Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Taking Students on an Immersion Trip to Peru! Climbing to New Heights.

I am so fortunate to work at a school that has an immersion program. Previously, I have taken students to Quebec, Greece, and Ireland. This year, my department chair, Carlton and I took a group of 11 students to Peru. Carlton and I spent a good amount of time Skyping with Dustin from Rustic Pathways months before to create the perfect Peru immersion. When I bring students on immersions, my goal is to incorporate adventure for students and that are "once in a lifetime" events. Carlton's goal is to incorporate community service. Dustin helped us create a terrific combination of both that definitely did not disappoint. My son had done several Rustic Pathway trips, including Peru, so I knew we were in good hands.

The day after graduation, we all boarded a non-stop flight from Fort Lauderdale to Lima, Peru. Non-stop was definitely the way to go, and it was only about a six or seven-hour trip. The only surprise was that we did not get meal service on Jet Blue during this lengthy evening trip, so we had to purchase our own meals, which consisted of a decent turkey sandwich. Carlton and I discovered that we are similar in that we always like to "feel full" when we travel - so we were constantly eating. We were abundant with snacks and great kids in tow: six upcoming seniors and five upcoming juniors...interesting dynamics for sure, especially since this included 10 girls and only one boy!

I should mention that we like to meet the kids out before we leave for immersion. We met them for lunch at a Warike, a Peruvian restaurant in Boca about a month before leaving. It was a great way to get to know the kids and to begin to think about the culture we were about to dive into. Of the 11 students, I taught five of them previously and did not know the other six yet at all. What started off with awkward conversations in a restaurant in Boca soon became close-knit group discussions by the end of the trip. It was fun to see it unfold.

Days 1 and 2

We landed in Lima and were greeted by our Rustic Pathways leader for the week, Sofia. We were surprised to find out that she was from Boca, too! She made us feel right at home. She was funny, fully animated, and always excited. We loved her jokes and found her "resting concern face" endearing. We boarded the bus quite easily and made our way to a vegan restaurant for dinner. We stayed overnight in Lima, had breakfast at the hotel the next morning, and headed to the airport for a quick flight to Cusco in the morning.

This day was a bit of a blur. Flying again and adjusting to the altitude really took on the bulk of the day, and I don't remember much! But we did walk around Cusco City and checked into our hotel for the night, which would be the only hotel we would stay in for more than one day in a row (three days.) We also met our other trip leader, a Peruvian named Raul who worked with National Geographic in the past. He was a HUGE wealth of knowledge! Between him and Sofia, we immediately felt at ease and knew we were in excellent hands for the entirety of this trip. Most importantly, we needed to: 1) Drink copious amounts of the water that Rustic Pathways always had on-hand for us, and 2) Not pet any of the dogs or other animals that were so cute and were always following us around (this was hard!) 3) Realize that Carlton was now forever known as Carlos.
Gorgeous views landing in Cusco

An alpaca and a woman in Sacsaywaman 


The Sacred Valley

Famous Inca wall in the narrow alley of Loreto, Cusco

Another vegan meal - nothing too heavy so we could adjust to the altitude.

Back at the hotel in Calca, Sofia got the group together and did some get-to-know-you activities. She also promised to tell each of us what our individual "personality pasta" was by the end of the trip. We went to bed early to get ready for a full day of community service the next day.
The view of Calca out of the window of the hotel

Days 3 - 5

We had breakfast at the hotel, which usually consisted of amazing bread, eggs, and coffee. The coffee was served cold, and you were supposed to pour hot water in it to heat it up and to make it very watered down. It took a lot of broken Spanish on my part and broken English on the owner's part, but I got full-blast delicious coffee without the hot water - I just had to heat it in the microwave. I think the owner was floored that I would dare to drink my coffee this way - so strong and so delicious!
The traditional and amazing bread had with butter and jam or eggs and avocado along with fresh pineapple or papaya juice.

We had no idea what our community service activity would be. We wondered if it would be painting, building guinea pig (cuy) hutches...what could it be? All we knew was that we would be working to beautify a girls' dorm for girls who otherwise would have had to walk maybe 5+ hours a day to be able to attend school. These girls spoke the native language of Quechan but also were learning Spanish and English in addition to all of their other studies!

We walked to the school from our hotel and were given our task: to dig a garden on the side of the school. At our site were a number of shovels, pickaxes, a wheelbarrow, a big filter to filter out large rocks from dirt that was to be scooped, and lots of buckets. We slathered on our sunscreen, donned our hats, chose our gloves, and went to work. 

This work was not for the weary. After about 30 minutes, I truthfully could not believe we signed up for this! While several students were working very hard, a few felt the same way as me - this was difficult manual labor...and we had 3 full days ahead of us! The work entailed pickaxing at dirt and rocks and then scooping the dirt to be thrown through the filter. The large rocks that didn't make it to the filter were then shoveled into a wheelbarrow and taken to be dumped in the front. 

