Alexandra Lee - Care & Community in Peru
My arrival and first impressions of Peru
As soon as I arrived at Cusco’s airport, myself and two other girls that I’d met on the flight were met by a Projects Abroad staff member who took us straight to our accommodation. At our accommodation, we met the other volunteers on our Care & Community High School Special. These were people from all over the world - America, Canada, Italy, Norway, Belgium, France, Northern Ireland, and England.
There were 15 of us staying at the same host family accommodation. It felt almost like a hotel! Unluckily for me, my room was on the fifth floor of the house, which meant that walking up five flight of stairs, while adjusting to being 3300metres above sea level, was my first challenge! (It took a few days to adjust to the altitude and I would advise anyone trying to adjust to altitude quickly to drink lots and lots of water).
The other challenge was working out how to make the showers give us hot water. Even when we had figured that out, it was either freezing cold or scalding hot. On the first evening, we went into the Plaza de Armas to exchange money into the local currency of Sol. On first impressions, this plaza was very, very pretty, but you can notice the tourist influence as this is one of the more touristy areas in Cusco (there’s a McDonald’s, a KFC, and a Starbucks).
The other thing which we all did straight away was to stock up on water, as the tap water in Peru is not safe for the majority of tourists, and can make you ill. Our host family offered us filtered water at breakfast, lunch and dinner, but we all found it beneficial to have our own water bottles instead. I bought myself a couple of 2.5litre bottles to keep me going. I also had a small water bottle, which I used to wet my toothbrush with before brushing my teeth rather than using tap water, but I do feel this may have been a little extreme (you can never be too careful!).
My teaching placement
For the teaching placement, our project group of 17 volunteers was split-up into three. I was part of a group of six volunteers that headed out of the city to our school. Unfortunately, Cusco at this time was experiencing a large teacher strike; teachers had blocked the roads out of the city as a protest. We were travelling on a public bus at the time so the six of us, including our supervisor, decided to walk instead. After about 10-minutes of walking, our supervisor decided it was getting dangerous and it was safer for us to walk back to the nearest bus stop and head back instead. Before we headed back, we managed to get some great pictures of the demonstrations. It was so interesting, but I am certain that without our supervisor to guide us around the situation I would have been very scared.
On the same afternoon, the Projects Abroad team told us that they had found a different school for us to work at, which was a private school and so wasn’t participating in the strikes. It was a slight shame that we could only work at private schools as I feel they didn’t need the money as much, but apart from that I can’t really fault the placement. The children are incredibly loving.
Most afternoons we travelled to different local schools to renovate and paint them; it was actually so much fun! We painted walls, murals, and games on the playground floor.
On the second Wednesday and Thursday there was a general strike across the whole public sector, so we couldn’t go to the school those days in the morning or afternoon. Instead, we walked to a local nursing home in the morning. Walking there was interesting because you could see all the rubbish, stones and even fires on the roads which were placed there in an effort to stop the traffic from flowing. The supervisors told us that if you attempt to drive or take public transport on these roads, there were citizens who were ready to throw stones at your vehicle to stop you. It was slightly frightening, but I felt safe under the supervision of the Projects Abroad staff. I was impressed with the way they handled the situation to keep us all calm, but demonstrations are common in Peru so they’re probably just really used to it.
I have to say, volunteering in the nursing home was challenging for me, especially as I can’t really speak Spanish very well; I found it hard to find a place for myself in the nursing home. After lunch on both days, we stayed in until 5:30pm because it wasn’t safe enough to do what we had originally planned, and there was no public transport running either. However, with 15 of us in the same house we found things to entertain ourselves with – mostly card games!
Our social activities
Every evening we had a different social activity such as a sports night, salsa lesson, or going to the local mall. On one of the nights, we were meant to have a film night, but because it was the birthday of one of the girls on the project, we rearranged the itinerary, with permission from all our parents, so that we went out for a meal for her birthday instead. We obviously had to pay for this ourselves because it wasn’t in our itinerary, but honestly it was so worth it!
The food at the host family was okay; we ate a lot of rice, chicken or potatoes, so it was very nice to go out for a meal for the birthday party. We chose a pizza place which gave us free garlic bread to start; that was some of the best garlic bread I have ever eaten.
On the first Thursday of the project, we went on any excursion to a place where they weave items made from alpaca wool and then on to the moray salt mines. We had guides for both of these places which was informative and interesting. There were also great opportunities to get a bit of souvenir shopping in! Everything is so cheap in relation to here in the UK, but also at markets, you can always haggle the price down. I managed to get a 50sol alpaca jumper down to 35, which is roughly £8. (For the whole trip I took £150 and took out of ATM’s about £30, and this paid for all my souvenirs and any snacks I wanted or meals out, but bear in mind that due to being a High School Special, I didn’t have to pay for any meals or excursions as this was covered in my initial cost).
On the weekend, we visited the archaeological sites Of Pisaq and Ollantaytambo, with lunch at Urubamba. We then got the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes which was incredibly scenic and the train also gave us complimentary non-alcoholic cocktails! When we arrived in Aguas Calientes, we went straight to our hostel for that night. The supervisors explained the room sharing situation and by this point everyone in the group was so friendly that we all wanted to share. I opted for the single room to ‘take one for the team’, and when we went up to our rooms I saw that the single room had a king sized bed, a TV, a balcony and a massive bathroom! Everyone was super jealous of my room after they saw how much room I had to myself in comparison to their shared rooms.
Machu Picchu itself was incredible and I feel so lucky that I have been. After our guided tour around the whole site we were allowed the option to re-enter. A group chose to re-enter and walk around the whole site again, but I wasn’t up for this as the altitude makes you very out of breath very quickly. On top of this, when walking around Machu Picchu, I found myself far more focussed on where my feet were going and that I wasn’t going to fall of the mountain than focussing on the actual structure and views. Therefore, me and two other girls opted to re-enter but just sit at one of the viewpoints and enjoy the view. This time is one of my favourite memories from the whole trip.
The overall experience
I feel like choosing the High School Special option is a great way to start travelling, as it’s a semi-independent way of doing it. I had all the independence of flying alone, and being without my family; after I arrived I never really had to do anything on my own as I had the supervision of the staff who acted like our own personal guides of Cusco and now I have come home feeling like I know the city really well.
It was eye-opening to see the different way of life that people in Peru lead, as the culture is so different from home. This project is also a great way to meet people from all over the world. I would recommend this experience to anyone, especially people my age who want to travel but might not be ready to be completely independent yet. (And yes – I did try guinea pig, but I did not like it!)
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.