Lessons From Peru: All the Pretty Colors (Part One)

I went to Peru with the mindset to serve, and I was beyond excited for it. Serving before in Nicaragua and El Salvador, I had an idea of what it would be like. Even so, I tried not to make assumptions, and to keep an open mind.

I failed.

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I went in thinking I had no expectations of what it would be, but I found that I did, because those expectations were not met. On past trips, we worked pretty much every day, and had one day to explore the town. I was imagining something similar, however we went out a lot more than just one day. We went white water rafting, to the Ballestas Islands, drove in the Andes Mountains to a couple of Incan towns, and explored Lima.

It was wonderful! However, I found myself grappling whether or not I was doing enough. I came here to build a house, and it was clear that our group wouldn’t be finishing the house, only starting it. That, in and of itself is truly amazing. But at the time, I did not understand why we were going out instead of working.

Some time now, away from it, I can understand that it’s all about perspective. Zenon and his team didn’t want us to leave with just one image of Peru, as a small town in need of guidance, but rather as a place that is alive and full of color, culture, and history. I define service as truly caring for other people, figuring out their needs and doing everything you can to fulfill them. These needs aren’t always material, or transactional, and it is a two-way street. Zenon and his team filled a need we didn’t know we had, and we’ve come away better people for it. I am very thankful for the opportunity, and am ecstatic to share the experience with you.

White Water Rafting

Day one met us with white water rafting in Lunahuana, a beach town on the coast of Peru where many tourists go to participate in aquatic activities of all sorts, including white water rafting along the river on the foothills of the Andes Mountains.

The drive to Lunahuana was about an hour, and Zenon spoke of all we would do in Peru, outside of working on the house. He spoke of his Incan descent, of travels to 122 different countries, the companies he owns, and his best friend, US President Jimmy Carter. He even showed us a picture!

the river.jpg

He pointed out Inca highways that are still used today! The Inca people were not the only people inhabiting the territories, and similar to the Spanish, set out to conquer the lands and its people. To do this, they constructed trails on the sides of the mountains and walked in large groups, carrying the king on their shoulders. It’s amazing how they were able to do this, all by hand without the same tools we have today. It’s really put into perspective in hindsight, after having done so much digging myself. Zenon also pointed out that the Inca flag is actually just as colorful as what we know to be the gay flag!

Once we arrived to Lunahuana, we donned our phones and shoes and followed Zenon to a place where we received life vests, helmets, and oars. We stood around an inflatable raft as a man explained the rules of the game: “Adelante! Atras! Alto! Adentro!” I looked at blue inflatable raft, like the small inflatable rings they put on children’s arms to keep them afloat in a pool. How was this supposed to keep us afloat in a rocky river?

around the raft

Nevertheless, I trusted the man and the raft, for they have done it before, and to my knowledge no one had died doing this. We split off into two different rafts, and were off into the cool waters. My group was made up of Jess, Jack, Danielle, Stephanie, and Kathy.


Our guide began shouting commands; “Adelante! Alto!”, quickly and suddenly. At first, we kept hitting each others oars, but eventually got the hang of it. We raced each other, and splashed water into the other teams raft and in turn got soaked.We rapidly learned to work together as a team, trusting each other and listening and trusting someone we didn’t know despite the language barrier – exactly what we would be doing over the next week. What a sneaky way of warming us up for the days ahead.

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For lunch, we went to a restaurant. The group all head trout, and I tried a Peruvian Tortilla; Similar to the Spanish Tortilla, it was egg based instead of corn or flour like a Mexican Tortilla would be, and instead of potatoes, the egg was filled with veggies, and served with rice and fries.

It was at this place where we were introduced to our new favorite sauce, Uchucuta. It is an orange sauce, creamy in texture, with just the right kick. Avocado and Uchucuta quickly became the essential ingredients to every meal, and the number one souvenir. Our meal came accompanied with Inca Cola, a soda drink unique to Peru.

The Ballestas Islands

The following two days after white water rafting were build days. On those days we moved a lot of rocks, made a lot of concrete, and started building the inside structure of what would be the walls. You can learn all about the building process here!

We got up very early, at 5am, to make the long bus ride to the Ballestas Islands. Leading us today was Kathy, and Rosa. Many of us fell asleep on the bus; Danielle and Stephanie even brought a blanket! How smart! When we awoke, they had coffee, bread, and hard boiled eggs for us to eat.

We finally arrived, into what looked like a bus station. It was a port for boats, and we were going to get on one to take a look at the islands. It was about an hour to the islands, an hour to tour the islands, and an hour back. They kept urging us to use the bathroom now, for there would be no break until returning.

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Picture by Adriana

Try as I may to keep an open mind, judgement free, I found the Ballestas Islands to be nothing like I had expected. I couldn’t help but imagine something like the exotic islands you hear and see in the media with lots of trees, big foreign birds, blue skies, and fruit everywhere.

