¡Hola a todos!
I arrived back in Cusco late in the afternoon, mere hours after departing from Machu Picchu, exhilarated, tired, content. My trek-mates and I spent one night more at the nice hotel – once again I enjoyed a room all to myself – and headed out en masse that evening for a final, farewell meal. The location for this meal (which I doubled up as a birthday meal in my mind at least) was chosen by one of the girls and revealed itself to be suitably refined for such an important occasion (again, in my mind at least). The evening was pleasantly enjoyable and even included a foray into a local bar later that boasted an impressive stock of imported Belgian beer (with even more impressive price-tags) and a passable pool-table. I made the discovery that Leffe make a ‘rubio’ (red) beer, something I have not previously seen but, despite this happy finding, I forewent such a costly purchase and contented myself with a few games of pool against Rea instead.
Early the next morning I bid a fond farewell to my Machu Picchu compatriots, borne away to pastures new, and took my own leave of my plush hotel surroundings and those of the affable San Blas district. Hailing a taxi with the sum total of my belongings in tow, I travelled across town to an area populated much more heavily by locals and the wonderfully peaceful, gloriously juvenile hostel of ‘Aldea Yanapay’. I first came across this brilliant project while trawling the internet from the comfort of Dad’s study when tentatively planning my trip late last year. I was growing weary of the numerous sites and companies assuring my of once-in-a-lifetime experiences in exchange for a payment in the region of that needed as a down-payment on a house (not a flat, a house) in London. Googling away doggedly, I stumbled upon the Yanapay website and its urgent, gripping and timely message from Yuri, the man behind the magic. Yuri, a native of Cusco, established the project at a relatively young age (roughly while in his mid-twenties), after growing tired of the abuses and injustices he bore witness to in his native land. The eventual goal is a fully-functional orphanage here in Cusco, open to as many local children as possible and offering education, health-care and – perhaps most importantly – love. Such a goal is, of course, costly and Yuri is currently without the funds needed for such a major undertaking. Therefore, with a seemingly infatigable reserve of enthusiasm, hope and ability, Yuri has set about raising these funds for the past ten years, through a variety of ingenious projects. The hostel in which I stayed for a little under two weeks is just one example of these undertakings. Anyone is able to stay at the hostel, where the cost of a room is more than reasonable in such a touristic location as Cusco and where the variety of rooms and prices on offer can compete with a range of alternatve options, from mixed or single-sex dormitories through to marital suites, complete with flat-screen television, the luxury of which I enjoyed for a few days when no other room was available (bliss!). The hostal also provides accommodation for a number of Yanapay volunteers (for one week I was included within this number). The volunteers are able to work at another of Yuri’s projects, his most important currently and the reason I decided to pay a visit to this fantastic little enclave during my time in Cusco.
The ‘Aldea Yanapay’ school currently caters for around eighty local children – although the exact number varies wildly from day-to-day, week-to-week depending upon a range of factors, one of which is how often the children are allowed to forego helping their families make a daily wage in order to attend classes. Such children can often be found in the streets of the city, offering a variety of wares to passing tourists and locals alike. Until Yuri has the money he needs for his orphanage, this is his main project and one that remains close to his heart. Indeed, within the philosophy and physical workings of the school can doubtless be seen the template for that educational service that Yuri envisages will be provided by his orphanage. The need to impress upon the children a real sense of belonging, of love, moreso even than drumming home any real, complex curriculum particularly resonated with me: it ensured that a strong grasp of Spanish was not necessary, allowing me to hope to be able to do some good while volunteering with my frail grasp of the language. I should add that this school runs only after normal school hours have finished and that a number of the children that attend Yuri’s school are also enrolled within a local school, where a clearer national curriculum – however flawed – is taught. This ethos of love, respect and peace is a particularly strong message and one that it was a joy to behold within the sheltered confines of the school, the very name of which translates from the original Quechuan to mean, approximately, ‘a place of peace’.
I arrived the night before my first day of volunteering, to be met by a sea of friendly faces occupying the various nooks and crannies within the hostal. By a great stroke of luck, one of the first friends I made was Anna, from Ireland, a lovely, bubbly girl and my co-teacher for the week in our class of older children (from roughly nine to thirteen years of age). Anna was confident, sociable and fluent in Spanish after a number of months living with a local family in Bolivia. She was also familiar with the workings of the school, having already spent one week volunteering before my arrival. This then was the perfect introduction for me, a person rather shy and unsure around younger people at the best of times, let alone when such characters are wittering away in an alien tongue! Anna was quick to reassure me, allaying any residual fears that were presiding in my mind and imbuing me with a little of her sunshine charisma. I also met a number of other volunteers, all of whom were friendly, open and welcoming: a great first impression then upon arrival.
