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Photo by Ryan Kost, Andes & Amazon Semester.

Homestays

Some 13 years later I still vividly remember my first homestay experience. I remember the anxiety I felt going into it. Will they like me? What if I do something culturally inappropriate without knowing? Language barriers? I also remember when I left 2 months later, full of tears for having to say goodbye to such dear friends. I will always remember my time with Piwattana and her two sons in Northeastern Thailand. As will I remember my time with Emmanuel and his family in Rwanda, Jorge in Guatemala and so many more kind and welcoming families that have opened their doors to me over the years.

For the majority of our students this was their first homestay experience. For the 1st two weeks of the course we were all together. In orientation and on the Lares trek the default language was English. Conversations flowed with a western influence. Now, the tables had switched. They were no longer with the group 24/7. They had to use what Spanish they had, when they ran out of words an elaborate game of charades would ensue. Everyone took to this challenge in different ways but what was clear, while sitting around the program house last night with all the students and families, was that true friendships had been made. My favorite part of our Urubamba homestay was when I got to visit with the families. Just the other day while talking to Karim’s host dad I could see him shining with pride, as if Karim was his own son. He was so impressed by how much Karim worked to connect with him and to teach his son English. When one student had to go to the clinic her host mother called me every couple of hours to make sure her “daughter” was ok. Everywhere I do homestays in the world I am constantly amazed by the hospitality of strangers. These homestays can truly restore your faith in humanity when we live in a world of boundless negative media coverage.

On Monday we’ll enter into Nacion Q’eros, an incredibly remote part of Peru, where we’ll hike from one community to the next for a week. We’ll stay with families along the way learning about their lives and connection to the land. Q’eros is a sacred place and many of its inhabitants have a deep bond with Pachamama (mother earth) and los Apus (mountain spirits). Here we’ll learn about Andean Cosmovision (spirituality) and experience a way of life very different to our own. We’ll be off the grid until March 7th but will be in regular communication with the office through our satellite phone.

Upon returning to the land of cell phone reception we’ll head to Cusco and Machu Picchu. My team and I are curious to see how the students will react to the intense consumerism and catering to tourists that Cusco and Machu Picchu provide. For most that visit Peru, homestays and remote village stays like Q’eros are simply unavailable. For most folks they are limited to experiences constructed for tourists. In the central plaza of Cusco, the historical heart of the Incan empire there is a McDonalds, KFC and of course a Starbucks. These establishments exist here because they’re what people (mainly tourists but some locals as well) want, if we didn’t want them they would have shut down a long time ago. Cusco and Machu Picchu, especially after Urubamba and Q’eros will force us to look at how tourism shapes a place and our role/privileges within this system. Having worked for Dragons for 7 years I’ve seen so many groups enter into the world of tourism (aka Cusco, Peru/Antigua, Guatemala/Shanghai, China/Kigali, Rwanda). Groups tend to act in one of three ways (or sometimes they’re split within the group). Some sprint full speed blindly to the comforts they have been missing, often times eating so much McDonalds that they actually get sick from it. Others hold intense guilt and shame for the privileges they have in their lives and see places like Cusco as a depressing place full of disparity. A third group seeks the middle path, takes the time to reflect, think about their privileges and proceed with gratitude, interconnectedness and compassion for their fellow humans. Should be quite exciting to see how deep the students take it and what reflections are made.

Here are a few photos from the past couple of days here in Urubamba.