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Volunteering at an after-school education program in Cusco, Peru was one of the most intense, but rewarding experiences I’ve encountered during my travels throughout South America. To get the most out of it, and give the most back, it takes a lot of planning, dedication and patience, so I would not recommend doing it on a whim.
After much research on what (and what not!) to look for in a volunteer program, and trawling through the labyrinth that is the internet, I landed on CoorperarPeru. This organization came with recommendations from other volunteer sites, as well as accommodation so you could bond with fellow volunteers. CooperarPeru’s mission is to enhance three aspects of young Peruvian kids’ lives – education, health and community development. This is a supplement to their schooling and was important for me as, unless you’re qualified and willing to commit many months or years, its recommended to steer clear of orphanages, which is where a lot of volunteer tourism is based. The program is located in a small community outside of Cusco, called Tankarpata – and with that I decided to quit my corporate marketing job and book flights to Peru!
After the grueling 40 hours in transit from Australia to South America, I had arrived. My home for the next month was Hostel Caja Magica in the beautiful San Blas neighborhood overlooking Cusco, and with those views came a daily trek up what felt like hundreds of stairs. But hey, it helped justify my brownie addiction from the amazing Pantastico bakery nearby.
I met the volunteer crew that day. A mix of French, Spanish, Belgian, Peruvian and many other people made up the team. Most of us were living at the hostel, some nights we’d have Salsa lessons and hit the town, other nights we’d play some music or watch movies. We even had a resident Llama (can you get anymore cliche) named Juanito, as well as an adopted street kitten. It was a true family atmosphere.
My first day volunteering I had no idea what to expect, and even then, it was beyond what I had imagined. We took a local bus, which was an experience in itself. The hustle and bustle, the shouting from the bus driver, the constant tooting of horns and the crazy packed streets seemed like a mess – and yet it all worked (almost) seamlessly. After walking through the unpaved roads, past the dilapidated houses and trekking up yet more hills and steps (another excuse to eat a brownie that night) we arrived at the school. It’s difficult to put into words the atmosphere of the school, but organized mayhem seems like a good fit.
As I walked through the door a young boy, around seven years old, immediately latched onto me asking my name and where I was from in Spanish (note – although I had been learning Spanish, it was muy básico!). It took me a while to figure out what he was saying, but eventually I understood. He was the first volunteer kid I met, and I will always remember that moment, and the smile on his face as he greeted me. One thing I’ve learn about the Peruvian, and South American culture, is the warmth and lack of fear they have when making new friends. In my experience, some children would be hesitant to speak to a stranger – “stranger danger” etc. But this isn’t a consideration here. Children, adults, young and old are all willing and eager to speak with you, no matter who you are. It’s an incredible quality to have and makes you feel welcomed in their home country.
Each day, around 3pm, we would welcome the kids as they arrived after finishing school. The image of them running up the gravel pathway towards us with such enthusiasm will stay with me forever. The program was structured so the kids got used to a routine, it started with them brushing their teeth and washing their hands – simple right! But without fail, each day someone would have lost their toothbrush, dropped it in the dirt or tipped over the water tank. And yet it never got old. After this we’d each help the kids with their homework, the younger kids would mostly practice writing and the other kids would read in the library. Once this was done we’d all regroup, play games and complete the day’s activity. We also provided them a meal each afternoon.
My month at CooperarPeru was filled with a roller coaster of emotions, and I never thought I could form such a connection with the kids in such a small period of time, and with such basic Spanish. We learnt together, sung, danced, went on excursions into the city and had scavenger hunts. By the end of every day, I was exhausted, but full of happiness from being able to be a part of so many kids’ lives. This was by far one of the most emotionally draining, eye opening and exciting periods of my life, and I’d recommend anyone looking to travel to South America to take the plunge and get in contact with a local volunteering company.