It felt like I´d entered back into reality from a long, colorful dream. Lima is a city like all big cities. I could have been anywhere. I had to keep on reminding myself that I’m in Peru now.
Peruvian Spanish is crisp, clear, with a throaty rasp on the h. It felt like my Spanish speaking and comprehension had made laps and bounds in a second. This is the Spanish I learned in school, not the slurred, lazy Nicaraguan colloquialism, the Nicañol.
The center of Lima, where the money is, at once reminds me of Los Angeles and the images I have of European cities. Of Los Angeles for the diffused haze of the sky, the traffic choked highways, the rows of top heavy palms and distant hills. Of Europe for the colonial architecture around the square: Statues set in fountains, tall, old buildings with dainty Spanish wrought iron balconies. But all painted with Latin America´s hues: Deep oranges and yellows, faded pastels. Not the garishly bright colors of Central America and the Caribbean, but a like the distinguished and subtle parent.
There is a certain urgency in the air here that Leon didn´t have: People walk with haste, move quickly. A typical vendor in Leon: She moves as if through molasses, her frayed and filthy front apron stained with the juice of the quesillos in her hands. She is in no hurry, she takes one step at a time, she retires on a curb to rely on the piercing nasal quality of her saleswoman shriek: QUESSSIIIIILLLOOOOOOSSSSS! QUESSSSSIIIIIIILOOOOOOOSS! A sound which can penetrate the densest of walls. The vendors I´ve seen so far in Lima walk with a quick clip. They´re on a mission.
We drove out of the town center, North. Small, dusty mountains in grays and tans. Light cracks and fissures splitting open their parched flesh. A sea of slums, of houses- stacked concrete boxes in dusty pastels, clinging to the hills. They are dirty rectangular Easter eggs. They summit the small peaks and creep up the taller ridges. They are the outskirts of a city numbering over 10 million, the edges of a growing amoeba cupped by the retaining walls of the mountains and the drop off into the sea.
Peru has the wide open spaces that Nicaragua lacked. It expands and expands. It´s as if a country´s geology stretches and shrinks depending on the space within its borders; tiny Nicaragua seemed so cramped. I can tell that I´m in a bigger country now.
I was in a taxi, on the way from the hotel I´d stayed at in Lima to Eco Truly Lodge., I was burnt out from working as a hiking guide and needed a break before diving into my next project, Pisco Sin Fronteras. I could tell it would be equally hard core. Jelmer, coming to my rescue yet again, had mentioned the Eco lodge when I inquired about a good spot in Peru to relax.”There´s this Hare Krishna place,” he mused. “Don´t remember the name. Good food. Nice people. It´s perfect for rejuvenating, they take really good care of you.” Sounds good.
With a bit more research I found about the yoga, the beach, the art center. Perfect. A plan was hatched. I would spend five days at Eco Truly before heading South to Pisco, five days of reflection and introspection.
I had been sleeping for hours. When I awoke, Lima was long gone. Everything was sand and dunes, desert. It was incredible, like the Mojave but more intense. We pulled into the town of Chacra y Mar, if you can call it a town. It is a desolate desert highway, wind whipped and scoured by sand, along which stood the most sad, barren produce stands I´ve ever seen. Crumbling houses and scattered concrete block houses that looked like a pile of rubble until you saw a little girl standing in the doorway, her home. There´s an Eco Lodge here?!
There is. Eco Truly Lodge is an oasis of green that appears out of the endless tan, nestled up next to the Pacific Ocean. It´s an ecological, artistic community founded on Vaishnava principles, combination “hare Krishna” ashram, farm, bakery and restaurant, offering yoga, meditation, and access to the art studio. Dome shaped mud structures called Trulys make Eco Truly distinct and easy to spot. The idea of the mud is that by living within something that is crafted of the earth around you, you are in touch with the energy of the surrounding nature. Their rounded shape allows that energy to circulate in a swirling motion, rather than get trapped in the corners. IN meditation, this apparently allows an elevated state to come more quickly. Beehive-like, they´re decorated with beaded spires and colorful mandalas, images of hindu demi gods and holy animals.
The Truly I´m staying at now is the volunteer lodging, and I´m sharing it with three other girls, all leaving at around the same time as me, in about 5 days. I didn´t plan on volunteering until I was told that by offering just a couple hours of service a day, the price to stay is less than half. We´re also more integrated with the long term devotees (Community members who live at Eco Truly for an extended period of time and are fierce worshipers of Krishna. Each devotee is given a new name: Darma, Brama, Druva, etc. They are the sweetest, most adorable men and women. And very helpful in my quest to understand the meaning of the phrase “hare Krishna”.
