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Reflections on Having 12 Weeks Left in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

Horcón, Valle de Elqui, ChileMountainous Views from Horcón, Valle de Elqui, Chile

Yesterday, I took a colectivo (shared taxi) to the fería, or open air market, in Vicuña, and got to chatting with the driver, one of the few who doesn’t already know me and my destination after eight months living here. Most of the foreigners who pass through the Valle de Elqui only stay for a few days, maybe a week, so those of us who are here long-term are pretty conspicuous, especially someone as chatty as me!

In any case, once he learned I’d arrived back in January, the colectivero asked me, “Do you like it here?” And I answered, “Yes, I like it here. If you had asked me three months ago, my answer would have been different. It was the middle of winter and I was freezing!”  We both laughed.

Post Rain Scenes in Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Horses by the River in Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile

Over the past few weeks, I’ve started to tune in to how I really feel about my life here. For the past few months, it has been difficult to separate my reality from that of the volunteers, my colleagues here, and my host family, all of whom have been going through tough times. When I am alone, reading by the river, enjoying embroidery while listening to a podcast, or cooking a meal with the plentiful fresh vegetables found here in Chile, I usually feel joyful, in the moment, and content with my reality. (That’s one of the reasons I wanted to create an intentional routine for myself while living abroad.)

But as a highly sensitive person, I couldn’t help but be affected by all that was happening around me. In fact, it is my job to try to understand and troubleshoot the issues the volunteers were having, and thankfully, at this juncture, both my nonprofit and the Chilean host organization are taking my input and making changes to improve the volunteer experience so that they can better serve the needs of the English project, their students, the teachers they are collaborating with, and the local schools.

(On another occasion, I plan to revisit my thoughts on what to consider before becoming a long-term volunteer, because both the organizations I have worked with in South America have seen a fair number of year-long volunteers resign before their commitment was up. If you are thinking of volunteering abroad, you should also check out this well-written article providing even more food for thought about the realities of international volunteering and what you need to think about before doing it.)

Rivadavia, Valle de Elqui, Chile

Clouds over Rivadavia, Valle de Elqui, Chile

There are many avenues to living abroad and being able to experience the joys of travel. When I accepted this position, I wasn’t sure how long I would stay here in the Valle, but I knew I wanted build a longer-term life in South America. I see the advantages to sticking around; in the past few weeks I have made many more connections with local businesses and see opportunities for greater cultural exchange and positive impact on the community, all because I live in the Valle and express curiosity about people’s stories, including their wants and needs for the future. (This is really why we are here, not to teach English, but to connect, but it is easy to lose sight of that when you get lost in the mundane challenges of the day-to-day.)

However, the reality is that this is not the place for me. Thanks to the broader perspective I have gained here and during my travels to Santiago, Iquique, and other parts of Chile, I am thinking bigger and noticing a lot of untapped opportunities here in Chile, as well as in Peru and Ecuador. I am realizing how I can pursue freelance teaching and translating opportunities by making connections with other small businesses and entrepreneurs who want to meet the needs of tourists and share their love for their culture through its food, drink, and landscapes. I know that having a solid internet connection will enable me to offer my specialized lessons through English with Kim and finally catch up writing about my travels in northern Peru and Ecuador, which I am now sharing pictures from for Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday on Instagram.

Cloudy Days in Gualliguaica, Valle de Elqui
Cloudy Day in Gualliguaica, Valle de Elqui, Chile

But even though this particular location hasn’t worked out for me, it has shown me a lot of things. First, though I love having backpacking adventures, I now know I like living somewhere long-term and developing relationships and routines, using my base as a place to travel from. At the same time, I like the idea of being my own boss and having the flexibility to visit family and friends back home whenever I’d like and to take my business on the road for a few weeks, especially in those cold winter months. So that’s what I’m aiming for, and as scary as it is, I know that it is the logical next step for me and something I’ll commit to because it’s what I truly want.

Another thing I’ve realized is that I do need my community around me. I am proud of using the solo time here in the Valle to go within and recharge my batteries, but in the end I have felt isolated here. Making connections is not the same as making friends. Having limited internet access to call and Skype my support system has been my biggest challenge, and now that we *just* got a slow but unlimited internet connection, I am reaching out to everyone to reconnect and show them that our relationships are important to me. I am really looking forward to moving somewhere where my people are, be it Santiago, Lima, or elsewhere.

Posing with the Volunteers in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

Posing with My People in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

It’s also interesting to contrast how I felt when I entered the countdown to the end in Huaycán versus now.  There, I was always on high alert due to the safety concerns of living in a shantytown. Here, life couldn’t be safer (if we ignore the occasional major earthquake and its aftershocks and the flooding from heavy rains). There, I was living with 8-12 other people, couldn’t really control my diet, and had trouble establishing any routines other than doing yoga on the roof; here, I live by myself, get to cook whatever I want as often as I’d like, and have even found my favorite local café and other places to relax, like my beloved river. There, I connected deeply with the kids we worked with, because the relationship was so personal and even informal because of all the games we played together; here, I still love the kids, but our relationship is much more formal, a product of working in the schools and Chilean customs regarding respect for your elders.

