Challenges, Reflections, and a Whole Lot to Be Grateful For

I’m back and I apologize for not having written in over a week. A lot has happened and I’m excited to share my thoughts and reflections. From Friday June 3rd-Saturday June 4th, our entire group took a weekend trip to Puno to tour the floating islands of Uros, the island of Taquile, and Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. We took a bus from 10 PM-4:30 AM both Friday night and Saturday night. Unfortunately, my throat was feeling really dry and I had a lot of trouble sleeping on the bus. I don’t think I fell into a sold sleep until around 3:30 AM only to arrive in Puno an hour later. When we arrived in Puno, it was absolutely freezing. I put on all of my layers and I was still cold as we waited in the bus stop. Everything definitely got better when we started our tour. Our first stop was Uros, the floating islands. They were absolutely amazing and I see standing on a floating island is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was also intriguing to hear about the history of the islands and see the dwellings that people live in. The descendants of the native Uru people fled to the islands to escape being conquered by the Incas. After touring the islands, we took a boat to the larger and non-floating island of Taquile. After hiking to the main square, we had fresh trout for lunch while learning about traditions on the island Taquile. On both islands, I was amazed by the intricacies of a different way of life. There is a specific type of dress for every type of person in the town that includes beautifully colored hats, skirts and belts. It’s pretty exciting to think that I know quite a decent amount about a culture that many people have no idea exist, and I will definitely encourage people in the future to get to know such a unique and rich place, culture, and way of life. Also, after starting my volunteer work the week before, the picturesque views of Lago Titicaca from the top of the boat was exactly what I needed to have a relaxing weekend.

Unfortunately, when we got back Sunday morning at 4:30 AM, after sleeping until 1 PM, I woke up with a headache and felt significantly dizzy. I went to bed early but didn’t feel much better when I woke up. When I arrived at work on Monday morning, there were three new volunteers from Spain. I showed Nico the way to bring three of the boys to preschool so I got to talk to him for a bit. They are family friends with Maria, the owner, so they are working mornings at Amantaní for about a month. When we got back, Lupe asked me to organize ALL of the toys in the playroom which is NOT an easy task because when the toys are played with every day they get thrown into random boxes. When I started organizing, I recognized that this had not been done in a very long time so my help was definitely needed. However, it was definitely frustrating and overwhelming at certain points.

Another slight difficulty that came about was trying to understand the Spanish of the many volunteers from Spain since it’s significantly harder to understand than Spanish from Peru. At this point, I can pretty much understand everything when it is spoken directly to me, but when they talk amongst themselves it’s hard for me to even understand a word. The first time I experienced them talking amongst themselves near me I was definitely frustrated and disheartened since I really have sensed a huge improvement in my Spanish. For example, now I can understand pretty much every word that my host family says to me. I was very far from this just under a month ago. However, a huge room for improvement remains. I want to keep pushing myself to keep improving during the remainder of my time here.

I went to bed early again on Monday night in hopes of waking up without a headache, but that did not happen. When I got to work the next morning, I was asked to water the plants. Maria, the owner, was very grateful for this because no one had been able to water them in a while. Even though the water made my hands go numb, I always enjoy doing work that I know needs to be done by somebody. After I finished with the plants, Lupe asked me to organize the craft closet just as I had organized the toys the day before. Similar to the bins of toys, the craft closet was a complete mess, but I recognized that it had not been dealt with in a while. As I was organizing, I came across many drawings with names on them. Lupe asked me to organize them my name and put them in binders. Although this was tedious, I thought of all my old artwork that is in my house to this day. It’s amazing that a detail so small is not forgotten at Amantaní. When the kids grow up, they’re really going to appreciate seeing their old artwork in a little portfolio.

