Volunteer stories : Hannah B., General Care Projects in Peru
Throughout my Gap Year, people asked me “Why Peru?”, a question I always found impossible to answer. I had just always had a feeling that I would love it there. Not having taken it at school, I wanted to learn Spanish surrouded by native speakers and I also knew I wanted to see the rainforest and the Andes. Why not Ecuador or Chile? I don’t know, but I am so glad that I went with my gut feeling and spent two and a half months in Peru – I quickly learnt that those are good instincts to follow!
I spent the first month at the Conservation project in the ecological reserve of Taricaya, two hours downriver from the dusty (but nonetheless vibrant) town of Puerto Maldonado. My first nights in the Taricaya Ecological Reserve I could hardly sleep for the incessant buzzing of the (bright green) forest around me. I think I saw a new plant, animal or insect every day I spent in the jungle and I feel immensely privelaged to have been able to live in the Amazon in such a well managed reserve. It was exciting, enlightening and not to mention fun to be allowed to contribute to the health of the jungle during my time there.
Daily routine began with the sun at 5:30am when the other volunteers (a great group of like-minded people from all over the world) and I split into groups and spent two hours in various observation platforms, basically counting birds! We monitored the species count of the reserve and had to send it annually to the Peruvian Government to justify our work in the jungle – an activity that has also proven that the relatively tiny reserve is more diverse than neighbouring national parks. Not being known for my love of bird-watching, this could have been the most boring part of the day, but I quickly found that sitting in the rays of the first morning sun, 10 metres above the rest of the canopy in an enormous rainforest tree counting rainbow coloured parakeets has become my idea of heaven!
After heaps of fried rice and eggs for breakfast we set to work on various projects. At the pilot farm we reared goats, trained donkeys, bred guinea pigs, harvested, peeled, dried and ground coffee and cultivated bananas, pineapples, chilles and flowers for sale in town. This was so different to life in London and I was amazed at how quickly I fell in love with it. We also constructed turtle beaches out of reach of nearby poachers, fed and cared for the rescue animals around the lodge and worked with visiting ecologists to measure all things about the rainforest from the diversity of tiny, brilliant-feathered birds of the canopy to the variation of tree sap.
My favorite activity, however, was one that we undertook in cooperation with a poor community a further two hours downstream called Palma Real. This town of about 80 families was experiencing the effects of serious littering and we worked with the leader and the school’s PTA as part of a continued and growing relationship with these local people to execute a mass clear-up. The children, running around barefoot, stepped on glass as they left their classrooms, played amongst corroding batteries and ate surrounded by crisp packets and tin cans. We wanted to ensure that the locals were able to maintain the cleanliness of their village and so provided them with a trained-up donkey to act as rubbish cart in our absence. The hardest (and also most rewarding) day’s work of my life was building a pen for the donkey which included machetteing clear a field (where we discovered praying mantis and tarantulas), digging holes in the dirt for the fenceposts and enclosing it all in barbed wire at 30°C.
Later, we returned to collect rubbish with all the children of the school – an activity which proved as popular as breaktime! In a chain stretching the breadth of the football pitch we passed through town picking up every scrap of rubbish and filled the land-fill pit we had dug twice over. The smiling bare-foot kids running wild at the end made it totally worth it! This grass-roots project combined with lunchtime swimming out to sand banks in the Madre de Dios River, great celebrations with the other volunteers in the evenings and the chance to see giant river otters and sloths in their awe-inpiring natural habitats of nearby oxbow lakes made this the most colourful month of my life!
From the jungle I flew to the andean Sacred Valley – an environment equally as stunning as the Amazon with its snow capped peaks, freezing mornings and parched middays. I moved in with a local family of lovely women (who became surrogate grandmother, mum and sister to me) and began work in the nearby Kindergaten. The first week of this was an exciting crash course in the language and, with the help of some Projects Abroad Spanish lessons I could understand and contribute to everything that was said in the classroom and with my host family by the end of the month.
Working in the nursery made things easier at first, as I was basically speaking Spanish like a three-year-old and could communicate easily with the children through games, songs and pictures. I helped the teachers keep the kids focussed, taught both them and the pupils rudimentary English and gave the children lots of hugs and attention during “el recreo”. The children were both Spanish and Quechua speaking (the indigenous language of the mountains, which unfortunately is not recognised by the government, making these children disadvantaged in the classroom and workplace) and many came from homes where fathers were alcoholic and mothers were too busy working to give them the care they craved. It was a pleasure to fill that gap for them.
The joy of becoming integrated into the tiny market town of Pisac was being allowed to participate in their local celebrations (during just five weeks there I witnessed at least six fiestas!). When a new classroom and toilet block at the school was completed they organised a celebration complete with the children dancing in full traditional dress (one dance curiously involved the four-year-old boys whipping eachother and all their parents cheering from the sidelines!) I was the only “gringa” there and I felt so lucky to be accepted and welcomed by this vibrant community.
On weekends I travelled with other volunteers who were stationed with other families. I loved being a part of the great network that Projects Abroad has established in the Sacred Valley and I made lasting friends with other teaching volunteers, people on the Inca Project and Medicine Project in Cusco. We saw primary-coloured dance fesivals in the stone circles of the Incan ruins, visited endless artesianal markets and ate such culinary delights as purple potatoes, pumpkin frittas and llama burgers.
The great highlight of my time in the highlands was visiting the mighty Machu Piccu. Straddling two sacred peaks lies an intricately planned citadel complete with temples and terraces and I walked around it with my mouth open all day (not just due to high altitude). The great spirituality of the local people continues as I discovered during the enormous solstice celebrations that I was lucky enough to experience in Cusco. Traditionally this Quechua celebration of Inti Rymi (the Sun Festival – which takes place every year on June 24th definitely worth extending the stay for) involved the sacrifice of a llama. Nowadays this part of the ritual is faked, although the authentic sound effects added another dimension to the performance, and it seems that, even without the removal of the animal’s beating heart (which can be divined for good or bad omens for the coming year), the people were still able to tell that next year will bring as much prosperity as this one has.
My adventures in Peru have contributed to one of the most enriching years of education I have ever enjoyed. Any worries I had about travelling alone in the developing world (or the creepy-crawlies) dissolved as soon as I arrived, made life-long friendships with the other volunteers and met the Projects Abroad team. I would highly recommend anyone with the smallest amount of wanderlust to take a Gap Year – something which I believe should be renamed to give a better idea about the immensely fulfilling experiences that I loved every second of.
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