I first noticed the colorful walls and the fun artwork as I passed through the wooden gate. To my left was a small garden, vibrant with flowers and a playground entirely made out of tires. I grinned like a child, thinking, “wow, we can do that on the rez!” I know every family has at least 5 cars they keep saying they will fix one day, and a stack of tires. Anyway, I walked down the winding brick stairs into my new job. I took a deep breath, prayed for a good day, and opened the door.


In front of me sat 10 babies with their faces covered in orange peelings. Oh, their beautiful smiles! They were all gathered around a small round table, completely blissful as they slurped their orange slices. I grabbed a chair and sat down next to the cutest little boy I have ever laid eyes on. He smiled and showed me his food, “mira, mira, mira!” and then he slurped away. A few minutes passed as I observed, broke up a few fights between hungry babies, and searched for more fruit whenever I heard, “más, más más”.

I still remember that first day. I was so scared. For 9 weeks I would be caring for these babies. What if I’m not good at it? What if they hate me? I don’t know how to make a baby stop crying, or how to make on laugh? I didn’t even want to think about the changing and bathing stations. I had zero experience with childcare. Now is always a good time as any to learn right? But my real question was, it too late to run? It was one of those moments where I literally asked myself out loud, “Shandiin, what have you gotten yourself into now?”

And then a little girl ran up to me and wrapped her little hand around my finger, “vamos!” and pulled me out of my thoughts. It was really too late now. The first week of work I repeated names and memorized drawers. I watched intensely when others changed diapers and cleaned dirty hands and faces. I took so many mental notes, I was not going to be the volunteer that created more work for everybody. I was going to be great!

In the mornings from 9 am to noon, I was feeding, changing, and befriending the curious babies in the guardería. I wiped little noses, and dusted little pants and shirts off when my babies fell. I listened to imaginary stories, and reassured concerned eyes that everything will be alright. We sang songs every morning in a small circle-always together. This was their incentive to participate so we could all go to the park. My favorite was Buenos Dias

Buenos Dias

Canto yo

El sol dice hola, la luna dice adios

Buenos dias

Canto yo

El gallo canta, es mi despertador

Buenos dias

Canto yo

Si canta con ganas ser un dia mejor

Buenos di………..aaaaas

 (10 babies screaming with excitement)

 It was the moments when a child would run to me when they were crying and I picked them up and held them in my arms. When they chose me to change them, I believe that to be the highest honor. Or when they laughed and laughed when I whispered, “hola cariño” into their soft ears. With their little palms, they’d run up to me as I sat on the ground surrounded by building blocks and grab my face and smother me with besitos, besitos, besitos! I miss my babies.

That moment of victory after sitting for 15 minutes massaging their soft heads and they finally drift off into a slumber, has given me more gratification than anything else I could remember. When I would check on them, I’d see a little body pop up and look around, well rested from their nap.

Hola mi amor, como dormiste, bien?”

A little head nod.

And I walked over and lifted him out of his crib so we could play some more.

I did this for nine weeks. I could have done it for nine years.

From 12 pm sharp every day I took a small stroll a few blocks down to the jardin, where three of our kids attended. And every day they ran full speed to the little metal door shouting, “Shandiin esta aqui!” They handed me their bags and books, and we walked home together enjoyting the warm sun and avoiding big dogs. Some days they’d ask me their favorite question, “Tienes los dulces con azucar y limon?” Of course. We colored, painted, wrote our names, ate candy, played on the glorious tire playground; we had the times of our lives. They were so full of energy and positivity. They made me want to be 3 years old again, and chasing mariposas in the park.

Ok niños, vamos a almorzar y después necesito salir.”

“Pero te vas a regresar mañana, no?”

“Si, mi amor, mañana voy estar aquí con ustedes, y voy a tener los dulces con azucar y limon.”

I always gave every single child a big hug before I left work for the day. As my days winded down, each hug was a little tighter and a little longer. They didn’t understand.

It didn’t matter what kind of day I was having. I could have been exhausted from a sleepless night or grumpy from a bad breakfast, but once I saw their little faces the world was perfect.

They were perfect.

My last day was the hardest. I couldn’t believe how fast time had passed. I had become a part of the family, yet my time was up and I would be returning to the USA. I promised to always remember my time in that house. It was the best 9 weeks of my life. These children taught me so much. They helped me improve my Spanish. They were patient as I learned our routine. They showed me love, endless love. They proved to me that life is full of hidden treasures and happiness that can be uncovered in the sounds of laughter and comfort of love. I uncovered a bit of happiness on that mountainside in Peru. Happiness I will never forget.

And then this happened,

Necesito salir ahora, me voy. Voy a extrañarte mucho mi amor.”

“Te vas?”

“Si, me voy a mi país. A mi casa. Tengo que ir a mi escuela como tú”

“Vas a regresar mañana?”

I wouldn’t be at work tomorrow. When would I be back? They would all grow up and forget all about our time together. What if they asked for me the next day? Even worse, what if they waited for me and I let them down. Nobody warned me about this part. Everybody guided me on starting my work here, but nobody warned me how hard it would be to leave.

I have never spent a more meaningful summer than this. I haven’t felt this much growth before. I feel stronger and abler to love than I ever had before. I have those children to thank.

