Waves are rolling in from the sea while I’m strolling along the beach, beneath palm trees, on my way back to the Sushi place, which is where I’ve been living for the past couple of weeks. The constant sound of the moving water and the dim evening light have a very calming, I’d almost say hypnotising, impact on me, allowing me to forget my current surroundings and to sort of immerse myself in thoughts and memories without even trying to do so – images just pop up in front of my inner eye, and although I know that they are merely products of my mind, they don’t seem any less real to me than the two teenagers standing a few meters away, holding hands and chattering about something I don’t understand.
I remember perfectly well how I felt upon first setting foot on Peruvian soil: Excitement at having finally arrived, curiosity as to what this foreign country would turn out to be like, a little uneasiness due to all the uncertainties, due to the Peru-descriptions on Forums and travel sites and due to the fact that the Austrian government has classified the Latin American country with “heightened security risks”. The occasional sign on the walls of the airport calling for combined action against human trafficking and violence in general didn’t make me feel any more secure about being here, and I was clinging to my bags as though I was out on the sea and they were the only thing keeping me from drowning. It would take me a few days in the quiet town of Huanchaco and a few weeks filled with the occasional trip to shake off this fear and to forget about the need of constant vigilance.
After getting through the airport security counter and falling asleep on the flight to Trujillo, I was extremely glad to find Otra Cosa people awaiting me at the airport. The huge, welcoming grins that were plastered over their faces made me feel a little bit better, dissolving my uneasiness, which had already dampened by a feeling of exhaustion and tiredness from the long trip. But although I was barely able to keep my eyes open at the time, I still remember how Jorge (the guy who picked us up and who would come to be my host for the next months) gave us (my friend Eva and me) our first description of Huanchaco. Pride and contentment filled his voice while he was talking about the small and quiet beach town that was to be our residence while volunteering with Otra Cosa Network – and I can tell you that he did not exaggerate.
Living in Huanchaco
Life in Huanchaco is every bit as relaxed as you would expect a place on the beach to be. I’m living at Gaby and Jorge’s house (also called the Sushi place), in a twin room with my High school friend Eva, and I doubt that I could have found a better place to stay. Our room is of a reasonable size, with enough space for clothing and other personal items. There’s a kitchen with fridge, cooker and microwave which we can use without restrictions (leaving aside the fact that it can get a bit crowded if all the residents decide to have dinner at the same time, seeing that Diego, Gabi and Jorge’s son, has a restaurant business running in the evenings). Ever since I’ve been here, all three rooms available were occupied by volunteers or travellers, so there’s always somebody around to hang out with; at the same time, however, you can easily get some time for yourself, if so desired – which is great for me, as I do need those moments alone from time to time.
Another bonus of the house is its location: Both bodega (small grocery store) and bakery are very close, the OCN volunteer house and office is within a few minutes walking distance, just like the town’s centre with loads of cheap restaurants (lunch meals with starter and drink for less than 10 soles) and other services that you need when living here (cash withdrawal, travel agencies).
While you can find all the essentials in terms of cooking ingredients in the small bodegas in Huanchaco, I do find myself grateful for the mall on the outskirts of Trujillo sometimes, where a huge super market offers a wider range of grocery supply. It’s about half an hour by bus, and you’ll find it especially helpful when searching for goods such as cereals and cheese (although cheese living up to European standards cannot be found anywhere in Peru that I’ve been to so far).
But while I do sometimes feel a little frustrated by the cheese and bread I find around here, I am positively stunned by the variety of fruits and cakes that you can buy – do try and keep some free space in your luggage before coming here because you’re bound to wish to bring some of the foreign fruits back home upon leaving Peru. Another food that I will miss a lot after returning to Austria is the so-called choclo, a delicious white type of corn native to Peru.
There are loads of things to do and see in and around Huanchaco.
On the beach you can find a football pitch (cement floor) where locals are happy to introduce you to the Latin American soccer style, there’s an improvised work-out place with possibilities to do pull-ups and other types of exercise, you can sign up for yoga classes, and, most importantly, you can get first-class surfing lessons for around 15 soles in one of the many surf schools of Huanchaco. If you’re less of a hyperactive sports person, you can enjoy the mild weather on the beach or in the small parks in town.
Plus, there are quite a few cultural sights worth visiting: Chan Chan, pre-Incan palace ruins and a museum, just outside Huanchaco (15min); Huacas del sol y de la luna, pre-Incan temple ruins, close to Trujillo (about 1h bus drive from Huanchaco); Trujillo with its colonial-style buildings and latino-style market (a huge conglomerate of shops, selling literally everything you could think of, from all kinds of food and clothes to toys, crafts material and domestic appliances, as well as flowers and party decorations).
