The skies had cleared over the ruins of Machu Picchu and I was having a great day. After clocking in some serious miles in the surrounding trails, I was looking forward to when the trainloads of tourists would leave and I could explore the ruins more intimately. At three in the afternoon, I jogged down from the summit of Machu Picchu (Machu Picchu is actually the Quechua name for the mountain that sits 2,500 feet above the ruins, one that few tourists actually hike), expecting a much more peaceful visit than I had experienced that morning.
I was wrong. I encountered something far more delightful. I was met by busloads of schoolchildren, who had arrived just in time for an afternoon discounted tour of Peru’s greatest attraction. Instead of the peaceful and surreal walk through the ruins that I had envisioned, I watched hordes of kids playing music, chasing each other, climbing stone walls, and hiding from the guards. I decided that attempting to interpret the ruins of Machu Picchu was overrated, so I joined in on their fun.
The 30-minute warning sounded, and I walked toward the exit of the ruins. As I passed a school group, a brave young girl asked if I would be in a photo with her. Of course I would! This was a refreshing request as I had just come from Cusco, where the local indigenous women aggressively try to get you to pay them to have their photos taken. After about 20 shots were taken of the two of us, we did a group shot with the entire class. About to say goodbye, I was then confronted with a line of chaperones and teachers, all wanting to take an individual photo with me.
I was confused. Who did they think I was? Maybe they mistook me for a celebrity. I confessed that I was not the North American who first discovered Machu Picchu for the outside world. They didn’t care that I wasn’t famous. To them, a photo with a gringo was just as important as postcard shot of the ruins above us. Some twenty minutes and at least one hundred photos later (I’m not kidding), my cheek muscles were drained for smiling so much, and to my relieve the guards summoned us to leave the ruins.
We walked out together as the kids told me where they were from. They were on a 6th grade field trip, called a “promocion,” which is a celebration of their graduation from the lower grades. They were students from Colegio Williams Prescott, a small private school, in the 12,000 foot high commercial city of Juliaca. One 11-year-old girl asked me if I would be able to visit their school. I thought about the logistics…Juliaca was a few hours detour from my intended route, a small sacrifice for a group of students who treated me like I was Brad Pitt. Of course I would come! My response was followed by cheers louder than any Inca ceremony that would have taken place at this very spot six hundred years ago.
As we exited the ruins, it was time for us to part ways. They had the luxury of taking the bus out, whereas I had an hour walk down a dark trail. I was enveloped by hugs, handshakes, kisses on the cheek, and repeated requests of “are you really going to come?” As I hiked the 3 miles back to my hostal room, I reflected on my phenomenal day. 7,000 vertical feet of magnificent hiking, ten hours of exploring the world’s most stunning ruins, and a visit with some of the most excitable kids I had ever met. The last bit was definitely the best part.
One week later, I found myself in Juliaca, dressed in the nicest clothes that I could find in my backpack, and sitting in the main office of Williams Prescott. To my luck, there were mothers who had recognized me in the main office. Floored that I actually made the visit, they dialed the superintendent to come welcome me immediately. News had spread quickly of my arrival, and within a few minutes, 11-year-old Marjorie had escaped the lunch room to come give me the world’s biggest hug. Wow! This was going to be an intense visit.
After a nice lunch with superintendent, the sixth grade teacher escorted me to her classroom. I had arrived at 2 pm, and the school day was officially over, but the students were to stay in their homeroom until five to work on homework. I had a feeling that homework was not going to happen that day. After breaking through a pack of curious third graders, I entered the classroom and was welcomed with a boisterous “Bienvenidos Jeff!” If there’s one thing that these kids are good at, it’s yelling in perfect unison. They soon broke their classroom etiquette, charged towards me at the front of the classroom, and suffocated me with hugs. This was a definite no-no in the schools I used to work at in the States, where hugging a child might cost you your job and a law suit. I was relieved when I gazed over at their teacher and superintendent, who were laughing at the sight.
When the students returned to their seats, the teacher gave me her chalk, and then left! Ummm. What was I supposed to do for the next three hours? I guess I could teach! Even though classes were over, the students were excited to have me at the board. I improvised some lessons in Geography, English, and told stories about my life and travels. We taught each other dances and songs in English, including “The Hokie Pokie” and “Little Mandy Walker.” Three hours flew by.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of my day was when a wonderful student named Laidy approached me at the board fifteen minutes into the lesson. She whispered in my ear, “Will you be my godfather?”
Caught off guard, I was speechless for a minute. I’m not even Catholic, let alone I just met this girl! Caught up in the excitement of the moment, I announced, “Of course I will be your godfather!” The class cheered, and I asked for an explanation. “El Padrino,” which means godfather in Spanish, is also the name of the person who sponsors their December graduation. This would be a much better fit for me. I confessed that I would not be able to make it back in December, but that was no matter as long as I sent them a class gift! Furthermore, I was to decide on the slogan/theme of the graduation, which I’m trying to figure out to this day. Any suggestions?
As parents arrived, it was time for us to part ways again. I thanked the students for sharing their day with me, a gift that I genuinely appreciated. I was starting to get more and more lonely in my travels (I had been going for ten months on my own after all), and the love they gave me that day would stay with me for a long time. I was embraced by one final 30-student hug, and my only ticket out the door was a promise to my new friends that I wouldn’t forget them. That would be an easy promise to keep.