Tag Archives: volunteering

Glimpses of Unadulterated Beauty

27 Jun


I watched as her cracked hands skilfully weaved the rainbow rug. She smiled a toothless smile as she absently delighted in this menial, repetitive task.

I heard their squeals as they chased the chickens back in the coop. “Amiga, amiga mira mira!”

I realised that every pound of his hammer on the foundation of the classroom was breathed with purpose.

I saw her carry her baby brother on her nine year old back as she gathered her family’s meal.

A patch of sky reflected in the puddle of the ground.

I stopped.

Like a torrent of water gushing over my head, it all made sense.

They delight in the little things.

With an enchanting simplicity, their joy captivated me and marked my life forever.

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Sebastian, Inequality and Good People

23 Jun

On Thursday February 3, I went on my first and only house visit to Pumamarca in the Cusco region. That afternoon I met a fourteen year old boy, Sebastian, who possessed the kindest and purest heart that I have ever met. He has suffered a lot in his life and is heavily malnourished due to poverty. His mother is a severe alcoholic, who in her states of delirium sells the family’s only source of revenue such as a cow for S./5 (approx. $1.80). Sebastian is then forced to go into town to buy another one for 50x the price with money that they do not have. His father is currently in hospital as a result of being hit in the head by a bull. He has younger brothers that he has to look after as well as the livestock. Despite all this and then some, he is hopeful that things can better for him and his family and he still clings onto his dreams. He has a bright personality and humble heart. As we were speaking to his mum, we heard him up the mountain while herding the bulls, singing joyfully. Meeting Sebastian and this house visit remains to this day the best day of my life.

The lives of people in poverty are so far removed from the minds of us in the western world. Sure, we can empathise because it is not fair that people should suffer and an indignant anger is a natural response but what of it if nothing were practically implemented? We should be compelled to care more and be moved to DO something greater then our feelings and emotions dictate otherwise we are wafting to and fro in a haze of emptiness. That’s why I love Peru’s Challenge, because they are practical and are respected in the Cusco region. The work that they undertake has a goal of sustainability which is crucial in development yet the concept of sustainability is often made redundant in favour of instantaneous change which is ephemeral. Change can be immediately tangible but it’s success is in its longevity and sustainability. Empowering local communities, families and individuals is the best way to implement change and aid.

Another hurdle that the natives of Quilla Huata and Pumamarca must face is the discrimination between rural and city folk. There is still a great disparity between those from the city and the indigenous people and this inequality makes it difficult to complete an education as most of the secondary schools are situated in the cities, which makes it almost impossible for the children from Quilla Huata and Pumamarca to attend as the costs of transport is so high. Often times, families favour their children to make handicrafts to sell to tourists instead of completing their education. Or the children would be working on the things they should sell in class therefore their attention and efforts are divided. I heard of one story where a bright young boy in Pumamarca was aspiring to be a politician in Peru and had the intelligence and charisma to go far, however his family demanded that he stay home and care for the livestock. I have no doubt that these unfortunate occurrences are common.

Despite these negative realities, I have seen for myself that the future of Quilla Huata and Pumamarca is bright because people are starting to understand how important education and community is. Furthermore, the children and families are eager to learn and give back to the community. I can name a plethora of stories that I heard about the community members going out of their way in their strengths and efforts to give back to each other and Peru’s Challenge. One story that has stuck with me is when a family’s house was completely ruined and unlivable due to flooding. Peru’s Challenge intervened and built a new house for the family who was already undergoing extreme domestic hardship. As a result of Peru’s Challenge’s benevolence, Christian, a fourteen year old boy contributes his strength to building classrooms, walls and other people’s houses. He shows up on the work site ardent and committed to help those who are less fortunate. For someone so young to understand pure generosity completely blows my mind and challenges me to live better and kinder.

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Fuffin’ About

11 Jun

The dark side of volunteering… with people.

Fuffin’ about.

