This article originally appeared in The Saga Online.
On Friday March 13, instead of spending the day sitting in a classroom waiting for someone to tell me when I could get up and leave, I did something radically different: I sat on an airplane waiting for someone to tell me when I could get up and leave. I was with six other International Baccalaureate students and our English teacher, Ms. Besnard, on our way to Lima, Peru, where we would spend the week committing our time to service projects and cultural exploration.
It took planes, trains, automobiles and over 24 hours for us to travel from Chico to Lima and our arrival in Lima at 6 AM the day after we left home brought with it a wave of culture shock. I had already been to a third world, Latin American country, but even with that experience under my belt, immersing myself in the bustle and humidity of Lima was slightly overwhelming. As we drove through the city, I watched as bilingual graffiti, stray dogs and foreign advertisements flicked past the van window. I didn’t have much time to revel in the awe of a foreign country for long, however; less than three hours after we landed in the country we were on our way to our first service project.
We were driven to the slums of Lima, one of the biggest shantytown communities in the entire world, where we worked to clear an area for a daycare building. This, we learned, was vital work for the community, because without a place for the kids to go while their parents are at work, these young children spend their time in the streets. This was sweaty, backbreaking work in the slippery sand, but interacting with the kids and families in the community afterward made it so worth it. We were able to walk around their community and give the children donation of snacks, books and toys; we made house calls to deliver packages of food for the adults of the families, who graciously invited us into their homes. They were proud to show us the kitchen they made themselves, or the T-shirt press with which they make their living.
This experience was both heartwarming and heart-wrenching. It was overwhelming and gratifying to see our reception in the community and thankfully it was much easier than I expected to slip into the Spanish language with the locals; it finally felt like my four years of Spanish study were paying off.
The next day, after only one day in Lima, the group flew to Cusco, a smaller mountain city known for its ancient architecture and train rails to Machu Picchu. We didn’t visit the ancient runes at first though; first, we visited a small secondary school in a village 40 minutes outside of Cusco. We did several days worth of service work at this school and it was amazing to see the differences and more importantly, the similarities in a school so far away from my own.
In between manual labor projects, we were allowed to tour the school and interact with the students. In addition to being excellent Spanish practice, talking with the students was a lesson in humanity; what struck me the most was how similar they were to my peers in Chico, despite the fact that they lived a world away, in very different circumstances. Realizing this made me feel so lucky to have been born into a life that granted me access to running water and free education.
In between our service days, our group was also able to enjoy the historically rich culture of Peru, specifically the breathtaking ancient ruins of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Walking around the miraculous agricultural steppes and seeing the mathematically perfect stone architecture of a people long gone is an experience like no other. I could feel the history of those places in a way I don’t have words to describe.
All too soon our week of adventure came to an end. One short week was enough to provide a cultural experience that would shape me for the rest of my life. My worldview has matured and I can come away from this experience with more global perspectives. After another 24 hours of international travel, I can cross a lot of firsts off my list: first time crossing the equator, first time tasting guinea pig and beef heart, first time walking through a Peruvian shantytown or school. I have two new stamps on my passport. As I retreated back into my world full of familiar sights and sounds, however, I couldn’t help but miss the beautiful vistas of the Andes Mountains.