I also learned that I should definitely take my little stuffed Simba with me when I travel.
I missed that little bugger.
Perhaps I was never made to work in the field, perhaps I am not the right person with not enough patience and not enough skill to do international development long-term, but my experience in Cusco was still…
It was still - it was still beautiful and imperfect and all of the above.
I walked into La Casa Acogida Virgen de la Natividad (the girls’ shelter I was volunteering at) on my first day completely clueless as to what my role was going to be. I started teaching English on a whim (Director: What are you going to do? Me, mentally flailing for an answer: I guess I’ll teach English, I mean, I’m pretty good at that…), with no idea how to teach a group of seven teenage girls with zero knowledge of English whatsoever.
We started with the alphabet, and ended as a family.
I lost three girls in my first week - Paulina, Maritza, and Cliseth, as they were all released to their families and/or turned 18 and chose to leave the shelter. I remember very well turning up for work, bouncing on the balls of my feet, ready for a lesson on numbers and telling time, and encountering all my students engaged in sobbing and hugging Paulina, who was about to leave. I had to bite my lip a few times as I comforted a wailing Lourdes - this is what it must be like to lose a sister.
During my second week, the group filled back up, with newcomers Yuly and Marina, alongside Merli, (another) Maritza, Marleni, Aide, and Lourdes. Some days we did lessons, some days we took pictures and videos on my itouch, some days we played volleyball or danced or sang or just talked. In the end, teaching English didn’t really matter. Of course I’d be very pleased if they remembered some of the English I taught them after I left, but I realized partway through my time in Peru that it was more important that the girls be left with a vision and inspiration for a future - a successful, happy future, one that they controlled and that they created. Living in the shelter with hardly any structure, complacency was tolerated.
So, I was strict. I made my girls pay attention. I tested them, I wheedled them into trying harder and harder, I commanded them to switch seats or stop whispering when I or anyone else was talking. But I had to balance that with kindness and compassion - we played plenty of games, watched movies, baked cakes, etc. I printed photos for them and handed out chocolate, and some days we had class outside.
On my second to last day at work, my friend Mika came with me to observe my project. I brought the peanut M&M’s that Steve had given me for the girls, and my DSLR to take photos of our last real day together. Mika and I stayed for almost an extra hour, playing around with the girls. I taught Merli how to use my camera. We played “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and Telephone and another game, similar to it. Standing in a circle with my students on the cracked cement courtyard in the early evening light, giggling and laughing and generally behaving like middle school girls, I knew I was changed from this experience. I can’t tell you how - it wasn’t anything particularly noticeable - but it’s there. I feel different. I cried for an hour on my favorite empty balcony at Amauta after my last day because I knew I was different, and I knew that I had a life and family and friends to come back to in the States, while my girls - my seven little sisters - were still stuck, sitting, waiting, wishing for something new.
I said it once and I’ll say it again: We started with the alphabet and ended as family.
I am so blessed. I am so, so blessed.
In the end, it was these girls who took my understanding of the world and twisted it, flipped it upside down and shocked me. All my love, girls, all my love.
This lovely woman at Mercado San Pedro gave me these flowers for free after I talked to her for a little while.
“Una vida rodeada de flores! Tengo una vida bonita!” What a wonderful woman.
Seen on La Calle Suecia, the street that my hostel was on
Cristo Blanco, near Sacsayhuáman
Viva el Perú!