A term coined by my esteemed Peruvian colleague, John. He describes it as aimlessly wandering around or sitting around in a group wanting to do something but no one is deciding anything and everyone is waiting for everyone. This process of fuffin’ about was the genesis of many (fleeting) arguments and (temporary) divisions. The group was generally amicable, we were a family but towards the end, I think everyone just wanted to do their own thing when they wanted. It was almost an impossible task to organise dinner for the group when we went into town because some were vegetarians, some only ate meat, some wanted to get wild and some just liked milkshakes. It was a messy ordeal waiting for the group so often times we dispersed according to our taste buds and preferences. It was easier that way, navigating 18 other people was a task unworthy of the best of us.

I don’t know why we stressed so much about where we were going because we all ended at the McDonald’s in the town square. Funny, everything always end with Maccas. Virtually every country has the golden arches, from the hidden mountains of Peru to the bustling nightlife of Sydney, everything always ends up with fried chicken.


I love, no need a good dose of personal space and time. Being around 18 other humans was overwhelming sometimes, loved it and would not change a thing but sometimes, often times, I needed to be alone. I would cope with this by journalling, the one place I could be entirely honest and uninhibited with my feelings. I could not imagine doing that trip without each and every single person that I did it with. Having them enhanced it for me and watered down the post travel depression when I came home because I knew that I would see them again and a lot. And in all honesty, I did not get sick of anyone while I was volunteering. I acknowledged our differences but I was never weary of anyone.

Did you ever tire of the people that you were with?
How did you cope?
Or did you travel alone? What was that like?

Lucia

7 Jun

We never really know how lucky we have got it until we open our eyes and see other people’s stories. One of the moments that will never leave me is the afternoon I spent with Peru’s Challenge on a social house visit.

Her name is Lucia and she has four children. From the rural village of Puma Marca, she has overcome adversity and is a testimony of the successful work that Peru’s Challenge is doing in Cusco.

She ate infected pork meat which led to her developing a brain cyst. Despite her obvious deteriorating condition, she was unable to see a proper doctor due to monetary constraints which is an unfortunate commonality in Puma Marca. However, when she began to lose her motor abilities she went to see a local doctor but he missed the cyst because he did not have the adequate tools to see what was really wrong. Peru’s Challenge intervened and paid for a proper visit to a hospital because at that point, she could hardly walk or remember her children. That is when they found that she had a cyst. Peru’s Challenge scheduled her in for an operation at their cost. It cost them a few thousand but it was successful because after a week, she was able to move better and start constructing some coherence in her sentences. After two weeks, she was able to remember one of her children.

All the while, Peru’s Challenge faced opposition from the village because Lucia’s husband was depressed because they kept Lucia in the hospital for so long. He thought that they were taking her away. The women in the village gossiped about Peru’s Challenge, saying that they were doing Lucia wrong. However, Iris (the social worker) mediated and set the bar straight and told them of Lucia’s situation. She said that Peru’s Challenge was helping her and her family. It was necessary that they step in because Lucia was not receiving adequate care on her own. Unfortunately, she was discriminated against because she is a rural lady and the disparity between rural and city folk is still great. Without the support of Peru’s Challenge, she would not have received the care that she got.

After seeing the work that Peru’s Challenge did in Lucia, the village grew to respect the NGO greatly. Lucia is significantly improving. She can remember two more of her kids and her husband’s depression is getting better. Peru’s Challenge have also started teaching the family about hygiene and cleanliness in the house. They have built them rooms and a pig pen.

Remembering this story brings tears to my eyes because I saw her. I met Lucia and I saw the state of her house and her family. I felt her old hands grip mine as she looked into my eyes and smiled. She was real. I cannot take for granted the work that local NGO’s do because they are effective. I have so much love and respect for Jane and Selvy who are in the midst of people’s struggle and poverty, helping them in whatever way they can.

