I am thankful that I had the opportunity to grow up never wanting for what really is an absurdly high standard for “basic amenities”. Yet I am also thankful that I’ve learned that losing electricity for an evening or not having running water at night isn’t even close to the disaster I once thought it was. I am thankful to have gained a new perspective on the capricious nature of life and an acceptance of the need for flexibility.
Despite all that has happened since, orientation was not so long ago. One goal discussed during orientation was to learn a walk so well that it’s possible to envision it in one’s head. After a month in Urubamba, we may not know every nook and cranny, but we have developed a familiarity with the town and a number of distinctive locations. In an effort to provide an insight into what our lives are like here, we have each chosen an aspect of the environment to elaborate on.
My project is the ceramic water filter production and distribution. Ernestina and I make the filters from the raw materials of sawdust clumps and clay chunks. We grind the clay and sift the sawdust into fine powders, blend them proportionally with water, and then press the mix into a form similar to a flower pot. After drying and hand shaping with butter knives, we bake them in an adobe kiln. Finally, we bathe the filters in colloidal silver for its antimicrobial properties.
Like the clouds over Cusco, sight has assumed a place of dominance in our society, and it is easy to let this sense crowd out all others, and in doing so it is easy to divorce a landscape from its history, a people from their culture. Slowly now, I am gaining an understanding of Peru that is not mere identification, complete with experiences that run deeper than the superficial realities so easily captured by a tourist’s camera.
The first month in Peru is soon coming to an end. I feel I have done a lot, but I know there is much more waiting here for me to explore. I possess many goals for the next eight months. There will be things happening as expected, but probably more will be unexpected. No matter what, I want to embrace everything on this journey—just like I’ve come to embrace hiking.
Luz Maria, 19, of Cotohuinchu, near Urubamba, Peru, is studying to be a Primary School teacher. But she also has to take care of the family. Her mother, Margarita, is blind and weak and can barely do household chores. Her grandfather is a victim of age and bad health and needs someone just to take him out of bed. Luckily she has her older sister, and her cousin has come to help, but conditions are extremely tough.
The seventh month of Urubamba marks the end of the rainy season. The mountains, refreshed from their season of rehydration, are a lush green, no doubt an expression of thanks. The rivers are louder, turbulent, coruscating through smooth boulders and waterfalls. Besides this, the town looks much the same. Mototaxis stolidly rumble their way along the narrow streets...
As we come to our half way point of our nine months on Peru, it is incredible to reflect back on all of the new experiences we’ve had during our time here. Complete strangers have quickly become our new families. We’ve fallen asleep to the sound of a thunderstorm in the Peruvian rainforest. Many of us have tried Guinea Pig.
I have a confession: I enjoy watching Combate, the reality television program that is my host sister Tatiana’s favorite show. I could be spending those two hours of every weekday doing something more cerebral, but if Tatiana’s going to be watching anyway, why not? Maybe a redeeming fact is that my favorite challenge is “Ilumínate” (“Illuminate Yourself”).
As we walked by fields of purple flowers, the warm scent of eucalyptus heavy in the air, the distant rumble of thunder sounded like a tease, as though the clouds, too, were chuckling in delight at the beauty of this afternoon. The sun shone brightly, the grey thunderheads above distant mountains, and Chad and I continued our stroll through the rural outskirts of Urubamba.
Coming into the Bridge Year experience, the concept of the homestay family was one that filled each one of us with both excitement and anxiety. Will I be able to communicate? Will I fit in? Will I ever feel truly at home? Acclimating to a new country and culture has its challenges, but becoming an adopted member of a Peruvian household, being immersed in language and life, has made all the difference.
Once a week, every Friday for the past nine months, our little group has gathered for a morning of planning, reflection, and tea. Prominently featured in these Friday sessions is the sketchbook-- a group journal where we each draw out a weekly highlight. Pictures range from crude, cave-and-charcoal style stick figures to vibrant, sprawling landscapes, but they always represent something important to us.
I stepped into the Cusco conference room to the chattering of college-agers, the distinctive ticking sound of Apple products as someone texted friends back home, and a teen cracking jokes in a sarcastic tone of voice I have rarely heard in my eight months in Peru. Minutes later, I was standing in front of this group of business students who were working on a week-long research and marketing project for the women’s artisan collective I work with, Ricchariy Warmi.
In six months in Peru, we've had incredible adventures filled with staggering views, exhausting hikes, intimidating foods and twisting ruins. Our time has been sprinkled with highs-- and yet, and the end of every trip, excursion, crazy weekend or festival, our lives slide back to daily patterns.
I work with a women’s artisan collective in a rural village called Chicón, about an hour’s walk from the small city of Urubamba. When Ricchariy Warmi, “Rise-up Woman” in the local Quechua language, began last January, several of the fifteen members did not know how to knit. One year later, thanks to the persistence of the women and some incredible volunteers who came before me, Ricchariy Warmi members produce beautiful woven goods, jewelry, and other handicrafts...
Our work here in Peru is divided in two. Half of the week we spend on "internal projects," projects that Pro Peru has already established. My internal project is water filters. As the thriving electrolyte and antibiotic markets suggest, the water in Peru is not safe to drink. This has lead to what may be viewed as comic paranoia on my part-- showers with my jaw tightly clenched.
