Most people choose a gap year to travel. My aim was to improve my Spanish and experience a new culture. I could have merely travelled around South America; instead I decided I wanted to do something worthwhile whilst completely immersing myself into a Spanish speaking culture. For this reason, I chose to volunteer in a kindergarten in the beautiful, friendly and diverse country of Peru.
My first impressions of Peru
Having spent hours on two flights from London to Lima, I wasn’t looking forward to another flight. However, the views on the plane from Lima to Cusco were worth the wait. We were flying above the Andes where I could see valleys, rivers and beautiful snow-capped mountains. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was flying over the Sacred Valley where I knew I would be staying for the next month. I was feeling both nervous and excited at the prospect of meeting my host family and working in a kindergarten in such a different country.
Once I stepped off the plane I could feel the difference in altitude and was very anxious to find the Projects Abroad staff member. There was no need to worry as the first person I saw when I left the airport was the smiling staff member waiting to show me around. Once we started driving out of Cusco I could see all the ladies in their typical Peruvian dress, with long plaits and beautiful bright colours carrying their produce or babies on their backs. I couldn’t believe the difference in cultures. I could feel a huge sense of anticipation to see and experience more of this.
Once arriving in Urubamba, I again felt nervous. “How am I going to stay in a town so different from the city I live in at home?”, “will I get on with my host family and find other volunteers?” So many different thoughts and questions were entering my mind.
The scenery was striking to me. From being used to buildings and lots of people I was now surrounded by mountains, rivers and blue skies. Now I couldn’t wait to meet my host family. I arrived at the house to be greeted by Luzmila, my host mother for the next month. She was so friendly and welcoming despite the fact I felt very bewildered. Then Alfredo, my host father, arrived and later Francisco, my host brother, returned home from school. We talked lots and they made me feel at home despite my nerves, altitude sickness and initial homesickness. Now I felt full of excitement to start my journey in Peru!
My care placement at the kindergarten
Whilst my journey to work in London was packed full of unfriendly and cold people, the daily commute in Urubamba couldn’t have been more different. Apart from the stunning blue skies, glaciers and mountains that surrounded me, every day I would get on a ‘collectivo’ at the main station to be greeted by a sweet old lady with her sacks of potatoes saying, “buenas días gringita!” This always started my day off with a smile.
My Childcare Project
When I first arrived at my placement I wondered what I had let myself in for. I found it difficult to speak Spanish and the children had lots of energy! But quickly I started to settle and realised just how adorable the children were and each from such different and deprived backgrounds to my own. They were so eager to learn and were so excited by the smallest of things. I was lucky to have the freedom to create my own classes with the children in the kindergarten.
In this way I was able to carry out different activities to the norm in this part of the world, including lessons about health and safety, group work and physical activities. I started to notice how the more you put into your placement, the more you get out of it. I can’t describe how it felt to see my lovely little children laugh and enjoy my work and they were so eager to learn English rhymes at the age of only four!
Not only did we have normal lessons, we also had lunch time every day, when I was able to sample traditional Peruvian food, and break time when the children would eat fruit and jump on me! I was fortunate to volunteer at a governmental conference in Cusco for all the kindergarten teachers in Peru. Here I learnt the differences in the pre-school education system to that of my own, including the problems they face and how they want to change this. I was then able to take this to the kindergarten and introduce my own, new ideas into their school day.
One of my most memorable experiences in the nursery was my last day. The kindergarten put on a presentation for me where each child sang me a song or rhyme which was followed by giving me a huge hug and a kiss. I will always remember that day and the genuine joy and happiness I felt for being there and for each child.
Staying with a host family in Peru
Staying with a host family was definitely one of my highlights of the whole trip. Before coming to Peru I was quite anxious about what it would be like to stay with another family in such a different country. Now, having experienced this, I would be the first to recommend it to any future volunteers. It was by far the best way to understand another culture and to get to know some wonderful people. My family were some of the most generous, caring and genuine people I’ve ever met. I would talk for hours to my host father, Alfredo, about his health, his country and his past. He even showed me his wedding video! I stayed with the family for Father’s Day and saw the similarities and differences of this day to in my home country.
Living with native people is an invaluable way of practicing the language. My Spanish improved massively just from day to day language with the family. They would take me out for pizzas in the main plaza in Urubamba, they cared for me when I was unwell and took me to typical Peruvian festivals that I wouldn’t have seen without them. If I hadn’t stayed with a host family, my journey through Peru would not have been as enriching, rewarding and enjoyable as it was.
The great thing for me about volunteering with Projects Abroad was the fact that each volunteer had their own placement, but there were still plenty of volunteers about to have fun with and speak a little English to when in need! I became close friends with people from all over the world. Some of whom I am very similar to and others who were quite different.
We would spend the afternoons, evenings and weekends together. In the afternoons we made the most out of the gems of the Sacred Valley. From bartering in Pisac market for hours to climbing to the cross and karaoke in Calca, we always managed to find something to do. We spent hours in cafes and spent the weekend in the discotecas in Cusco or at the ruins at Sacsaywaman. The volunteers I shared my experiences with helped to make it so memorable.
Travelling around Peru after my placement
After having left Urubamba, my host family and all my new friends, I set off on a month of travel alone. From rainforest to desert, from mountains to coasts, I saw it all. Peru has so much to offer in a relatively small space. From taking a tour into the rainforest to seeing all the animals and flora, I took another tour to see the Colca Canyon, the third deepest canyon in the world which is surrounded by flying condors.
I then made my way to the desert where I had the opportunity to go sand boarding in the sand dunes and tasted the sweet wines of the Peruvian vineyards. From there I went to the Pacific coast where I visited the Ballestas Islands to see the wildlife and took a tour of the Paracas national park where the desert strikingly meets the sea. My next stop was Trujillo, a pretty and colourful city towards the north of Peru.
Finally I stopped by the beach for some time to relax! I spent time chilling out by the Pacific Ocean in the north of Peru where I had the chance to learn to surf and to see the stunning purple sunsets over the water. And of course I visited Machu Picchu, probably the most breath-taking site I have ever seen.
Once I arrived home I couldn’t stop talking about my adventures. I still have my many Andean bracelets and can’t take off my cosy Alpaca jumpers! Peru is a special place, with so much to see and do. My time volunteering has opened my eyes to the world and people around me who are so similar yet very different. It is an experience that I will take with me always and I am sure I will always be saying, “that one time in Peru…”