05.04.2012 - 02.05.2012 17 °C
It feels as though it was a long time ago that we sat at our computer, with a steaming cup of tea during a cold winter night, aimlessly wandering the web in search of family-friendly volunteering opportunities in Peru. Suddenly, we stumbled upon Peru’s Challenge: an “all-inclusive” volunteering package that seemed to offer it all… Working with Peru’s poorest children, touring all the “must-see” sites around Cusco, and accommodation in their “Volunteer House” with like-minded folks from around the world…
We thought that at as we neared the end of our 9-month trip, settling down somewhere for one month might do us good… and right we were. When we walked into the Volunteer House and into the warm embrace of the Peru’s Challenge team, it almost felt like coming home. And the Welcome Dinner at yummy Tunupa's made us feel like kings and queens! Peru is reputed to be South America's gastronomic highlight, and I would have to agree... The food everywhere is delicious and plentiful.
We settled into the volunteer house, in Larapa: a nice, safe, middle-class suburb of Cusco which is located approximately 30 minutes from the historic center by “collectivo” – small, white vans that bear names like “Batman” and “Correcamino” who collect passengers for less than a quarter and who are designed to make anyone who measures more than 1.5m feel like a giant.
The Volunteer House is divided into three apartments, so the Auzzies had the largest apartment on the main floor, while we shared the upstairs apartment with Karin (and Mats, her visiting partner), from Sweden. The girls were given the “penthouse” room – a large, sunlit attic room just for them! Each apartment has it own kitchen, computer and living room, affording us the much appreciated feeling of being in a home rather than a hotel room.
But perhaps the best feature of the house was the offer made by Santusa, our lovely housekeeper, that she cook lunch for us everyday providing we funded the groceries through a communal kitty. Aside from being a warm, loving and generous woman, Santusa is undoubtedly the best cook in all of Peru! Everyday, when we returned from workday at the school, we rushed into the house like famished schoolchildren yelling “what’s for lunch Santusa?” and always found something delicious and homey waiting for us on the table… Even on her days off, she cooked pies and cakes for us, for the sheer pleasure of it! She even prepared traditional alpaca... and cuy (roasted guinea pig - one of Peru's most traditional dishes and source of protein), for those who didn't have pet guinea pigs when they were kids!
Once again, we were blessed with wonderful companions for this month: our motley crew of 20-30-40’somethings immediately “clicked” and we fell into a fun and comfortable routine together… Under the kind guidance of our hosts Selvi (Peruvian co-founder of Peru’s Challenge) and Gerry (Australian uber-volunteer who is now the program’s volunteer manager).
Peru’s Challenge works with the poorest communities in the Cusco area, with a view to providing elementary education to their children. The time and money provided by volunteers go towards building schools, which become the heart and soul of the community. The program funds the construction of the school buildings, and often pays for the teachers as well. Once the community buys into the program, they often expand their activities to support the community’s needs: they have built chimneys in homes to alleviate respiratory illnesses caused by the smoke of kitchen fires; they have built irrigation systems to bring the water of mountain springs to fields and houses, allowing farmers to extend their farming season and bringing running water to the community; they have built workshops (talleres) where the village mothers and children can learn various crafts, which they can then sell at markets and to visiting tourists and volunteers (many women now earn more money this way than their husbands do by selling produce at the market); they have built greenhouse where the community can grow flowers that are sold at local markets to help fund the operation of the school.
They work in partnership with the community, which requires time and patience – these communities have often been promised help which never came, so gaining their trust is the first and most important step of the journey. Peru’s Challenge has been active in the area for some seven years, and they have built a solid reputation with both the communities they help and the local authorities (before initiating a new project, they now enter in an agreement with the local education authorities and communities who commit to taking over the project once Peru’s Challenge withdraws). They have been involved in a number of communities around Cusco and in the Sacred Valley, and every time, they have made a real difference.
Our month here was spent working with the community of Pumamarca, a 25 minute car ride up the mountain from the Volunteer House. This is one of Peru’s Challenge longest-running projects – they have been here for 5 years – and this will their last year here. Next year, they will hand over administration of the school to the community and the local board of education.
The impact of Peru’s Challenge here has been incredible: when they first arrived, the school consisted of a small mud brick building with an earthen floor and no windows, where less than 30 children sporadically showed up. Five years later, the school is comprised of 7 classrooms (2 kindergarden groups, grade 1, grade 2, grades 3 and 4, grade 5 and grade 6), a well equipped computer lab, a library, a kitchen, a bread oven, a full complement of physical education equipment, outdoor play structures, and covered tables for outside activities. The buildings are clean, painted bright blue, and decorated with murals painted by the children and volunteers. Moreover, the school has four greenhouses of its own, where the schoolchildren harvest vegetables that are used to provide them with their daily mid-day meal. More than three-quarters of the village children attend school on a full-time basis.
Our tasks for the month consisted of three things:
- Teaching: we taught English, Art, Physical Education and Computers in every class. Building on our experience in Ecuador, Alain and I also spent a few classes teaching the Grades 5 and 6 the very popular art of bracelet-making… They loved it!
