This post was written by Local Roots Journalism Fellow, Faye, who is currently discovering Peru with Walking Tree Travel.

The Peruvian bull: a symbol of protection, prosperity, and luck.  Atop every home in rural Peru are 2 clay bull sculptures about the size of a shoe.  There is a cross situated in between the two and the figurines serve as guardians to the home while proclaiming faith at the same time.  As we traveled by bus through many villages and saw these bulls, it soon became clear that for this month, the Peruvian community is our bull that gives us guidance and protection.  Our homestay families of Ollantaytambo guide us through our Spanish mistakes, illness, and homesickness while helping us to understand their culture.

We are rapidly learning what a fiercely connected ancient culture they maintain.  Perhaps it is the well-maintained ruins that tower over the valley but I think it has more to do with the fact that the people share a deep pride for their Incan roots.  Some of us feel the Incan way influencing us through everyday life and possibly the Coca leaf.  One of the Peruvian foremen for our service project called Caroline (the oldest student of the group) a natural born Incan based on her rock laying skills.

There are other sides to life here in this small village.  The host family we are living with is fairly modern. At our service site, a local school, we were most surprised to see how eager the children are to help us with the heavy duty work, like moving rocks.  It speaks to the hardworking nature of the small-town Peruvians.  The entire culture surprises us on a daily basis.  Today, we visited the salt flats on our bike tour.  To our disbelief, one kilo of salt is only worth 80 coule cents.  And yet, the people make it their business to utilize the salt and sell it.  We are incredibly impressed with the simplicity of their lifestyle.

Courtesy of Walking Tree Travel

Our host dad, who had lived in New Mexico for 25 years, says he loves living in Ollantaytambo because of its small village attitude, preserved Incan ruins, and the fact that there are no banks, lawyers, or appointments.   Later I found out that he left the U.S. after September 11th, 2001.  He said that the U.S. had large problems to work out and he preferred the happy-go-lucky nature of Ollantaytambo.  He also made a comment saying that the U.S. appears to be free when really we are under constant surveillance and must avoid breaking the many laws.  His prime example was his perception in the difference between traffic cops in the U.S. and Peru.  Here, in Peru, there are few rules of the road.  We have found that the drivers here are not aggressive, so much as witty.  They are one with the road.  There is a method to their madness.

Another thing that struck me was how attached the stray dogs are to us ¨gringos.¨  They follow us everywhere.  Perhaps it is because we humor them while the locals refuse to tolerate their presence.

Another thing that we didn’t expect was how much we crave chocolate here! Our leaders tell us it is because we are eating mostly salty foods with less fruit and we are not used to it.  A local made an interesting comment on our weak stomachs.  He said we are so used to completely sterile foods that when we come here we struggle to cope with the new bacterias in our diet.

Peru Immersion 2011: Ollantaytambo Service Project from Walking Tree Travel on Vimeo.

A typical day consists of waking up to the roosters outside our window and heading downstairs for breakfast.  From there, we gather up our work gloves and head off on the cobblestone streets of an already busy town to work.  As we dodge buses, cars, stray dogs and people, we realize how lucky we are to witness the upbeat start to everyone’s day in the town of 2,000 people.  Often times, we will pick up some produce or a sublime bar (Peruvian chocolate bar) on our way to the service site.  As we get closer to the school, we receive many ¨hola!¨s from the students who are making their way to their elementary school as well.  Throughout the morning we set rocks as the foundation for the floor and mix plaster to apply to all walls.  All the while, we embrace getting dirt under our fingernails and watch as the school kids weave in and out excited to see fresh faces at their school.  At noon, we head home for lunch with our host families and hope to catch a siesta before heading back to work.  The rest of the afternoon includes the continuations of work on the soon-to-be cafeteria.  Once we are released, we grab hot chocolates on the plaza and hang around until dinner at 7:00pm.  After dinner, we spend time with our family or go over to a friend´s house to learn how to make dolls from their host mom or return to the plaza.

Despite our ever ready brigade of questions throughout our adventures, we have learned to embrace the fact that Peru keeps us on our toes.  The best way to enjoy the experience is going with the flow.  With Macchu Picchu and the Amazon still to come, we know Peru will keep us guessing along the way.  There is no better way to spend a month abroad.