To my babies:

I think about you all every day. I sing our songs every morning. I know you are all doing well and still shouting, “Hola!” whenever someone enter the room. I know there are new volunteers there every day scared, but ready to love you. Give them time, be patient, as you were with me. They’ll get the hang of it. Just know that I will always be here for you. I love you.

As I walked up those brick steps one last time, I looked back on this house that held all of our memories. The kids were all running around playing as I made my way through that wooden gate. As it slammed behind me, I realized that morning was the last time I’d hit the buzzard to enter,

“Quien es?”


Is it weird to say that I felt more at home and in peace in Peru than I often do in my own country? I am back on the reservation, but a piece of me is waiting for the time to read 8:30 so I can catch the bus to work. A piece of me is longing to have a conversation with sweet Spanish voices. A piece of me stayed in Peru.

One day I will go back and smile at the old me who was brave enough to create these memories. This is a painful memory. This is beautiful.


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Amazonian Adventures

After the worst 10-hour trip in a small, hot, and smelly bus; we arrived at Puerto Maldonado at 4:30 in the morning. Not really knowing what to expect, we stepped out into the comfort of the hot temperature, where we were greeted by Charlie. I guess I’ve just come accustomed to not hearing English spoken, so it was a nice surprise when Charlie spoke to us in perfect English. After some brief introductions, we all piled into yet another small, hot, but less smelly bus and drove about 15 minutes to Charlie’s house. His home, also a hostel, was beautiful! There were hammocks in the front yard where we relaxed for a while, while he and his wife prepared breakfast for us.

The sun still hadn’t risen, but I was already excited to watch the sunset in this tropical location. Soon we were off to catch our boat to our bungalows! We drove through town as Charlie pointed and explained to us the culture and lifestyle here. Soon, we arrived at the plaza, where in view was a big bridge, the road that led all the way to Brazil. It would take 2.5 hours by vehicle to cross the border into the country I still hope to visit one day. Once on our boat, we traveled down the river Madre de Dios, for about half-an-hour until we arrived at our destination.

With the helping hand of Charlie, we each stepped off the swaying boat into the mud, and up the wooden stairs to the mainland. We were all introduced to our bungalows, where we would be spending the night. Excited we each picked roommates and unpacked. At that point I felt like I was bathing in mosquito repellent, but we all smelled of DEET; we were in this fight together. The views from our front porch was that of our hammock, the endless river, and the mesmerizing Amazon rainforest. It was so surreal!

Soon we were all called to participate in our first activity-tree climbing. I was excited, but only to watch all the others. Due to my slight fear of heights and lack of upper-body strength I did not climb all the way to the top, but I still tried and it was still a very fun experience. I don’t think I have ever done anything like that before, many of my group members had done rock climbing before so they did very well with this activity. Still, it was a lot of fun!

After sweating off all of our sunscreen and bug spray, we reconvened at the lake for kayaking! The sun was so strong, but there was a slight breeze as we worked our way down the river and that made all the difference. It was a really good workout, no surprise there. After about an hour of kayaking and enjoying the river encompassed by vast lands of deep green, we returned to land.

Next we embarked on a walk through the forest. There was hardly a path, only that of which our guide, Rafa created, and we made sure to follow closely. Our walk was so much fun, we were surrounded by forestation and I refrained thinking about all the insects watching us. We stopped abruptly when we spotted a snake in the brushes nearby. I was both amazed at the size and scared at the realization that I was in the forest a few feet away from a giant black snack. I felt a little safe behind Rafa, who grew up in this forest and knew everything there was to know about surviving here, so it was fine. As we walked through, we made many stops to learn about the different uses of trees and plants as foods and medicines. The deeper we walked into the forest, the closer we became to Rafa’s home, where his family had a farm. My favorite part trying the different fruits, they are so much tastier fresh off the trees! We had some delicious oranges and guaba, some even tried termites and larvae.

After our walk we retreated back to the river where we met Charlie with our boat. There we traveled downriver watching the sunset. I had always thought the prettiest sunsets were back home in Arizona, in Monument Valley. Well, my home now has some competition. There really is nothing like watching the sky turn from blue to pink on the Amazonian river is. The water reflected the pink sky perfectly and for a few minutes it was hard to believe this was real. This was a different kind of nature. More green, more exotic, more surreal. But there I was, embracing it all with nine amazing friends.

Once the sun was down, we began our search for nocturnal animals along the river. It was a bit nerve-wrecking cruising in the dark in waters unfamiliar to me, but still I was up for the adventure. With our spot light we searched for red eyes. After getting stuck twice and watching nervously as Charlie and Rafa jumped into the water, we decided we had seen enough for the night and made our way home, where dinner was waiting for us. For dinner we had my favorite, plantains, rice, and catfish fresh from the river! Also, some fresh fruit juice. It was delicious!

After the long day, we all retreated to our cozy bungalows. What a night that was! My friends and I battled all night with cucarachas (cockroaches). In total we had seven in our room, and after that it was very hard to fall asleep. Now, in retrospect the chaos of that night is a hilarious story. Some of my favorite memories are in that rainforest. Once I was safe in my clean sheets and mosquito net, I slept great!  For me, the sounds of the forest were very soothing. I awoke by the sun shining through my window and caught some of the sunrise–breathtaking! We ate breakfast together, and packed up for our second adventure into the Tambopata reserve!