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Pangs of Jealousy

1 Jun


This is my 10th blog on this thing. What have I learned? Do I feel more resolved because of this? In short, lots and yes. I am starting to realise that perspective is everything in development and beyond. It is the reason why volunteers are effective. My experience was both humbling and rewarding. Writing and publishing about my time in Peru has caused me to seriously reflect about what I want the world to know about them and what I did. Of course, in doing so, I hope that others would want to volunteer with Peru’s Challenge one day but I think the reason why I love blogging about it so much is for me. To retrieve my experiences from my brain to something tangible provides a sense of closure. It reminds me that my experience was real.

PACE are sending a new Macquarie Uni group to volunteer at Peru’s Challenge this July. I am really happy for the new volunteers because their lives are going to be changed forever and they are going to have the time of their lives just like me only a few months ago. But in all honesty, I am jealous of the experience they are going to have. I am jealous that they get to see my favourite kids, Cynthia and Doris. I am jealous they get to live in the house that I lived in, surrounded by lush mountains. I am jealous they get to work with Jane and Selvy, the NGO founders, and I am jealous because it’s not me this time around. I know that it should never be about me, but I have realised that those kids mean more to me than I can imagine and they have done more for me, more than I could have ever done for them. Just being around them makes me want to be that little bit better.

The thing I fear the most right now is that the kids will forget us. Or worse, replace us with the new group. I hope they don’t. But if they do, then I pray that all the future volunteers would love these kids the way that they deserve. I hope that these kids would squeal in delight while playing with the new group. I hope that they latch onto the new guys like they did with us. They deserve big brothers and sisters who will lift them up and spin them around. They deserve piggy back rides and hand clap games. They are kids. Sometimes they are forced to grow up a bit faster because they are obliged to look after the family and complete a tonne of chores, but in their heart of hearts, they are just kids.

Food Perspective

19 May

Response to Carlos’ question:
How did you deal with the problems you had while on your volunteer placement?

Isn’t it funny how our short time, comparatively, in our countries have changed the way that we live our lives. Or at least for a while it did. I saw confronting and unforgettable poverty in Peru and I vowed that I would change my materialistic ways and for a while I was doing good. I would indignantly get angry when I saw superfluous expenditure. I would judge people when they would overindulge in their meals, while comparing them to the kids in Quilla Huata who barely had a thing to eat. I know it was not fair for me to impose a standard of living because food and money is more accessible to us in the Western world. Even as I write this, I am eating blueberry pancakes with honey accompanied by orange juice and peppermint tea. Though not super fancy, it still kind of is compared to what some of the kids in Quilla Huata normally get.

The transition from my world to theirs and vice versa was undoubtedly the most challenging thing that I faced. It was culture shock but not in the sense that the Peruvian culture is vastly different to mine, more so a sense of lifestyle shock, if there is such a thing. It was impossible to ignore. Inescapable, surrounding me like a misty haze on a dark night.

It was something I never got used too. The disparity did not plague me incessantly but sporadic pangs of guilt crept up when I would arrive in the village in the morning after having a scrumptious, rich and nutritious breakfast made by our chef at our home. After a while, I was numb to the difference, naively or ignorantly I faced the fact that life was just like that. I’m rich and they are poor and that’s why we were there to help. But somehow, and thankfully, it isn’t so black and white. As many others have mentioned on their blogs, they have so much more than monetary wealth and fancy meals, they have a true and joyous spirit and that matters so much more. So much more.

So when I came back to my real world, I made a conscious effort to not be frivolous with my money (not that I had much by our society’s standards) but still generous with what I have. The cost of meals perturbed me here as I silently and constantly say in my head how much that amount can feed in Peru. Now, four months later, I am still challenged by the difference of our lifestyles. I have learned to cope but feel so helpless sometimes. A few of my friends are ‘living below the line’ this week and I have seen how hard it is for them. Seeing my friend do it has challenged me to remember my little Peruvian kids and appreciate being here where I can eat what I want, when I want.

A meal for $2 a day in Sydney buys:

  • Tea bag
  • Half a cup of rice
  • An egg
  • Half a cup of oats

A meal for $2 a day in Quilla Huata buys:

  • ½ fried chicken
  • Half a plate of hot chips
  • A plate of rice
  • Salad and vegies

If we saw a meal like that here for $2, we would be rejoicing on mountain tops because that is a bargain! But that meal is an extreme luxury for most people in Quilla Huata. My biggest challenge taught me PERSPECTIVE.

