I usually don't travel alone, but during the lull that typically follows the holidays, I decided I needed to go on an adventure by myself. Surfing the Internet, I came across Globe Aware, an organization that combines volunteerism with excursions and other cultural experiences. Two months later, I was off to Peru.
Arriving in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, I was joined by a motivational speaker, a writer, a video production VP, and two high school students. Our coordinator, Fiorella, was a local college student who became our guide, translator and friend. Looking back, it isn't difficult to understand how seven strangers could bond so quickly. We all had at least three things in common: the destination, a sense of adventure, and the desire to help.
We were there to help the children of the rural communities around Cuzco, who can't afford to go to school. CEARAS Kallpanchis, the brainchild of Carlota Cruz, provides about 30 children ages 7 to 16 with housing, meals, medical care, recreation and education. They head home each Saturday before dawn, often traveling for hours on the sluggish and antiquated public bus.
On Sunday, they returned and greeted us. We were the latest in a series of gringo volunteers, which made us the object of side glances and whispers and a few practical jokes. It didn't take long for their wariness to dissipate, though, and by bedtime we were becoming friends.
On average, we worked about five hours a day - much less than we expected. The projects ranged from arts and crafts to renovating schoolrooms and building a mud stove. Our schedule was unhurried, and we had plenty of time to teach, talk to and play with the children and immerse ourselves in all things Peruvian.
We stayed in San Sebastian, just outside of Cuzco. The ramshackle neighborhood was crowded, but the people were steadfast, warm and welcoming. Our work took us to the Sacred Valley, with its gorgeous views of the Andes, and to the market in Pisac. On our day off, we toured the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu, which were spectacular. Peru is as stunningly beautiful as it is poor.
Life was good to all of us that week, and we had many unforgettable moments. For me, one occurred our first Sunday evening in San Sebastian. At dusk, several students approached each volunteer and ushered us through the dark streets to the town square and into the Cathedral de San Sebastian for evening Mass. Five volunteers and six children squeezed into a pew that comfortably sat eight adults.
Most of the volunteers spoke little if any Spanish, but the children did their best to guide us through the Catholic rituals. The church was beautiful and surprisingly majestic, but the magic was in the moment that I sat in the crowded pew, in the old church, in a small town in the Andes, side by side with my new friends.