April 29, 2019

Student Blog: Reflections on a 2019 International Service Learning Organization (ISLO) Trip


During Spring Break each year, students in Manhattan School of Music’s International Service Learning Organization (ISLO) take an immersive service-focused trip. This year, seven students and  Assistant Director of Student Engagement Crystal Wilson traveled to Peru to explore, connect, and serve others. Musical Theatre student Maria Tramontozzi shares memorable moments from her ISLO experience in the journal entry below.

Peru: The Country of Hidden Treasures

by Maria Tramontozzi (BM ’21), Musical Theatre

Picture this, three musical theatre students, two pianists, one vocalist, one bassoon player, and one Manhattan School of Music student leader are sent to Peru with the cryptic note, “you will be doing construction in Peru’s capital Cusco.” These musicians were excited to “do some construction”, but had no idea what they were so eager to be working on. I can tell you about these students, as I am one of them.

Ever since I was little, I have always known that I loved and lived to travel. Whether it was to the deep woods in Northern California, Washington DC Mission Trip, student exchange, or Europe, it is an entirely new experience to live in a different culture. My past experiences, though wonderful and in some cases life-changing, could not have prepared me for the cultural immersion I felt when taking part in the ISLO trip to Peru. Not only was I able to enjoy meeting people who live differently than myself, but this trip allowed me to truly embrace the beauty of culture discovery.

Our alarms rang at 3:00 AM (the day after daylight savings) and we began our adventure to Cusco, Peru. We packed for a variety of weather options: high 40’s to mid 80 degrees with occasional rain storms. We traveled 12 hours through three long flights with layovers in Colombia and Lima, Peru. On the flights we were delighted to be served hot meals as we tried to catch up on lost sleep. When we arrived in Cusco, Peru at about 10:00 PM, we were picked up and immediately brought to our beautiful host family’s house, where they had soup waiting for their hungry and tired travelers.

With eager hearts and full stomachs, we fell asleep with the heavy warm blankets of comfort to cover us on each bunk. We awoke the next day to homemade breakfast, something we would discover to be a daily treat, and headed to work. We met with the international leader of ISLO, Derek, who brought us to the mysterious construction site. That is when we discovered we would be rebuilding part of a preschool!

We met a very warm and welcoming local named Marco, who would remain with us during every day of the construction. The beginning of the new school year had just begun in Peru, and the current preschool students were in the basement below the area we were working on. As we worked for the first day, we heard their joy and laughter travel through the site.

On the way back to our host family house we encountered stray dogs that ran by us like squirrels in an American suburb, as well as many alpacas. We befriended one stray dog near out site and named him “Bo”. He would find us at the bus station every morning and travel with us to the construction site, and at the end of the day he would walk back with us. Bo’s companionship and easygoing demeanor was a small demonstration of the friendliness and love we felt from the individuals that we met throughout our experience. Though we were working, we truly felt that we were being spiritually nurtured by the people of Peru. Beto, our cook, nurtured us by cooking the delicious dinners and breakfasts we enjoyed every day. His kindness, not to mention his cooking skills, were beyond wonderful!

The next few days consisted of us waking up at 6:30 AM and traveling to our construction site. Each day we mixed and made cement by hand with the shovels they provided us, adding water to a mixture of gravel, sand, and cement. It was like making a giant bowl of brownie batter, only much heavier and not so tasty. We created rows and rows of cement in the new room and continued to work.

On that first day we didn’t know that we were laboring under a time constraint. The city shuts off water at certain times in different areas and we ran out of water, making us end the day early. That was the first lesson these Manhattan School of Music students learned; to work speedily in order to beat the water cutoff time.

We hopped on the bus and headed back to the historic district of Cusco, where ISLO and our host family were located. We had a delicious lunch of authentic Peruvian cuisine and headed out again to experience more of the country. After lunch we took another bus to take all-terrain vehicles around the area. This was a wonderful opportunity to tour and learn more about the beauty, tastes, and smells in Peru. We traveled through the Peruvian countryside, taking in the views of quinoa plants and corn fields. We traveled to the salt mines where we learned about the three layers of salt and tasted salt mine chocolate.

