by Eden M. '21
Sixteen Upper School students recently spent three weeks in Peru for a Global Service Learning experience that is part of the history class The Modern World and You. Students regularly posted reflections as part of their learning process.
4,680. Take a second to understand that number. It’s a big number, right? Well, it’s less feet than are in a mile. It’s only enough seconds for 78 minutes of time - roughly a long-block class period. What if I told you that 4,680 is the number of weeks in a 90-year life? My point is this: we only have so much time on this planet. It is up to every one of us to choose what we do with it. In the case of the 2018-2019 sophomore history class, this knowledge must have been on their minds as they filled in the application for a GSL Peru class. It’s scary, unknown, foreign, and the thrilling. And yet, here the sixteen of us are, waiting to go home at the Lima Airport after some of the most memorable weeks in most of our young lives. Each of us chose to take a wild risk, and I can say with absolute certainty that it paid off.
I remember so clearly our arrival in the tiny village of B___. I could barely remember its name and yet the people welcomed us with banners, balloons, and sprinklings of confetti on our heads as we headed to our home stays. All three weeks, they showered us with affection and allowed us into their lives that are so vastly different from ours. We made deep connections to people in that tightly-knit community, and memories we never want to forget. I believe I speak for all of us when I say that we left parts of ourselves back with each of our homestay families.
The festivities on the last day were incredibly bittersweet as they brought this magical trip to an end. We began by dressing up from hat to shoes in traditional Peruvian attire with the help of our homestay families, who rushed to lend us accessories such as sandals and handmade belts called chumpis. They braided the girls’ hair with a little extra care and gently placed freshly-picked flowers in our hats, all the while smiling and muttering just loud enough to hear, “Que Bonita...” The pride in my host mother’s eyes as she pinned a marita onto my jacket was pure enough to melt my heart, because I realized that with me she could finally have a daughter of her own, as she only had sons (even if it was only for three weeks). We poured into the cancha (field), all dressed up, and once our families had all taken their seats on the concrete perimeter, we did our very best to perform the Wallato dance (a traditional Peruvian dance) for them. Part of me was afraid that we wouldn’t dance well enough and end up accidentally mocking their culture, but I was relieved to discover that each time we made a mistake, they all chuckled kindly. They were simply amused by our missteps and happy to see us do our best, and our best was enough. The mothers thanked us by doing a dance of their own - the macchu macchu dance, or the “old persons’ dance,” where they dressed up in trench coats and walking canes and stumbled around the cancha to the beat of the drum. The formal dances ended and merged into a free-for-all dance party, where families danced with other families, and young children darted in between us all, laughing and twirling and enjoying the music together.
Eventually, the kids got bored of dancing, and Glen, Morgan, William, and Elise somehow organized and led them through a series of games, including obstacle courses, relay races, and sharks and minnows (which we were forced to rename “fish and bears” due to our lack of Spanish vocabulary). They were absolutely delighted to learn new games and approached everything with curiosity and bubbly enthusiasm, even if they maybe didn’t understand the sitting part of sharks and minnows once you are tagged. We played until we were forced to stop to have a formal meeting. Once everyone was piled into a giant circle, some of our students and several members of the community stood up and made speeches about our time with them. Many of the speeches became emotional. I barely realized beforehand how much of an impact we had made on our families, but after hearing those words, I now understand more about the depth of our connection. I call many of these people my family and they taught me that the word “family” is not to be taken lightly. Throughout the meeting, my youngest host brother was curled up in my lap, clinging to my hands, and I never wanted to let go. I held up his arm to wave to his mother and father across the circle.
After a brief class meeting, we said an early goodbye before leaving the cancha. Almost everyone had tears in their eyes as we watched the last of the sun set over our beautiful mountains. At the start of this trip, I doubted that I could ever get that close to any people. I thought that three weeks could never be enough to truly bond. I clearly recall thinking “I don’t cry,” and I laughed remembering that as the tears gathered in the corner of my eyes. My brother ran up and hugged me to say “goodbye” and I was confused, because I would be seeing him for two more meals. I asked why he was saying goodbye when he didn’t have to. He told me it was just a little extra. I hugged him as tight as I could and desperately wished for one more week.
I was so wrong when I thought that three weeks wasn’t enough to be meaningful. Three out of 4,680 seems like nothing. And yet this trip taught me more than anything that every single week counts for something. Not only has my life been permanently marked, but I have marked the lives of at least four others. Each member of my host family shares that short span of time in which our paths briefly collided before splitting apart as quickly as they had come together. We shared many meals, and games, cartoons, and little dance parties in the kitchen. We shared hikes across mountains and games in the cancha and even a birthday party. Three weeks may not seem like an enormous amount of time compared to the length of a life, but when you realize that the number of weeks in a long life can be counted with relatively little inconvenience, you begin to understand. And, as always, quality over quantity. It seems unfair to be given such an incredible gift only to have it taken away so soon, but I think this is the heart of travel. It’s hard to leave because we had such an incredible time, but that’s a good thing, in a painful way. In order to live life to the fullest, you must learn to let go, no matter how badly you want just one more week. During my trip, I happened upon a section of a poem that brilliantly sums it all up. Here are the last nine lines to In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver:
To live in this world
You must be able
To do three things:
To love what is mortal; to hold it
Against your bones knowing
Your own life depends upon it;
And, when the time comes to let it go,
To let it go
In the end, the hardest goodbyes make for the happiest hellos.