Lighting it up in Peru!

Originally posted on May 30, 2017

I’ve always been more of a “wait until inspiration strikes” kind of writer, but travelling in Peru, was such an amazing trip I just had to write about it! I had several incredible experiences that have inspired me to finally pick up the pen (ahem, keyboard) again. From surfing in Lima and eating ceviche by the beach to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, this was a trip of a lifetime.

My amazing hiking group at Macchu Picchu! Photo Credit: Christina Free

Light Up the World – an amazing NGO!

It was one experience in Peru in particular that had the most significant impact on me, and that was my time volunteering with a Calgary-based NGO called Light Up the World (LUTW). LUTW is an awesome non-profit whose focus is on implementing solar energy projects in communities that don’t have access to electricity (you can learn more about them here). Since 1997, the organization has been bringing clean energy into homes, schools and community buildings to off-grid areas in 54 countries. Over the past few years, their efforts have been focused in Peru which has one of the lowest electrification rates in Latin America, where 4-6 million people in Peru (actual estimates vary) currently live without access to electricity.

A mother and her three children relax in the “town square” of Llancash. Photo Credit: Christina Free

I had never thought much about what it would be like to live completely off the grid with no access to electricity. For most Canadians, ‘getting off the grid’ typically means getting away for a weekend camping trip in the mountains or a stay at a rustic cabin by the lake. It’s seen as a break from everyday life, a chance to escape our cellphones and office computers to get back to nature. But for millions of Peruvians, living off the grid isn’t a vacation – it is their everyday reality. And that reality is one where families may need to resort to using animal dung or wood for cooking. It’s a reality where, to study or do homework, children must use the dim light of a kerosene lamp or a flickering candle.

The kitchen at a school in Llancash used to cook meals for the students. Photo Credit: Christina Free

Not only do these energy sources pose inherent risks such as accidental fires, injuries and respiratory ailments stemming from the inhalation of toxic fumes – fuel sources such as kerosene are a primary source of greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, these inefficient lighting sources are extremely costly and families can spend as much as one third of their monthly income on kerosene or candles! To imagine that people love to complain about high electricity prices on almost a daily basis here in Canada! With a reliable, renewable source of energy such as solar power, this income could be directed to other priorities such as nutrition, business development or education. Access to electricity is an indispensable enabler for reducing poverty, improving health and promoting economic growth, which is why the United Nations made access to affordable and clean energy for all one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2014.

Locally hired technicians work on installing lighting in a school building. Photo Credit: Christina Free

Volunteering with Capital Power

My employer Capital Power Corporation partnered up with LUTW earlier this year as part of the corporation’s community investment program. As part of this initiative, Capital Power provided the funding directed towards the solar systems, equipment and staff at LUTW, while myself and several of my colleagues traveled to Peru to meet up with LUTW to install these solar electricity systems in rural communities in the Andachupa region. Our little group of 8 consisted primarily of office nerds (and one former electrician who was our saving grace!) who, until this trip, had likely never even held a pair of wire strippers in hand. Nonetheless, we arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed in Lima, ready and eager to learn all about small-scale solar systems. We were all motivated to volunteer our time, energy and money for the program primarily because of the social impact that we believed solar projects could have, and wanted to have the chance to witness first-hand how communities could benefit from this kind of work. But as the project went on, it became so much more than just about what we could give to these communities in terms of access to electricity.

The CPC and LUTW team posing in front of an electrical box installed at a health clinic. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

Kicking things off in Lima

Our first couple days in Lima were spent getting to know each other, team building, and completing an intensive crash course on installing off-grid solar systems.  The very first basic circuit we built I short-circuited (by accident I swear!), but by the end of the day we were able to circuit 5 LED light-bulbs in parallel, with switches! My grade 6 science teacher would have been proud, my first year university physics professor probably much less so! Armed with our newfound technical skills (or lack thereof, depending if you are a glass half-full or empty kind of person), we flew to Huaraz and met up with a local LUTW staff and technicians who would help us on the installs and also maintain the systems after we left. We loaded up our trucks full of equipment, then drove another 4 hours to Huallanca, a charming town nestled in a mountain valley at an altitude of nearly 10,500 feet, which served as our home base for the week.

Fallon, Les and Ruth complete their practice circuit on our training day. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

The winding roads to Huallanca

Despite only being around 400 km north from Lima, Huallanca felt like it was oceans away. The views of coastlines dotted with skyscrapers were replaced by mountain vistas, speeding cabs and congested roads were replaced by motor-taxis (reminiscent of the tuk-tuks in Thailand) puttering around on quiet cobblestone streets. Instead of high-end shopping centers, little old ladies sat on doorsteps peddling local fruits, homemade soups and hand-knitted hats. Our group was among the only non-Peruvians visiting the town, and locals often approached us as we wandered the streets, smiling broadly and shaking our hands to welcome us to the community.