There usually is an OCN volunteer coordinator in charge of planning and organising free time activities that all the volunteers can join in: Day trips to other beaches or hikes on one of the surrounding mountains/hills, sand-boarding and salsa classes, bracelet workshop and shared dinners (usually once a week) are among the things that I’ve been to thanks to our current coordinator :D.
Working with OCN
For me, being a volunteer for Otra Cosa Network really did hold what it had promised: a mutually beneficent working arrangement that made me feel like I was doing “something good” (as in promoting community development) but that also didn’t fail to have positive impacts for myself. Both in the office and in the actual projects I was continually working with people whose practices and ideas I found fascinatingly inspiring. The fact that I came here straight from school and hence didn’t have lots of real working experience (except for the once-a-year summer jobs) might have been one of the major reasons why I was able to learn so much new stuff during my stay in Huanchaco, but I do think that volunteering with Otra Cosa Network can give people from all ages and backgrounds (in terms of professional training) plenty of opportunities to learn new things, not just because of the various projects but also due to the other volunteers coming from many different countries and therefore bringing in multifarious perspectives.
I will not lie to you – my tasks in the office were not the most exciting things that I have ever been confronted with and the continuation of doing the same stuff over and over again would have held some real potential for starting to get tiresome. I was engaged in marketing business and, as mentioned earlier, that was new to me, since I didn’t have a great deal of work experience before coming here. Looking for universities, faculties and professors who might be interested in cooperating with Otra Cosa Network was definitely interesting, and working out posts for Facebook and Instagram did bring a sort of variation into my working routine, but aside from those two aspects it was the relaxed and light atmosphere brought along by the other office people that prevented me from getting bored, let alone annoyed, by the slightly monotone copying and pasting of job descriptions in online forums.
Also, as I had signed up for the Environmental Volunteer position as well, some of my office time was spend on planning and organising workshops which added to the variety of my tasks.
Working with the kids can obviously be exasperating – attention levels on a Sunday afternoon, for instance, are understandably low. But it is also an incredibly rewarding thing to do, and the occasional few kids who do show interest usually make up for the chattering rest of them. It is an excellent job if you want to improve your ability to assert yourself and deal with slightly out-of-control-like situations. As there’s usually not a huge amount of environmental volunteers, everybody who is working in that field is strongly engaged in the planning of the workshops, which is great and unique compared to the supervised and assistive jobs that young and inexperienced people like myself are usually confronted with. One of the things I appreciated most while working here was the fact that the OCN staff members managed to offer support and advice whenever needed without making me feel like they were controlling/supervising me. As a volunteer here you get to work very independently, knowing at the same time that you “are not alone in this” – whenever you do hit upon a problem or some difficulties, there’s people to help you out.
With the exception of a few extraordinary events (Yo Cuido Mi Playa once a month, fundraising stuff on rare occasions), volunteers are free on the weekends. Additionally, if enough volunteers are available to handle the project you’re in, I found it was fairly easy to talk to the OCN staff with regards to getting a day off to extend the weekend, enabling me to get the most out of the trips I did.
The bus network here in Peru (and in Latin America in general, as far as I know) is far more extensive and, obviously, a lot cheaper than anything you get in Europe. The possibility to journey at night is especially convenient, seeing that most of the more popular destination require a bus ride of between six and ten hours – we usually got in the bus at the evening of our last working day of the week and would get off next morning in the city without really losing any time, saving the cost for one hostel night.
After having done a few trips to various locations in the Peruvian north, I can now totally understand what it is that draws so many young Europeans towards Latin America as a long-time traveling destination. It’s not just the amazingly different things you get to see and experience (which, in itself, are more than a good reason for coming over) but also the fact that you can have a really good time without spending sky-rocketing amounts of money: Hostels and restaurants tend to offer decent services for incredibly low prizes (consult OCN volunteers, experienced friends or travel guides to give you the names of the right accommodation providers), transportation is equally inexpensive and entrance fees usually don’t exceed 5€ either (most give special prices if you show them your students card, so don’t forget to bring that one).
But what is it that you can actually see when traveling around the North of Peru? A fairly wide range of things, I would say: Historic sights (museums, archaeological sites) on pre-Incan culture, huge markets and souvenir shop streets, a touristic beach town with partying options that rival those of Ibiza, dazzling landscapes (mountains, highlands, jungle, hiking tours, natural reserves), and traditional villages that made me feel like I actually saw part of the real life of the indigenous population in the Peruvian inland (which is normally not that easy to come by, with the tourism industry working to change and adapt things in a way that they think attracts foreigners best).
Written by Sarah Weiler, Volunteer for office, HELP Environment, and LitClub