Our Volunteer Vacation in Peru, Part 2

Stephen Hauge was kind enough to share his story of high adventure, investigation and discovery while on a Globe Aware volunteer vacation to Peru. This is Part Two (CLICK HERE for Part One). For more volunteer vacation stories, information and travel opportunities, be sure to check back or, even better, subscribe to Globe Aware‘s RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed by entering your email address in the Volunteer Vacations RSS Feed form in the right column.

cuzco-peru-volunteer-vacationsOn the first Sunday, we visited the Incan ruins at Tipon (a spiritual place with terraced fields and rock water courses, perched on a mountaintop and reached only by numerous switchbacks) and Pikilacta (a more ruined location yet with a long highway down the middle of “town”). Everywhere stones were piled in different arrangements, and one had to use one’s imagination to envision the purposes of the past.

On another day we visited a hillside overlooking Cuzco, overseen by a smaller version of the Brazilian Jesus, with outstretched arms. To his side was an Incan sanctuary and temple called Sacsayhuaman, again with marvelously intact and tight-fitting boulders in walls over 360 meters in length.

Our other trip was to a llama/alpaca/vicuna zoo where we were able to feed grasses to these distinctive white, brown and black animals before proceeding to a retail outlet that offered products from their wool.

We ostensibly were there to lend a hand (actually, both hands and legs and sinews and . . .) to whatever projects needed to be done. Rob Underhill, a dentist, had a specific skill that could be leveraged, so his family rose every morning at 5:30 to be driven into the upland villages to minister to the locals.

On one day we went with them, driving over passes through the lovely land, which stretched out in quilt patterns around us. Twice we had to get out of the van due to the rutty road, but we achieved our destination. Our job was to “build a stove,” while the dentist ministered to 30-35 locals, cleaning where he could – giving novocaine and pulling teeth where he had to – passing on mouths that were too far gone. One boy had a piece of sugar cane right through the center of his tooth, so both came out when the tooth was removed.

Building the stove required the kids (and the dauntless Meg!) to stomp dirt with water into mud and mix in straw for adobe bricks while John, Ram and I cut lengths of rebar (metal rods) with a dull blade. When we were done, we were informed the lengths were too long so we operated again (ah, for the maxim of measure twice and cut once). Otherwise John and I lugged professionally-made bricks on our back from a nearby site to form the base of the stove. In time it was made, though it had to dry before we could add the stovepipe to channel the smoke out of the house (this had to be done the following day). Throughout, locals came to the dentist – the field hands leaving their tools stuck in the ground – while other locals helped with the stove. It was a nice coming together of the “village.”

At the alburgue, our projects were primarily manual labor — moving large rocks, clearing and centralizing debris, knocking down a wall with a pickaxe and chopping down its poles with an axe (we sharpened it in a nearby carpentry shop). The first Monday, after 2.5 hours of this, I was so physically exhausted, I caught a nap after lunch. I had forgotten the altitude (above 10,000 feet), and we had simply gone after each task at full bore.

At the same time Meg, Sangeeta and the boys created several walkways of stone in our overall beautification project.

Had we discussed in advance what skills we had and how they could be leveraged (like the dentist’s), we may have been more productive. Perhaps next time.

Machu Picchu
Our major trip, at the end of our stay, was to Machu Picchu. As landslides had devastated the railroad and tumbled the rails into the turbulent Rio Urubamba alongside, operations had been shut down for almost two months as the Peruvian Department of Interior (so to speak) frantically rebuilt the railway and retaining walls (often using large rocks in wired cubes, which I first saw in Jackson Hole 20 years ago). The key length of track was re-opened only two days before we were due to take it, so we were marvelously lucky. From Cuzco it was a van drive of 90 minutes, followed by a two-hour, 20-kilometer train ride, made more glamorous because a kind woman attendant, taken by John’s and my twinship (as she had had an ex-boyfriend who was a twin), allowed us to occupy the paneled car, instead of a regular one.

We arrived in the town below Machu Picchu and were met by our landlord, who escorted us to the hotel. Since it was dinner time, we went to Indio Feliz, which turned out to be a highlight of the trip — marvelous food; a nice ambience with the packed house, low-slung ceiling and business cards stapled to the walls; solicitous hosts (when I told the male owner that everything was “formidable” – with a French accent, as he was French – he appeared overcome with gratitude). I had a superb French onion soup, chicken with mango, orange pie (alas, the promised ice cream was absent), and a Fanta orange soda – all for $25 (including tax and tip). And management threw in freshly made, warm garlic potato chips as well as keepsake small pots with the restaurant’s name as their “business card.”

Hector, our guide, arrived early in the meal to discuss arrangements for the following day. We proposed a schedule; he told us the schedule, which we duly accepted.

Accordingly, we were up at 4:45 a.m. for “breakfast” at 5:00 and in line at 5:15 so we could see the dawn rise. What proactive timing you may assume until you saw the line of 150 fellow tourists already ahead of us and waiting for the modern 28-passenger buses that left at 5:30 and every five minutes thereafter. Thus, over the roiling Rio Urubamba gorge and up a steep set of switchbacks, we arrived at Machu Picchu, the only unlooted Incan site, re-found in 1911 by Yale professor Hiram Bingham. Mist covered everything. Fortunately Hector had a “back story” to tell so we listened as the mist wore off, and we saw an amazing collection of steep terraces, rock structures, and seemingly endless, connected buildings, all amid steep mountains that the Incans worshipped as divine beings. Although the site was used primarily for spiritual and astronomic purposes and housed only 500 souls, its building is a remarkable accomplishment. Hector said granite from the “quarry” at the site was often used and the actual construction went on for over a century – one could well believe it. The Spaniards supposedly were unaware of the site so never attacked it, but as it had no military value, one could agree. Nevertheless, it is rightfully deemed one of the modern Seven

Wonders of the World
After the informative two-hour tour (and the sight of llamas acting as grass mowers), we returned to the buses, the drive down, the train and the bus back to Cuzco. The only break was at Ollantaytambo, where we had lunch (I had a trout ceviche in honor of Camden’s birthday), and John and I looked quickly at an impregnable fortress there, built of ramped terraces and stone bulwarks, where the Incans thwarted Pizarro’s 1536 attempt to defeat them.

Overall Perceptions
Peru is a lovely country, with soaring mountains and colorful, rocky hillsides — but the poor are everywhere evident, always walking, often carrying something. Red mud brick buildings with red tile roofs dot the landscape. The food is filling if simple, though perhaps too reliant on the staples of potato, rice and bread. Everyone looks the same: short, dark hair, dark eyes, and the older folks are old before their time. Yet, like the mountains, the people are rocky and resilient.



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