Volunteering in a different continent, in a country whose culture is very far from yours is an experience for life. In order to take the most of it, you need to prepare yourself well for the challenge. Based on my experiences so far in Huanchaco and the conversations with colleagues, I think the below “items” could come handy during your stay. So, don’t forget to “pack” them.
It’s highly recommendable that you come with a decent level of Spanish, especially if you are planning to work with children. Before travelling here, I had spent a good chunk of my time picking up as much Spanish as possible. My top tips: read, language-exchange with Spanish speakers from the other part of the world, listen to the radio and some podcasts! You can’t imagine how much vocabulary you can pick up this way. However, I was in trouble when I first encountered the six boys (aged between 7 and 12) mumbling and using Peruvian slang.
Bring an open mindset. If you have that in your pocket, you’ll advance in Spanish soon (even if you don’t speak much now), just by chatting with the girl while she prepares your veggie burger or with the lady who sits besides you on a 8-hour long bus ride. Or by talking to the local guard who cycles around the neighbourhood every night and whistles that everything is alright, or to the shopkeeper who digs out the less sweet fruit yoghurt for you from the depth of the tepid fridge.
Have some self-control, especially when it comes to eating. Otherwise, you will weigh the double as at the beginning. You will soon see that after every meal you’ll long for a sweet; and after every dessert, you want to eat some savoury (as my friend nicely put). Cakes are fantastic here both in terms of taste and appearance. Passionfruit cheesecake, triple chocolate dream with chocolate sauce (why not?), lúcuma-mousse cake…
Be fit for hiking glacial lakes, top volcanoes, and getting up at 4am to be able to do all that before dawn. The same goes for surfing: and you thought you have strength in your arms by doing 30 pushups every day?! Here comes the real exercise: stay in the water for two hours without falling down due to the tiredness!
Have some well-honed medicines for cold, stomach bug, inflammation (that’s for the altitude-sickness). And don’t forget the mosquito repellent if you are heading to the jungle! (You should definitely go there to see the most colourful and incredible creatures, some of the world’s highest waterfalls and vibrant jungle towns without roads leading to them, such as Iquitos).
Be creative and come with lots of ideas – develop them here – about how you can enact change in the local community’s life. Such as my housemates, who are doing some guerrilla gardening in the nearby shanty town. It’s pretty cool to see how they are transforming an abandoned, ugly square into a sustainable, colourful bio-garden, that the locals learn how to take care of and will then benefit from it (we hope). Or such as my colleague who taught modern dance to school kids, who never experienced this alleviating feeling of controlling every movement of their body and expressing themselves with it. Or the volunteers who created Olympics-cookies for the kids as a little incentive for taking part in a sport contest.
Be open to change your perceptions. Because you will; and about many things. First, you will slow down after the initial manic phase of not understanding why people are shambling to the shopping centre – and not rushing as you do to get everything done in the shortest possible and less painful way. Then, you will realise that you actually don’t need much to feel happy as you previously thought. Having a good morning-run, being able to stand up on the surfboard and stay on it for a minute, appreciating that some of the kids at school remember your name, being offered to taste cashew at the market to see whether you like it or not, enjoying the sunset on the beach with some random people or sometimes with your book. And also learning to appreciate, when you on some days have water in the bathroom during the night and don’t have to climb steep stairs to get to the ground floor for that or finding a hotspot in town where you can connect to Facebook for two minutes to see what your Otra Cosa friends are up to.
Have patience. Or if you don’t, you will need to develop it soon. When the lady waits for the final page – out of 60 – to come out of the printer before she takes the money and prepares the receipt for you. Or when you have to ask the kids to mix the red paint with a little water to colour the Peruvian flag, so that each of the eight boys can paint one before it we run out of the colour. Or when you ask the kids the fourth time not to jump on the trampoline with the two-week-old puppy, because it might not be good for it.
Obviously, these are just a few things you need to prepare / bring with you after you signed up for a volunteering experience in Peru.
But one thing is clear: you will get home with more things that you had come with: fun, some scars and new muscles, great photos, lovely smiles, sweet hugs by little hands, tons of new Spanish vocabulary, potentially a tattoo and an alpaca jumper.
This blog was first published on the website of Otra Cosa Network.