BrthumbFor spring break, the Dogan family was privileged to join three other Rye families on a service trip to an orphanage near Cusco, Peru. Ours was the inaugural voyage for Rye Middle School teacher Craig Dreves’ newly founded travel company, VolunTravel Inc. (www.voluntravel.com), which organizes service trips to developing countries for both students and families.

 

By Fiona Dogan

 

BR1For spring break, the Dogan family was privileged to join three other Rye families on a service trip to an orphanage near Cusco, Peru. Ours was the inaugural voyage for Rye Middle School teacher Craig Dreves’ newly founded travel company, VolunTravel Inc. (www.voluntravel.com), which organizes service trips to developing countries for both students and families.


We formed an intrepid group of 13 travelers, whose common bond turned out to be an adventurous European background and a well-stamped passport, which stood us all in very good stead as we navigated the delightful chaos of travel in South America. Despite the groans of certain uncooperative family members, dismayed at the thought of an actual “family vacation”, all five Dogans signed up for what turned out to be a fabulously quirky, funny, and very special trip to one of the most fascinating and breathtaking countries in the world.

 

Our first stop was the Hanaq Pacha Retreat Center, our home for the first three days of the trip. This spiritual retreat is affiliated with the Casa de Milagros Orphanage and located an hour outside Cusco in the Sacred Valley. Our collective jaws dropped as we navigated an impossibly steep, narrow, and boulder-strewn pathway in our tiny minibus crammed full with our group, guide, driver, and 25 pieces of luggage and backpacks balanced precariously on top. We were even more astonished to discover that our eco-friendly accommodation consisted of a main house and several surrounding huts and cabins, but that the only source of electricity and heat was in the main house and that the bathroom facilities were located several feet away from the other buildings in a freestanding outhouse!

 

Br2There was a lot of nervous giggling the first night, as we stumbled around with flashlights trying to find our beds, and some memorable local color was provided by a large black tarantula which visited the Dogan children’s cabin another night. The kids are forever grateful to Mr. Dreves for helping the visitor on its way, while the Dogan parents slept blissfully in a nearby cabin.

 

In keeping with the spirit of the retreat we did manage to enjoy a sunrise yoga session led by one of the aspiring yogis in our group and, despite the inelegant gasping for breath due to the high altitude, the participants felt quite serene afterwards.

 

By the end of the stay, our group was completely enamored of the breathtaking valley, surrounded by lush plants, flowers, trees, and rainforest, as well as the delicious vegetarian meals and long evenings spent chatting around the communal dining table and playing guitar and piano by candlelight.

 

br3The primary reason for the trip was to bring supplies to the Casa de Milagros orphanage and to help and play with the children there. The orphanage was founded in 1995 by an inspirational American woman, Mama Kia, and named for her grandson. It provides a loving home for about 30 youth, ages 4–20. We were all excited to be able to volunteer with our teen-age children and had spent many hours before the trip collecting donations and carefully planning activities.  

 

Our well-meaning plans were quickly modified, however, when we realized the tightly structured three-day program would have to be relaxed to suit our young and energetic Peruvian hosts. The highlights turned out to be an ongoing soccer/Olympic games tournament, a popular spa-day with hair-braiding and nail-painting for the girls, a surprisingly successful afternoon in the kitchen baking brownies and cupcakes (with a continuous battle against the altitude to make the cupcakes rise), and a wonderful last night around a campfire with songs, hugs, and cuddles, and a huge supply of marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate for s’mores.  

 

br4We all loved our time with the Casa kids, and were thrilled to be able to leave them with a large Friendship Tree mural painted on a main wall at the orphanage, with all the kids and volunteers’ handprints and names to mark our visit.

 

After saying goodbye to our new Casa friends, we continued our Peruvian adventure and headed off to visit some of the most spectacular Incan ruins in the area. Our first stop was the Andean town of Pisac, where we visited the impressive ruined fortress complex, sun temple, terraced city structures, and intricate burial grounds. We balanced ancient with modern by spending the afternoon in the lively and bustling market buying locally made souvenirs.

 

The next day we wandered around Ollantaytambo, another remarkable Andean town with a spectacular fortress-cum temple, where the Incans and Spanish battled for control of the Sacred Valley.

 

The highlight of our sightseeing was a visit to the fabled lost Incan city of Macchu Picchu, via a 90-minute train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. We were completely entranced by the incredible scenery this trip affords, with amazing views of the roaring Urubamba River and surrounding spectacular mountains with cloud-covered peaks and lush rainforest.

 

br5After a couple of problem-free days, we were overdue for a glitch in our program; it came at 4 a.m. the morning of our Macchu Picchu visit, when our over-confident young guide failed to get us on the appointed early shuttle bus up the mountain. He was able to call in some local favors to sneak us onto a later bus out of sight of the official queue of visitors, but the early morning sprint to catch the speeding bus was quite a wake-up call for the adults in the group!

 

The exhausting start to the day faded into the background as we toured the majestic city and braved the challenging two-hour climb up very steep and narrow mountain paths to the tip of the neighboring peak, Huayna Picchu. Once there, we enjoyed the sight of the clouds parting and the lost city revealing itself through the mist.

 

We returned to the mountain city of Cusco, where we took in the mighty stone fortress of nearby Sacsayhuaman, and wandered the colossal Spanish plazas, cathedrals, and palaces.

 

We celebrated the last afternoon with a few brave members of the group trying the local delicacy – guinea pig – alongside offerings of alpaca and llama. That night we enjoyed an evening fiesta at a local restaurant, where one of our teen-age group members outdid himself by dancing on stage with the locals, shaking his hips wildly, while trying to avoid his dance partner setting his “tail” on fire!

 

Months later, my family is left with delightful memories of our intrepid fellow travelers, an amazing collection of photographs, many hilarious travel stories, and a new appreciation of the culture and character of modern and ancient Peru. We are grateful that we joined a trip where we were not cosseted in the lap of luxury, but rather learned to “roll with the punches” (one of our group leader’s favorite phrases), and at the same time, we were fortunate to be able to give back, in a small but meaningful way, to the wonderful Peruvian people.  

 

An information session on VolunTravel’s upcoming trips will be held Wednesday, October 12 at 7 p.m. at the Rye Free Reading Room. Craig Dreves will be leading trips to: Costa Rica (February/students only), Galapagos (April/families), and Ghana (summer 2012, families)