After organizing the craft closet and making it look A LOT better than it did before, I swept and mopped the playroom. While I was sweeping, Mauricio, a 2-year old, was brought into the room and his new parents that were in the process of adopting him followed. I had the pleasure of watching them feed him for the first time and it was absolutely beautiful. They were laughing, he was laughing, and he had the undivided attention of 2 people who love him unconditionally. All of the kids at Amantaní are undeniably loved, but it reminded me that they don’t get this constant undivided attention. Adoption is truly amazing and the happiness and joy in the room on Tuesday afternoon was truly contagious and I almost got emotional as many of the employees and volunteers have. I found out later from another volunteer that because Tuesday was the first day the parents actually got to meet Mauricio, the second they saw him they both broke out into tears. Without exaggeration, watching Mauricio’s adoption was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. His parents live in Spain, and I know that he’s going to have a really great life full of laughter and love. I feel honored to have been a part of his life even for a short period of time and to have gotten to watch the joy that his adoption brought to so many people. I really hope that I get to watch another one of the kids get adopted during my time at Amantaní, but I know that this is very rare and only happens a few times a year.

I felt worse and worse and I woke up in the middle of Tuesday night with a flaming fever. Eventually I was able to fall back asleep, and I woke up the next morning without a headache but with quite a stomachache. I definitely contemplated going to work since I never like to admit to myself that I’m not feeling 100%. (Fun fact: I never called out of Panera and I’m pretty sure I worked one of my shifts with a double ear infection one time…) Anyway, I finally committed to a day of rest. I knew I made the right decision when I ate half a piece of toast and threw it up (sorry for the details). I hadn’t missed home until I was lying in bed with a fever and a stomachache. Unfortunately, I missed Katy and Vivian’s birthday celebration, which I was pretty disappointed about.

I went to bed at 8 PM and the next morning I woke up definitely not feeling 100% but feeling much better. I went to work and went straight to watering the plants. I was also able to set into a mini routine that I followed again on Friday and hope that I get used to. After watering the plants, I did dishes in the kitchen to help Antonia, the cook. Then, I helped her make the 9:30 snack, went to the park with the kids, helped with lunch, and finally picked up Adrian and Jossue from school. I hope that this becomes my routine. As much as I recognized that the playroom and craft closet needed to be worked on, it was hard for me to have to continuously have to ask what needed to be done. I wanted to feel constantly useful and was worried that I would have to continue asking what to do for the rest of my time at Amantaní. However, my daily routine definitely has a lot of flexibility, which I can recognize and see the importance of.

Overall, I’m absolutely loving and treasuring every moment I get to spend with the kids even though it can be extremely frustrating at times when they refuse to sit or come or eat. A hug from one of them never fails to make my day. One funny story that put a smile on my face was when I wore my Duke University Equestrian Team shirt with a blue horse on in and Jossue was absolutely fascinated by the “azul caballo.” I get to pick Adrian up from school everyday. One day, his friend said to him, “Chau Adrian, voy a ir con mi papi” (Bye Adrian, I’m going with my Daddy). Adrian repled, “Voy a ir con mi Mami” (I’m going with my Mommy) and pointed to me. It made me smile, but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but feel guilty when I thought about how I’m only going to be in his life for a short period of time. I couldn’t help but wonder how many different people are going to pick him up from school during his childhood.

On Thursday afternoon, I took a taxi to meet the group at San Blas. I took a taxi and had a really great conversation with the driver. I told him I was learning Spanish and a little Quechua so he started quizzing me in Quechua. I was successfully able to say, “My name is Gianna” (Gianna sutiymi) and “I’m from the United States” (Los Estados Unidosmantan kani). And…that’s about it. We then went on to have a really good conversation about discrimination against Quechua-speaking people, which I’m very interested in. He confirmed a lot of what I already knew about the shame associated with the language and the fact that parents therefore don’t want their kids to learn it. However, I did not know that the movement to “reclaim” Inca culture and start teaching Quechua in schools did not begin until only 2-3 years ago. I asked why this movement began and he told me it was because many parents currently cannot speak Quechua and realize that if their children do not learn it in school the language will die out, marking the loss of a significant piece of cusqueño culture. We started talking about how the shame attached to Quechua is similar to the shame attached to speaking Spanish or another language besides English amongst immigrant communities in the United States. It is a harsh reality that in current times in many different parts of the world people are discriminated against for the langue they speak.