Even considering the differences, there is one thing that continues to be clear: the highs and disappointments, frustrations and successes all come and go as part of a natural cycle. I continue to learn how to let go, accept the reality that things are how they are, and recognize that everything changes. And I am seeing even more clearly how I can choose joy on a daily basis by being appreciative of all the lovely small moments that come my way.

Spring Flowers, Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Spring Flowers in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

Yesterday, I was feeling super sick but, as I mentioned, I went to the fería to stock up on nutrient-rich fruit and vegetables. While there, I ran into two of my students got to meet their mom. That unexpected encounter gave me a chance for me to tell her that her son is the best English student in first grade and for her to tell me that he has come home saying how beautiful my eyes are and that she has to meet me. We chatted for a while, and I told them that they re-energized me and brightened my day. I also thanked her for raising a lady and a gentleman, as her kids are noticeably better behaved, poised, and respectful than many.

Maybe it has been lonely here at times, but moments like those matter. That’s what I’m about, that’s why I do what I do, that’s why I travel, teach, and volunteer, and then write about it here. While I’m excited for what’s next, I’m glad I’m moving into the best part of the cycle – that of embracing every moment, made more poignant by the fact that this reality will end soon.  Thankfully, this coincides with spring and summer, everything in bloom, and fun activities to close out the school year.

Fiestas Patrias Sunset, Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Sunset over Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile

And what, exactly, is next? I finish here on or around December 18, and I am heading south to explore the Chilean lakes region, Chiloé, and Chilean Patagonia, hopefully making it to Torres del Paine. These have been some of my travel dreams since 2002 and I am perfectly poised to make it happen this year.

From there, I’m heading north to spend the South American summer on the coast, but whether that will be in Chile, Peru, or Ecuador remains to be seen. I’d rather keep my options open and stay flexible to all the surprises life has in store for me. But one thing is certain – I will be looking for a place to stay for a while, a place where I can build relationships, routines, and my business. And I can’t wait to discover where that is!

Valle de Elqui, Chile: A Season in the Schools and Settling Into New Routines

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile

When I made the decision to move to the Valle de Elqui, I knew very little about what I was getting into.  After so much time living in Peru, I had grown more comfortable with expecting the unexpected and going with the flow, but I still found it challenging to remain flexible on my short visit to Lima.  Now that I have been back in South America for four months, I can safely say that nothing is as at all like I was told it would be, except that the beautiful valley is filled with vineyards, as you see above!

Views from Diaguitas, Chile
Crossing the Bridge in Diaguitas, Chile

For starters, I live in Diaguitas, a small town in the comuna of Vicuña. I live in a small but cozy apartment attached to the main house of a local family, which means I have my independence but also plenty of company. One of the volunteers lives in the house, so we share dinner on a nightly basis, swapping stories from the local schools.

Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
“Typical Town,” Diaguitas, Chile

While I never expected to live with a host family and was super skeptical about sharing space with a volunteer after a year in the volunteer house in Huaycán, my living situation has actually been a blessing in disguise, because this means I always have the opportunity to socialize in what would otherwise be an isolating location! The other volunteers even come over from time to time to sing karaoke, take advantage of the extensive garden covering the property, and wander down to the river.

Views from Diaguitas, Chile
Views from Diaguitas, Chile
Views of the River, Diaguitas, Chile

During the summer, the river was my sanctuary and escape from the day to day routine. I have always been drawn to the water, and sitting on the riverbank, reading a good book, enabled me to get a mental break from the demands of my job and my volunteer work in the schools. Now that fall has set in, I tend to spend a little more time indoors, knitting warm hats and gloves to help me get through the imminent winter!

Peralillo School, Valle de Elqui, Chile
School in Peralillo, Chile

Speaking of the schools, I am working in three schools: a medium-sized school in the town of Peralillo, located across the highway from Diaguitas, and two small schools called “microcentros,” which are in the smaller towns of Gualliguaica and El Arenal. After so many years teaching English on my own, it has been a challenge to adapt to my new role assisting the main teachers. That said, I am lucky to work with talented teachers who are giving me new ideas for working with children and who also appreciate the activities I bring to the classroom from my own experience. I came here curious about what it would be like to work with children in schools, and I am definitely getting a first-hand view of how the system works. I have always been a skill collector, so I trust that this information will be useful in a future endeavor.

Love the first graders! <3

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Of course, I am embracing working with the kids, who are adorable and super excited to spend time with me. Peralillo is even smaller than my own elementary and middle schools were, so each grade fits in just one classroom. This means that I get to know all the students, and vice versa, so it feels like I belong to the school community, especially at a school like Peralillo, which is working to be bilingual in the future!