We did about a four-mile hike through the rainforest where we tried not to slip in the mud, some of us succeeded. We stopped to observe a long line of ants hard at work, and I immediately thought of Bug’s Life. Then we saw some monkeys in the trees, an entire family preparing to take a nap. In the distance we could hear the dinosaur-like sounds of the howler monkies. It was incredible! Soon we reached our canoes, and continued our adventure to the Sandoval Lake. It was amazing! We saw so many different types of birds, turtles, butterflies, etc. It was hard work paddling through the lake, but I swear it was like a scene form Jurassic park!

We stopped at a small home, now hostel along the lake where we had our lunch. For lunch we had Juane, which is rice, meat, olives, hard-boiled egg, and spices, all wrapped with bijao (macaw-flower) leaves. It was so delicious; by far my favorite dish I have had in Peru. After lunch I took a much needed nap in the heaven-sent hammocks. I was tired, and was then looking forward to the long bus ride home, where I’d be able to sleep! Soon, we began our retreat back to the entrance of the reserve and made our way back down Madre de Dios.

Once back at the main plaza of Puerto Maldonado we all went to the market where we bought some fresh fruit for the long trip back to Cuzco. I also bought some castañas, or Brazilian nuts. I did not regret anything I purchased at the market! Soon we were dropped off at the bus station. We all bid farewell to Charlie and his colleagues, who had been the best of hosts! I will surely be recommending his business to anyone who is interested in traveling to the Amazon! They are so family orientated and welcoming you will feel right at home. More importantly, in such a foreign place, you will feel safe! After a few hours of waiting, our bus had arrived and we all boarded and quickly fell asleep only to wake up 10 hours later back in the cold of Cuzco. This undoubtedly has been my favorite trip in Peru, followed by Tequile of course.

Peru is such a beautiful country full of beautiful and welcoming people. As my time winds down, only 9 days left now, I only hope I can one day return to visit the friends I have made and experience the beauty of the land all over again.

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Mountain Adventures ft. Machupicchu

I awoke at 6:30 with so much excitement for the weekend ahead. After a cold shower I was ready for the adventures that lie ahead. Our group met up at a park nearby, where we were met by a big white bus, and 4 very excited directors. We left Cusco around 8 in the morning, heading to our first destination, Pisaq. I had planned to sleep on the way there, because as always, I stayed up late dying to find out what happens next with Olivia Pope. Unfortunately, the winding roads would not allow my slumber, so instead I enjoyed the dreamlike views of llamas and a bird’s-eye perspective of the historic city.

Once in Pisaq we visited the centro arquelógico de Pisaq. There we explored more Inca ruins, while testing our stamina. As always, I was mesmerized by the structures built to last forever. We took many photo breaks, which often were disguised as water breaks. As we were on top of a mountain we were faced with the task of descending this beast, and a beast it was! I’ve always had a slight fear of heights, but growing up with a backyard full of monuments and cliffs, I’ve learned to manage my fears. With that said, this trail, or lack thereof was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life! We were literally scaling down the side of a mountain-free, like the Inca did I suppose. I am so proud of myself for completing what seemed like hours to reach stable ground again.

Once we reached flat land again, and I felt safe, we continued our journey onto the Inkam museum. I thoroughly enjoyed this museum, and normally I’m not a huge museum goer, but this one was awesome. It was a timeline of indigenous civilizations throughout Peru and South America. All civilizations leading up to the Inca Empire. There were also life size mannequins and reenactments to offer visuals of the people and their rituals.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch there, and I will never forget the iced tea! I also regret not writing down the names of the foods I eat, often they are Quechue dishes, but they are always so satisfying! After lunch, we hopped on the bus, took a nap, and soon arrived at the town of Ollantaytambu, and our hotel Pakaritampu. The hotel was beautiful, encompassed by protecting mountains and vibrant flowers. We were so high up in the mountains, I thought I’d soon learn what the clouds tasted like.

After settling in, we all decided to explore this majestic little town. We looked at all the shops filled with alpaca sweaters, jewelry, and funky tourist pants. In our attempt to pass the time before we were to meet with our directors for dinner, we stopped at a café shop in the main plaza. I ordered a coffee, and my mother called me. I separated myself from the group and found a table next to the window where I tried to describe my views to my mother. There I sat overlooking a beautiful town with the moon hanging low between the endless mountains, talking to my favorite person in the world. And there she sat thousands of miles away, looking out her window onto the setting sun, protected by the warmth of the monuments. We were living a life neither of us had imagined, and I was so happy to share that moment with her.

Soon it was time to head down the street to dinner. We ate at hearts café, where I enjoyed the best grilled cheese sandwich! I was so tired from the long day of managing my nerves trying not to fall off the side of a mountain, so I retreated to our hotel. If there is anything I will remember about this hotel, it will be the shower! There in the mountains of Peru, I took the best shower of my life. The water was steaming hot, and the pressure could cleanse even the darkest of souls. I slept like a baby that night.

