Danielle in Peru

Danielle is a junior majoring in Spanish in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, with minors in elementary education and psychology. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Internship for summer 2013 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU, and also is participating in SMU’s Engaged Learning program. She is volunteering in a kindergarten for underprivileged children in Cuzco, Peru.

Exploring Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

As I sat at the lunch table in the tiny adobe home of an indigenous family on the Island of Amantaní on Lake Titicaca, I had an internal conversation with myself as to whether I should eat the purple potatoes sitting on the plate in front of me. Digestive issues are common for foreigners in Peru. and these potatoes still seemed to have dirt on them. Although the house where I would spend one night was technically a “certified hostel” for tourists visiting the lake, the thought of possibly digesting parasites or other bacteria that would make me sick was a difficult thought to face. I also took into consideration that this would be the only food I would have for a while and that I did not want to be disrespectful and not eat the food that the family had kindly prepared for me. In the end, I ate my meal and was fortunate enough not to get sick — my friends on the other hand, who were staying with a family up the hill, had a different fate….

Aymara woman selling textiles on the Island of Uros

Aymara woman selling textiles on the Island of Uros

Lake Titicaca was honestly one of the most gorgeous landscapes I’ve been lucky enough to experience not only in Peru, but in my life. To get to the lake, I took an 8-hour bus ride to the city of Puno, where I boarded a boat to spend one night and two days exploring the floating islands and the lake itself. The first island where we stopped was the floating island of Uros. There, I learned about the process of making a floating island and about the 5 indigenous families that inhabit the island today. Although extremely poor, the few families on this island seem to survive solely off of the profits they make from tourists. The Aymara heritage of these families dates back to the times of the Incas, if not earlier. The babies and the children on the island run around in stained garments and without shoes. Many also have sunburned cheeks from living so close to the sun at an altitude close to 13,000 feet, which is 2,000 feet above Cuzco.

After Uros, we boarded the boat to head to the Island of Amantaní (this was not a tiny floating island like Uros) where we would spend the night. Once we arrived at the island, my “host mom” for the night came to show us the way to her house. The island was a mountain, and all of the houses were built on the side of the mountain. Carrying our heavy backpacks and water, we followed our host mom up the mountain and then down across streams and up again until finally we arrived at the house. Not only had we hiked the mountain with our backpacks, the high altitude had added another challenge.

In the doorway of my hostel (notice the size of the door!)

At the house, we were pleasantly surprised with our comfortable rooms, but there were still unexpected aspects to our adventure. The house had no running water, but this wasn’t a huge problem for me because I was accustomed to brushing my teeth with bottled water in order to prevent getting ill from the water in Cuzco. However, considering that I’m 5’8½” tall, the greatest challenge for me was remembering to duck my head whenever I passed through a doorway. Generally, Peruvians are much shorter than I am and this fact became especially noticeable. Although I spent less than 24 hours in this house, I probably hit my head (hard!) about 5 times.

Aside from exploring and seeing the lake, one of the most meaningful parts of my experience was talking with the daughter of my host family. When she was preparing our meal, I went into the kitchen to ask if there was anything I could do to help. She appreciated my offer but told me that I could just have a seat. We started talking and I learned that she is 19 years old and has an 18-month-old son. She explained that she has four siblings, but they all went to Lima (the capital of Peru) to work. She had so many questions for me, from “What time is it in the US?” to “What are you studying at your university?” She had been on track to study at a nearby university, but the birth of her son prevented her from pursuing this goal.

My conversation with her provided such a great cultural exchange and opportunity for me to learn about the lives of an indigenous family through direct interaction. Our conversation ended when dinner was ready and she asked me to get my friends from our room for dinner. I sat down at the table thinking about what we had discussed, and again had another internal conversation about whether I should eat my second serving of potatoes for the day.


View of the sunset over Lake Titicaca from the Island of Amantaní

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‘Shuff up!’

Recently, the teacher in the 4-year-old classroom at Kukuli has been trying to incorporate as much English as possible in every aspect of the kindergarten. The other day the kids were goofing off as usual, and the teacher quickly said “Cállense,” which means “Be quiet” in Spanish. She then started saying “Shuff up, Shuff up,” and she looked at me to clarify that she was directly translating “Cállense” into English. I realized that she was attempting to say, “Shut up”; I explained that in the U.S. we wouldn’t use this phrase with children and instead the command would be “Be quiet.”

