Cultural crossroads: Youth are the vanguard for ties between Snoqualmie, new Peru friendship city | Photo gallery

The city of Snoqualmie welcomed the first group of exchange students from its friendship city of Chaclacayo, Peru. From left are Peruvian consul-general Miguel Angel Velásquez, students Renato Cocchella, Michelle Riedner and Valeria Gamonal, at rear, Mayor Matt Larson, and far right, consulate member Akemi Chavez. - Seth Truscott/Staff Photo
The city of Snoqualmie welcomed the first group of exchange students from its friendship city of Chaclacayo, Peru. From left are Peruvian consul-general Miguel Angel Velásquez, students Renato Cocchella, Michelle Riedner and Valeria Gamonal, at rear, Mayor Matt Larson, and far right, consulate member Akemi Chavez.
— image credit: Seth Truscott/Staff Photo

Renato Cocchella and Valeria Gamonal are still shy with the English language. Kim Min Soo is more confident.

Baking cookies with American students in a Mount Si High School classroom, the three teens rely more on teamwork than words. The vibe is low key as students take in their assignment, then munch on the finished product with fellow cooks.

As the chocolate melts and the dough rises, three cultures are coming together in a subtle way in Laura Tarp’s culinary classroom.

Cocchella and Gamonal are the first high school exchange students from Snoqualmie’s new Friendship City of Chaclacayo, Peru. Soo is one of about a dozen visiting high schoolers from the Sister City of Gangjin, South Korea.

Last week, Snoqualmie hosted two delegations of students from partner cities overseas. The youth are in the vanguard of new international connections happening here.

Young people have been at the heart of Snoqualmie’s sister cities relationship from the beginning. Snoqualmie and Gangjin’s connection began in 2008, when Mayor JuHong Hwang of Gangjin asked to  establish a student exchange. Groups of students have been shuttling between Gangjin and Snoqualmie since 2009, when the two communities became sisters.

Chaclacayo, a city of 41,000 with striking similarities to Snoqualmie, became an official Friendship City last November. Friendship city status is a forerunner to becoming a sister city.

Snoqualmie’s connection with Chaclacayo happened through the efforts of Tina McCollum, vice president of the Snoqualmie Sister Cities Association. Members of the association wanted more international connections, but also wanted a more easily broken language barrier. With Spanish already taught at Mount Si High School, the association decided to explore a Latin American connection. McCollum’s friend and former tour guide Ernesto Riedner lives in Lima. She asked him to identify a likely candidate city in Peru.

“I need a city that has easy access, comparable to Snoqualmie-North Bend,” McCollum told Riedner.

Chaclacayo topped the list, and Mayor Alfredo Valcarcel Cahen jumped at the opportunity.

Just like with Gangjin, the Chaclacayo connection began with the young.

“Our students are our key element to building friendships,” and those friendships are forming fast, McCollum said. “The kids are the future, so we start with them first.”

Students first

The journey left teens Renato, Valeria and college exchange student Michelle Riedner in a flip-flopped world. When they left Peru, it was summer. Bundled in gloves and hats, when they got off their 22-hour flight from Lima via Houston and San Francisco, the trio stepped into winter’s grip.

McCollum knew they were tired Monday evening, as she waited with the students at City Hall for pick-up by host families.

“They were so happy to be here,” she said. “I think they’re enjoying the weather today.”

Peru’s dry climate—the region gets about five inches of snow annually—contrasted with the Valley, where stubborn snow drifts lingered Tuesday.

Unearthing all her winter clothing back in Chaclacayo, Gamonal knew it would be a drastic change. Taking in the view from the airplane, she decided she loved it. That impression didn’t fade the next day, after she met students at Mount Si.

“People at the high school are very friendly,” she said. “I love the way that school is. I am very grateful to be here.”

Cocchello, too, felt welcomed here. “We’re going to have a lot of fun memories,” he said, “lots of things to remember.”