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile Dressed Up for a School Event, Peralillo, Chile

I personally love working with the preschoolers, kindergarten, and first grade, as they are super receptive to learning English and do not find it challenging or embarrassing in any way. Seeing how fast kids at this age learn and retain language skills encourages me to work with smaller kids. It reminds me of when I volunteered with a reading program in a public school in New York City and read books in English to kids whose first language was actually Spanish. Things to think about for future career moves!

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile
School Event Honoring Gabriela Mistral, Peralillo, Chile

Because the school hopes to transition to bilingual education, the school assemblies often incorporate English, and the daily greetings and routines are often done in English. This particular event was in honor of Gabriela Mistal’s birthday. Gabriela Mistral was a Nobel laureate famous for her poetry and support of childhood education, who was born in Vicuña and grew up in the Valle de Elqui.

Peralillo, Chile
Honoring Gabriela Mistral, Peralillo, Chile

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Peralillo, Chile

Peralillo is located in the foothills, so on my walk home to Diaguitas, I often admire the landscape.

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Peralillo, Chile

I spend three days a week in Peralillo, and the other two in Gualliguaica and El Arenal with two other teachers. This enables me to get a sense of the other, smaller schools and learn more about the rural communities that dot the Valle.

Gualliguaica, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Views from Gualliguaica, Chile

Gualliguaica is a small town with strong local traditions and a fascinating history, which will be the subject of a future post. Suffice to say that the town used to be located down in the Valle below, but the government decided to relocate the town to expand the nearby reservoir, which has since dried up.

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Today, the students attend school in a new, modern building, and the fifth and sixth graders whom I work with have no memory of living anywhere else. These students love English class and, after some initial hesitation, have now adapted to the reality of working with a foreigner like me!

El Arenal, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Views from El Arenal, Chile

My last school is El Arenal, located in another town close to Diaguitas. This is a true one room schoolhouse with a family feel, and our English class has six students. They also love learning English and both they and their teacher are embracing the English-only method as much as possible. Because of so many Friday holidays and cancelled classes, I do not get to the school as often as I’d like, but I really enjoy my experience there as it feels I am a true partner in the classroom.

It was awesome being in charge of the class again!

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to take charge of classes while substituting for the English teachers. The above class took place in Rivadavia, where I have been filling in. (One of our volunteers decided to leave early as she missed her family more than she expected.) The main teacher had to go to a meeting, so she asked me to take over for her, and it happened to be the same day that the coordinator of the Chilean partner organization was taking pictures! I love being in charge of the classroom, though students do sometimes treat me as a substitute and misbehave, just like when I was in school. Even still, it keeps my teaching skills sharp!

As you can see, teaching in Chile looks somewhat similar to my work in Peru – co-teaching is part of the deal and I still love the kids! But rather than working in after school or weekend programs, I am seeing the school system from the inside out. We will see how I incorporate this experience into my teaching journey, but I am happy to get more insight into working with children.

Paihuano, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Clouds over Paihuano, Chile

Of course, I am here to do my job coordinating the group of volunteers, and that is going very well and I am learning a lot about managing a volunteer program. As is normal, we have all been experiencing the growing pains of culture shock and adapting to the different style of life in the Valle. As I mentioned, internet access is challenging, but not being constantly connected has enabled me to work on being more present. I miss writing here and am going to post more frequently to document all the stories I am experiencing. But mostly I am embracing what looks to be a quiet year, enjoying my hobbies and the break from city life. That said, I am absolutely a city girl at heart; I am actually writing this from a restorative escape to Santiago, where I am getting work done before picking up the new volunteer who will join our team this week.

The biggest lesson of the past season has been this: the quicker that you can embrace the reality of how things are rather than how you wish they would be, the quicker things become enjoyably easy. While I have certainly struggled in the past few months, I keep coming back to the same place: a place of balance, acceptance, and living in the moment. And I have the past few years of growth to thank for that! <3

Greetings from the Valle de Elqui, Chile!

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

It has been exactly two months since the last time I wrote, and this time has flown by.  I finished my trip to Peru by traveling to a place that has long interested me (Sechín…and Tortugas), re-visiting the organization I volunteered with in Peru (and the kids!), and celebrating with my friends.  I undertook a two day, budget-oriented journey to Chile, spent a week in Santiago reconnecting with my friends and getting started with my work, and finally moved to the Valle de Elqui, where I will be living until December.

One month ago, I welcomed the 2015 cohort of WorldTeach Chile volunteers, and we spent three intense weeks in teacher training, interspersed with cultural excursions, Spanish classes, and other important sessions.  One week ago, we celebrated the end of orientation by touring two pisco distilleries in Pisco Elqui.  This past week, we have all begun classes and gotten a taste of what our lives will look like here.

(Click on the links to see related photos on Instagram – I now have a smartphone and it is much more efficient for me to post snapshots of my life there on a regular basis!)