The following morning, I awoke at 4:30 to get ready. My roommate Thara braided my hair, bless her heart, this is a lot of hair to tame that early in the day. We met for a quick breakfast in the lobby, before walking to the train station. We departed at 6 am on the PeruRail train. Our next stop- Machupicchu, Maravilla del mundo! It was a two-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes where we took a bus that took us the rest of the way up the mountain to the entrance of this unexplainable site.

We spent about twenty minutes on the bus which took us up switchback dirt roads into the heart of mountains. I was waiting for my fear of heights to return, but I was too in awe with what I was seeing to consider the fact that I was literally on a ledge. Once at the entrance, we paid to use the restroom, showed our passports, and proceeded past the gates that would lead us to the stone city. We did a two-hour tour, passing through every dwelling, and listening to what historians could gather from their research about the constructions and their significance.

One of the most interesting things I learned, is that Machupicchu is encompassed by four mountains sacred to the Inca. They had a strong connection with the land, so strong that they felt comfortable living so high up and so isolated. This particularly interested me because it reminded me of the land of my people. We too live within our four sacred mountains, a land that has helped us grow and prosper.

Update: clouds do not taste like marshmallows.

After our tour ended we went on our own adventure up to la Puerta del sol, located at 2,745 meters above sea level, on one side of Machu Picchu Mountain. It is said that this gate served to control the people whom entered the city. From this historic location, only reachable by the Inca trail, you can see Machu Picchu, the Urubamba River, the Huayna Picchu mountain and the surrounding area.

The hike was intense, but very worth it once we reached out destination. It took about two hours’ round trip and we were surrounded by clouds! That too, is an experience I will not soon forget. What it felt like to be so high up, walking a trail built by such a powerful, innovative people. It was so beautiful.

Once we decided we should head down before we all realized how frightening this was, we met up with our directors for lunch at Indio Feliz. The food was so delicious and I appreciated how they decorated their entrees. I had pollo de piña, and enjoyed the best limeade of my life! After so much walking, this lunch was heaven-sent! According to a friend’s phone, we walked more than 6 miles and climbed over 200 floors. Not bad for a warm Saturday in Peru!

Completely drained, we returned to the train station and made our way back to our hotel. I don’t remember being that exhausted in a while. I immediately showered and was fast asleep once we returned to our hotel. The following day we returned to Cuzco, which was about 2 ½ hours in bus. Once I got home, I told my family all about my adventures…and then I slept some more! It was definitely a trip to remember. I am so thankful for this experience!

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A very late Insight to my month in Peru!

It is hard to believe that I have been in Cusco, Peru for a little over a month now. Also, this is my first blog post in my time here, half because I actually forgot that this existed, and half because I’m more of a pen and paper kind of girl anyway. So I thought I’d write more of an overview of my experience this past month. Then, granted I have the time and the energy, I plan to go back through my journal and share my thoughts along with some pictures of how amazing this experience has been thus far.

So, let’s get started shall we?

I cannot express how nervous I was to be in a different country where the language, culture, and geography is completely different than anything I can say I am familiar with. My family was nervous for me to participant in this program, as they should be. I mean I am the youngest and the only girl, but I’d like to think that I am also the most adventurous. So, new country, new language, new adventures? Bring it on.

Upon arrival to Cusco I immediately felt the stress of always having to translate things in my head, and praying I’d be able to respond fast enough to carry on a conversation. Unlike the rest of the members of my group, I only had three semesters of Spanish to lean on. I had always done well at reading and writing the language, and now the biggest challenge would be speaking. Obviously there were times where I felt lost or even like I had no clue what I was doing here. But, my directors believed in me and my rapid learning of Spanish, so I had to remind myself that I deserved to be here just like everybody else.

Each day I became more confident with myself and naturally things became easier. My Spanish has improved so much and it is so fun to have conversations with new people. Cusco is an amazing city full of history and art; and occupied by beautiful resilient people. I have to admit, I press pause every once in awhile on my way to work, in the Plaza de Armas, or in a taxi midway through another adventure. I stop to look around at my surroundings, to take note of what I am feeling, and to acknowledge how amazing my journey has been that it led me to Peru. I have had so many moments of pure wonder and appreciation for Ni’hoodszáán ( madre Tierra, Pachamama, Mother Earth).

To be completely honest, the sole reason I applied to Dukeengage Peru was because of the focus on the Indigenous population. As a North American Native (a proud member of the Navajo Nation), I have always been curious about what life is like for our brothers and sisters in the south. Growing up on a reservation is entirely different from the common upbringing in the U.S., and is often described as living in a different country. We even have inside jokes of dual citizenship. I remember leaving the reservation for college and having a major culture shock. I expected the same to happen here, but in a strange way I feel accustomed to some of the norms here. For example, most homes here are not heated, and we are in the winter months, so it is a challenge. Majority of homes across Indian Country deal with this same reality. So I wasn’t taken too much by surprise. It even reminded me of home, huddling around Shimásaní’s (grandmother) stove in the winters. The people here are warm and welcoming, quick to offer you food or tea before you even sit down. This kind of hospitality makes me miss home. Many of the conversations I have had with locals revolves around culture, history, and the emphasis on respecting and protecting the land we walk on and the water we drink. The relationship with the land is what is most important. I’ve come to the realization that indigenous cultures may differ, but there is always teachings and customs that remain equivalent.