My first day at the school was nerve-wracking and hugely entertaining. The children greeted me with a smile and a kiss upon the cheek and my first hour, helping in the ‘ludoteca’, or games room, was a brilliant introduction to the workings of the place in a relaxed, far from strenuous setting. I observed how nicely most of the children played together (there was, inevitably, the odd scuffle or temper to assuage) and marvelled at the potential displayed by some of my students, one or two of the younger girls in particular impressed me with their memory and puzzle-solving skills. I was given a glimpse of just how interesting and rewarding a career involved in the development of such young people must be, although I remain even now convinced of my personal leaning towards the education of older students, with more to offer by way of intellectual interaction and, hopefully, motivation to learn complex details. I also find it difficult to envisage tutoring such young minds in the finer aspects of Classics and, of course, I would teach nothing else. Nonetheless, my experience within the school was almost entirely positive and rather humbling. The rest of that first afternoon was spent acquainting myself and Anna with our charges for the week in the surrounds of a proper lesson, which occupies the latter two thirds of the three hours or so of school-time. Each week follows a similar pattern: a theme for that week is pre-selected by Yuri and often holds some significance – for example, in the week during which I volunteered, the theme was that of ‘Inti Raymi’, the annual festival of which had of course been held only the previous week. The volunteers are charged with imparting some of the details of this theme to their young students, in preparation of a weekly presentation, given in turn by every class to the rest of the children, volunteers and Yuri, held every Friday. My first two afternoons with my charges were chaotic and even I struggled to see an optimistic, week-end solution to the crisis Anna and I found evolving around us. Thankfully, after a firm word from Yuri as to the importance of showing respect to one another and to volunteer-teachers, as well as remembering quite why they were present at the school, our unruly miscreants settled themselves down and, with the help of a further volunteer Ann – also fluent in Spanish, we were able to assemble a rather interesting, visually appealing presentation of some five minutes, during which time our kids transformed into respectful, dignified actors and actresses, full of information concerning this important festival of their ancestors.
Friday’s afternoon of presentations was wonderfully magical. We gathered around in a semi-circle, seated upon wooden benches painted by volunteers and children past. Latterns lit the stage area and an expectant hush fell upon all present. Yuri spoke briefly, compounding the message of the school and the importance of good behaviour at and dedication to the presentations. The early evening, shrouded in that mystical air that dusk brings, will be ingrained upon my memories of this trip; the children, eyes wide and gleaming, drinking in the sights on display; the volunteers, smiling, cuddling a child, discreetly directing their students through their parts; Yuri, watchful, protective, attentive to his children’s efforts to win his praise. There is no doubt that Yuri teaches a hard lesson to these children and that he is not afraid to do so firmly when required. This and his ever-present person at the school transcends the normal affection the children show towards the adults here to embody a real love and respect. What Yuri has achieved in this is skilful, hard-won and magnificent to witness. I have great admiration and faith in his abilities, in his dedication to the children and to his ideals and I am sure that when eventually the time is ripe for his beloved orphanage, it will be a place of enormous love; a pillar of strength in the local community.
My week at the school concluded happily, joyously. I found myself disappointed that my itinerary did not allow for a longer stay but, thankful that I had at least had the opportunity to experience such a positive force for good while here in Peru. I had the pleasure also of some wonderful company in the form of Anna and other lovely volunteers, including Natalie and Jenny, two affable Scouse girls who had originally intended to spend merely one week at the school – just as I did – but, nevertheless found themselves still there some eight weeks later, swiftly becoming something of a permanent fixture at this place of peace. I was also lucky enough to dine upon numerous occasions at Yuri’s third and, currently, final project, that of the ‘Aldea Yanapay’ restaurant. This place was fitted out to resemble an enormous example of a child’s bedroom, complete with games, toys hanging from the brightly painted walls and fun hats available for diners to wear during their meal. It was here also that I was able to indulge my numerous sweet-teeth with the tres leches (three milks) desert, reputed by the blurb on my menu to be even better than sex. Well, with a claim like that it would have been churlish not to put this to the test. The cake was indeed very tasty, very rich but, it was only cake after all... I had it once more all the same (on a separate visit, I hasten to add).
These wonderful experiences at an end, I roused myself from a growing, comforting sense of torpor, present during my prolonged, rather luxurious stays in Arequipa and then Cusco, complete with their modern, enticing and traveller-friendly services. Rather impulsively, I bought a package tour into the Peruvian Amazon from a tour agency on one of my favourite streets in Cusco (favoured because of a particularly good eatery that styled itself upon English cuisine – the baked potatoes were amazing but, that is a story for my next blog entry). I gave myself a grand total of some eight hours in which to pack, sleep and prepare myself for an early morning pick-up. Perhaps this need for alacrity was best, giving me absolutely no chance to delay my departure any longer. Nonetheless, I was still not yet able to fully severe the connection: my tour would bring me back to Cusco upon its termination after five days...
¡Saludos a todos!