Graduation is an exciting time for everyone, as it marks the end of the familiar and the beginning of the unknown. For me, walking across the stage was especially exhilarating, as I knew that I would soon be leaving for Peru to teach English for six weeks.
My knowledge of the country was minimal to say the least, and my decision to go there was the result of information I got from the Study and Go Abroad Fairs. I had always known that I wanted to volunteer internationally and experience other parts of the world, yet had no idea where.
After searching online for volunteer organizations I came across the one that suited my needs. What stood out about this organization was its variety of projects. Their website provided potential volunteers with opportunities to work on a vast array of projects including teaching English, building a skate ramp, or working at a dog shelter. The organization also appeared to be very transparent with how your funds would be spent. This was a key part of my decision.
After exchanging several emails with one of the organization’s managers, I committed myself to spending six weeks teaching English in the coastal town of Huanchaco.
Culture shock struck me the minute I stepped off the plane in Peru. I was greeted by a woman from the organization who promptly informed me that one of the most important things to remember during my stay was not to flush toilet paper down the toilet. At that point, I realized I wasn’t in Canada anymore.
When I met my host family later that day, I could do nothing but stare at them with a blank expression as they welcomed me into their home, speaking only Spanish. Did I mention that I didn’t speak Spanish? In an attempt to clear my head, I decided to go for a walk and explore the city, only to further submerge myself into culture shock as I walked through the surrounding area, gawking at the strange buildings and dogs running through the street. I was so afraid to enter any restaurants that I returned home to eat leftover crackers from the plane for dinner.
The next day I was introduced to the other volunteers, which is when my experience took a turn for the better. We went for lunch, where we quickly bonded over ceviche, a Peruvian specialty made from raw fish soaked in lime juice. What was incredible to discover, was the broad range of nationalities that had come here to volunteer. Somehow, I had found myself sitting at a table in Peru with people from Austria, Italy, France, Armenia, and England. From that point on, we could almost always be found together, watching movies, making ‘family dinners,’ or embarrassing ourselves trying to learn salsa at the local bar each Thursday night.
Teaching was quite challenging at first, mostly because of my lack of Spanish. Thankfully, I was paired with other volunteers who had basic knowledge of the language. It was hard not to feel helpless when a student would ask a question and all I could say was “no entiendo.”
I also began working at a related organization that gives kids a place to go when they aren’t at school. I wish I could describe how incredible those children were. One of the students, Fran, was so smart; every day he would come up and show me his notebook from school. Even though we didn’t speak the same language it was clear how proud he was of everything he had learned.
During my spare time, I would visit the dog shelter with Pepe, the local veterinarian. Some days at the shelter were extremely difficult. The dogs were constantly fighting and injuring one another and many were quite sick. I called my mother crying one night after Pepe informed me that my favourite dog had passed away. Thankfully, there were happy times to make up for the sad. One such joyful experience was when we held an adoption event and found homes for four of our dogs in three hours.
Although I struggled when I first arrived in Peru, it eventually felt like home. Teaching and even daily life became easier after a few Spanish lessons. I made some incredible memories. The experience proved to me how capable I could be when faced with a difficult situation.
One example is when I travelled into the interior, and I failed to write down the hotel’s name. I walked around the city for two hours in the dark. Crying. Eventually, with a bit of luck, I found my way by following landmarks I had noticed earlier in the day.
When it finally came time for me to leave Peru, I felt a tremendous mix of emotions. I was happy to be returning to my family in Canada, and to be able to once again drink water from the tap. I was also sad because it meant leaving the people who had become my family in Peru. I still miss the many incredible individuals I met there, and the constant chaos which I grew to love.
Claire Wood, age 18,