Travel theme: Contrast

At around this same time last year I traveled to Peru as part of a engineering class dedicated to using and sharing engineering principles to improve the lives in communities around the world. The program is very similar to Engineers Without Borders. Ailsa’s travel theme this week is “contrast” and this is my contribution.

When we first arrived in Cusco we walked into a parade where I managed to take a picture of this woman using her cellphone while dressed in traditional attire. Cusco is a developed city but still maintains much of a kind of traditional charm.

The second picture is of a mud house in one of the mountain villages outside of Cusco. Within the past couple years, Cusco has installed electrical lines into these villages, although people in these villages still use indoor biomass stoves which blacken their walls and create severe health hazards, especially in children. Our engineering class was split into different project teams and we worked for a school year in developing our projects before we went to Peru. My team investigated the use of TEG (thermoelectric generator) technology which can take a temperature difference and convert it into electrical power. Our first objective was to power a fan using a design incorporating the TEG to blow air into the fire to improve combustion efficiency and to ultimately improve air quality. We found that with the recently installed electrical lines, our design wasn’t needed in that particular village. We also found that generally those without electricity were more interested in being able to charge a cell phone than in improving indoor air quality. This was not the first year we went to the mountain villages, and a member of the previous year’s class said that when the power lines were first installed, one house played their radio 24/7. It was an interesting contrast between what I thought people would most want, better health and sanitation, and what people could actually really value and desire when they thought about first-world amenities.

Our objective in the village was to provide service to this school in the “teach a man to fish” way. When we arrived, we learned that other service groups had come before us and had built the school or given them several of those cool laptops and a printer, which are pictured in the second picture. The teachers at the school didn’t know how to set up or use the laptop or printers so we helped with that. We also found that what the teachers really wanted was a way to bake bread for lunch for all of the students, so although we hadn’t planned on building anything like that throughout the year, we designed and built the oven pictured above. We used common materials so that the design could be replicated. The oven had four tiers and was propped above a cavity where a fire was built. A space between the mud walls and the walls of the oven was left open to allow heat to rise along the sides and to heat the oven.

While building the oven, we also found ourselves tasked at gardening or other laborious projects. We didn’t mind, but we found the teachers so used to having service groups come that they were used to just having things done for or given to them, and they weren’t too interested in how things were done or in replication. But, the leaders of the village, which happened to be a council of women, also came to see our project and were very interested in the principles behind the oven. The attitudes of the school teachers and the village leaders were so different. I also observed contrasting objectives in international service groups and wondered at what it really meant to “help.”

We also went to the Uros Islands. These are islands made completely of reeds. One team designed a water pump which could be installed right through the island. The islanders generally just dip a bucket off their island to gather water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and watering their plants, but the islands are about three feet above the water. Another team designed a hand powered washing machine. The last project was a water filter made with buckets and filled with sand and silt. The layers of material remove particles but also forms a biolayer that removes bacteria. The water filter was a continuation of past years. In the year before us, some islanders had come to the hotel on the Peruvian mainland where the class was staying to ask if they could learn how to make the filter. This year, the islanders bought their own materials and brought them to learn how to make the filter and pump. I mentioned Emerson in a previous post, “A Word A Week: Old.” His mom still had her filter up and running from the year before. She said that Emerson used to get sick all the time with stomach problems and that they would have to take him to the hospital frequently, but since using the filter he hasn’t gotten sick at all. She was also very curious to see us always applying sunscreen. We gave her the bottle and she seemed very happy to be able to use it on herself and on her children.


Finally, we spent a little time in Lima. Lima is as busy and as worldly as any city in the USA. For me, it was a shock and a little depressing to suddenly find myself in nice malls, hotels, and restaurants. The wealth in Lima was the biggest contrast to anything else I had experienced in Peru. The picture above is from a water park we visited.

For me, Peru was a juxtaposition and contrasting of the very old and very new such as I had never seen before.


8 responses to “Travel theme: Contrast

  1. Love the pictures and the story; do you remember the name of the village that you went to? I am curious if it is close to us.

    • The village was named Matinga. The previous year had gone to Huatta. I loved the drive from Cusco into the mountains! It’s so beautiful. Is that close to you?

      • I am not familiar with either of these. I did a Google search and Matinga would appear to be close to Calca in the Sacred Valley. The only Huatta I can find in north east of Lima. Our town of Huarocondo is about 30 min to the west of Cusco. We also love driving around, we have several dirt roads that we regularly drive through the mountains and the scenery can be breathtaking.

  2. Wow. I thought the part about using electricity to charge cell phones instead of to improve air quality was an amazing example of how people make choices. The contrast between the teachers and village leaders was an interesting observation. I wonder how people qualify to be teachers in that place? Thank you creating this fascinating post.

    • As far as cell phones and air quality, isn’t it the same way with us? Sometimes the feeling of status or being part of something new or the modern world is more important than things that are actually really good for us.

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