Being & Doing in the Sacred Valley

The morning the rain came through the Sacred Valley was the happiest I’d been all week. It was surprising, at first; I’d made big plans. An appointment with a healer in Pisac, a trip to the thermal baths at Lares, even a hike up to the nearby ruins to camp overnight. Overkill, to be sure. I was compensating for the week I’d already spent drifting around Cusco and the valley, gorging on street food, sitting on the wifi in the tourist cafes, browsing the markets but buying nothing. Relaxing.

I’ve never been very good at it. Soon enough, a voice comes whispering in the back of my mind: “You’re wasting your time,” it says. “So many incredible opportunities, so many fascinating people. Such possibility and all you can manage to do is tramp through the streets for hours until you arrive back at the hostel for a bedtime no later than nine.”

In the Sacred Valley, I really felt it. Towns like Pisac are hubs of activity, with a well-established expat community offering a plethora of events, gatherings and performances, as well as every kind of alternative healing therapy available. The doors of the cafes are plastered with plastered with advertisements for yoga courses, craft fairs, festivals, and, of course, plant medicine ceremonies. For a place that’s supposed to be a tranquil sanctuary, it was strangely overwhelming, and though I made lots of inquiries and noted down plenty of details, I kept finding excuses not to commit. The dates didn’t quite work, the prices were a little too high, the feeling just not quite right.

And that’s not even mentioning the many ruins scattered across the valley, all of which you can access with a reasonably priced ten-day pass. As one fellow Australian said to me on my first night here: “It seems like what you do here is visit ruins and drink ayahuasca.”

But having already committed to the considerable effort and expense of a visit to Machu Picchu in a few day’s time, the thought of visiting more ruins was hardly compelling. And I wasn’t about to enter into something as profound as an ayahuasca ceremony simply because it was ‘what you do here.’

So, having basically rejected all that the valley had to offer, I was left feeling aimless. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right place for me. Or perhaps I just needed more time to settle in and find my bearings. Many of the travellers I spoke to had been in the area for months, and there were plenty that had lived there for years.

As my time in the valley neared its end, I remained unsatisfied. Surely a week was long enough to accomplish something. The voice of regret started up again: “Should have signed up for that yoga retreat. Should have gone on another trek. Should have moved hostels a day earlier.” In the end, it was this frustration that made me capitulate. I planned my trip to the thermal baths, my meeting with the healer, and my overnight stay in the ruins for the next morning. And that’s when it started to rain.

The white sky sunk low overhead. Banks of clouds streamed along the ridges. Fresh snow peppered the peaks and all my plans were dashed to pieces. In such conditions, both the trip through the mountains to the baths and camping high up in the ruins seemed unwise propositions. Not even the healer wanted to come out, emailing me to cancel our appointment. There was nothing I could to do.

Nothing to do. The realization came as a relief, and suddenly my mistake was made clear.

I’ve always been suspicious of ‘doing’ while travelling. One of my pet peeves is to hear people list off the places they’ve ‘done’ – ‘I did Paris, Rome and Berlin,’ ‘We did South America last year,’ ‘I’m going to do the Greek Islands.’ As though a country were simply a checklist to be completed rather than a living, breathing geography of history, culture and commerce stretching back hundreds or even thousands of years.

I’m more interested in being. In allowing a place to reveal itself at its own pace, with as few locked-in destinations or expectations as possible. It is a vastly more difficult exercise, made even more so by industry operators all over the world trying to sell you something. The package tour, the healing retreat, the ‘authentic experience.’ And in places as popular as Cusco or Pisac, all these ‘opportunities’ can pressure us into losing sight of what we really want. Of who we really are.

Yet I’ve found that when you clear yourself of the expectation to ‘do’ everything and try instead simply to ‘be.’ You might spend less time on organized activities and planned tours. When your friends ask you what you ‘did’ on your travels, it might be harder to say. But in the end, I think, you actually do so much more. You pay more attention to the present moment and enjoy what it has to offer. Without the distraction of a destination or a goal, you listen instead to your inner voice and discover what it’s trying to tell you.

That morning, I did something I hadn’t done for days, distracted as I had been by all the possibilities: I wrote. And by the afternoon, the rain and my malaise had both cleared away. Maybe I’ll go for another aimless walk, I might even end up at those ruins. The evening light is always so beautiful as it passes through the valley.

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