The skies were gray and overcast, the air tasted of salt and mist. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and for the first time I realized that I hadn’t really seen the sun since landing in Peru, there were always clouds. I guess that’s just a part of a Peruvian Winter.

There were so many people. I heard English, Castillian Spanish, and Japanese. All of these people, here to see the islands. I tried so hard to listen to the different sounds of the languages around me, remembering how much I love being surrounded by language.

We boarded a boat that could hold about 20-30, and were off into the fog. Our first stop was at The Candelabrum, a vision carved into the side of a rocky/sandy hill thing.

Photo by Jess

No one is really quite sure how it got there, who made it, or how long it’s been there, but it’s predicted to date back to the time when native Paracan people roamed. Some think it was pirates, others the Paracan people, as a symbol of sorts. Some even believe it was just a bunch of teenagers goofing off one night. It’s uncertain, but due to the unique climate and temperament of Paracas, the candelabrum has not eroded, and is predicted to withstand for a while longer.

Our tour guide asked us if anyone knew the meaning of the word ‘Paracas’, and confidently, a few members of our group raised their hands. Zenon had prepared us well with a brief history lesson. Danielle proudly proclaimed “Flying poop!” Astounded, the guide just stared and simply didn’t acknowledge her, moving on to explain the islands form part of Paracas, meaning island of raining sand.

I love Danielle. She’s always been around throughout my college years, and I’m going to miss running into her out of the blue. She is one of the most curious people I know, always asking questions and looking out for other people. She cares a lot about what she does, and it’s very admirable. She is unafraid of being wrong or learning something new.

in the distance

We picked up speed, and the salty mist became salty wind. I was the idiot standing in the boat, sticking my head over the edge just to feel the salty wind and take 1,000 shots of the same thing. Danielle kept telling me to turn around and I was confused. I didn’t see why I needed to turn around, if all the exciting things were happening out in front of me, not behind me. She just didn’t want me to fall out of the boat.

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Suddenly, the tiny black specks became bigger, textured rocks. The boat slowed into a light tread, slowly travelling around the edges of the rock and turning the boat so all passengers can experience the view. Our guide spoke of the life on the island, and pointed out penguins, star fish, crab, and sea lions, and thousands of Peruvian booby birds. Sometimes, there are dolphins, however now is not the season to see them.

At least one person lives on the island at all times to ensure the safety of the islands and protect the wildlife. Many of the rocks are covered in layers of bird poop. Once a year, people from the outside come to collect the poop; it is used for fertilizers in the UK and a few other countries. I guess it’s the best poop around.

Seeing the islands was such a grounding moment. Often times I can forget the beauty around me, the magical glow of appreciating the simple things. This reminded me.

The ride back to shore was quiet; our guide had nothing left to say, and the passengers ascended into the most glorious nap in the middle of the ocean. I didn’t fall asleep, I didn’t want to. When would I be here again? I stood and watched the islands once again become small specks of rock until they blended into the fog and thought how wonderfully human it is too fall asleep, and to dream. How easy it is to get lost in a dream and in a moment and to see only what you want to see, but how looking deeper can be so great; alas, the islands are nearly invisible from the shore.

We made it to shore, and as we waited for our bus to come pick us up, we checked in on Sam, who had a bite on her leg, likely from a spider. We went to a pharmacy to find something for it, and ended up at a clinic. They tended Sam so quickly and easily, simply asking for her passport. Sam was pretty chill throughout the whole consultation, taking it in stride and being a trooper about all the medications she was prescribed. What really stuck with me was how easily she was able to get help, even as a foreigner.

Next was a visit to the museum. There was some confusion as to what the plan was, and I think it may have been due to not having a brief meeting at the beginning of the day to outline what we would be doing all day. Many in the group were hungry, and just wanted to eat and shop instead of going to a museum, however the tickets were already purchased. I think this marked the first of a few miscommunications throughout the day.

The museum was pretty enjoyable. We viewed a brief clip explaining some of the history of Paracas, and walked through the exhibit. I usually try to read as much as I can, but this time I just watched and followed. We learned that the Peruvian flag is based on the sight of a flamingo; pink and red on the outside, but once the wings have expanded, a white underbelly. Outside of the museum was a path that lead us towards a beach where flamingos roamed. From a distance, it was hard to see their coloring, but we could see their silhouettes against the sunlight.

flamingos jess kathy (1)
Photo by Kathy. also apologies to the person I blocked with my giant hair.

