As the plane landed in Lima, Peru, I thought I knew what to expect. I wanted to improve my Spanish and help a community in need. I thought I was doing a good deed by devoting a month of my summer to helping a town struck with poverty.
What I didn’t expect was that I would gain so much more than I would give. I would learn the value of community and the simple satisfaction of hard work.
Urubamba was my home for the month of July. It is a small town located in the Andes mountains, about an hour and a half drive from Cuzco. There are no tourists in Urubamba, just the poor local Peruvians making the best of what they have.
I was part of a group of 25 high school students on a program called Visions Service Adventures. We lived together in a modest, old house in the heart of town.
As soon as we all arrived at the house, the leaders of the group took our cell phones. I did not see my phone again for the remainder of the trip. Accustomed to relying on technology, I expected to be negatively effected by this change. What I didn’t realize was that the lack of technology brought me closer to the people who were with me. Instead of looking down at my phone, I looked at the beautiful mountains surrounding me from all sides.
Five days a week, we went out in the blazing sun to build an outdoor eating area and an outdoor bathroom for two separate schools. The work was exhausting. Monday through Friday we mixed cement, made adobe, peeled trees with machetes and hammers, we carried, stacked and laid bricks. We did work that I never even imagined doing.
The Peruvian men who worked with us were three times my age or older and had been doing this type of work all their lives. They kept the mood light by joking with us in Spanish or making fun of our inability to carry the heavier things in Quechua, the language of the Incas.
Every day, we would break at 12:30 p.m., sit in the shade and eat the lunch we had made the day prior. One day, there were three boys about seven years old hanging around the work site watching us eat. They looked hungry and hadn’t showered in weeks but they didn’t say a word. They just sat quietly and watched.
After lunch, we wanted to give our left over food to the boys but there was only enough for one. Apologizing for not having more, we gave the bowl of rice, beans and bread to one of the boys. To my astonishment, he took three spoonfuls of food and then passed the plate to his friend. His friend did the same and passed it to the other boy. There was no discussion, no asking for food. They instinctively shared the little food they had.
The last week we were there, we inaugurated the eating area we had built for the school. It began with us singing the Star Spangled Banner. Then, the kids sang the Peruvian national anthem. The principal of the school gave a speech thanking us for our time and work.
Following the ceremony, we laid out a big lunch on the tables we had made and we sat on the benches we had built and painted. The feeling of satisfaction and seeing the tangible result of our hard work surprised me. Sitting there, under the Ramada I helped to build, sharing a meal with new friends, I realized that I had received so much more from the Peruvians than they had from me.