Elyse Gordon models a handmade wreath near Cuzco, Peru.
Elyse Gordon models a handmade wreath near Cuzco, Peru.

By Allison Stephens, World Ark contributor

Last year, after some prompting from her mom, Elyse Gordon entered the Pass on the Gift in Peru sweepstakes for a weeklong trip for two to the ancient Incan Empire capital of Cuzco, Peru. The winner would visit and work with Heifer International’s alpaca farmers as they cared for their animals, tended their pastures and marketed the fine wool their animals produced.

The sweepstakes was sponsored by Garnet Hill, a socially responsible women’s and home goods retailer that champions human rights standards in their supply chain. Upon learning that she won the trip, Gordon invited her mother to come along and the pair started prepping for a life-changing trip. Gordon lives in Seattle and is pursuing a doctorate in human geography.

WORLD ARK: What were your expectations for this trip?

ELYSE GORDON: I was well prepped for this trip by the Heifer International team, and so had clear expectations. I was excited to get to meet some of the communities where Heifer Peru projects take place. I expected to get to interact, ask questions, learn about the projects, share meals and learn about what it’s like to live in the Andes. I also expected to learn about Heifer International’s work, their vision and their structure. Finally, since I was traveling with my mom, I was incredibly excited to share the experience of traveling with her. She is new to international travel, and so I was effectively her guide for this experience.

WORLD ARK: How did the experience of meeting Heifer families shape your impression of Heifer International?

ELYSE GORDON: Meeting Heifer families was integral to shaping my understanding of the work. Rather than a behemoth aid organization, Heifer’s work revolves far more around individual connections: between Heifer staff and recipients, between project promoters and project donors, and between families. I left with a profound respect for how resilient and cohesive the communities seemed. It was not about increasing market value alone. It was about increasing social capital, social connection, knowledge, resilience and pride in families’ contributions and crafts.

What stands out as the most unique interaction when visiting with the Heifer families?

At the end of our visit to Pitumarca, I had the opportunity to dance with a lovely woman as the local musicians played a traditional song on flute and drum. I tried to follow her lead and dance the dance as she did. We didn’t say a word, but I felt intimately connected to the tradition of that place, those people, and her family. How many times had she danced like this with her husband? Her children? A friend?

Those hands I held, how many skeins of wool had they spun? How many pounds of alpaca wool had she sorted through? How many meals had she prepared? Also, I was incredibly winded, despite it being a fairly slow dance. Recognizing how hard the community and families must work, at elevation, with intense sun and wind conditions, reminded me how different my primarily-desk-job is.

A woman and man tend to their alpaca in Peru.
"The partnership between Heifer International and Garnet Hill is a natural fit," Garnet Hill President and CEO Russ Gaitskill said. "Our customers support and appreciate the dedication of organizations like Heifer International to ending hunger and poverty around the world." Recently, Garnet Hill designated its annual donation of $25,000 to reinvest in farmers Gaitskill visited in Peru last fall. Read more about how Garnet Hill and Heifer are working together to improve lives.

Was this your first time around alpacas? What did you find most interesting about them?

This was indeed my first time around alpacas! I had no idea that they hummed to communicate. I also learned about how the alpacas are selected for breeding. I was intrigued to learn about the breeding process, particularly around keeping the colors of wool pure.

In Upis, farmers had successfully isolated gray wool, which has taken a number of years. This was so amazing! I was inspired by their pride for the craft,for the process, and for their immense knowledge.

Did you witness anything that surprised you? Humbled you? Puzzled you?

I think the easy answer to this question is that I was humbled by the immense generosity of the communities we visited, despite the fact that they are, by many standards, significantly impoverished communities. However, I want to push myself to go a bit deeper. I see the world through the lens of relationships, connection and community.

On our first night in Cuzco, we were joined at dinner by Oscar Aragon, one of the Cuzco-based Heifer Peru staff. He is a veterinarian and specializes in alpacas. He was rather quiet that night, and I didn’t learn much about him. As the trip continued, we saw Oscar shine in his element as the vet and alpaca expert.

At the end of the trip, my mother and I extended our visit a bit. I had asked Oscar for recommendations for his favorite local restaurants in Cuzco. Rather than just suggest a place, he offered to accompany us. Initially, I was nervous: I spoke no Spanish, and Oscar spoke limited English. We all exerted an immense amount of effort to communicate, but it was wonderful. I was grateful and humble for Oscar’s willingness to take time out of his Saturday to dine with two visitors. He is an incredibly kind soul, and his contributions to Heifer’s work are invaluable.

I was most taken and struck by how simple relationships, just taking the time to sit with someone, is how we make connections and find commonalities.