Although in the moment, I thought the teacher’s confusion was a little funny, the truth of the matter is that knowing English is the key to success for many Peruvians. Because Cuzco is such a huge tourist destination, being bilingual greatly enables one’s chance of obtaining a job, from being a tour guide to working in a hotel near the main plaza. Unfortunately, though, it seems that most students do not learn English unless they have the opportunity to study at the university, which requires a very demanding entrance exam that many people take over and over, yet never pass.

With the time that I’ve spent at the kindergarten, I’ve been able to easily incorporate the colors and the body parts into the daily curriculum of the students. As the children walk into the classroom in the morning, they usually play with puzzles or blocks, or they draw. When I’m playing with the kids in the morning, I teach them the colors that can be seen on their toys. In this way, they don’t have to “sit still” and listen to me teach the colors; instead I make it a game when I play with them. Usually, if I’m helping one student with a puzzle and start quizzing him on the colors, other students nearby will come over and also want to learn. As time has passed, the children have been able to name the colors with much more accuracy. And not only have they learned the colors in English, I’m sad to say that many of them previously did not know some of the colors in Spanish. In this way, for some students, our morning playtime has been educational in both Spanish and English.

Additionally, I’ve taught the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” to help them learn the body parts. At first they were very timid about singing and pronouncing the words. With practice, though, they’ve gotten much more comfortable singing the songs and are able to make it almost through the entire song by themselves. The trickiest part is “Eyes and ears and mouth and nose…” I think this is because all of these parts are very close together on the face and this line is only sung once in the song. However, I’ve been very excited with their progress and hope that by my last day, they’ll be able to sing the entire song without my help. For now, though, we’ll keep practicing.

Because the ability to speak English is truly key for success in Cuzco, I wish I were going to be here for a longer time so that I could teach more English to my students. I can only hope that the curriculum and standards for the public school system change so that all students will have the opportunities they deserve to successfully learn English and pursue successful careers.

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A typical morning in Cuzco

Although I set an alarm every night before I go to bed, I don’t wake up to the “typical iphone alarm.” Instead, I usually wake up to either exploding fireworks or never-ending car alarms. As an American, I generally associate fireworks with holidays such as July 4th or New Year’s. In Cuzco, though, it is common to hear fireworks in the morning, in the middle of the day, or at night. When I first arrived, I heard fireworks during the day and was afraid because I thought I heard gunshots. However, I learned quickly that the noise was simply Peruvians “having fun.”

The coca leaves on the breakfast table that I put in my tea every morning.

The coca leaves on the breakfast table that I put in my tea every morning.

On the other hand, there are days like today when I woke up to the sound of nearby car alarms. I’ve been trying to figure out why car alarms go off so often here, but I think it’s because the security systems are just more sensitive to both surrounding noise and touch. For example, car alarms commonly sound as a result of fireworks or a gentle touch on a locked car.

After waking up, I go down for breakfast at the volunteer house, where I sit at an outdoor table bundled up in my winter clothes. With breakfast every morning I drink a cup of tea with coca leaves, which is a very typical drink of Cuzco. Many tourists wonder about the similarities between coca leaves and cocaine, but they are entirely different. Coca leaves have been shown to be effective remedies for many illnesses, but especially in curing altitude sickness and promoting healthy digestion. Additionally, coca leaves have played a significant role in the Andean religions since the Incas. Peruvians commonly offer the leaves to the gods of the mountains, sun, and earth. As whole, coca is a significant part of Andean culture, from leaves, tea, candies and medicine to religion.

When I finish breakfast, I start my walk to the kindergarten. On an average walk to work, street vendors try to sell me a hat or a painting — even though I pass them multiple times daily. Occasionally when vendors try to sell me something and my response is “No gracias,” they’ll respond in English by saying “Maybe tomorrow” or “Maybe next time.” When they respond with these phrases, I can’t help but giggle a little, because I might actually buy a cheap painting off the street before I come home. In this sense, “Maybe tomorrow” is a true statement.

As I continue on my way to work, I have to cross several streets. Although it may sound strange, I’m getting better at crossing the streets in Cuzco. Here, cars have the right of way, not pedestrians. Aside from this fact, the best way I can describe how cars, taxis, and buses are driven is crazy and disorganized. This can make crossing a two-way street especially difficult. With that said, I’m learning how to cross the “Peruvian way” instead of standing like a tourist forever on one side of the road while locals seem to cross through traffic without a thought.

