Updated: Aug 6
What is a feeling that drives you? Something that feels so strong you'd move heaven and earth to bring to reality that which it moves you towards?
I first felt that feeling around this time last year, as I laid in a tent in Peru. The feeling in question is one I still don't fully understand, but it moved me deeply. And it called me to answer the following question:
"How can you take your love for adventure, your heart for people, and your desire to build community and create an experience that allows it all to come together at once?"
I devoted months to finding an answer, and I discovered that I already knew it was possible, I just had to piece it together.
Several years ago, I got in touch with First Step Expeditions, and we started talking about how I could work with them to lead a workshop. When the idea first arose, it was meant to be a photography workshop, but as the idea evolved, I realized it could be so much more.
As I developed this workshop, one of the most important pieces was finding a way to give back to the local community. On my first trip to the area, I learned that without tourism, many locals are forced to turn to the mines and other dangerous jobs to sustain themselves and their families. By bringing more people to participate in the experience they provide, tourism can become a more viable and sustainable source of income.
Thanks to generous donations from Apex School of Movement Denver and South Fellowship Church, and a few members of my Instagram community, we raised money that allowed us to give back to the local community by providing supplies for their local school.
After months of planning, one solo trip to Peru, and a whole lot of faith, I found myself on a plane with three other young men, on our way to see if this idea to put all of what I value most into one experience was actually possible.
This is the story of our journey, and the story that has helped me define what I want The Art of Story to be.
Part 1: Cusco & Umasbamba
After nearly 24 hours of travel from Denver, we were finally on the ground in Cusco where Rafael, our guide, was waiting to meet us with the van that would serve as our transportation throughout the trip. The whole team got our first taste of adventure as we drove away from the airport towards our hotel.
The funny thing about driving in Peru, and most of South America, (from what I've heard at least), is that "rules of the road" are more like guidelines. Lanes? Perhaps. Stop signs? Maybe! Right of way? Pshhhhh, lol. It makes an LA freeway look like a peaceful driving experience. Buses passed us with only inches to spare. Motorcycles squeezed by, and pedestrians and street vendors alike boldly navigated the traffic. And yet, not a single crash or injury. It's the most impressive and organized chaos I've ever witnessed.
That evening, we settled into our hotel, ate an incredible meal, and wandered the streets of Cusco for several hours before turning in for a much needed night of sleep. As I laid in bed that night, there was an anxious excitement in my heart. The next morning, I'd begin the real search for an answer to my question. "Is this really possible?"
The next morning, we awoke around 7:00am and repacked our things for the next part of the journey. Today we would travel to the town of Umasbamba, about an hour outside of Cusco.
The drive went quickly as we stared out the window at a world far different than the one we left behind in Denver. The city was like a maze with steep, winding roads, filled with thousands of buildings all shoved up against one another and hundreds power lines strewn overhead, connecting it all together. The traffic was no less chaotic in the daytime, and again I was amazed that we avoided crashing. Eventually, the buildings grew more scattered and city gave way to countryside. In the distance, towering summits of Andean peaks dotted the horizon.
We arrived in Umasbamba to a noticeable quiet. It was a stark contrast to the city we'd left behind. This was not a place of chaos, no honking horns, no bustling crowds. Instead, it was nearly silent aside from the occasional sound of farm animals and the breeze in the air. We left our van and stepped into a grassy courtyard surrounded by Spanish walls, remnants of a bygone era in Peru.
As we took in our new surroundings, the greeting party arrived, and it was a welcome to remember. A small group of people in traditional clothing walked through the gate playing music on drums and flutes with several alpacas in tow.
They draped necklaces of Qantu (the sacred Inca flower) over our heads and expressed their gratitude for our visit.
We were escorted to another courtyard where the music continued and several women took our hands, pulling us into dance as the music continued and all the people clapped their hands in time with the drums. I was struck by how genuine and full of heart this welcome was. These people did not know us, we did not know them, and yet our meeting was treated like a celebration. It's unlike anything else I've ever experienced.
