3 Generations of Solo Women Expats Lured to Peru, August 2015
By Michaela Brown
What drives our major life choices? For me, it has been place. Countries I’d never heard of and ancient, simple cultures caught my attention in my early twenties and have been the root of all of my big decisions since. Foreign surroundings have brought me closer to understanding myself, human nature, and the world. So, I’ve spent three of my 29 years living and working abroad.
This year I lived in the Sacred Valley of the Incas in the Andes of Peru, where I met two American expat women. We span three generations – Generation Y or Millennial, Generation X, and Baby Boomer. It made me wonder, with different perspectives and values from one generation to the next, what inspires women of all ages to travel and live abroad in Peru?
In hopes of finding an answer, I compiled our three stories of how we made a conscious effort to live in Peru’s Sacred Valley and speculated about the intersection of our three lives this year.
Michaela’s story – The Millennial
I can neither relate to travelers my age, either on sabbatical, jobless, or freelancers as they wanderlust their way around the world, nor to Gen X women who leave their high-paying jobs to pursue their dreams and a simpler, healthier path. I’ve never sought an affluent life in a fast-paced business world, so I never had the chance to bravely leave it all behind. Doing something I’m truly passionate about and living with few material things is a mindset that came naturally to me as an adult. After graduating from college, I jumped right into an international, non-traditional lifestyle and made it my permanent situation.
In 2009 I traveled to Peru’s Sacred Valley for a two-month solo volunteer trip. The experience ignited my career in humanitarian service and responsible tourism in low-income countries. After living and working in 12 cities around the world, a business trip from San Francisco, California brought me back to the place where it all began five years earlier.
Returning to Peru sent me into a reflective state. I found myself craving that freedom and challenge of living abroad in a low-income city again. The past two years I’d been living in progressive American cities filled with endless opportunities to learn, create, and connect. The abundance and privilege felt like white noise. My daily routine and surroundings were always evident and explicable. It felt confining. I wanted to create my own opportunities to grow and test my limits and abilities in unpredictable terrain, as I had as an expat. The societal pressures and bureaucracy in the U.S. were beginning to impede my vision, and my adventurous pioneer spirit was piping up, “don’t forget me!” It was time to go exploring again.
My most recent experiences living abroad were in western and southern Africa – two years of “vivacious” and “emphatic.” Now, a little older, I wanted a serene, yet stimulating environment. Peru’s Sacred Valley offers that harmonious balance. I decided I would quit my job and look for work in Peru.
Several days later, I fell in love with a Mexican expat who had just moved to Urubamba. The company I was working for had hired him, and one of the reasons for my month-long visit to Peru was to train him. We both felt an immediate and authentic connection. Even though we only spent 10 days together, I knew I wanted to continue nurturing our relationship after my trip.
After a few months, including him visiting me in San Francisco for two weeks, the man I fell in love with became one more reason to move to Peru. I left the liberal, innovative Bay Area to be with him in Urubamba, a conservative, quiet town of about 7,000 in the heart of the Sacred Valley.
My new job was consultancy work for Willka T’ika, a luxury garden guesthouse and retreat center about three kilometers outside of Urubamba. I noticed Willka T’ika’s inclination for attracting solo female travelers. Most guests are in their 40’s and 50’s, spiritually-minded, socially conscious, and experienced travelers. I wondered what it was about the guesthouse that brought together so many purposeful females.
It was the owner, Carol Cumes. Her story is inspirational for people who want to follow their passions.
Carol’s story – The Baby Boomer
Carol first visited the Sacred Valley in 1984 with a group. After bringing her own groups to visit healers in the mountains, jungles, and deserts of Peru, she felt increasingly drawn to the Sacred Valley and Cusco. Carol returned to Peru each year thereafter to learn and write about healers and spirituality in the mountains around Cusco.
