As members of Deerfield Academy, we are privileged enough to be constantly exposed to rich opportunities that broaden our international outlook. Developing a global dimension in our way of thinking is one of the most important lessons to learn during the short time we spend here. This recent summer, I took an opportunity through Round Square to embark on a project trip to Peru for about three weeks.
If I could take anything away from a Round Square-hosted trip, it would be meeting some of the coolest and most unique people in the world. In total, the group represented eight different parts of the world: France, India, Denmark, Germany, Bermuda, Thailand, South Korea, and the United States. When I first arrived in Peru, I hardly knew anyone on the trip. But, three weeks later, they were some of my closest, lifelong friends, and I was crying, stubbornly refusing to separate from this diverse group of people.
Among the many fun activities that captivated the group, one of the most memorable was the ‘via ferrata’ trip, which was basically climbing a mountain using fixed cables, ladders, and bridges. Many of us screamed to our lungs’ maximum capacity, but because everyone supported each other, we nevertheless enjoyed an awesome climb.
Visiting the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Man-made Wonders of the World, was another highlight in the trip. We spent an entire day marveling at the unparalleled complexity and beauty of a civilization that existed so long ago. As a group, we decided to hike up Wayna Picchu, the highest mountain above Machu Picchu, which looked impossibly difficult to climb. But we felt well-rewarded in our courageous climb when we took in a breathtaking view at the top of the mountain as we looked down to Machu Picchu.
And though the three weeks were much too short to fully grasp and appreciate Peruvian culture, we discovered nuggets of fascinating information, such as that Peru celebrates its own Independence Day, similar to the one that Americans themselves celebrate. For three weeks, we felt fully a part of Peruvian culture. For example, we cheered hard for the Peruvian national soccer team while watching the Copa America 2011 soccer semifinal game between Peru and Uruguay.
Activities such as the ones that I mentioned constituted merely half of our experience in Peru; the other half of our time was spent in the secluded village of Pampa Corral, located high in the Andes Mountains. Working with pick axes, shovels, meter sticks, and other tools, we worked to construct two greenhouses there, as it is difficult to produce vegetables in high altitudes. Besides constructing the greenhouses, we conducted health surveys, organized an item distribution drive, and performed other tasks such as planting trees and constructing netted soccer posts for the school children to enjoy during their recesses. Though building the greenhouses was a difficult task, by the end of our project, the fruit of our tribulations was not at all limited to these completed pieces of infrastructure.
At the end of the Round Square project, what we acquired from our time spent working on the greenhouses, interacting with the villagers, and living their extremely modest and simple lifestyle was a supreme level of knowledge incomparable to anything we have learned before. We realized that in order to take full advantage of any new experiences and information, we must be open-minded and hospitable to the exoticism and newness of what we are learning.
Yes, we put in hard work and long hours to build two greenhouses which would greatly improve the lives of the people of the village, but at the same time we were receiving just as much, if not more, from them in other forms of rewards. Their openness to sharing parts of their culture, language, and way of life was a fountain of knowledge in which we had the unique privilege to immerse ourselves because of the work we were doing.
During the first few days of construction, with the high altitude infringing on our oxygen intake and the bare minimum living conditions causing some discomfort, I really questioned why we were there and what “greater meaning” was to be salvaged from this experience. But as we became more integrated with the Pampa Corral community and they embraced our presence with sincere gratitude and interest, the “greater meaning” of our work became more evident to me.
It was the moments when children of the school would come up to me with an irresistible smile and want to hold my hand that the “greater meaning” of our work became more and more evident.
It was the moment when the local shaman of the area walked three entire hours just to get to Pampa Corral and perform an age-old ritual, blessing us for coming and inducting the greenhouses into the domain of the community, that made us realize the “greater meaning” of what we had done.
It was the moments when we played friendly soccer games against the villagers, although getting utterly demolished by their crisp passing and mesmerizing footwork, reducing our spirits to rubble with a final score of 24-3, that we felt a sense of belonging and that the “greater meaning” of our work became clear to us.
And finally, it was the moment of departure when all the villagers gathered a feast for us, the children danced for us, and as we rolled away on the bus, their faces showed longing for a day when we might return, that we felt the true merits of our work.
It was in these moments that I realized my individual character had made a notable impact on the grand scheme of the world. That no longer was I just any person whose life would span but a blink of an eye in the history of time, but rather that my existence was valued for those brief three weeks. Yes, we gave the village of Pampa Corral two greenhouses but in return, they gave us the satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that cannot be measured with a meter stick or put together with nails and a hammer. The people of Pampa Corral gave us a new perspective on the world and on ourselves, which in turn enriched our individual beings with a greater value and appreciation for life.
For the remainder of the school year, I will be trying to gather items and money which I will donate to the needy communities in Peru (called “Peru Initiative 2012″), so I hope that many of you in the school community will be supportive of my efforts. In order to take on such efforts in the long term, I have established a not-for-profit organization called WorldCircle (worldcircle.org), and I will continue to post updates of my initiatives on its website. Through WorldCircle, some of the RSIS Peru 2011 veterans will work on “Peru Initiative 2012″ from their respective countries. Moreover, I really recommend all of you in the school community to seize the special opportunity to sign up for the Round Square summer projects. Those three weeks during the summer break can truly be one of the most memorable and life-changing moments of your life.