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Students sample Peru's culture
Jennie Morrison, Sam Delvo and Chandra Macauley recently returned from a trip to Peru, where they toured around and experienced the culture, the food and the people.

Filled with foreign people, food, scenery and conversation, a recent trip to Peru taught a group of Skyview High students and graduates that there's a lot to learn in a week.

"It kind of changed my perspective on life," said 16-year-old Mickaela Cerise, who will be a senior next year. "Down there, people work from sunup to sundown, but they're always smiling."

Jennie Morrison, a Skyview graduate who will attend the University of Montana next fall, agreed.

"It was a totally different experience from what we're used to here," she said. "When we think about it, we think we don't have a lot, but we do."

Rafael Zepeda, the students' teacher who led the nine-day trip, selected the destination, in part because of a personal desire to visit Peru.

"Peru has been for a long time a place I wanted to go," he said.

Zepeda, a native of Honduras, has taught Spanish at Skyview for 11 years.

The tour he selected, which an educational tour agency organized, included stops in Lima, the capital of Peru; Cusco, which was once the center of the Inca Empire; and Machu Picchu, which, with its abandoned temples and terraces, has been called "the Lost City of the Inca."

Although students from Billings often travel to Mexico, Costa Rica or Spain on school-sponsored trips, Zepeda said he thinks this trip is the first time a group of students from Billings has gone to Peru on a school-related trip.

Highlights of the trip were many, but most agreed that the scenery, and especially Machu Picchu, was outstanding.

"You can never prepare yourself for Machu Picchu," said Chandra Macauley, a recent Skyview graduate.

"It was probably the most scenic thing I've ever seen in my life," said Patrick Tucker, who graduated from Skyview this spring.

Tucker was one of a handful of students who hiked up one steep mountain in the area, Huayna Picchu.

"There were steps where it got really tricky," he said. "We were all sweating by the end."

Another morning, some students woke before 5 a.m. to return to Machu Picchu to watch the sun rise.

"That's one thing I'm never going to forget," Macauley said. "You're in the clouds, and you see the sun rise and it makes everything golden."

Meeting people and learning about the culture of Peru was another highlight of the trip.

"Peru still today preserves the original, genuine flavor of native civilizations," Zepeda said.

Connecting with a Peruvian family made an impression on Cerise.

"I met a little 5-year-old girl and had a 10-minute conversation with her on the street," Cerise said. "The next day I ran into her in her father's jewelry shop. She was full of life and just the cutest thing ever."

That day, Cerise was wearing a necklace that a close friend had given to her for Christmas three years ago, but she thought it would be something the little girl would like, so Cerise took it off and gave it to the child. Cerise exchanged addresses with the girl's family and hopes to write letters.

Of course, there were challenges in addition to the highlights. Sam Delvo, who will be a senior at Skyview this fall, missed home and got sick from the food.

"I don't normally eat fast food, but McDonald's and Pizza Hut were as close to home as I could get," she said.

Morrison agreed that Peruvian food wasn't what she was used to.

"At the beginning, we all wanted to embrace the culture and eat their food," she said. "By the end, we were all missing McDonald's."

Communicating in Spanish was difficult for Macauley, who chose not to take Spanish at Skyview last year.

"When I got down there, the language barrier was definitely a challenge," she said. "It was hard when they started talking fast, but we knew enough Spanish to survive."

But Kay Zepeda, Rafael Zepeda's wife and a trip chaperone, was proud of how well the students spoke the language and how they made an effort to communicate in Spanish when bargaining for goods and ordering at restaurants.

"The kids were awesome," she said. "They got right in and talked with native people."

And the students felt good about the communication that occurred.

"I did a lot better speaking Spanish than I thought I would," Cerise said.

Tucker also found that he did better than he expected.

"It's surprising how much you can communicate with people when you're not bilingual," he said. "You almost start thinking in Spanish."

The trip came with a price tag — about $2,300 for students — and many of the students paid for at least a portion of it themselves. Some also had financial help from their families.

Macauley and Morrison raised part of their trip money by working at a store that decorates for weddings. Delvo worked at an ice-cream shop and Cerise at an ice arena.

But the students' time and money-making efforts were well worth it, they said, because the trip exceeded their expectations.

"It was definitely an eye-opening experience," said Delvo, who had not traveled outside the country before.

Morrison thought the trip was an opportunity that she would have only once.

"How many people can say they've been to Peru and seen the ruins?" she said. "I was glad I had the chance to go."

Rafael Zepeda said he thinks everyone, especially kids, should be encouraged to travel.

"The best way to understand oneself is to understand others," he said. "It is imperative to get out of this box and go and see what is out there."

Morrison agreed.

"If more people traveled to other countries, it would give them a better understanding of how others live," she said. "It's fun to go see, but it's a good learning experience, too."

Contact Anne Pettinger at apettinger@billingsgazette.com or 657-1241.

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