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Crested Butte Community School students learned life lessons in Peru

Combined travel, culture and service 

By Katherine Nettles

While in Peru over fall break, 29 high school students and five teachers from Crested Butte Community School (CBCS) took an action-packed trip through Lima, Cusco, the ancient city of Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, and Huilloc on a culture/service exploration of the country.

This was the first trip to Peru for CBCS, which takes an annual high school student fall break trip abroad and rotates each year between the United Kingdom, Spain, and now has added the South American country as well. The school uses Education First, a company that manages group tours, for each of their trips.

The local group started off in Lima, where they spent a day sightseeing before catching another flight to the small city of Cusco in the mountainous Sacred Valley region. From there, they went to Aguas Callientes for a night, visited Machu Picchu, and hiked the area around it to take in more of the Incan ruins.

The service part of the trip took place outside of Ollantaytambo in a remote village called Huilloc. Julia Kidd and Jennifer Read organized the trip, and chaperoned along with three others. Education First steered the group to an organization called Awamaki, which works with rural Peruvian women to become more financially independent (awamaki.org), to identify a project.

Kidd and Read both felt that the students benefitted greatly from the experience and rose to the occasion of hard work and a busy itinerary. The students worked alongside locals to help build a weaving center that will be used for local women to earn income and establish financial independence.

The weaving center had been in the building process for more than a year, but with very simple tools and only manual labor available, it has progressed slowly by western standards. The students helped to level the ground in the area by tilling with pick axes and shovels. They also shoveled gravel, hauled rocks, and stacked mud bricks.

Two seniors on the trip, Luke Collins and Charlotte Chandler, described the impact of working in service with fellow classmates and of practicing their five-plus years of Spanish education throughout their travels.

Collins had participated in a service trip once before, traveling to Denver with his church group in sixth grade to visit Children’s Hospital and a homeless shelter. He had not travelled abroad.

Chandler had not done a service project before but had travelled extensively to foreign countries, including Central America. Each appreciated the opportunity to experience more rural settings and intensive Spanish speaking than they had before.

Collins recalled his amazement at watching one of the local men use a sledgehammer on some large rocks, without any safety goggles, bracing against it with his leg and wearing only sandals. “They are still using the same building techniques as their ancestors. They layer hay, then mud, and then they wait for the rain to come and settle it before adding more layers,” he said.

Collins said he enjoyed seeing the Aguas Callientes area, finding a turf soccer field where “some of us passed the ball around with local kids,” and walking through the streets of Lima, seeing all the vendors on the streets, and imagining it could be New York City but instead hearing Spanish all around him.

Chandler enjoyed the colorful roofs and beautiful views in Cusco, as well as the differences between the big city feel of Lima and the rural scenes and farmland throughout the Sacred Valley.

Both students spoke about how they learned more about Peruvian culture, even being invited into some of the weavers’ homes and seeing how they lived. Collins described the mud floors, covered in hay with guinea pigs which they raise for food. Chandler described the religious Pachamama idols on the walls, and real skeletons they keep from their ancestors.

Both said they learned from their guide that younger generations of Peruvians are embracing more of their Incan heritage, in part due to the tourism industry showing them that their culture and history is valued by the outside world and not something by which to be embarrassed.

Kidd reflected the difference between her previous trip with students to the UK, where the European culture and language barriers were not as much of a contrast for students as going to a less developed, Spanish speaking culture and adding the service work element.

“I don’t think I truly realized how different of a trip this would be,” she said. “We saw a lot of different parts of Peru. From the city of Lima to the rural, undeveloped areas.”

Kidd noted that there was some cultural adjustment for the students as they experienced the different area, and that the service aspect was an impactful learning experience for them.

The town of Huilloc sits at an elevation of around 11,000 feet, which tested even the mountain kids of Crested Butte. The extent of the equipment was a shovel, some buckets, and a pick ax, she said. The students took turns pick axing the ground and then breaking into shoveling teams to transport the dirt away from the hill. The machines many people take for granted, or even the wheelbarrows on site, which may have been damaged by previous students, were not available here.

Battling cold, wet weather and mosquito bites, the kids also brought enthusiasm to the work and had to adjust once the effects of it all added up.

“They were all fired up to be around each other. Then the speed and pace they were working at was incredible,” said Kidd. But toward the end of the second day, as it got colder and muddier, fatigue was setting in for many. Kidd said the character-building moments hit home.

“You have to pace yourself a little bit,” she said. “Kids were learning to be uncomfortable, and the group can’t stop for you.”

Some of the group’s members caught ill with fevers and colds, including Kidd. But all persevered. They accomplished more than the locals had expected by far, said Kidd, and she felt incredibly proud of the students’ dedication.

The students shared two meals prepared by the women, watched a weaving demonstration, and had the opportunity to purchase handmade textiles on their last day. They also played with some of the women’s young children.

“Touring sites in Peru and visiting Machu Picchu of course was incredible, but volunteering in Huilloc was the most meaningful part of our tour for many of the students,” said Read.

“For me as a teacher, it makes me proud of the way we are raising our kids in Crested Butte to go see places, broaden our perspectives. We are far away, and we lack diversity at home. But these kids are ready for the world. It shows how open minded, and ready for hard situations they are. Even the kids who haven’t travelled a lot. That’s the beauty of these trips,” said Kidd.

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