A combi from the Expreso Santiago line.

A combi from the Expreso Santiago line.

Eventually, I end up at the combi stop where I wait to take the “Santa Ana” or “Expreso Santiago” line. Combis are either buses or mini vans that function as the main public transportation system in Cuzco. The combis do not have a schedule, so all I can do is arrive at the stop and wait for one of the buses to come. I’ve waited as long as 40 minutes for a combi, but I’ve also waited as short as 1 minute. Once I get in the combi, most Peruvians watch my every move, probably because foreigners never take combis. And without fail, when I pay the combi attendant with exact change, I get a look that seems to say, “How did you know how much the combi costs and where are you going?” With that said, the attendants seem to be even more surprised when I tell them that I’m getting off at “Villa Maria,” which is the combi stop closest to the kindergarten where I work. Many times, the combis will not stop unless you tell the driver that you’re getting off. In this way, by giving the driver a “heads up,” he can tell that I know where I am.

Once the driver knows that I’m getting off at Villa Maria, my last challenge is getting off of the combi. The combi drivers always seem to be in a rush, so sometimes it seems as if the combi does not come to a complete stop yet the attendant is saying to me “baja, baja, baja,” which basically translates into “get off quickly…” After getting off the combi, I’m at the top of a hill and only need to walk down a few stairs before walking into Kukuli, the kindergarten, to begin my day of work with the children.

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¡Let’s Celebrate!

A Peruvian recently told me, “We celebrate here when it’s your birthday and when it’s not your birthday!” Obviously, Peruvians like to celebrate everything. The month of June though, is especially important to Cusqueñans. June is full of daily celebrations, from groups of students dancing in colorful clothes through the Plaza de Armas to nightly parades and concerts. However, the celebrations climaxed last weekend; Friday was the festival for the winter solstice and Monday was the Inti Raymi.

Celebrations in the Plaza de Armas

On Friday, a huge parade began in the early evening and lasted until early morning. UBELONG, the program that has arranged my volunteer work, partners with Amauta Spanish School in Cuzco. Amauta had reserved a spot in the parade, so I had the opportunity to dress up and dance in the parade. The Peruvians loved watching all of us—probably because they got a kick out of foreigners wearing traditional clothes and attempting to dance the traditional dances. As we danced through the streets, they all wanted to take pictures with us. The celebration was video taped by many news stations, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to find a video online.

Piggyback races

Also, Kukuli celebrated the solstice by having all of the children’s parents come to school to participate in relay races and enjoy a home-cooked chicken and potato meal. I loved meeting all of the parents and watching them have so much fun with their children. The parents and children participated in sack races, piggyback-ride races, puzzle competitions, and blindfolded pudding-eating competitions.

After the competitions, the teachers held meetings in their classrooms to inform the parents about what the kids have been learning. In the four-year-olds’ classroom, the teacher had her students sing a song called “Mi Cuerpo” (my body), a song that I taught the students. After the students sang and danced, the teacher had the parents perform this song. When the singing and dancing ended, the teacher took the time to formally introduce me to the parents and explain the work I’m doing in the classroom.

I thought that inviting the parents to school for fun and games was such a great way to promote a school community; I can only hope that if I work at a school in the U.S. one day, I’ll be able to hold a similar kind of event and foster the same community between students, teachers, and families.

Entering the ruins at Saksaywaman

Monday, June 24, was the Inti Raymi, which means “Festival of the Sun” in Quechua, one of the indigenous languages of the Incans that is still spoken today by many in the outskirts of Cuzco. On this day, it seemed as if the entire city gathered in the Plaza de Armas to watch a ceremony dedicated to the Inti (the Sun God) and then hike up to Saksaywaman for the main ceremony, which was originated by the Incas many years ago.

Saksaywaman consists of ruins of an ancient Incan fortress. Every stone that’s part of the ruins was placed with an unbelievable amount of preciseness by the Incas, who clearly did not have the construction tools that we have today. From what I’ve heard and read, researchers are still debating how the Incas were able to move and place stones weighing more than 100 tons. And not only were the Incas able to move the stones, they also built enormous buildings and walls with them without using any kind of mortar or cement. They were able to do this because they cut the rocks so precisely that they could fit together with not even enough space for a piece of paper to fit through.