Taking Quechua language classes, visiting museums and Inca ruins, and talking to my Peruvian family about their heritage and lifestyle has been more than I ever imagined I would be doing. It has also been great to have the chance to share and educate Cuzqueños on Northern Native Americans, and more specifically the Navajo tribe. They give me a piece of their culture and I give them a piece of mine.

On top of everything, I have been blessed with a beautiful Peruvian family that I have grown close to over the last month. It is a little scary how much alike my parents are to my actual parents back home on the reservation. They have really made this feel like home. On the weekends I go to the market with my mom. We sit and have tea while sharing our cultures and conversing about whatever comes to mind. When I come home my sisters (3 and 9 years old) are waiting at the door for me. We do puzzles, I teach them english words, and we watch Peppa Pig. My father always has a story to tell, and he loves talking about politics-we have great conversations! I can’t imagine living in Peru with anybody else.

I always dreamed of traveling when I was a little girl, but my idea of that was literally anywhere off of my reservation. Never had I imagined I would one day be standing on Inca land. I have been blessed with the opportunity to be apart of this humbling program. It is times like this that I can’t help but be appreciative for the sacrifices of my ancestors, the support of my tribe, and the endless love from my family and friends. I am not supposed to be here, but I have a habit of doing things I’m told is impossible. Ahé’hee’ Diyin Dine’é for protecting me on this journey. 

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The Halfway Mark: June 22

Halfway into the DukeEngage experience and I am in love with the rich culture, friendly people, and the beautiful sights that surround us on a daily basis in Cusco, Peru. Every morning, I wake up to breakfast made by my host mom Marcia which usually consists of fresh fruit juice, eggs, and artisan bread. I always look forward to eating and conversing with my host mom, whom I usually only see in the mornings since she works in the afternoons.

After breakfast, I take the bus to my service placement at Hogar Juana de Aza, a home for adolescent mothers who have faced sexual trauma and their children. Although everyone is paired at their organizations and I am the only one from Duke working at the home, my experience has been incredibly enriching thus far.

At first, it was difficult to insert myself into the hogar’s already-established routine. As soon as I walked in for the first time, the mothers quickly greeted me at the door and continued busying away at the kitchen, preparing popcorn and assorted cakes that they sell at the kiosk for the students of Santa Rosa de Lima. I went upstairs to find five of the babies (all under two years old) watching their favorite show Peppa Pig alongside three other volunteers from other service programs. The volunteers explained that they primarily were in charge of making sure that the babies received their meals, entertaining them in the playroom, and taking them out on occasional outings. Once Maruja arrived, the in-house psychologist, she took me on a tour of the dormitories, classroom, kitchen, and bathrooms of the home and explained to me that I would be able to work directly with the mothers through creating workshops and helping them with the items they prepare for the kiosk.

As of right now, I’ve done four workshops with the mothers and have slowly been able to form closer relationships with them and with their children. We’ve created a set of group norms for the hogar, discussed the theme of respect for others, and done activities aimed to build the mothers’ self esteem. Today, we had a workshop on body image where we discussed issues surrounding body dissatisfaction and how this can be problematic in terms of building a positive self-image. We also focused on the importance of positive self-talk, especially when it comes to speaking about their bodies around their children. Yasmin, mother to Angie, mentioned that this was the most helpful discussion that we have had so far because she had no idea how much a mother’s language about her own body could affect the child’s own self-perception. At the end of the workshop, we all drew self-portraits and named five things that we loved about our physical appearance. Although it was difficult to name positive aspects about ourselves and share them in an open space, I was really happy that the mothers were all willing to participate and seemed to really enjoy the activity.

After the babies eat their lunch at around 12:30 PM, my workday comes to a close at the hogar, but the mothers always make sure to hug me goodbye and express their gratitude for my assistance. I am so excited for the weeks to come but know I am going to deeply miss the incredible experiences I’ve had in working with these women and children.

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Swan Song

* NOTE: As usual, the names of all the babies and mothers have been changed to preserve their privacy. Thank you to everyone who has been following our blog!

His first steps were uncertain at best. When I lifted him from the baby walker and placed him on his own two feet, Baby Harry threw me an incredulous stare. “I promise, it’s not that I’m too lazy to pick you up,” I reassured him. “I just want you to practice walking.” He swayed on the spot, trying to find his center of balance. I crouched a few feet in front of him, motioning for him to join me. “¡Ven, Harry, ven! (Come on, Harry, come on!)” Slowly, tentatively, he lifted one foot and tottered forward. “¡Muy bien, Harry! (Very good, Harry!)” echoed the tutor’s voice from behind me. Harry beamed and staggered towards me. Before I could form the words “Slow down,” he had thrown himself into my arms, laughing in unbridled glee. The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Walk had become The Little Boy Who Could.

When I first arrived at the Hogar, Baby Harry was one year and two months old – and showed absolutely no desire to walk. His preferred mode of transportation was crawling, followed closely by being carried around. Given his age, his refusal to walk put him far behind the other kids in terms of development. As a budding neuroscientist, my most pressing question was: “Why?”

I can’t say that I ever found a certain answer – especially because Baby Harry himself can’t talk. But I did form an elaborate theory about a Monkey, a Mother, and a Motive. Now, before you dismiss me as completely crazy, take a moment to hear me out.

In 1957, psychologist Harry Harlow began a series of experiments about the mother-infant bond. He bred rhesus monkeys in his lab and, upon birth, separated the infants from their mothers. In lieu of their real mothers, the baby monkeys were offered a choice between two surrogate mothers: identical wire-crafted figures that differed in two ways. One “mother” was covered in soft cloth. The other was made of bare wire but held a milk bottle for its “babies.” One by one, each infant was placed in a room with the two surrogates. And, one by one, each made his or her decision.

Harlow and his team found that the babies spent significantly more time with the Cloth Mother than with the Wire Mother – even though the Wire Mother was the only one providing nourishment. When confronted with a frightening object, the monkeys would instantly seek comfort in the arms of the Cloth Mother. Later studies augmented these findings, revealing that baby monkeys deprived of maternal contact showed greater fear towards new objects and experiences. Harlow’s discoveries – combined with the work of other psychologists – formed the basis for “Attachment Theory,” which explains that a healthy infant-mother bond is critical for a child’s development.

So much for the Monkey; now onto the Mother. Yenny was no older than fourteen when she gave birth to Baby Harry – and that was the inception of their rocky relationship. For his mother, Baby Harry was a very tangible reminder of the horror and humiliation she’d lived through. So she sought to distance herself from him as much as possible. She didn’t hold him; she didn’t hug him; and she didn’t show him any love.

That sort of dynamic is not unheard of in the Hogar. Although most of the mothers love their babies, a few still have difficulty accepting their maternal roles. And it’s perfectly understandable why. Though they themselves are innocent, the babies are all products of past traumas. They’re living remnants of the horrific incidents that shattered their mothers’ old lives. So how can Yenny even look at her baby without having to stem the tide of awful memories about his conception? The answer is: she can’t.

Now, there are certainly mothers in the Hogar who have learned to compartmentalize those feelings. Slowly but surely, they’ve grown to love their babies and leave the past where it belongs. Unfortunately for Baby Harry, his mother isn’t quite there yet. And there’s nothing that I, the psychologist, or any of her peers can do to complete the process. She needs to attain that catharsis on her own.

After learning about Baby Harry’s situation, I resolved to give him as much love as I possibly could. I cuddled him, smiled at him, spoke to him, and did everything in my power to help him walk. On a regular basis, I would lift him out of the baby walker and hold his hands as he ambled around the home. And, on July 21st, I watched proudly as he walked towards me, supported by naught but his own two legs.

I won’t attempt to claim credit for his starting to walk. Ultimately, he made that decision on his own. And I can’t divine his precise Motive for doing so, either. All I can say is that I did my best to help and that I gave him as much love as I could.

It’s been exactly two weeks since I saw Baby Harry – or anyone at the Hogar. I’m writing this from my home in California, and I can’t stop thinking about the people in Cusco who became my family. I remember Yasmín enveloping me in a tight hug when I greeted her every morning. I remember Karla crafting a pipe-cleaner bracelet and shyly sliding it onto my wrist. I remember carrying Baby Belle down the street to the hospital, worried about her possible concussion and unwilling to put her down for the world. The surge of memories is overwhelming – tearjerking and heartwarming at once.

Saying goodbye wasn’t easy, but I’m hoping it won’t be permanent. I plan to stay in touch with all of the girls by sending them regular emails through Maruja’s account. And I’ll definitely go back to Cusco to visit them in person; I’m just not sure when. What I do know, however, is that my “Goodbye” wasn’t the “Farewell Forever” that rounds off Shakespearean tragedies. It was more of an “Au Revoir” – “Goodbye, Until We Meet Again.”

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Day 65-66: July 23-24

It is 10:26 PM in Nashville. I am back home safely and watching Impractical Jokers with my brother.

Yesterday I had my last breakfast and enjoyed a quiet morning, mostly playing with Baruna. Unfortunately, Pepa wasn’t doing well again, so Daniela had to clean out her mouth once again. She was in pain for the rest of the day. In the afternoon, I packed my bag, wrote a thank-you note, and got ready to say goodbye after a delicious last lunch of spaghetti with white sauce. We took a family photo of all the siblings and the dogs with me. Marianela gave me a nice parting gift of coasters and a hand-carved pencil. I was very grateful for all they did for me. I thought the hardest part was saying goodbye to Baruna. That was when I teared up, because I could always come back but, when I do, I’m not sure if Baruna will be there anymore. He was good to me. I’ll miss him.

Marianela then dropped me off at the airport. I said a goodbye to her and Mily, checked my bag, and waited for the flight to Lima from Cusco. I was the only one in our group who had the 10 PM flight to Miami, so I was going to be cutting it close. Thankfully, I found a few people on the plane, including a nice girl and a high school kid named Destin with his grandmother, who had the next flight. That flight had no problems, and I moved quickly after getting my bag to go through immigration. Unfortunately, my immigration card was smudged, so I had to wait in line an extra 30 minutes and had to pay a small fee. I almost missed my next flight to Miami (Destin, his grandmother, and the girl were worried about me), but I didn’t, and I got on my flight. I got a window seat, but a nice man from Belgium wanted me to switch so his other friend from Belgium could sit with him. I obliged. The flight was long and I did not sleep very well. But we arrived, and I got through Miami customs much more easily than I did in Lima. I flew to Nashville with no problems and arrived.

