When I think of spending a month in Pachachaca, Perú – living with a host family and teaching at the local school – many images and relationships come to my mind. There were many surprises in Pachachaca, but I actually think the overall lessons I personally learned and challenges I faced were, for the most part, predicted either by myself or by reading through Blue Sparrow’s website. I went into it thinking that this would probably be an incredibly exciting and different experience from anything I’d done before, while simultaneously presenting challenges I’d never encountered while travelling or in regular life back home. Both these preconceptions actually proved true for me; I have journal entries where one page I’m ranting about how amazing and incredible the day was, and on the next I’m going on about how much I miss communicating in my own native tongue. Though there were ups and downs, the consistent thing between all of my experiences for that month were how much they taught me and as a result, how much I learned and grew from my overall time in Perú. I’m actually not much of a blogger, and I think writing a day to day or even week to week summary of my time might be excessive, but I got some great stories I’m going to list here through my time in Pachachaca. For anyone looking to volunteer, I completely recommend it and would talk about the experience as really one of the best things I’ve done for myself, but I’ll also list some of the challenges so that you can have an idea of what to expect.
Not being able to understand everyone while they were talking! Obviously, though, my Spanish got a lot better through the month, so overall this was good.
Learning to take charge with the classes I was teaching – they were times when I’d need to round up the kids for class, because they’d be playing or doing something else.
Learning to utilize free time. After school got out at one, I pretty much had the whole day free, so I had to learn to volunteer to help out with the house or field, or find things nearby I wanted to do.
Being far from contact with family/people back home…however, I will say overall it was awesome being disconnected and it’s actually hard learning to re-connect now…I am terrible with my cell phone!
Hilarious/Random/Cool Stories Gathered from Pachachaca, Perú:
I am a self-declared foodie, so was naturally talking to my host mom Magna right off the bat about all of the Peruvian food I was aiming to try. I’d mentioned cuye, or guinea pig, and I think it speaks to how accommodating and welcoming they are that after offhandedly mentioning this in conversation, Magna had prepared cuye for me by the second afternoon I’d stayed with them. What made the cuye (delicious, for the record) especially great was that I ate it sitting on a bench in the kitchen that held nothing else but…live guinea pigs beneath it. I refrained from feeding them scraps because, hey, that’s just cruel…
My first weekend, I decided I wanted to go with my host brother, Luis, up the mountain in Pachachaca to take the sheep and cows to graze. This was a daily activity for him, part of “what you do” as a member of the household. Of course I thought of it as hiking, as in Vermont if you’re ever going up a mountain the main objective is exercise and getting more in touch with nature. So, that morning I was prepared with my hiking boots, backpack, water bottle (and backup waterbottle), snack, and reading material for the top. Luis wore his everyday clothes and normal shoes, and still beat me by a long shot to the top…weirdest part for me was definitely holding on to the tail of the bull for help getting up the mountain. Apparently this is normal, but unnerving nonetheless. At the top, Luis showed me a game called boliche usually played with marbles, that he played with cactus fruit we found at the top.
My last few days in Pachachaca were especially memorable, as school was closing for Christmas holidays so we had a lot of end-of-the-year events going on (traditional dances, Christmas hot chocolate and panetone, parent’s day), but I also got some send-offs from my host family. One of my host sisters, Ada, showed me how to make panqueques, which are basically beauuutifully fried sweet pieces of dough. I failed miserably in attempts to make fun shapes out of them (the dough is surprisingly hard to keep together once in the pan), but Ada proved a rockstar chef and they were delicious. My other host sister, Rocio, gave me an awesome last night by insisting I needed to see their New Years tradition of burning a life-size doll made of old clothes. She made a huge doll after coming home from school on my last day, and that night we burned it together in the backyard. Best part was learning how to fire jump ☺
I spent a little over a month volunteering with Blue Sparrow in Huancayo. I really enjoyed my time there and it was a great learning experience. I worked in Huancan, which is about a 20 minute bus ride outside of Huancayo, depending on the traffic from both cars and cattle. I thought I’d share some Do’s and Don’ts to help prepare you for your time volunteering.
