What's It Like To Volunteer In Cusco?
After arriving to arriving to volunteer in Cusco, I was too excited to sleep. I didn’t realize how high the mountains were around the city until I got here. Pictures do not do them justice. They’re huge. I was picked up at the airport by a staff member and taken to their office where they explained where I would be staying and that I would have orientation that afternoon. After that, I was taken to the volunteer house near the San Pedro market. As soon as I walked in the door I had four new friends! Then I walked upstairs and made another one! My roommate had just arrived from Toronto before I did and so far it’s been really nice being able to learn about the way things work together. Most of the other volunteers in my house are from the east or west coast of the United states but there are a few others from Canada, one from Mexico, and one from Scotland. All the volunteers here are really friendly and fun people.
My housemates invited my roommate and I to walk around with them so we forgot how tired we were and just went for it. We went to the San Pedro market and had fresh squeezed juice drinks. After that we went to a nice internet café on the Plaza de Armas. This plaza is probably the largest and most famous plaza in Cusco and on one side is a huge Spanish church I will most likely explore in the next few days.
After orientation, the orientation leader took us on a brief walking tour of part of the city. This was great because she showed us shops that give discounts to volunteers and landmarks to help us find our way around. Then my roommate and I walked back to the house for dinner. We had marinated chicken with a kind of sweet potato I have never heard of (Perú is known for having over 1,000 different potato species). I enjoyed it for the most part but by now I was nodding off at the table. I was in bed by 8pm and slept a good 10 hours before getting up for my volunteer placement.
My placement is called Insituto Asistencia Madre Terese or Madre Terese for short. It is a home for people of all ages with special needs and is run by several nuns. Most of the people who live at Madre Terese were left there by their families. Because of this, one might think this is a sad place. I found, however, that most of the time these people are quite happy. The facilities are not up to par with those in the United States but I think the workers here, no doubt partly because of the volunteer presence there, keep the patients just as happy or even happier than in the United states. There is a different personality here. People still seem to be happy even though they have less. This could be because they don’t know any different but it could also be just be the personality of Cusco’s people. I am not sure yet since I have only been here a couple days. Either way, every Peruvian I have talked to has been incredibly nice and helpful; even with my ramshackle Spanish skills.
Speaking of my Spanish skills, I am really impressed with myself in terms of my communication ability. Today I started at my placement and even though there were several other volunteers there who spoke english I mostly spoke Spanish all morning. I was the only volunteer helping the physical therapist so it was just a one on one conversation the whole time. Luckily she could physically show me some of the things she wanted me to do but there were also a lot of things she couldn’t gesture for me because her hands were full. The best things that happened at my placement today were when I got to walk a little girl around the courtyard and when I got to feed another child while the physical therapist made an arm brace for her. Physical therapy is a lot different here. The physical therapist I was working with had to be a “jack of all trades”. She made some of the braces they used out of wood, cotton, and fabric sewn together. If I had not been there she would have also had to feed the child she was working with. Helping out at Madre Terese all morning was just an amazing experience.
No matter how tired I am in the morning when I get there, the kids always make me smile when I see them. Now that they recognize me, some of them actually get excited to see me too! Most of the kids I work with cannot eat, speak, or move on their own. The cause of their disabilities varies but many of them receive the same treatment in physical therapy. The treatment itself is very limited due to their lack of resources.
The conditions at Madre Terese are like they are in almost anywhere else in Cusco. The buildings are pretty open to the outside whether the doors and windows are closed or not. There is no heat or air conditioning, they wash their clothes, blankets, and towels in concrete sinks with cold water and since there is so much laundry none of it gets very clean. There is also a bit of an ant infestation. Because of these poor conditions the residents often get sick. Also, since the physical therapist is the only healthcare professional around, the kids and adults don’t get all the other types of therapy that could help them live a near normal life. It is especially frustrating for me that there is no speech therapy going on there. The kids are very vocal and make all kinds of noise all day to communicate their needs and the caretakers are always talking to them. I think these kids just need a more structured approach. If they had that I think they might be able to develop language skills. I really wish I were a speech pathologist already as well as fluent in Spanish so I could at least teach the caretakers things they could do to help the kids learn language skills after I leave.
Despite the conditions the people there make the best with what they have and it was incredibly rewarding to work with them for four weeks. It can be frustrating to work there sometimes because you have to do things within their means and it is difficult to make a huge difference but they are truly short handed and appreciate all the help they get from volunteers. It was really a great program and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I definitely miss seeing the kids smiling at me every morning when I got there!
_ Branden Smith - IVHQer in Cusco _