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Patricia Cooper-Smith - Teaching, Teaching English and Other Subjects in Peru

With teacher at school Projects Abroad Peru: A Month in Urubamba

The Sacred Valley of Peru is a study in contrasts. On one side there is eye-popping, stunning beauty in the natural setting – the Andes, the rich farmland, the meandering curves of the Rio Urubamba, the Quechua and Inca heritage, the ruins of past greatness. On the other side there is grinding and relentless poverty. The romantic image of people closely connected to the land – young boys and girls tending their flocks of sheep and pigs, campesinos walking their heavily-loaded donkeys home from the fields at the end of the day, families harvesting potatoes and grains, men and women coming into town on market day to sell fruits and vegetables – comes with a price tag. People with minimal education don’t get much of a break. There are few opportunities because there is no manufacturing.

I lived and taught in Urubamba, the market town of the Sacred Valley, for one month. At 63 years old, I am much older than most volunteers. Urubamba is not a tourist town and, after visits to Cusco, Pisac, and Ollantaytambo, this was refreshing. With students It was also sobering, because the poverty and lack of opportunity was front and center every day. Simple doors often opened into squalid dirt floored courtyards and interior rooms where domestic animals lived alongside people. Many shops were in front of homes. A shopkeeper emerging from a back room gave glimpses of a life unknown to us from industrialized countries. There were also homes, like my home stay, that were simple and functional – cement floors, indoor plumbing, a refrigerator, and a washing machine. From Cusco to the Sacred Valley, the thin middle class and the larger lower class are dominant. If there is an upper class, it is mostly invisible.

I lived with Alfredo and Luzmilla Villena at the northern edge of Urubamba. The Villenas are middle-class Urubambans. Alfredo is a teacher; Luzmilla is a school administrator. As a teacher, Alfredo earns the equivalent of $900 US a month. Luzmilla earns something similar. They have never owned a car and I doubt they ever will. The Villenas try to have two volunteers at their home year-round. They are intelligent, charming, helpful, and friendly people. I enjoyed every minute with them and their 11-year old son, Francisco “Paco.” Alfredo is a gentle man and a master with Spanish grammar. My host family Luzmilla is a good cook with a gregarious sense of humor. I also shared the house with a zany and comedic Italian guy from Naples. Mauro spoke fluent Spanish to my halting attempts at the language, but we had fun with the family and its two dogs – Cachita and Beethoven.

The serious side of my home stay was how disheartening it was to watch these educated people work so hard for so little. The local diet that is a diabetic’s nightmare – starch, starch, and starch washed down with Coca Cola and Inca Kola. There appears to be no connection between starch and sugar, and diabetes and cataracts of which Alfredo suffers.

My school placement was General Ollanta Urubamba, a large collegio (high school). I worked with Elizabeth Velasquez – an experienced and professional teacher. Elizabeth was a joy to work with and I learned a lot from her. Hopefully, in return, I introduced her to some new ideas. General Ollanta is not a prep school. Elizabeth told me most of the students will end up as motor-taxi drivers, shopkeepers, laborers, or married young and pregnant. Yet, every day the students showed up cheerful and friendly in neat and clean uniforms. Having seen the kind of poverty some of these students came from, I was amazed and impressed.

With host mother and fellow volunteerEnglish is often the third language for students in the Sacred Valley after Quechua and Spanish. Less than two hours of English a week does not make an English speaker (nor does it, from my own experience, make a Spanish speaker), yet in every class there were one or two students who “got it,” and many others had an enthusiasm and excitement about learning that was infectious.

I didn’t expect to accomplish a lot in one month but I did make the students in my classes aware of the western United States and my state of Nevada. We talked about the west and Nevada and its deep Spanish roots in history, culture, and place names.

My four-day work week was good for touring and visiting places in and around the Sacred Valley. Public transportation is accessible and affordable. The collective taxis were great for quickly getting to Cusco even if seatbelts are not often an option. Making the Sign of the Cross at the beginning and end of a trip appears to be the functional equivalent of a seatbelt. It’s a vaya con Dios world.

After my placement, I spent another month touring parts of South America with my husband. Now, at home in my familiar surroundings, I am a better person for my experiences in the Sacred Valley. The first day I drove, I was struck by the feeling of how privileged I was to have a car of my own to go wherever and whenever I wanted. By accident of birth, I live a life that few in this area of Peru will ever have. I am grateful.

Patricia Cooper-Smith

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