One of the amazing things that Peru’s Challenge started this year was providing the kids with food at school to help with their concentration and health. Also Peru’s Challenge are aware that some of the kids have nothing to eat at home so by providing a solid meal at school, there is a greater chance of the kids actually attending school now.

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Oh Little Decisions

12 May

Response to Carlos’ question:
Was your volunteer placement a hard decision to make or was it rather easy, a no-brainer? And why?

My heart longs to travel and to see the world and explore unfamiliar places. At the same time, it also loves to help people and experience new things. My decision to volunteer was a no brainer. I knew that I wanted to go somewhere. Actually I would take whatever possibility affordably presented itself. I was scheduled to go to Ghana for 3 months. I had paid the fee to go and was just waiting for uni to finish. In fact, I picked my uni subjects around my trip so I would be able to leave as soon as possible. I was too keen to go.

But when I saw the PACE Peru program, I knew that was where I needed to go. I could not explain the sudden shift but it seemed so right. I inquired about the details about Peru and learned of its application process. Without having been accepted yet, I canceled my scheduled Ghanaian trip with painful financial penalties and applied for Peru. After a long process, I got in! Best decision ever.

In all honesty, my decision to volunteer was not altruistically motivated. To put it bluntly, it was to better my career prospectives since cross cultural experiences seem to be the biggest rage. But since I have returned from volunteering, being the experienced employee does not even matter to me. Upon arrival, the smiles of the kids broke me and I realised that my time there was for them. Building a website, the walls and the school was to better their futures. In development and volunteering, I have to be fine with fading into the background. I can see why it’s easy to fall into the trap that volunteers are the answer to the world’s crises because they are loved by the villages that they are visiting. They are a sign of hope from the rich, rich west. They are different and exotic. But we are just in much need of help as the people we set out to help. At the end of the day, it was a reciprocal benefit and that was nice and necessary.

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Soccer with the Locals

28 Apr

One of my fondest memories of volunteering with Peru’s Challenge was playing soccer with the men of the village. We had a 3 week tournament and it was intense. Firstly, we were playing at a high altitude and secondly, these men were solid. The men we versed were the builders and construction dudes who seemingly did not sleep or rest. They were on site hammering away well before we arrived and they were still building when it was our home time. They are the hardest working people that I know. A friendly game of soccer was no different. They were as tenacious on the field as they were with wheelbarrows and shovels.

Our team consisted of 19 Macquarie university students, all of which had moderate experience in football. We constantly needed to sub every 5 minutes because running was laborious on that mountain. The men of Quilla Huata played the whole time, never even stopping for water. They were like macho men robots. Of course, they were acclimatised but they were still fit fit fit despite being well into their 50+ age bracket apart from a few younger guys.

They had such a great joy when they were playing, often yelling to each other in Spanish, an advantage they had because the rest of my peers never understood what they were saying. The first game we won and the second game they won so the last game was interesting. With an onlooking crowd comprising of village kids, mums and Mac students, the game began with the usual formalities of playful threats and awkward stretching to get the muscles working. So when the ball was in motion, the whole world stopped and watched on. By this point, us Mac players were getting fitter and were pretty used to the altitude therefore the game was evened out. As a result, the ball enjoyed being kicked to and fro without any real purpose.

We kicked, then they defended, then they kicked and we defended and so forth. Despite the repetition, the game was really engaging. There were no lukewarm players on the field that day. Everyone ran their money’s worth. It was fun. At the end, we ended up winning but I secretly think that they let us win. But I guess I will never really know.

I loved engaging with the community in a different way like soccer. It was something that we loved and something that they loved and it bought us together. We all got jerseys made for our team and on our last day, we presented them with their own personalised ones too. They loved it and smiled their gap toothed smile as a way of thanks.

