Meeting a mummy

We were led into the final dark room, and I felt her presence before my eyes found her. The air in her glass chamber was chilled to -20C in order to preserve the bundle that crouched before us. Juanita, the young Incan girl who was sacrificed to appease the Gods, sat in a foetal position with her face turned upwards.

Approaching her clear coffin, you could feel the cold pressing against the glass. Staring into her face, a wash of unease settled in the crooks of my elbows and knees – it was uncomfortable studying her as it felt like she belonged to the mountain, and another time. I kept my eyes fixed on her, expecting she would move and resettle her shawl, or uncross her stiff arms that had cradled her for more than 500 years.


Arequipa is shaken by 8-10 tremors a day, and the gaping crack in the bell tower of the white-stoned Catholic cathedral stands testament to this fact. The city is surrounded by volcanoes, including the active El Misti. In late 1995, Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing assistant Miguel Zarate made a discovery that made reverberations of its own around the world, revealing new light on the former Inca empire that had ruled there half a millennia before.

Juanita, otherwise known as ‘La Niña de los Hielo’ (‘The Girl of Ice’) was found on Mount Ampato. Her mummified body was extremely well-preserved due to the fact she had completely frozen – her skin, hair, nails and organs were all intact. Only her face showed signs of deterioration. When volcanic ash from nearby Sabancaya melted the ice she was encased in, it caused her body to slide down the mountain into a gulley where her face was temporarily exposed to the sun.

The discovery was so significant because it allowed us a rare glimpse into one of the great lost empires – the Incas. She is estimated to be one of hundreds of children sacrificed high up in the Andean peaks, with over 115 sites sacred sites excavated so far. Each site contains rich textiles, ornate wooden utensils and small statues of silver and gold. The purpose for these sacrifices, or ‘capacocha’ was to appease the gods and mountain deities, and to ensure rain and abundant crops. Some scholars also cite that the rituals were in order to protect the Incas, or provide escorts for the emperor in the afterlife. Others who are more cynical believe children were offered so that their parents could increase their links with the emperor and become more influential in society. Most sacrifices were children between the ages of 6 and 15 years old since children were regarded as ‘pure’; Juanita is estimated to have been around 14 at the time of her death.

It was considered a great privilege to be selected for sacrifice, and Incan priests would even offer their own children to the emperor. The chosen children were lavishly treated in the months leading up to their pilgrimage into the mountains, and were fed on high protein diets consisting of maize. Beforehand, a feast was thrown in Cuzco by the emperor, where the children and their families would be honoured. Their hair was braided and they wore the finest clothes, made from rich vicuña wool (known as the fibre of the Gods), and jewellery made from precious metals, beads and feathers.

The journey to the icy summits was led by priests, and it was arduous with a great risk of dying from exposure given the low temperatures and high altitudes of over 20,000ft. If they reached the top, which was considered to be closest to the Gods, the children were given an intoxicating drink containing coca. Once the effects of the drink had dulled their senses, they were killed with either a blunt blow to the head or strangulation. The child sacrifices were then buried with statues of llamas and other precious items. Priests would revisit the sacred site, or ‘huaca,’ with coca leaves and food as offerings to the gods.

I tried to imagine how it must have felt to be chosen and revered by the emperor, enjoying celebrations in your honour, but still knowing that you would have to die once the pilgrimage was over. Despite this practice, the Incas were believed to exhibit more ‘humane’ sacrifices than the Aztecs and other pre-Colombian cultures.

Last year, 227 skeletons of children aged from just four to fourteen were uncovered in northern Peru in the Huanchaco site. These sacrifices were uncovered from the period prior to the Incas, the Chimú culture. It is thought that the sheer volume of sacrifices was a desperate attempt to appease the gods from the devastating floods and rainfall that the coast had experienced. Now, thankfully, we know that the change in weather patterns is down to the El Niño phenomenon, and not the wrath of the gods.


‘Peru: Skeletons of 227 victims unearthed at world’s largest child sacrifice site,’ by Sam Jones, The Guardian,

‘Ice Mummies of the Inca,’ by Liesl Clark, NOVA Beta,

‘The secrets of Incan sacrifice,’

‘The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes,’ by Johan Reinhard,

Title picture: ‘Mummy Juanita: The Sacrifice of the Inca Ice Maiden,’ by Dhwty, Ancient Origins:

Article picture: ‘Meeting a 500-Year-Old Peruvian Mummy,’ by Margie Goldsmith, HuffPost:

A traditional tea ceremony

Japan is a place unlike any other, with cultural traditions fiercely protected across millennia. You can learn about the legacy of the samurai and their battles with the ninja clans, the skilful geisha and their performative art, or the rituals of the tea ceremony.

In Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, some of the old ways have been meticulously preserved. We visited WAK Japan, a women’s cooperative with local experts who can guide you through the process. There is so much more to a tea ceremony than just drinking tea.

On arrival, we removed our shoes. Had it had been the 16th century, our samurai swords would be left at the door. Putting on thick wooden slippers, we shuffled upstairs past shōjis screens. Our guide, Aska, wore a silvery kimono embroidered with the muted colours of autumn.

On the tatami floor, lay the polished ceramic drinking bowls. We knelt down, and with everyone at the same level, we were told that we were equals. Tea ceremonies were used as a leveler in society – no matter who you were in the outside world, everyone was treated the same when they came together for tea. No power or money could create a hierarchy here. Hand stitched on a cloth were the words Wa kei sei jaku meaning ‘Peace, harmony, purity, respect.’

There was something so simple and tranquil about that space, the light muffled by the paper screens and the room silent, except for our host whose movements were slow and measured. Aska tapped the ceramic lid of the tea pot with her long wooden scoop, as if waking it from a slumber.