When I got to San Blas, Katy and I went inside to tour the church. As I have been throughout my time in Cuzco, the beauty and the interdependence of religion and culture overwhelmed me. I later found out that my host parents were married in the church of San Blas. It must have been a beautiful wedding.

We’ve been trying to make the most of our boletos turisticos (tourist tickets) because they only last 10 days. On Friday, we went to El Museo Historico Regional. My favorite part was seeing the pottery displayed from the Marcavalle period because it was 1000 B.C. It amazed me that pottery from so long ago was right in front of me. I was also glad that I went to the museum on that particular day because later that evening I went to a free show titled “El Inca Garcilaso y Los Coentarios Reales de los Incas.” I’m glad that I was able to watch the show already knowing background about the myth of the first Incas rising from Lago Titicaca and the significance of Garcilaso, being the first person to write Inca history for descdendants of the Incas. On Saturday morning, we went on a tour of Maras, Moray, and the salt mines. On Saturday night, a few of us went to the plaza de armas to watch traditional dances for the upcoming Festival of the Sun and Cuzco Day. My host mom and brother dance every year. It was very interesting to watch how invested my mom was in costume making. She had been working on the costumes all week. Dance is a beautiful lens into Peruvian culture and specifically cusqueños culture.

On Sunday, we met in the plaza de armas for our city tour. We toured the Cuzco Cathedral first and although I had been there already, I learned a lot from the tour. I loved how our guide kept emphasizing the importance of the 2 religions of Peru: the Inca religion and the Catholic religion. We then visited Qoricanca, the Temple of the Sun, and 3 Inca ruins: Qenqo, Saqsaywama, and Tambomachay.

Yesterday morning, I woke up feeling much better than I have felt in a very long time. I was so grateful to wake up feeling like myself. I enjoyed work and following my routine so much more feeling healthy. My biggest difficulties at work so far have definitely been the language barrier with the Spanish volunteers, not being able to settle into a routine right away, and my health. Unfortunately, I can’t control my health. Overall, I’m really enjoying my work and settling into a routine has definitely impacted this. I constantly feel pressure to be doing something to make the lives of the employees easier and in the back of my mind, I feel a bit guilty for only getting to watch the kids grow up for 2 months, but I’m very happy and excited for what is to come. I definitely want to continue building relationships with everyone at Amantaní, which I previously stated as my main goal. I know that this comes with time and patience. I also want to work on taking my time with my work and living in the moment when I’m at Amantaní.

One last thing I’d like to comment and reflect on is my host family. They are so caring and have gone out of their way for me many times. One time I mentioned to my mom that I like Italian food so she surprised me by making ravioli. Also, just yesterday I accidentally told her I had class at 3 instead of 4 and she knocked on my door very worried at 3:15. I’m so appreciative to have a family and a home in Cuzco.

To summarize, I’ve definitely had my share of ups and downs in the past 2 weeks. However, I am enjoying learning about effective volunteer work while contextualizing it in the complex political situation of Peru. I love the way that this program focuses on getting to know people for who they are and building relationships. I love the humbling nature of the work I am doing. I love doing everyday work to contribute a small slice of a bigger picture at Amantaní. I’m definitely putting into practice what I have learned in a classroom while evaluating volunteer work I have done in the past – my intention when I applied to this program. I am really seeing the value of experiencing the world through a different lens as a volunteer and even as a tourist. Spanish is definitely not easy and I could really use a bagel, pasta, or some mint chocolate ice cream, but I’m grateful for caring host family, a meaningful job with a well-established routine yet room for flexibility, and a Duke Engage family.

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