The first thing I remember about Albert is he’s incredibly old. In 1950, after U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered troops into Korea, Albert left his parents’ farm in upstate New York. He abandoned his army draft assignment and everyone he loved, and wandered south until, one day, he reached Peru. He was 19 when he embarked on that expedition. He hasn’t looked back since.
The second thing I remember about Albert: He’s 100 percent sure aliens are plotting mankind’s demise, and Huanchaco is one of Earth’s few safe havens from the impending attack.
Our paths crossed last May – my first month in this wonderful country, and less than a handful of years shy of his ninetieth birthday. I’d walked down to the beachfront, weaved my way past the pier and a slew of restaurants, dodged street vendors and passersby, and plopped down in the sand next to a trio of upright Caballitos de Totoras. Waves bigger than I’d ever seen before swelled, crested and crashed before me. The sun began its final descent below the sparkling horizon. A stray dog peed next to my leg.
I was inspecting my shoes for any unwanted splatter when someone tapped me on the back. I looked up from a pair of (mostly) clean sneakers to see a long, white beard; age marks dotting a bald head, like pepperoni on a pizza; a tall, wiry frame; and an earnest smile that could ease the mind of any weary traveller. He adjusted his faded tie-dye shirt and paint-speckled pants and asked if he could join. I said yes.
Albert introduced himself as he sat cross-legged. After we shared each other’s story and meditated on the plausibility of extraterrestrial life, he began educating me on my new surroundings.
Some advice he offered:
“Do whatever it takes to leave your comfort zone; you didn’t schlep to a different hemisphere to be normal.”
“Do not eat seafood that costs 10 soles or less.”
“Give panflute music a chance; it will grow on you.”
“Don’t give a **** what people back home think of your decision to come here.”
“If a local woman wants to marry you after three nights together, she is probably, but not definitely, using you to get to North America.”
And so on.
The light rapidly vanished and he spoke. Then, I asked Albert why the indignant martians will soon spare Huanchaco – a small, little-known fishing village nestled against the Pacific – of all places.
He paused for a couple seconds to think, then adopted a more serious tone.
“There’s something different about this town, and your experience here is going to change you in ways you don’t yet understand”, he said as he stared out into the murky sea. “I could try to explain it, but words wouldn’t be enough. You’ll have to see for yourself.”
He then let out a deep sigh, stood up, and walked away without bidding farewell.
Now that I’m nearing the 100-day mark in Huanchaco, I’ve decided to take stock of my time abroad so far – what I’ve learned, what I’ve contributed, what I’ve felt. Naturally, Albert’s mysterious sign-off is rattling around my brain as I unspool thoughts on the page.
It’s safe to say I’ve learned a lot. In fact – and this is not meant to be hyperbolic – I’ve absorbed more useful information during my brief sojourn in La Libertad than the last couple years combined.
I’ve learned how to become a low-stress person, which, as my parents would attest, is a significant development. It’s a crucial one, too, as life in Peru moves a lot slower than it does in the West. Back in the States I often believed that if I was on time, I was late, and that every mistake had the potential to be catastrophic. Such a mentality would drive one mad in Huanchaco. So I adjusted. I’ve stopped worrying about what’s out of my control; I’ve stopped beating myself up over miniscule errors. As a result, the gnawing, omnipresent anxiety that used to plague me has, for the most part, washed away.
I’ve also learned plenty about what goes on outside my North American bubble. Peruvians have graciously showcased a different way to approach day-to-day existence, and though not everything about their lifestyle has resonated, they’ve taught me to focus more on the present, and the constellation of simple pleasures that make up the here-and-now.
The volunteers have helped in that regard, as well. Due to the wide variety of folks who join Otra Cosa Network (OCN), each day is spent with people from a myriad of nations. Any given meal could be eaten alongside Spaniards and South Koreans, Finns and Frenchmen, Poles and Portuguese – all of whom can open your mind to new ideas and perspectives. The faces change frequently; the size of our group waxes and wanes like the tide. But the diversity and quality of those who dedicate themselves to OCN remain consistent.
Most importantly, I’ve learned about the struggles many endure in Latin America. It’s one thing to read about painful statistics or visit a disaffected community for 10 days to build a house; it’s entirely different to embed oneself in a society like this one. Doing so has given me a comprehensive awareness of widespread, systematic issues plaguing much of our world. These problems, as anyone working for an NGO would tell you, must be examined in an intimate manner to be fully understood.
I’m still learning every day, but I no longer take for granted access to clean drinking water, or the availability of reliable education, or how lucky I am to be in good health. No longer can I justify complaining about the adversity I face. No longer do I judge or criticise others before considering what they may be going through.
I’m particularly cognisant of this when in the classroom.
Since arriving in Peru, I’ve assisted the HELP English project, serving mostly as a teacher for Grades 4-6 at Maria del Socorro School. To say it’s been a challenge would be an understatement. I, along with an ever-changing band of co-teachers, am responsible for over 200 students. No, that’s not a typo.
Because most of us don’t have degrees in education (and because resources here are limited) I’ve had to modify my original expectations. I’d like to think I’m helping every kid in every class, as anyone else would. Maybe that’s a tad naive, but I maintain that it’s the right attitude to have. I’m confident, however, that I’m guiding those who want to learn, and making sure enthusiastic students have the foundation of knowledge to take the next step in their English learning when they reach secondary school.
It’s not the most glamorous endeavour, but it’s gratifying – and vital – nonetheless.
As with any nonprofit work, that sense of pride isn’t felt every day. It’s probably not felt on most days, if I’m being honest. But, every once in a while, even during tough weeks, there are moments that remind me why I’m here, and why Otra Cosa’s presence is crucial. It could be as small as one nine-year-old beaming with pride when he sees his good test score, and it can be as big as an entire class cheering when we walk through the door.
Without question, watching my students progress is among the best feelings I’ve enjoyed in Peru. And there are plenty of contenders for the top spot.
Someone recently asked me what my favourite moment was in Huanchaco, and the answer came easily. It occurred on an unremarkable Thursday in an unremarkable setting during a unremarkable instance, as such moments tend to happen. I had just finished a successful afternoon at school (the sixth graders crushed their verb translations) and a ceviche dinner awaited me. As I walked into the volunteer house and set my bag down, it dawned on me that I felt genuinely happy – more happy than any other point I could recall. I felt good about my work with the kids, my social life, and my environment. Everything seemed to be coming together. So I pulled out a notepad and record that snapshot, and decided to do the same for all my noteworthy snapshots in South America, to preserve them in a sort of literary amber.
Tonight, as I thumb through them all, I’m taken aback by the sheer number of words I’ve scribbled down.
There’s the late night by the water with friends, sharing our greatest fears and ambitions as the palm trees whisper and sway. Carelessly surfing atop a wave with a fiery orange sky as the backdrop. Salsa dancing at Janpix with a mojito in hand.
There’s the trek to the northern edge of the shore, where, amongst ancient Chevy sedans, faded brick walls, and fishermen using nothing but hooks, bait and string, it feels as if I’m suspended in time, in an era long past.
There’s the jaw-dropping sights as we hike through the Andes. The faded contours of the beach when the power goes out on a cool evening. The student refusing to let go of her embrace when it’s time to leave.
Laced within these joyful recollections are, of course, some less-than-fantastic moments: Food poisoning, a class that refuses to quiet down when it’s time to learn about pronouns, the many goodbyes when people I’ve grown close depart. I’ve typically been one to repress or swat away similar flashbacks, but in Huanchaco, I feel compelled to ruminate on them. My trip deserves to be remembered for all its highs, all its boring interludes and all its warts. That thought, perhaps more than anything else, reminds me how worthwhile this adventure has been.
Looking at my notes again, it’s clear that most of these entries exist because of those around me. Which leads to a meaningful point. This thin slice of South America isn’t different because of its beaches, or its food, or its laid-back atmosphere. You can find all that in countless locations across the globe. Rather, it’s the people residing in Huanchaco, along with those who gravitate here, who make it unique.
It’s the local mother who has only known this place, and, though she’s faced a great deal of hardship, is an eternal optimist, and will patiently explain why you should feel the same. It’s the Scottish retiree who is tortured by regrets, but has found solace in his later years by opening up about his mistakes to those who will listen. It’s the Otra Cosa volunteer from a country so similar to yet so different from your own whose outlook alters your course in a tiny yet integral way. It’s the student who lights up when he sees you across the street and frantically shouts, “Teacher! Teacher!” as he waves and jumps in the air.
Indeed, these people have molded me into a better person, one who will return to the States a more compassionate, driven and educated man. I am beyond grateful to them, to this town, and to Otra Cosa for such an extraordinary gift.
No volunteering trip is the same, but I’m confident that if you join us – whether it’s for a month or a year, whether you work at the skate ramp or a local school – you will also evolve into an improved version of yourself. Whatever you’re able to give back will be repaid in spades.
So, embrace the uncertainty of it all. Ingrain yourself in this unusual habitat. Take advantage of such a rare, valuable opportunity. And if you come across an elderly fellow limping around with Gandalf-esque facial hair and a checkered head shiny enough to reflect the moon, tell him I said he was right.
About this journey changing me, that is. But if he ends up being right about the aliens, too, at least you’ll be in the right place.
This blog was written by Andrew H.