At the beginning of the summer, I was filled with excitement and curiosity—I was to volunteer in the Peruvian Andes for eight weeks, working with young students at a local school. In addition to the thrill of journeying to the other side of the equator for the first time, I was expecting eight weeks of challenging but extremely rewarding work. Little did I know it would turn out to be so, so much more than that.
After just one week in Cusco, Peru, I had already been thrown into something much bigger than I had anticipated. While working with second graders at a public Catholic school might sound pretty tame, in reality it was anything but. Less than two hours after my first day in the classroom began, the teacher explained that we were going to make art projects for their papitas for Father’s Day, prompting one girl—the sweetest little girl with the kindest eyes I’d ever seen—to raise her hand and say, in Spanish, “But I hate my dad. He doesn’t like me.”
“Yeah!” One boy piped in. “What if our dads don’t want us? Why should I give him a present if he doesn’t like me? I barely ever see him. One day, when he got home, all he did was yell at me and when my mom told him to stop, he started to yell at her. He’s always very angry.”
My heart twisted in my chest as I heard this—these were seven-year-olds, children who had greeted me with a great, enthusiastic, “Buenos días profesora Coo-enn!” when I walked through the door. And here they were telling us, with no reason to believe that it wasn’t completely normal, that their fathers didn’t love them. And while it’s not uncommon for young children to think that their parents don’t love them—maybe Mom didn’t buy you that teddy bear you wanted, prompting a brief period where you kept heavily hinting that you were going to pack up your Lisa Frank notebook and run away—these kids declared it with such earnestness, and with such unfazed honesty, that it was hard not to feel deep grief and sympathy for them—for what could I possibly do to help them? The teacher and I locked eyes; mine full of shock and sorrow, hers full of a steely determination. “I want you all to know that you are loved,” she stated firmly and evenly. “In one way or another, we are all loved.” The children nodded their heads and whispered “Si” and “Es cierto” to one another, while I looked on with a bittersweet smile.
One of the boys, Austin, made it his mission to help me learn Quechua. He said we could “trade languages”—if I helped him learn English, he’d teach me some of his favorite words from home. Each day before recess he counted proudly to ten in English for me, struggling a bit with “eight,” before giggling and fleeing out the door, bashful but delighted of what he’d learned. I later came to learn that Austin lived outside of the city in a neighboring valley. He took a “combi”—a van-like bus with shoddy brakes and always-cheerful drivers—through the winding roads to school each day. In his house, his primary language was Quechua, but at school, the kids were instructed in Spanish. And here was seven-year-old Austin, ready to take on a third language because he lived in a home where his parents had received next-to no education, and only spoke Quechua— and were therefore unable to break out of the traditional roles of farming and agriculture and into the higher-paying jobs in Cusco. He told me how his older brother had bragged to him that he was the best English speaker in the countryside, and that one day he’d buy his own house. Austin, his chest puffed out, informed me that his brother was mistaken. “Aprenderé más que mi hermano,” he said. “I will learn more than my brother.” Austin knew, in one form or another, that to make it in his world, learning and language was the way to escape the cycle of poverty in which his family was trapped. And in some ways, the same could be said for me. Listening to Austin and learning from him opened my eyes to the way he lived, and gave me such a deep appreciation for the determined, light-hearted way that he tackled every strange vowel and new word, one day at a time.
Every day, the students had new and interesting questions about my life, which I tried to shoot back at them as best I could. “What is your house like in the US?” “Is the US big?” “Do you have birds in the US?” “Is New York in the US?” “Is that where you live?”
When I explained that there are fifty states in America, all a little different, they took pride in knowing that I came from the mountains like them. While my pale skin, freckles, and green eyes often threw them for a loop, they seemed to take comfort in knowing that I lived in a small town, surrounded by nature, and did not have my own swimming pool, something that they thought all Americans had. But they were perplexed by my lack of children—or husband for that matter—and the fact that I was a woman, twenty, and still did not fully know what I wanted to do with my life. One boy, Pohl, told me that he had been planning his future for a long time now—at the ripe age of seven, he knew that he needed to have a plan if he wanted to make a name for himself. In a country where formal education often ends with your teenage years, and social mobility is even harder than it is in the US, Pohl knew that he had to take the initiative if he wanted to move out of the only world he had ever known. He told me that when he’s twenty-five, he is going to move to Lima to make more money for his family. And when he’s forty years old, he wants to study outer space. “Porque es muy importante, ¿no?” “Sí,” I agreed. “Muy, muy importante.”
