music and see fireworks—and DANCE. It was so much fun. The music would start and someone would grab your hand and you’d all stand in a large circle and run into the middle, then back out, then to the left, to the right, back to the middle… All night long. And in the midst of all that dancing, I felt so completely comfortable, at ease, and at home. While we were jumping and running and twirling, I didn’t feel like an outsider coming to observe. I was a part of the festival; I was a part of the culture and the lifestyle. Maybe I was staying in a hotel with hot water while other people were staying in small one-roomed houses somewhere in the mountains. But in those moments, it didn’t matter. You are from your world and I am from mine, but we are all in it together, hand in hand, dancing. And that was as close to solidarity as I have ever felt.

Dancing at the festival in Huari
Dancing at the festival in Huari

So I may not be a missionary, I may not believe in your God, I may not sleep in the bed next to you, and I may not have answers. But whatever your cause, whatever your struggle, I am with you.

Shannon Bixler

I'm Shannon--I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and went to school at St. Louis Univeristy. In the fall of 2007 I studied abroad in El Salvador, during which time I was able to travel to Belize and Nicaragua. I graduated in December of 2008 with majors in Political Science and International Studies and minors in Spanish and Women's Studies. Since then I've been living at home, working as a waitress, and trying to find a career that satisfies my love for travel, adventure, and adrenaline rushes. I'm so excited to be in Lima and to see and learn all that I can about Peru.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *