‘I’m volunteering for 5 weeks in Peru’ I’d say when others asked of my summer ’17 plans. They’d respond: ‘You’re only 17!’, ‘Be careful!’. An American on the train in Cusco said: ‘I can’t believe your parents have let you come out here’. I’m not oblivious to this “big, bad world” in which we live, but I’m very glad that I didn’t pass up this opportunity to explore a new country, meet new friends and embark on a journey of self-development. When the plane took off from Gatwick airport, I couldn’t quite picture how my time spent with Otra Cosa Network (OCN) would plan out. Now, as I am looking back knowing it was time well spent. Indeed, too little time well spent. For a 17-year-old, 5 weeks seemed like an impossibly long period of time – and even longer for my parents. I’m currently sitting on the sofa in rainy England with a cup of tea wishing I was still there.
The first impressions and experiences in Peru
Lima is definitely not a sample of Peru. Although my opinions are biased after spending 4 weeks in the coastal town of Huanchaco, Lima was not my favourite place. Not only because of the grizzly weather, but mainly because of the “Formula 1-like” driving. That’s not to say that the driving dramatically improved as I travelled further north, but I was no longer clutching the edge of my seat. It was a 10-hour northbound coach journey through a desert landscape from the capital to Trujillo, a city on the Pacific coast. When I arrived, I was told to be patient and take a more relaxed approach to life, leaving me pondering the sheer rush and impatience of the drivers who would drive through petrol stations to skip 5 metres of traffic. I stayed with a host family, Silvana, Kike, Fa Chi and Angelina, who gave me a home away from home.
By the third day, I’d tried a selection of Peruvian delicacies. One of them, ceviche was an interesting dish for someone like me who tends not to eat sea food. If you ever discuss the food in Peru it is most likely to start with the country’s mind-boggling variety of potatoes: ‘Over 4,000 varieties […] yellow, red, blue, purple, violet, black, red, green and did I say red?’ is what a tour guide explained to me. Palta (avocado) was another treat and staple in my Peruvian diet, alongside lots of potatoes and rice accompanying a deficit of vegetables.
Difficult times and proud moments in Huanchaco
In March 2017, a sudden and abnormal warming of Pacific waters unleashed the deadliest downpours in decades, with landslides and rivers sweeping away people. It clogged highways and destroyed crops. It also forced around half of Peru to declare a state of emergency. The North was hit the worse by the ‘El Niño’ phenomenon, and its consequences were evident from the rubbish, rocks and stones that lined the beach, spoiling the otherwise beautiful coastal town. When I went for my induction with Otra Cosa Network and the tour around Huanchaco, I found out that the local children had missed around a month of school because of the phenomenon. As a result, the annual two-week holiday planned for July was no longer taking place. However, the students had three days off at the end of my second full week in order to celebrate ‘Fiestas Patrias’, commemorating Peru’s independence. OCN took part in the local parade that kicked off the national holiday, behind many school groups that marched in smart uniforms and carried big flags. As we approached the main stage, the locals began to clap, from which you could tell how much the charity had done for them as well as the respect and admiration they had for OCN. Definitely a heart-warming highlight of my trip.
Surfing, sandboarding and salsa – some activities that made my trip special
Huanchaco is known to be one of the best surfing destinations in the world. Whilst I was out there, it played host to the Longboard World Championship. I felt it was only right that I tried to surf like a pro. I did indeed try (and fail) to do so – another memorable experience. Sand surfing and salsa (which were much more successful and rather less embarrassing) were two out of many other activities in which I took part, and which contributed to make this experience so special.
Teaching English: an exciting and challenging experience
I started teaching English, as part of the HELP English project, to children aged 6-9 in a local school three days after I arrived in Huanchaco. I was relieved when I discovered that two Hispanic speaker volunteers would be teaching alongside me. My first day in the school was exciting and I was drowned in hugs before every class. Exciting then turned to surprising and at moments sometimes shocking. I remember one class in particular with a lack of discipline: a few naughty children were throwing small rocks from the back of the classroom, spitting paper and pushing back on the door if you tried to shut it after they had been sent outside. Thankfully it got better from there.
Although it proved sometimes difficult to run three grades of classes with my colleagues, I’m not complaining, as at the same time it was so rewarding to see the children having fun and also progressing in learning. When we praised them for their good results with a simple ‘muy bien’, their smiles were priceless.
My second project: volunteering with a women’s social bakery
In my first few weeks, I also found out more about a women’s social bakery, that is one of OCN’s partner projects. I then worked a couple of days a week for this project by selling freshly-made bread on the streets of Huanchaco. It was lovely that, in the last few days of my stay, I could visit the bakery itself, knowing that I was supporting a project that offers some financial independence to women less fortunate than myself.
Going beyond donating time to the local community
When deciding what to do this summer, I knew it had to be more than a holiday. I wanted to develop myself as a person but also to make a positive contribution to the local community in Peru. Two months before departing, I began collecting donations from students at Solihull School as well as from local businesses. With the help of friends and family, I also made bags out of curtain samples which I filled with toiletries for young women and teenage girls. Luckily, British Airways donated extra room for my baggage filled with the gifts. My last few days in Huanchaco were by far the craziest, visiting all the schools and the local comedor (a social kitchen and community room for low-income women) to give out the donations. I will never forget the smiles on the women’s and children’s faces, and I wish I could do it all over again. Otra Cosa not only gave me a fantastic experience and opportunity help others, but also helped me realise how much I love travelling, discovering new cultures and meeting new people.
This blog was written by Asha Abram.