In 1994, in her late 40’s, Carol purchased a barren strip of land where Willka T’ika now stands. She left a marriage, grown children, and a comfortable life in Santa Barbara, California and immersed herself in learning from the indigenous people of the Andes. A longtime yoga practitioner and advocate of Quechua culture, Carol wanted to create a retreat center synergizing Andean culture and cosmology with yoga philosophy and lifestyle. Over 12 years, Carol and local Quechua farming neighbors constructed the Sacred Valley’s first yoga studios, a guesthouse, Chakra Gardens, and ceremonial spaces. Willka T’ika now serves as a haven where people can pause to reflect on their lives.
Carol learned to build without plans or permits, using natural materials. She even pioneered sustainable building practices before buzzwords like “going green” and “eco-friendly” existed. She learned to be an innkeeper. Her previous profession as a teacher in South Africa taught her patience and respect for traditional cultures.
When Carol told me her story, I felt a surge of unity with her. Even with the substantial age gap, we share the same desire to live in accordance with our intuitions and to connect with indigenous communities. We also share a quiet resilience and determination for creating what we feel must exist in a cohesive community.
About six months into my new job and life in Peru, I met an American woman in her late 30’s named Christina. She moved from Cotacachi, Ecuador with her six-year-old daughter to Willka T’ika to work with Carol on her various projects, which always revolve around bringing more awareness to Andean cosmology and respect for Pachamama (Mother Earth). As I listened to Christina’s reasons for coming to Peru, I began to see more similarities in our three stories.
Christina’s story – The Gen X-er
After Christina witnessed the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, and the wave of strange, clashing consequences in American society, she began to look outside of her familiar world for something that seemed more grounded to what our human presence means on Earth.
Though she was consumed in the creative energy of New York and her prosperous life as an art director, a voice deeper within was starting to surface. Her soul thirsted for more in life. She quit her job and searched for a vacation outside of the states. Books of Machu Picchu and female sojourners experiencing spiritual transformations caught her interest, including Carol Cumes’ Journey to Machu Picchu.
In 2002, Christina started her vacation in Peru. Her first stop was Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon rainforest to live with a host family and learn Spanish. She unknowingly chose a family that was well-versed in Amazonian plant medicine. Her socially and psychologically-constructed realities started breaking away, and she connected more profoundly with herself and the Earth. Next, she visited Cusco. By the third week of her vacation, Christina knew she had to continue her personal journey. Her six-week vacation turned into one year.
Now, it’s been over 13 years that she has lived in the Andes, initiating and collaborating on social and environmental projects and exploring herself through rich cultures that, in her opinion, seem more heart-centered than those in the U.S.: Guaraní in Argentina, Aymara in Bolivia, Inteños, Quichua, and Shuar in Ecuador, and Quechua in Peru. She also spent some time in Japan to reconnect with her ancestors. Christina was drawn to these cultures that share reverence for the Earth, Sun, and Moon – ancestral cosmovision.
This is the fifth time Christina has returned to Willka T’ika. For both her and her daughter, the Chakra Gardens offer discoveries of nature and self. Christina calls the Chakra Gardens her “healing playground” for a cleaner psyche for a simple goal in life: To honor life and our unique existence.
While our ages span more than 40 years, Carol, Christina, and my motivations for moving to Peru are surprisingly similar. We felt a strong connection to the land – the beautiful mountains, mystical archaeological ruins, and beckoning wide-open valley – and to the philosophy of the people. When we participated in ancient indigenous rituals and ceremonies, we experienced something greater than our confined mentalities. In our reconnection to Pachamama, Carol, Christina, and I felt a reconnection to ourselves.
The Andes and ancestral cosmovision of Peru stirred something in our hearts and caused us to act. We took what many see as a leap of faith by moving our lives to Peru. Yet, the leap did not feel as if it was into the unknown because our hearts were touched by the prospects of discovery and divine peace and joy. Those prospects are sweet, timeless friends to humankind – there is nothing unfamiliar about questing for them.
When we moved to Peru, we relied on our determination, resourcefulness, and respect for the Quechua people to put our missions of seeking and creating into motion. The support from our adopted foreign communities carried us through obstacles and equipped us with knowledge and wisdom.
At 69, 39, and 29 years old, our three paths have harmonized by our trust of the unknown, the promise of uninhibited creative collaboration, and profound discoveries of ourselves through simple, ancient practices.