Way back when I first decided to come to Cusco and attend Spanish school, the Andeo people offered to set up some volunteer work for me ahead of time. All of the options they offered involved, more or less, working with underprivileged kids in some capacity in Cusco. At the time I was not thrilled by the idea, and therefore decided to defer my decision about where to volunteer and what exactly to do until I arrived and could thoroughly explore all the options in person. I am so glad I waited!
After hearing very few accounts of positive accounts – and the ones I did hear did not sound enjoyable to me – of volunteering through the school for hours in the afternoons and evenings with hordes of boisterous, disobedient city kids, I considered forgetting the whole volunteering idea altogether. However, the problem was, and is, that my contract-like deferral letter I had essentially promised the admissions people at UNC-Chapel Hill that I would be volunteering in some capacity while in Cusco. So, I could not just defenestrate the idea. Thankfully, another opportunity arose.
During some sort of discussing/ranting session with some of my fellow Spanish school people on the topic of volunteering, one guy, Erik, mentioned that he volunteered at an NGO in a little town down in the Sacred Valley on occasion. He continued to describe how during his previous visit he had simply played with and read to the kids for an hour or so. That sounded rather pleasant, actually. Better yet, there was no commitment! When there was nothing more interesting going on and when he felt like going, he called up the American lady who ran the organization, got picked up at his homestay, and drove down to the town with her to play with the polite, enthusiastic, rural kids. It sounded like my kind of volunteer work: minimal commitment, maximum enjoyment. Erik extended an invitation for any of us to join him whenever we felt like it. A few weeks later, on October 3rd, after having my doubts about the school’s volunteer options confounded by more tales of wild kids destroying crafts, I took him up on his offer.
Erik and I met outside my homestay around 2:00 and walked the ten minutes to the bus station to meet Elyn, the directress. As we wended our way down the mountainside into the sacred valley, the blonde, brilliant-blue-eyed, 20-something year old American girl/lady/person (what do you call someone that age?) gave me more of the story behind her NGO. One year ago she had been finishing up her last semester of her senior year of college at the same Spanish school I currently attend. Sometime during her four months in Cusco she found herself a Cuqueñan boyfriend and decided to stay in Cusco rather than returning to the US after she had officially graduated. At the suggestion of her boyfriend she and he started up their organization, Puertas Abiertas (“Open Doors”), in the little Sacred Valley town of Coya. Three times a week they provide the opportunity for the Coyan kids to come to their location on the main square and read, play, do themed crafts, and generally “learn through play” for an hour or two. Elyn teaches English classes in the evenings so her afternoons are free for Coya.
After an hour’s ride on the rather nice, large bus on very good roads (have not encountered a truly bad road in Peru yet; I have been impressed!), we stepped off the bus into the quaint, quiet pueblo of Coya. Kids began running up from all directions as we walked the few hundred yards to the door of their center, and two 6 or 7-year old girls immediately grabbed my hands and inquired after my name and age.
I spent the entire hour of that first day reading incomprehensible fairytales in Spanish to an ever-changing group of four to six girls. Sometimes they would ask me to read a book and simultaneously read their own, slowly and carefully pronouncing each syllable aloud. Other times they would sit right next to me and lean over my shoulder, pointing to the next page and reminding me to read it if I so much as paused between sentences. While my voice grew somewhat horse from reading strange words in the dry air for so long, Erik and Elyn organized games of tag, frisbee, and soccer outside in the plaza for the boys and more adventurous girls. By the time we caught a taxi, which happened to be heading for Cusco, for the 5:00 trip back to the city, we were all tired in one way or another. It was a pretty fun time.
On my second visit to Coya, just yesterday, we did a craft. This week is “Ocean Week” so, in accordance with the theme, we helped the kids make octopi, out of paper bags, newspaper, and tape, which they then painted. Erik spent most of the hour cutting packing tape with his pocketknife while I ferried the pieces to and assisted the kids who asked for “más cinta, más cinta!” I think all of the fifteen or so kids who dropped by during the hour we were there enjoyed the activity. We caught a 12-passenger van back to Cusco and were slung around the corners all the way. I enjoyed it.
So, people, that there is what I have been doing as volunteer work. And I intend to continue to go to Coya once a week or maybe once every other week – whenever I feel like it – until it is time to return home.