On June 7, 2014, my son, Harper, and I set off for Cuzco, Peru, to do volunteer work and visit Machu Picchu. Harper had a 2 week construction assignment and I was to teach English for 6 weeks through an organization called IVHQ. I wasn’t able to get seats on the same flight, so even though we departed at about the same time, we were on different airlines flying different routes. He arrived in Cuzco about 7 hours before me.
I made the most of my 11 hour layover in Mexico City, taking the subway from the airport all the way across town to Bosque de Chapultepec, a vast and beautiful park, where I spent most of the day.
I arrived in Cuzco around 3:00 the next day. The flight from Lima to Cuzco over the Andes was breathtaking. Even though I was exhausted by that point I felt like a kid, I was so excited. My first stop in Cuzco was at Maximo Nivel, the local affiliate of IVHQ who arranged our work assignments and living arrangements. Finally I was taken to my home for the next 7 weeks on Calle Arcopata, where I met my hosts, Ronald and Yeny, and found that my son had also arrived safely.
We lived in a volunteer house with as many as 9 other volunteers at a given time. We were the only Americans when we arrived. Most of our new friends were from Canada. One girl was from France and another from Trinidad/Tobago. We instantly connected with everyone there. It’s hard to describe just how comfortable it was living with all these new people. I guess because anybody who would make a trip like this has to have an altruistic, adventurous spirit and we all just fit in. Even though volunteers came and went, I had the same feeling about almost everyone, and stay in touch with most of my friends.
The next day I met Chelsey, my program director, and Sarah and Shamaila, two friends from Canada who volunteered for child care. We had orientation and learned a little about our school. Chelsey had set up a brand new project and I was to be the first English teacher. On Tuesday we set off for the Eco-Escuela Simitauca. Our daily trek to school included a 30 minute walk to the bus station, a 45 minute ride on the Urubamba bus, where we had to be alert for our stop, which was on the side of the road between towns, a half mile hike up a steep dirt road, and another half mile straight up the side of the mountain.
The school itself was more than we had hoped for. Treking up a mountain every day was hard, but it was worth it. The Eco-Escuela Simataucca was comprised of 3 buildings. One included the kindergarten (inicio), a kitchen with a wood burning stove, and an upstairs room they used for a children’s theater. Another room housed the 1st – 3rd grade class, the office, and an extra room. The third building was for the 4th – 6th grade and the art room.
One little boy lived directly across the road from the school. We walked past his cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and donkeys on our way to school and back. Other kids walked as long as an hour to get to school every day. Many students spoke Quechua as their first language, and were learning Castellano (Spanish) in school. All of them lived on farms, and even though the families had different crops or livestock, they all grow potatoes.
We started working as the school was preparing to celebrate el Día de la Papa (potato day). The potato originated in the Andes and is believed to have been a gift from the gods to save the people from starvation. There are around 4,000 varieties of potatoes grown in Peru. In math our students had determined what types were grown just in their community (12 in all) and created graphs to show how many farms grew each type. The students showed us how to build ovens out of nothing but dirt clods. The built a fire and when it was hot they put in the potatoes and collapsed the oven. An hour later they dug the potatoes out of the rubble and we ate them literally fresh from the dirt. They were delicious. In language arts students read the Legend of the Potato, rewrote it in their own words, and created a play.
When Día de la Papa arrived, a school from the city came to celebrate with us. Everybody pitched in. While waiting for our guests we cleaned and gathered wood for the oven. The teachers taught the students how to make several traditional Peruvian dishes. I learned how to make papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes) which was already my favorite dish from my host family’s house. We didn’t have potato peelers. After the potatoes were cooked we peeled them by hand. They used what looks like a huge garlic press to help mash the potatoes, but most of the mashing was done with forks and most of the mixing was done by hand. We made up making 7 different types of potato dishes – enough to feed about 60 kids, 10 teachers, parents who came to help, and visitors from the school board. It was an incredible cultural experience to share.
So the truth is I learned more by teaching at Simataucca than I taught. But I did manage to teach the kids basic greetings, colors, animal names, activities, numbers, dates, and foods. Somehow. There was no heat in the classrooms, so we did a lot of lessons outside, and played a lot of games to reinforce the lessons. The children were very poor, but they were warm, intelligent, kind, and very compassionate towards one another. I worked with several child care volunteers during my 6 weeks there and loved them all. They gave out vitamins every day after lunch, donated toothbrushes and tooth paste, and made sure the kids brushed their teeth properly. I wanted to be part of a volunteer program that truly made a contribution to the community, and hopefully that’s what we did.
Cuzco is the tourist capital of Peru. Aside from being the starting point for trips to Machu Picchu, it has a rich cultural history all of it’s own. It is known as el ombligo del mundo (the belly button of the world), full of museums and archaeological sites. There are countless festivals and parades, and there is an energy that I have never felt anywhere before in my life. So how did I spend my time when I wasn’t teaching or traveling? Watching TV, of course. The World Cup was happening and I missed very few games. Harper and I stumbled upon this little restaurant called Tinta, after giving up on actually enjoying the game in one of the more touristy restaurants. We took one look at the horrible reception on the TV that had been installed an hour before and walked out. We were pursued by the waiter ‘Lejandro, who along with the owner, Walter, and other waiter, Juan, talked us into staying. They managed to get the reception fixed and we wound up watching almost all the games there. We loved the atmosphere, the food, and the staff. I didn’t see as many of the tourist attractions that I might have seen in Cuzco, but every time I watched a game, I managed to meet someone from at least one of the countries playing. That was a pretty unique cultural experience.
I explored much of the city, but did spend most of my time around the tourist district. The Cathedral was the focal point of the Plaza De Armas. It was a good place to meet with friends before going to other adventures. The elevated area right in front of the Cathedral was often used as a judging stand for the parades or as a stage for various musical performances
The Cristo Blanco was given to Cuzco as a gift from Palestine in 1945. This magnificent statue looks down over the city and can be seen from all parts of Cuzco. If I ever got lost, all I needed to do was look for the statue and I could get my bearings.
After hiking up to the Cristo Blanco, I had this view of the the city. The open area near the bottom of the photo is the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral pictured above. This gives some idea of how high up the statue actually is.
I truly loved my experiences in and around Cuzco. It was hard to leave. During my 7 week stay, I also enjoyed 3 incredible journeys, that I will describe on separate pages. I made a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu via el Camino Salkantay; I went on a pilgramage with a family to Qolloriti; and I visited el Parque Nacional de Manú.