Machu Picchu and the final days

March 10-13

After the hike we had the rest of the day to relax, shower, and hang out. A few of us met up in the main plaza and did some shopping and eating. We went to a café that had some American food and we ordered banana pancakes which were probably some of the best I have ever had. The day of relaxation was much-needed and was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, after a day out Amelia and I went back to the house to hear the baby was even more sick and the whole family was making the trip to Cusco. Amelia and I were very worried and felt really helpless throughout the whole situation. Eventually they came back to the house and told us the baby was doing better! The situation involving the baby was really scary and gave me a new appreciation for our easy access to medicine and hospitals.

Continue reading “Machu Picchu and the final days”

Into Thin Air

When the students saw on our itinerary that there would be an “overnight trek high into the Andes,” they asked for more. “Can’t we do another one?” So before we departed, Maria and I asked World Leadership School to add a day of hiking to our plans. The representative knowingly chuckled, “Let’s just see how this one goes first. It’s hard, you know, climbing at those altitudes.”

Continue reading “Into Thin Air”

3/13/14 – Parting Thoughts

We left Ollantaytambo and headed to the bigger city, Cusco, where we would spend our last night and complete our final purchases before our flight to Lima and then to JFK. This was a nice hotel that had a beautiful outdoor courtyard with gardens and a breakfast room that was made entirely of windows. When we arrived in the afternoon we split off to do what we wished and were only told to stay in groups of at least four. I stuck with a group of five other girls and we decided to head right out and do some shopping. We had been consistently told throughout the trip to save our money until Cusco because everything would be cheaper there, so we were in desperate need of gifts for our families and friends at home. We walked down to the different markets where there were many vendors selling colorful tapestries, sweaters, t-shirts, jewelry, and other trinkets. It was hard to resist all of the beautiful things they had displayed. The vendors were pretty aggressive but we quickly learned how to bargain and were proud to tell our friends of the good buys we made.

Continue reading “3/13/14 – Parting Thoughts”

3/9/14 – The Saddle

I opened my eyes and saw a tent above my head. It was day two of the overnight hike in the Andes. We hiked most of the day yesterday and then reached our campsite at about 3:30 in the afternoon with time to relax before dinner. It had been hot all day but there was a significant temperature drop when the sun disappeared behind the mountains, and after dinner, when it was dark, we all scurried back to our two-person tents to bundle up and go to bed, despite the fact that it was only 8:30 PM.

When I woke up my stomach was churning, but I ignored it—too cold to think about getting up to get medicine or anything. After breakfast at 7:30, those of us up for the challenge began our hike further up the mountain to the “saddle” between two other mountain peaks. The journey up probably took about an hour and fifteen minutes, but it was very strenuous and hard to breathe. This was probably one of the most physically demanding things I’ve done in my life. We were headed to Inti Punku (Puerto del Sol) or the “Door to the Sun.” When we spotted this door up at the saddle from a distance it seemed much closer than it was in reality. When we finally made it I felt incredible. We were actually standing on top of a mountain in the Andes. I kissed the doorway out of pride when I walked through it, and we stayed up in the little square of ruins for about 45 minutes, taking pictures, journaling a bit, talking, and congratulating ourselves. I tried to memorize how I felt at that moment, looking overtop of the surrounding mountains, so I could save it and feel it again later at exciting time, like maybe when I get into college or something.  We were 4,000 meters high.

Going down was a lot easier cardio-wise, but there were many loose rocks and the trail was rather steep, so it was slightly startling when I slipped every once in a while, especially with the steep drop easily within reach.

In the end, we all safely made it down the mountain and, looking back, I think this was my favorite part of the trip.

Amazing race, more service, and the hike

March 7-9

 

March the 7th was a whirlwind of emotions and activities. Amelia and I woke up early, got ready for the day, and went down for our usual breakfast with the family. At breakfast we were told that the baby was sick with a fever, throat issues, and stomach pains. The town of Ollataytambo is amazing and filled with cute shops and great people but the only medical care there is consists of a little clinic. To say the least the medical care is not the best, which prompted Amelia and I to be very worried about the baby. After saying our goodbyes and wishing better health, we head to the school and worked until 1. The service that day consisted of finishing to move the cinderblocks and moving dirt. Though I did enjoy the service at times I did feel unproductive and wish we could have done something more interactive. After that day our service was complete and we all did a little victory dance for all of our hard work. 

