From the field: working up a sweat in the Andes

Story and photos by Crooked Trails participant, Thomas Buford

thomaslauraGreetings, my name is Thomas Buford and I have the privilege of telling you about a trip to Chinchero, Peru, that I shared with fourteen extraordinary people.  The trip, which lasted twelve days during November 2008, was a partnership between Crooked Trails, Seattle Works, and the Young Professionals International Network.  I have volunteered with Seattle Works programs for a couple of years and was made aware of this trip through the Seattle Works newsletter.  After discussing the trip with my wife, Laura, we decided that joining this adventure was an incredible opportunity that could not be passed up.  In retrospect, that was a great decision.

On paper, the trip sounded amazing: travel to the town of Chinchero, stay with a host family there, and work on a boarding facility for children so that they could attend the school in Chinchero.  The children’s current school day looks like this: wake up, walk one to two hours to school, spend seven hours at school, walk one to two hours home, work on their families’ farms in the afternoon, and then to sleep.  Obviously, these are not ideal conditions for the education of a child.  Add into this mix that many of the children are orphans and that the children’s nutrition in their villages is meager, it becomes clear that learning would be very, very difficult.

Enter our host family (and the heros of this story) – Paulino, Vilma, Faustina, Maria, Raul, Roxana, Franklin, and Chaska.  Paulino and Vilma saw this situation and did not sit idly by the wayside.  Instead, they took a step that few would make – they proposed to build an addition onto their home.  The addition would contain a room where fifteen children could sleep, a library where they could study, a computer center where their education could be enhanced, and a kitchen where they could be nourished.  With the help of a few previous Crooked Trails trip members, the dream started to become reality.  When we arrived in Chinchero, the walls, built from adobe, and a roof, built from bamboo and thatch, had been constructed.  It was our task to build the floor.

filteringAs we began our work, it became clear that construction in Chinchero is a little different: first, there are no machines and, second, Chinchero sits approximately 12,500 feet above sea level.  So, as we started to shovel out what seems now to be an impossible amount of dirt, we from sea level started to breath…and sweat…and breath more…and sweat more.  Despite being folks that mostly work in offices, my cohorts on the trip adapted and excelled.  They removed countless wheelbarrows full of dirt up a steep hill, laid tons of rock that will serve as a foundation for the floor, and mixed, wheel barrowed, and laid a massive amount of concrete for the floor.  Despite being tired, oxygen starved, and really dirty (especially you, Freddy), they always stood ready to do more.  The memory of the work we did together is one that will last for a long, long time.

As important as the work was, the people involved in this trip are what made it special.  First, the people on the trip, including our guide Todd, were incredible.  It was great to live with these folks for two weeks.  Truly remarkable, they are.  Second, Paulino and Vilma and their family are truly inspiring.  Despite the great vision they have shown and the sacrifices they are making, the family is humble and kind, warm and welcoming.  They took us into their home, fed us, sheltered us, and made us feel like a part of their family.  Maria’s cooking was the perfect antidote to tired feet.  Vilma’s laugh immediately lights up all around her.  Raul, Roxana, and Franklin’s loving care for their three year old sister, Chaska, was truly amazing.  Words do no justice to the beauty of this family.

celebrationFinally, one event on this trip was so unpredictable and so incredible that I am still a little unsure that it actually happened.  The day before we were to leave Chinchero, Paulino and Vilma took us to a village where eight of the children currently live.  We expected a quiet walk around the village and then quickly back to Chinchero.  Instead, as we approach the village, we are met by a roadblock: residents of the village, holding an arch of foliage, are blocking the way.  We disembark the vehicles and are met by song and ceremonial dance.  They guide us to a nearby field where we find that we have been set as the guests of honor at a celebration.  Almost all members of the village have gathered to celebrate the receipt of seven milk cows, a gift from Crooked Trails donors and previous travelers.  While we definitely got some credit for that gift that we did not deserve, it does not change the truly awe-inspiring nature of that afternoon.

We feasted on potato soup and cuy (read as guinea pig), danced with our hosts, blessed the cows, played games with the children, enjoyed an incredible amount of fellowship with all involved, and, finally, long after the sun had disappeared, danced all the way back to our vehicles.  The colors, sounds, sights, and tastes of that day are something I struggle to comprehend.  I still cannot believe that was an experience that I was lucky enough to have.groupresting

Looking back at this trip, I think the best single word to describe this trip is unique.  The people on the trip, the guide from Crooked Trails, Paulino and Vilma and their family, the work we did, and the people we met: each of these things is unique.  They cannot be duplicated.  I cannot imagine a better experience and I am very thankful for my ability to participate in such an incredible trip.

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2 Comments on “From the field: working up a sweat in the Andes”

  1. Dear Thomas,

    I am so happy to know that you did that trip, when I see the pictures of your story I can see ‘brothers and sisters of this earth” living meaningful experiences. I am thrilled to know that there are people in this world doing something for others with a unique and sensible approach. I’ll contact them right away to see how I can get involved. Sonia Sneddon

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