When the dance was done and introductions had been made, they served us Muña tea and dressed us in some of their intricately woven, vibrant clothes.
Spot the difference! (Sorry Joey, had to be done):
It felt like, more than anything, they wanted us to feel at home. Not outsiders, but equals. Almost like family. It was a profound feeling to be welcomed so readily into a place that felt so foreign.
This very personal feeling of immersion continued in the next part of the experience, where they took us into their fields and allowed us to be part of their harvest ceremony. We stood in a circle in the field and one of the men stepped forward holding a small handful of cocoa leaves. Cocoa is a sacred plant in Peruvian culture, and this moment certainly reflected that feeling. The people took on a more serious tone as the man with the cocoa leaves held them up and spoke a prayer in the direction of each sacred mountain.
"Apu Salkantay. Apu Ausangate..." he said reverantly.
Then, it was our turn. Each of us held the leaves and repeated the names of all the mountains, turning towards each one as we spoke. Then we took the leaves and buried them in the ground along with a small amount of Chicha Morada, a drink made from fermented corn that they recommended we not drink, in order to protect our digestive systems.
When the last of the leaves were buried in the dirt, it was time to get to work. For the next 30 or so minutes, we dug potatoes up from the ground and loaded them into blankets. Each of us took a turn swinging the tool into the dirt and uncovering more potatoes while the locals laughed and gave us tips to help perfect our technique.
Our group enjoyed a delicious home-cooked meal for lunch, made from the very potatoes we'd just harvested. We spent the rest of the afternoon learning all about how they take raw wool from a sheep or alpaca and turn it into beautiful, artistic clothing.
This process takes patience and finesse. It involves washing the wool, spinning it into thread, creating pigments from the earth, dyeing the threads, and then painstakingly weaving it all together into brilliant patterns which eventually form garments and blankets. Most finished products take weeks or even months of work to create. It requires a level of mastery and dedication that's difficult to comprehend, and beautiful to witness.
We were able to try our hand at every step of the process, and each of us was humbled at how difficult it truly was. But they were so eager to teach us, and to have us try, even if our work was far from perfect.
In the late afternoon, they brought us into their homes and showed us our accommodations. To let people who are basically strangers into your home to spend the night is one of the greatest acts of generosity, and these people seemed to do it without a second thought.
After we were settled and had time for a short nap, we walked out to the fields with our host, Mariluz, and her young daughter Ángma to cut alfalfa for their guinea pigs. We took turns slicing through handfuls of the tall grass and piling it into blankets as the sun dipped towards the horizon.
During these moments, I was able to create several candid portraits of Ángma, which quickly became some of my favorite images of the entire trip:
Something about the look in her eyes seems to convey the wonder and curiosity about life that is so often lost as we grow older. On this trip, our group was able to step back into that sense of wonder in a lot of ways, and these photographs of Ángma help to make that feeling come alive again as I reminisce on the trip.
We carried the alfalfa to the guinea pig barn and divided it between each pen. It was certainly strange to realize that for them, these are farm animals, meant to be eaten. Not household pets as they are in the America.
Dinner that night (not guinea pigs) was shared with lots of laughter, incredible food, and far too much sugar in our tea.
When the plates were cleared and our bellies full, we were invited outside for a fire where we talked about family, mountains, and the future of Umasbamba.
The one idea that they continually emphasized throughout the conversation was how much they value generosity.
Mariluz said, "when you are here with us, if you need a meal, you will be fed. If you need a place to sleep, you will have a bed." They take care of one another endlessly, and they give not only to their own community, but also to the strangers who come to visit. There is a care and love for other people that surpasses any barriers and transcends age, language, and culture alike.
As many before me have also expressed, it's amazing, and also frustrating that the most generous, loving people on earth are often those who have the least. It begs the question, if those of us who have everything we need and more decided to live with the same level of love and generosity that these people do, how would the world change? And I don't mean millions-of-dollars-of-philanthropy levels of generosity, but simply working together to provide for those in our own circles and communities. And if not through giving of resources, through giving of our time and energy to help care for people.
