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“Life’s biggest rewards come from the biggest challenges” From The Inca Trail to volunteering…

Have you heard this quote before? Does it sound familiar? Please look at what our World Volunteering Destination Manager Pablo feels about it and what it speaks to him about.

 



 

A while ago a friend of mine shared this quote with me. I’ve heard it before but this time I couldn’t get it of my head for some reason and it kept taking me back to two very different episodes. I don’t know why this is what came to my mind… but it did. Maybe it’s because it relates to my passions, two of the things I enjoy the most doing which are travelling and volunteering; working towards a brighter future for all. So in this blog I’d like to share with you two very different adventures I’ve taken upon a while ago that although very different, have a lesson in common and can be easily combined together in one of our World Volunteering projects! So get ready to join me on these stories because I’ll be taking you back and forth for a while now.

It was December 2011 and an amazing group of friends from a Tourism University in Argentina and me (7 in total) were in Cuzco, Peru ready to embark on a huge adventure we had been planning since we’ve started studying more or less: a 4 day hike to the Ancient City of Machu Picchu, where the Incas set base over 600 years ago. An amazing experience but quite a hard one was about to start.

It was a cold October Friday night in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2008. I was wandering around a school that was being used as a meeting point for a bunch of eager young volunteers ready to tackle poverty and work for a whole weekend improving the livelihoods and conditions in which hundreds of families lived in the Suburbs of Buenos Aires. You could see volunteers from all over Latin America gathering together, catching up, mingling, sharing stories, hugs and laughter! And there I was, hardly knowing more than 2 or 3 people, overwhelmed by the atmosphere and stuck in my head with what was about to come and the decision I’ve taken of doing something in order to help, to give back, to learn and to be immersed in a reality I could no longer look away from…

 

 

Me and my friends that were now in Cuzco started studying tourism 4 years ago, and began talking about a trip backpacking South America not long after that. The trip would reach its biggest highlight when we embarked in the Inca Trail and we were just about to start! A lot of planning behind, lots of anecdotes and experiences already, since we’ve been going north for some weeks travelling from Salta in Argentina where we had spent New Year’s Eve! We had crossed the border to Bolivia, visited the Salt Flats in Uyuni (there are more than enough experiences for another blog. Trust me!), the historic city of Sucre, the mines in Potosi, Copacabana and Isla del Sol, La Paz, Uro’s Islands already in Peru, Arequipa, and finally Cuzco, the majestic Cuzco, so after thousands of kilometres, plenty of discussions organizing the trip, amazing sightings, and huge amount of hours sitting in very small minibuses travelling across South America we were there, carefully listening to our guides giving us the advice and taking us through the experience about to come. They were checking we had packed everything and were ready for the cold weather, altitude, long hikes and rain to come.

 

Back to my volunteering experience now. It had only been a couple of months before today I was just finding out about this organization that works towards a Latin America without extreme poverty and decided this was right up my alley and something I wanted to, sorry, NEEDED to do. I had visited a slum or informal settlement with them a couple of times now, and met with plenty of families in order to find out about their living situation… We shared meals, conversations, discussions, we had met and played with their kids and looked into which ones were the families in most need of the emergency houses we would build together. We had already let the families know they were selected for them, and this was the weekend we were all travelling to the settlement to work and make those dreams come true, help with the emergency situation and start bringing some ease in the hope of a brighter future. It was definitely not going to be easy but it was surely going to be rewarding.

The Inca trail, the most famous trek in South America, is 43 km long and in 4 days it manages to combine beautiful mountain scenery, lush cloud forest, jungle, and Inca Ruins before it gets to the amazing lost City of the Incas: Machu Picchu.

 

TECHO is a youth led non-profit organization present in Latin America & the Caribbean. Through the collaborative work of families living in extreme poverty with youth volunteers, TECHO seeks to overcome poverty in slums. TECHO is convinced that poverty can be permanently eradicated if society as a whole recognizes poverty as a priority and actively works towards overcoming it.

 

So in Peru it’s the time to start walking now, no more excuses, no more delays, no backing down!

In Zarate, Buenos Aires Province we are having an early 6 am wake up at the local school; time to get up and get ready for a very active and hands on weekend.

Inka Trail hike has started and so we go, bags on our backs and a two and a half hour walk to begin with until our first stop for lunch. The first part isn’t too bad and we all manage to reach our first stop together, enjoy the walk and have some delicious food.

 

House building volunteering is on and so we start, we enter the settlement, walk to the family we are going to work together with, leave our tools and construction materials on the ground, introduce ourselves, meet everyone and start working. Nice way to begin the morning!

