The thin, dry layer of dust that manages to cover everything around you contrasts sharply—yet somehow fits perfectly—with the visual lushness of the Andean sunrises and sunsets. We were in Araypallpa, a small town of 300 people perched about 10,000 ft. above sea level in the mountains of Peru. Our UC Santa Barbara Engineers Without Borders group had worked in this place for a few years now, collaborating with the town on projects such as solar lighting for the school, drinking water purification, a modest public library and a variety of educational workshops on health and sanitation.
Our group supplied materials for the projects, technical expertise that was not locally available, and an influx of eager student volunteers to help each summer. The opportunity to work with the villagers taught us something, in return. Some of the experiences were transformational, many were unanticipated.
I was on the second of two trips to work on the water purification project. After helping to design and install a pilot slow sand filter two years earlier, the initial evaluation of the system looked good. I had returned with the group to install a fully functional system and to immerse myself once again for a few weeks in a world that was completely different from the world I knew in the United States. I became absorbed, morning and evening, in the Andean sunrises and sunsets.
The town’s heartbeat of activity and work typically winds up and simmers down with these solar events. This morning was no different; the sun’s rays, the roosters’ calls, and the pattering of hooves all streamed through the windows and the adobe walls at once, waking me. The day’s work took us to the river, a mile below the town, across the steep drops of the mountainsides that, from a distance, appear covered with patches of green and brown through the day, and glow an earthly dark purple once the sun has set.
The untrained eye might not notice the thin lines of uninterrupted dust that crisscross up and down the mountain landscape: The old highways for hooves and feet, the trails that connect life among the villages of the Andes. I walked these trails the day before with an anciano, a village elder.
Once we had reached our destination, my calves were burning and my chest heaved, but my elderly guide did not seem winded as he shared with me corn from his satchel. Along the way, he had pointed in every direction, the line from his finger touching mountain peaks in the distance, as he explained to me in Spanish the locations of all the surrounding villages he knew, nestled away in unseen valleys. This place pulses with village life, and the mountains, like great protectors, often hide the secret.
The hiking practice with the anciano yesterday served me well in the end, with the unexpected trails ahead in the upcoming evening’s work. A man in town owns a truck, a flat-bed Mitsubishi six-wheeler. He’s often out of town working as hired driver, but he made his truck available for community labor today. We planned to haul the sand and gravel we had shoveled and sieved the previous two days at the riverbed below up to the town above. Grains and pebbles of constrained sizes had been heaped into burlap sacks near the water’s edge, destined to become functional layers in the expanded slow sand filter system we were building in the town to support the entire town’s drinking water needs.
Close to sunset, the loaded truck became stuck in the riverbed, its wheels spinning in a foot and half of water and mud. We worked, wet, into nightfall—ten town members and two Engineers Without Borders members, including me, shaking the large vehicle from every angle at the count of “kinsa!” —“three” in Quechua, the local language, a vestige of the Incas.
Stars appeared as we all grew tired. We’d try again in daylight. With no means to communicate with our colleagues in the town above, we had only one way home: a night-hike up the mountain. As we made our way up the mountain, my calves burned like the day before with the anciano, but pressed with more certainty into the ground than they had then. Loud conversations echoed from our convoy-on-feet as we trekked. The villagers spoke in Quechua and I couldn’t understand the words, but I understood deeper messages from the tones and rhythms of the conversational orchestra. Despite the logistical impasse, the frustration with the stuck truck, and exhaustion from the day’s labor, the villagers’ voices filled the night air with laughter and good humor. My own concerns evaporated with their laughter, and I felt thrilled and honored to be so closely tied to their community in that moment.
We were a line of people working side-by-side for a better life. I thought back to my first taste of village life when I visited two years ago. My past experiences had defied my efforts to keep an open mind and I found myself thinking, despite my best intentions, “Why do these people choose to live here, away from the resources of the city?” Now, in the cold night air, among the camaraderie of the villagers, I thought and felt tremendous admiration for these villagers and their way of life. Here we were, among neighbors working for neighbors, laughing with each other through difficulties, connecting to the protective strength of the Andean mountains with each step. The world here, away from the city, is filled with deep connections between people and people, between people and earth. How could life be any fuller? I was exhausted when we finally reached the village, and I felt wonderful. That night, I began to see the world in a new light.
Our joint UCSB- EWB/Araypallpa water purification team faced many challenges during our work in Peru, including technical and cultural obstacles. But we were able to overcome most of them, and in the end we had a successful purification system up and running. A couple of years later, a local nurse reported a dramatic decrease in intestinal illness among the villagers. The results were wonderful to hear. Along with feeling honored by the opportunity to work with the people of Araypallpa to achieve this progress for their town, I will be forever grateful to them for the new awareness they provided me. Significant life lessons remain precious and untold within different cultures throughout the world, and the true value of those lessons require direct, personal collaboration to be fully felt and realized.