Not only was I able to enjoy meeting people who live so entirely different than myself, but this trip allowed me to truly embrace the beauty of culture discovery.

(BM '21), Musical Theatre

The next day we traveled back to our construction site where we continued to create more cement. I took a break and was searching for the lavatory downstairs, where the preschoolers were in class. Though I was a stranger to them, they ran to me with open arms. One boy, who was so small he ran through my legs, clung to my leg and refused to let go, afraid I would never return from the “baño.” I fell in love with the joy and excitement they had for meeting a new person. If I ever got tired from the hard work we were doing, I remembered that sweet little boy’s face and feel of his arms around my legs, and the fatigue would lift. I was doing this work for him!

After the day’s work, we had a quick lunch and went directly to The Sacred Valley for zip lining. The Sacred Valley of the Incas (Urubamba Valley) was beautiful, especially when accompanied by the thrill of zip lining. Us adventurous musicians went on the zipline upside down, and “superman” style.

We were exhausted the next day, but also eager to work again. We did a lot of “wax on, wax off” (as Marco called it) work on the cement to even out the texture using a new finer mixture of sand and gravel to top the other layers of cement. Afterwards, we headed out for the afternoon of horseback riding! This was another wonderful way for the weary workers to see more of the countryside in Peru, including a small litter of puppies that greeted us upon our arrival at the pasture.

The horses took us to an Inca Rock, which is carved to look like the profile of a face and the Temple of the Moon, where the Incas would praise the moon. Beyond the Temple of the Moon there is an open area that has a number of Huacas, which are sacred carved stone shrines. We then took a bus to the top of the mountain where we saw the Statue of Jesus that stands above all of Cusco. We stood wondrously as a double rainbow was created over him. Five of us hiked back from the statue to the main center of Cusco, arriving just in time for a homemade meal by Beto.

My feet were tired, but I was still eager to learn how to Salsa from a local in their own culture. So, another student and I went to one of the local pubs for free Salsa lessons. I don’t think I could have learned how to salsa better than from the kind friends of the bar who taught us. Imagine learning how to Salsa… in Peru!

On the final day working on the site, we started to tile the school. This was very satisfying to be able to see a little bit of the “finishing touches” to our project. We had to make a special mixture to hold the tiles, and it was very difficult and time consuming to makes the tiles perfectly even. We had hoped to finish the room completely, but unfortunately eight hard-working people only were able to tile half of the room. This was another lesson on our trip, a reminder that sometimes your best work doesn’t result in the product you imagined. Yet, we were still very proud of what we had done and the overall success of the trip. That night we had ice cream to celebrate and called it an early night. The next day our alarms would ring at 3:00 AM to go to Machu Picchu!

Beto had made us lunches to take to go, and we took the bus to the 1.5 hour long train that would take us to Machu Picchu. We hopped on another bus that took us to the top of the historical landmark for a tour. We learned about the river that surrounds the landmass, which kept the Incas safe and the Spanish from finding the hidden treasure. Our short, rosy-cheeked tour guide, Elvis, was full of life and was so excited to share the history of this beautiful place with us. A few of us walked down the 3,000 steps to the bottom of the mountain, where we all met up again at a famous restaurant. We took our time eating and enjoying the company of each other as we reminisced about the trip we had enjoyed together. Many of us didn’t know each other at the beginning of the trip, but we were a close group now.

On the train ride back, we snacked on coffee and brownies, as our train guides engaged us in a lively presentation about the local culture, the Peruvian devil, and modeled some alpaca clothing (something you find all over Peru). We ate one last homemade meal by the wonderful Beto, packed, and fell asleep.

As we packed quietly together, we looked at the cement-covered clothes and new alpaca scarfs for our parents and families. We were headed back to real life, and would be starting classes the next day within hours of our arrival back in NYC. We thought about the beauty we were leaving and the culture we discovered and were immersed in.

Already the trip seemed to be receding into the mist like Machu Picchu, all but the feeling of that little preschool boy’s arms clinging tightly.