As I write this, my inner wires are twisted by little sleep, questionably hygienic food, not having spoken nor written English for days and utter shock that I am where I am. Living in a village is great, and weird, and at times painful. I’m really glad I came.
After living in London for a year with my partner, I had to leave when my work visa expired. I moved back in with my family in Long Beach, California, and got a good-enough job editing a trade magazine. Life was warm and easy: I went on bike rides with my mom, played pool with my sister and talked about books with my dad. After years of travelling in Europe and Mexico, my roots were getting stronger, but my branches craved room to grow again. When I finally saved enough money to go somewhere, I felt I needed to push myself further than I ever been before. I decided to volunteer in Perú for three months.
I wanted to work with adults in a way that would help strengthen their community. I didn’t find anything that appealed to me on the internet, so I just kept moving until I found a place that felt right, and where I could be effective. Two frustrating, fun, and enlightening weeks later, I found an organization called Promartuc in the northern Andes. The group works to promote community-based tourism projects in an area that is expected to become a major tourist destination in coming years. After twenty minutes of chatting about their mission with the director, I agreed to teach English in a village called Mar’a. Thereafter I was left entirely to my own devices.
I became sick within 24 hours of arriving, a great pity since the fiesta of the town’s patron saint beckoned from outside my window. I did check out some insanely potent fireworks, many of which failed mid-flight and rained on the spectators. I also attended a “social dance” and watched a couple of incredibly skilful soccer games.
The villagers’ reactions to me seem to fall neatly along age and gender lines. Wherever I go, children smile at me shyly, young men stare openly, and young women are polite but bemused at my questions and efforts at jokes. Older women, dressed in traditional northern Andean hats, shawls, and skirts, smile and point me out to their friends. Older men don’t seem to notice me at all. I look forward to getting to know these people on a more personal basis than “old man” and “young girl,” and moreover for them to know me as someone more than “gringita.”
If it weren’t for my physical state, I might find it hilarious that the communal toilet I must frequent is located across a courtyard guarded by some awfully territorial chickens and dogs. As it stands, it’s amusing only in a character-building kind of way.
I recovered from my illness in a day and talked with my landlady about what being a vegetarian means with regard to soup bases and the like. I told her I’d be happy to self-cater, but she seemed keen on the income from cooking me lunch ($1), so we agreed on that. Within a couple days, it became apparent that this might mean that rice, eggs, and plantains are going to be my main daily meal, other than what I can scrounge up on what will be my weekly trips to the market in the small city of Chachapoyas.
The area is gorgeous, comprised of the highest mountains I’ve ever seen (3,000 feet) covered in cloud forest of bromeliads, orchids and firs. Just taking a walk around there feels terrific; other than teaching, it seems there is little else to do. I will start teaching classes in a few days without books, chalk, or experience. Other than the obvious starting point of “Where is the bathroom?” (hopefully not across the chickens-of-death courtyard), I am really nervous.
I often find myself thinking “this is horrible, I have to leave,” and within hours jumping to “this is great, I have to stay.” My deal with myself is to stay at least a month, providing I don’t get deathly ill. In four days I already feel that I appreciate so many things so much more; my family, my partner, my friends, but also things like pizza and toilet paper I don’t have to tote to the bathroom myself.
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