Whilst Dan struggled with being sick for an extended period of time and then got to keep cycling through some extremely scenic Andean mountains, I volunteered for six weeks at a school near Lima. If I could have changed just one thing, I would’ve moved the school into the mountains.
If you can, I would recommend you avoid cycling through Lima. The traffic is a nightmare, drivers don’t care about cyclists, the roads are full of stuff that might give your bike punctures, it’s loud and full of smog, apparently it’s very dangerous, there is hardly any green and in winter most days are gloomy. (I guess I can only speak for Lima city and Villa el Salvador, and Miraflores, the gringo suburb, is an exception). Nothing is very appealing outside, not that I had much time to go out anyway with school starting at 7.45am and ending at 6pm…
Ending up where I did was actually pure luck. After Dan was almost over his stomach sickness (who knew he would then get giardia!) I took a bus to Lima. The plan was to volunteer there at an orphanage for a month and pick up some gear and replacements, whilst Dan would make some distance. Nothing quite worked out as anticipated!
(I apologise for this very wordy blog post. Some things can’t be told with photos (especially when a good camera and the great photographer are missing) and unlike Dan, I am a writer, even if perhaps not a very good one.)
An orphanage, for a few hours
I took a night bus from Huaraz to Lima (30 soles plus 10 soles for the bike with cavassa; make sure to tell them that you have a bike and get it there early enough for them to put it on the bus first thing) and then cycled about 3 hours to Picapiedra. According to the orphanage’s website, a great deal of the volunteers’ time was spent teaching the children, so I thought that maybe they had an integrated school. As I have been thinking of going into teaching I was excited to get some teaching experience. It turned out that the volunteer positions merely consisted of looking after the kids who went to school nearby. Some volunteers had tried to set up an after school English class but the kids showed little enthusiasm and stopped coming.
I told some volunteers about my disappointment and one of them said that she knew about a school nearby that was looking for volunteers to teach English. I explained my situation to one of the leaders and took off the very same afternoon to spend the night in a hotel (much more expensive around here!).
A school, for six weeks
The next morning I anticipated the volunteer’s email with the school’s contact details. Once I had them, I phoned the school and asked whether I could come by to talk to them in person. Gloria, the director who lives in the school with her family, welcomed me when I knocked at the school’s door. I told her what had happened, that I wanted to use my time volunteering to get some teaching experience and not just babysit for a month. Lucky me, they wanted to help and took me in.
There was one other volunteer, Carolina from Chile, who was teaching all English classes by herself at that time. That meant she was teaching from 7.45 am till 6 pm every day (with a one hour lunch break). Apparently, volunteers normally only worked a few hours a day, so she had been a bit overwhelmed, but with a degree in teaching English she was very capable and handled the situation very well.
The first week was rather chaotic, mostly I had to substitute random classes (try math and psychology in Spanish without having been given any time to prepare!) or teach alongside Carolina. After my first week Carolina and I eventually split classes (I taught 5 year olds, grades 2, 3, 4, and sector 3-4-5), which allowed us both to have fewer hours. However, it didn’t help that one teacher had suddenly stopped coming and Carolina and I had to substitute her in the mornings, which stayed that way up to date.
It was a big challenge but also great experience, teaching an actual class, and teaching in such a completely different school environment. I learned a lot; I went from over-preparing and being a bit anxious and not knowing any names to knowing my students well, feeling confident, and being able to come up with material on the spot. I valued the freedom we were given to structure our lessons whichever way we wanted to. In most other countries strict curriculums don’t allow teachers much freedom (I think they do follow some kind of curriculum in all other subjects for which they have school books). No one ever checked up on me telling me off or so, which I hope speaks of trust and not of disinterest.
Challenges teachers face at this school are upmost students’ lack of discipline. Part of that might be the lack of doors. If one classroom is noisy yours is going to have a hard time to focus and is going to be noisy in return. You want to teach but half of the time you spend telling the kids to be quiet and to focus and do their work. As for the English classes, there is also a lack of consistency. It is difficult to learn anything in a continuous manner if the teachers change every few months and the next volunteer has no idea where the previous one left off (so I left information about topics covered and students’ grades for each one of my classes).
Coming to an end
Six weeks have flown by, it’s my last teaching day here (English exams today!). Timing worked out well with Dan having had the chance to make some distance without me after his sick lingering (only to be diagnosed with giardia again just a few days ago :/).
I am very grateful to have had this opportunity and experience, a big thank you to the school-family and my students!
I can’t deny though that I am very excited to leave and have some pretty views again (Dan :P) and get myself and my bike moving again – we’ve been two lazy potatoes!
If you managed to read this far, here’s your deserved break:
(a video of my oldest students (around 15 years old, photo-shy teens) dancing a ceilidh might follow, the performance might be this Sunday…)
PS: Whatever happened in the orphanage
To my surprise, a few days after I got to the school, I received an email from the volunteer that helped me find out about it. Somehow the managers of the orphanage had found out about “her helping me” and kicked her out. I emailed them explaining, like I had explained in person, that no-one made me leave or told me anything bad about the orphanage, I left because it wasn’t the right place for me but apparently, more than that was going on anyway, I just got the rock rolling. A week later, 90 per cent of all female volunteers (of which there were around 10 I think) had left and the volunteer who got kicked out due to helping me turned to the highest ranking Catholic church official in Peru to tell him about what was going on in the orphanage. Funnily enough, when I first stepped into the orphanage and met the kids that I was meant to look after (very sweet 5-year olds), I thought how nice that they had such a big family, so many brothers and sisters… But then bit by bit reality dripped through… The 5-year olds were locked in a small room all day after school (so they wouldn’t run away in the fenced garden?), no-one was allowed to drink except for some juice at breakfast and lunch (if they drank at dinner time they would wet their beds), they were forced to eat up their meals – they weren’t allowed to leave the table any earlier (I understand that they might not want to waste food but the meals were served to them so they couldn’t even decide how much they’d want in the first place), and I was told that birthdays weren’t celebrated at all, children who turned 18 just left without a word… Anyway, that’s just what I saw in a few hours, and the problems the other volunteer listed weren’t even the same. I hope that things will change for the better after that volunteer took initiative and that the children will have a good future despite a tough upbringing.