The friendships made in these exchanges last for a lifetime, McCollum says. She should know, as she’s developed close bonds with counterparts in Korea.

“The family enhances, becomes bigger,” McCollum said. All these connections… introduce other experiences. Cities build relationships. They build friends.”

Chaclacayo links

Visiting Snoqualmie for a student exchange banquet, Miguel Angel Velásquez, Peru’s Seattle-based Consul General, said he sees many similarities between the communities.

Like Snoqualmie, “Chaclacayo is a touristy town,” Velasquesz said. “A lot of people visit on weekends. It has much better weather than Lima.”

People with respiratory ailments often go there to recover. Weekenders buy homes there.

The name comes from ancient Aymara Indian roots meaning “foot of the reeds.” But the city itself is young; The first house was built by Dr. Mario Accinelli, a local benefactor, in 1931.

Peruvian students have been traveling overseas for years, but the practice is becoming increasingly common, Velazquez said.

“They become ambassadors,” he added. “We want to welcome more people to visit Peru, because we have so much to offer—history, archaeology, sights.”

Snoqualmie, Chaclacayo and Peru could all benefit from the budding cultural exchange, Velazquez said.

“We have to celebrate this opportunity, and through friendship, the possibility of exchanges and trade,” he said. Chaclacayo’s mayor Valcarel Cahen is reviewing how businesses can connect.

“It’s always easier to do exchanges and trade among friends,” Velazquez said. “We consider Snoqualmie a friend of Chaclacayo and Peru. It will be natural now.”

During Tuesday’s banquet, both sides exchanged gifts. Peruvian dignitaries received a Salish Lodge gift bag that included a crystal box engraved with an image of Snoqualmie Falls, and a Snoqualmie Winery cabernet.

In return, Snoqualmie received a golden replica of an Incan imperial death mask, a collection of butterflies for Mount Si High School, woodcarvings of vicuna—a llama-like native animal—and a tiny, handcrafted tin church.

The Peruvian students, meanwhile, received bags of high school apparel.

“You now are officially Wildcats,” Tina said. “We’d like to say ‘thank you,’ remember us, and salud!”

As diners tucked into salad and salmon during Tuesday’s welcome banquet at City Hall, Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson counseled the young visitors to consider the broader picture.

“You’re here, representing not only your family, you’re representing your nation,” he said. “Always have that in mind, and take that back in the future.”

Chance of a lifetime

Snoqualmie seems a beautiful place to Michelle Riedner. The college student from Lima is used to Peru’s dry conditions. Here, in one of the wettest places on the North American continent, she’s enjoying the rare weather and looking forward to snowboarding—in Peru, they sandboard.

“Our lifestyles are a little bit different,” Riedner said. “For me, this is an amazing experience. I can learn about your culture, and you can learn about my culture.”

Riedner is an artist. She loves painting, theater and hospital clowns. She’s trying to find her place, her calling, and her host family, the McCollums of North Bend, plan to show her local cultural features. She’s also assisting the Spanish language department at Mount Si during her visit.

“This is new, and I have to take advantage of this,” Riedner said. “Everything has possibility. I have to take it.”

Teen cooks from three countries, from left, Kim Min Soo, Valeria Gamonal, Samma Aiad, Spenser Jensen, Nicole Richardsonand Renato Cocchella taste just-made cookies in a Mount Si High School culinary classroom.

Exchange student Michelle Riedner explains the origins of a replica Incan imperial death mask, presented by Friendship City Chaclacayo, Peru. Snoqualmie mayor Matt Larson and Snoqualmie Sister Cities Association Member Tina McCollum hold the boxed mask.

College exchange student Michelle Riedner ties a friendship bracelet on host family member Will Scott, 12.

Visiting Peruvian exchange students Renato Cocchelo and Valeria Gamonal slip into a photo session for visiting Korean high school students.

Sister Cities Association member Tina McCollum shows a collection of butterflies donated by Chalacayo to Mount Si High School.




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