Umasbamba Day 2
We awoke the next morning to a sky of swirling clouds that threatened a downpour but elicited no more than a few drops. We enjoyed another fantastic meal together as a team before walking over to the local school. As excited as I was for the grand mountain adventure we would embark on in the coming days, this day was perhaps the one I looked forward to the most. It was a chance to show our gratitude to this community and spend time with the next generation who will carry on the traditions of the Quechua people.
When we arrived in the schoolyard, it was obvious that this wasn't an average school day. Many of the children were dressed in ornate, colorful traditional clothing rather than their regular school uniforms and there was a buzz of excitement in the air. Once again, they welcomed us with open arms.
While the adults worked to organize the supplies, the children performed a dance, eventually pulling us into it with them. It was at this particular moment that all four us realized that we were not acclimated yet. We were at 12,200 feet, and this was not a short dance.
We were completely out of breath by the time we were finished, but the happiness in that moment was palpable. Celebrating and dancing alongside these children was another reminder of what that deep, childlike joy feels like.
We worked to distribute the supplies, making sure everyone received what they needed.
The only "supplies" that remained now were some sports equipment, including a new soccer ball. For about an hour, that ball united the schoolyard together in an epic game of the world's most popular sport. I couldn't tell you who won, or if anyone was keeping score at all, but that wasn't the point. The act of playing the game seemed to be enough of a win for everyone involved.
Then, one of the kids tripped and fell. He was on the side of the field in tears and the entire game stopped. Every single child on the field walked over to surround and support their friend to make sure he was okay. Once again, love for others seemed to supersede everything else that matters to these people, even the children. Soon enough, everyone, including the kid who'd been injured, was back on their feet and back in the game.
To conclude the day's festivities, some of the women had offered to cook us Cuy, otherwise known as guinea pig. All of us were slightly apprehensive, but when in Rome, right?
It was served with potatoes and honestly wasn't bad. It tasted a lot like chicken. About halfway through my piece, I found what can only be described as a little meat jelly bean.
I said, "Is this going to hurt me?"
In a hilarious act of foreshadowing, our guide Rafael says, "It's the liver, yes you can eat it. You will be fine! :)"
It tasted something like the rest of the meat but had the texture of the jelly bean it resembled. I got it down successfully and carried on with the meal. Unfortunately, the outcome was not pleasant. More on that in Part 2.
Before we prepared to leave, there was one more culinary experience they wanted to share with us. There are over 4000 varieties of potatoes that are grown in Peru, and probably about as many ways to prepare them. One of the more unique methods is to cook them in the ground. Using dirt as insulation, they bury potatoes in the coals of a fire, leave them for several hours, and bake them until they're soft!
As Part 1 of this journey comes to a close, there's one final story I want to share with you. I've sat with this particular part of the story for quite a while, and I tell it to you now still feeling overwhelmed and humbled by the experience.
Leaving this place was not easy. There were many hugs and more than one tear that fell as we loaded back into our van. We were all beyond grateful for our time in this place. But now, it was time to venture into the mountains, where we would see and experience some of the most immense natural beauty of our lives.
It's still hard to explain exactly how profound this whole experience was. The beautiful welcome we received, the lessons in ancient Quechua tradition, and the chance to give back and spend time with the kids at the school had already been beyond my dreams.
We all have so much to learn about family, love, and culture from this incredible community of people. They have glowing pride in who they are and it's reflected in how they treat their own, as well as how they treat outsiders. They love deeply, they laugh wholeheartedly, and they are experts in making people feel at home.
If you want to experience this place and spend time with these people, I cannot recommend it enough. Get in touch with First Step Expeditions and they can make it happen. Or, you can stay tuned to find out when I'm making a return trip with Art of Story in collaboration with First Step.
Thanks so much for reading. See you in Part 2.