What is it about a volunteering adventure that makes the experience so special? John Holland has travelled the world and spent six weeks backpacking around South America after joining Peru Teaching & Building, so it was easy for him to pinpoint why this trip was a personal highlight…
“Forget the work, it’s the people that make an Intrepid Volunteering project brilliant. First are the local villagers: friendly, hospitable and they love any excuse for a party. Second is our own group of volunteers, a knock-about group of Poms, Aussies and Irish who shared everything for a period of up to six weeks with no major whines, issues or arguments.
Together with eight others I signed up through Intrepid, who works with local partners to organise community projects around the world. Sometimes they build schools and teach. Other projects, such as the one I am doing, involve providing a safe water supply for the village of Peccacacho, high up in Peru’s Andes mountains – an hour walk from the small town of Chinchero and an hour drive from Cuzco, the former Inca capital and well-known jumping off point for Machu Picchu.
Peccacacho has no running water or electricity. Our work will overcome one of these shortages. Water has to be carried from a spring half-way up the side of a hill, a distance of about 300 metres. We are already at an altitude of 3800 metres so it is a stiff climb and an awkward descent with full buckets.
When we arrive the entire village turns out to welcome us, A huge pot of stew is bubbling over an open fire just in front of the small adobe (mud brick) chapel and tended by a couple of elderly women, wearing what look like men’s pork pie hats.
As we dump our backpacks and food supplies in the half-completed farmhouse which is to be our home, the villagers congregate on the quarter-sized football field, which takes up most of the only piece of flat land in the area and right in front of the chapel.
Wooden benches are quickly set up on the football field and the villagers motion to us to sit down. Then one man stands, and invites a series of village elders to address us. One man prays to the surrounding mountains, towering snow-capped above us. He wants the mountain and earth gods to allow our work to proceed without trouble.
After the speeches are over, the women, dressed in traditional costumes, dance on to the field. After two dances, the tempo changes and the women move towards us, pulling us to our feet. This time it is no longer traditional folk dancing. It is simply whatever the women want to do and they always take the lead. Some of us are waltzed around the pitch, others are rock-and-rolled all over.
After a couple of dances it is time for lunch and the stew is served up, huge portions with potatoes the main ingredient. After all, it is Peru, the home of the spud and the place where more than 2,000 varieties are grown. To accompany it, a huge bottle of chicha is produced. Locally made from fermented maize it tastes awful. But a cup is produced and is filled and passed around. We are expected to down the entire cup, or at least take a big swig. But the stuff is simply too strong to take more than a couple of mouthfuls.
The party winds down and we set up house. Our first job is to the dig the latrine. That done, we quickly settle in.
Next day we start work. After marking out the lines where the water pipes will go to each of the fifteen houses in the village, we start digging. After a mere half an hour we are exhausted. The brown earth is as hard as concrete. Shovels make no impression. Only a hefty swing with a pick axe will break through the surface and penetrate the mass of roots tightly binding the clods together.
Another hour and my back is aching and my arms feel like lead. And I have barely scratched out a ditch two metres long and about twenty centimetres deep. I’ve still got to dig to a depth of between sixty centimetres and one metre. Everyone is in the same boat; all exhausted after only and hour and a half.
“Why on earth did I volunteer to do this for two weeks?” I ask myself.
But then I look up and see a woman and a young girl struggling up the hill to fetch water. Every day they have to repeat this backbreaking chore, just as we experienced yesterday. Watching the woman and girl and I am quickly reassured that the hard labour of digging ditches is worth it.
Day two is a bit easier and as the days progress we get used to the work and fall into a routine, starting work at around 8.30 each morning and continuing to lunch time. In the afternoon some of us do some more digging before we conduct basic classes for the village kids. Others simply rest. One day we walk to a neighbouring village where we are treated to a superb feast of guinea pigs and a whole range of local delicacies.
Nights are spent in the kitchen. After dinner, with the candles flickering, we play games such as charades and wink murder. It is enormous fun, far more than anyone expected and everyone joins in. It really is a great way to relax and unwind.
Every now and then the villagers produce a special meal for us and a party is held with associated drinking and dancing.
At weekends we return to Cuzco and explore this fascinating city, as well as enjoying the chance to catch up with friends and relatives via email.
After two weeks I am due to leave, together with three others. The project will continue for another four weeks, with three new people joining. The remaining five people stay on for either another two or four weeks, depending on what they signed up for. By the end of the six weeks, water should be running to each of the fifteen houses in the village.
We work hard this morning, trying to finish another section of trenches. We succeed, which is just as well for we find out that the mayor of the district is coming and that the village is holding a feast for us, with guinea pig and chicken the specialities.
The mayor arrives and presents each of us who is departing with a certificate of appreciation and a traditional Peruvian woollen cap. Then the dancing begins. Once again, an old woman grabs my hand and starts thumping around. But then comes another old woman, not seen before and even older than the first one. She decides that I cannot be monopolised and a tug of war ensues with me in the middle. While the rest of our group stagger around laughing at my predicament, I solve the problem by grabbing one hand of each woman and forming a triangle.
It’s a great finish, ending the two weeks just as we began and we take our leave among much hugging and hand-shaking. It’s a tough farewell. After two weeks work, I am not going to see the fulfillment of the project. But I need to get to Venezuela and the Guianas and then home to Australia for a family commitment.
But I stay in touch with the group via email and four weeks later find out that the project was completed and every house now has running water. Even though I was there for only two weeks, it is a very satisfying feeling.”
Tour Peru and make a difference with Intrepid on trips like these special small group adventures:
Peru Teaching & Building – 14 days
Peru Teaching & Building – 4 weeks
Peru Teaching & Building – 6 weeks