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Joanna King - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Peru

Extract from my diary: Miami airport, 12th January 2005

Children in traditional dress

"A moment ago I felt how a bold adventurer might; on the verge of great discoveries! The whole of Miami airport and South America lay before me (if I could only find my departure gate number!) Now, however, I feel abandoned and insignificant. Airports, I have decided, are the most un-user friendly places on earth! What has just made it worse was ringing home, only to get the answer phone each of the 5 times I have tried ...I've only been gone a day! As I sit here expectant of a further delay to my flight, I'm trying to recall the instant at which I obviously considered going away a remotely good idea! And right now. I cannot for the life of me, think of a single reason why I am here!"

And so my six months away from home began.

Four of the six months I was away I spent volunteering with an organisation, Projects Abroad. The work their organisation contributes is valid and necessary. For the purposes of this article I would like to describe what that work involved, and what an incredible time and experience this has been for me.

Hiking the Inca Trail

Peru was a divine choice! With every breath you inhale the history, sense of heritage, tradition, and large volumes of dust! But its ethnicity is thriving and undiluted, the ancestry of the Inca culture still so integral to everyday life. I was based an hour from Cusco, in the Sacred Valley. I lived in Calca, one of the largest provincial villages within the valley, where the living is subsistence and very rural. Each volunteer stays with a local Peruvian host family which is organised by Projects Abroad. It was through them that I shared some of the most unforgettable and intimate experiences of Peru. It is very difficult to describe the intensity and unique nature of the relationships I formed within this family, but they accepted me as one of their own family.

The work itself varied immensely, this suited the volunteers perfectly because there wasn't really any opportunity to get bored or restless as you were continually changing. Through going with such an organisation, I found a great diversity of volunteers, from all nationalities and backgrounds, sharing a common aim. The nature of this type of volunteering is that you are free, to most extents, to make the very most or least of your time. My personality and that of those others I worked with demanded that we get stuck in, deep. Either that, or have time on our hands to miss the luxuries in life, like the sound of a running bath!

Making masks

My first project was a 6 week placement in a summer school. The term time education is such that in school holidays the kids willingly and eagerly come to learn something in their free time.a difficult concept for a fellow student to come to terms with! We worked alongside a team of Peruvian teachers and took our own classes. We attempted English classes occasionally, but stuck mainly to what we knew best. papier-mâché, 'tag' and bingo!

Once we established ourselves as committed workers to our cause, the teachers decided it would be a fun, rather than a good idea, to put on a school play for the local community. I was in my element! The basic thought was to inform the children, and the older generation of spectators, how everybody's actions have a direct impact on the environment. The responsibilities that come with looking after our planet, and the overwhelming task of turning the key of change, are difficult concepts to grasp at the best of times; ones we felt were slightly lost on 6 years old who found bubbles infinitely more interesting!

Play time

We made 7ft high stage scenery from banana cardboard boxes cut out entirely by a single Swiss army knife. We adorned the faces of 60 or so children with face paint as parrots, llamas, and monkeys. We even co-wrote the musical score by which they were all accompanied! It was incredibly moving and humbling to witness such enthusiasm from these children who were so eager to be a part of the experience with us.

In my two weeks holiday allowance I took the opportunity to do some travelling with three other volunteers. We walked (or more accurately, staggered) the Inca Trail pilgrimage up to Machu Picchu, indulged in the hot springs of the Colca Canyon and nipped across the border to Copacabana for a dip in Lake Titikaka...and to renew our visas.

School play costumes

I was then assigned to my final placement, a kindergarten. This was an unprecedented challenge; it couldn't be that hard to keep small children entertained! I was wrong! It required extreme levels of patience, not one of my strongest points! There were over 40 children to a class, and by the end of the day I was stressed. I did however find a great ally in all of this, her name was Yolanda. A slightly older girl stuck back in this age group because she only spoke Quetchuan. Most of the teacher's generation do, but the classes are entirely in Spanish so she missed out a great deal. I successfully learnt 2 Quetchuan phrases. One a command of 'ham wee', which roughly translates to 'come here!' So Yolanda was forever 'coming here', but not knowing the reverse of 'go away'; she was rarely far from my side! The other, 'Quichiwato', was slightly less useful in a schooling environment, being the equivalent of a 'play boy' or 'man with many wives!'

Every day I returned home to the host family and had all my meals with them. The constancy of acceptance and affection that the family provided, I believe to be the principle reason I was able to get involved to the extent I did. The family and I had such fun together. What I learnt and observed through them was that they had an indescribable natural generosity of heart and spirit - something which will be with me for a long time.There is something about living with locals which allows you to get a distinct perspective and insight into things.

When travelling later with my brother I missed those little moments, those things that as a passer by you are not privy to.

The mural I painted

After the intensive work schedule I was content to hand over the reigns to my brother David when he joined me for 6 weeks travelling through Argentina, Chile and Bolivia and then back through into Peru. I can say with out a doubt, although I saw many wonderful things in these other countries - Peru means something different to me entirely. I won't enlighten you with an extract from my diary written on the plane home. Safe to say I didn't want to leave! A far cry from the little girl lost in Miami airport, I could even speak Spanish now!

It was lovely coming home to my family here and feeling that wonderful sense of belonging. This October I begin a degree course in English at the University of Southampton (why? I hear you cry!) 2 years behind most of my peers, I feel settled and reassured in the knowledge that I did what was best for me. Taking my gap year, going to Peru, going with Projects Abroad.this was a time that was fundamental and necessary for me.

What a view!

I have many hopes for the future, but one is that I will be able return one day to Peru, to these people and memories I have spoken of. 4 months back home, I am still in touch with my host family via email and brief telephone calls in the middle of the night (they haven't quite grasped the concept of time difference)! Later on this month I am meeting with my friends, the volunteers who were out there with me, who shared all this. I thank Projects Abroad from the bottom of my heart. I am very conscious that none of this would have been possible in quite the same way had I not gone with you. Both my family at home and I were very aware of help not being far away had I needed it. The support and encouragement I received was great.

Thank you

Joanna King

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