Steamboat Springs Don't be fooled. Although Peru, Bolivia, Russia, Vietnam and South Africa could be attractive vacation destinations, the Lowell Whiteman School students who spent nearly four weeks in those locations did anything but relax.
Back on campus at the Steamboat Springs school last week, some of the students who went to each of the foreign destinations met for a roundtable discussion about their experiences and to detail the service projects they completed abroad.
Junior Brady Findell has gone on three foreign trips with the private high school and said he has loved each one for different reasons, but he will remember them all equally.
"Foreign trips will change you in ways you can't explain," he said. "You can go all around the world and find people just like you and your family. It opens your eyes. We live in a pretty sheltered community in Steamboat, so it fills you with a greater appreciation of the world. It's the greatest part of attending this school, without a doubt."
Junior Jennings Anderson didn't envision being a potato farmer during high school - at least before he went to Bolivia.
During much of the foreign trips, the Whiteman students stay with families or in tent or hostel-type lodging. In Bolivia, the students stayed with families in a rural village dependent on potato farming.
In the Amazon River basin, the Whiteman students helped a village of 12 families build water filters to cleanse the water of bacteria.
The trip also included a five-day trek covering 65 kilometers - all above 12,000 feet. The trek topped out at 16,700 feet, and the students carried their packs the entire trip.
"It was intense," Anderson said.
Junior Whitney Holtan didn't have any expectations about Vietnam because she didn't want to be disappointed. She wasn't.
During their four weeks in Vietnam, the students went on hikes similar to what you'd see in an issue of National Geographic, Holtan said, and they toured the country on a bus, staying at homes and struggling through the language barrier.
For their service projects, the Whiteman students built bridges and worked with children at a Vietnamese orphanage. They also visited a village where children are suffering from exposure to Agent Orange. Holtan had difficulty talking about what she witnessed.
"I felt like they never got visitors and didn't expect Americans to care," she said.
The students finished their foreign trip with a three-day stay in Cambodia.
South Africa was different than other places junior Courtney Cox has visited.
"The people there are so outgoing," she said. "They aren't reserved at all."
The Whiteman students spent much of their South Africa trip staying in tents to help rebuild an abandoned village.
"We built profound relationships while we were there because we were there for a while," Cox said.
The homes the students built were made of mud, water and cow dung. The students also had the unique experience of staying on an animal preserve that specialized in the rehabilitation of cheetahs.
Sophomore Kaeli Nolte had no problems spelling the name of the Russian peninsula she and her classmates spent most of April staying in.
"K-a-m-c-h-a-t-k-a," Nolte said last week.
The peninsula is north of Japan and west of Alaska. After a two-and-a-half day trip around the world on an airplane, the students arrived, began their homestays and visited a local school.
"The kids really wanted to meet us and talk to us," Nolte said.
The Whiteman students traveled to a village where the native population of the region remains and a place where the culture of the Old World has been preserved, freshman Matthias Fostvedt said.
The students built a yurt as part of their service project.
The Whiteman students also covered 118 kilometers on their cross-country skis, traveling through an area Fostvedt said "would be great for heli-skiing" to help set up a camp for underprivileged children.
"They were so happy we were there," Nolte said.
The Whiteman students wasted little time beginning their community service projects upon arrival in Peru.
"We went to a local school and helped rebuild a wall and painted a lot," junior Janis McLaughlin said.
"It was cool because we worked with the locals there," sophomore Gavin Parsons added.
But the highlight of the trip, according to McLaughlin, was the hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a well-preserved pre-Columbian Inca ruin.
"Amazing - the whole thing," McLaughlin said.
The homestays were a highlight for Parsons, who is studying Spanish at Whiteman and said staying with families who spoke Spanish dramatically helped him learn the language.
Before leaving Steamboat, Whiteman students also collected 150 coats for the residents of a region they visited in Peru.
Margi Missling-Root, the director of the program, said the Whiteman students try to give their time and resources to each country they visit. The students rarely spend more than a day or two in the major metropolitan regions of a country, focusing instead on living and helping people in needy regions of the world. The students are responsible for paying for their trips, but Whiteman coordinates the activities.
Missling-Root said the students still are trying to synthesize what they learned.
"It's what they are going to carry through for the rest of their life," she said.