by Malynda Madsen
A spiritual crisis led me to join the 2018 Heart Walk Foundation expedition to Peru. Earlier this year, I’d been struggling with school, work, and my perceived failures as a single parent. Everything that once gave my life meaning and purpose had become pedestrian. I needed to remove myself from bandaging my defeats with social media, Netflix, and online shopping binges and alter my perspective. A trip to the mountains could do that. Sometimes, all it takes to recognize your own strength is to bleed, sweat and cry in the elements.
Stacy Christensen, HWF board member, invited me to join the team of big-hearted, highly skilled expedition volunteers and serve as a translator for the native Q’ero communities and the team. I speak Spanish fluently, but I still felt insecure about Stacy’s proposal. Who am I to translate for such an excellent team of humanitarians? Apologizing, I told her that I dared not spend so much time away from my daughter. Having refusing the invitation, I became physically ill. My soul urged me to reconsider, to step up and do the things that my life experiences have prepared me to do.
“I love you to the mountains and back!”
I discussed the opportunity with Chloe, my eight-year-old daughter. We sat at the kitchen table to watch a video of the Q’ero people created by Heart Walk Foundation. Our hearts were moved to learn that children died each year because of the cold and lack of provisions. “Do you think you could stay with grandma for four weeks while I go help the children in the video?” I asked. Her answer was urgent: “Mom, you have to go!”
Stepping back in time
Trekking into remote regions in the Andes Mountains was like stepping back in time thousands of years. With few resources at 12,000 -16,000 feet elevations, the Q’ero people build their homes with stones, and they subsist on potatoes. They cook food over small fires of sticks and dried llama dung, and they have no way to heat their cold homes.
The Q’ero live and die by nature. Their inter-dependence with the natural world allows them to live in gratitude for the Earth’s sustenance rather than in fear of her disasters. They care for and respect the Earth because their lives depend on it.
Working with the Q’ero people made me reflect on my own economy-driven, resource-consuming society, where we fear death to the point of altering nature to avoid it. Each day I spent with the Q’ero — their kindness, their humility, their innocent happy faces and grateful hearts — I felt myself coming back to my true nature.
My physical exhaustion of trekking at altitude was compounded by the mental exhaustion of translating for a team of eight. I was always talking, my brain continually switching between English and Spanish. As an introvert, I never imagined I would stand up in front of entire communities to translate the formalities of a community council meeting, or be constantly in the center of every conversation. These experiences were intense, but they brought out my strengths that might have remained dormant otherwise.
Delirium and exhaustion
The height of my personal challenges came at 16,000 feet in elevation as our team trekked toward the tiny village of Yanaruma in a blizzard. All I could do was put one frozen foot in front of the other, while my lungs wrestled for oxygen. There were moments of numbness and loss of finger dexterity. There were moments of delirium induced by altitude and exhaustion. Our Camelback hoses froze, and the boulders covered in snow looked like houses from a distance. Are we there yet?!
After eight grueling hours, we arrived to the cold confines of our shelter, a bare stone building in Yanaruma village at 15,000 feet in elevation. Because we were no longer exerting ourselves to keep warm, we felt colder inside than we had out in the blizzard. We were in trouble. We quickly unrolled our sleeping bags on the straw-covered dirt floor and strung our wet articles of clothing from every rafter. It was at this very crisis moment that our Peruvian cook pulled me aside to announce he’d had enough. He said we were crazy for putting ourselves through this, and he planned to hike out on his own before dawn.
The expedition seemed to be unraveling, but all we could do was try to get warm and wait out the storm. We boiled water, poured it into our water bottles, and nestled in our sleeping bags with these make-shift heaters at 5:00 pm. At these temperatures you either get in your sleeping bag, or you go hypothermic.
We slept for fourteen hours.
The next day, the sun came up. Our cook who planned to abandon us, made us breakfast. Then he built a snowman! Villagers trekked from near and far to greet us. Our community meeting was intimate and cheerful. And our service projects were huge successes! That is when I realized how much this expedition had been teaching me. It showed me just how far two frozen feet can go; it taught me how much we need each other, and how interdependent we all are; it led me to discover how strong I really am.
Service as a spiritual path
I returned home understanding that service is a spiritual path. It is not selfless — it leads you back to self. We fulfill our own needs by meeting the needs of others.
Each member of our expedition team shined in his or her own strengths and was honored and respected for their contribution. Through teamwork, we got to be a part of something greater than ourselves. The experience gave me the opportunity to use my gifts where they were truly needed, and in return I received the heart-opening that comes from spending time with the Q’ero people.
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