Gearing up before our first game

And we're in play!

Time and Team Work

22 Apr

In volunteer time, I think five weeks is really short. It took me about two weeks to really get used to the environment, altitude, culture, language, people, food and the work. Then when I finally felt settled, it was about time to be uprooted. My relationships started to deepen but there was always the ominous feeling of the end. I found it hard to get completely settled knowing I was going to leave so soon.

That being said, five weeks was still enough time to meet all of the children from Quilla Huata and learn their names and find out about their lives. Sometimes I wonder, “where did all the time go and were we actually effective?” It seemed like we did a lot but until I compared the before and after shots of what we built, did I realise just how much we had accomplished.

We built:

  • 2x perimeter security fences out of mud bricks

Wall #1 - before

We had to get down and dirty building those walls

Muddddyyy

Wall #1 - after

We are so proud of our wall!

Wall #2 - before

Wall #2 - after

  • 2x classrooms

Classroom #1 - before

Team work!!! 🙂

Classroom #1 - after

Classroom #2 - before

Classroom #2 - after

Classroom - before

Classroom - after

All the building was by all means a TEAM EFFORT

We also taught:

  • English
  • Sport
  • Dance
  • Art
  • Health
  • Hygiene

For the NGO, we:

  • Redesigned and built a whole new website
  • Wrote a social media plan
  • Wrote a marketing policy plan
  • Did house visits and wrote reports on families and how the NGO can help them better in the future

I loved working in a team and bonding with my friends through construction. We were all forced out of our comfort zones, there were up days and there were down days. There were days where only 6 of the 19 volunteers were on site because the rest were struck down with parasites and were cooped up in the hospital. There were days when all hands were on deck and there were days where we toiled in the blazing sun or the unrelenting rain. But in the end, we all got there together.

In retrospect, five weeks was a good amount of time. It was long enough to do something effective yet short enough that we did not have time to get so sick of each other.

How long did you volunteer for? Was it long enough? Were you over it at any point and genuinely contemplated leaving or actually left? How did you adjust to working in a team with strangers? How long did it take you to get settled in your country and volunteer position?

Still Struggling

17 Apr
My home in high up Cusco surrounded by green, lush mountains

I am still struggling to get the hang of blogging about my experiences. For how does one describe the most challenging, life changing and best moments of my life? How do I take all of my memories and put it on paper in a way that others can understand and hopefully relate. The last couple of months were a whirlwind of emotion and newness. I met unforgettable people, which cause me to continually question when and if I will ever see them again. It is still hard being back. I wonder if this feeling will ever go away?

I went to Cusco, volunteered and left. While they continue to live in their mud brick homes waiting for a new batch of volunteers. I wonder if they think about me everyday, like I think of them. It is hard when there is no way of communicating with them. In the day and age where communication with my international friends is easily facilitated through Facebook and Skype, I have no means of this kind of communication with the people in the villages that I grew to love like my own family.

I promised Doris, my favourite 9-year-old girl from Quilla Huata, that I’d be back in three years. Was that foolish? I have every intention of returning but overtime things can change. Volunteering goes far beyond the five allocated weeks. Being immersed in a rich culture was difficult yet fulfilling, satisfying yet tiring. Long after returning to Sydney, the experience still enriches me yet leaves me with a longing to be back in the lush mountains. I miss the hard labour, early mornings, sore muscles, the eager kids’ hugs, the food and everything else. The songs that I heard over there now have new meaning when I hear it here. It seems that every little thing reminds me of Cusco.

Sometimes I feel like I am the only one out of my friends who went that still feels unsettled here. They don’t talk about Peru as much anymore. I know they miss it too but I somehow feel on my own right now. I frantically stalk Peru’s Challenge’s (the NGO that I worked for) website, Facebook and Twitter page just to feel like I am still a part of what goes on.

Overlooking Cusco

Doris on the first day

Doris and I on the last day

How did you guys cope when you returned from your trip? Or have you? Are you like me, knowing that your time here is just space and time filler until you can return?

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