After the museum, we mozied on to a tourist market. I got pretty lucky there. One of the owners of a shop gave me a free penguin magnet, for no real reason. I had told her I was looking for a penguin of sorts for my little brother, and I spied the magnet. She said it’s mine with a smile, and refused my payment. I thanked her for the gift, and went on to find a mug in the shape of a penguin. I thought it was perfect, for my little brother won’t be 10 years old forever, and will one day need a coffee mug. It was 15 soles, but I knew not to pay for it. I wanted to bring it down to 10 soles, but the first 3 shops I went into denied 10, not wanting any less than 13 soles. I gave up, but Rosa didn’t.

Rosa literally went into almost every little shop, asking about the penguin mug, until she finally found a man who would sell it to me for 10 soles. I could not contain my happiness! Rosa is so sweet! She cares deeply about the people she meets, and takes very good care of them. She was there to guide us through Sam’s visit to the clinic, and there on pretty much every other adventure. She doesn’t give up, she perseveres and gets things done. I look up to her strength. She doesn’t let language get in the way.

We finally drove back to Cañete for the best spaghetti and chili we ever had. We literally inhaled the food, it had been a long day and this was the first formal meal outside of snacks, bread and coffee on the bus. After our late lunch, we went into another market, one Rosa said was cheaper. Grace joined us on this adventure.

We split into three little tuktuks. The little cars got their name in Vietnam, for the sound the engines make when they run. We were obsessed with them the whole trip, for they are quite small and cute, and Stephanie drives a Tuktuk back in Naperville.

I road with Stephanie and Danielle, with Grace on my lap. She was a bubble of excitement, looking out the window the same way I had stuck my head out of the boat earlier that day. She pointed out all her favorite spots on the way to the market, and predicted the turns the tuktuk driver would make before he made them. She got really excited when we drove by her school, and then later by the hospital, which she dubbed the place where babies come from.

We were the second group to arrive to the market. It reminded me of going to a market in Mexico, where the stores are wall to wall next to each other, open holes in a wall, tight hallways and too much product to take it all in. Markets always seem a little chaotic, but I know there is a rhythm to them. Clothing shops tend to stick together, as do spices, fruit, technology, meats, toys, etc. Our mission was to find alpaca sweaters and scarves.

Both Rosa’s led the group, and Grace led me, taking me by the hand to see every little thing she decided was worth seeing. Rosa was on a mission to find the alpaca, and Grace was on a mission to find me a pair of socks; I had been bitten up around the ankles for wearing capris and low-rise socks; she wanted to keep me safe from any more bug bites.

I’m not sure when, but the group wasn’t enjoying walking around the market. Rosa had us all following her from shop to shop, and I don’t think they experienced it quite the same way I did. I realized I was at an advantage, because I blended in to the scenery, but they didn’t, and people love staring at anything shiny and new. I remember Jess coming up to Rosa, asking if we could go home and that is when I saw a trace of panic in her eyes. I turned to see a mixture of uncomfortable and complacent faces. I turned to look at Grace, she was fine as can be. Her energy had rubbed off on me, but not on the others.

We made it back to the hotel, and tensions started to dissipate. I think what the group had experienced was culture shock at its finest. Zenon hadn’t planned going to this market with us, and as Americans, we usually like sticking to what is planned, and need reassurance that the plan is being executed. I’m not sure many had experienced being in a place where they were so pointedly different from everyone else, and that can make one feel very uncomfortable.

After a break for showers and brief naps, we reconjoined for dinner, and talked about the elephant in the room. We were okay. Nothing bad happened to anyone, and more than anything it was just the anxiety some had felt throughout the day that had made the day a little stressful. We talked about ways to help each other out when we are anxious or stressed, and agreed to do better to communicate with each other and with the team of amazing people who were hosting us.

We went to bed that night, surely knowing there was some sort of lesson to be learned here, and determined to do better, for us, and for them. I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. I’ve never felt super nationalistic about either one of my nationalities, as a Mexican, or American, or even as generically as being a Latina, but I felt a connection to Rosa and Kathy, like they were cousins, and family takes care of family. I felt like there might have been something more I could have done for them, to maybe ease tensions and smooth over communication. I know that all they wanted was to share their life and culture with us, and I hope they didn’t feel offended or bad about our reaction.

kathy and rosa

Rosa and Kathy need a huge shoutout! They worked so hard for us. Kathy is new to the fuller center; we were her second group ever, first of our age, and she had lead us through much of the day, making all the decisions for us. Doing anything for the first time can be very challenging and scary, and I’m proud of her! Rosa is also a fearless leader, pouring her heart and soul into her work and it shows. I’m really happy for the time I got to spend with them.

These opportunities we were able to have were so amazing, but not the last! We had a couple more work days after the Ballestas Islands, in which we started laying brick for the walls of the house, donated toys and play time with the community kids, and said our farewells to Evelyn and the community of La Florida. Our last weekend in Peru was a whole new adventure, featuring mountains, food, and Lima! You can read all about it in Part 2!

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