 

After the service we headed back to the house to find out the baby was even more sick. They were thinking about driving 2 hours to Cusco to get the baby better help. We ate a quick lunch only to head out for an activity similar to the Amazing Race. For the race we split up into groups, I was in a group with 5 other girls, Maddie, Amelia, Steph, Katie, and Mary Beth. The point of the activity was to complete 5 different challenges around the town and to get as many points as possible. To receive points you need to complete the challenges as best as possible, and as a group. At each activity you could receive up to three points (given with rubber bands). The activities consisted of a cooking challenge, a mini despacho ceremony, a dancing challenge, a spiritual ceremony, and an obstacle course. Each activity we did was more fun than the last and the whole time my group was giggling uncontrollably and had a great time. The “amazing race” was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Though super fun the race was super tiring and took up almost 4 hours. When Amelia and I finally did get home, we showered, and found that Anita and the baby had gone off to Cusco. Celestino (the dad) cooked us fried eggplant with cheese and rice. After eating I did not feel well but knew I needed to rest up for the big hike we had the next day. 

 

Unfortunately, the cheese that I ate that night made me sick. Amelia, being an incredible friend and roommate stayed up with me all night We didn’t get much sleep and had our overnight hike the next day. The next day we explained to our group leaders and teachers about my sickness and lack of sleep but I decided to go on with the hike. The hike consisted of going up one of the surrounding mountains, and staying overnight. I did not feel well for most of the hike, but my classmates were really the ones who helped me through. Their support was what got me up that mountain. Alo took my backpack, Nic and Jordan stayed to talk with me the whole hike, and at different times the rest of the group asked me how I was and what they could do to help me. That hike was when I truly realized what community was, people who will carry your weight and do as many unselfish tasks as it takes to support someone else. I will never forget that feeling and hope I can find that in the rest of my life. 

 

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After many laughs and cries, I had finally made it up the mountain and was greeted with a beautiful scene. We enjoyed our time with games, talking, and just looking at the amazing scenery that surrounded us. The hike was one of my favorite parts of the trip and something that I will never forget. 

 

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3/6/14 – Block by Block

Today was our first morning waking up in our host families’ houses. I roomed with Maddie and we lived with a family of four kids: a boy who was 28 named Javier, a girl named Eliana who was 25, a 16 year old boy named Luis, and a 13 year old boy named Alex. We had a room to ourselves, and a shower with hot water, so we were very happy. The family we lived with was a little shy at first, and it was difficult for me to communicate with them because I hardly speak any Spanish, but Maddie helped me say some things, and I tried to be as polite as possible because it was very generous of them to open their home up to us and cook us three meals a day (which were very good).

Maddie and I woke up early, even without an alarm clock, because Ollantaytambo (the name of the town where we stayed) is bustling by 6:30. We got ready in our work clothes for the first day of service at the local high school, and after breakfast we walked to the school and met up with the group. I loved seeing the mountains on the walk to school. I don’t know how the kids here get any work done; I’d be too busy staring out the window!

Our service project throughout the trip was building a wall at the high school. The trench for the wall was already dug and we were to move cinder blocks and mix cement and do other preparations for the wall. Right inside the school’s gate was a pile of 1,000 cinder blocks and another 1,000 were on their way. When the new shipment was delivered, our whole group made one long assembly line and passed blocks down the line. The people at the end of the line made a new pile, closer to where the wall was actually being built. Some of us were skeptical as to why the blocks weren’t originally delivered closer to the wall trench, but it was easier to just move blocks and not ask questions, because that’s not how they were delivered and they had to be moved anyway. This task of passing cinder blocks down an assembly line seems quite simple but, block by block, the tensions grew, especially when there was a holdup of blocks because someone was struggling with one or because their grip slipped. When instances like this happened, the blocks built up and we were at a standstill. A holdup was usually followed by much yelling and talk of, ‘fixing the system.’ “Come closer!” or “Spread out!” were common cries down the line. Despite many attempts to fix the chinks, eventually there would be more yelling and frustration. I believe that this was more a product of the tediousness of the work rather than the fortitude of the group. After about two hours and 1,000 cinder blocks, however, we were all thrilled to be finished so we could act civilized again, and rest our shaking arms.