We were first introduced to Salsa in Cusco. Our Spanish teachers decided that a little lesson would be a fun, or funny, conclusion to orientation week. Since arriving in Peru, we've been confronted by extreme poverty and met inspiring people. We've had frightening moments that launched friendships. We've seen remarkable feats of ingenuity and perseverance in others-- and gradual changes in ourselves.
There aren’t many words powerful enough to explain what this experience has meant to us. In Perú, we have found a home. We’ve found peace. We’ve found friendship. We’ve found self-reliance. We’ve found solidarity. And we will forever be in debt to the people who have become part of our lives. We hope that they too can enjoy the benefits of what they have helped us learn in Peru.
Although I heard repeatedly in high school that “failure is just a learning experience,” I couldn’t believe it when the things you fail at – tests, quizzes, projects – show concretely that you are not learning. Now that my learning comes not from sitting in a classroom, but from standing at the front of one, I’ve learned that my attitude is what makes something a learning experience, whether I fail or not.
The things that I had kept hidden, the ones I once thought were so crucial to my identity, are beginning to fall away as superfluous. With Rogelio, I am no longer the soccer player who drove her car to school, and who spent her summer swimming, boating, and golfing. I am a daughter.
As I get to know these people whom I saw as “impoverished” and exchange views with them, I change. I’ve found out that I have as much to learn from them as they do from me. Talking to them and seeing life through their eyes makes me question my own beliefs about materialism and American values.
My life here in Perú is so different from the life I led in the US; I don’t have the physical comforts or activity-packed free time that used to make me happy. Yet somehow, these past five months have been the best of my life. From seeing Rosi’s example, I’ve realized why; I’m finally dedicating more to others than I am to myself. I spend a lot of my day doing service work, and then most of the rest just sitting around with my family.
People from home often ask me how I’m doing in Perú. I respond that I can’t remember the last time I was this happy. My happiness is rooted in the friendships we are establishing; I’ve learned that you don’t need much more than other people to get you going. These close ties will be our foundation as we seek to maintain applicability, sustainability, and usefulness in our work.
Our group had come to Peru with high ambitions and dreams of helping the masses, but how could we better peoples’ lives when we struggled to get through an interview? Should we give donations to the schools asking for money, or was there a better way? These types of questions made it clear that helping others is not as easy as we had first thought; the process is slow, difficult, and often hard to navigate.
It's a typical morning in Urubamba, the rural Peruvian town where our Princeton Bridge Year group has now been living for just over a month. I wake up and walk through my house’s open courtyard into the kitchen. "Buenos dias, Raquelita!" says my dad, José, turning from the blender to give me a big smile and a customary Peruvian kiss on the cheek. He’s making jugo, which literally means juice, but is actually more of a fruit smoothie.
For our final update to the Bridge Year Program's website, each of us has contributed a brief account of an aspect of our project work that we felt moved to share. The hardest part was not finding something to write about but rather finding just one thing. So now, just days before returning home after nine months that are ending too soon, here are our brief expressions...
Looking back at December, I can remember telling myself "The next time that I am going to write the monthly update is going to be April," which seemed so far away back then. But here it is: the penultimate month of our9-month Bridge Year experience, April.
The highlight of April has definitely been the unique field experience which we all had been looking forward to since the beginning of the program.
We realized it was that time again when Anna, our on-site program director, asked us if we had checked our emails recently. She had sent us our "trimester assessments" in which we had to formally describe our experience, from homestay families, to project work, to recreational activities. Another third of our 9 month stay had come and gone and we were left with the looming feeling that May...
Six stoves needed to be built in Mahuapampa the morning of the twelfth of February, a Friday. Six families would have completed the platforms on which the cleaner-burning stoves would be built. They would have prepared batches of barro, Spanish for mud, following the perfect barro recipe-clay, water, hair (human or animal), dung, salt or sand, and hay.
January was scheduled to be one of our quietest months. With no outings to Lima, the jungle, or even a single Incan ruin to discuss, I had originally planned on resorting to small, lighthearted anecdotes to fill this update: scorpions found in bedrooms, births Brian and I attended during our project work in the local medical clinic, interviews with host families.
We are now four months into our Bridge Year and approaching the halfway point faster than any of us can believe. 2010 has begun, we have entered the second trimester of our individual service project work, and Tugce, Leah, David, Agnes, and I are alive, kicking, and ready for more. We all survived spending the holidays far from our homes completely unscathed...
Another month has come and passed, and we have now finished our third month in Urubamba. As David says, "I can't believe it's almost December, and time for our excursion to Lima. This trip seemed like the distant future back in August." When we first arrived in Peru it was as if we did not know anything. Everything was totally different to us.
As October came to a close, we took a mini-vacation to Arequipa, a city in the south of Peru. Though it was refreshing to be away from the routine of our days, especially in a city as modern and accommodating as Arequipa, it was our return back to Urubamba that revealed our true sentiments. As our collectivo (public taxi) pulled into the grifo (the one gas station in town), we all sensed that we were home.
On September 6th, we piled into the van, said a quick goodbye to Los Portales, our hotel for the past week, and set off on the mountainous drive to the Sacred Valley. While we were fond of Cusco and our accommodations at the hotel on Calle Matará, only four blocks from the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s central plaza, we were impatient to begin our lives in Urubamba and ready to completely detach from many of the modern comforts and pace of our former lives in the United States and Turkey.