The city of Cusco is surrounded by mountains on all sides, and the views from any balcony are spectacular. The cobblestone streets are packed, cars speeding around, pedestrians running across intersections, horns beeping constantly. Shouts of rapidfire Spanish fill the air. The open storefronts display colorful artwork and clothing, beaded jewelry, and all kinds of souvenirs. Music blares from open car windows and shops. People bargain for tamales, fruit, and crackers. The city just has the feeling of being alive.
In Cusco, we saw people living in abject poverty, children selling things on the streets. The water was undrinkable, bathrooms did not have toilet seats or toilet paper. The streets were scattered with dog poop and garbage. But soon we didn’t notice any of it. Instead, we saw people who were proud of their heritage, honoring their ancestors with monuments and museums. We saw parades and many traditional religious practices. We saw incredible architecture and art, and a city full of history. Their culture was very different from our own, but every bit as meaningful.
With our host family, we were able to experience Cusco in an entirely different way. We went to local markets and restaurants and bought food on the streets. When we ate at home, we would have bread, rice, chicken, beans, or pasta. We would buy sweet popcorn and quail eggs on the street. My favorite food was the picarones we bought every night after volunteering.
My favorite part of the trip was not taking classes or going to Machu Picchu, it was working at the project with the kids. When we arrived, the kids would race down the sidewalk to meet us, and drag us off to play, chattering away. We never really knew what to expect. We could play card games, make puzzles, draw flowers and mermaids on the sidewalk, play catch or hopscotch. The kids had incredible enthusiasm about everything we did. On days we went to the park, we could spend hours on the same slide or swing, making up games. Dayra, the little girl I spent most of my time with, loved coloring and piggyback rides and Spot It. At the end of the day, they would give us a hug or a kiss on the cheek and say, “Hasta mañana, Profe!” Saying goodbye to them was heartbreaking.
The trip was an amazing opportunity to experience such a different way of life, and I learned so much during my time there.