My parents brought me home in the oppressive Nashville heat. My dog, Fritz, greeted me, and he seems to be doing very well. I’m happy about that. After a breakfast of donuts and then a quick lunch, I took a very long three hour nap, followed by tennis and a delicious dinner out. I was very happy to enjoy some American food. It was delicious.

I really haven’t experienced much reverse culture shock, but I have noticed that the heat here is getting to me. In Cusco, the temperature never gets above 70 degrees, and it’s in the mid-90s and very humid here in Nashville. It may take a while to get used to, but if that’s the only shock I experience, then I’ll be happy about that. Re-adjusting hasn’t been a problem other than with the heat.

Right now, I miss my host family and Baruna, but I’m very glad to be home. It was a good journey that changed my life, and I very much appreciate it. But I do need to rest. It was an exhausting trip. And I appreciate the kind words I received from many of you in the comments. They kept me going. I hope you all enjoyed my blog and my day-by-day accounts of my experiences. I plan to read this one day, but, for now, I think I will just enjoy the rest of my summer. School starts back up again soon, after all.

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Day 64: July 22

It is 10:50 PM in Cusco. This will (likely) be my last post from Peru until I arrive in Nashville on Sunday.

Today I woke up, ate my normal breakfast, showered, and watched the 2015 Final Four games before I headed over to the SIT office for our last reflection session. In the reflection session, we talked about what we would miss most about Peru (I said Baruna, my loyal host dog), what we would miss the least about Peru (I said the thin air that was hard to breathe), and we gave a general review of the program. We also were asked how this program has changed us. For one, I definitely do not take my family for granted anymore. Also, my mind was opened to a completely new world, especially the hard world of the kids at Huacarpay. I think this experience will make me more grounded. We celebrated with cake and said goodbye to the SIT office.

I returned home to lunch and managed some of the fantasy Premier Leagues that I will be starting this fall. Then, I went on my last run in Cusco. I’ll miss the route I take and going into the store to buy my Gatorade. I certainly will not miss the thin air. It makes it hard to run. It’s not the most fun. Before we left for the farewell dinner, Marianela helped me clean my room one last time. I really appreciate her and all she has done for me. It will be hard to say goodbye tomorrow.

Then, we went to our farewell dinner at a restaurant in the Plaza de Armas. Marianela and Daniela came, as well as Delia and Norma from Huacarpay. Delia gave Melanie and me very sweet cards that I’ll be sure to keep. The dinner was a buffet-style meal, but it was still pretty good. I enjoyed it. There was a live band there and, as I was standing to greet one of Daniela’s friends, one of the dancers thought I had volunteered to go up and dance and swooped in and took me center stage. We salsa danced. I dance poorly, but I actually think I held my own this time. It was a lot of fun. I’ll never forget tonight.

Tomorrow I say goodbye to Cusco. It will certainly be hard to say goodbye to my host family and Baruna, but I do think the time is right for me to come home. I’m ready. I’ll miss it here.

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Farewell Cusco

Tomorrow at 7:40 pm my flight will depart from Cusco for Lima and my summer with DukeEngage will officially draw to a close. This summer has been unforgettable. I’ve visited numerous Incan ruins, the highest navigable lake on Earth, the Amazon Rainforest, and even a Rainbow Mountain. But my main purpose here was not to see amazing sights and take fun trips, it was to volunteer with young mothers and their children at Casa Mantay.

Yesterday was my last day of work, and spent my morning in the nursery savoring my last moments with the babies who I feel like are my own. On Tuesday, I was able to give another Guitar class at a time when the girls could actually attend, after having a conversation with the director of the home about improving communication about the weekly lesson schedule. The lesson went really well and with full attendance this time. After playing and singing a few songs with the girls (including their favorite, “Corazon de Seda”) I told the girls that I wanted to teach them a little bit about the guitar, because I was going to give it to the home for them to have. This was an idea my mom originally gave me when we discussed my first class in which I only had one attendee stay for it’s entirety. She suggested giving it to that one girl, but I decided I wanted all the girls to have access to it and be able to play and learn if they wanted to. After I told them about gifting the guitar, the girls seemed happy and excited, and interested in hearing what I had to teach them about it. I was able to give a brief explanation of the notes in the musical scale and how these are played on the guitar and used to form chords. It was a little bit difficult and I was nervous trying to communicate the musical terms effectively in Spanish, but I think it was a good introduction to basic musical theory and the guitar as an instrument without being too overwhelming. Afterward, I passed the guitar around to different girls and showed them the chords to Corazon de Seda, encouraging them to keep practicing and not be discouraged if they didn’t get a clean sound at first. By the end of the hour and half time slot, I was playing them Jonas Brothers and we were bonding over watching videos from the Lizzie McGuire movie (a bit off topic for the lesson, but fun for all of us). I left feeling grateful that I had the chance to give another class and spend time with the moms. When I left, I put the guitar in Raquel (the Director)’s office where she had suggested that it would be both secure and accessible.

