On July 2nd, 2016 our group of 12 high school students, 2 adult mentors, and 2 staff members embarked on a 26-day experience in Bolivia and Peru. Each ambassador was tasked with recording the day’s adventures and learning experiences throughout the program. Keep checking back for more posts, this is part 3 of our YAPSA 2016 blog series!

The Youth Ambassadors Program with South America (YAPSA), a program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by Amizade. This exchange program offers a unique opportunity for a diverse group of young people from Bolivia, Peru, and the North Central Appalachia region of the United States to travel, learn about another culture, develop their leadership skills, and become empowered to make positive changes in their communities.


07-17-16

written by Madison Augustine

Our morning started by being woken up in Cuzco, Peru at the hostel we were staying at, Inca Club. We all got a great night’s rest and were ready to begin the day. We were set to leave the hostel at 10:00 A.M., so until then we had breakfast, showered and organized our luggage. A few of us headed down to the plaza to visit some of the shops of Cuzco for the last time during our trip. Jaylin and I must have been in need of some familiarity, because we went straight to Starbucks. 10:00AM eventually came around and everyone met in the lobby fully packed and ready for our departure to Ollantaytambo.

13645209_10106780730743053_3028278034683384493_n
Cusco

The bus ride was roughly an hour and 45 minutes, but a lot of us fell asleep or had headphones in to pass the time. The views out the window were breathtaking. There were mountains after mountains, but each one seemed different. Eventually, we had arrived in Ollantaytambo in the plaza. We almost immediately were greeted by our host families and were sent off with them to go get settled and have lunch before the group regathered later. Jaylin and I are roommates, and our host family is incredible. They are so welcoming and kind and very accommodating of our small set of Spanish skills.

After a fantastic lunch spent with our host families, the group met again at the plaza to have a scavenger hunt around Ollantaytambo. We were put into groups and were given a piece of paper with our tasks and we immediately began as soon as we were told. My group was me, Sead, and Nicolas. We strategized what was best to do first and then quickly got started considering we were on a time limit and had to be at the final meeting spot at 4:15. There were many different things on the scavenger hunt that required us to walk a lot around the plaza and beyond. My group and I had a really great time while trying to check off all of the items on the list. It seemed like forever, but after roughly two hours, my group and I made it back to the final meeting place with our checklist complete. Our legs were sore, but we had a great time. The winning group, which wasn’t us, was rewarded with candy and the losing teams were also rewarded with candy so I don’t know if anyone actually “lost.”

After, we went back to our host families for dinner and free time before the group would meet again at 7:10. The dinner with our host family was very good. We had beef, chicken, and potatoes. While having dinner, we got to know our host family some more. It was great just talking with them about what they do here in Ollantaytambo. We eventually had to go change into warmer clothes to prepare for our evening plan with the group, which was to go get a traditional blessing that connects you with nature and the Earth. We said goodbye to our host family and were on our way to the plaza.

The whole group got on a bus to begin our trip to the place we would be having our blessing. As soon as we got there, we were told to take off our shoes and enter the hut. The floors were wooden, but there were cushions placed on the floor for us to have a seat on. The man who would be giving the blessing had a heavy white beard and seemed very humble. As the blessing began, Laura would translate what the man was saying for all of us to understand in English. He talked about how many people are not in tune with the world and focus solely on materialistic items, not taking care of the planet. The man also spoke about the wars that have happened and most likely will happen again. He stressed that the only way for any resolution is peace. As he talked we passed around a bag of cocoa leaves and were told to take four. For each leaf we had to think of a wish or a hope for our lives or for the duration of our travels. Then, one by one we went to give the man the leaves for him to put them into the blessing. He would ask us what our hope was and then add a little of his own advice and wishes onto our hopes. After, we passed around a basket of folded papers and were told to take one and open it. My paper had gold glitter inside and other group members had things such as a Manila wafer, confetti, and seeds. We were all confused as to what this meant. So, once again, we went up to the man one by one and he told us what the item meant to us individually. He told me that I will have a lot of wealth and I need to spread it and it is my job to do so. Everyone else got the meaning of their items deciphered, and then the man began the blessing. He started a fire in the middle of the room and put all of our items inside. Then, he began a hugging train where everyone hugged everybody twice in succession. It seemed kind of funny, but he said that to create harmony amongst us, we had to accept everyone for who they are.

After the hugging train came to an end, our blessing was done. We all headed back to the bus to travel back to the plaza. Then, we had a quick discussion of our plans for the following day. Everyone said goodnight and headed back to their host family. Our host family was already in bed when we got back, so we headed upstairs to get ready for bed. We talked for a little while before exhaustion took over and we fell asleep, ready for the day tomorrow.