As predicted in Peruvian weather up in the mountains in February, rain starts and we all put our raincoats on, step up the pace and move faster. The path gets muddier and steeper in the afternoon but we manage to complete our first day and try to relax after our first day of trail. 

 

In Zarate we are all working digging in the ground in order to place the 15 piles that will help avoid the floor from touching the ground, so the house doesn’t get muddy or flooded! This isn’t an easy job since it’s not just digging deep into the ground but also making sure all 15 of them line up properly and are evenly high.

 

The second hiking day is not easy at all. This is in fact the longest and hardest day and it’s all the way up until we reach the highest peak, cross the mountain and continue walking down afterwards. Everyone is already tired since the morning and the day keeps getting harder and harder as we move on.

Building a house is really hard and exhausting. It doesn’t feel we are moving forward. We don’t see much progress and we are already quite tired from digging, placing the piles on the ground and making sure everything fits in its right position.

Inca Trail got to us. We are tired… exhausted… can’t keep walking… you see the top of the mountain but you can’t reach it… You take one step and you need to stop. Going over my mind is why I signed up for this. Why since instead we could be relaxing by the beach in our holidays or we could have even taken the train to visit the city!

 

Still working in the informal settlement when exhaustion reaches us, arms are tired, muscles sore, fingers beaten up, extremely hot and dirty… Time for a pause, I can’t see us finishing on time…

Machu Picchu seems so far away… I look up, see the top of the mountain we need to cross over, think of what brought me here and tell myself I need to keep moving, there’s a reason I signed up for this, and a huge unimaginable reward on the other side. I’ve got to keep going.

I look around at the township and remind myself why I’m here, I think of what’s really exhaustion, I think of what this family goes through every day, how hard it is to have your family sleep in the mud, to work 20 hours a day just to bring some food home… I tell myself I can keep going, I need to keep going and I want to! I remind myself of another quote that fits the situation and a friend shared with me: “Never give up, great things take time.”

Time to celebrate in Peru! We’ve finally reached the top! The view is breathtaking, I look back and see my friends still battling, I encourage them, and I want them here with me. This is a shared experience; a shared triumph and I want to be with them. I sit, relax, drink some water, take tons of pictures and admire the view! My friends get here; we hug, celebrate and are ready to keep going. This isn’t over and we know it! It’s only day 2, but we’ve reached the highest point and made it over the mountain. The hard part is over! Or is it?

 

Back in Argentina, finally some accomplishments. We’ve made it, 15 piles are on, no more digging, I don’t want to see a shovel ever again haha, but that’s done, and the floor is nailed to them. We celebrate; we stop for some “mate” (Argentinean traditional tea), some water and mainly some rest! This is only day one, but we think the hardest part is over. Is it?

It seems the day is finally over in Peru! After 2 hours walking down an endless staircase we make it to our tents for the day. I still can’t believe the work the porters who set up camp and food do. They leave after us, they walk the whole way with enormous bags carrying everything, they pass through us, get to camp, settle everything up, cook for us, all of that before we even get there! And in their flip-flops! Crazy! We have an amazing time at our camp! Everyone is exhausted but it’s the best time to share experiences, meet new people, talk about what we have accomplished, and what’s to come. This brings us closer, and we share moments I will never forget and will hold in my mind forever. 

Back in Zarate it’s time to relax for us. The tasks for the day are done, but you can still see how the family keeps working, cleaning, taking care of their kids, rearranging everything, taking care of us, making something to eat and share with us, we are exhausted but they keep going. They don’t even look tired! We walk back to our school that generously lent us the space for the night. We change our clothes, no shower tonight but it doesn’t matter, since we all smell as bad! We make some tea, something to eat and we get together with the people we’ve met today. It’s a new experience for most of us and we share our thoughts on the day, the family, the settlement, poverty and politics… it feels like we’ve known each other for so long and it’s been less than 24 hours! But what started happening today brought us closer, It brought us together. People who share a similar look on society despite their different backgrounds, people who want to actively contribute to a better tomorrow. This is a bond that shouldn’t be taken lightly. We play some games, share some laughs, stories and we are ready to rest, tomorrow is coming and there’s a lot more work to do!

Moving forward! Inca trails is not done although days 3 and 4 seem to be easier and shorter. Between 3 to 6 hours of walking a day. Our legs are already numb but we want to keep going. We can see we are getting closer. We walk pass some Inca ruins which are amazing and a huge preview of the reward to come! We walk faster, we don’t really know how but we can see the finish line and we want to get there! We want to see Machu Picchu! But on the other the hand, that’s the finish line! We don’t want this to be over! No matter how exhausting it was this is something unique.

