Dispatch 3

A sense of purpose makes a world of difference when travelling.

I chose a purpose for this trip that was distinct from those I had during other trips. Travelling for research and fun in Europe and Mexico gave me opportunities to enjoy soaking in other ways of life while exploring the context of my world. My remit in Peru is to challenge myself to use my knowledge and skills to help others in a setting unlike anywhere I have ever been.

Ah, Europe. How much I miss your museums, parks, cafes, and abundant supplies of electricity.

I often question how useful it is for me to be here, both in terms of the people I’m teaching and for my own development as a person. The students, who were familiar with a handful of English words before I came, still have trouble putting together sentences. I was alarmed the other day to hear two young students practicing outside my window: “What day is it?” “It is . . . it is . . . it is . . .cucumber.”

To my astonishment, I genuinely enjoy teaching. There are so many opportunities for laughter and triumphs, however small. It’s important for me to feel like I am serving some purpose, but sometimes I wonder if I’m making it up. About twelve students now attend regularly. Out of those, I suspect that five will finish the course with enough English to take a more advanced class, and it excites me to think that these may actually get some kind of leg up in life. I hope that the others will have a slightly easier time if they ever take introductory English again. The students work hard, and we get along very well as long as both sides accept the learning contract: students and teachers must respect each other and truly want to learn and teach. Everything is easier when we do it that way.

Remoteness breeds creativity: I have plenty of time for writing by hand, which takes a while but, I prefer to think, gets me in touch with literary greats from days of yore.

I’ve come to the convenient conclusion that I require one calorie for every meter above sea level I am. My landlady’s big, fried vegetarian lunches take care of more than their share of the 3,000. These always include fried rice, corn, and potatoes; variations run along egg, plantain, onion, tomato, noodle, and pea lines. Villagers themselves eat all of these, complemented with chicken, guinea pig, and beef or pork for special occasions.

I have finagled my way into helping out at the village bakery that makes precisely four items: white bread in a round shape, white bread in a small, twisty shape, white bread in a rectangular shape (my favorite), and cornmeal sugar cookies. I start Tuesday and am looking at this as a good résumé-builder.

In mid-September, I will leave Maria and head off into the jungle. I admit that at times, I feel so lonesome that I consider skipping the actual travel portion of my trip and going home a couple weeks early. However, as I approach my final weeks here, I feel a certain wistfulness that I haven’t formed more meaningful relationships with the villagers. I didn’t expect to be friends with everyone, but I am disappointed that I haven’t convinced more than a few to converse with me about anything more profound than weather and how much my plane ticket cost. I am, on the other hand, grateful for the chance to observe and sometimes participate in this very distinct way of life.

On the whole, things are going well. I’m still here and I like learning how to teach, and I think the students are making progress. Whether or not this is the “growing experience” I was looking for is probably not for me to say. Is the loneliness and questioning of my significance the kind that wastes the precious time I have in life, or the kind that makes me a stronger person?

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