Instead of talking about the specific things we experienced in Cuzco, I thought I'd reflect on the volunteer experience in general. I know many of the other volunteers can speak more eloquently about what we experienced and accomplished in Cuzco.
Why would one volunteer for a trip like this? For me, it was a combination of adventure travel and doing something positive. It is kind of a payback for the luck of where and when I was born. Five years ago, I decided I wanted to start volunteering instead of just contributing monetarily to the causes that I felt were important. So in 2000, my wife and I resigned from our jobs and joined the U.S. Peace Corps. We spent two years in Belize, mainly teaching computer literacy to Belizean elementary school teachers. This turned out to be a great experience and made me more open to other volunteer opportunities. So when I heard about the chance to volunteer in Cuzco, Peru, I was excited about the prospect. I love to travel, so coupling travel with volunteering was a very appealing opportunity.
As with any volunteer venture, one feels much better about himself as a result. It is a feeling that may surprise you with respect to its intensity and effect on your life. Of course, the principal result of your volunteering is that you are helping someone. Aside from the specific assistance you are providing, I believe North Americans need to get out in the world, not only to experience other people and cultures, but also to have them experience you. This a main premise of the Peace Corps, promoting a better understanding between Americans and other people of the world.
Was this particular volunteer vacation difficult? It was hard and it was easy. There were challenging moments and not everything went well, but overall it was a wonderful life-changing event for me. Traveling to developing countries provides a perspective on how you live as well as how others live. Learning about another culture, not as a tourist, but as an active participant is a wonderful experience. Most people who return from volunteering in developing countries will talk about how they will have a greater sense of appreciation for the lives they lead. While I wholeheartedly agree with this, the thing that stands out to me is that people can be happy without many of the materialistic things we deem as necessary in North America.
It may seem difficult at first to do something like what our group did. However, it is just a matter of making that initial switchover to a "here I am, what can I do" frame of mind. From then on, it is easier than you would think. You need to be flexible and patient. You have to be prepared to do what is necessary, not what you think you should be doing. Be prepared to chop wood and carry water. One of the moments that I will never forget occurred after about two weeks, when we had a kind of group down time. The group was starting to complain about things such as food, curfew, and the frustration of things happening too slowly. But these are the things that teach us lessons. During this period one of the volunteers called her father and talked about being homesick. He told her "it is not supposed to be easy when you help people. Do not even think about coming home early."
I would have to say that one of the important things that helped me through this experience was our great group of volunteers. I was the oldest member of the group by more than ten years, but I learned so much from the others and was inspired by their contributions. We were a very diverse group, but each person brought important skills and energy to the tasks at hand.
I would heartily recommend volunteer vacations to individuals or even families. Of course, inspiring others to become citizens of the world is the purpose of "Journeys of the Heart." I think everyone should help the community in which they live, but volunteer vacations in other countries can be a unique and amazing addition to your life.
I remember the ending of a Martin Luther King Day holiday speech I heard many, many years ago concerning a call to activism. I think it applies to volunteering. It goes something like:
You can't do everything, but you can do something.
If you can do something, then you should do something.
If you should do something, then do something.