Chris Dominey - General Teaching Projects in Peru
The month that I spent teaching English in the Sacred Valley in Peru challenged many of the views I held regarding everyday life and hence how much of it I took for granted. The advice therefore that I would give is go and experience it for yourself, you won’t regret it.
And so it began. Nerves on the plane from Lima to Cusco soon seemed much unfounded when I stepped onto Cusqueñan soil for the first time and was met by Jorge, one of the great staff of the Projects Abroad office in Peru. I was taken on the hour’s journey to Urubamba, the little town which I became very fond of during my stay. Never having been out of Europe before, I thought culture shock was a given, however after a tour of the office (a place where I spent many an afternoon preparing lesson plans and generally socialising with the other volunteers) and then a visit to my very welcoming accommodation, thoughts of culture shock didn’t even enter my mind.
My host family comprised of the Father, Pancho, Mother, Ciria, and their son, Dario, all of whom, needless to say, treated me as a member of the family from the moment I arrived. I remember Ciria offering me a cup of Mate de Coca (a typically Peruvian herbal tea) as soon as I arrived. I think throughout my time in Peru, I must have drunken the equivalent of the Lake Titicaca of the stuff. I couldn’t get enough of it! That and the fresh bread of course to which I became quickly addicted. I remember spending hours chatting to Ciria and Pancho about everything from our huge cultural differences, to the contrasting political situations of both our countries. I learnt so much during my time from such wise and genuinely caring people.
And so my life as an official Urubambino (the name my host family gave to the inhabitants of Urubamba) began. Of course, Peruvian life took a little adjustment at first. From the very first morning, being woken up at 5:00am by the bakery across the road, to the water being switched off every evening until late the next morning, this was Peru and I loved it!
My first day was, and I didn’t realise this at the time, a bit of a revelation. There were strikes due to the very unstable political situation where the protestors had placed boulders in the middle of the roads disabling access out of Urubamba. This was certainly not the last time this would occur during my stay, and gradually, I learnt to accept it as an integral part of Peruvian life. So I spent the day exploring the beautiful town that is Urubamba, with my newly moved in housemate from the US and my host brother, who seemed to know anything about everything.
We hiked to a cross which overlooked the whole Sacred Valley, Dario all the way explaining about the ways of life of the Peruvian ‘campesinos’ or people who live in the area surrounding the town. I’d never seen anything like it. Having said that, waking up every morning to stunning views of the surrounding mountains was certainly something I will never forget.
Then it was time to meet my classes. I had been informed the day before by Elisabeth, the teaching supervisor, who I came to admire during my time for her passion and genuine friendliness, that I would in fact be teaching in two schools. This although daunting, gave me the best view of two very contrasting schools in the Sacred Valley. And I couldn’t have asked for better students!
I do have my favourite of course. Huaran, 10 mins by combi from Urubamba was a small but very picturesque school where I taught two days a week. I taught five classes with students aged from 11 to 20. Whereas all the other volunteers seemed to be teaching classes of up to 40 unruly pupils, I didn’t really like to say that my maximum was about 10 per class, all perfectly behaved. And yes, they really were, discounting some exceptions and even with them, I managed to chat with them during the breaks and bring them round!
I absolutely adored my days teaching. My placement could not have been better. The fact that the pupils were so interested in learning, literally running to write on the board first or being so eager to answer the question that they nearly broke their arms off made it a very special experience. The crowd that would form around me as I walked into the school every morning is something I will never forget. I always felt a little guilty as the headmaster, very strict, but someone who I became great friends with, was doing his best to get the pupils’ attention on the task at hand.
I wouldn’t have thought it prior to the experience but my favourites were the older years. Some of the best classes that I taught were with them, spending what seemed like ages, learning from each other about cultural differences, joking and generally having a good time. Of course, speaking Spanish did help. The pupils however, often lacked any grammatical knowledge, and so I often found myself teaching Spanish grammar in Spanish before moving on to English!
The Peruvian education system is very poor. A prime example being that the ‘English’ teacher in my school didn’t actually speak English! He was very keen to participate as a student and allowed me free rein on all my classes and what I taught. With little teaching experience, I not once however, felt daunted by the thought of teaching, as the pupils really did make every lesson a pleasure to teach! Any competition between the boys and girls was always a class favourite, and it was an assured way to get the pupils to work, with the promise of a game at the end of the lesson!
From the very first weekend, I spent a couple of nights in Cusco with the other volunteers. Cusco is a beautiful city and I always loved the journeys to Cusco. Long and fascinating, I had some very interesting conversations with all genres of Peruvian society, from local ‘campesinos’ who were more than a little bit tipsy, to Peruvian ‘Señoras’ in traditional dress. The most interesting journeys were those taken in cramped ‘colectivos’ picking up as many passengers as they could along the way. This certainly formed one of my most cherished memories from Peru; the friendliness and openness of the Peruvians themselves. It is very true here that if you make the effort, you will have a friend for life! The cost however was minimal, as was everything in Peru! I often felt a little bad bargaining for things that cost so little anyway!
Naturally my time in Peru wasn’t spent without some form of stomach problem! All the volunteers seemed to suffer with something, which was often the first topic of conversation over hot brownies (probably a mistake but delicious) at any get-together in the Muse in Urubamba. I certainly tried my fair share of Peruvian delicacies. Cuy, (guinea pig) ‘granadilla’ (a fruit, incomparable to anything from the UK) and ‘mote’ (corn) were firm favourites. However, I was prepared to try anything. It seemed amazing how quickly Ciria seemed to be able to produce a fantastic Peruvian meal from nothing. Another fond memory is of the time I went into school and instead of teaching, the teachers had prepared a surprise party with many Peruvian specialities to celebrate my arrival. This was in Cruzpata, where I was the first volunteer and naturally, it made me feel extremely welcome.
During my short stay in Peru, I met some amazing people and did some incredible things. Wednesday nights, as usual, was the night of the Pub Quiz in the Muse; always an interesting evening! From travelling 17 hours on a Peruvian bus with a quiz on Quechuan words as the entertainment - in order to visit Nasca and fly over the famous lines in a small aircraft - to getting up at 4:00am on my host brother’s advice to travel with another volunteer to the local town of Pisac for the famous antiquities market, only to find that we arrived there 3 hours before the market began! And of course, it is difficult to find words to describe my visit to Machu Picchu, climbing to the Sun Gate and experiencing the truly iconic image that until then, I had only seen in books.
The placement by Projects Abroad is something that will always remain very close to my heart. In the third week, the office held a reunion of families and volunteers in a restaurant in Urubamba, where we all shared in a meal and entertainment. This is definitely one of my fondest memories of my time in such a beautiful country.
These were just a few incredible experiences out of literally hundreds. I could talk about Peru for hours. The last day I spent in Peru, I went out with my host family to visit the local Inca ruins about 10 minutes away from Urubamba. Over the ice cream that Ciria bought for all of us, I had a chance to reflect over the month I had spent. Going in to the office to see the staff, always smiling and willing to help; the foul liquid which still to this day I have no idea what it was that Ciria had prepared when I was feeling ill; to spending time with the other volunteers in the Plaza de Armas in Urubamba and Cusco, to the students of which I had become very fond. I will always treasure every memory of the short time I spent in Peru, and am already planning my return trip!