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Building a Life in a new Country

I’ve become enough of a regular at the tienda nearest my home to have developed a nickname: “the sandia girl.” In fact, not only do I have a nickname, but the ladies at the tienda now go for the juiciest watermelon they have available when I enter the store.

Now, what does this have to do with my experience with HOOP and volunteering internationally? It’s simple: in the five months I’ve been volunteering with HOOP, I’ve been able to develop a life in another country. I have my haunts, my habits, and my hangouts, blossoming friendships and new hobbies. Staying somewhere long-term and doing continuous work has allowed me to become closer to the city of Arequipa, more effective at my job, and more connected with the parts of myself I’ve always wanted to develop.

For example, I’ve taken up Muay Thai in the later hours of the day. I shuffle to class where I borrow purple gloves and learn how to punch and kick with some ability. The trainers laugh at my flailing and my awkwardness, but they also take care of me. Similarly, a group of us frequently play soccer together; I’ve slowly found myself regaining the shape that I once was. 

I’ve also taken on extra work with other organizations, including recently directing my first workshop on alternative English teaching methods for some of Peru’s public school teachers. What a professional milestone!

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It’s the same for others I know. A group of volunteers here attend free salsa and bachata lessons every week. They meet for cocktails and dinner each time at a new restaurant and then learn the steps of traditional Spanish dances, becoming acquainted with other regular attendees.

We explore Peru in spurts, organizing weekend outings to visit waterfalls and salt flats, and hosting barbecues by lakes and in our homes. We’ve experienced many of the major holidays here, including dancing in Plaza de las Armas on Arequipa Day and wearing traditional clothing on El Día de la Canción Criolla. Later, we pushed our way through crowded streets on Halloween and enjoyed kebabs as a nightcap.

Those shorter volunteer trips are often frenetic, with work during weekdays and parties taking places on the weekends. Trips to the hottest destinations are organized with industrial efficiency. Life unfurls with the speed and force of a tornado, and by the time the trip has finished, you’re only just processing the realities of that country.

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For me, some of the most powerful and disheartening moments have come at the end of my shorter trips. I remember sitting across from the group of women to whom I’d taught English in Nepal, and watching them cry after a month of my working there. Just a month, and I’d seen progress, but how much would be lost once they switched teachers again and again and again?

Here, with HOOP, I can slow life down. I am building myself up in more consistent ways – such as with the Muay Thai, or dance lessons. What’s more, I’m more effective as a volunteer. The projects I work on at HOOP take more of my time and care, and I know the organization well enough to better direct my efforts. Skills learned are more cemented over the time I’m here. And, though, as the comms intern, I’m not the most familiar face at the school, they know me, know why I show up with a camera asking for interviews, and are happy to help.

I’m so glad I finally decided to do a longer-term volunteer trip. Building a life here has done so much for me personally and professionally – and it means everything that I’m able to do more for the NGO while I’m here.

So – considering life abroad? Take that chance. Make it what you want. Help more, live more, love more.

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Photos taken by Jota Manrique for Change, Diana Elydian, and Cecilia Smith.

Words by communications intern Cecilia Smith. 

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