At the very least, this community deserves a blog post. Before starting our BikeLiving adventure, we worked with the non-profit, Operation Groundswell, to lead some awesome off the beaten track, service-learning, backpacking programs in Peru from May 2015 until the end of August (and the start of BikeLiving). We had the privilege to build close relationships with multiple communities and families in Peru. This particular community, Union Chahuay, I will always remember as some of the most joyful, hard-working, genuine, honest and humble people that I have ever met. These people are the real deal.
We were searching for a place to take our group of backpackers to show them the “real” Peru, learn from locals and experience how they live. The year prior, I had lived with a homestay family in a community in the beautiful, high-altitude 4 Lagunas region and I had heard from a friend that the nearby town of Chahuay was a great place to bring a group for a cultural exchange. We didn’t have an e-mail address or a phone number so once we were in Cusco, we asked our friend, Luis, to drive us the 2 hours through 4 Lagunas to Chahuay to see if we could talk to anyone in the town.
As we arrived to the quaint town on the edge of the charming Lake Pomacanchi, we asked the first person we saw if we could talk to a town leader. The woman happened to be the wife of the town’s vice-president. She hurriedly ran to put announce through a loud-speaker (that was used to communicate to anyone in the town) for the vice-president to come talk to some gringos. We met vice-president Fernando, along with other community members and president Lucio, in the hostel that the community built together to attempt to bring more visitors. The hostel reminded me more of a community center or a space where my girl-scout camps would be held. With cabins that held 6 beds, a huge communal kitchen, and multiple meeting rooms, all with a breathtaking view of Lake Pomacanchi surrounded by mountains, we knew this place was perfect to bring our groups. The excitement on the faces of the community members’ faces as they told us about the agricultural life of the families, the history of the lake, and the ancient local ruins made me want to stay forever. After sharing stories from each of our countries, we promised we’d be back in a few weeks and we hugged goodbye. As we drove back to Cusco, I was reflecting in amazement of how welcoming they were to people who just stopped by.
When we returned a few weeks later, we were welcomed with hugs, dancing, and a community meeting explaining to us the history of their area and their eagerness for us to explore and enjoy. We spent our days cooking with the local women, paddling out on the swan boat around the lake, and hiking to Wakra Pukara, one of the most amazing ruins I have ever been to. With canyons on all sides, incredible views, and impressive ruins, I was amazed that only 200 people (mostly Peruvians) visit this site A YEAR (compared to the 4,000 that visit Machu Picchu each DAY). Due to the breathtaking beauty of the location, along with the kindness of everyone in the community, Chahuay was a favorite experience for many of the backpackers in our groups.
Now if there are any doubts at how genuinely kind this community is, I have a story for you. Although it’s embarrassing for me, it truly shows how honest and sincere these people are. One night I, stupidly, had all the group money that we would use to fund our entire stay at Chahuay in the pocket of my jacket. As I returned to my room to cuddle up in the heavy hand-made blankets, I noticed that the money had fallen out of my jacket. I had just lost everything we had- 1500 soles (around $500) which goes very far in Peru. With a flashlight and panic, I searched everywhere. No luck. I didn’t know exactly when I lost it but I knew that it was a lot of money, a life-changing amount of money for any one person in the community. The next day my friend (and mother of 6), Samona, ran up to me, grabbed me and quietly asked if I had lost anything. I could barely speak, “Yes!” She pulled out the money and urgently told me to count it to see if it was all there. The president walked up and with a concerned voice, asked if any of it was missing. It was complete. All 1500 soles. I started to tear up and hugged them, not wanting to let go. I was happy and relieved to see the money but what made me emotional was their honesty. I wouldn’t have blamed them if they took it and acted like they didn’t see anything. I think it’s what many people would do, especially if they had few resources and a large family.But taking the money is something that wouldn’t cross their minds. They reassured me that we are all family, that we look out for each other, and that I should always feel safe and secure when I am staying there. This community gives me faith in humanity. This is how things should be in the world.
I visited the community four times throughout the few months I was in Peru and each time I was welcomed as if I was family and asked if I could stay longer. They assured me that I always have a home there and I’ve never felt a more genuine invite to return. These people are the real deal. In every way imaginable, this community is a breathe of fresh air.