Culture/Human Interest: Students' Peruvian adventure

Published in the Easton Journal (MA), Journal Cuzco (Peru) and, fall 2004

Students back from Peruvian adventure
By Lori Hein/ Correspondent

Friday, September 24, 2004

"I think we all felt a general sprit of adventure throughout the trip," said Debbie Salisbury. "These feelings were punctuated by feelings of dread at the prospect of another bus ride."

It's fall, and Salisbury's teaching social studies at Oliver Ames (OA) High School. Roberta Anderson, Marcus Hammett, Morgan McCafferty, Jonny Monnin and Marisa Pushee are OA seniors.

Colin Basler, an OA graduate, is a college freshman. While all are busy with new pursuits, they share a common bond - a month-long immersion trip this summer to Peru. They're home now, doing their own things, but they're united by an experience that will stay with them for a lifetime.

The trip, organized by Britain's World Challenge Expeditions, sought to build participants' self-confidence and leadership skills. The OA group hiked and traveled, usually by bus over endless miles - and hours - of dusty, mountain roads, with a school group from Deerfield, Massachusetts, and the total contingent was 11 teens and three adults. They slept in tents and hostels. On a rotating basis, the students served as leaders of the day, charged with handling food, transport, lodging, budget and diary entries.

"The jobs changed daily," explained Salisbury. "All students experienced the challenge of having to make transportation and accommodation arrangements in Spanish at some point during the trip. They all felt the pressure of being the leader ultimately responsible for meeting the day's objectives, making sure that those assigned to the various tasks fulfilled the mission."

For much of the trip, the group was based in Cusco, the 11,024-foot former capital of the Inca Empire. In Cusco, traditionally thought to have been founded in the 11th century by Inca Manco Capac and taken by Francisco Pizarro in 1533, history sits on history, with the churches and residences of Spanish conquistadors built atop expertly crafted mortarless Inca walls.

Salisbury had visited Peru in the late 1970s.

"One thing that surprised me was how little bus transportation had changed in 25 years," she noted. "I was also taken aback by how much Cusco had grown. It was maybe 10,000 people in 1979, but was 350,000 in 2004. I was also pleased to see increased prosperity."

The trip had both challenges and rewards, and the OA team learned to handle the former and savor the latter. Salisbury described a difficult 22-hour bus ride through the Andes on the trip's second day as "probably our most difficult challenge." Unfamiliar food, switchback mountain roads, stifling heat, and odor from the bus' bathroom made most of the group sick.

"There were no planned stops," said Salisbury, "so relief was hard to find."

But teamwork kicked in, and, continued Salisbury, "While the worst was coming up in most, the best was coming out in the few who were not sick. There were three or four who, for some reason, were not affected and rose to the occasion. They helped the others. They certainly went above and beyond the call of duty."

Once recovered, the travelers looked forward to a five-day Andean trek that was to have been a trip highlight, but the weather had other plans. For three days, rain fell, making for cold, raw conditions and confining the would-be trekkers to their tents.

"How many card games can you play?" quipped Salisbury.

Disappointment was added to discomfort and boredom when the trek was canceled.

"The rain came down as snow in the mountains," said Salisbury. "There was four feet of snow in the mountain passes, making the trek too dangerous to complete." Salisbury said that for most team members, the group decision to forgo the trek was the trip's "lowest point."

But there were highs, as well, literal and otherwise. Of Cusco, their lofty home base, Salisbury said, "We all loved Cusco for its friendly atmosphere, great shopping and interesting eateries." And, she said, "I think we all felt fascination and wonder at Machu Picchu," the fabled Inca citadel perched at 7,000 feet on a rocky outcrop surrounded by soaring green peaks.

At the end of the trip, Salisbury asked each student to describe his or her favorite experience. "They all had different answers," she said.

For example, Anderson enjoyed doing community service at a village school outside Cusco. McCafferty "really enjoyed the jungle fishing" in Kiteni, a mountain village in the Urubamba River valley.

All enjoyed meeting and interacting with Peruvians. "We loved the people," said Salisbury, "especially the concierge at our hotel. She and her family took care of us when we staggered off the bus our second day. We regard them as friends."

Sometimes, technology helped build bridges between cultures and languages.

"I have fond memories of Roberta at the bus station in Quillabamba showing the Peruvian children her digital camera," Salisbury recalled. "She would take their pictures and then show them the image on the screen. They were amazed. Even their parents were amused."

Salisbury and the Easton students had a rich, sometimes challenging experience that showed them another land and another culture and made lasting memories. But the trip's biggest reward may be what they learned about themselves.

The trip stressed teamwork and leadership, and each student contributed to the journey's overall success in his or her own way. "I was very proud of the students," said Salisbury. "As I expected, each one added something special to the trip." Before they left home in July, Salisbury had said, "These kids are all good at something. They all bring something to the table. I don't even know if they appreciate themselves how good they are."

Trip completed, she shared some of the skills and qualities the OA students demonstrated on their month-long odyssey: "Marcus contributed a great sense of humor, while Roberta and Colin exhibited especially strong leadership skills. Jonny did an outstanding job as the group's accountant. And Morgan contributed greatly with his Spanish. Marisa provided first-rate observation and analysis of each day by capturing the essence of each experience in her journal. We marveled at her entries."

Before they left for Peru, the students had shared what they hoped this trip would bring. Marcus Hammett talked of confirming "how blessed we are and how lucky we are to live in America..."

Indeed, our blessings include things we sometimes take for granted. Salisbury described a comfortable moment on the trip when all the travelers "heartily agreed" with Colin Basler's remark that it was wonderful to simply feel "clean, dry and warm, all at the same time."

( Lori Hein can be reached at 508-230-3766 or )