First of all, don´t call them “hare krishnas”. The term hare Krishna roughly translates to “hail Krishna”, so to call the devotees “hare krishnas” would be as if to call a Christian a “Praise the Lord” or a “Hallelujah”. Also, don´t call them Hindu. The word Hindu was originally a mispronunciation of a Sanskrit word, some 4,000 years ago. According to the history books, Persians couldn´t pronounce the “S” in the name of the Sindhu River, and this called it the “Hindu”. Those living along the banks were labeled “Hindus”, regardless of religious affiliation.
There are many strands of what Westerners call Hinduism. Vaishnavism, the religion practiced by devotees in Eco Truly, is the most popular form of Hinduism and is practiced by most “Hindus” in India. Vaishnavas worship Krishna as their one and only god, in contrast to other strands of Hinduism which worship only demi gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, etc.) The demi gods are worshiped in Vaishnavism too- Almost similar to the Catholic Saints. Vaishnavas seemed much more open and tolerant to other religions than Catholics. They preach that you can call God by any name, and that the way you envision God is exactly how He or She Is; each person has their own personal Krishna.
Here, the air is singed with the scents of desert, ocean, and incense. On one side, the near vertical dun brown wall of a sand dune rises into the hazy sky, cut halfway through by a scary looking Cliffside highway. After dark, the lights of delicately balanced semis shoot past like low flying planes, perched high up on the black wall that merges with the night.
On the other side the ocean roars up the desert coast. Last night, a spectacular sunset spangled the sand- the brightest yellows I have seen in the sky. The entire heavens were painted and molded in textures that swept as far back as the dunes, and the scape was reflected in the ocean and the wet sand. Where I stood at the tide line, I was encompassed in a globe of color. I was floating in a kaleidoscope, blending and tumbling and shooting ribbons of light in every direction.
This is a desert retreat, an escape. Over dinner, a devotee was telling me that everyone comes here for a reason; is looking for something. Tourists don´t just stumble upon Eco Truly while strolling through the town of Chacra y Mar. From the conversations I´ve had it seems like the Peruvian devotees are here to shed from their lives toxins and find purity: Quit drinking and smoking, use nonviolence, completely reinvent themselves and redefine their lives to be personally meaningful.
The farm here is cultivated using permaculture, and the people here seem to apply the principles of permaculture to their own lives and interactions with others. The pillars of the community are living in harmony with nature, others, and themselves. To be open minded and practice tolerance, compassions, and patience. The green fields that surround the lodge and produce organic vegetables are a wonder; they were built on what was once sandy, unworkable land. They bloomed form the hard work of residents and volunteers, unique “organic awareness cultivation”, and love and blessings from Krishna, I´m sure. Eco Truly´s agricultural solutions have become a model for impoverished Peruvian desert villages throughout the country.
But if you want to stay at Eco Truly, there are rules. When you enter the front gate, you can leave your drugs and your guns behind. Easy enough. Now you can leave your meat behind. Your milk. Your eggs. Your honey. The community here is vegan, and it isn’t permitted to consume anything that alters the consciousness; this includes rum, beer, pot, and…. Coffee. That´s right, no coffee. I had been nodding, smiling, understanding… but I draw the line there. I understand the idea that caffeine picks you up and draws you into a slightly artificial state, but how can it sever any sort of connection with God?! To me, there is nothing more spiritual than a big steaming mug of hot coffee in the early morning, cupped in your hands, aroma mingling with the dewy morning air and gracing the new light of day. That´s God. And may coffee shops be my temple.
I made a little secret rebellion. I was naughty. There is a little stand outside the eco park where the sweetest Peruvian woman sells nick knacks including packets of instant coffee. I bought two. I felt like I was doing a drug deal. Putting on my best casual face, I tried to walk through the door normally, glancing over my shoulder and wondering if anyone could recognize the bulge in my pants pocket. Can the devotees smell the fumes? Can they sense the bad energy that caffeine emanates?
I hid the packets in my room and then walked innocently into the cavernous, fully equipped Krishna kitchen- Cooking is one of the most important activities in Vaishnavism. I asked a devotee for boiling water. He put the stove on while I drifted around the room, breathing in aromas of Indian spices and silently giving my blessings at the many small altars along the walls, building up a little Karma before I committed my sinful deed.