Yesterday, after my last morning with the babies, everyone gathered on the patio to say goodbye to Masha and I. One of the girls wanted to play the guitar, so I brought it out and reminded her the chords to Corazon de Seda, and showed her a piece of paper on which I had written them (I left this taped to the guitar for them to refer to after I left). I also told the girls where the guitar would be kept and that I had put a document with video lessons, chord websites, and other resources on the computers in their classroom. We all stood in a circle and each mom as well as the home’s volunteer coordinator, chef, nursery worker, and some fellow volunteers thanked us for what we had done over the past two months. It was really special to me to hear the thanks from the moms, and particularly special that they could thank me for the giving and playing the guitar. In reality, I feel like the lucky one to have been able to play music with them and share something I love so much. In the beginning weeks of my work at Mantay, I doubted whether I’d be able to incorporate guitar into my work, but standing there on the last day I felt so happy and gratified that we had made it work.

All in all, I think my time at Mantay was a success. I was able to feel helpful day to day (changing diapers, playing with, and looking after the kids in the nursery), and also feel like I was leaving something more permanent (the guitar and the little bit I had taught them with it). Additionally, I hung up a sign on a bulletin board for future volunteers, telling them that the home has a guitar, and encouraging them to give lessons. Through this experience I learned how to both bring my passion to my work, but also how to be an extra set of hands and do whatever was needed, setting my own ego and desire to “make a difference” aside. Volunteer work is complicated, I didn’t always feel like I was “making a difference” or having any real impact other than temporarily controlling a group of rowdy toddlers, but in the end, I’m able to look back on my time at Mantay and feel fulfilled. Perhaps more importantly, I was able to learn about some of the social and legal issues in Peru, including weak laws for persecuting rapists and illegality of abortion. These problems lead to heartbreaking situations such as the cases at Mantay.

In addition to making preparations to give Mantay my guitar, this past week Masha and I have been working to set up a fundraising page, that will allow people to easily donate money to the home, without high fees (their current medium takes about 20%, where the new page will take about 3%). We’ve run into some complications with confirming bank accounts, and weren’t able to get the page up and running by our last day, but we hope that in the next few days we can get things squared away to start accepting donations.

I’ll be very sad to leave Cusco tomorrow, but know that I will never forget the amazing place I’ve been, experiences I’ve had, and people I’ve met, especially the brave young women at Mantay and their beautiful kids.



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Day 63: July 21

It is 10:45 PM in Cusco. I just watched Trump’s acceptance speech at the RNC. Pretty amazing how the Internet connects us to things so far away.

I woke up by my new natural alarm clock, Baruna, ate my normal breakfast, and waited at Orion a little earlier than usual so Rodrigo, a worker at SIT, could take us to Huacarpay in his car with the new uniforms. We took a bit of a different route than usual (which made me a little nervous), but we ended up passing by our usual route – Saylla, Huasao, Tipon, Oropesa, the Real Garcilaso training ground, and Huacarpay – to get to the school. There, we saw the kids getting ready to march. We didn’t quite give them the clothes yet (that was to come later), but we ran a quick marching training. The kids didn’t want to behave, so Norma called a team meeting with all the kids and told them to behave on our last day. I appreciated that.

I think Norma and Delia knew that we weren’t up to working too hard on our last day, so they let us sit and observe. We did, however, help set up for Achievement Day. We put up flags and banners in the classrooms while Melanie helped the older kids finish their projects. It was a nice thing to do. Worn out, we were called into the kitchen for our last lunch. Delia prepared us arroz a la cubana, which is rice with fried banana, egg, and fries. It was delicious. I loved it. After I took some pictures of the school (coming on Sunday when I can upload them), it was time for Achievement Day. It wasn’t anything special. The kids just hung up their projects on the wall, and pictures were taken. It wasn’t as big of a production as I thought it would be since (sadly) their parents don’t come. Right after Achievement Day, however, Delia and Norma recognized us for our work this semester (Norma’s speech strangely left out Melanie, showing how gender is really recognized here). The kids then gave us homemade cards which were very touching. Roy Abel and Juan drew a picture of us playing soccer, while Doris, the oldest student, left both of us a very thoughtful and well-written letter. We then said our tearful goodbyes, took pictures, and parted ways. It’s sad for me because, although I can certainly return to Huacarpay, when I do, certainly all of these students will have moved on. The reality is that I probably will not see any of these kids again, and that is really too bad. They’ve made a huge difference in my life.

I also thanked Melanie for her hard work. She has been an outstanding partner, having to deal with way more than I have in terms of the way she has been treated. Still, she kept her head down and worked hard for the kids and always did the best she could. I was proud to have had the chance to work with her.

I then returned home to a delicious lunch of chicken patties and fried yuca. I decided I was too tired – physically and emotionally – to run today, so I sat back and relaxed for the afternoon and reflected. Soon I will have to say goodbye to my host family, and that is going to be tough as well. But tomorrow we get to celebrate with a dinner with all the families in the Plaza de Armas. I’m excited for that. I just wish Baruna could come!

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