A local woman welcomes me to the community. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

The next day, after several people had time to rest from the long day of travel and recover from some mild altitude-related ailments (going from sea level to over 10,000 feet can often induce altitude sickness symptoms including headaches, nausea and fatigue), we were ready to get to work. We drove about 1 hour on some extremely bumpy country roads (which did not help those suffering from nausea much at all!) to a community called the “9th of October”. If Huallanca was oceans away from Lima, then 9th of October was a completely different world! Small homesteads constructed primarily of scrap metal and adobe sparsely dotted lush green hillsides. Although I spotted a few rusty early ‘90s Honda Civics, the preferred mode of transportation seemed to be either horseback or foot, and bleating sheep outnumbered the local residents at least two hundred to one!

A young girl does laundry in front of her home. Photo Credit: Christina Free

Installing Power Systems

There were four main facilities that we were going to install solar systems at over the next several days, including a newly built community center, the school and a health clinic and one additional solar system at another school in nearby Llancash. The first thing I couldn’t help but notice was the utter simplicity of these buildings which were supposed to provide the backbone to the community. Not only did the buildings lack any kind of electrification, but they lacked almost every other amenity and comfort that we in North America would typically expect.  A kitchen was nothing more than an empty room with a clay oven fueled by wood. The schools were shabbily equipped with old chairs and desks reminiscent of a 1900s one room school house at best, or cardboard boxes used as makeshift tables wrapped in paper at worst. The health clinic looked like it could have been the set of a medical horror movie – the maternity ward consisted of a single rusty iron bed, a broken pipe in the bathroom leaked water 24/7, and the medicine cabinet was poorly stocked with mostly empty boxes.  Ironically, some of the buildings did have a few modern appliances here and there – such as old laptop computers, stereos and even a printer! These items were typically either donated or given out through government programs but sat idly by collecting dust because there was no way to power them.

Joanne, Chris and myself working on a solar panel. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

Then the work began. It was quite the challenge to go from wiring simple circuits on a small board to setting up an entire solar system! We did walk-throughs of each facility with the locals (the Mayor of the town for the community center, the school teacher for the school and the nurse at the clinic) and they told us where they would like lights and outlets located and how many lights they wanted on each light switch.  And even after we came up with full circuit designs and laid out wires, we faced all kinds of other challenges with installing the systems. It was an endless struggle to try to get nails to stick in the adobe walls without them crumbling, and a headache to try to screw light fixtures into water damaged ceilings! Accidentally cutting the wrong wire or getting our positive and negative wires mixed up were also frequent mistakes that we had to check (and then double check!). Fortunately, we were lent a helping hand by a young local boy named Emerson who waited for us to arrive each morning to help dig holes, fetch tools from the toolbox and screw in lightbulbs. Although he occasionally was more of a troublemaker than a helper, especially the time when he pretended to cut himself on a box cutter by pouring iodine he found in our first aid kit on his hand!

Les and a young student checking out some selfies. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

The day after we got the first solar system up and running at the community center, townspeople were already showing up at the door with their cellphones in hand eagerly asking if they would be able to charge their devices! After we finished another install at the medical clinic, several families stopped by to excitedly check out the new lights and inquire into whether LUTW would be able to return to install smaller scale solar systems in their own homes. It was so encouraging to see that positive impact on the lives of these rural communities was immediately realized by basic access to electricity – something we in Canada consider one of our most simple amenities. By the last day of our installations, we were regular pros, and set up a full solar system at a school that worked without any troubleshooting on the first try – there were celebratory whoo hoos!  and high-fives all around!

High fives are exchanged after a successful solar system installation. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

Celebrating with the Community

After the four solar system installations were completed, we returned to the last school we worked at in the town Llancash to hang out with the schoolkids for the day. We put on a short skit about how a solar system works (we even had to say our lines in Spanish!), played several games that taught the children basic electrical safety, and showed them how the lights and outlets worked. I’ll never forget the look on the faces of a group of the students huddled at a doorway to one of their classrooms now equipped with lighting, eyes wide with anticipation to check out their new electrical system.

School children in Llancash participating in games to learn about solar power. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

Each child was fundamentally no different than my nephews or younger cousins who live in first world countries – they love to laugh and run around outside, they are eager to learn, and are endlessly curious and inquisitive. This is despite the fact that they have so, so much less – less materially, financially, and educationally. How many of these students would even graduate high school? Would any have the opportunity to receive higher education and secure stable jobs in urban areas? How many would continue to live in the highlands and work the soil? Would any of the girls face the hardship of becoming teenage mothers, as is becoming increasingly common in rural areas of Peru? A few lightbulbs obviously cannot solve all of these potential problems, but even if it can make their future just a little bit brighter, then it is well worth it.

A young boy from the “9th of October” gives me a high five. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart, LUTW for their incredibly hard work and for organizing such an amazing volunteer trip, as well as Capital Power Corporation for believing in and supporting the work that LUTW does in Peru.

The entire LUTW + Capital Power team with the students from Llancash. Photo Credit: Morgan Smith

Wanderlust & “Real” Travel; or why you don’t need an airplane ticket to”Find Yourself”

This post was originally published on my old blog in August 2015. I still think it rings true todayand after writing this post I think my own attitude towards travel and why I travel shifted for the better.

