Leaving a positive impact on a community is by far, one of my favourite things to do. I’ve fundraised and volunteered in my own community for many years and have always gained a great deal of satisfaction and perspective from it.
One of my other favourite things to do, is to travel…and not just the regular kind, but to travel with purpose. Meaningful travel, where you get your hands dirty. I’ve completed a few fundraising treks in recent times (The Great Wall of China and Kokoda) and has challenging as they have been, both physically and emotionally, the positive impact (funds raised) has always come back to my local community.
My most recent fundraising trek to South America was a little different. This time I not only had the opportunity to raise money for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service here in NSW as part of the trek, but I also had the opportunity to actually make a difference in another country. It was one of the most rewarding travel experiences I’ve ever had.
The trek itself consisted of some time in both Lima and Cusco, 4 days on the Inca Trail including Machu Picchu and 3 days in a small peasant community in the foothills of the Andes, called Misminay, about 100km outside of Cusco. It’s about 3700m above sea level with the most spectacular view of the mountains surrounding the Sacred Valley.
My two trekking buddies, Ian and Anne and I took the bus from Cusco on the morning of Thursday 15th October, through the familiar outskirts of the city and it wasn’t long before we were passing through the small farming communities scattered amongst the hot, dry landscape of Chinchero. It took us a couple of hours to reach Misminay. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we hadn’t received much information on the community itself. We eventually
arrived at a timber archway constructed across the road leading into a village. It had the words Misminay written on a sign at the top. There were a couple of people near the archway, who were calling out to others as we got out of the bus. They were all in traditional dress, wearing beautiful big smiles. My heart melted. What a wonderful sight.
If that wasn’t enough, they began to line up on the edges of the road and one of the men brought out a fiddle and began to play. The women began to sing… I began to cry! I was so overwhelmed at that moment, it was almost surreal to be standing there. They motioned for us to follow them, so we did. We walked into the village with much pomp and ceremony. I felt as though I had been transported back in time. I’ll never forget that feeling. Ever. I was deeply moved.
We arrive at our accommodation for the next three days. I am amazed at how beautiful the countryside is.
The first thing I notice is those magnificent mountains.. the majestic Andes, right there in front of us in all their ever-changing glory. I was yet to realise, the impact these mountains would ultimately have on me…
We dropped our packs in our room, which was absolutely gorgeous by the way. The three of us would be sharing the accommodation for the duration.
Ian decided he would take the bed at the end of the room, leaving Anne and I to share the other end. Fair enough I thought. I’ve heard Ian snore. We did Kokoda together and those single man tents were not sound proof!
After settling our belongings in the room, we were invited downstairs for a tour of the property.
Flora, our host showed us through the dining room, kitchen and the little greenhouse where they grow lots of vegetables. It’s an amazing setup, enabling the family to host regular visitors throughout the year, giving them an income. A wonderful initiative created and run by Condor Travel.
After our tour, the women of the village invited us to help them prepare lunch,
using fresh ingredients and grinding a kind of pesto with a mortar and pestle (of sorts). We each had a turn of preparing the grains, vegetables and herbs and grinding them into a smooth pesto. It was hard
work, but a lot of fun! The men were in the kitchen preparing all sorts of other local delicacies while we took part in our hands on cooking class. Once we had finished, we all sat down to a hearty lunch of potatoes with our pesto, quinoa soup, chicken and vegetables and coca tea.
The rest of the afternoon was ours to explore or sleep. We did have a little nap as it what you do in that part of the world. It’s called a siesta!
We awoke to the sound of voices outside our room. The women had laid out all of their weaving materials on the lawn in the afternoon sun. It was time for us to learn again…
This time it was the delicate art of weaving. Needless to say I wasn’t overly skilled in this area.. in fact the women were often laughing at my attempts to spin the wool and I never did look comfortable with the weaving belt on!
It certainly gave us an insight as to the amount of work that goes into their hand made goods.
I’d never realised how much in fact, until we actually saw them in action. One hand made blanket can take one woman up to a month to make, particularly if it has intricate patterns.
It was so lovely to be invited into their world. These beautiful people are so welcoming and happy. I could have stayed for months it was all so peaceful.
On our second day in the village, we were given the task of building a stove for another family and planting trees on the property of our hosts. The reforestation project would see us contributing to preserving the environment and a sustainable water supply, (Condor are overseeing the construction of a water filtration system that will capture groundwater in a reservoir and the people in the village will be able to directly pump out this water for their own consumption).
We cleaned recycled mud bricks, shovelled mud to use as mortar and set out under the guidance of the maestro stove builder who had travelled from a nearby village to supervise. We spent the
morning constructing the hearth in preparation for stage 2 (rendering) which would be finished off by someone else. It looked easy enough but there was definitely a certain ‘art’ to it. Maestro was on hand to make sure we got the design right, but left us to the labouring! In the end, we were quite proud of our efforts! We were novices after all…
After lunch we went for a walk through the village with our guide, who decided to take us up over the mountain for a little practice run in the altitude before our Inca Trail trek. We ended up looking out over the Sacred Valley
at the most amazing structure (agricultural terraces) built by the Incas. We didn’t expect to see this, so we were all gobsmacked that we were so close to something so amazing. The spectacular scenery
surrounding this peaceful little village was mind blowing. The brooding mountains, the vast and colourful Sacred Valley, the green pastures with children playing. It was a photographer’s paradise… I was in heaven!
That afternoon we tackled the reforestation project with most of the male villagers in tow.
It was a well oiled production line with hole digging, watering, fertilisation and soil packing.
Mind you, the earth was a little unforgiving in places, but I got through with a little help from one of the men! I hadn’t held a pick in years so it was a bit of a novelty to be swinging it in the middle of Peru!
Nothing like exerting yourself where there’s very little oxygen to draw on… My head began to ache and the breathing was laboured but it was all good practice for the Inca Trail (or so I kept telling myself). We planted and watered and finished the project with a sense of achievement. The locals were full of gratitude and gave us a cheer and a round of applause.
That evening before we sat down to another hearty 3 course meal, a cup of munya tea, we gave the village children some educational supplies for their school plus a few little goodies as presents. Some fluffy Westpac Rescue Helicopter toys, Chuppa Chups and tennis balls. Needless to say they were all rather excited!
Our final day saw us walk down to the village of Moray, to have a close up look at the agricultural terraces that the Incas built.
It was a fairly solid walk for about 40 minutes, the downhill was easy…Coming back up, not so much but it was definitely worth the effort. Our guide, Eric was a walking encyclopaedia. We were so lucky to have him, educating us on the history of the region, every step of the way.
Over the duration of the 3 days we spent in the village, I often found myself wandering down in the back paddock, staring up at the mountains. Contemplating my life back home and how these people lived such a simple existence and yet they seemed to be perfectly happy with very little at all. I really can’t explain it, but the mountains seemed to talk to me, they somehow forced clarity into my thought processes. It was on one of these contemplative wanders that I made the decision to make some significant changes when I got back home…but that’s a whole other blog/story.
Having not travelled to Europe or even New Zealand, I’d never really seen mountains like these before.
They definitely had a spiritual affect on me, a kind of gravitational pull, so intense that I really feel that I need to go back some day. I’m not finished with South America… not by a long shot.
Our goodbyes with our host family were tearful. A mix of happy and sad tears as we danced together in the sunshine with the mountains watching on. I’ll never forget what these beautiful people gave me…life lessons and memories that will last a lifetime.
Facebook album: Volunteering in Misminay