First Trip Abroad Peru

First Trip Abroad: Peru

Hey, we thought it would be fun to start a monthly Throwback Thursday post! Fun, right?. TBT posts will highlight favorite trips, activities, or life events from our past. So without further ado, I give to you the first Throwback Thursday post on Haggis and Hamburgers…

Throwback Thursday

Allow me to set the stage, it is springtime 2008 and a shy, yet curious college graduate is planning her very first trip abroad. Solo.

Don’t worry, I wont write this whole post in the third person… that would be extremely annoying.

After graduating college in the winter of 2007 and planning to enroll full-time in grad school the following fall, I wanted to make the most of the 8-month lull between school programs.

New Grad

This Midwest girl was ready to see more of the world after undergrad

I needed an adventure. I imagined visiting exotic and far places, but a quick reality check of the costs popped my Fiji Africa New Zealand daydream bubble. I wanted to go anywhere and everywhere. I also wanted to spend time volunteering and helping others. Which led to the light bulb moment – by volunteering I could reduce the cost of travel and spend time abroad in a meaningful way. However, it shocked me when I saw how much volunteer fees could be. Why do I have to pay THOUSANDS of dollars to volunteer my own time?

I began to research affordable places to travel and volunteer, which is much easier nowadays than it was 8 years ago. This ultimately led me to my first adventure: Peru! I found an after-school volunteer program in Cusco, Peru at Aldea Yanapay where I could work with kids, stay at the volunteer hostel, and still have free time to explore. It was a win-win situation. To make my dream a reality, I found work through temp agencies, working 7 days a week for 4 months straight to save for the trip.

Cusco, Peru Festival

Cusco, Peru: colorful festivals and scenic views

Come May 2008, it was time to cash in and hop on the plane to Peru. Without the safety net of my family and friends, I planned a 5-week trip to the land of the Inca. I had never been out of the country before and I departed with a flurry of feelings, mostly excitement. Seriously, I found my old journal and while I hate reading my old writing, it is kind of funny to relive life as a 23 year old:

 At this very moment I am on an airplane to Peru – PERU! I can hardly believe it! … This trip means so much to me – it’s a chance to feel like I can truly make a difference in the lives of others, a chance to explore a corner of the world that I always wanted to see, not to mention a chance to bond & form relationships with volunteers. I want the next month of my life to be an exciting, life-changing event – and I believe that it will.

 Wow… makes me queasy just reading the entry – that is one peppy Midwest girl ready to take on the world. Anyways, it’s funny how you can build up what you think an experience will be like in your head, only to be faced with a completely different reality. Peru (and travel in general) came with the good, the bad, and the unexpected.

The Good

First let me say that Peru is a gorgeous country. Coming from the Midwest, I had never seen anything like it. I spent the majority of my time in Cusco, where I volunteered with the Aldea Yanapay School. In the late afternoon, volunteers would head to the school to help kids with their homework, oversee art and play time activities, as well as facilitate classes. The month I was there, the curriculum was Buddhism. It was a learning experience not only for the kids, but for myself as well.

Aldea Yanapay Volunteer School Cusco, Peru

The 8 year old skit on Karma at Aldea Yanapay after school program. Spoiler alert, the robber gets hit by a car 🙂

I loved that the kids would come in excited every day, greeting you with a kiss on the cheek and a quick, “Hola Profe!” greeting. That being said, I felt fairly worthless in the classroom setting. I didn’t speak fluent Spanish, so I wasn’t much help to the volunteers leading the class. But at the end of the day we all had fun and most importantly the kids had a caring and nurturing environment to go to after school.

Art Class at Aldea Yanapay Cusco Peru

Making masks in art class!

The schedule was great, as it allowed for plenty of daytime exploration. Cusco is a very walkable city – although admittedly with the altitude change, I struggled with climbing the hills for a while.

Broke down taxi in Cusco Peru

The hills are even too much for the taxis sometimes – get out and push!

There are open-air markets with everything imaginable (I miss the fresh squeezed juice), beautiful plaza squares, and ruins on the outskirts of town.

Gardens in Cusco, Peru

Cusco is a lovely city to walk around and explore

Cusco Peru, city gardens

Vibrant gardens in the town center

San Blas Cusco Peru

Plaza San Blas in Cusco Peru is filled with shops and restaurants

On one memorable day, another volunteer and I split the cab fair to the Tombomachay ruins and walked all the way back down to town, stopping at multiple ruin sites along the way.

Tombomachay Peru

Tombomachay aqueducts and canals

Sacsayhuaman Peru

Sacsayhuaman Ruins

Sacsayhuaman Peru

Mighty big doorways for such traditionally small people

The Bad

I loved my time in Peru, but there were definitely times I struggled and wanted to throw in the towel. Upon arrival I found that while I made it to Cusco, my bags never left the states. I packed a ton of clothes and toiletries (wayyyy too much, rookie mistake) and had to go without the first 4 days. Meh, bad luck, but no biggie in the long run.

