Claire Ward - Teacher in Peru
“It’s really beautiful, no?” said one of the teenagers from the group of Lima school children I found myself sat amongst on my flight from Lima to Cusco. “Like a sea of clouds, with the mountains as icebergs.” When I explained that I used to be really nervous when flying and just closed my eyes instead of looking out of the window he replied “but the view is so much better with your eyes open!” He had a point.
I was heading to Huyro to join the Inca Project there, working as a volunteer teacher. After trying to fit bits of volunteering into the school holidays, I had eventually decided that I needed to take some time out to do something a bit more substantial. I’d been attracted to the project as it would allow me to volunteer within my area of expertise as a History Teacher. All other teaching projects I worked on had been teaching English. This seemed a unique opportunity.
On arriving in Cusco, I was met by Ernesto who took me to Señora Segunda´s house. I would be staying there for the night before traveling on to Huyro the next day. There I met Sarah, who was volunteering on the medical project. After a delicious lunch and a little chatting with Segunda and her family, Sarah took me out for a bit of late afternoon sight-seeing, some coca leaf tea and a piece of chocolate cake!
The journey to Huyro was another breath-taking one. The road twisted backwards and forwards, weaving its way up the side of the mountain. As I looked out of the window at the serpentine ribbon of road now below me, the image seemed strangely familiar. I soon realized it was one of the photographs from the book I had been reading a little of everyday for the past few months in preparation for my trip. I felt so excited to be finally heading into the area that I’d read so much about.
Although primarily billed as a community and archaeological project, there is so much more to what goes on at ‘El Establo’. As well as exploring mountainsides in search of unmapped ruins and maintaining sites armed with machetes, volunteers also play sports with members of the local community, run book exchanges at local primary schools and help out at the under-funded pre-schools. There is also plenty of physical work: digging holes for fences, weeding, turning compost and planting fruit and vegetables. The highlight of my first working day was definitely pushing my way through thick vegetation looking for interesting rock formations which turned out to be burial mounds. I emerged into a clearing to find the remains of an Incan watchtower with a tree growing into and around one of the walls.
My main role on the project was to work with local primary schools on history teaching and so I spent some time developing lesson plans, resources and some teacher training materials to be used with local staff. I also worked on activities for Heritage education days at El Establo and plans for trips for the children to some of the sites we work on. Working in education in Peru was a very different experience to the UK and I found myself becoming frustrated and impatient with myself for being unable to do what I wanted to get done quickly enough.
In Peru things take more time - laminating pieces for the board game I made involved tedious hours of covering each part with strip after strip of sellotape. When attempts to photocopy some materials for one of the sessions failed due to a two day power cut after a storm, I had to resort to making copies by hand. Marking comprehension worksheets for the book-exchange element of the project was difficult because I needed to read and understand the book in Spanish before I could check the children’s comprehension! Marking my own worksheets was easier - at least I knew the answers, but I still needed to write them and read the children’s answers in Spanish.
I chose to take 3 weeks of Spanish lessons in Ecuador before arriving in Peru and I was very glad that I made that decision. I got so much more out of the Project because I could read, write and speak a little Spanish.
We were made to feel very welcome by the community in Huyro and were invited to several parties during the time I was there. I strangest and most enjoyable was definitely the celebration for St Martin’s day at the house of one of the primary school teachers. We arrived just in time to see the statue of St. Martin being danced back from the church to the shrine in front of which the party crowd gathered.
The party began with the teacher, dressed in a pointy hat and with James I style facial hair painted on his face, lassoing one of the party goers who was dragged off to the chapel and emerged with a handkerchief pinned to his or her back and carrying a set of horns, which they then used to try to rip the clothes of crowd while the singer of the band made an array of bull noises! Soon after this, another victim was lassoed, dragged into the chapel and the whole process was repeated again. Several hours in I would have expected to feel that it was all getting a bit old, but I was still finding it pretty funny as we ate our main course of roast pork and pasta.
This was also my first experience of Peruvian dancing. Having spent much of my time in Ecuador declining salsa lessons, I thought I had got pretty good at the polite “thanks, but no thanks” routine. Unfortunately I was told that it was not acceptable to say no here. As the only gringa at the party I was pulled up to dance on a pretty regular basis and embarrassedly span and shuffled as best I could as the whole crowd looked on. Thankfully, as the party progressed, the dancing became a more communal effort.
Living and working so closely together at El Establo meant that volunteers become very close very quickly and we often spent our weekends together as well on excursions to Quillabamba, Urubamba or visiting Machu Picchu. We spent the Halloween weekend in Cusco- several people were leaving the project and the fancy dress farewell seemed fitting. With limited resources we struggled somewhat with costumes; however I think we did fairly well. We were joined by a Ninja, a gringa tourist, a pirate, a fairy, Zeus, the victim of a horrific murder, the devil and Death herself! Gathering on the Plaza de Armas we were in the unusual position of becoming a tourist attraction. People were taking more notice of us than the buildings in one of South America’s most photographed squares.
Although I loved the parties, I also loved the work. I spent much of my time planning lessons, creating resources, translating teacher training materials and having meetings with teachers in the local primary schools. Tuesdays up the mountain remain a highlight of my time in Peru. After struggling up a particularly steep path to explore for ruins we ate lunch at the top with an incredible view of the valley. “This is just so fake” said fellow volunteer Sam as we looked across at the mountains surrounding us. When asked what he meant he replied “If this was CGI I’d be complaining it looked totally unrealistic.” Even the less exciting tasks of weeding, composting and digging holes were enjoyable when working with lovely people. My experience in Peru is one that will stay with me for the rest of my life as, I hope, will many of the friendships I made there- I would thoroughly recommend it.