WHILE most students spent the summer recovering from exam stress, several South Tyneside teenagers were learning life lessons thousands of miles away from home.
Nine Year 13 pupils from Harton Technology College in South Shields volunteered to spend four weeks on an expedition to Peru, trekking through rugged terrain, sleeping under the stars and going back to basics.
Instead of vegging out in front of the television, they helped build a toilet block for a kindergarten in a remote village and spent time with abandoned children at an orphanage. They were accompanied on the trip by learning mentors Liz Law and Matt Joyce.
Kris Law, 18, of South Shields, said: “My favourite day was the first day of the trek.
“It was a really quiet area, with mountains and scenery, and we stopped off at some really nice places.
“When we got to one place, after a very long trek, there were some natural hot springs there, so some of us went down, and there was no light pollution or anything, so you could see all the stars. It was pretty good at the end of a hard day.”
The group flew from the UK to Lima and were based in Arequipa for the first few days to acclimatise, walking for four or five hours a day.
Amy Sangster, 18, of South Shields, said: “I was exhausted. My legs were shaking.”
They then made their way to Cusco, taking in the beauty of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest lake, en route to their project site in the Sacred Valley.
They then spent seven days getting their hands dirty building an extension to a kindergarten in a remote village, to house a flushing toilet, sink and shower.
Liz said: “When we got there, we weren’t really sure what the project was going to be. We wanted to work with children in the school and ended up doing something much more useful.
“When we got there, the toilet we used was a concrete bowl. We actually built a flushable toilet on the side of the kindergarten.
“It is something sustainable that has made a difference to the community.”
The building project involved the group using the most basic of tools, lugging heavy materials around and mixing finely-sifted soil, hay and water to clag the bricks together.
They also had to dig trenches for sewerage and help to lay pipes.
The money the group raised for the trip helped pay for the work. In the meantime, they were given a budget of about £4 per day to live on.
Scott Stevenson, 19, of South Shields, speaks fluent Spanish and acted as translator for most of the trip, even trying his hand at the local lingo, Quechua, the language of the ancient Inca empire.
He said: “I really developed my language skills.”
That came in particularly handy when swapping hostels for home stays with local families, where they got a real taste of the local culture, dressing in traditional ponchos and dancing into the night.
The third and final part of the trip involved some rest and relaxation at the ancient city of Machu Picchu, 2,430m above sea level, before heading back to Lima for the flight home.
Dan Farthing, 18, of South Shields, now studying law at Northumbria University, said of the experience: “I want to do more travelling.”
Amy agreed, saying: “It gives you a lot more independence, even though we went as a team. It makes you want to go away more. You have seen one part of the world and it makes you want to see more.”
Kris added: “You know how lucky you are to be living where you do when there are people living in mud huts with no toilets or showers and living on the littlest amount of money every day. You appreciate what you have got.”
While the experience was challenging, Liz said it was one the group will remember for the rest of their lives, adding: “Everyone really threw themselves into it.”
Matt added: “I would certainly reflect back and say the development which came over the students over the four weeks was quite amazing.
“Nine very different young people came back.”