Volunteers at the Pisco Mistral Distillery, Pisco Elqui, Chile
Celebrating with the Volunteers at Pisco Mistral Distillery, Pisco Elqui, Chile

The good news is that I seem to have made it through culture shock, the growing pains of my new role, and the intense scheduling required during orientation, and today is the first day I feel fully myself again.  Part of this is because I have been able to reconnect with my family and friends back home; the internet situation has been challenging, but after troubleshooting yesterday, I have been able to connect with a more consistent (though still slow) connection, enabling me to write emails, call my parents, upload some photos, and write this blog post!

Sunshine Flowers in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

Beautiful Flowers Outside My Apartment in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

It’s funny how much we struggle to let go of who we think we are and adapt to who we actually are right now. Before I left for South America, I was an avid biker with an online English tutoring business and two active blogs. Now, none of those identity markers apply; I am still able to practice yoga, but I spend most of my time reading by the river and enjoying local foods (like the delicious grapes, figs, and avocado which grow all around the region). I haven’t been able to post a new blog post in two months, and I had to give up all of my online students. That’s just how it goes.

Palta in the Valle de Elqui, Chile
Palta in the Garden Near My Home, Valle de Elqui, Chile

That means more down time. More peace and quiet. Trying to connect with the people I meet. Trying to connect with myself and figure out what I most deeply want from this experience. I wanted a life with fewer distractions, and I got it. Instead of resisting my new reality, I need to open to it. I’m determined to stay up with my blog one way or another and resume the tales of my travels, but I have to embrace what is happening around me right now. Here and now. Here’s to the journey!

Sun Drying Figs in the Valle de Elqui, Chile
Sun Drying Figs in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

(PS – My photostream on Flickr is pretty up-to-date, in case you want to check out my adventure while I get caught up with writing about it!)

One Year Later: My Life After Volunteering

Last Sunset in Huaycán, 2013
Last Sunset in Huaycán [June 30, 2013]

It’s hard to believe that one year ago I was wrapping up my last day in Huaycán. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted from all the goodbyes, goodbye parties, and cognitive dissonance arising from the fact that this place that had become so familiar and like home was no longer the place I lived. On July 1, 2013, as I said goodbye to my fellow volunteers and got into the taxi which was taking me to the bus station, I was speechless. My brain just could not process that I had left Huaycán for good; while I am sure I will be back to visit next time I’m in Peru, the reality is that I will only be passing through.

Last Day in Zone S, 2013

Goodbye in Zone S, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Zone S, 2013

Last Class with Zone S Kids, 2013
Last Day in Zone S [June 30, 2013]

Luckily, I had a 21-hour bus ride to Chile ahead of me, which gave me time to process and adjust to my new life as a backpacker. The decision to immediately start traveling helped me bypass the grief over leaving all those kids that I loved and a community that had welcomed me.  My trip was blessed by luck, love, and amazing companions. The nearly five months of travel showed me that I was completely connected to the flow of my life. There is nothing so empowering as living your dream.

Leaving Zone S, 2013
Leaving Zone S [June 30, 2013]

When I finally returned to the US, I knew I had changed.  Even still, reverse culture shock, the pressures of rejoining American society, and a brutal winter threatened the good habits and internal shifts I had developed in my time away.  However, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve recovered nicely and continue to grow into a better version of myself.  As I recently wrote to a friend, “we’re only human, we do get disappointed, we do react in ways we’re not proud of, but the path to [inner] peace is choosing to get back on it every time that happens.”

So here I am, one year after volunteering. What does my life look like?

  • I live in a city that I love in a centrally located apartment with minimal possessions. I got used to having so little in my year and a half away that I am slowly but surely reducing my possessions to only the essentials and things that bring me joy.
  • I have a job that I enjoy with supportive coworkers and managers and I have finally achieved my last formal educational goal for a while by finishing my TESOL certificate. I have wanted/needed to do that since 2009!
  • Inspired by people I met during my travels, I have some new business ideas that I am very excited about.  Details to come.
  • Health-wise, I decided to continue eating Peruvian-style – I generally eat eggs or avocado for breakfast and try to eat a larger lunch and a small dinner.  Now that it’s summer, I eat a ton of fruit, just like I did in Peru, except instead of mango and granadillas, I’m eating local berries.

Pan con Palta for Breakfast
Pan con Palta

Yoga Studio in Huaycán, 2013
My Yoga Studio in Huaycán

  • Activity-wise, I am proud to say that I have kept up my regular yoga practice.  As you see in the photo above, my “yoga studio” was my mat, my computer, and my Shiva Rea DVDs.  I still practice at home at least three times a week, and I am still so thankful that I was able to find refuge in yoga during my year volunteering.  My body still feels amazing.  I also go salsa dancing fairly regularly (and here I can actually dance bachata, which has yet to make it to Peru).  I wander the streets of Somerville and Cambridge about as often as I wandered through Miraflores and Barranco.  I really miss hiking, but hopefully I’ll be able to go again soon.
  • As far as “new” activities, biking around Easter Island and San Pedro de Atacama inspired me to reconnect with my long-neglected bike!  It helps that almost all of my friends here are serious bikers!  I have only been back on my bike for a week, but I’m obsessed.  Cambridge is much more friendly to biking than it was a few years ago, and I love exploring the back roads of my neighborhood and the bike paths around the area.
  • I am also super excited to report that I continue to read voraciously.  I read almost every night in Huaycán and it rekindled my love of reading.  Reading in the park is still one of my favorite weekend activities.  I am hoping to read 30 books this year!
  • In terms of travel, I have slowed down in order to replenish my funds!  I went to Winston-Salem, NC in May for my brother’s wedding, and I’m going to DC in September to celebrate a friend’s wedding.  I’m hoping to make it to NYC to visit my friends and their new babies sometime this summer.  I’m dreaming about a cross-country road trip or another overseas adventure, but for the moment, these are dreams and not yet plans.

