My thought process during conversation proceeds Sia-style: one, two, three, one, two, three, blink. One, two, three, one, two, three, blink. Smile. Nod. Emanate Mark Zuckerberg by emitting a stalwart squawk laugh to show approval of some witticism. Great. Good job. Solid social interaction there.
Obviously, I’m exaggerating just how awkward I am, but those with social anxiety will understand. And if anxiety is just one weapon in your arsenal of bad coping mechanisms, the idea of prolonged travel may be enough to weaken you into a catatonic state. Go far away from home? On a plane? Work with people you don’t know? In an unfamiliar culture with an unfamiliar language? Using skills you’re not actually sure you have? G-g-gasp!
Yeah, been there, done that. Yet, here I am, experiencing the joys of Arequipa, Peru, and doing my small part in working with the community here. Not only am I doing things I never thought I could, this kind of travel has challenged my anxiety and made me a better, more effective, person overall.
Let’s start with who you’ll meet whilst travelling with HOOP: a general rule I have found is that those long-term volunteers with an interest in social justice make the coolest people. Friendships form quickly, intensely. Inside jokes develop with cultural missteps, while the lay of the land is presented before you with artful interpretation by those cataloguing memories as in a photo album. The volunteers I’ve met here are wild and weird and completely understanding – and I’m only just beginning. No matter how bizarre you feel you are, there will always be someone to match you idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy. No matter how much you fear being alone, there will be no shortage of activities you’ll be invited to. When you travel with a group like this, you will be taken care of, as I have been.
Additionally, the work itself makes the comfort zone an impossible place to stay. Poverty, oppression, and resiliency gather hands with compassion, hope, and strategy, and the volunteers are the warmth between them. A community looks to us as a foothold upward. We hold ourselves accountable and mistakes will be made – whether it’s something as simple as fumbled Spanish to something more complex like being ushered to dance the salsa in front of stands full of mothers and their children – but we move on. We move on because the next day is full of something more. We move on because our responsibility, our passion, triumphs over fear every time.
I’ve changed a lot since I’ve started travelling and Peru is just the place for me to continue to evolve – I’m working with passionate people for a cause I believe in, with an organization that’s making a difference beyond English teaching. As for Arequipa, it’s an open city, comfortable and quiet, but deep and profound. South America is entrancing and complex – Peru is no different.
So I am here, and, sure, I still worry, I think about blinking, but volunteering has given me the capacity to look ahead, to overcome. It’s the nature of the game, of caring about something so much.
We work, we learn, we grow. We expand. We transcend. We can change the world as we change ourselves.
Here’s to HOOP and its efforts to make that difference.
Words by Cecilia Smith, Communications Intern.
Photo credits for Ugne Arlauskatie and Emily Rowe.