It’s time to finish building the house. We get back to our family’s house. They are already waiting for us with breakfast but even better, with huge smiles and hugs! There’s a bond that I didn’t expect to create so fast. Our arms are shaking but we keep going, the house is starting to look like a house and everyone is contributing and pulling their weight. The entire family including the little ones want to do their part. Our smaller volunteers are on top of the roof putting the nails as if they were experts. We see the finish line getting closer and we want to move faster, and yet we don’t, we don’t want this to be over. It’s been probably the 2 hardest, most tiring days I’ve had… but two of the most amazing ones too!

 

Wow! We are finally here! We arrived at “Puerta del Sol”, one of the entrances of Machu Picchu overlooking this amazing city! Mission accomplished! However this is not the breathtaking view and reward I was expecting! The clouds seem to have something else in store for us and the city is hiding behind them. They are telling us we are not going to get away with this so “easily”. 

So we made it! House is finished! Roof is complete. I get down from there and look at the whole house. I still can believe it. 7 absolute amateurs who know barely anything about construction have managed to build a house in two days working together with a family in extreme need! I look at the house, look at the happy faces of the family and their kids look at my fellow volunteers; this is a moment I’ll cherish forever. However, this isn’t over, what looks finished is still not! We wanted to prepare a surprise for the family inside so to inaugurate the house officially, fix the windows and the door, clean up, gather the tools and get ready… 

Some frustration in Peru…This can’t be it. It can’t be over. So I make up my mind. I’m not done, this isn’t over just yet. I approach my friends who are lying down extremely exhausted and I let them know I’m going to keep going. I’m going to hike up Huayna Picchu which is another hour hike up and very steep. I want to get to the top! This is a once in a lifetime thing (Is it?). My friends look at me as if I’m crazy. And I may as well be, but luckily I’m not the only one! Two of the best friends one can only wish for, Caro and Roman decide to join me, and I can’t express enough at this moment how much this means to me for so many reasons I can’t share at the moment. But having them there with me pushing, and hiking up this last mountain with me is of those moments I will never forget!

You can see the exhaustion in Zarate. Everyone is tired and feels this is over, but it isn’t. We need to continue and leave the house 100 % ready as if it were ours. This is a family’shome; not just a house, and we can’t do it half way. We need to push, so with some other volunteers we keep working in spite of the exhaustion. This is a once in a lifetime thing (is it?) and we need to finish!

Top of Huayna Picchu!! We made it! Now this is the breathtaking view I’ve been looking for, this is what I came here for, or so I thought… What brought us here and made us work hard for 4 days was this place, these views and these friends. Target achieved and even more so, no matter how tired you are you keep going and this is the reward you get!

The house in Buenos Aires province is now absolutely finished! Just watching the family cut the inaugurating ribbon, opening their house door, jumping into their new home, hugging, crying and endlessly thanking us for this weekend, that’s the huge reward I wanted! House finished, inaugurated and a happy family! It doesn’t matter how tired we were, but this was absolutely worth it!

 

“Life’s biggest rewards come from the biggest challenges”

That’s a great quote, and a very accurate one… But something else I’ve learnt from these two experiences is that it’s just not only about that reward you seek, about getting to the finish line. A few lines back I said something about going to Machu Picchu for the stunning view, or volunteering for the reward of seeing the house complete and giving back. But it’s not just that! Yes, the rewards were unique and I’ll never forget them. Both, being in the top of Huayna Picchu with the best people ever overlooking this city, and inaugurating a house we’ve made for a lovely family in need are memories I will never forget, and crazy rewards after long  and tiring journeys, but as this other quote also says:

“The journey IS the destination”

It is in fact the journey itself… Every moment shared with my friends, fellow volunteers, the family, every step up, every hug, every laughter, every “mate”, every meal, every discussion we’ve had both in Machu Picchu or in Zarate, every lesson learnt, those were the rewards, those are the memories I never let go off. Yes it was also hard, but those are also the moments or things I’ll never forget… that’s my real reward.

And by the way, none of these ended up being a onetime thing! I ended up hiking again Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu some years ago with my lovely wife, who I actually met by volunteering and building more houses in Techo a year after my first construction! Life surely has a funny way of tying things up!

So if you are also interested in big challenges, huge rewards, and an amazing experience while travelling the world, meeting new people and giving back, join us in our volunteering opportunities all over the globe! Find out more here

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John 30 June 2017

Great blog

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