The Joys of Going Off the Beaten Path


Surrounded by coffee plants and plantains!

La Union de Ocumal was the location of our 2 1/2 week experience living and working with a Peruvian family in a rural area. Check out this link for a map of Peru:  La Union is just east and a little bit south of Chachapoyas in the northern Andes and sits at about 4,500-5,000 feet. It took us 8 hours to get there in a truck because of the rough dirt road conditions in the rainy season. As the crow flies, it was only about 35 kilometers from Chachapoyas!

As you check out the blog, remember you can see captions for the photos if you scroll over them.

We had a magical and rich experience filled with meaningful connections. After my last blog post, I knew I was ready for a deeper connection with the people and landscape of Peru. We were lucky to find a farm listed in the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) website nearby. Our stay in the village involved working on a family farm and teaching English classes.  And yet so much more….

When we arrived we were the only volunteers, but at the end of our first week, Noe arrived, a young agronomy student from France. She was a joy to share the experience with, full of energy and interest in rural farm life. She spoke great Spanish, but it was also fun to practice some French with her. A bonus for me was that she loved to sing and we had some great sessions with my guitar and my Rise up Singing book!

Our wonderful hosts were the Vargas Portocarrero family: Jose and Yola and their three children: Gladis (16), Lely (14), and Jhimilan (12). What a joyful and kind family they are! They immediately made us feel like part of their family and community. They set us up to stay in a room at Yola’s brother’s house with an awesome view of the mountains. Yola loves to cook and she took pleasure in sharing her food with 3 more people. Gladys and Lely are fantastic volleyball players and they made sure to include us in some games. Jimmy loved to play, dance and joke around. Jose easily incorporated us into his work in the fields with so much willingness to share his knowledge. We quickly realized that most people in town were related in some way! Cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews abounded.  I enjoyed the easy rapport that developed with the people we would pass in our daily routes around town. Asuncion, Yola’s father, ran a little tienda across the street from where we stayed. He never tired of chatting with us and sharing stories from his 75 years in La Union.

Gladis, Lely, Yola, Jose and Jhimilan (Jimmy)



Afternoon Volleyball Game

Getting to be outside and working hard felt great. We hiked steep terrain to get to Jose’s various plots of land. We spent a fair amount of time weeding the coffee plants and mixed crops of lentrejas (legume), yucca, maiz (corn), plantain and mani (peanuts). It was rewarding to be able to plant coffee towards the end of our stay. We did not get to harvest it since it usually takes place May-October. They sell the coffee to an intermediary and then some of it gets exported. If you are drinking Peruvian coffee, maybe some of it came from La Union! Coffee didn’t used to be the main source of income there, but since the growth of the coffee business abroad, it has become a viable way to make a living.

Teaching English and playing music were highlights for me. Musical instruments are not common in La Union. The guitar was a hit and I enjoyed sharing music with the students and in the community. On Sundays, Yola opened a food stand to serve lunch and dinner at the volleyball field where people gathered after going to the Sunday market from surrounding towns. I would bring my guitar and play music  while people came around and listened or joined in. My few Spanish songs were popular as were some of the songs in English. I’m playing more than I do at home and I am psyched that I’m improving! I even played guitar at an evangelical church service one night!

The English classes were so much fun. Jason and I took on the challenge of teaching something we’ve never taught before without the help of any resources or direction from anyone. The students were from ages 7-12 and came with different levels of motivation.  Most of them really wanted to learn some English as well as play and have fun with us. We came up with various games and activities to get them engaged. We know from our own experience that practicing speaking the language is one of the most important parts of learning it. The kids were pretty shy about it but we sensed improvement as time went on.  We also improved our Spanish as we had to communicate with them in Spanish as well as English.

I loved hearing the children’s names, they are so different than names in the U.S! Everyday we had them write them on the board to help us remember and for them to practice writing a word in English next to their name. Here is an example list: (names and favorite colors): Nayeli: purple, Diogenes: yellow, Marlit: pink, Selita: pink, Angheli: red, Yhulian: light blue, Greisi: pink, Joselit: pink, Yubli: red. They were such sweet and fun-loving kids. I miss their smiling faces!

Life in La Union is like going back in time compared to life in the U.S.  They have limited electricity with only one light per room and very few electric appliances. The only vehicles are the few trucks that go by each day to transport people and supplies between communities. People mostly walk or use horses/mules to get around. Running water was obtained from shared communal spigots. This simpler way of living seems to create a peaceful and relaxed feeling among the people.

The power went out for 5 days while we were there. At first they said they might not get it back for a month! It took a very concerted effort by the community to bring it back by redirecting water flow to the small hydroelectric plant. Without electricity, we had dinner by candlelight and enjoyed viewing the stars at night. Most people had cell phones, but in general the reception was not very good. Internet was only available at the Colegio (middle/high school) from 4-6pm which was about twenty minutes away.  So, we were pretty out of touch for the time we were there. This helped us to focus more on being present with our experience and taking time for music and art.

Eating with the family meant a pretty big change from our usual diet. We were willing to experiment and see how it felt. Luckily, they ate mostly vegetarian with very little dairy, focusing on the food available from their farm.  Meals often included rice, plantain, yucca, corn and beans as well as pasta. Surprisingly, they didn’t eat a lot of vegetables. They could grow them, but they choose to focus on other crops. We were always grateful when we had cabbage, tomatoes, avocado and other vegetables with the meals. They would supplement meals with chicken or red meat occasionally. Since I usually eat gluten-free, it was a big change for me to eat the pasta and other wheat products! I found that I handled it fairly well. I was working hard everyday and I was pretty hungry. One weekend Yola made a specialty that I’m surprised I was willing to try: Caldo de cabeza, which translates to cow head soup! I was pretty grossed out, but I did have some. Keepin’ up the cultural experiences!

Since I am not a coffee drinker, I did not imagine I’d enjoy drinking it there. Most mornings they served it with breakfast sweetened with sugar from cane grown nearby and I found it pretty tasty! However, I couldn’t handle that much caffeine every day. It was affecting my sleep, so I had to decline some of the time!

It was sad to leave La Union. As we hoped, we found a place to contribute, learn and have cultural exchange. The scenic beauty, the tranquil setting, and kind people made it feel very comfortable to be there, even if we were living in very rustic conditions without many of our usual conveniences. The journey continues and we will keep La Union in our hearts as we open up to what unfolds next for us in our travels.

We are currently in Cajamarca capping off our month and a half of time in the Amazonas region of Northern Peru. Our next move is back to the coast to get our last dose of salt and sun. After that our hopes include going inland to do some trekking in the mountains near Huaraz, then onto Cusco (Machu Picchu/Sacred Valley) and the Amazon Basin for our last month in Peru.

If you want to read about our experience from Jason’s perspective, here is the link:

La Union Jason Style



4 thoughts on “The Joys of Going Off the Beaten Path

    1. What an adventure! The photos really helped bring the story to life! I loved how the two of you got so involved in the lives of the villagers. The photo of the cliffs and the surrounding landscape helped clarify what the Andes at that elevation look like in that part of the country! Onward!


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