While Pohl’s dreams begin at age forty after a life of working to support his family and going to university for as long as possible, some of the students’ dreams begin and end in Cusco. For many of the girls, marrying young and becoming mothers is as far as their aspirations extend (hence the concern for me and my current state of affairs). I’d been telling them that women are able to do all sorts of things—become teachers, doctors, engineers, scientists, and so much more—and they seemed a little perplexed by this idea, wondering how it fit into the blueprint that they’d been given for most of their lives. But there were still some who asked me how to say “enfermera” in English, and “la policia,” among others. And of course it didn’t hurt to have a twenty-year-old gringa from the mountains in their classroom telling them all about how fun university is, and how amazing it is to learn about and see things in real life that truly inspire you.
When the children had an open house of sorts to showcase their accomplishments—Día de Logros—I met and spoke with a number of their parents, getting to know more about the children's’ life at home and what it is like to be a parent in Peru. While some came from families who were relatively well off—doctors and dentists, or workers in the tourist industry—others were still struggling to make a living for themselves and their families. One young woman, who later told me that she was only twenty-five, spoke to me about how lucky I was to be able to travel and to take advantage of every opportunity I got. She went on to tell me how she became pregnant with her first child at age 17, after which she was not able to accomplish everything that she had wanted to do with her life before she started a family. Now, she has three kids: the middle child was a student in my class, and the youngest was just eight months old. She was very tired and sleepy during the presentations, and so told me, rather apologetically, that it was because she worked night shifts at one of the hotels in Cusco. She worked long hours, from nine at night until six the next day; then she had to go home and take care of the kids while her husband was away at work. It was a hard life, she said, but she loved her kids, so being tired was worth it if it meant a better life for them. She asked about my life—did I have a job yet, if so what was it? I told her that I was still in school, but worked some odd jobs on the side to help my parents pay for tuition. She became very excited and happy for me—“Stay in school as long as you can! It is a wonderful thing to be educated like this!”
She was so very right—time and again, this work made me realize that many of us are so much more fortunate than others can even imagine being. And with this realization comes the responsibility to share this knowledge with others, to try to help in any way possible. It’s not fair that this mother should be held back simply by the circumstances of her birth, yet all she can do is be happy that I, a visitor in her country, am able to enjoy the kind of lifestyle that was never within her reach. It’s a sobering feeling to say the least, and one that I still struggle to understand—I deeply want for her to be able to travel, to see the world, to get a good night’s sleep more than once in a blue moon. While for now all I can do is help her child grow and learn the best I can, there is still so much more to be done to help those in situations like this.
Back in the classroom, Pohl told me that there are whole worlds out there that no one has even found yet. He said that outer space is so cool because even when he’s forty there will still be new planets for him to discover. I nodded in agreement, and realized that in the thirty-three years that it will take for his dream to come true, I’ll have probably had the privilege and extreme luck to experience and take part in more than I would care to admit to young Pohl—something I still feel guilty about, and something that I can never again take for granted. While Pohl still has decades to realize his dreams, I have a spot in a comfortable home, at a prestigious university, and a relatively safe and secure future ahead of me—all within a few years’ reach. I told Pohl that he needs to study hard and to always ask questions—of and about me, my home, and my culture; and of and about this world that he and his classmates will inherit. And as for me, I hope to keep learning from him and his friends and family—to understand, if nothing else, how extremely lucky I am for my place in the world, and to realize that in travelling, and right here back at home, we need to look past the pretty pictures and dig deeper—to learn about the incredible people we share this planet with.
Because every time I came into school and saw the students’ frostbitten hands and sun-chapped faces, I saw nothing but love and hope in their smiles. And it’s this vibrancy and love for life that keeps them going; that keeps us all going. So much had been accomplished in that beautiful country, but there are still miles and miles to go.
© 2014 Princeton Traveler