After lunch we got to relax a bit and play some team-building games. We were happy to go home that night to shower and veg because it had been a long, tiring day and we wanted to get some good sleep because the next morning we were headed off to Patacancha (a weaving community where we would learn how local weavers spin and dye their yarn, and how they create the beautiful woven things we see sold in the markets). We would even get to do some shopping!

3/3/14 – Inca Sun Temple

After a quick breakfast with the group we walked all together to the base of the sun temple ruins. We met up with a local guide and he led us up the ruins, explaining Incan history along the way. Every activity we do here seems to involve ‘a short hike up the mountain,’ so I often feel a little winded, but we are trying to avoid altitude sickness as best we can by staying hydrated and drinking coca tea (a tea made of coca leaves that supposedly helps prevent this sickness).

The Inca engineering is incredible. The steps we climbed up were granite rocks about 2’ wide by 4’ deep, and very thick. I can’t completely wrap my head around how these huge rocks were transported. The ancient people harvested them from the top of a neighboring mountain, and then used timber, ramps, animals, and their own physical strength to haul them up to a very high point on the mountain of the sun temple. I wonder how many years and people it took to do this. There is evidence here at the sun temple of the Spanish invasion because some rocks were abandoned on the ramp on the way to the temple. How disappointing it must have been to not be able to finish.

The temple walls are built like a giant puzzle—each fitting into the other with such precision that you could not fit a sheet of paper in-between them. I tried to soak up as much history and knowledge from these people as possible. The architecture here is amazing. We learned that trapezoid-shaped doors and windows are a distinctive feature of Incan architecture and this is an easy way of differentiating ruins.

The placement of these structures also amazes me. The Incans looked at the nature around them and the shapes of the mountain and then built in a way that incorporated the earth. Unlike in today’s society, where we destroy nature and build up our own towers, the Incans embraced nature and trusted its guidance for their architecture. They seemed to have had no problems with landslides, earthquakes, or erosion; after all, mountains have been standing for quite a long time…

A New Perspective

As I settled into my peruvian lifestyle, I became very aware that the trip I was on was not meant to make you feel settled (in the best way possible). On Tuesday March 4th, after another great breakfast (the food was always fantastic), we met our host families outside of our hotel rooms, and they helped us carry our things a few blocks away to their homes, which were spread out all over the small town. Our group had been divided into groups of 2 or 3 and each assigned to a family. I was lucky enough to be roommates with Newell! I had become increasingly more nervous to meet the family, mostly because out of all the groups, Newell and I had the least amount of spanish experience; me having none, and Newell being in Spanish 2. Leaving the hotel was completely throwing me out of my comfort zone and I have to admit, I was scared. Babina, my host mother, greeted us with a big kiss on the cheek and Poncho, my host father, a friendly hug. Their house was very cute. Newell and I shared a room with two very comfortable beds. Most of the houses in Ollantaytambo had an outdoor center. In my house, there was an outdoor courtyard with all of the room surrounding it, meaning that all of the doors to each room you had to go outside to enter. I didn’t understand much of what they were saying, so I just smiled and nodded. They sensed how tense I was and offered to play UNO. Once my host siblings, Yessica and Yack came home from school, Newell and I soon learned that UNO was a household favorite. We played for 2 full hours! I wrote in my journal that night, “I am starting to realize that their family is so similar to what we know as a family, along with their traditions. I am beginning to understand the uniqueness of the experience I am having. Even though I cannot understand almost all of what they are saying, to be able to sit and observe is the most influential thing. It is so cool to realize that they are just a small loving family living in this big world, and I already know that I will think of them when I go back home.”

