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.
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 ☺