Reverse culture shock. That’s what I feel as I sit here typing up this article, sitting outside on this beautiful fall day with an Americano in my hand, listening to all the sounds that fill up our everyday lives; the vehicles roaring down mainstreet, a motorcycle gunning their engine, the constant drone of conversation all around me…It’s a beautiful, modern world we get to live in.
But on July 31st, myself and 9 other youth from Edmonton discovered a very different world. A world that is centred around people depending on each other, thriving because they know they can count on their neighbours in times of trouble. A community that is learning how to become self sufficient because they know they cannot count on their government, or anyone else but themselves for protection, comfort, and support.
On the evening of July 31st, after our van broke down at 3500m and we had to hike with our luggage in the pitch black, we arrived in the beautiful community of Yurac Yacu, in the Cordillera Blanca. Prior to this, we spent 3 excitement-filled days in Lima, walking around the city which is the most similiar to Edmonton, with its large buildings and industrial set-up. We took a (extremely touristy, but very informative) bus tour of downtown and the catacombs, participated in a chocolate making workshop at a chocolate museum where they deal in only fair trade and organic product, and spent endless amounts of time browsing and shopping through the local fruit and artisan markets, marvelling at the gorgeous alpaca sweaters, hats and scarves and trying our best to communicate with the mostly Spanish-speaking artisans.
From there, we spent 8 hours driving on curving, narrow, teeth-shattering roads, in a bus where if you have to use the washroom, you need to ask the driver to pull over to the side of the road. Obviously it was a big dilemma for us whether to drink water and hopefully alleviate any symptoms of altitude sickness, or to refrain and avoiding the pain of a full bladder for endless hours. The struggle was real. We survived though, many by popping probably double the prescribed dosage of gravol, but we finally made it to Huaraz, where we spent the next two days exploring the much smaller city, enjoying breakfasts and great coffee at the quaint and beautiful Cafe Andino and taking day trips to different ruins nearby.
During these days that we spent being tourists, we had some very memorable moments, including the time Johnny ordered a “Peruvian coffee” without the knowledge of the adults, and was horrified to discover it contained Pisco, a strong Peruvian booze, and insisted he was drunk after only one sip. Or the time Mahad went on a wild hat rampage and bought at least 6 hats from various vendors. And of course when Paul tried to say “my friend” to our chatty tour guide, but instead used the words “my love,” earning him a few weird looks and a good laugh. Our experiences helped draw the whole group closer together, and by the time we arrived in Yurac Yacu, our main destination, and location for our project, we were a tight-knit, (but open-minded) little family.
We spent a little over a week in the community of Yurac Yacu, graciously hosted by Wayne and Diana at the luxurious Lazy Dog Inn, a beautiful eco-friendly lodge, which, within it’s gates, pretty much houses its own little world while being surrounded by the rest of such an impoverished community. Three of the days here were spent dedicated solely to our stove-building project, which involved full days of work at four separate houses in the community, constructing adobe stoves (and in some cases, new roofs, new electrical and several other “extra” jobs) out of whatever tools (or pieces of tools), and equipment these families owned. For example, in my case, I spent 45 minutes one day sawing rebar with the handless blade of a dull hacksaw, and another cutting a hole in the thick tin roof with a pair of kids kindergarten safety scissors. The Peruvian’s definitely laughed at me as I struggled with that last one-talk about uses for everyday things we would never dream of using them for.
We spent these days at our assigned houses learning how to work together with an unfamiliar group of people, with a language barrier which sometimes accounted for comical moments of misinterpretation was we attempted to translate things into and from three very different languages. It is so satisfying to see that the native language of Quechua is still so prevalent in this community, even if all we ever learned to say was that we were “extremely full” and could not eat anymore.
During our work days, the families of the houses where the construction was taking place would cook all morning, to provide us with a sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate lunch-time meal, served to us as if we were the guests of honour as per (unsettling) tradition where they do not eat until we have eaten, and even then, eat squatting outside while we are served at a cloth-covered table. We ate a range of dishes, from chicken and noodles to a great assortment of soups, potatoes cooked in every way imaginable, and were also lucky enough to be able to try Cuy, a peruvian specialty, which is quite literally, Guinea Pig. It tastes sort of like chicken.
After the construction days were finished, resulting in four beautiful new stoves and many exchanged hugs, thankyous and new freinds, we got to spend a few days exploring the gorgeous countryside around Yurac Yacu. One of the most satisfying achievements of the group was a day hike we did to Lago LLaca (lake LLaca), in Huascaran National Park. At such a high altitude, the hike stretched many of our group’s physical and mental abilities, but was so rewarding when we reached the top at around 4700m, with the view of a glacier and snow covered mountains all around. A few of us that needed an extra adrenaline rush stripped down to our underwear and took a dip in the “refreshing” glacial lake, much to the amusement and feelings of horror from everyone else.
Besides over-exerting ourselves at ridiculously high altitudes, which we did all day everyday, we spent our time bouldering, writing in our journals, playing many games of hearts, and building relationships with the Peruvians which I am so happy to say are continuing to last since we have returned to Canada and our lives here. On our last day in the community, a few of us hiked down to a big field to participate in a much awaited soccer game with a bunch of boys and men from the community that we had yet to meet. As pathetic as we were, out of breath after running half the length of the field while the Peruvians danced around as if they were at sea level, it is one of my favourite memories just watching the friendly competitiveness bring everyone together, and them yelling “muy bien!” over and over as we repeatedly had to stop and catch our breath, or when there was an especially good play.
Once we were all good and sweaty, we hiked back up to the community centre for a Pachamunca, a gathering of the community where pounds and pounds of potatoes and other vegetables are cooked in an “earth oven” and then served up for everyone to eat with their fingers. It was the coolest feeling walking up the hill with everyone, watching people from all over the community making their way there, by foot, motorbike, donkey or battered car. It was a beautiful way to end the trip, with so many people from the community all coming together to share a meal together, kids running around wildly and parents and families sitting scattered across the grass, the beautiful colors of Peru making the space look like a bright patchwork quilt, but constantly changing and morphing as people mingled and moved through the groups of friends.
There was a mixture of feelings as we got into the vans to make the long trip back to Lima, some homesickness and excitement, but many tears and painful goodbyes as we left the people we become so close with in such a short amount of time. The connection between some was so strong and real that having to let go of that hug, and looking into their eyes saying goodbye, not knowing when or if you would see each other again still gives me chills when I think about it.
It was a quiet bus trip back down the winding roads, with a short lunch stop at a beachfront seafood restaurant, where afterwards we all jumped giddily in the ocean, laughing as we got pulled in by the huge waves and running like wild horses down the sand. We arrived at the Lima airport around 7 PM, knowing we had over six hours to kill before our flight, only to discover it was delayed by another 3 hours, which meant missing our connecting flight in Toronto, and basically left us with no idea how or when we were going to get home. We played the waiting game, using our food vouchers at 2 AM for crappy airport coffee and overly-sugary donuts, playing leapfrog on the moving sidewalks and getting to know a bunch of other sleep-deprived travellers who were in the same boat as us.
After being separated onto more than 6 different planes, and over 32 hours of travel later, we finally arrived in Edmonton, tired, but incredibly satisfied, and, at least in my case, with the bug for travel even more engrained in me, as well as a burning desire for Costco french fries and real maple syrup.