Here is picture of the happy family who, although we had trouble bonding with, grew increasingly more comfortable with and accustomed to living with. I realized over my 6 days with Poncho and Babina, that I never really felt in my comfort zone, but I learned so much about life of the people in Ollantaytambo. The most important thing I took away from them was that people share and spread love all around the world no matter the circumstance, level of education of financial situation. I feel truely bless to be pushed into this opportunity where I would take so much. Even though we were maybe not the greatest match for each other, I am really thankful they were able to open up their home and open up my eyes to their lifestyle. DSCF9541

Over the next few days, we started our service project. It was very exciting! The town of Ollantaytambo had just finished a brand new high school. It was beautiful, and everyone was so excited for the opening day! Our task was to help build a wall on the back side of the school. Over the next couple of days we would unload 1,000 cinder blocks from the back of a truck, move 2,000 cinder blocks from the front of school to the back of the school where the wall was being built, carry dirt, cement, and rocks and get very dirty. It was quite the task. Our group had moments of high tension, laughter, arguments and collaboration. My one wish for the trip would be that we could have made more of an impact on the wall, but unfortunately because of the time consuming labor we didn’t get to see it finished. Overall it was a wonderful experience because we all really came together as a group.

Here is a picture of the first opening day of school on our final day of service! It was so great seeing how excited the kids were to start classes!
Here is a picture of the first opening day of school on our final day of service! It was so great seeing how excited the kids were to start classes!

The most influential experience over these few days was the Weaving Community. On March 6th, after a long morning of service, we boarded a little bus and took a very bumpy, very scary ride up the side of a mountain to the community. It was incredible. The women were seated, all in traditional dress, working very hard on their pieces. We all gathered and watched them, snapping pictures and listening to our guide explain their lifestyle to us. They used all natural dye’s and carefully spun the llama fur into beautiful yarn. We were each paired up with one of them, and they helped us weave our own bracelets! It was so cool. The woman I worked with was so sweet. I had no idea what she said at all, but I just kept telling her things about our trip and how great things were in english even though I knew she didn’t understand either. She had a great smile and it was great working with her.

After we finished weaving our bracelets, I thanked the woman I was working with and we walked through cluster of houses where they lived. We went inside a house and got to look around. It was then that I realized that what I was seeing was unbelievable poverty. The house was hardly big enough for a few people, and had no furniture. There were no windows or chimneys, and the people often had respiration issues. There was no running water. It was hard to understand and accept that people were living in these conditions. I realized that these women put on their traditional dress and work hard on their beautiful creations for people like me and the rest of the group, who have come to learn about peruvian culture. It surprised me that people with such unique and incredible talents are forced to live in such poverty. But at night, when they go back to their houses, they have to live in these conditions, without a bed, water, or even fresh air. I was truly taken aback, and humbled to have met such simplistic happy people who live with so little, and wish so badly that I single handedly could have helped them in that moment.

Here is a picture of the women, seated, working tirelessly on their wonderful creations.
Here is a picture of the women, seated, working tirelessly on their wonderful creations.
This is a woman stirring a pot of yarn. She has just added the natural dye which she extracted from a plant and is now mixing it into the pot.
This is a woman stirring a pot of yarn. She has just added the natural dye which she extracted from a plant and is now mixing it into the pot.

 

Homestays, the Weaving Community, and Service

March 4-6

Everyday comes with its new share of adventures, experiences, and ways of stretching myself out of my comfort zone. On the morning of the 4th we anxiously met after breakfast to go through a question and answer session about moving in with our host families. Each of us was paired with either one or two people to live with local families for the week. Living with these families meant eating each meal with them, helping them around the house, and learning about their way of living. After our quick Q+A, we finally were able to meet our family. I was living with Amelia, who did not speak Spanish. I am in level 4 and traveled to Spain last year with Westtown so my Spanish is pretty good but can always be improved. We were greeted with a kind looking women holding a little baby: Anita the mother and Luisiana the daughter,  and an older girl around our age named Shura. They both greeted us with kisses on the cheek and immediately helped us in lugging our huge suitcases to their house, 10 minutes down the road. On the way to the house we made small talk, with the conversation a little awkward at first but eventually we found common ground in topics like siblings, music, food, and everything in between. The house, which consisted of a little court yard and scattered rooms, was adorable and sat on a well-known street named La Calle de Cien Ventanas (the street of one hundred windows). Continue reading “Homestays, the Weaving Community, and Service”

A Perfect Trip

The good news: Our fantastic group of 21 has safety returned to their homes after two amazing weeks in the small town of Ollantaytambo, Peru. The bad news: It’s over.