As you can see, leaving everything behind for 1.5 years has only brought more joy into my life.  My friends and family have welcomed me back, and I continue to integrate the insight I gained from volunteering and traveling into my daily life.  I am a happier, healthier, and more grounded person because I chose to change my perspective and deeply experience Huaycán.  Was volunteering perfect?  No.  Was I a perfect volunteer?  Also no.  But did I do the best I could with the resources I had?  Absolutely.  At the end of the day, that’s all we can ask of ourselves or anyone else.

Last Sunset in Huaycán, 2013
The Sun Setting on My Time in Huaycán [June 30, 2013]

*One* Week Left in Huaycán!

Last Day with Zone Z, Group B!

Zone Z, Group B

Last Day with Zone Z, Group A!

Zone Z, Group A

Last Day with Zone Z, Group C!

Zone Z, Group C

One week from today, I’ll be on a 20 hour bus ride from Lima to Tacna, where I’ll then cross over the border into Arica, Chile. One week from today, I’ll say goodbye to Huaycán, which has been my home for the past year. But the goodbyes have already begun.

There is so much to say about what the end has been like, but there is so little time right now. But I can say this: the beginning of the end has been full of love. Today I said my first goodbyes to the three classes of Zone Z, as you see above. My departure brought a number of students who haven’t been attending back to class, because they wanted to say goodbye and wish me well. It means a lot because they mean a lot to me.

I’ll have a lot more goodbyes in the coming days, but also a lot of fun times planned. It’s going to be strange to finally leave. I’m lucky that I’m heading into a great adventure, because otherwise there would be a huge hole in my life that these kids have filled.

reflections on having only 30 days left in Huaycán

Posing with Zone S Kids and a Puppy!

Posing with the kids and a puppy in Zone S

It is June 1, which means I only have 30 days left of my volunteer commitment here in Huaycán.  I finish my position on June 30, and as of now the plan is to leave for Chile on a long distance bus on July 1. 30 days left – how did I get here?

In the last few weeks, I’ve had some restorative time in Lima with friends, spent salsa dancing, enjoying many high-quality pisco sours, and talking about the ups and downs of choosing to live the life of a volunteer and sharing space with so many roommates (slash coworkers).  I feel ready for this last month, like I am mentally preparing for it to be a hectic but good one, when everything I’ve learned in the past few months comes together and I have that volunteer experience most people imagine: loving and appreciating every moment.  Now that I’m at the end of my time, I see all the things I’ve managed to accomplish, learn, and do during the past year, and I feel like it was absolutely worth it, even the hard times, the struggles, the disappointments, and the personal challenges.

Posing with Adorable Briguete

Posing with my bebita (little baby), Briguete

Today, while I was coming back from the women’s English class I teach, I ran into one of our students from Zone S on the Zone Z combi and realized that this has kind of become my home, at least insofar as I can hardly walk around the main streets without running into someone I know somehow.  Then, as I was walking home a bit later, I ran into another student from Zone D with her family.  It will be strange to no longer randomly encounter these people whom I’ve gotten to know here.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the things I’m going to miss when I leave.  (Obviously, I could go on for days about the things I will not miss whatsoever, but we’ll save that for another day.)  In my neighborhood, I often walk past a house where someone is practicing the saxophone, and it’s such an unexpected but beautiful sound in these dusty streets.  I also see and hear kids playing freely in the streets and on the playground, laughing, feeling free in a way I haven’t seen American kids act since I was one.  And then there are all the puppies the kids bring to class all the time, and hanging out with the adorable younger siblings of our students, like the little girl in the photo above, whom I’ve watched grow up over the past 11 months.

Posing with Zone Z Boys

Posing with three of the sweetest boys ever in Zone Z

Of course, what will be hardest to leave behind are these wonderful kids whom I’ve had the privilege to get to know.  In February, talking with a friend, I reiterated a common thought of mine: there is no reason that I should have ever met these beautiful kids, except that I came here, to this place, and for that, I am so lucky, and my life is the coolest.  As you can see from these pictures, they have the most amazing little personalities, and we laugh all the time with each other, and share lots of affection.  I remember when I first arrived and I was a little scared of the idea of working with kids, and now I know it’s something I’m good at.  I can be kind and caring with them, but also strict when I need to be, and they listen to me.  My relationship with them definitely helps me help the other volunteers, too.

