Just before our trek we had met up with a couch surfer in Cusco and he had told us about his home in Chinchero, a small town just outside of Cusco. There he has set up a Albergue, a centre where the local school kids go for extra curricular learning, and where we would be able stay and to help out. We have been on the lookout for some kind of volunteering work our entire trip but most “volunteering” nowadays seems to be through big companies and for some reason involves you paying them a substantial amount of money. This was directly through a local person, helping local people with no big white land cruisers involve.

So, after a day of recovery after the trek, we excitedly met up with Ermo and were soon watching anxiously as our now huge backpacks were tossed onto the roof of a local bus. A couple hours later we arrived in what was to be our home for the next few days, the little community of Pongobamba. It consists of little more than the school and a few dirt roads, lined with the most delightfully rustic mud brick houses. Like Isla del Sol, the silence of the place was striking. It was only broken every now and then by the laughing of children, the snuffling of the pigs in the gutters and the crazy braying of mules and donkeys.

Our lodgings were set on a hill looking out over the Laguna Piuray and the mountains beyond. Behind it were miles and miles of rolling fields. The buildings themselves were surprisingly modern in construction, but this was slightly deceptive as we soon found out that the water was not working. Our first task was to walk down the hill to Ermo’s mothers house to fetch some water, then lug it back up the hill to our kitchen. According to Ermo the the water would soon be working again. With that promise he returned to Cusco, leaving us to make ourselves comfortable. After Cusco, the solitude was wonderful and with relish we set about cooking what was our first home cooked meal for a long time.

The following afternoon Ermo had not retured, as he said he would, and the local children had arrived to find a panicing Sophie. I had gone to explore some nearby towns so Soph was left on her own to try and handle the arrival of about 10 local kids of various ages, only a few of whom could speak Spanish, let alone English. I arrived back to find her engaged in teaching a very basic English lesson. It very quickly dawned on us that we would have to cut back our expectations of the amount that we’d be able to teach the kids. With such a big language barrier, gone were Soph’s plans of imparting repect for the environment and each other, and the desire to create a better world. Instead we concentrated on topics such as; names of farm animals and ingredients of a chocolate cake .

Despite that,  it wasstill  a very interesting experience working with the kids and trying to come up with things they could do. In the end we did some art, some music, some English, and for the big finale on the last night, we got all the kids to help out to make a huge chocolate cake, which we very promptly devoured.

During days when the kids weren’t there, we spent the time exploring the nearby towns in the Sacred valley. For a tiny fare, we were able to zip between the very interesting towns of Chincero, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Pisac on the local buses and taxis, often packed to the brim with locals going about their daily business. All the of the towns had a huge amount of character and history, most of them being former Inca towns. The scenery in the area is just fantastic, with rolling plains dropping dramatically down into the valley and then rising up to the snow capped mountains on the other side.

It was a spectacular place to stay, but hard work as well. The water never did reappear, so all of the tasks involving the running water that we take so much for granted became very tedious. Washing up, cleaning floors, making tea, flushing toilets, now all relied on us having water in the 20l container that we’d have to lug 300m up the hill. In addition, we became quite friendly with Ermo’s mum, and the one day she managed to rope us into coming out into the fields with her to harvest some potatoes. While really hard work, it was an amazing experience of rural Peruvian life.

The day began with everyone gathered round having a few capfuls of Quanyasa, the local (very local in fact, probably brewed by one of the guys) cane spirit. Then the ox-plough did a first pass to rip up the rows of earth, quickly followed by us, bent double, sorting through the clots of earth to find the potatoes and tossing them into a carrying cloth. When full, someone would wrap them up and take them to the waiting sacks.

At tea time we all gathered again and sat down in a circle. A 20l container of the traditional beer, Chicha, was opened with a big pop and in turn it was passed to each. It was warm and very tart, not unlike the traditional brew of Zimbabwe, Chibuku, except mercifully much less thick and lumpy. After everyone had had their fill it was back to work. While we worked, a couple of the guys built what looked like an oven from large clots of earth from the field. Inside, a big fire was lit, and after letting it burn for half an hour or so, some of the potatoes we’d just dug were placed in the oven, and it was collapsed on top of them. Thus, after the second session we feasted on super fresh, ground baked potatoes, seasoned with salt and a chillie and cheese concoction with salad. Never have potatoes tasted so good!

That evening after our classes we were rewarded for our labors with a huge pile of potatoes, much more than we could possibly eat in the couple of remaining days. We did our best though, cooking many of them with the kids on the final night.

Such was our week in rural Peru. It wasn’t easy, but it was an unforgettable experience that you simply cannot sign up for at your local travel agent. We returned to have one night in Cusco where we were desperate to have a shower that didn’t come out of a bucket, and where we had a new appreciation for the fact that water just comes out of the taps simply by turning the knob. The next day we had one more delicious and cheap Cusco restaurant meal, before we boarded a 21hr bus for the capital, Lima.