Photo Essays

Evolving Communities: Who and What Make Change? (Peru)

Photos and Captions by Stephanie Gilbert

When 80 Steinhardt Scholars and 9 advisers set off to Peru in January to learn about change in local communities, none of us imagined we would get this dirty. We were partnering with ProPeru, a volunteer service organization dedicated to global development, to spend 10 days working with rural communities near Cusco. All those constructing the bathroom for a local school or installing clean-burning ceramic stoves agreed, this was not what we expected. However, this trip and service project was all about stepping out of our comfort zones and getting a taste (sometimes too literally) of how others live. The work may have been backbreaking, handling 50lb. "adobe" bricks for the wall or shoveling sucking "barro" for mortar, but it was also gratifying. We knew that the bathroom and the new stoves would help to improve the health of the families in these communities. We also learned another important lesson: change is impossible without the work of the whole community. We were all amazed by the hard work and expertise of the community members who worked with us. Even the work of the little boy Rodrigo surpassed our own.

The cultural heritage of Peru is absolutely fascinating. Today one can see a rich blend of the modern and the ancient, of traditional and fashionable. In its history, Peru adopted traits from the various peoples that arrived there. Not only were there the ancient communities of Quechua speaking Andean people, but there were also the Spanish settlers, the African workers, and the Chinese workers. It was very surprising to stand in the Plaza de Armas (the main square of Cusco, the former Incan capital) and look around to see Spanish cathedrals, an African salsa club, and a "chifa" Chinese food restaurant. Great examples of the blending of these cultures -- and how they contributed to the creation of a new culture -- can be found in the music styles that developed in Peru, the dances, and the cuisine.

In our weekly Scholars seminars, before our trip to Peru, it was like we were constantly setting a table for a future meal together where we would sit down and get to know each other. The experience of traveling together in another country and being of service to underdeveloped communities was certainly a feast that brought us all together. Were it not for this out-of-NY experience, both the bad -- getting altitude sickness, struggling to communicate with our host families/survive the hostel, not flushing toilet paper, taking cold showers, trying to avoid parasites -- and the good -- exploring markets, eating Peruvian food, doing service, seeing llamas, and visiting Incan ruins --, we would never have become this familiar with one another. So we learned, too, how shared experiences could change the dynamics of our own Scholars "community."

The Incans were an amazing people. None would disagree with this statement, but yet, nothing quite compares to walking through the ruins of their temples and cities. While on our trip to Peru, we had many opportunities to go and view the ruins at various important sites in the former Incan empire. In Cusco, we visited Ollantaytambo (the site of an ancient sundial calendar) and Sacsayhuaman (the site of a great temple where many of the many of whose smooth wall stones weigh over four tons). We then traveled through the sacred Urubamba Valley among the steep, sloping Andes range, and ended at the city of Machu Picchu. With its ancient architecture at a breathtaking height, Machu Picchu is rightly the most famous ruin.

Upon traveling through Peru, one quickly discovers how important the tourist industry is there. At every sacred Incan site, one can find women in traditional clothes laying out belts, jewelry, and chess sets while little girls wander about with adorable baby llamas calling out in their only perfect English phrase, "Want a picture?" The first new word I learned in Cusco was "propina" as a little boy whose photo I snapped asked for a tip. The artisans' markets are flourishing still, but now, not only do they contain traditional tapestries and women selling corn with kernels the size of nickels, they contain "traditional" water bottle carriers -- an interesting adaptation to modern tourist needs -- poorly made zampoñas (traditional Andean pan flute), and all manner of alpaca products for tourists to buy.