three weeks left! …and some useful guidelines for living in a volunteer house

There are three weeks left until the end of our spring session! Our programs end on December 9, and most of my housemates/coworkers are leaving that day or one day before or after, some for home, some for one last Peruvian adventure before resuming normal life in the US. I hope they have time to assimilate all they’ve experienced and achieved in the past few months, because I certainly know how “real” life can just take over with its ever-increasing pace.

The funny part about all of this is that we’re all starting to get along really well, and now things are going to change yet again. I was talking with a housemate about how our current ability to adapt to each other and get along, appreciate each person’s quirks and positive qualities, and maintain a peaceful, easy-going house dynamic was incredibly hard-earned. Throwing 8 very different, independent, unique people into a stressful living situation is unnatural. (There’s no wonder we refer to each group of volunteers as another season of the Real World Huaycán.) The pace of our volunteer work doesn’t often give us time to reflect and understand what we’re dealing with, and the fact that we are volunteering and living in an underdeveloped community means that we have to accept our surroundings against our natural habits and inclinations. As I’ve alluded to, there are also some organizational challenges, but we support each other within these, and hopefully we can effect some positive change with all the lessons we’ve learned in our time here.

I have learned several lessons about what would have made this situation easier from the beginning for everyone if we’d been encouraged to keep these things in mind:

  • You absolutely must realize that people are not going to be at their best when they first arrive.  Resist the urge to make snap judgments about people because they are quiet, because they talk constantly about how different everything is, because they hate the food we eat, or because they just want to sleep all the time.  This kind of major change, from an affluent country with freedom of choice to a poor community with many more limitations, is unnatural.  It takes time.
  • Similarly, you need to understand that everyone has their own schedule for adapting to these kind of changes.  A short-term volunteer will want to embrace and appreciate each and every moment from the moment of arrival; a long-term volunteer may struggle with the kind of commitment six months or a year is.  It is normal to feel homesick, to doubt your commitment, and to reject things.  It is also normal to love the experience from the beginning. Be patient with each other.  If you are going to be compassionate with people from another culture, you need to be compassionate with the people who share your culture, too.
  • It’s important to make an effort to be even more clean and organized than usual when you share such a small space with so many people.  Most of the conflicts relied on people leaving dirty dishes around, not keeping the very limited workspace clean, or expecting other people to do their jobs for them or tidy up after them.  We are lucky to have a cook and a housekeeper, but we still had to do a lot of our own cleaning.  The reason I got along so well with my roommates was because we are all very organized, we didn’t overpack so didn’t have too much stuff lying around, and we all have kept our room very clean. It has alleviated potential visual stress and means we have been able to find some space to breathe within such tight quarters.
  • Maintaining some sort of routine helps maintain sanity.  The current group of volunteers almost always finds time for exercise each morning, which means that people both relieve their stress regularly and keep some of their daily habits from life in the US.  I’ve mentioned that I now have my regular yoga practice back, which is funny considering I didn’t even make time for it when I was still in the US.  It’s great to feel like you have something to look forward to every morning.  We also eat lunch together almost every day, and earlier in our stay many volunteers watched movies or tv shows together each night.  These little routines outside of our wacky, interrupted work schedule help keep home life running smoothly.
  • It is essential to respect people’s sleep!!  For the most part, my current group of roommates go to sleep and wake up more or less at the same time.  I can’t even imagine what life in this house would have been like if people treated it like a college dorm, which was the issue when I first arrived.  We are always so tired from our daily responsibilities; respecting each other’s sleep has been essential to getting along!
  • It is invaluable to take the time to get to know each other’s motivations for volunteering and living in Peru as soon as possible.  I actually think we have not done a very good job at this, but I think it would have helped us all to spend some time getting to know each other’s personal goals from the beginning.  It’s far to easy to make judgments on the bits and pieces you learn about other people’s lives, but if you talk openly from the beginning about such personal goals, hopes, and desires, you’re more likely to treat everyone with compassion.
  • You need to spend time establishing guidelines for behavior in the community as a group.  Most of the challenges in the house tend to be related to understanding what it means to live and volunteer in a struggling community.  There is no one clear way to perceive this role, but a group discussion (or several discussions) about what it means to be highly visible as gringos living in an unusual location in Peru would have helped us all understand the rules, restrictions, challenges, and obligations we have had to live with since arriving here.  It is not easy to be expected to socialize almost exclusively with your coworkers/roommates, but if you can accept the reasons why it is necessary, you can find ways to adapt.

I am sure there are many more lessons that I’ve learned and will continue to re-learn as my time in Huaycán continues to evolve, and I hope to share them here. 🙂

In any case, it’s still hard to fathom that things are about to change again.  In July and August, when I was struggling with many of the adaptation issues that seem so everyday now, I could never have imagined that I would still be living here and feeling relatively relaxed in the volunteer house, appreciating all the crazy characteristics about each person that make us all individuals.  It is much easier to reject change or the unknown or the different than to find ways to make it work.  I am really proud of us for making it work, especially those people who have made the extra effort to accommodate and be kind.

In the next three weeks, I’m hoping to get up some entries about some specific experiences I’ve had and documented with pictures.  🙂

This Thursday is Thanksgiving, and we’re all going to spend it in Huaycán doing community service.  It is funny that we are going to volunteer even more of our time considering we are unpaid volunteers the rest of the week, but we are also following the American tradition of giving back to give thanks. We are going to plant some trees and paint a mural in the neighborhood of one of the families I work most closely with, and then I’ll make black bean burgers and the rest will prepare homemade desserts.  Most of the volunteers are also planning to go out salsa dancing with me at my usual place on Tuesday night, since we’ve been talking about it for so long and time is running out!

So it will be a good week, and in just a few short weeks it will over and I’ll be on to my next adventure. 🙂

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