6 secrets to mindful travel: Lessons learned from an Indigenous community

March 06, 2023

I’m learning how to make corn and potato soup from scratch. We started by hand milling the corn onto a wooden platter outside of Señora Samia’s home. It has been raining the last few days and to be invited into a local kitchen feels so welcoming. The domain of Mama Samia.

She feeds me toasted corn with lime juice and handfuls of lupin beans. Then, she offers me a glass of colada from the giant pot on the stove—a typical drink made with milk, squash, cane sugar, and cinnamon. This mix is said to make your bones stronger. Perhaps this is why women are so fierce in these mountains. They carry fruit and vegetables on their backs and walk kilometres into the town of Otavalo to sell on the weekends.

Otavalo is in the northern Andean province of Imbabura, Ecuador. I’m staying in a small cabin for a few weeks in an Indigenous community called Mojandita. It’s an hour-long walk into town down cobblestone paths that snake their way through the corn fields, past the cows, waterfalls, and barking dogs. On this trip, I learn more about what it means to be mindful while away from home. I notice at least six ways.

Mindful travel revelation #1: Stay in one place longer

This trip is an effort to slow down. When I travel, I find that staying in one place for longer helps me connect to the essence of where I am. It also provides me with the space I need to keep an established daily routine. More time in one place means I get to meet locals and learn about their traditions, food, and culture. So, here I am in Mama Samia’s kitchen trying to roll together corn humitas for the evening. She and her family are my hosts.

I brought my backpack for two weeks of mountain life. My plan is to hike to the nearby lagunas, explore some waterfalls, learn local recipes, and immerse myself into Otavaleño life.

Mindful travel revelation #2: Establish a daily flow

My daily routine is key to staying healthy, grounded, and at peace while I’m in new places. Travelling is magical but it’s also uprooting and as a yoga teacher, I know the importance of creating stability for myself in the midst of the unknown.

Here, I start my day meditating, journaling, and practicing yoga from the cabins' balcony. The immensity of the landscape is incredible. I have a clear view of the lake and the majestic Imbabura volcano. The mornings also provide me the space to reflect on everything that I experience during the day. Travel can be overwhelming because there is a lot of new stimulus, and I find it supportive to stay mindful, grounded, and open. This means sitting with myself first thing in the morning, to observe how I’m feeling. And to write it down. I love journaling and it also serves as a travel diary of my adventures.

Mindful travel revelation #3: Admire others’ strengths

Back in the kitchen, we roll up the last humita. A little corn and cheese burrito that is slightly sweet and steamed inside the corn husks. My work as kitchen helper is now done, and seeing as I’m stuffed with soup, colada, and humitas, I bid my farewell to Samia and her family. It’s just a short walk down the path to my cabin.

Tomorrow, her daughter is going to lead me on a hike up to the mountain’s lakes. I’m looking forward to a trek with a local Indigenous guide. Samia’s daughter (also named Samia) is currently pregnant and I’m so impressed by her physicality. The mountains require it. This life requires it. I hike back to my cozy cabin through some mud (mud is par for the course in this rainy country) but ready to haul firewood inside for the night.

Mindful travel revelation #4: Learn the language and listen openly

I’m grateful that I speak Spanish and that I can share some time with my hosts. They’re so happy to tell me about how they live, share their recipes, and offer any information I’m lacking. I’m blessed with listening. It’s priceless to sit in someone’s kitchen and watch them prepare a meal for you, while telling stories of the grandkids, and the football matches that happen on the weekends. It’s a glimpse into another’s life. A window of new awareness.

Language is a gate into other worlds. It helps that I’m fluent in Spanish, but even when I travel with others who are not, I’ve witnessed how a smile and an attempt at trying new vocabulary goes a long way. People sympathize with your efforts and want to jump in to help. As a traveller, it’s so important to embrace the NOT knowing. In reality, it gives others around you the opportunity to become teachers. This is one of my favourite parts of travel. I listen openly and attentively.

Mindful travel revelation #5: Accept help

When I embrace my own ignorance—or lack of knowledge—I soften into help. The Otavaleño culture is one of family, and when I admit to myself that I need some help lighting my fire for the night, the experience turns into a learning opportunity. I did try. I hauled firewood inside, stacked it well, used rolled up newspaper to get the flames going. But now it’s getting chilly. I don’t want to waste any more time. I’m ready for a cup of tea and my book.

So, I decide to walk back outside into the fading darkness. I’m going to ask the family for fire starter suggestions, because it’s cold and the high elevation makes it colder. I bundle myself up in my new alpaca woollen socks and mittens—the perfect outfit for an evening of fireside reading. Everything I’m wearing was made by local women who spend the day weaving, dyeing, and stitching fuzzy warm clothing at the local textile market down in town. I feel part of the landscape.

Amaru, Samia’s grandson, comes to the rescue and teaches me that by using a small beeswax candle inside the fireplace, I can keep a flame going while the somewhat wet firewood dries out and catches. His name means serpent in Quechua, the local language, and yesterday he showed me three dried out snake skins that he found while playing in the garden. I’m just happy to have my fire started by a very competent eight-year-old expert.

Mindful travel revelation #6: Visit local markets

The tea that I’m going to make is a blend of local chamomile, lavender, and honey. Earlier, I purchased the fresh herbs from women who harvest daily and lay them out to dry on blankets in the sun. Many of these are the same women who weave outfits like the snuggly one I’m wearing right now. Now, I get to sip the herbal infusion and wind down from the day. Food is medicine. Plants are healing. Both things bring people together, and I offer Amaru some tea for helping me light my fire.

A goal of mine while travelling is to always visit local markets, try new herbs, explore new ingredients, ask questions, and stay open to learning. It is not everyday that I get schooled by a grandmother on how to make soup or taught how to properly light a fire by a wise eight-year-old. The smell of chamomile and crackling firewood fill the cabin.

I think it’s time for a book, my cup of tea, and cozy night buried beneath alpaca wool. I’m hoping that the sunrise is beautiful, because morning meditation and yoga from the balcony will be heaven. I send Amaru off with all my gratitude and settle down for another week of slow travel.

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