Hannah Rae Porst

APIECE APART WOMAN
Seven years ago, Hannah Rae Porst departed Maine for southeastern Peru, led by a guide on horseback through the mountains. Drawn to the Q’eros Nation, the last Inkan community in the country and “the wisdom keepers of the Andes,” her trip sparked a connection that would change the direction of her life. Today Porst’s nonprofit Willka Yachay - Quechua for “sacred wisdom” - works in the Andes to develop education that enables young Q’eros to know their history and rights, avoid exploitation, build meaningful lives, and develop their communities. Moved by Porst’s work and the deeply inspirational Q’eros people, we visited Hannah while she was in Los Angeles (where she lives part of the year) to discuss the wisdom of the Q’eros, how she structures her life between two continents and cultures, and the unexpected learnings of life in the Andes. 
 
Photos of Hannah by Ye Rin Mok / Styling by Kourtney Jackson / Text by Leigh Patterson

How did your connection with the Q'eros Nation begin?

I was 20 years old when I first heard of the Q’eros people and felt that I needed to go there. A month later I hired a mountain guide and we started a three week trek across the Q’eros Nation on horseback. The Q’eros live at 14,500 feet above sea level in the snow-capped Cordillera Vilcanota range, the highest mountain chain in southeastern Peru. 
 
The Q’eros themselves identified local schooling as their most important need very early in our relationship, so that was what we focused on in our first years. We built and opened pre-schools, elementary schools, a high school, and an adult school. It soon became apparent that learning cannot occur without necessary humane preconditions, so Willka Yachay expanded its mission to include food security, health care, mother and baby care, solar power, internet, infrastructure development, and economic opportunity.
 
What are the current projects or goals you're working toward?
We’re always implementing a lot of different projects. Keeps me on my toes! This year we inaugurated our Hampi Wasi, a holistic medical center which combines ancient healing knowledge and modern first aid care. This is the only medical center for the entire Q’eros Nation. We’re in the middle of constructing a dorm for our high school so that many of our students won’t have to walk several hours to our school each way, every day. We’re in the first year of a three-year-long project of creating and sustaining a solar powered, satellite internet computer lab and intercultural library. The community center we built this year is complete and provides a wonderful space for the villagers to come together under one roof. The cultural museum adjacent to our high school is an ongoing project; we’re creating a space where antique clothing, musical instruments, and photos adorn the walls. Historical documents are available for research. Films are curated for community members and future generations to watch and understand their past so they can build their future. We continue to promote the preservation of Q’eros wisdom by having elders teach in our schools at all levels. Little three and four year olds in our preschool are learning how to weave from masters!
 
In December, the high school we founded five years ago graduates its first class. We are organizing a class trip (first airplane ride!) to celebrate their accomplishments and we’re focusing on supporting these wonderful young men and women as they pursue post secondary education. Many want to become teachers, doctors, engineers, and return to improve their villages. 
 

 
How has your connection with this culture influenced the way you lead your own life?
All the Q’eros traditions – weaving, farming, herding, music, healing, spirituality – are literally grounded in a connection to the Earth. The traditions are expressions of that relationship which can help us understand how we can re-imagine ourselves and our place here. The central act of Q’eros spirituality is the beautiful despachoceremony, an offering to Pachamama which conveys humility and gratitude. The Q’eros have much to teach us about cultivating a more elegant relationship with our natural world. 
 
It’s beautiful to see more and more people understanding this wisdom and standing with them for their rights and our precious earth. I believe that it is our responsibility to take care of one another, person to person, heart to heart. The Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam, to heal the world, has been an important guiding principle in my life. I was taught from a young age that we are here to contribute to making our world a kinder and more just place. 
 
The Q’eros have been the victims of extreme prejudice for centuries, yet their values and culture are intact. They show us how to hold our humanistic ideals in our hearts until, as in their Pachacuti prophecy, Mother Earth turns over and restores harmony…or at least until the next election :) 
 
 
Hannah's photos of the Q’eros Nation:



Logistically how do you make it work in living between two places? What are some challenges that come with building a career and life in this capacity?
Q’eros elders have given me the Quechua name “Chaka Warmi,” or bridge woman. For several years I have been bringing groups and leading expeditions and healing retreats in the mountains of Peru. In the coming year I’m excited to bring ancestral wisdom practices and ceremonies to the U.S. 
 
I’m at home in the Andes. I love the richness of the culture, the beauty and warmth of the people who have so graciously included me in their intimate lives. When I’m in Peru my work is much more hands on, directing building projects, spending time with our students, planning with our teachers, and meeting the needs of families. In the states I spend my time working on grants, meeting with donors, offering Q’eros textiles, and developing our mountain expeditions. For the past two years I have felt a pull to return to living part of the year in the states to advance further on my path.
 
The most challenging part about living abroad is being away from my family and friends...not to mention maintaining a romantic relationship! When I was starting Willka Yachay and opening our schools I was in Peru for the majority of the year. Willka Yachay has been my baby. Now I’m at the point where I can let other parts of my life unfold. 

What has your time in Peru taught you about the idea of wellness, or the idea of what it means to truly be “well”?
It's redefined my understanding of that concept. Although the Q’eros suffer physically from the harsh conditions in which they live, they are rich in connection and community. They radiate joy and peace. They express gratitude often every day, even in small ways like offering a few drops of their tea on the ground to Pachamama before taking a sip. Villagers come together in ceremony to sing, grieve, and support one another in their suffering, and to celebrate each other in their joy. The indescribable way their love makes me feel is my standard for what it means to be well.
 
What are you reading right now? What’s next on your list?
I’m currently rereading two books which continually inspire my work: The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World and Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures, both written by author and scientist Wade Davis. 
Next on my list is The Anatomy of a Calling written by my friend Lissa Rankin.
 

At what moments in your life do you feel most like yourself?
I feel like myself when I am with the people I love, sitting in ceremony, harvesting from a garden, laughing uncontrollably with my mom, cooking a meal, meditating outside, and expressing my feminine energy. I feel most like myself when love pours through me. 

What’s your favorite quotation or mantra?
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” David Orr
 
 
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