The filtered dirt had to go to the back of the house through a very narrow corner that we had to cross individually and very carefully. Then we made an assembly line to get the buckets of dirt from the soon-to-be garden out to the back of the house, where we learned how to make mud bricks! 

Everything was used from the filtered to the non-filtered dirt - nothing went to waste...except all of the dirt that was in our socks, eyes, and in some funny cases, even on our teeth! Students and Carlton volunteered to stomp in the mud combined with hay to mix it...I heard it was very cold and wasn't the most comfortable of things to do! 
Assembly line

We made 300 mud bricks in total!
The first day was definitely the hardest. I had dirt so ground into my toes that when I got a pedicure a whole week later, there was still dirt to be found!! This was also because many of our showers were FREEZING so we couldn't stay in them too long! But it all added to the experience. Daily, we were rewarded with homemade lunches and dinners made with love from cooks through Rustic Pathways. We loved the soup and cheese on bread, and could not believe that there was another course after that! We heartily ate whatever they made. A favorite was a chicken stirfry with potatoes. We learned that Peru has over 4000 potato varieties! We ate potatoes every meal and in every way. Everything was delicious and they even made vegetarian food for our one vegetarian student. We stopped a lot for breaks that included local cookies and hot chocolate!

Our biggest reward was meeting the girls, who were at school while we worked. We had dinners with them each night. After dinner, they braided our hair. They giggled and loved when we called their friends by the name of the boy they thought their friends liked. We played a game called "pasa la voz," which was kind of like the game Telephone, but with gestures like touching the person's head next to you and passing it on. This had us laughing very hard! The language barrier was at times difficult, but I was impressed with how well our non-native speaking students did to translate. Kudos to our Spanish department! 

On our walk home from the school at night, the stars were so bright. We marveled at our view of the Southern Cross!
The Southern Cross

While we did work hard for three days, we took a trip one morning to go to a local museum to learn a lot about the Incas and the people before with the brilliant Raul as our guide!
A picture from the local museum

Here is more information about the girls' dorm and the Sacred Valley Project. Please watch! It's amazing where these girls come from and what this project provides for them. 
Feeling very productive after three hard days of work!

¡Adios, amigas! 

We had a great meeting led by Sofia on the last night of our community service in a common area at the hotel. We found that what started out to be probably the hardest work we had ever done ended up to be the most rewarding. Funny how that works! Carlton and I were profoundly touched by how hard the kids worked and how readily they played with the girls. We did find that the students were really worried about the upcoming hike the next day. I told them the story of my best friend Debbie, who died of ALS in 2018, and how we needed to do this hike for someone who can't. Carlton spoke about how he was touched by the students' teamwork. It really was a moving meeting for us both.

We were also surprised that we could move the next morning - this was the most taxing thing I had ever done in my life...SO FAR...

Day 6

After our three days of service, we were ready to see Peru. It was smart to do the community service first - we got a taste of the realities of the girls' lives and also had our hearts and souls full. So we left our beautiful hotel and headed to the cute town of Ollantaytambo to hike to some Incan ruins.

I need to really point out here that when Carlton and I agreed to Dustin's suggestions in planning for the trip, we really had no idea what it entailed...which was good....all I really heard was blah blah blah Machu Picchu blah blah blah. I had no idea that we would be taking on such a tolling hike after three hard days of work. I'm not sure I would have agreed! Having said that, I am SO glad I did! We trusted Dustin's team to create the absolute best itinerary, and I am so thankful to him!

The hike was beautiful, but we found ourselves wondering when we would get to our destination. We hiked a lot and rested a lot, but couldn't see the ruins despite walking for what seemed like a few hours. Along the way, we were accompanied by a local who would do a tribute to Pachamama, a goddess of the Andes, once we reached our destination. Everywhere we hiked, we seemed to have dogs around us that easily navigated the rough terrain...which was more than could be said for me, as I fell on the way down! The rocks were very slippery to navigate; some students intentionally slid down on their bottoms ("No shame in that!" Sofia would call out!) 
The terrain was not easy to climb up - and harder to climb down!


We made it!

Spectacular views!

Perfect spot for a nap.

Pachamama Offering
The actual offering

A beautiful waterfall underneath the ruins

Meeting some travelers on our way down

Families gathering corn
The ruins we walked to

That night, we walked in Ollantaytambo to an amazing restaurant where we ate a TON of food family style. There were so many courses! One of the things we tried was alpaca! It tasted like very good steak! 
So not to be left out, the girls did his hair, too!

tres leches

The next day, we also did a little touring of Ollantaytambo, which included visiting an adorable shop with even more adorable animals!


We went back to our very cute hotel early, which was nice because I was able to read my book Overstory by Richard Powers. It's a very long but interesting book, and I'm still not done with it! I do recommend it if you have the time to put into reading it. I appreciated our rests after very hard  (and fun!) days of exercise and altitude!

