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Go Beyond Just Being a Tourist

elderly peruvian woman mama santuza

Has travel changed your understanding of a place or people? that is the question that was posed recently on Trip Logic. It caused me to stop and think for a moment about all the traveling I've done in the past 10 years and I wondered; was there a trip or a moment that stood out to me? Without a doubt there is – Peru.

Peru changed me in such a deep way I yearn to return, and even live there for an extended length of time. Travel can affect us in such profound ways when we go deeper then just seeing the surface of a place. Come with me on my journey of discovery and share with me yours!

Did you have any preconceived notions of the place?

I had absolutely NO idea what to expect from Peru or its people, other than they speak Spanish. But going with an open mind and an open heart, allowed me to experience the richness of their culture; the vast history; the incredible food; most most of all the wonderful people.

Mama Santuza

Go beyond being just a tourist

From an experiential viewpoint, but also a photographic one, getting outside the normal tourist areas and usual sites will give you a much deeper look into a country. I was fortunate to have been given the chance to visit several small villages, meet the people, help cook for the children, and provide supplies like school books and new shoes. Things they must have in order to even attend school in Peru. As a photographer I had plenty of amazing subjects at every turn, and as a human being it was sometimes overwhelming.

Meet Mama Santuza

This is Mama Santuza, at the time of this photo she was about 84, the oldest lady in the Sacred Valley of Peru. With the average life expectancy in the area at 53, she must have been doing something right! Sadly she passed away in April of 2011 (age 88).

What I learned from Mama Sentuza

In the village of Willoq where she lived in a stone house, there is no electricity or running water. There is no supermarket or restaurant. They grow their own food, and make their own clothes. Just like they have done there for hundreds or even thousands of years.

What can we do without
and still be happy?

What was remarkable to me is how little they have in terms of material things that we treasure in the industrial world. But yet somehow they all seemed so happy, especially when you think about depression rates in our society. Made me wonder . . .

peruvian woman washing clothes in river
Peruvian woman doing laundry in the river in Willoq, Peru

Upon arrival in the village we were given the grand tour and one by one were allowed to enter her home with her and our guide. One at a time because it is a very small, one room house made of stones over 200 years ago. It has a dirt floor and even I, at 5'0″, had to duck to enter the tiny dwelling.

Inside Mama Santuza's home
Inside Mama Santuza's home

We learned how they raise guinea pigs for food, and grow corn and potatoes. Life is simple there. They work to exist, and they work as a community, with each person doing their part.

Three things stuck with me as we left the village:

  • Share what little they have – they have so little but are quick to share what they do have – we were offered food shortly after we arrived
  • Already off grid – if one day we run out of oil and there's no more electricity – this tiny place won't even know anything has changed, because for them it won't. Perhaps they have it right and we have it wrong?
  • Community – the sense of community, and help your neighbour is something that we have lost in modern society. Many don't even know their neighbours, never mind build their house one weekend, and next week they build yours. The value and power of “together” was more apparent to me there of anywhere I'd ever been.

What is it to understand another person?

Is seeing understanding?

Or does one need to walk a mile in their shoes?

Where does compassion come into play?

All great questions, ones which I do not have answers for. As a photographer of course I had an over abundance of photo opportunities. But I also remembered that I'm a person first, photographer second. There were many times I had my camera on my back, while handing out food or shoes. I think both are important and documenting those in need has value as well, as long as one isn't benefiting from someone else suffering. In my mind that's wrong. I choose to use my images to help.

Potatoes and Onions Offered to Visitors
A sample of what was offered to us in the village – Potatoes and Onions

house made of stone in peru village

What I learned in a nutshell – gratitude!

  • Young women have babies so early (we met one girl in dire need of medical care on the verge of miscarriage – she was 19 pregnant with her 4th child), lack of education, lack of birth control and sex education, and husbands that disappear and leave them with small children or husbands that beat them (spousal abuse is a big problem in the rural areas)
  • I came back extremely grateful to have been born in Canada. My family was not wealthy but we never knew suffering
  • One evening after serving lunch to over 150 kids our whole group felt like eating our dinner back at our fancy hotel was just wrong. We felt guilty sitting there eating that meal while the locals have so little. It was just such a huge disparity all in one day.

Even though this trip was almost 6 years ago for me now (fall of 2007) the memories I returned with have stayed with me, just as fresh as if it was yesterday. I've written about my whole trip to Peru before and even published a book (on demand) and sold it to raise funds to help the kids there (see below)

Action plan for you!

First, if you haven't figured out how this relates to photography yet – go read this

5 Tips for Creating More Interesting Photographs

Second – share your travel story and images with me! What trip was it that changed it all for you?

What images did you capture of that place?

How will it change how you travel or photograph in the future?


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