Looking back on the past two weeks is such a whirlwind of happiness, amazement, fresh air, and friendships. The best two weeks of my life flew by and the lessons we learned and people we met will stay with me forever. Because of our “unplugged challenge,” we did not have internet on the trip, so I will be sharing my favorite experiences in chronological order.

A First Glimpse: Day 1

I could see the them the second I jerked awake from my hours of unconsciousness on the plane and I was immediately in complete awe. Mountains were never really on my mind in terms of the things I thought would take my breath away, but as I stared, jaw dropped, I realized that I had never seen a mountain before. My family has never gone skiing, and we usually revert to our little New Jersey beach house that we all love so dearly. But this was something so new, and so incredibly beautiful that I had not expected to be so astonishing. They were everywhere, surrounding me in all directions and at incredible heights. They completely tower over the small towns that reside in their narrow valleys, and seem to rise at a vertical angle out of flat ground. They were monstrous, obstructing the view of the sky, and they were so especially beautiful. Image

This is a picture I took at a rest stop before we reached the hotel. You can even see the snow peaked mountains in the distance!

Day 2:

We hustled and bustled throughout our new hometown all morning long. Javier and Randall, our two guides, gave us a scavenger hunt that both made us work together, and attempt to navigate the town of Ollantaytambo. As we walked around the town, I loved seeing how people lived, and their everyday wear. Many of the women wore traditional clothing, decorated with countless colors and intricate patterns. I had so much fun wandering the streets, observing and trying to communicate with the towns people. Although I don’t speak Spanish, one of my favorite parts of this day (and throughout the whole trip) was finding ways to communicate with people in other ways besides language. Going into the trip, I knew that the language barrier would be my hardest obstacle and biggest setback, and being put in these situations forced me to learn and grow.

Day 3

My favorite part of the third day was the Despacho Ceremony. We all met in a hostel near our hotel, called the Full Moon Lodge. When we walked in, there was an older looking man sitting on the couch wearing a poncho covered in magnificent colors and designs. He wore a hat too, and had a thick beard. The hostel was beautiful, and there were dream catchers hanging from the ceiling everywhere.  We all sat in a circle on the ground around him. He began to speak in detail about our world, and T. Maria translated. He compared the North to an eagle and the South to a condor, explaining that eagles kill and devour their prey without any appreciation, while the condor honors their prey, and fills the land with spirit. He urged us to learn about the Native Americans that live in the north, saying that we are too wrapped up in our material things. At one point he looked at us right in the eye and said, “Look at what you are wearing, you have no memory.” He then pointed to his clothing and said, “Look at what I am wearing, this is my culture.” He told us that if we went and learned our culture, we would then “receive our memory.” Listening to him was very humbling. In that moment I was so glad that I didn’t have my phone or my computer, and that I was taking part in the unplugged challenge. I felt saddened that our society relies so much on our material world, and because of that we are missing a huge part of our culture. He said, “When the day comes that the rich material north collides with the poor spiritual south, that will be the day that we save the world.” It made me think a lot about the unimportance of the things we own, and about the importance of the people we are. After about an hour and a half, he proceeded to lead us through a ceremony, where we each had to wish on coca leaves (a plant that is used for many spiritual and healing purposes), and place them in a pile of things that represent things like good health and happiness. After we each presented out wishes, he blessed it, and then burned the package in the campfire, releasing our wishes into the atmosphere. Many people in the group were moved to tears during the ceremony, and I felt like I walked away having learned an important lesson. Maybe the wishes will even come true. The Despacho Ceremony was a very cool experience, and I am so grateful that I was able to experience it. Image

This is the picture of the shaman, who was wrapping up our pile of leaves and other natural substances that represented our wishes.