At Saksaywaman last Monday, Peruvians and tourists were all crammed together on the hill trying to find the “perfect” spot to watch the ceremony. Many locals brought lunch with them as they wanted to arrive early to get good seats, while others bought ice-cream, sandwiches, and drinks being sold by vendors.

Since both of these holidays have passed, the Plaza de Armas has been much quieter. There has been no more dancing, but a golden Inca that was brought into the plaza for the recent ceremonies remains. Aside from the cathedral and beautiful mountains that can be seen from the plaza, this new Inca has added another photo opportunity for tourists who patiently wait in line to get a personal photo with the statue. With that said, in only a few more weeks the celebrations will begin again as Cuzco and the rest of Peru celebrate their Independence Days on July 28 and 29.

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Teaching kindergarten in Cuzco

In the Andes mountains before a morning horseback ride on a day off from work.

In the Andes mountains before a morning horseback ride on a day off from work.

As I sit in bed wearing three pairs of socks, fleece pajama pants, two jackets, and a hat, I’m debating how I want to start my first blog about volunteering in a kindergarten in Cuzco, Peru. As you can probably tell from what I’m wearing, it’s freezing here at night and in the morning, and many buildings do not have heat or air-conditioning. The altitude of Cuzco is close to 11,000 feet, so during the day when the sun is shining I get sunburn, but in the shade I shiver.

Aside from the climate, it’s difficult to draw my eyes from the mountains, which form a “Kodak moment” from every direction. Whether in the morning when the sun rises or in the middle of the night when I can only see houselights, I’m constantly distracted by the mountains that surround me. I only hope that I can retain the memory of these views forever, because pictures have simply been inadequate at capturing the beauty of the landscape.

On my way to work in the morning I walk on narrow, ancient Incan streets made of stone. These roads are so narrow that sometimes when a car passes I have to stop walking and put my back against the wall behind me to avoid getting hit by the passing car. I also pass women and children in their traditional colorful dress with braided hair. Many women make a living just by posing in pictures with tourists and then asking for money afterward. I myself fell into this “tourist trap” when adorable little girls holding baby lambs came up to me and asked if I wanted to take a picture. Of course I couldn’t resist and quickly said yes; little did I know that I would be expected to pay them for the picture taken on my own camera. With that said, I would have gladly taken the picture knowing that I had to pay a few cents, because I have a hard time passing needy children on the streets.

With the children working on their morning craft

With the children working on their morning craft

When I arrive at the kindergarten, called “Kukuli,” in the morning, I immediately jump in to help the teacher with anything I can before the rest of the students wander into the classroom. The kindergarten has three classrooms total; one for three-year-olds, another for four-year-olds, and another for five-year-olds. I’ve spent most of my time in the four-year-old classroom, with 32 students and one teacher. My role in this classroom varies from teaching English, working individually with confused students, handwriting homework assignments in every notebook due to the lack of a photocopier, and performing any task that facilitates smoother classroom functioning.

One of my favorite parts of the day is “recreo” (recess), because I’m simply able to play with kids! On my first day at work, one of the kids came up to me during “recreo” and said “Cuchuchuuuu” and it didn’t take long for me to realize what he wanted to do. He anxiously stood behind me and gathered a bunch of friends in a single file line behind him to make a train with me at the front. Before I knew it, the entire kindergarten was prancing behind me in a line saying “Chuchuuuu.” They all had huge smiles on their faces, and since then, leading a train has been a regular part of my workday.

Singing the Peruvian national anthem outside the school

Singing the Peruvian national anthem outside the school

Aside from the fun I have with my students, it saddens me that many do not receive the attention they need at home or at school. For example, one of my students has special needs and has a difficult time pronouncing words and coordinating his movements. The reality is that this student’s family will probably never be able to afford to provide him the education and help necessary to cope with his disabilities. Additionally, we had a new student come into our classroom today. He was so shy that he was scared to even whisper his name to the teacher. He also seemed very hesitant to participate in any class activity. I spoke with the teacher who informed me that this student has switched schools and is very shy because his old teacher used to hit him; once I knew this information, it was very easy for me to understand his timid personality. However, learning this information actually surprised me, because from what I’ve seen, the teachers at Kukuli — the school where I work — would never hit a child.

Thus far, volunteering at Kukuli has been a rewarding experience that has allowed me to love, mentor, and teach underprivileged children as well as immerse myself in the culture, language, and educational system of Peru. I look forward to spending many more days with the children and teachers of Kukuli in the scenic mountains of Cuzco.

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