The coffee tasted excellent. It was just instant powder, so I think the good flavor was simply caused by the sweetness of sipping something you shouldn´t be sipping- the forbidden fruit effect, like a Budweiser to a high school freshman.
My plan at Eco Truly was to do nothing- as explained, five days of reflection and introspection. Well, the devotees at Eco Truly are very good at providing that sort of environment. Not only do they excel at the art of being in touch with oneself, but they preach it with intense passion and enthusiastically grasp visitors by the hand, determined to engage them in as many spiritual and happiness-bringing activities as they can convince you to participate in a day. Proactive relaxation?
If you were to take on a full schedule of events, your day would go something like this.
Wake up at 4, temple at 4:30. Reason for this: The early, early hours of the morning are the holiest of the day. They´re ruled by the demigod Brahma, the creator. They are the delicate hours when everything is new as if freshly created, of virgin light.
At six, a rigorous yoga session. Around the time yoga ends, around 7, the sun is finally dressed and ready and has just begun to show herself above her curtain; the immense sand wall that towers behind Eco Truly to the East. According to Maharaj (Maharaj is not a name but a title given to a high-status devotee. This Maharaj is affectionately called Little Buddha or Yogi the Bear), that point in the sun´s journey is perfect for cleansing the eyes in a practice known as sun gazing. Us yoga students are instructed to stare at the sun, eyes wide, for at least thirty seconds. Maharaj times it on his wristwatch. And don´t worry if you´re crying your eyes out and can’t hold them open, Maharaj will hold them open for you.
When you´re done, if you´re lucky and haven´t been permanently blinded, you´ll see a brightly quivering spot in your vision. This sacred splotch means love when green and happiness when blue. Mine was purple. When I asked, Maharaj told me purple means you will have a beautiful moment at Eco Truly.
Vision freshly impaired, we migrate to the beach. At this time of the morning, the sky and sea are washed tones of gray sifting from white to the shadowed underbelly of the crashing waves. Barefoot at the water’s edge, we cup the cold saltwater in our hands and release it back into the sea while Maharaj chants a mantra blessing our parents. “Para tu Madre y Padre”.
Then we run. Holding hands. A long line of crazy Hindu hippies, skipping through the shallow surf and giggling at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Passing by fishermen who shake their heads as they cast their morning nets. They´re used to it al by now, I´m sure. We sprint until we can´t breathe, and then sprint again. At the end there will be a group hug, and sometimes, a massage chain.
I can tell you that by the time breakfast is served, you will be hungry. Breakfast is heaven at Eco Truly- a modge podge of ride fruit, mango, papaya, cantaloupe, banana, apples; homemade granola and yogurt; fresh fruit juice. Of course no coffee, don´t get me started again.
For volunteers, the hours from 9 to 1 are devoted to conscious servitude, AKA sweeping the bathrooms. Luckily for me, Rama (the volunteer coordinator) seemed to forget about us my first two days, one of which I spent my volunteer hours visiting the “sea caves”. These are stalactite encrusted caverns gaping into the roaring sea a short hike away from the Krishna bubble. The other volunteers and I climbed up and over scorching sand dunes, past fishermen who dropped their lines hundreds of feet up on sandy cliffs, on top of the blue world, and then along the ocean as the cliffs closed in on our left and then split open in a maze deep, of interconnected maws.
Out at sea, pelicans rode the swells, as big as boats, riding on some of the biggest waves I´ve ever seen. The sea, spotted with foam, rose like the quivering flank of an appaloosa. Up, up, and she cups, spitting froth, a charging stallion. Galloping forward, down into a barrel, closing left, and finally milky foam. I watched and watched, screaming in delight every time a wave crashed. Where else but the ocean can you find this level of power and beauty? Where else?
The tide was coming in so we ran screaming through the cave passages to reach the inner cavern. The waves pulsed through and threatened to steal us and suck us down dark passageways. It was incredible. When we finally got to the back, the Lion like Hindu god of protection bore down on us from the back wall. Someone had painted his towering portrait, thirty feet tall, complete with the lion body, flowers decorating his neck, and imposing staff. It´s a powerful piece of art and has a certain energy. Or maybe the energy you´re feeling is just the tremors of the ripping tide crashing closer and closer behind you as you stare… We only stayed for a couple minutes and then ran out again screaming like chickens as the saltwater swirled around our waists.
