Thursday, 10 May 2012

Lessons learned by Lucy


The sights, sounds and spirit of Latin America were calling me back.  Having spent time in Mexico I was desperate to get back to that side of the world from the drizzly UK.  But backpacking didn’t really appeal.  I wanted to spend some time in a place, to be part of a community and to do something fulfilling that would help others and myself.  So I decided to volunteer.  I persuaded my boyfriend Ed to come with me and after comparing numerous volunteer options all over South America we eventually settled on Otra Cosa.  It offered a wide choice of projects in which we would both be able to use existing skills and develop new ones and it seemed to be a well-run and successful organisation.  It was an added bonus that we would be living in the traditional fishing community of Huanchaco with its year-round sunshine and kilometres of sandy beach.  

I have worked as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) Teacher for about 2.5 years so the Otra Cosa project which appealed to me was the EFL Co-Ordinator role.  HELP English is the branch of OCN which provides free English classes in school and community settings in Huanchaco and surrounding towns and it would be my job to organise and develop these classes. 

Through very efficient contact from OCN staff Emily and Najin, our project roles were finalised and our accommodation arranged – we were to live in the OCN volunteer house – and in February we arrived in Huanchaco.  Our first day as official OCN volunteers coincided with a project tour.  All the volunteers (about 25 of us) piled into a bus and with Emily and Najin as designated tour guides, complete with microphones, we visited 8 different projects that OCN is involved with. 

The tour was a real eye-opener and great insight into some of the valuable work that OCN is doing.  Particularly prominent memories for me include the Puesto de Salud in Huanchaquito which caters for the health of an entire town on a budget of 100 soles (about 35 dollars) per month.  Also the El Milagro project which reaches out to a community who have set up home on a rubbish dump as it provides them with a source of income.  Driving into El Milagro and seeing how these families live was quite a shock and it is somewhat humbling to know that there are people out there who are willing to help them. 

The project tour fell on a Friday so we had the weekend to settle in to Huanchaco life before starting our projects the following Monday.  Living in the volunteer house meant we were in the hub of the OC social life with a stream of people coming and going.  This was a little overwhelming at first but it turned out to be a great way to get to know the other volunteers and make new friends and OCN does seem to attract a certain breed of fantastic people!  Our first Friday in the volunteer house was a good example of OCN’s lively social aspect with a full-house for a volunteer despedida.  Saturday was the first of many laid-back Huanchaco beach days and on Sunday a group of volunteers including myself and Ed set out to climb Cerro de Campana, the rocky hill that looms over Huanchaco to the north.  But that’s a story for another blog! 

My EFL Co-Ordinator work was based in the Otra Cosa office.  This was the first time I had worked in an office one floor above my bedroom, adorned with Justin Bieber posters  and with such entertaining chat from my colleagues. It was a very pleasant working atmosphere and, despite the unconventional set-up, I managed to get some work done.  During my 2 months as EFL Co-Ordinator I made a start on bringing some structure to HELP English.   I used knowledge gained in my previous EFL work to develop curriculums for the children’s and adult classes and also made a series of lesson plans and gathered materials and activities to help future volunteer teachers. 

In addition to my office work I also taught classes.  On Monday – Thursday I spent one hour per day at Las Lomas Primary School and on Tuesday – Thursday at 4.30 – 7pm I had adult classes at Huanchaco Library. 

My experience at Las Lomas school was exactly that – an experience!  Las Lomas is a deprived community and the operation of the school differed dramatically to what I was accustomed to in the UK.  The school has no running water (((????))), very limited materials and a different system of rules and discipline in place which meant classes could sometimes be a little chaotic to say the least!  I was also limited by my lack of Spanish and had to urgently learn some common commands – sit down, listen, stop trying to kill each other etc!  And even then it was questionable whether the kids would listen to my commands, correct or not.  But there were positive aspects too.  The kids are very sweet and affectionate with each other and with the teachers. I was always greeted with hugs and kisses.  Also the teachers who worked in the school in these difficult conditions were an inspiration.  They had patience and humour and just the right balance between kindness and strictness.  And the classes weren’t always chaos.  When the children learned something and enjoyed themselves it was very rewarding. 

My adult classes at the library were an entirely different story. Aside from the obvious lack of discipline issues (adults rarely jump on tables and pull each other’s hair!) the classes were easy and enjoyable and that was down to the students.  Although some didn’t have a great level of English they were hard-working, enthusiastic and fun.  In class we talked about everything from cake to politics, education to salsa music.  The students learned new grammatical structures, vocabulary and increased in confidence when it came to speaking and conversing in English. Getting to know my library students and helping them to learn was one of the highlights of my volunteer experience. 

Life as an OC volunteer in Huanchaco wasn’t all about work.  Free time activities included studying Spanish, trips to Trujillo and the nearby archaeological sights of Chan Chan and Huaca del Sol, yoga, games nights and Latin dance classes.  And of course there is always lots of food to be sampled and socialising to be done!   Surf is always up in Huanchaco and watching the ‘surfistas’ cruising the waves was another favourite pastime.  My own attempts on a board mostly consisted of toppling awkwardly into the water but the few times I did manage to stay standing and ride a wave to the shore gave me a taste for it. One day............... 

Living in Huanchaco, although sometimes in a bit of a gringo bubble, was also a good introduction to Peruvian life and culture.  During our stay we witnessed Carnaval, a vibrant and colourful procession and fiesta the likes of which is very lacking in the UK.  Also ‘El Palo’ – a traditional event that sees people old and young indulging in paint-throwing, tree-climbing and plenty of eating, drinking and dancing.  And there were the quirky elements of day to day life – the sound of the bread man on his bicycle, the ‘hola amigos’ from complete strangers, the chanting of the bus and collectivo workers, the bargain menu lunches and fantastic fruit juices and the inescapable musical soundtrack.  Huanchaco life has a flavour all of its own. 

Overall my time with OC allowed me to contribute to something worthwhile, make new friends from all over the world, gain experience for my future career, learn about a different culture and provided me with a myriad of happy memories.  The experience will stay with me and I would recommend it to anyone. 

Click here to apply and find out more about volunteering as an EFL Co-ordinator or English teacher.                                                                                              

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