Week in Peru

Cusco can not be more of a beautiful city.  It has been my favorite place so far on this entire trip.  The main plaza area is so open, big, and clean.  There are many local women that sit on street corners with baby llamas, hoping that tourists would stop, give them money and take photos.  Along with these local women, there are also younger kids that run around the city who pester tourists and ask them to buy candy or other trinkets.  Walking around the city was nice, we had lots of free time to ourselves for two days.

On Tuesday morning, we headed out to get ready to hike the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.  We loaded up into two large vans and drove about three hours north of Cusco to the trailhead.  There, we met our porters who would be traveling, and our cooks.  Some of us had heavier packs and were able to pass them off to the porters to pack on to one of the ten horses/donkeys we had traveling with us.  A few hours after hiking up along the Andes mountain ridge, we stopped to have lunch.  By that point we had been hiking so much higher up in altitude, which resulted in us hiking through snow.  It was so awesome, but very cold.  Having lunch in a small tent with 17 people and super cold winds, wasn’t exactly ideal.  Quickly after lunch, and some assumptions of getting frost bite, we divided up into two groups.  We were divided up into two group because of weather precautions.  We needed to hike up to a point of over 15,000ft and if something bad were to happen with the weather, we could easily communicate through radio use and by being in smaller groups it would be safer.  Hiking up to the top was definitely one of the most physically challenging things I have ever done.  The difficulty in breathing was so intense, I didn’t think it would’ve affected me so much.  It got even harder because of the icy rain that started to fall.  I was mainly frustrated I didn’t have any rain pants with me, being that I probably would’ve been more comfortable and warm.  Once reaching the top, my group and I took a photo, and then started the easier, more manageable hike downhill.  A few hours later, the group met up again, and we we all started heading towards our first campsite for the night.  The walk there was so breathtaking, none if it looked real.  The entire time I was walking, I was tripping over my own two feet since I kept on turning around because I couldn’t fathom how beautiful it all was.  The ridge of the Andes mountains, along with the sunset and the rising of the full moon, was unlike anything anyone had ever imagined.  By the time we reached the campsite, it was pitch black out and freezing.  All anyone wanted to do at that point was go to bed.  We still needed to divide up into tents and have dinner.  All the tents were assigned to two people in each, but most tents had three people in them so that we could stay warmer.

Day two of the Salkantay hike was fairly better than the first.  This day, we hiked out early to reach the hot springs at Santa Teresa.  When we arrived, we were all attacked by mosquitoes and more sand fleas.  I was confident enough to not use bug spray, thinking that no bugs would bother me.  Before I knew it, I had the most amount of bites…about 40-50 bites on each leg.  All of us quickly changed and hopped into the hot springs, which weren’t really that hot, and then had dinner.  After dinner, Wilder, our guide, told us some ghost stories which freaked us all out before bed.

Day three was the easiest day and was all flat terrain.  The trail went along the Peru Rail, which was the train that many people take to Aguas Calientes, that would also lead you to the bus up to Machu Picchu.  The town of Aguas Calientes is at the foot of Machu Picchu and is located along a river.  This section of the trail went between the Andes and Amazon.  It was a cool experience hiking between the two different types of terrains.  This hike lasted around about three hours.  Once we reached Aguas Calientes, we checked in to our hostel that we would be staying with for the rest of the night.  For dinner we went out to an awesome restaurant, where we all tried a drink called, Chicha Morada.  Chicha is a sweet Peruvian drink made from purple corn, pineapple, cinnamon, clove and sugar.  Chicha has definitely become my new favorite drink.

