Backpacking through Peru

I’d been waiting for this for a while. I’d gotten a little “travel weary” after nearly 10 months on the road. I was also keen to do something other than just bum around like a typical tourist, taking photos at stuff. I wanted to experience every-day life/living in a different country and try and make a difference to someone’s life (even if just my own).

I had searched around on the internet for some time before stumbling across a small NGO that ran an English school in a deprived part of Arequipa, Peru. I did a little more research on the project; I read testimonies on other travellers’ experiences at the organisation and it was all very positive so I decided to make contact. Straight away I was impressed by the response I got from Priya (the volunteer co-ordinator at the time), it seemed to be a well organised and run charity with reasonable fees and well equipped with a volunteer house. I signed up to teach in the school for a month.

I arrived early on a Saturday morning to Arequipa on the over-night bus from Cusco. A bit dazed and confused after 20 hours on a bus with little sleep I managed to share a taxi to central Arequipa with someone I’d made friends with on the bus. I eventually found the volunteer house from the directions provided and I slowly met my house/work mates as they emerged from their Friday night excesses. After being run through a few things I was finally given a room with a shower which was just what I needed after my 20 hour journey. It turns out this was just as well as I went out later to watch the champions league final with a friend I’d met in Bolivia and then got dragged out kicking and screaming by my new housemates that night to sample what Arequipeñan nightlife has to offer. We went to the wild rover hostel to get some cheap drinks and mix with the passing gringos and then ended up in the extremely popular Déjà vu nightclub to boogie with gringos and Peruvians alike.

Sunday was a struggle after partying without sleeping for nearly 40 hours….. but, after a few cups of tea and a bit of toast from cheap Peruvian bread I was fine. Unaware before my arrival, I had got to Arequipa on the weekend of the monthly school outing. This is where the children who have the best attendance are rewarded with a day out; so a chance for a bit of fun and a chance for me to meet my students. The outing was to take the kids to a local park in central Arequipa where there were large gardens, a lake and some scruffy, depressed looking caged animals. “What’s so special about that?” you might ask, but if you saw where these kids live you would understand what a treat this is. Most of the kids wanted to play football so a 20-a-side game ensued, not easy in the midday sun after the past few days I’d had! I got through it OK and was taken aback by instantly being called “teacher” by all the kids, something I was going to have to get used to!

On Monday I began at the school. It’s not really possible to prepare yourself for the experience, even from the journey in. The day begins with flagging down a ropey looking minibus designed for 30 people but is bulging with maybe twice that many, packed in like sardines. You’re hurried in by the conductor into a wall of commuters where you have to fight your way in to find a space. You then have to grab hold of one of the hand rails as the driver floors-it through the streets of Arequipa with the reggaeton/traditional/salsa infused music mix blaring from the stereo. As the bus gets further from the centre it gets less-crowded and you may even get a seat. Eventually the road disappears and the buildings become a lot more basic – single-storey tin roofed “homes”. The dusty Villa Fontana community lies in the shadow of the Chachani and El Misti Volcanoes and is apparently built on land “illegally” settled on by the residents. The area is basic and is clearly not looked after properly by the Peruvian authorities. The dusty, windswept streets are lined with ramshackle structures and roamed by stray dogs the kids play in the streets or the occasional concrete playground that has been built.            This is where the Flora Tristan English School is based.

The School is in keeping with its surroundings in that it’s a basic brick structure with a tin roof. The difference is the brightly painted walls which make for a contrast against the grey, dusty surroundings. There is a working stone quarry behind the school with a large hill that some of the local kids like to climb up. As you arrive at the school there are always kids waiting outside 15 minutes before classes start and kids who don’t even attend the school will call “hola teacher” to you as you walk past. Classrooms are basic with not much in the way of modern resources but it’s impressive when you think the entire project has been put together solely on donations. The day begins with an hour of English lessons, followed by a second hour of homework help or constructive playtime for the younger kids. The third hour is for “cancha” or playtime or usually more homework help for the older kids. The school also offers free English lessons for adults. I was involved in a mixture of all of the above during my time.

Preparation for lessons is time consuming especially without many resources to use. I was teaching Class 2, the intermediate level students. They generally range from 8 to 11 years old so keeping lessons fun and interesting is a constant challenge. There is a curriculum to follow but it’s more of a guideline. You begin to understand that the internet (when available) and your own imagination are the greatest tools you possess to help piece lessons together. The kids are really great and are a joy to teach but you need to keep them focused or you will lose their concentration very quickly. Luckily there were usually only 5-7 students in my class so this was not such a challenge and I could improvise to certain extent as I got to know the kids better. A good level of Spanish really helps, but it’s not essential. Besides, my basic Spanish was a source of constant amusement for my students who liked to take any opportunity they could to turn teacher and correct me! As the weeks went on I built up a real rapport with the kids and found that using comedy as a real tool to keep them interested; although it won me a few nicknames including “Teacher Chris Monkey” due to my poor monkey impressions. Although teaching should be enjoyed and the classroom should be a fun place to be there is a serious side to the project which you should not lose sight of. Some of the kids that attend have to deal with quite a few problems and hardships of their own from health problems to financial difficulties. This really hit home to me when one of my students suffered an epileptic fit during one of my lessons. Must be difficult suffering from a condition such as epilepsy when medical support or awareness is not at the same level as what western countries would expect. Luckily for Oscar the charity helps pay for medication to help control it.

Arequipa is a great city to be based. It seems the majority of travellers just pass through here on their way to visit the Colca Canyon. This means that apart from around the plaza de armas you aren’t accosted too much as a tourist. There is a pretty colonial centre to Arequipa with many white-washed buildings (it’s dubbed the white city due to this colonial heritage). The climate during the dry season is warm and dry during the day and cold at night. The looming presences of both the El Misti and Chachani Volcanoes in the background are an ever-present and impressive backdrop to the city. There’s a thriving nightlife in the city where locals, ex-pats and travellers alike mix in the array of bars, clubs and salsa joints. There is also an extremely popular day-club called “Mr Fish” on once a week. This is where (mostly) young well-to-do Arequipeñans go to drink and rock out to the universally popular (in South America) pop-salsa-dance infused reggaeton music.

It was nice to be based in a proper house with proper facilities for a while. After 10 months on the road you start to miss your own space, the option of cooking a meal etc. It was nice to have some regularity too; having a purpose and a bit of routine can be settling. It was also good preparation for the looming return to the UK and full-time work! However, the best thing about it is the other volunteers. I really enjoyed living, working and socialising with the same group of people; from being able to help each other with our work or sharing our experiences of the school to going out to paint the town red (again). It’s great to work and live with like-minded people, or even people who just share a passion for something.

I would thoroughly recommend working with HOOP to anyone looking for this kind of volunteer work. They are an extremely passionate and professional organisation who really cares about what they do. You are made to feel so welcome, just like part of a family. It’s a small organisation so you feel empowered so that your work is directly making a difference. Thank you HOOP for the opportunity and for the great memories.

 by Chris Powell

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One thought on “Backpacking through Peru

  1. Well done, Chris, you've seen a bit of the world and made a difference to the children's lives – as they have to your's, I bet your Latino Spanish is better than when you arrived. All the best, amigo – saludos!

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