Carving Out Your Little Piece of the World... And Then Giving It Back


Life is not a journey to the grave with intentions of arriving safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a ride!" - Anonymous I live by those words. Book me a flight to anywhere, strap a backpack on me and point your finger in the right direction (which I’ll probably ignore). I’ll find my purpose, don’t worry. The road never gets any shorter, and it might even get a little bumpy at times, but the ride is totally worth it.

My journey, just like yours, is still in its infancy. I graduated from massage school a few years ago and jumped right into my career. I built a practice of loyal clients and stayed on staff at the school … until I moved to Peru.

I’ll admit that was a pretty drastic decision. My life was great. My massage practice was thriving, I loved teaching, and I had a wonderful circle of friends, clients and colleagues but something was missing. I finally had this skill to help people but I didn't feel like I was doing enough with it. I wanted to do more.

About six months earlier, I began looking for a volunteer opportunity abroad during the break between semesters teaching. I wanted to use my vocation as a massage therapist and work with a local population -- preferably in a developing country. The problem is, those are usually the countries that regard massage as sex, and as a result, there weren't a lot of volunteer opportunities for me.

But eventually an organization emailed me back with good news -- they offered me a chance to work with kids with spinal disabilities in Cusco, Peru. I'd never been to Peru before, so I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Looks like I'm going to Peru."

So I packed my bag and flew to Peru. I slept in the Lima airport that night and at 5:00 am I boarded my flight to Cusco, high in the Andes Mountains. My hosts met me at the airport and brought me home to rest and begin acclimating to the 11,000-foot altitude.

I hadn't traveled alone in years, and exploring Cusco on my own those first few days was really magical. By the time I began my volunteer work a few days later at the children's hospital, I had successfully maneuvered Peruvian taxis -- and taxi drivers -- figured out how to call home, and even began speaking and comprehending bits and pieces of Spanish. It was exhilarating and I already felt a new energy flowing through me.

And then on day three I met the kids. Oh, man, they were cute. Flor, Diego, Yesmenia... there were kids everywhere and they all wanted attention. And they really didn't care that I was there to give them massages. They wanted to play.

And so that's what I did. For two weeks, I spent every morning at the hospital playing with the kids. We'd go for little walks around the park connected to the hospital, play on the swings, watch TV, make water balloons. It was wonderful. And after lunch it was naptime. We helped them brush their teeth and take off their shoes and went from bed to bed saying, “Chau, mi amorcita. Hasta manana.” See you tomorrow.

Some of them eventually let me massage them. Some just wanted to hold my hand. I had never been more in love with more people at one time than during those few weeks at the hospital.

I spent the final week of my month in Peru trekking through the Andes to a very special place called Choquequirao, which is the less-traveled, harder-to-get-to sister site of Machu Picchu. There's a special energy up there -- a sacred energy -- that is so palpable it's like walking through a prickly, electrical haze. I guess you could say that I had a "moment" while I was up there. I realized that I wasn't there by chance and I shouldn't squander this opportunity.

Ok, great, but now what? I was leaving Peru in two days. How was I supposed to take this message and turn it into action?

You see, Cusco is an interesting place. It's an ancient city. Q'osco means "navel" in Quechua, the ancient Incan language. The Incans believed Cusco was the center of the universe -- and, to this day, the energy vortex that pulls people there is very, very strong. It takes a hold of you and doesn't let go until it's ready. And when the plane took off at the end of that month to bring me home, I felt like part of my soul had been ripped out and left in Peru -- it was very clear to me that I had to go back and retrieve it.

And that's what I did. Four months later, I packed my entire life into one bag (and a carry-on) and moved to Peru. At the time, it seemed easy. Sure, I was giving up a lot to do this, but because it felt right it just wasn't complicated. I felt the same way when I started my massage practice a couple of years earlier. I set my intention to open a practice and connect with like-minded healers, work with people, and be happy. And that's just what happened.

But little more than a year after graduating from massage school, I became aware of a new energy surging through me. I wanted to save the world. I had never felt that way before. Becoming a massage therapist brought that out in me -- a desire I didn't even know I was capable of having. I hadn't forgotten about those other aspects of owning my own business like health insurance, earning income or marketing, but I just knew that there was a little voice in my head that told me that this was a priority.

So, to make a long story short, I moved to Peru for about 14 months, opened a practice there and worked with travelers and locals -- the travelers paid, the locals didn't. It balanced out very well and I was able to bring massage therapy to an underserved community of hard-working, never-rested-a-day-in-their-lives (let alone an hour on a massage table) people. I began to change their perception of massage -- it was no longer some hokey service hawked on the streets near the main square to hikers on their way to Machu Picchu. Their repeat visits told me that after a lifetime of thinking massage was just a silly service offered to tourists, they really might now think that massage therapy has the power to help and heal.

And my personal journey during that time was more profound than I ever imagined it could be. I spent time with a local shaman, drank ayahuasca (just a couple of times) and practiced a lot of yoga and meditation. I was able to see clearly enough that I had a long journey ahead of me and Peru was just a beautiful stop along the way.

My profession is an amazing vehicle for self discovery, and it’s almost a requirement in my line of work if I want to be good at what I do.  Self discovery is essential for anyone who wants to be good at LIFE. [Tweet "The more we learn about ourselves, the more we can help those around us."]  And we can't forget that.

Give back. It doesn’t matter how, but it does matter why. You give back because you can. You have a tremendous toolbox of skills to share and I promise you this (and I really don't know how to explain how or why it works): The more you give -- openly, honestly give -- the more you get back. I kid you not. It works.

It's been a little over three years since I returned home from Peru. I decided to move back to my home state of Connecticut instead of returning to DC, which meant that I had to rebuild my business from scratch and I wasn't sure how long it would take.

I had some moments of anxiety but I never had doubt. I set my intentions and spent much of my first six months back setting up my studio, establishing a Web presence and creating new marketing materials. And volunteering -- both my skills and my time -- to friends, family and local businesses that I could give back to while they helped me grow my practice. And 18 months ago, I took a leap of faith (in myself) and opened Elm City Wellness, a practice that (currently, as the numbers keep growing) employs nine massage therapists, one acupuncturist, four yoga instructors and two full-time assistants. We love each other so much that we call ourselves a tribe. Three of them even joined me this year on a trip to Peru, where we volunteered our services. Care to join us on our next trip?

Marissa Gandelman is a licensed massage therapist and the owner of Elm City Wellness in New Haven, CT. She will be hosting an informational session about her March trip to The Healing House Cusco on October 29 and December 5 at Elm City Wellness. She is a founding member of this non-profit and hosts annual trips there, which include a visit to Machu Picchu, massage therapy and volunteer opportunities. If you are interested in joining her and her staff, please contact