Posing with Zone Z Kids

Being silly with my kids in Zone Z

I think the hardest thing about leaving will be the fact that I won’t be able to share affection with these kids on a daily basis.  They are always so genuinely excited to see me and vice versa.  It’s Peruvian culture to kiss your teacher on the cheek, but usually we hug and I lift them up and spin them around, pinch their cheeks, pull on their ears, pat their backs, and just show them love.  It will be weird to not have that caring interaction anymore.

I also will really miss being able to see them grow in person.  Former volunteers always comment on Facebook pictures of the kids, watching them grow up from far away.  I’ve seen kids learn how to read, change their childish voices to something more mature, and turn into young ladies and gentlemen.  I’ve seen them go from good kids to troublemakers, from problem children to angels, from hard-working to lazy, and move from struggling to the top of their class.  I imagine this is similar to how schoolteachers feel at the end of the school year.

And it’s time to say goodbye.  Students do come in and our of our programs, so maybe I’ll never know what will happen to some of them, but as long as the work continues in Huaycán, I’ll be able to keep in touch with our kids.  If I decide to spend more time in Peru in the future, something I’d like to do, I’ll be able to come here and visit.  But I know that it won’t be the same, just as it wasn’t the same returning to visit Buenos Aires after living there.  I need to fully take in and appreciate this last month, which I’ve set up to be a successful one, because this feeling of what it’s like to live and work in Huaycán will soon end, and I’ll be on to another reality.  Things will change, I will change, the direction of my life will change, but for now, I’m just happy that I’ve been able to make it through to the end and experience so many moments like those captured in the photos above.

On another note, I am still working on the second half of my posts about my trip to Rapa Nui back in December, which means I am even further behind on writing about all the other moments I’ve experienced in 2013.  I’m going to take a page from one of my new favorite travel blogs and not force myself to always write in such chronological order, but rather share moments as I feel like it.  As I start traveling, I want to let myself feel free to write about the experiences as they happen or as I remember them, capturing bits and pieces of my time on the road.  I think this will help me update more often. 🙂

the countdown begins – NINE months in Peru, 80 days left!

Sunset in Huaycán
Sunset from our roof in Huaycán

The countdown has already begun – I’m finishing up my time volunteering and in just 80 days I’ll begin my backpacking journey around South America!  It seems a little silly to count every single day at this point, but there’s something reassuring about being able to state the number of days left in my volunteering commitment.  Don’t get me wrong, I am still going to be heartbroken saying goodbye to the kids in this community, but I’m ready to tie up loose ends and see what life post-Huaycán will look like.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been volunteering without pay, living from my hard-earned savings for over nine months now.  When I first arrived, I was a bit overwhelmed by the length of my commitment.  It was hard to imagine completing a full year, and for good reason: the two other volunteers who had started their year-long commitment at the same time as me are no longer here.  It’s a challenging commitment to fulfill because of so many factors — personal, professional, emotional, spiritual.  For me, I have known that I would complete my time because I had already saved money for years, moved out of my apartment, quit two jobs, packed up my life, and said goodbye to my friends and family to be here, and I needed to see it through, just to see how things would turn out on the other end.  On top of that, I wasn’t ready to leave and restart my life in the US (though I think it would have been interesting to backpack South America for a seriously extended length of time with the extra cash I’ve spent over the course of my volunteer year!).

As I write this, we’re almost halfway through the month of April, which means I only have about 2.5 months left.  I met with our director on Monday to talk about the major projects I’ll be finishing up in this time, and she said that June will practically be over before it begins, since we’ll be celebrating the nonprofit’s anniversary early in the month, and then I’ll be packing up and training my successor in the last two weeks.  Considering we’ve already gotten this far into April, I’m confident that the time will pass quickly, with interesting projects to keep me busy.  For some reason, March was challenging, perhaps because I didn’t do very much in an effort to save money for my Semana Santa trip to Huaraz (photos to come!).  I spent a lot of time reading, doing yoga, and wandering alongside the coast on the Malecón in Miraflores and Barranco, but mostly conserving my energy.

Reflecting back on my time spent in this volunteer position in Huaycán, I absolutely do not regret taking this time out of my career to explore a different avenue and strengthen and gain more skills.  When things are hard, I wonder what it would like to be traveling instead, but that would not have enabled me to discover how much I love working with kids and to feel comfortable in this community.  I don’t really think my Spanish has improved at all from my time here (it was mostly fluent to begin with), but I know that I don’t worry about my accent when speaking anymore, and that I’m finally able to roll my r’s (most of the time) and soften other American-sounding r’s when possible.  Most importantly, though, I think completing this volunteer commitment has made me a great resource on what to consider when choosing a program.  I’m still working on compiling those ideas, and want to share them here soon.