Other days, I was not so lucky. On Thursday, the chore of the day was to collect and arrange flower bouquets for the temple. Easy enough, right? Rama instructed that we could rip out flowers form anywhere and anything, because it would all g back to Krishna anyway. We were to start out bouquets with a banana leaf, to be a sort of background and keep the more delicate blooms together. I walked into the little banana field and inspected the plants. They were young with lush, succulent green leaves, thriving. I started pulling at a particularly nice leaf, and it felt like I was killing an animal. I was ripping at the strong juicy threads at the base of the stems, and they were refusing to break- I was sawing at the veins and tendons of a living thing and it was bleeding green into my hands! I don´t understand why Vaishnava devotees are so concerned about killing animals, even the smallest bug, but will enthusiastically send me out to kill banana plants. It felt very weird.
I struggled through and we filled all eight or so vases in the temple, then headed in for lunch. Typically, Rama will show videos after lunch for the interested. I watched two in total: one about reincarnation; how knowing that your energy will be recycled into a new entity after you die helps you pass away in peace, and one about vegetarianism. I have nothing against vegetarianism; in fact, I rarely eat meat, and have only lived in vegetarian households. What got to me was the peachiness of the video and the lengths the narrator (their spiritual master) went to to condemn meat eaters.
At one point, a quote flashed across the screen, something like this: “When all the humans cease to consume flesh, humans will cease to abort their sons”. Essentially, if we stop killing by not eating meat, we will not want to kill by having abortions. I asked Rama how they know this, and his answer was “My spiritual Master knows. He can see the future”. Vaishnavas are such a funny mix of artsy-liberal and radically-religious Pro-Life.
Sometimes there´s yoga in the afternoon too, depending on the volunteer schedule. I’ve been learning that there´s a lot more to yoga than stretching and building muscle strength; the very word yoga means “unity”, or in this context, “unity with God”. There are many, many different types of yoga. Bakti Yoga literally means just serving God, and can be anything from chanting a mantra to reading the Guru Gita (Holy book) to sweeping the floor.
After dinner comes the last step of the day, evening temple. The temple is made up of a circle of Trulys with a large open space in the center. The biggest truly is home to an altar populated by 50 or so deity dolls. Every night, a devotee dresses the dolls in their PJ´s, puts them to bed, and draws the curtains. I asked why. They´re embarrassed to be seen in their lingerie, of course. There is a kitchen directly next to the temple, where a tiny, ancient Peruvian woman works full time. She spends her days cranking out 3 elaborate and exquisitely spiced meals a day, which she arranges on platters and leaves as offerings for the Gods. Three times a day, we are offered their “leftovers”, which are often more delectable than the cuisine for us lowly earthbound creatures. It´s like communion, and the offerings are supposed to cleanse you.
I went to Temple three times- the first two had two parts, first singing (chanting hare Krishna, hare Krishna etc. to a melody) and the reading and lecture out of the Guru Gita. The third time I went, it was a Saturday, so we had a party. The party was an hour or so of dancing and singing: This meant jumping up and down like Mexican jumping beans, clapping and shouting “kare krisna” (you guessed it) over and over while the devotees banged on drums and clanged bells and castanets.
On my last day, the volunteer program of the day was sweeping the entire housing quarters, cleaning the bathrooms, and such things. I was having a bit of trouble with this working-for-Krishna thing (although the chores that day did have their real life benefits). I had started a painting the day before and wouldn´t have had any time to finish it otherwise, so I asked to paint it as an offering to Krishna for my volunteer hours. It worked! It was perfect. I painted a goddess, sort of an earth-sea diosa encircled in a moon and sun, and left it behind as a “footprint” of my stay, as my new friend Dharma said.
By the time I left, after only five days, I had grown close with several of the devotees, and my Spanish had improved by a lot. Everyone in the Eco Truly community is so open and ready to share themselves with you and get to know you as real people that bonds develop fast. It was an interesting experience, and now that I had expected. But despite the constant activity, my week there was what I needed- I came out rejuvenated and exited to move on to Pisco and start something new.
I had had many conversations with Darhma over cups of acrylic paint. I told him how I wanted to explore the world and try to make a difference, try to change things, try to help. He told me he used to be like that, but not anymore. He told me he´s realized that the only thing you can really change is yourself. How you live and interact and treat others is the only thing you can really control in life.
That´s why he´s landed in this spiritual community. The mindset in Eco Truly is very much “things are as they are; they are perfect as they are; don´t try to change things”. At this point in my life, I can´t think that way. I´m going to Pisco to try to make as much of a different as I can through construction and community development. So yeah, I was excited to get back into the world. Goodbye, happy little bubble, hello Earthquake destruction zone!!