Service with Altitude: Service-Learning in Peru

Horizon with VT EngagePosted on November 18, 2015 by Gary Kirk, VT Engage’s director. In June, I had the good fortune to travel to Peru with VT Engage’s new Associate Director of Global Engagement, Eliza Wethey. Our goal was to lay the groundwork for a new VT Engage service-learning program. What follows are excerpts from my travel journal.

I hope my experiences may be helpful to anyone thinking about applying to participate in our inaugural Peruvian service immersion program in summer 2016.


Eliza lived in Peru for several years working with service-learning students, community groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). At VT, one of Eliza’s jobs is to help VT Engage develop high-quality, international, co-curricular service-learning programs. It’s a big task, but her knowledge and experiences have prepared her to lead this work.

Eliza’s great network of potential partners and her knowledge of the country made Peru an obvious first place to establish a new VT Engage program. It is an excellent complement to our other, long-standing international service immersion program in the Dominican Republic.

The trip

The first thing you need to know is that this was my first visit, not only to Peru, but to South America. Since I am not fluent in Spanish, I relied heavily on Eliza who speaks Spanish and even knows some Quechua, an indigenous Andean language. For me, not being able to communicate was humbling.

The second thing that is important to note is that it’s not easy to get to Cusco. I left Richmond at about 4 p.m. and arrived in Cusco around 9 a.m. Cusco is in the same time zone as Blacksburg.

On the flight from Lima to Cusco, I started to see how different this landscape was than anything I’d ever seen. At some point I casually glanced out the plane window at the clouds and noticed something poking through. The Andes peaks that began to more regularly appear were jagged, some snow-capped, and incredibly beautiful. The closer we got to Cusco, the more of the mountains I could see.

Below was my view from when I got to the Andes:

Two last logistical notes…Cusco is at a high altitude and it’s colder than I expected. I’m not going to lie—I stressed out a lot about altitude sickness prior to leaving. Many travel sites and blogs warn that flying into Cusco can cause severe altitude sickness. I was worried—I Googled every possible iteration of “Cusco altitude sickness” and “out-of-shape middle aged man.”

I never found anything definitive, and that was likely due to the fact that it seems very difficult, if not impossible, to predict who will be affected by altitude sickness. It does not seem to have a direct correlation with fitness, gender, or age. I think I was half expecting my head to explode when I de-boarded the plane..

While I didn’t suffer from altitude sickness (and my head remained intact) I did almost immediately notice the difference the altitude makes physically. Walking up a moderate incline seemed significantly harder than it should have been—this is where overall fitness probably pays off.

As to the temperature, I have no excuse. Eliza had forewarned me to bring warm clothes, but I brazenly ignored her advice. The average daily temperatures looked perfectly comfortable, so I brought a hoodie and a pair of jeans. It wasn’t enough during the day and in the evening the temperature dropped much lower. Since the hotel we stayed at did not have heat, I was very thankful for the wool blankets on my bed.

The people, the places, and the food

Our trip was short, and I asked Eliza to pack in as many meetings with NGO representatives, community members, and service providers as possible. We met with close to a dozen different organizations over four days.

We talked about everything from traditional weaving cooperatives to solar energy projects to reforestation to sustainable agricultural practices. It was a whirlwind experience, and I was very fortunate to learn about many great projects.

As well, I wanted to do some of the standard touristy things for which Cusco and Peru are so famous. On my first day in Cusco, I was lucky enough to see part of a major festival that takes place in the main plaza…I could write an entire blog post on this spectacle of music, dance, and costumes, but you’ll have to settle for this slice of the festival:

It was incredible. That same day, Eliza took me to one of her favorite ceviche restaurants. I consider myself a “foodie”, and I was pleased that Peruvian ceviche lived up to its renown.

Over the course of the next several days, I had a lot of new food experiences. Many involved delicious variations on the ubiquitous Peruvian potato, but perhaps the most memorable was a special treat prepared by one of Eliza’s family friends. Along with a noteworthy quinoa soup, I was served cuy (pronounced “qwee”), which is guinea pig.

For those who know me, you’ll understand that this was a mental and digestive stretch, since I haven’t eaten beef, pork, or other mammals since 1989. It was good, although the meat to bone ratio was heavier on the bone than I expected.

Although there are Incan ruins throughout Cusco and the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu (MP) is a tourist “must do” in Peru. So, I took Sunday off and made a side trip by train to Aguas Calientes.

My train arrived late Saturday night, and I started my MP day at 5 the next morning by catching a bus up the mountain to the ruins. I also planned to do an extra hike up Huayna Picchu, and I knew I needed to arrive early for that. The ruins at MP are remarkable. The sheer scale and location of the site were awe inspiring, but the really remarkable part of this is trying to imagine the Incan society that existed here and grappling with the factors that led to its eventual decline.