I also think being 31 while doing this volunteer position made it both easier and harder.  I think people who are older struggle to adapt to the volunteer house (which is very dorm-like) and to give up normal routines like cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning, hobbies, and personal commitments.  Those of us used to big cities have found it a lot harder to adjust to not really wandering the streets and heading to a neighborhood café to relax.  But I think age and experience often leads to more patience with others, an ability to see joys and frustrations as part of a cycle that will change over time, and a willingness to learn from others.  In my case, anyway.  These are skills that have developed for me over the last few years, and they’ve served me well.  Living in Huaycán has tested these skills, but I always try to come back to a place of compassion, flexibility, and patience.  Some days this works better than others. 🙂

Even though I’ve been silent on the blog for the past month, I want to share my photos from Easter Island and Huaraz, my wanderings around Miraflores and Barranco, and other moments captured with the kids and around Huaycán.  I also hope to post some pictures of the delicious food I’ve been eating here, and talk about my yoga routine!  That way, when I get my backpacking journey underway on July 1, I’ll be able to keep up with my blog and share my travels. 🙂

reflections on EIGHT months in Peru and photos of the kids from December!

Today is March 1st, which means I’m two-thirds of the way through my one-year volunteer commitment. I have just four more months left in Huaycán, and I am certain that these four months will fly by. Though March has just begun, the end of the month brings Semana Santa and a five-day trip to Huaraz, so I think looking forward to another escape will make the time fly by.  We’ll be welcoming two new volunteers in the next week, so things are sure to be busy!

I am already starting to feel a little bit anxious about what the end of my time here will look like.  While I still will never feel like Huaycán is truly my home, I do feel at home when I am with our students.  Being part of the lives of these kids makes me feel connected to the community in a way I didn’t expect.  Knowing I will see these kids for English class or for library time and receiving affection and love from them makes each day that much brighter.  I know my heart is going to break when I have to say goodbye to them.  I also realize that I should not think about the end, and appreciate each moment while I am living it, so I’m just embracing my time while it is here.

End of Year Party in Zone R!

Banner hung by the students/staff in Zone R in December thanking us for our work!

That all said, I am excited about what is in store for me once I finish in June.  This past “weekend” (Wednesday and Thursday, since we work on the actual weekends) I spent many, many hours mapping out the backpacking trip I intend to make around Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and the rest of Peru.  I had thought I’d cut out Chile due to budgetary constraints, but then I realized that flying to Buenos Aires isn’t as cheap as I thought it would be.  Right now the plan is to take a 19-hour bus to Tacna on the Peru border, cross over to Arica, and then do a tour of northern Chile, including San Pedro de Atacama, a spot that landed on my must-visit list in 2002.  I’m pretty excited about these plans and about the prospect of visiting Chile again.  From Atacama, I’ll cross over to Salta, Argentina, my favorite city/region in the world (I’ve been three times already!).  I have an ambitious travel plan, but I’m so excited about all of it that it will be hard to narrow it down.  We’ll see how the plans develop in the next four months!

So what kind of reflections do I have after eight months here?  Things are easier than I expected them to be at this stage in the game.  I have been marveling at the fact that I am able to coexist with 9-12 people in the same house as if it were a completely normal thing.  I have enough space to do my work and to be a good role model in a leadership position, which means that my program is doing so much better.  I have to take a step back at times and just notice and appreciate how far things have come since I first arrived.  There is more to be done, and I will not be able to accomplish everything I thought I would, but I’ve done the best I could with what I was given.  For the next four months, my goals are to finish the projects I’ve started and leave a strong, clear framework for future English program managers. 🙂  And of course, appreciate every moment I have within this community!

I had a great opportunity to see what kind of community has sprung up around the organization in December, when we held a Tienda de Navidad (Christmas store) for the families we work with.  We invited the parents of each of our students to come pick out a gift for their kids.  I was in charge of making chocolatada, Peruvian-style hot chocolate, and running between the kids and their parents.  I also got to take pictures and give hugs to children from all the zones we work with.  It was overwhelming to be around so many kids I love at the same time, but in a good way!  Here are some of the best shots.

Scenes from Tienda de Navidad

Jefferson playing chess with his brother, Enderson

Scenes from Tienda de Navidad

Junior and Kevin, two more brothers!

Scenes from Tienda de Navidad

Briguete with her gift

Scenes from Tienda de Navidad

Me with a pot of chocolatada!

Scenes from Tienda de Navidad
Luis Angel looking adorable

Scenes from Tienda de Navidad
Gabriel enjoying panetón and chocolatada

Scenes from Tienda de Navidad

Scenes from Tienda de Navidad

Posing with Darwin and Joseph David, two adorable Zone S kids!

As you can see, these kids are the reasons I have made it through 8 months in Huaycán, and each moment I get with them is special. As I keep saying to people when talking about how lucky I feel, there is no reason that our paths would ever have crossed except because I decided to volunteer here. So each moment I get to spend with them is precious. I wouldn’t trade these moments for anything.

Next up: posts about and photos from my time on Rapa Nui (Easter Island/Isla de Pascua)!!

