The COM 310 class took a trip to Machu Picchu over spring break. Photo courtesy of Edhaya Thennarasu.

This spring break, like millions of other college kids, I did pack my sunscreen, shorts and camera to go to an exotic location. However, instead of coming back with a tan and wild photos, I came back with a unique perspective of communities living all around the world.

The COM 310 class I took this semester at the University of Rhode Island offered a travel program that took us to Cusco, Peru to learn about community resilience and sustainability. For eight days, 14 of us from different majors lived with a loving host family in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, in Calca.

Throughout the trip, we worked with the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development (AASD) to understand the different processes of farming and cultivation, and values within the campesino communities.

While some parts of the world are fighting adapting to (or acknowledging) climate change, these community members have successfully protected and used traditional practices and values of the Incas to ensure the sustainability of their resources.

During the first few days, we learnt that according to the Andean cosmovision, the Quechua community believes in the idea of “Sumak Kawsay” or “Good living,” where energy is taken and given back. They use methods like drip irrigation and manual cultivating of the soil to ensure quality rich food. This way they don’t devoid the soil of its nutrients, take only what they need and give back to the earth.

On the third day, we visited the Huamanchoque community living high up in the mountains and learned their methods of farming by doing it ourselves. If there was one thing that was greater than their warmth and welcoming, it was their delicious food. It was clear that my tongue had gotten accustomed to Butterfield’s chicken nuggets and had forgotten the taste of fresh vegetables.

Through an exhausting but breathtaking hike up their village, we saw their “Galpon de Cuyes,” or Guinea pig farms and streams running in the middle, where we tried but failed to catch fishes. Guinea pigs are a famous sustainable food item there because of their ability to reproduce quickly. Some of us even tried one to see why they were so popular there. For the curious ones reading this, it tasted like the dark meat of chicken. For the ones who are appalled, here is why it was great.

That was also one of the important things that we learned as students. Even though, being from the U.S, we thought that the idea of eating Guinea pigs was strange, we didn’t dismiss or judge the community in any way. We dismissed ethnocentrism and acknowledged their cultural values and practices, while retaining our own thoughts and differences.   

On the fifth day, we visited the kids of Urco, with whom we made rings and bracelets. These kids were so inspirational because they had a strong vision of entrepreneurship and leadership for their community’s and their own future, at the same time lived for the day instead of just living the day.

The last two days were the most awaited days, where we traveled to Aguas Calientes and experienced sunrise at Machu Picchu. Walking through the ruins and listening to the history behind it made us understand why it was one of the wonders of the world.

You would think that the biggest take-away was literally living under the Andean mountains for a week, or eating guinea pigs or taking ‘Insta-worthy’ pictures at Machu Picchu. The greatest thing that we learnt as a group, was the importance of perspective.

Like the majority of the world, in the U.S, we too have a general definition of development and poverty. We define it  based on money or quantity. As Aaron Ebner, the co-founder of the AASD, said, “The rest of the world told them that they were poor and they believed it. What if we used sustainability as a metric for measuring poverty? Then they would be one of the richest countries in the world and we would be underdeveloped.”