The results of our work

Salineras - Salt Flats
Salineras – Salt Flats

The real reason for our visit to Peru was not the food, the sightseeing, or even the cultural experiences; although, I would argue that these experiences enriched my understanding of the modern context.

Our goal was to identify organizations and communities with whom we could partner to build a sustainable service-learning program.

This was challenging, but we eventually selected two projects where we saw a genuine commitment to community involvement and significant prospects for engagement by Virginia Tech students.

ARCAmazon in Las Piedras, Peru

Our very first meeting in Peru was with Chris Kirkby from Fauna Forever. It turns out he’s also the director of ARCAmazon (ARCA). So, we ended up talking about both organizations and how they could jointly work with Virginia Tech students in a variety of ways. Chris is a conservation biologist who has been working in Peru for many years.

Chris’s organizations are conducting research and running community outreach programs in the Las Piedras River Basin, an area in the Amazon rainforest considered one of the most biologically diverse parts of Peru (and the world).

Unfortunately, deforestation and the poaching of natural resources have contributed to significant threats to this biological gem. Virginia Tech students will be able to participate in a community-based forest ranger program designed to protect resources on preserved land in Las Piedras.

Local residents, researchers, and program staff associated with ARCA’s development programs will provide insights on the complex cultural, political, and economic tensions in this community.

I didn’t get to visit the Las Piedras site. After flying into Puerto Maldonado, it is necessary to travel by boat and/or bus for several hours. Once you reach the ARCA base camp, there are basic amenities—electricity, potable water, composting toilets.

More importantly, the camp provides an opportunity to learn about the rain forest, human-environment interactions, and the relevance of the rain forest to global climate change.

Llipin Yahuar

Llipin Yahuar is a very different operation in terms of the focus of their work and its location. Their projects focus on health, education, and community development in Peru’s Sacred Valley. We visited a small, isolated Andean community (located at just over 12,000 feet above sea level) called Markuray.

Markhuray - Llipin Yahuar
Markhuray – Llipin Yahuar

In this community, where most of the men leave for extended periods of time to serve trekking expeditions for tourists, there are needs for basic infrastructure and projects that produce additional sources of income for the residents.

Virginia Tech students could be involved in several ongoing projects coordinated by Llipin Yahuar, including the construction of solar showers, reforestation of native trees that produce economic benefits, and collaborations with local teachers.

There are no navigable roads to Markuray. There is a path, at times steep, that winds up the mountain though some breathtaking vistas and rugged landscapes.

This was a tough hike for me; my Google Maps estimate puts the rise at about 1,500 feet from the place where you have to park to the community itself. Since I was already struggling with the altitude, this part of my Peruvian adventure was probably the most difficult.

The remarkable thing about this is that the school at Markuray serves primary school children (up to grade 4) from the surrounding areas. Many children walk up that path every day to attend school.

And, in fact, I saw people walking up and down the path throughout the day, heading to market, visiting relatives, getting supplies.

You’re invited

Now, we’re looking for our first group of participants to visit Peru, work on projects with ARCA and Llipin Yahuar, and engage in conversation about service, community, and culture.

What’s clear from our planning visit is that a trip to Peru for service-learning will ideally be longer than our standard weeklong service trips.

VTEngage_Peru_Summer2016Due to the additional travel time, the extra cost for travel, and the necessary acclimatization time at higher elevations, we believe that a three-week trip is much more appropriate. Here’s the tentative itinerary:

May 23: Departure for Lima, Peru
May 24: Arrival in Lima, Flight to Puerto Maldonado
May 25-29: Service Work with ARCAmazon (Amazon Rainforest)
May 30: Return to Puerto Maldonado, Flight to Cusco
May 31-June 1: Cusco
June 2-3: Machu Picchu
June 4-9: Service Work with Llipin Yahuar (Sacred Valley)
June 10-11: Cusco
June 12: Depart for USA

Recognizing that this will require a significant investment of time and financial resources by our participants, we are pleased to be able to offer a limited number of need-based grants to reduce the cost of the trip.

Any Virginia Tech student enrolled in spring 2016, regardless of level or major, is eligible to apply. Selected students are required to participate in pre-departure meetings during the spring semester. Space will be limited. Applications are due December 4th!

If you have additional questions, contact Eliza Wethey.

Two special notes for this trip:

• While Spanish proficiency is not a requirement, a basic understanding of conversational Spanish may make the trip more rewarding. Doing a little self-study before the trip can go a long way.
• Due to the altitude at Cusco and other potential work sites, it is recommended that all participants be reasonably fit. While altitude sickness does not seem to be correlated with fitness level, the lower level of oxygen in the atmosphere can make simple tasks significantly more strenuous than they would be at lower elevations.

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