Visit the Huaytapallana Glacier. It’s the coolest day trip you can do and you’ll climb higher than any mountain in the continental United States.
If you have a smartphone make sure you have some pictures from back home you can show the students. They really like seeing your country and many of them won’t ever have the chance to visit.
Take long walks around your neighborhood. You’ll get to see a lot of things you wouldn’t expect. Talk to the people, they’ll be very interested in hearing from the Gringos.
Do as many activities as you can with your host family. On weekends we spent a lot of time going to movies and museums with our little brother. It’s a great way to see the city and practice your Spanish too. I would never have seen a Peruvian zoo if it hadn’t been for our host brother. And while the zoo may not have been anything special compared to what you would see back in the states, it was fascinating to see how Peruvians do it.
Be confident when you’re teaching. The students will be just as intimidated by you as you are by them. Don’t worry about messing up your Spanish or sounding stupid. Remember you are a foreigner who came to volunteer there. They assume that you will know what you’re talking about even if you don’t.
For English class, we did a lot of activities where we would go around the room and have each kid say something in English. It usually was a simple sentence like “I am from the Peru. Where are you from?” This always seemed to be a hit with the kids. They got involved and there was a lot of laughing. Also it accomplished something that they didn’t seem to do in their own English classes, which was speaking and listening.
Don’t let your lack of fluency intimidate you or prevent you from volunteering. I definitely wasn’t fluent in Spanish but as long as you can get by communicating you’ll be ok. Remember with teaching if you prepare something to talk about a lot of it will be one way communication. You can build your way up to more complex interactions when you’ve been there awhile and have gotten used to speaking and listening more. Also, Matt and Serai will probably pair you with other volunteers who speak stronger Spanish if you are not as confident with it.
Don’t let yourself feel like you’re not making a difference. We had plenty of times where we felt like we weren’t doing much to improve anything. The truth is on an individual level you may not make much of a difference. But the organization does have a positive impact on the communities it works in and you should recognize that you’re not just one person working in the school with a couple other volunteers. You’re part of the organization that does this year round and places many volunteers in different cities and schools.
Don’t let the quality of the teaching by the school faculty make you feel like there is no hope for the kids. We had an English teacher in our school that spoke no English. When the teacher showed us their in class assignments we were either shocked at how hard they were or disturbed by how they did not use correct English. Just do the best you can with what you’re given.
Don’t let people back home dissuade you from going to Peru. Before I went traveling I had friends, many of them from South America, tell me it wasn’t safe to travel there. I traveled through Colombia and Ecuador as well and never had any problems. Peru felt very safe and as long as you exercise some common sense you won’t have any problems. As far as Huancayo goes, I found it safer or just as safe as any place I’d been in South America or even in the states. We never had any problems and the people were always very kind. Watch out for the stray dogs though. A couple of them tried to bite our ankles while we were there. Not in a very aggressive way but still a little shocking at the time. All you have to do is reach down to the ground and pretend you’re picking up a rock and they’ll run off. They’re used to the locals actually throwing them.
I could go on for a long time talking about my experience there. It really was one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences of my life. By the time you’ve worked for a month you’ll feel incredibly comfortable with your life there. By then you’ll have adjusted to the altitude and the food. You’ll be familiar with the buses and streets and it will feel like a second home. Just thinking about it makes me nostalgic. Make sure to check out Mercado Modelo while you’re there. You’ll feel like an authentic Peruvian.
My fellow volunteers and I embraced two slogans while volunteering there: “You win some and you lose some.” And more importantly, “Embrace the chaos.” You’ll understand when you get there. Good Luck and Enjoy.
I was a rising junior studying engineering at the University of Michigan when I volunteered in 2013. I’m from Detroit, Michigan and hadn’t done any solo foreign travel before this trip. I had taken three years of Spanish in high school but hadn’t studied if for 3 years before going to Peru. I traveled through Colombia and Ecuador for a month before arriving Huancayo. If you have any questions feel free to request my contact info.