- Hygiene: the air here is so dry, the daytime sun so hot, and the nights so cold that the children’s hands and faces are often chafed and burnt. During hygiene time, after recess, we oversaw the ritual of nose-blowing, hand-washing and applying cream to their faces and hands. This was followed by the distribution of a multi-vitamin and a fruit to each child, with the odd “saying please and thank you in English” thrown in for good measure.
- Construction: we worked on the construction of a fifth mud-brick greenhouse, where the children will grow flowers that will help fund the ongoing operation of the school. The small, wiry Rufino from the nearby community of Quillahuata was our foreman and resident expert on everything to do with mud-brick construction – clearing the land of weeds and rocks; digging and pouring the cement foundation; hauling the (very heavy!) mud bricks uphill, over 500m, to our construction site (we could move three bricks at a time in a wheelbarrow pulled by two people… until a truck showed up to move the rest of them, thank God!); mixing red mud to use as mortar; laying and mortaring the bricks, row upon row.
Every morning, we rose early with the girls to do an hour of homework before being picked up by either Memo (Peru’s Challenge handyman and driver) or Selvi at 9:30am, in order to get to the Pumamarca school by 9:45am. There, we rotated through teaching, construction and hygiene, according to the daily schedule laid out by Gerry. Alain spent a bit more time on construction, while I spent a bit more time in the classroom, and the girls joined whomever they pleased. By the end of the month, we were beginning to feel “settled in” here as well… We new many of the kids by name, they greeted us every morning with a loud and cheery “goooooood morning teaaaaacheeeeer!”, and we could see them learn and integrate the tidbits we taught them each week. Despite the challenges posed by the lack of continuity from one volunteer group to another, every grain of knowledge that is planted here bears fruit – and the children are avid learners. They were always eager to try anything we proposed, always proud to show us that they remembered what we taught them the preceding week. Nothing here is taking for granted.
And it seems that the last few days are always the best, no matter where we go, because this is always when the girls completely led their guard down…
By the time we left, the greenhouse had begun to look like an actual building, with a solid concrete foundation and walls approximately 1m high (many, many more mud bricks await the next group of volunteers!). Once we got to the mixing mud and mortaring part of this project, Chloée jumped in with both feet… literally! She loved to lay the mud and worked diligently, providing great help to the adults who were laying the bricks. She could be seen smiling, with a trace of mud on her nose, sparkling eyes and her hair up in a messy bun, chatting away in Spanish with Rufino. Sadly, she missed the last day of construction because she fell ill (but was quickly back on her feet thanks to the good advice of the indefatigable Dr Victor) – which meant she missed the big mud fight instigated by her dad! The whole team came home that day looking like a troop of red-skin Indians!
Both girls also helped out in the classroom, and were particularly fond of the grades 1 and 2. Tiny and loving, they won everyone over with their spontaneous hugs and sweet giggles. Arianne thoroughly enjoyed this part and as the weeks progressed, her shyness gradually gave way to a natural motherly instinct. It was adorable to see her help the children with bracelet-making, computer exercises, and art projects. Even when we weren’t teaching, she wander off and help out other volunteers in their classrooms. On our last day, the grade 2 teacher had to leave and his group of 6 students were left to themselves. I took over the group for a short while with Arianne, but then had to move on to another class – Arianne volunteered to take care of the group who was to complete an assignment left by their teacher. She took care of them on her own for over an hour! When I checked in on her, she had all six of them hard at work and was roaming from desk to desk, congratulating them on their work and giving them a hand with their assignment. The kids adored her, and kept showering with big hugs.
And because it was our last day, we were treated to a touching send-off by the whole school. They lined up in front of us, by grade, standing proud and tall in their blue school jersey, and each class send a representative to give each one of us a lovely hand-made card and a bouquet of beautiful flowers from the Pumamarca gardens. Two of the boys climbed on the platform to take the microphone and read out loud the message their class had prepared for Chloée and Arianne. And then, one by one, they filed pass us to give us a parting hug. Many had made another card for one of us or brought extra flowers, which they gave us with a shy smile and a loving hug. The tough grade 6 girls who seemed to cool to be bothered with anything asked (repeatedly!) if I would be their “graduation godmother”. One grade 5 boy whom I particularly liked handed me a single wild-flower which he had picked for me. Another looked at me with his dark, serious eyes and simply said: “gracias amiga por ser tan buena persona” (thank you my friend for being such a good person). Needless to say, I was crying like a baby…
We made wonderful friends on this journey, discovered magical places, and learned so much about Peru and its people. But the most memorable part of this experience will undoubtedly be the smiles and hugs of the children of Pumamarca. Despite knowing that we would soon be leaving them (and how often to they have to say goodbye to people they have grown to love!?!), they opened their hearts to us and showered us with unconditional love. Because their life can be so harsh at times, they have learned what so many of us tend to forget: live the here and now to the fullest, be grateful for whatever small goodness life sends your way, and never take anything for granted.