I wanted to share some things that were either surprizing to me or that I wish I knew more about prior to my volunteer experience:
Read the Blue Sparrow predeparture guide. It really sets your expectations for Huancayo.
Plan on getting food poisoning and having stomach illnesses. Invest in some immodium before you arrive. Beware of ceviche that isn´t local trout.
If you have doubts about personal hygiene, visit a eucalyptus sauna at least once a week (you are given a room with a shower) and bring lots and lots of wet wipes. Also, bucket showering isn´t half bad on a warm day.
I feel really safe in Huancayo, and I often wander the streets alone, even at night. People here tend to be very warm and disarming. It is also my experience that people here are eager to share their culture with you. Some of my most memorable moments were when I threw caution to the wind and joined parties-fruit picking-hiking-eating with locals.
People often laugh at me and I now understand that it is not derisive, but rather out of a feeling of discomfort. Not many tourists pass through here and some people are nervous around a ¨gringa¨like myself.
Warning: cliche coming…
have an open mind and always assert your needs.
I arrived with very few expectations. Other than what I was told during the Blue Sparrow skype interview and the images I found on wikitravel of Huancayo, I really was not sure what I was in for. Perhaps a pastoral scene with alpacas and snow-capped mountains, with sheepherds in traditional dress and women selling potatoes. Not knowing any better, I allowed myself to indulge in some cultural stereotypes before I arrived.
What I found was a city of dualities. An economic hub of the Andes but also a beautiful agrarian locale. It is at once a city of action, color, and vibrancy with bustling open-air markets and the sound of carnival-barker-esque vendors, but it is also a city that surrenders to the strong rains and forces of nature. Huancayo is a place of tension between tradition and modernity, where a granny in full Andean regalia can order a frappucino at Starbucks and see a movie after a day of selling produce in the market. Conversely, a teenager with a Justin Bieber haircut listening to Pitbull on a smartphone can knit woolen wares and can talk to his family in Quechua (I have witnessed both cases).
This cultural tension makes the volunteer experience that much richer. I am happy to be here at a time to witness a transition of sorts, but still take full advantage of the very rooted traditional culture. It is through this concept of tension that I understand how important it is to volunteer here and be an ambassador of economic empowerment. I think it would be really easy to disregard the local culture and supplant it with the new, modern, and efficient, but that is not the goal of Blue Sparrow.
Our projects are 100% oriented towards providing tools and resources for the benefit of the clients. Whether it be in a classroom or out in the campos working the potato fields, there is aways a sense of respect for the local culture and a goal to help clients generate more creative output or more agricultural yield. Us volunteers traverse through the technology center and Blue Sparrow- supported agricultural enterprises with an open mind and some ideas/methods to improve pre-exising systems.
Since it is currently “summertime” in Huancayo, we are working in the afternoons at the Blue Sparrow Technology Center with the Adobe Youth Voices project helping students with creative projects. We support creative projects that champion social causes and the students love learning about design, composition, and different creative mediums. I will not teach in a school during my time here due to scheduling, but at least I get a glimpse into an educational process of sorts. On the weekends we are living and working in Pachachaca, either fumigating the fields or fixing the micro-finance center. The goal is to build a “bio-huerto” or a greenhouse model to help diversify the crop output to ultimately lead to more capital for the local residents.
At times I feel small and passive in the city center due to the overwhelming crowds, smells, speed of the combis..etc., but in three weeks I have grown to appreciate the chaos. Now I find it endearing. I struggled at first with the mud and the not-so-pristine state of the city (I think I even used the example of the current Syrian Crisis to describe the appearance of some parts of the city). To contrast, the communities on the outskirts are more tranquil and feature vast fields of corn, potatoes, and eucalyptus trees. Yet another duality of Huancayo.
I lived in the office at first, a bit timid of a rustic homestay experience, but then I decided to really get the “grandaaaso” experience of Huancayo. My host family is incredibly kind and welcoming, not to mention multi-talented and entrepreneurial. I live in an adobe house with a squat toilet and no bathroom to speak of, with chickens, ducks, guinea pigs, dogs, cats, and a parrot. I can admittedly be a bit of a princess and I thought that not having hot water would be a struggle, but I have adjusted easily to my new home. My host family has been so kind to knit both me and my volunteer roommate a warm winter gorra, and they are teaching us how to cook Peruvian cuisine, and how to make macrame bracelets. They sell animals and their crafts, and they are so eager to share their culture with us. I regret not being able to stay longer.