My second week in the country, I tore the lateral ligament in my knee (an old knee injury) with my smooth moves on the dance floor. The doctors’ only suggestion was to stay off of it for 5 days. That was 5 days of being hulled up in my cold and bare hostel room with little food or entertainment. Not to mention I couldn’t attend school the whole week – voiding the whole purpose of me being there.

To make matters worse, I came down with a painful stomach virus. Every 30 minutes I would wretch forward in pain from the worst stomach cramping I have ever experienced to this day. Then, well you know, I had to go. Often. This required me hopping on one foot from my room on the second floor, down the stairs, and across the courtyard to use the bathroom. This was my life for days. It was shitty. Pun intended. If I look sickly thin in some of my photos, it’s because I was… I lost 10 pounds in 3 weeks.

After returning home, I self diagnosed myself with giardia, the same parasite my hostel roommate was hospitalized for during her stay in Peru. Don’t even get me started on the volunteer rinsing our her lice shampoo in the communal kitchen sink. It was bad… soooooo bad.

Aldea Yanapay Hostel Cusco Peru

Yep, that is the sink. Where everyone washes their dishes… and rinses their lice. Ah, hostel living.

I ended up splitting a hotel with another volunteer for a few days, which made a world of difference. I took (several) hot showers, and curled up in a cozy bed. After some rest and healthy meals, I purchased a knee brace at a pharmacy and was mobile again. The worst part was over.

Injuries during travel

Stylish, no? But it helped me get back on my feet!

The Unexpected

I never connected to the school in the way that I had hoped. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time and shared lots of laughs and smiles with the kids, but the school was a revolving door of volunteers. After a month I was one of the few people remaining from the beginning of our month long Buddhism lesson. The beauty of volunteering was that you could volunteer for a few days, weeks, or months. So instead of starting a new lesson at the school, I decided to explore a bit more of Peru.

Aldea Yanapay School

Skit day at Aldea Yanapay School, Cusco Peru

I booked a tour to Manu National Park for several days. I know it’s ignorant, but I had no clue how diverse Peru was. From Cusco we drove several hours (with some terrifying cliff views) into the Peruvian Rainforest.

Manu Peru Cloud Forest

Entering the cool and colorful cloud forest

Madre de Dios River

Madre de Dios River, Manu Peru

We went rafting down the Manu river… which to be honest was more us just floating due to the complete lack of rapids. This suited me and my bum knee just fine.

Peru rafting

Whitewater rafting… or floating. Good time regardless!

Manu National Rainforest

Tall tall trees

Manu Zipline

This was my first time ziplining – a little freaky to feel the trees sway as people takeoff and land

While I had never been to summer camp, I imagine it would be something like the jungle lodges. Wood cabins with bunk beds and mosquito nets. The generators shut down at 9pm every night, eliminating man made light and noise. That’s when the true magic of the jungle was exposed. While the grounds were cloaked in blackness, the sky was lit with a depth of stars I had never known possible.

Erika Lodge Manu Peru

Erika Lodge Manu Peru

Erika Lodge Manu National Park

Just like summer camp, right?

Big Beetle Peru

A big beetle that fell on a group member after the lights went out at camp – yikes!

Upon my return to Cusco, I decided to spend my last weekend in Peru visiting Machu Picchu. In truth, I had never intended to visit Machu Picchu when I initially planned the trip. My goal was to get off the beaten path and trek to the site of Choquequiero instead. However, with an injured knee, a trek was out of the question, so taking the train from Cusco seemed like a good way to settle. In fact, I wasn’t settling at all.

Machu Picchu

Standard tourist photo

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

The ancient Incan site is a major tourist attraction for a reason – the place is unfreaking believable.

Machu Picchu

Had to pass on climbing the Huayna Picchu peak

Machu Picchu

Scenic grounds of Machu Picchu

The Travel Bug

What I gained most from my first solo trip abroad had nothing to do with Incan sites. It was strength and empowerment within myself.

The comfort of being okay with my own company.

Manu River View

It’s okay to do things alone. Tour the town alone. Eat alone. Book a jungle tour alone. Helps you grow and pushes you out of your comfort zone.

Of knowing while you may travel alone, you really are never alone.

Volunteer Friends Abroad

It is easy to meet and connect with fellow travelers

Of pushing myself to new limits.

Zipline Manu National Park

Zipline through the Peruvian Rainforest

I thought this trip would get the need to travel out of my system. Instead it merely fueled my passion for travel even more. I was bit by the travel bug, hard, and it has made all the difference in the years since.

Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life. – Michael Palin

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