07-19-16

written by Nicholas Naumov

Waking up, late as usual, has Sead and I rushing out the door every day! Today we went to the Plaza to meet up with the group in anticipation of an amazing day filled with many things to see!

After meeting in the Plaza and checking to see that everyone had the appropriate sun protection, passport, and student ID we were on our way to the Ollantaytambo Ruins! First, we bought our tourist tickets which we will be using a few more times to enter various attractions in the Cusco/Ollantaytambo region; then, we met with our guide for the day, Adolfo, a very sought after guide in Ollantaytambo with much knowledge to spread about the Incan people and the ruins that remind us of them to this day.

 

We quickly started off up the hill, and before long Adolfo had stopped us to talk a bit more about the Inca and their history! He first spoke about two of the creations myths/legends of the Incan Empire but a common similarity throughout both was the idea of the rulers being sons of the Sun.

Adolfo then went on to talk more about the history of the Inca and how the site we were visiting was in fact partly a religious site (aka the Temple of the Sun), but was later used by the militia, especially during the 1500’s after the Spanish conquistadors came. Unfortunately for the Inca, the Spanish came during a period of civil war which made it much easier for them to overthrow the empire.

That being said the Incan Empire also conquered settlements in the past, but what was interesting about that was that they only required these villages to be able to speak Quechua and worship the Sun God. Otherwise, they could go along with regular life as they knew it and many of those villages coexisted until conflict came with the arrival of the Spanish many years later.

Anyhow, Adolfo was very nice and led us through the entire ruins explaining exactly what building were used for worship, militia, etc. We all also got to see some “Piedras cansadas” or tired stones which didn’t make it all the way up the mountain due to the arrival of the Spanish. Throughout the tour, we got a comprehensive understanding of the archeological site and remarkable views that I believe many of us will cherish in the years to come.

After the tour, it was time for lunch with our host families, which as always was amazing! Sead and I can both attest to eating all the food on our plate at every meal we have with our family!

Shortly after lunch, Michael, Sead and I decided to continue the day’s hiking extravaganza by hiking up to the free ruins in Ollantaytambo! We had an amazing view of the town, all from the train station towards the Plaza and onward towards the village of Patacancha!

 

Soon enough, it was time to head back down to the Awamaki office for reflection! We talked about social entrepreneurship and Awamaki in general before we had a presentation from Ronald Castillo Espinoza (a Quechua/Spanish children’s book author) about Incan culture and its differences in philosophy in relation to western culture. This directly relates to Ronald’s observation of the decline in children speaking/learning Quechua while still growing up with the Incan frame of mind. After his interesting talk, we had the chance to buy a few of his books and then we were set free for the night!

Another full, yet invigorating day behind us! (Or in front of us as the Incan philosophy states…)

07-20-16

written by Teona  Collier

We arrived in Patacancha on Wednesday. We are greeted with many hellos and welcomes. Immediately we are taken to the weaving center where there are a variety of different threads. It is explained to us that there are three processes that the women do to get a great end result. They start with dirty alpaca fur which they pick the dirt and twigs from. They then pull the wool to a consistency they see fit. They push the string off one hand to another to create a spinning motion. After this, the skinny string is made and it is wound around a wooden figure. This process is done again but this time folding the string and twisting them. We then learn about the dying process of the strings. Usually the women use plants around them and put the plant in a pot of boiling water along with the string. Not only do they want the color but they want the color to stay so sometimes minerals are used to create a chemical reaction and make the color stay. Although the women make these special natural colors for Awamaki, the garments these women wear are handmade with synthetic wool for the preservation and brighter colors. Afterwards we had a Pachamanca style lunch. It includes foil wrapped chicken on top of very hot rocks. Layered on top were hay and other earthly materials. Then on top of that were fava beans and plantains. There were more hot rocks on top to hold in all the heat. While this was cooking all of the group made wristbands that were made on a sel- tied loom. It was very interesting and kind of difficult but everyone turned out to have good looking bands, so all was well. After this we all met our host families . Most of them spoke a language called Quechua. It’s unlike any other language. With that being said most of us got our Pictionary skills popping. We headed to a center where the whole group learned just a little more about Patacancha from one of the men from their tribe. He told us all about the government, more about the jobs, and the agricultural differences between Patacancha and Ollantaytambo. My little host brother was a 7 year old named Donell. He was the sweetest and most excited little kid you’d ever meet. We all had dinner together which consisted of corn soup, noodles, and select vegetables. It was very cold by this time. But the smiles and laughter filled the room with comfort. After showing Donell every picture in my photo album, my roommate and I headed to the soccer field. All the kids were in bed at this time so our group of teens met up with a similar group that came from the nor2016-07-20-12-49-29th of London. It sure was one small cultural experience inside one huge cultural experience. We really just talked about the differences in sounds of words, etc. I couldn’t get a very good picture, but the stars and moon were so clear and close it’s something that could only be captured in my memory.

