When is a holiday not a holiday? When it involves working and studying and throwing yourself head-first into a foreign culture and totally different economic reality.
People keep asking me how my ‘holiday’ in Peru went, and look confused when I answer that it was difficult, challenging and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. ‘But surely it was amazing?’ they ask, and it was but it was also very confronting and exhausting and demoralising at times.
I wasn’t on holidays.
I went to Peru for a month of Spanish school and volunteer work in Cusco, to reality-check an idea born of my first trip there, last year, as a tourist. An idea of living and working in Peru in sustainability management, doing something a little more hands-on to make the world a better place. Through a series of logistical dramas and local connections, I also wound up spending the month living like a working class Peruano, which certainly increased the reality value of my experience!
I spent a month dreaming of real hot water, cooking facilities, heating and having a place that was hygienically clean! A detailed post on living conditions and the reality most Peruanos face will hopefully be forthcoming, but for now let’s just say it’s not easy, and I was living in relatively cosy conditions compared to many.
There’s also a post coming about my volunteer project, and the frustrations, obstacles and immense rewards to be found in working with communities to teach sustainability and environmental management skills and try to create real, meaningful change. I learnt a lot about learned helplessness, poverty tourism, charitable entitlement and the disaster that results when external agencies try to impose their ideas of what help, resources and structures the local community needs. I didn’t achieve anything like what I set out to, but I learnt an awful lot!
Of course, spending a month entirely immersed in a foreign culture and a different language is always hard work. My Spanish may be good enough to get by in most day-to-day interactions, but not getting a rest from it was exhausting. For three weeks I started each week day with 4 hours of grammar and conversation lessons before grabbing a quick lunch and spending the afternoon trying to teach gardening and organise resources, all in Spanish. I hadn’t realised how specific the language of gardening was until I started trying to explain basic concepts like soil preparation in a different tongue! Then it was a trip home on the bus, dinner in a local cheap eatery and Spanish homework, perhaps with a catch-up with a Cusqueñan friend thrown in. All Spanish, all day, every day.
I regularly found myself appalled by the pollution and social conditions, ethically challenged by the behaviour of other well-intentioned foreigners, frustrated by language limitations, mentally exhausted at the end of each day and longing for that unobtainable proper hot shower…
The trip wasn’t easy for all those reasons, and yet none of these are the main reasons I found myself struggling and questioning if I could really do this. The thing I found hardest was finding myself completely isolated from other people who share my values and the systems that support those values:
For a month this was my reality and I really struggled with it. The problems seem so vast, so endemic and so unsurmountable I wondered if it was all a foolish idea born of naivety and idealism, was there really anything I could do? Then there were the break-throughs:
I wasn’t on holidays. I was busy testing everything I believed about the world and my place in it, about fairness, about universal values, about social equality, about the basic goodness of human beings. I was busy learning difficult lessons about who I am, what I can and should tolerate, where my limits are, and how strong and brave I can be. I spent a lot of time reminding myself to be like bamboo: strong yet flexible, bending with the forces around me yet retaining my true shape.
I went looking for a way to change the world. I learnt there is no easy way, that what I’m thinking of doing is incredibly hard and challenges me on so many levels. I learnt that more than changing the world I end up changing myself. Yet I also learnt that there is a desperate need for environmental education and advocacy in the developing world, that I have a valuable skill set and that I can make a useful contribution if I play my hand well. I can see opportunities to make a real difference to a handful of lives, and I understand that small changes ripple outwards to become much bigger. I learnt that I have a gift for finding and connecting people, no matter where I am, and that even when I’m feeling worn out, discouraged and full of doubt other people still see a contagious passion and energy in me.
I still don’t know if I’m strong enough or brave enough to make a go of it, but I do know that I’m reckless and optimistic enough to try.
Category: Adventures, Anecdotes, Education, Ethics, Institutions & infrastructure, Politics & society, Travel Tags: agriculture, developing world, entitlement culture, environmental awareness, environmentalism, food and nutrition, learning, personal growth, peru, political systems, pollution, poverty, social justice, south america, sustainability, sustainable development, trying to change the world, volunteering, working in other cultures