After over 3 months of backpacker travel, I took almost a week off and volunteered at Eka Chakra, a Hare Krishna ashram and eco yoga village just outside of Santiago, Chile. After 17 hours by bus from Pucon, I pulled up at the entrance, and with its compound type feel, had a brief moment of hesitation as one might have before entering a cult. “This could be weird,” I thought to myself. When I was greeted by Rani, a vibrant Chilano woman full of smiles, and given many Spanish words of instruction that I mostly understood, I felt a little better. I hoped that at least one other person there might speak English, though, since I was going to be there for quite a few days. Rani showed me to a nice little cabana with its own bathroom that I was currently only sharing with one other person—total luxury after the dorms. Then she said not to worry about volunteer service for the day and that lunch was in a few hours.
And then something strange happened. All of a sudden I was able to sleep again, just like that I laid down in my bed and slept hard until the lunch bell. Slowly, but surely over the course of the next two days all of the tension, stress, and ‘craziness’ from the previous weeks melted away. It was so relaxing to be in a place where, for a time, I did not have to think about where I was going to sleep, what I was going to eat, what I was going to do, how I was going to get there, and how much it was all going to cost. The pace and routine of life slowed way down and I was able to just rest.
The finca (or farm) has a really special location in a green valley in the center of desert mountains that turn pink in the evening each day. The people were all so beautiful and helpful too. It didn’t matter to them that I am not Hare Krishna (or even religious at all). They welcomed me into their life as if I was one of their own.
In the morning, I would wake up at 8:15am for yoga (either on my own or led by one of the women) in a nice patch of forest that became my favorite place for private time and meditation. They have a bull cow on the finca that lives back there and we had sort of a weird connection. Many times I would open my eyes from mediation and find him staring straight at me just a few dozen feet away. One day, though, he threatened to trample through a yoga session while we were chanting mantras. He was a huge animal and it was a little nerve wrecking to be in a low seated position just a few feet from him (made it very challenging to maintain focus).
After yoga, I would have a leisurely breakfast with everyone around 9:30 or 10 followed by service from 10 to 2pm. This included yard work and cleaning, but mostly I helped in the kitchen, chopping away for hours, shredding cabbage, peeling big boxes of tomatoes, or grating beets. This monotonous work was almost a meditation in itself and gave me lots of time to work through and accept the “crazy” I was feeling and the thought loop continually going through my head. During the heat of the day, it would get really hot in there and one day Tirtha, the volunteer coordinator, made a yoga joke and called it “bikram cocinar” (or hot yoga cooking). It felt good to be useful and to be a part of something, especially when I would see how all of the vegetables I’d prepared were being put to use in delicious, vegetarian dishes for the group. After service I would eat lunch then have free time the rest of the day to nap, swim in the river, meditate, read, or do my solo afternoon yoga session before a late dinner around 8pm and socializing with everyone before hitting the sack at the lame (but awesome!) hour of 9 or 10pm.
It was such a restful time for me and I felt like I made a lot of progress in clearing out the garbage in my head. The people were the best part, though, all so serene and supportive of me while I was going through this internal work. Tirtha always had a smile and a kind word. All of the women there were wonderful too, but I made the best connections with Mohini, with her gentle smile and easy to follow Spanish, and Molini, my yoga instructor for many of the days.
There were three other volunteers. David was a 41 year old Dutch guy who had been traveling for 3 years. He had left Holland because he couldn’t continue to live his life there. His work and lifestyle just felt so spiritually devoid and for the past several months he had been living at Eka Chakra. He had such a calm, quiet way about him and I really enjoyed hearing his stories and listening to his soft, philosophical mumble. There was also a young woman from New York, named Alana, who had just finished college. She was my roommate and so sweet and full of all the energy, optimism, and “everything is possible” attitude I had when I first finished school. (In comparison, I felt like a world-worn old lady at times.) I told her to hold on to that feeling as long as possible, not to worry about figuring everything out now, but to follow all these dreams before the world tries to convince you that you are silly and that there is isn’t time to volunteer in Costa Rica or get training as a yoga instructor. We got a lot from each other and while I was there she gave me a reiki treatment and just before leaving a special piece of amethyst to take with me on my travels to maintain the peaceful bliss I had found here. The other volunteer was Estefania, a Mexican woman my same age traveling on her own. We only had a short time together, but I loved her energy, big smile, and we had a lot of fun chatting away in the cabana.