The next day we woke up very early to get to work. The two tasks were cutting hay and carrying rocks from one place to another. This mixed with the high altitude meant many people had problems. What I think kept us going was seeing the native people do it with ease. Men with canes and women with babies were doing this with no hesitation or break. This was very humbling for me because in America we have construction workers to do things like this. To build and fix things. So until about 11 we all did our best to help out.

Leaving was bittersweet. I had had a very cold night and hard morning, but I got a taste of the everyday lives of these people. They are not just a tourist attraction. It is not a museum. These were real people who gave us an inside look into their reality. And that’s something I’ll truly hold with me forever.

07-21-16

written by Jazmine Singleton

After our cold night up in the Peruvian mountains in a town/village named Patacancha, all the roommates woke up in their host homes and had breakfast before departing for our morning meeting at 8:30. While some of us were up later than most people who visit Patacancha– we were talking to a group of teens similar to us from a town just northwest of London–we still managed to make it down to the weaving center to start our service. 13775838_954188408025888_5348069993081681572_n

Michael and Dean got to skip the first part of service by going with their host family to cut wheat. I heard it was quite a hike, but I bet it was worth the experience. There were two groups, one going with Santos to cut straw and bring it down the the weaving center and another group finding medium/large size rocks to put in a pile. A couple of us even participated in “sick club” this morning but managed to push through it and finish the jobs.

Around 10:20am the women were asking if we could stop because they were tired, and with no problems we agreed! So that left an hour of free time to relax, explore, and a group even went for a hike up the mountain behind the weaving center. Autumn, Maddie, Jaylin, Tay, and I slowly walked back to pack up our stuff and relax and eat snacks until our departure back to Ollantaytambo at 11:30. After a couple minutes we departed and arrived back to town, most exhausted and ready to shower and nap. We had a free afternoon after our arrival.

07-22-16

written by Madison Augustine

We were set to meet at 9 AM to take a bus route to visit the salt mines. The bus ride wasn’t too long: it was about 45 minutes. Some of us were tired, but we were excited to explore the salt mines.

The bus dropped us off at the top of a downhill trail that we began to descend. The hike was not that strenuous, but a few of us (Nicholas) did slip up with our foot placements. He recovered quickly though and we continued our hike towards the salt mines.

Upon arriving at the entrance to the salt mines, we were informed about a protest that was happening. Apparently, some of the workers were not being properly compensated and were upset about their treatment. So, several of them were just stationed throughout the salt mines just telling the tourists about what was going on. It was very interesting to see, as I’ve never witnessed a protest before. We all made it through the salt mines safely as there was no chaos from the small protest.fullsizerender

To leave the salt mines, we had to find our way back to the main trail to continue downwards to meet the bus. To do this, we had to walk along some of the salt mines. I thought for sure I was going to fall down. There is a strange sense of vertigo from looking over the ledges, and balance is not my forte. Anyways, everyone made it safely across and then we began our downward hike. My feet skidded a few times, but I somehow managed no falls. Not too long after, we all made our way to the bottom to reunite with the bus to head back to Ollantaytambo.

When we arrived back in Ollanta, we had a little free time before we had to gather again for a group reflection and then after, we would be breaking off into groups to go to a cooking class. During reflection, we spoke about our experiences during our time in Patacancha. We also discussed how it changed our views and perspectives about different lifestyles throughout the world.

After reflection, we were split into two groups and headed to a local house for a cooking lesson. My group made a delicious mashed potato layered dish with chicken and vegetables in between. We also made stuffed peppers which were extremely good, but extremely hot. Our dinner turned out amazing. Our cooking class and dinner came to an end and then we headed back to the plaza for a quick discussion about the next day’s plans. We all had a long day of hiking and eating and were all ready to head to bed to be prepared to take on Machu Picchu the next day.