Planetario Nacional with Zone Z Kids!

After Thanksgiving, we had another fun activity planned: a field trip to the Planetario Nacional (National Planetarium) with the kids from Zone Z. I’d enjoyed our field trip to the Huachipa Zoo with the Zone S kids, but I really wanted to go on the field trip with Zone Z, since I had been teaching one of the classes since August and had spent a lot of time with the other two groups.

For this field trip, we picked up all of the kids on a rented micro/combi. Seeing all of the kids waiting excitedly outside our local for us to arrive was adorable, and as soon as we opened the door to collect them, they tried to rush on. The energy level of the group was high as we traveled for about an hour to Lima, and I spent some time hanging out with all of the kids and taking pictures.

Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

The group right after getting on the bus in Huaycán to head to Lima!

Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

Jefferson and Willy looking cute

Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

Eduardo, Jean Frans, and Jhim being silly!

Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

Posing with Lufe and Nayelli, two of my girls! <3 Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

The group on the bus waiting to enter the Planetario Nacional!

Once we finally got to the planetarium, we headed inside to its theater where the kids got to enjoy plush seats and a video presentation about the universe projected onto the domed screen above our heads. They also really enjoyed washing their hands in the planetarium’s bathroom. 😉

Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

The kids enjoying their comfy sets inside the planetarium, and enjoying the video!

Afterwards, there were a short break, so I took the opportunity to get a group shot of all of the kids outside in the sunshine. Then it was time to head inside for the 3-D presentation. We all got special 3-D glasses and our guide took us through a visual tour of the universe.

Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

The whole group posing outside while waiting for the next activity!

Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

The kids waiting in line to see the 3-D presentation

Zone Z Field Trip to Planetario Nacional

Wearing their 3-D glasses!

After the two presentations, we handed out snacks to the kids and they ran around playing a game of tag. Then we headed back to Huaycán. In the safety of our rented combi, I decided to snap a few pictures of Huaycán, especially the hectic intersection at Quince de Julio, where there are street vendors, mototaxis, and tons of buses and people.

Zone Z, Huaycan

Two of our students following our bus back down in Zone Z

Colors in Huaycán

Corner of the major intersection

Quince, Huaycán

All the activity on Quince de Julio, Huaycán’s main street

All in all, it was a lovely sunny day spent hanging out and learning with the Zone Z kids. I was really happy I got to spend some time with so many of them outside of the classroom and was able to enjoy their personalities even more! 🙂

Thanksgiving in Huaycán!

My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving.  I just love the focus on making good food, sharing a meal with family (or friends, such as when I lived in San Diego), and reflecting on all the good things life has offered you in the past year.  In a house almost entirely full of Americans, we were all a little sad to be celebrating far from home, so we decided to fill our day with special activities and sit down to a family dinner as a house.

The first activity we planned was more volunteering.  Sure, we spend the entire work week donating our time and energy, and Thursday is usually our day off, but in honor of Thanksgiving, we decided to give more back to the community that had been hosting us for many months.  Audrey, our women’s program manager, arranged a tree-planting and mural-painting morning with the mother of Eduardo, one of our most dedicated students.  We handed out the trees to some of their neighbors, and then got started on the mural, designed by our art education intern, Amanda.

Scenes from Thanksgiving Mural Painting in Zone Z

Scenes from Thanksgiving Mural Painting in Zone Z

Amanda putting the final touches on the mural with Ian, and preparing the palettes!

Scenes from Thanksgiving Mural Painting in Zone Z

Scenes from Thanksgiving Mural Painting in Zone Z

Eduardo hard at work at the mural before school, and my palette!

Scenes from Thanksgiving Mural Painting in Zone Z

Hard on work on my square of the mural – all my favorite colors!

Scenes from Thanksgiving Mural Painting in Zone Z

The completed mural! 🙂

After we finished the mural, we headed back to Eduardo’s house for a nice snack of ocopa prepared by Eduardo’s mother and some of her neighbors. Then we went back to our house to start making our own Thanksgiving dinner. We’d asked our cook to prepare some of our favorite dishes: ensalada rusa without beets (lots of green veggies!), yuca frita, more ocopa, and black beans.  I’d promised the volunteers that I’d make black bean burgers for Thanksgiving dinner, and I also made guacamole to dip the yucca in!

Black Bean Burgers for Thanksgiving Dinner!

Thanksgiving Dinner in Huaycan!

Just as we were all sitting down to dinner together, there was a knock at our door. It was the greatest surprise: four of the women we collaborate with in an afterschool program in Zone R brought us a card and a cake to celebrate our special holiday and to thank us for our hard work. It was incredibly touching that these women had remembered how important Thanksgiving was to Americans and helped us celebrate even more!

Thanksgiving Gift!

After dinner, we played Cranium together and shared a lot of laughs. Then we all split up to call home and I got to talk to my parents. All in all, it was a great way to celebrate, and we all appreciated the fact that we’d become a little family away from our own, coexisting and adapting to each other despite our differences.