At Eka Chakra I had a lot of unique experiences too. While I was there, the finca hosted a women’s retreat for madres from Chile and around the continent. I got to go through a temazcal (or sweat lodge) ceremony in a small, earthen shelter packed with roughly 20 other women. Although, the mix of Spanish and Sanskit was a little confusing for me, it was still a very intense experience with singing, chanting, blessings, sharing, tears, laughter, and a very much needed plunge into the river after several hours of heavy perspiration. One of my favorite mental images from this time was playing soccer with a field full of women in saris and punjabi suits. It was hilarious and completely silly since aside from me and Molini, no one had really played before and they thought I was a really good jugador, even though it’s been like 10 years since I’ve played. One of the women teaching at the retreat also gave me my new personal mantra for life and travel, which is from a cute Bollywood movie I am now dying to see. It is, “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.”
I felt like I could stay in this peaceful place forever, but after several days I was rested and (though, my new mental strength at times seemed a bit like an egg I needed to carry around with special care) I was ready to leave. Following many hugs, I boarded the bus to Valparaiso and re-entered the “real world.” It felt strange to be walking around on a city tour again with traffic and people everywhere, when just that morning I had been in the forest, doing yoga, and saying goodbye to my friend, the bull. I feel like I couldn’t have picked a more different place from the finca to restart my travels.
Valparaiso is absolute sensory overload with colorful, sheet metal houses everywhere stacked up to the sky on hillsides so steep they actually have escalators. It is like La Boca in Buenos Aires on acid. There is a huge artist population here and street art covers almost every surface. Being a tourist again felt like old hat, but I met some people on the tour and later that night joined them at their nearby hostel since mine was a bit dead.
I didn’t anticipate anything major, just to hang out and have a few drinks, but ended up having an awesome and totally unexpected party night. I was with an American couple from San Francisco, a sweet Israeli guy, and a super cool German woman, who had studied in Valparaiso years before. We bought a couple bottles of pisco and ginger ale and proceeded to get a little loopy and chat for several hours. I found out from the Israeli guy that I am somewhat of a legend amongst Israelis who have traveled to Patagonia. I laughed when he told me this, but apparently some 200 Israeli guys know me as the “crazy American girl” who put all these tough army guys to shame by swimming out to an ice berg in a glacier lake when attempting the same dip sent them all running from the water screaming.
We waited until the sufficiently late hour of 1am before heading to a dance club hosting “a revenge of the 80’s night” with awesome tunes and big screens playing old music videos. It was a blast and I was in one of my stellar party moods, dancing with everyone and showing them the love. I even made friends with some young, Chilano hipsters, who were so cool and friendly, and looked straight from Seattle with their piercings, tight jeans, flannel, and rockabilly style. I really needed a night like this to remind me of how crazy (in a good way) I can be, how much fun I can have, and that even I can surprise myself sometimes. Also finding fun people is so key at this point in my travels. For me, often how much I enjoy myself is roughly 70% people, 30% place.
I spent most of the next day hanging out with the group from the night before and when it came time to part ways, enjoyed as much of Valparaiso as I could in the hours I had before my night bus to Mendoza to meet some friends from home. I felt back in the groove again. I was so free and happy and did exactly what I wanted. I visited a great free museum, window shopped at all the little art studios, sat at a cute cafe and drank a craft beer, saw Pablo Neruda’s house, walked the city enjoying all the views and cool street art, and ended the evening with some ceviche at the market.
In short, I felt like myself again and ready to take on the travel world.