Monet’s Waterlilies in France, and inspiration to witness in person.

Wanderlust is all the rage nowadays. I was walking through Chapters the other day and (almost ironically), their ‘back-to-school’ collection features notebooks and coffee mugs brandished with the motto “Wander Often, Wonder Always” or quotes like “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” If I open my Facebook newsfeed, I will likely scroll past no less than three articles with Buzzfeed-esque titles about why you should “drop everything and travel the world”. I would run out of fingers (maybe even toes!) if I tried to count the number of world map or compass tattoos I’ve seen on peoples forearms this year.

Travel isn’t new.  But, what many in the wanderlust community like to refer to as ‘real’ travel (often juxtaposed to vacationing, say at a Palm Springs beach resort sipping on overpriced margaritas) is the latest and greatest trend. ‘Real travel’ is the kind of travel where you leave in hopes of “finding yourself”. A popular EliteDaily article posits that “Travel is being integrated into a culture that values diverting from the beaten path…Traveling means staying in hostels and befriending other travelers, as well as locals…  Traveling means wanting to leave as an altered and more educated person.” The main takeaway being that you leave in order to return as someone different, as someone better.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll continue to refer to this kind of travel as ‘real’ travel (not that the other forms of travel aren’t real, or of lesser value, hence the quotation marks). Nowadays it seems as though every other 20-something-year old is jet setting off to a foreign country with nothing but a backpack and the stars in their eyes, anticipating that somehow, a grand adventure will bestow upon them a newfound appreciation for life and teach them the true meaning of happiness. Oftentimes it will. But other times it won’t.

I am not dissing backpacks! My backpack has served me well!

I potentially sound like I’m criticizing the wanderlust trend. I’m not. Actually, I think promoting a more globally aware traveller is pretty awesome. In fact, I am one of those ‘real’ travellers. Heck, I’m even one of those bloggers! I do think that the way in which travel has become popularized in social media can come across as pretentious, but even though the millions of blog posts about how ‘real’ travel makes you smarter, happier, more confident etc. get old really fast, they do have some truth to them.  I can honestly say that it is in large part because of travelling that I have become more culturally sensitive, am better able to adapt to unexpected situations and challenges, can easily make new friends and have overcome a lot of my shyness.

I could sing the praises of ‘real’ travel all day, but there is a caveat. As magical and enlightening your solo backpacking trip through India very well may be, you can’t expect anything about your life or your happiness or your future to change just because you bought an international airplane ticket. After finishing my graduate studies program, burned out from the past 17-years in formal education, and feeling generally listless about what to do next in life I decided to go to Australia for a month to try to get some distance from everyday life in order to gain some clarity about what to do next in life. I thought that I would come home to Canada and just know what kind of career I wanted to pursue and figure out exactly what I wanted from my relationships.

Long story short is I didn’t. Not to say I didn’t enjoy my time in Australia. It was amazing – I reconnected with my Aussie cousins, learnt how to surf, went kayaking with humpback whales, and met a family of wild koalas. But upon returning home, I found myself reverting back to my baseline level of happiness (which was not very high at the time). I have observed in myself and in those I have encountered both at home and abroad that people place far too much emphasis on external drivers to change our internal attitudes.

Hitting up Bondi Beach for some surfing

There are lots of ‘real’ traveller success stories that you read on Huffington Post where a couple quits their job for a year to explore the world to come home an internet sensation. Or maybe the success story isn’t quite as impressive, a frustrated college student takes a semester off to hike the Patagonia trail and discovers a talent and love of photography and realizes upon returning she should pursue her passion for the visual arts. Awesome! But this isn’t the norm, and this is the kind of false hope I am afraid the wanderlust trend is promoting – that young adults in some sense need travel in order to learn about themselves.

For each person who returns for an international adventure feeling freed from their problems, there are dozens I have encountered who do not. Most of the people I have met during my travels are trying to escape something about their real life. Disheartened students who failed their first-year courses, young adults discouraged with the bureaucracy and mundanity of their first desk job, people who just broke off an engagement to their fiancé. Yet after a month, six-months, even a year, of ‘real’ travel, they are unable to lift the cloak of heaviness off their hearts.

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher writes on precisely this phenomenon.

Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene that you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.

Seneca

You get out of life (and travel) what you put into it. Nothing about your long-term happiness will change because you went skydiving for the first time or went swimming with dolphins. Seneca aptly tells his readers that

To live well, – is found everywhere… The person you are matters more than the place to which you go; for that reason we should not make the mind a bondsman to any one place.

Seneca

Wanderlusters, continue to embark on your grand adventures! But also keep in mind that travel and the pursuit of inner happiness or contentment are not one in the same. They are separate activities, though mutually exclusive, are not interchangeable.

The impressive cliffs at Sagres, the most southwestern point of Europe

Added August 2019:

I want to just leave you with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that I think perfectly captures why the pursuit of happiness (be it through travel or money or other things) is perhaps not the kind of pursuit that will actually bring true purpose or happiness to your life:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

Ralph Waldo Emerson