Everything was gently submerged in cold water, then meticulously wiped with a small, folded red napkin. Aska spoke little as she prepared the tea. Instead, we listened to water being dropped, the clink of the ceramics, the hollow sound of bamboo.

With a small wooden whisk, she frothed up the green tea until the bubbles turned white. The maca leaves had been covered in silver to protect them from the sun, and as a result, the taste was less bitter than that of regular green tea. Tea was introduced to Japan in the 9th Century, when priests returned from China. Kyoto was the first place to grow its own tea in Japan. The hot sun and temperate climate was ideal for tea plants to flourish, and it is now famous for its matcha and gyukuro tea.

Before drinking the tea, it is customary to bow low to your host to show your gratitude. The bowls are placed in between guests with the design facing them at first, and this is the kao (face) side. You must say, “Osakini” to the person next to you, to show etiquette and to request permission to drink before them, then wait for them to nod.

At this point, you should turn the design on the bowl away from you in modesty so that the kao of the bowl is facing towards the host. The next step is to thank the host and tea growers before raising the bowl to your lips, with your left hand nestled under the right. You then spin the bowl twice clockwise and then sip – the standard rate is to finish your drink in three and a half sips. Only the last mouthful should be an audible slurp to show your appreciation.

Replacing the bowl back down in front of you, you can now turn it anti clockwise so that the design is facing you once again. The kao of the bowl is specifically chosen for the occasion, and you can enjoy trying to glean its meaning. Remember to thank your host for the tea.

There is a saying in Japanese – Ichigo Ichie, which means ‘savour every encounter.’ As Brits, we are particularly fond of a brew, but this tea ceremony was strangely calming. Emerging from the room afterwards, we felt like we’d enjoyed a soothing spa session.

To see a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in action, watch this video:

WAK Japan is a business that celebrates the historic roles of women, and provides many opportunities for cultural exchange. They are committed to preserving Japanese culture and offer courses in calligraphy, dancing, flower arrangement and Japanese paper craft. See their website for more details:

Travel buddies

When I think about my travels, my memory sometimes lets me down. It becomes increasingly hard to distinguish something real against a memory forged from a photograph.

Pictures and films help us to record experiences, but they are not always true to reality. They cannot recreate the moment so that you can feel the same things as before. The sky was a different colour. The menacing monkey was surely larger. Who is that hidden in the edges of the frame?

Asides from messy scribbles jotted down on overnight buses, I rely on the memories of my travel buddies. Yet it’s difficult to describe the exact smell of the streets in Jaipur, the subtle flavours of an authentic Cambodian dish, or how I passed the time on a 26 hour bus ride back to Cusco.

One thing I can recall clearly are the people, or rather, the lasting imprint of meeting them. Travellers often cross paths only once, but these individuals will stay with me:

The taxi driver in Jaipur who learnt all his English from Alan Partridge and ill-advisedly allowed Tom to drive his tuk tuk down the street. The small boy with brown teeth who brought joy to an otherwise hellish coach from Vientiane to Hanoi. The silent Thai man wearing a bandanna who fed his white kitten fish crackers in a bar, before commandeering the live band to play karaoke with us.


The Vietnamese brothers who took us on a motorbike tour of Dalat, driving through villages where children rode water buffalo down dirt roads. The elderly Peruvian mountain guide nicknamed ‘The Cat’ who bounded effortlessly ahead on the Salkantay Pass to reach Machu Picchu. A young Indian girl, the namesake of my friend, who taught me bhangra moves at a wedding in Delhi.


The German cousins who toured with us around Kerala and shared their views on Ayurvedic medicine. The inspirational Dutch woman who sold her house, bought a waffle cart and travelled the world. The laughing border control officers in Laos who saw me stagger off the boat, flu-ridden, into waist deep mud.

The man with the golden eyes in Kerala who convinced us to meet him before dawn for a sunrise paddle. The family we stayed with on the remote island of Amantani who heartily welcomed us and showed us how to dance. The competitive American author who raced us down a 200ft sand dune in the desert oasis of Huacachina.


The family in Udaipur who spent the afternoon decorating us in henna, whom we thanked with an impromptu family portrait. The diving couple in Komodo National Park who had dived hundreds of times yet still wanted to see more. The restaurant owner who proudly taught us complimentary phrases (for haggling) in Balinese when we visited him.


The daredevil guys who took us paragliding in the Himalayas but narrowly missed a tree on the ascent. The giant Russian man who joined our mud bath in Nha Trang and emptied it instantly. The young entrepreneurial girl hustling in a temple in Angkor to pay for school fees.


The wildlife guide in Borneo who played Christmas tunes with his nostrils using a specially carved pipe. The enthusiastic farmer in Laos who showed us how to steer a water buffalo and harvest rice. The guide who proudly showed us the delights of Quillabamba despite the promised waterfall being dried up.


I’ve realised that the best travel experiences happen when you let go of control. It takes courage to swallow your cynicism, suspicion and worries.

Only then can you fully embrace an opportunity and allow yourself to be surprised by what you’re experiencing, rather than what you’re expecting from the guide book description.

Sometimes that means taking the risk of being ripped off, trusting someone you’ve just met to show you around, or simply being able to laugh when plans go awry (which they often do).

Part of travelling responsibly is being social, establishing meaningful connections and engaging with local customs. To traverse the cultural divide, you have to abandon your comfort zone and challenge your existing ideas. Of course, I’m not advocating that you go do something dangerous, but measured risk is part of the adventure.

Imagine how many more meaningful connections we would make if we thought the best of strangers and sought to know them better, even if our time together is brief.

What have you learnt from travelling? Who are the people that have left the greatest impact on you?