I wanted to go somewhere new. I needed to go somewhere new. The school year was draining me of all of my energy and focus and I knew that I needed to get away from my normal routine. I had been searching for months for the right opportunity, and in October I officially signed up to volunteer in Peru with UBelong during my winter break. I didn’t know what to expect, and there were many times in those next few months that I debated calling up my UBelong Mentor to tell her that I had changed my mind and would be staying in the United States. But I knew that this was something I needed to do. I needed to take a risk and do something new and exciting instead of sitting around at home all winter doing nothing. I had travelled to other countries a few times before, but never for more than two weeks and never completely on my own. I was terrified, but looking back, I am so glad that I decided to take this trip and I can’t wait for my next opportunity to travel.
I spent 5 weeks in Cusco, Peru, where I volunteered at a shelter of about 15 girls ages 12-18. All of these girls had been sexually abused and, as a result, were taken away from their families by the state and placed in the shelter. Their families either had to take the time to prove to the state that they were safe and could be trusted to have their daughters back again, or the girls would just sit in the shelter until they turned 18 and were released back into the world. They had so little in the shelter, and what they did have was shared among the girls. They were rarely allowed to leave the shelter, which the women in charge said was because they didn’t want the girls to try to escape. While it was very sad to see how these girls had to live, I loved spending time with them every morning. They were all such wonderful and unique girls who I know have the potential to do amazing things in life. I wish I could have stayed longer with them. 5 weeks is nice, but it isn’t going to make a lasting impact on their lives. I wanted to help them, I wanted to do so much more to give them better lives, but as a random volunteer from America, there wasn’t much I could do in that sense. So I used the time that I did have with them to try to make things more fun, teach them about the things that I enjoyed doing, and help them see how great they are.
The other volunteers that lived in the hostel with me were placed at other projects, like nursing homes, day care centers for kids, and centers for children with disabilities. They came from all around the United States and the rest of the world – from Texas to Germany to Australia to New Hampshire, we spanned the globe. Some of my fondest memories were simply spending time with them, whether it be haggling prices in the markets, befriending a group of wild dogs, or buying too many empanadas at the grocery store. I experienced so many amazing things with them – one weekend we went to a part of the Amazon called Tambopata, where we ziplined through the trees and road boats across the river in search of caymans. We went to the Salineras de Maras, giant salt mines that were stunning from up close and afar. We visited tons of ruins, including the most famous of them all: Machu Picchu. We were a family, and each time a new volunteer checked into the hostel, they instantly became a new family member as well. I remember feeling so nervous before my trip, wondering whether the other volunteers would be nice or whether there would even be any other volunteers there at the same time as me. I ended up meeting a group of amazing people who taught me so many things, and I know I will always look back at our time together and smile.
I know that soon enough people will get tired of hearing about my adventures. My friends will roll their eyes at the mention of Peru and I will repeat the same stories again and again, trying to hold onto things that are now part of the past. The other volunteers and I will move on with our lives. The inside jokes will fade from our memories, and our tongues will forget the taste of yoguis on a warm evening in the Plaza. The girls that I spent my mornings with will become attached to new volunteers, and I will become just another “Miss” that left them forever. I am the type of person who does not handle change very well, so having such an amazing experience and then having to go back to my normal life in Delaware has been a difficult adjustment for me. And while I wish I could go back to those nights of eating alpaca burgers and rapping in the hostel lobby, I know that I will eventually be able to move on and take the things that I learned from my trip with me. Traveling to Peru has helped me become more confident in myself and curious about the world around me. I have decided that I want to take time off after graduating from college to travel around the world and see what else is out there. I feel like I am moving forward with a new perspective on life, as cheesy as that sounds, and I will always be grateful for the experiences that I’ve had this winter.