On day four, we all woke up early to get ready to catch the bus for Machu Picchu.  Unfortunately, it was raining when we had woken up, which left the rest of the day quite cloudy.  The drive up took about 30min but, once we got there, we waited in line to enter the ruins.  There was a station where we were able to stamp our passports, which I thought was quite cool.  Walking around the city was pretty crazy.  I didn’t truly appreciate the architecture of it all until I saw it for myself.  I was very impressed on the location, the buildings, the underground aqueduct system, and the farming systems.  Wilder had given us a tour of the grounds and had given us loads of information.  He let us all split up and do whatever we wanted, as long as we met up on time at a local restaurant in Aguas Calientes for late lunch.  Vanessa, Paulina and I hiked up about, what it seemed like, a million steps.  We wanted to get the best view of the city and of Wayna Picchu.  It honestly sucked for a while because there were so many clouds keeping us from taking decent photos.  About an hour of just talking, people watching and taking photos for tourists, the clouds parted.  There was a mad dash to take photos.  Luckily we did so in a spot that was not to crowded and then left.

It was one of the greatest accomplishments I have ever done, hiking to Machu Picchu.  I couldn’t have been more proud of myself.  Fighting through the cold, the thin air and bites from small sand fleas, really paid off in the end.  It was quite an enchanting and sacred place to be in.  After years of desperately wanting to go, I had finally hiked to Machu Picchu, but still wasn’t as happy as I thought I would be.  Seeing the ruins and the mountains was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, but if my family was there too, to witness one of the seven wonders of the world with me, it would’ve made that moment so much better.  A lot of times I always think to myself how lucky I am to have hiked in certain areas, to have made friends with the people I’ve met, or become a member of a family with the people I’ve only lived with for a short period of time.  I cannot be more grateful, I just wish my family from home could see the mountains that I’ve seen, met the people that I have, or even built relationships with some of the same people that I’ve met.

That night we arrived back in Cusco.  We took the bus back down from Machu Picchu, had a buffet lunch, took the train to Ollantaytambo, and then drove from there back to Cusco.  The next day, Saturday, was Halloween.  I coincidentally had a friend who was also in Cusco at the same time I was.  Luckily I was able to meet up with him, and then spend the rest of my night with him after dinner.  The whole group bought small Halloween costumes.  They ranged between devils, witches and even dressing as each other.  Halloween was a very large celebration for Peruvians.  In the plaza, there seemed to have been about 1,000 people of more just walking around, listening to music and have a good time.  By the end of the night we were all very tired and had to wake for Bolivia the next morning, and be ready to leave by 5:00am.  Some of us were more tired than others, I for one did not sleep at all.

Photographs – 10

Bittersweet

This past week was very sad for many of us. It was our last few days teaching at the schools, going to Spanish class, having Education seminars and spending time with our families.

On Tuesday night we were invited to have dinner at Paulina and Grace’s house. They live on the same side of the mountain as everyone else, but just further uphill and from the town. It was a very nice meal, especially being that we were all together. Wednesday night, Josie and Tori’s family hosted a small party at their family restaurant. We had the whole back room to ourselves. We were all surprised to see an early birthday cake for Josie as well. It was a very kind gesture, but funny too since the candle was a question mark, not knowing what age she was turning. And to continue the tradition, her head was pushed into the cake after she blew out the candles.

Thursday was our last day of Spanish class. We were all invited to learn to cook at a local chef’s home. He lived further away from most of us, but had a beautiful house. There we made tortillas, some salsa, a hot pumpkin/milk drink, boil some sweet purple potatoes and roast some corn. It all tasted very good, and afterwards all of us played frisbee in his yard. In his yard there were also two young calves and two dogs running around.

Friday was the last day of teaching, and for some it was very hard to say goodbye. Those teaching in the high schools developed a close relationship with their students because of the similarities in age. The others who taught in the primary schools also had hard times saying goodbye, but Josie, Zach and I couldn’t have found it easier to leave. All three of us have had so much difficulty in the past 4 weeks, whether is was breaking up fights, teaching unsupervised classes, helping disabled kids find their classes, or getting oppressed by a teacher. We know that we had all done our best trying to get through to the children. Many of the kids were upset to see us leave, so they attacked us with hugs.