07-23-16

written by Sead Niksic

God’s rays peeked out over top the looming mountainous shape, thrusting back the icy shadows, and casting life onto the stony facade of the legendary palace below. Lofted high in the lush cloud forest, the first light seeped through the palace windows, gently caressing the sleeping personage. For the Ruler’s servants, however, daily labor had begun long ago. Incan priests were diligently preparing the sacrificial offerings used as a vehicle of worship to the sun god. Cooks prepared meals with freshly slaughtered meat and vegetables cultivated throughout the empire. Bread and maize stored in silos nearby were transported, by way of Alpaca, to the fortress in the early morning haze; ensuring a fresh breakfast for the nobility. The miles of vertical steps dissuaded all but the staunchest of servants to attempt the climb on a daily basis. The legend of this mystical place stood larger than the peaks in which it resided, Machu Picchu.

The Incan Empire expanded at an alarming rate, after the initial rise to power in 1438, and accomplished astounding feats in its short lived dominance. Starting with the 9th Incan Ruler, Pachacutec, the empire began conquering nearby nations and imposing their god, the sun, as well as language, Quechua, on the native people. The golden age of the Incas lasted for 95 years, spanning the rule of three kings, or rulers. During this time, many incredible feats of construction were accomplished, including an elaborate web of highways leading to Cusco, and (near the end) the lost “city” of Machu Picchu.

 

There is much speculation as to the true purpose of Machu Picchu, but many experts claim that it was simply a retreat for the royal family, sequestered high in the mountains. Others believe it is a ceremonial site meant to be utilized for worshiping the sun god. In any case, roughly 500 years after the original construction, our group of Youth Ambassadors prepared to embark on a journey to witness the mythical fortress in all its glory.

20160723_131106The rage inducing alarm cut through the silent Peruvian morning at the ungodly hour of 5:30. The host pairs scrambled to organize and prepare for the long day ahead. At 6:15 we greeted our fellow ambassadors and mentors in the plaza and double checked for passports and pop-I mean water. Following a short jaunt to the local train station, tickets were distributed, and shortly thereafter, the train was boarded. The hour ride flew by in anticipation of the legendary ruins, and, for exercise club, the legendary mile of stairs leading up to them. The train quickly arrived in aguas calientes (named after the famous local hot springs), the small town at the base of Machu Picchu mountain. The group then broke off into two parts, one to embark on the journey up by bus, while the other would make the infamous mile trek up the incan stairway. Who were these brave lads unwavering in the face of certain peril? You guessed it – Exercise Club.

Led by the enthusiastic Anne Marie, the group consisting of Michael, Sead, and Christina, against seemingly impossible odds, triumphed over the 1.7 km of vertical stairs, and rendezvoused with the rest of the group (after a warm welcome from Dean) atop the crumbling Incan pathway. The fun had just begun.

The breathtaking view of the ancient ruins juxtaposed with stoic mountains, in unparalleled harmony, is difficult, if not impossible, to describe with mere words. The sun saturated the valley with a golden sheen, adding an almost supernatural element to the all encompassing scenery. My imagination was immediately captivated and I was transported to a time long ago, walking with the ancient Incan people, observing their ways, admiring the stark contrast of the beautifully masoned stone and the verdant backdrop.

Unfortunately, we attempted too late to climb Huayna Picchu, the sedentary mountain towering over the main ruins. While a disappointment to be deprived of the glorious vista from atop its peak, the group made use of the extra time and visited an original Incan bridge protruding from a precarious cliffside. The shade, provided by the mountain, made for an excellent picnic spot.

Afterwards, the group explored as much as was physically possible in the time allotted (2-3 hours). Even with 5-6 hours, the ruins still hold secrets undiscovered by any of us, there was so much to see and experience!! The majority of our group experienced Machu Picchu to the fullest, and will never forget the amazing sights, and sounds, and areas of the breathtaking ruins!20160723_114838-1

After a long conversation, while staring out into the vast valley separating us from the giant mountains, and contemplating our existence as tiny parts of such a vast and diverse world (and even universe); we begrudgingly headed toward the exit.

Michael, Sead, Dean, Ann Marie, Robert and Sara, all battled the downhill on foot, with most of the of the group heading down by bus. The explorers reunited with others who had left Machu Picchu much earlier in the day, and by 4:30 everyone had assembled in Aguas Calientes for dinner. We ingested a lovely meal at a local restaurant, Toto’s, and afterwards departed on the train back to Ollantaytambo.

The fatigue of the day had begun to set in, and everyone welcomed the warm, lulling comfort of their pillow and a deep sleep sweetened with dreams of a mythical place, housing mystical people, in faraway times…