by Maryalice Wood
O.K. I’m not talking cigarette smoking here.
In the Peruvian Highlands, women cook over open fires in their primitive mud huts and the soot-blackened walls attest to the state of their lungs! What to do? Volunteer travel!
One good option is to take a stove-building tour, organized by Australian Ben Eastwood (www.socioadventures.com/) that is changing the atmosphere, one home at a time.
The ‘Stove-Trek Tour’ begins in the city of Cajamarca, a one-hour flight north from Lima, Peru’s capital city. Cajamarca (population 100,000) is historically rich, being the infamous site of the capture and eventual execution of Incan Emperor Atahuallpa on November 16, 1532.
The Inca Baths, Ransom Room, and San Francisco Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas all are intriguing sites to see and, during previous visits to our daughter who lives in Cajamarca, we’d been the typical turistas.
On this South American trip however, we decide to take a road less travelled (literally!) and do a small building project for the locals. An evening with Ben, our Aussie tour guide, prepares another Canadian couple, my husband, and me for the adventure!
After six hours of snaking up, down, and through the Andes in our daughter’s 4-wheel drive Toyota, we finally arrive at the Blue Poncho Lodge in Cadmalca.
Without access to a vehicle, we would have hopped on a local bus—an adventure in itself!
Two lovely Peruvian girls who, for the next few days will create delicious meals and see to our every comfort, warmly welcome us. Shortly after our arrival, the first steaming platters of flavorful goat stew over boiled local potatoes appear on the tables in the cosy kitchen.
We quickly devour supper, then relax and visit while sipping herbal tea. We are shown to our rooms—basic, but certainly adequate and, perhaps due to the high altitude, as well as our arduous journey, bed feels wonderful.
Day 1: Following a filling breakfast of oatmeal porridge, fresh mangos, and hot coffee, we trek to the house that’s been chosen for our project—a thirty minute walk UP!
The sun warms our backs as we cross potato fields and cow pastures with our basins, shovels, buckets, and a screen for sifting sand. Our guides use horses to carry the bags of cement and bricks. One guide assists each couple.
Before our arrival, the designated homeowner gathers a pile of large rocks and some sand. (The bricks and cement are purchased with monies from our tour cost.) We spend the morning sifting sand and mixing mortar in our red plastic basins before building the base for the stove.
This project is not for you if you’re worried about getting dirt under your fingernails, or maybe even breaking them! The recipient family shows appreciation in spite of no English communication. Their gracias is two guinea pigs (cuyes), a few potatoes, and a live chicken—tomorrow’s lunch!
We stop often during our descent to the Lodge, admiring the incredible view. Following a scrumptuous meal of rice and fish, the stovepipe has to be assembled for tomorrow. We take a long piece of corrugated metal, flatten it, then roll and rivet it together, and presto! —The stovepipe!
Finally siesta time and then a short hike as the sun sets beyond the majestic Andes.
Day 2: Another ample breakfast prepares us for the steep climb back to finish the building of our stove. Today’s task is to fill up the brick stove base with stones and sand and to get the iron stovetop and pipe in place.
It will be two weeks before the family can actually begin using their new stove, making their lungs red and their eyes not! Smiles alone are all the thanks we need—and when we get back to the Lodge another meal awaits us, with roast guinea pig as the featured entrée. Again I say if you worry about your nails, this is not the trip for you—cuy is always eaten with your hands and fingers, never a fork and knife; so we wash up and savour Peruvian cuisine at its best.
[Prior to heading to the Highlands our tour leader, Ben, had asked if we wished to help the local schoolchildren as well as build a stove. Because we did, we shopped in Cajamarca for school supplies including erasers, glue, scissors, notepads, pencils, etc. that are often lacking in many rural Peruvian schools.]
Day 3: In the early morning sun, it’s just a short walk from the Lodge down to the local school. Having been notified of our coming, the staff and students are assembled outside the blue building—a common paint color in this area.
Much to our delight, they have an entertaining program planned to thank us for our gifts.
The 200+ students recite a poem in unison; two budding “Peruvian Idols” belt out a pop tune; a more harmonious female trio follows; and then a teacher reads a letter of thanks, complete with a few political jibes! We applaud, then respond by proudly singing ‘O Canada’ our national anthem.
Now the presentation… Our Spanish-speaking daughter presents the supplies to the school principal and our appreciative audience erupts in applause. Smiling, we hike back to our vehicle and wave goodbye to this heart-touching experience and begin the homeward journey to Cajamarca.
Although it’s not much in the big picture of Peru, we feel we’ve made a little difference in the lives of some of her rural people and a big difference in our own hearts.
It’s a tour worth taking! Ciao and Buen viaje!
About the author:
This week Traveling Tales welcomes freelance travel writer Maryalice Wood, who lives in Langley, a suburb of Vancouver B.C., on Canada’s West Coast.
Photos by Maryalice Wood:
1: The Cadmalca countryside.
2: Bringing home the wood.
3: No more smoking in Peru.
If you go:
You can fly to Cajamarca from Lima to join a Socio Adventures Tour. www.socioadventures.com/ Bus fare, accommodations, and several meals are included in the price of $US375 + $60 for the stove-making materials.
Be ready to walk, walk, and walk some more! Take comfortable walking shoes and warm clothes. Even though you are just south of the Equator, at 9000 feet above sea level, the evenings are cool anytime of the year.
Note: The ‘Stove Trek’ tour is included on the Lonely Planet Blue List as one of the best travel experiences for 2007.
2018 UPDATE: The socioadventures website is no longer active