That night there was a farewell dinner, which hosted all friends and family. This was all being held at someone’s property who hosted parties. Brooks and I started walking to the party when we turn around to see our dad in his very old, banged up, red pickup truck. It was one of the tiniest trucks I’ve ever seen, but he picked us up. When we arrived, Brooks and I both made a grand entrance, hopping out of the back and the front seat. Both of us waved hello to everyone like we were famous. We had a wonderful view of San José de Minas and were able to watch the sunset. At this event, we all received keychains, diplomas, and roses. After dinner, all of the families got up and started dancing. We all had the best time ever enjoying our last night and spending it together. After we left, most of us finished packing and went to bed early.

Saturday morning, I woke up at around 4:30-4:45am to watch the sunrise the last time I was in San José de Minas. The original plan was to go to Paulina and Grace’s house because of their view, but since Brooks couldn’t wake up, I went up to the roof and watched from there. It was very peaceful and interesting to hear all of the roosters cock-a-doodle-doing and stray dogs barking. After taking a few photos and listening to the early morning noises, I went back downstairs to finish some last minute packing. Around 7:15am, the whole family had breakfast. We took a few photos, then Brooks and I received a gift from the family. A wooden plaque with a picture and family name engraved on it. They all also asked for our home addresses and Facebook profiles so that we could keep in touch. Leaving the house to walk to the town square, I gave Maria a hug goodbye and we both started tearing up. Even though she wasn’t a family member, she sure felt like one. She fed Brooks and I all meals of the day, and have been the best meals I’ve had throughout this entire trip.

Everyone needed to meet in the town square at around 8:20am to leave with our private bus for Quito, at around 8:30am. The minute Brooks and I arrived at the town square, there were already so many families there getting ready to say goodbye. Brooks and I thought we were lucky to have said goodbye at the house. Our host parents couldn’t walk us because they needed to work. When I saw other people in the program crying and getting very emotional, it made me realize how lucky I was to have been with such an amazing family. I saw Vanessa and Annie saying goodbye to their host family and crying hysterically. I had also gotten to know their mother very well so I said goodbye to her and to their siblings. While hugging their mother, Anderson, their little brother, grabbed hold of my leg to say goodbye. Anderson is a second grader who I thought at the primary school. He and I had become very close, since we had spent our recess times together. When I looked down to give him an actual hug goodbye, he was crying. I was so heartbroken to see him so distraught and upset that we were leaving. This also made me start to cry because it showed me how much we had touched the students just by being there and spending time with them. And before I knew it, I turned around and saw Victor driving up in his old, rickety, red pickup truck. He ran out of his truck just to give Brooks and I some water bottles for the road. I bursted into tears and gave him the biggest hug ever. Though he would be quiet most times, he has been so considerate this entire trip and I couldn’t be more grateful. When we all packed up on the bus to leave, everyone was crying on the bus and no one was talking.

Around 10:30am we arrived in Quito and had the day to ourselves. Most of us went to the mall to buy some last minute things for Peru. That night we went out to dinner to Crepes & Waffles to celebrate Josie’s 19th birthday. We also created a scavenger hunt that was made up of fun facts of everyone in the group, and so she ran around guessing who those belonged to. Everyone rewarded her with gifts. Later we spent the night talking with each other on the roof.

Today, we got up this morning around 4:30am to leave for the airport. While on the bus, I saw the sun rise again for the last time in Ecuador and all I could think to myself was how unbelievable everything has been. I still pinch myself everyday to remind myself that I’m in South America. It’s all been a dream come true.

Our flights this morning were to Lima and then Cusco. Flying over the Andes Mountains was such a crazy view. When landing in the small Cusco airport, the pilot had to land quickly for some reason, perhaps based on the aerodynamics and altitude. It was quite scary, but we all arrived safely and no one lost any baggage. When walking down the staircase out of the plane, I couldn’t have felt more winded. A whole bunch of us felt so weak, let alone having to later carry my 75L backpack up a whole set of stairs in order to get to the hostel. After catching our breath, a few of us girls went out to eat lunch. Seeing Cusco was so different from San José de Minas. Here, it’s very beautiful and I can’t wait to see how our hike to Machu Picchu goes.

Photographs – 9