Our hotel

View from the rooftop of the hotel

Day 7

The next morning, we boarded a train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. This was a very enjoyable, relaxing, and picturesque train ride. Kids completed some summer homework, played Uno, listened to music on shared airpods, and just enjoyed doing nothing for a few hours. When we got to Aguas Calientes, we did a little shopping in a great shopping area right outside of the train station, ate more delicious food, and went to bed early to get ready for our Machu Picchu hike in the morning.
on the train

Day 8

We did not do the early early hike, though we were woken up by several travelers who were out the door at 4am. A few students opted to take the bus up to the top of Machu Picchu, but most did the hour and 45-minute hike. We asked Raul, who does this trek about 110 times a year, how long it would take him without all of the breaks we took, and he said 45 minutes! It was a truly glorious climb. Once again, we were accompanied by a dog which we either nicknamed Scrappy or Scruffy - I can't remember, but he stayed with us for the entire hike. The views were spectacular. If you can climb it, I definitely recommend doing so. It was such a sweet reward to get to the top! This was much easier than the hike from yesterday as there were steps for us to take - albeit A LOT of steps! But everyone who did it felt such a feeling of accomplishment!

We made it!

Our fearless leaders Sofia and Raul!

A lovely lunch break after the hike up
Delicious boxed lunches!


The Southern Cross rock!

A sweet reward after a long day!

Day 9

If this wasn't enough, the next day we had another exciting adventure ahead: Via Ferrata! I had absolutely no idea what this was until we got there! I thought we were just hiking another mountain...boy was I wrong! Via Ferrata stands for Italian path, and there are only a few in the world. First, we got into climbing gear and learned how safety rules. Once we got our training, we headed out by stepping on iron bars and climbing up, transferring two carabiners every few steps to the next wire ahead. Of all of the things we did, I think this was one of the most significant in adventure and rewardIt was hard, the air was thin, and we were hundreds of feet in the air. Our safety depended on our closing our carabiners properly. I always felt safe, but truly most impressive was our 10 students who climbed without complaint. They may have been scared, but they didn't show it. They saw the person above them climbing, and they saw their teachers below them climbing. They really couldn't stop once they started, and thankfully no one wanted to (we did discover a student had a strong fear of heights on our first hike, and she opted to not join us for Via Ferrata.) The reward? Zip lining all the way down (6 zip lines - one tandem) after the climb!

After this absolutely amazing day, we headed back to Cusco and stopped at a weaving place where students were taught about the Peruvian art of weaving, tasted cuy, and did some shopping. 

That night, Sofia had us gather as a group again in the common room of the hotel and reflect on our trip. She asked us to each talk about "a rose, a bud, and a thorn" or, in other words, what was a highlight of the trip, something that you want to take with you and something that did not go so well. It was a really meaningful conversation for all that once again brought us all together. Many were so proud of themselves for coming so far with the climb that day.

Day 10

Our final day in Peru, we were surprised with a visit to a chocolate factory! WHAT FUN! We got our hands dirty again, but this time in edible "dirt!" We loved it and were able to make and take a lot of goodies home for our family. The chocolate was delicious! I was impressed with Carlton's and my chocolate making skills as we used a pestle and mortar to win a contest...we probably should have let the kids win, but not when chocolate prizes are involved!

We had one final lunch together before heading to the Cusco airport for our flight to Lima. 

Back at the hotel, after we situated our luggage, Sofia asked us all to sit again. As is the tradition with Rustic Pathways, she gave each of us a woven bracelet and asked the person on our left to put it on the person on the right. The person putting on the bracelet would then say something nice about the person on the right, and then all were invited to chime in to say something special about that person. My favorite was when a student called me a "mom," but then another said, "No, you're more like the favorite aunt." I liked that sentiment! We all came away feeling lifted by one another. 

On the bus ride to the airport, as promised, we all got our personality pasta from Sofia. I wish I could remember mine?? Maybe lasagna because it was warm and comfy? Haha, I can't remember. But our "gnocchi master" Sofia came through :) When we got to the airport, we said a very sad goodbye to Raul. 

It was great that Sofia flew back to Lima with us, so we all had our bearings. She even came into the terminal with us and we had our last meal together of Papa John's pizza. (There is a Papa John dance that goes with this, but only a few have seen it.) Students were very sad to say goodbye to Sofia, as you can tell from the photo. But we are hoping to do a Peruvian cooking class in Boca once she comes back to the States!

Our flight from Lima to Fort Lauderdale left at 11pm, which was a perfect red eye. We slept on the plane and arrived at about 6am the next morning, tired but filled to the brim in our hearts, immersed in the culture of this beautiful country and its people. We came home to our families telling amazing stories and sharing moments that we will all remember for a lifetime. 

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