Thursday, July 13, 2017

6 Reasons I Loved Volunteering Abroad in Peru

I can still remember the feeling of getting off the airplane in Lima, Peru, where I was beginning my travels. I looked around at the huge crowd of people and I had no clue where to go. Everything was in Spanish and everyone was speaking Spanish. I followed the crowd wide-eyed and wondered, "Um, where am I supposed to go?"

At the airport before I left!
Luckily I had sat next to a really nice guy on the plane who was traveling to Lima for business. I had told him that I was 19, traveling to Peru alone, and didn't speak Spanish, and I think he thought that that was a little crazy. He probably saw me looking completely lost in the airport (to be honest I wasn't really scared, I knew I would figure it out, I just didn't really know what I was doing) and directed me in the right direction and explained how to fill out the little form I had been given. He then waited with me at the baggage claim until the person from the tour organization picked me up. Thanks guardian angel for sending him my way!

This was in 2012 and I was going on a two-week tour of Peru, then volunteering for 6 weeks in Cusco, Peru with a program called IVHQ. I would count it as one of my favourite experiences of my life thus far (notice I said one of - my two very favourite experiences of my life are marrying Matt and having Rose).

I volunteered for one week in a room in the upstairs of a police station with a deadlock on it, where kids were locked up because they were either abandoned, ran away, or had committed some minor crime. They stayed there until someone picked them up, they were sent to an orphanage, or something else was figured out for them. For the other five weeks I volunteered at an orphanage for girls.

Here are seven reasons that my trip to Peru was amazing, and why a volunteer trip might be amazing for you too! Whenever someone asks me if they think they should do a volunteer trip abroad, I can't encourage them enough - I am just so, so, so grateful for my two volunteering experiences (to Peru and Colombia) and truly believe those trips shaped my life and who I am. It's not for everyone, a lot of thought should go into it, and it should be approached with humility and the right intentions, but if something is tugging at your heart I will be the first to encourage and help anyone wanting to make a trip of their own.

I volunteered with amazing kids who will always be in my heart

The relationships I created with the kids I volunteered with are the main reason that I loved my volunteer trip. This was the purpose behind my volunteer trip - to create relationships with the people I was volunteering with, to show them love, and to help them in any way I could.

While I was volunteering at the orphanage I spent a lot of time with a girl named Judi. When I think of her, I feel a sadness in my heart because I grew to love her so much and I know that I will never see her again. She couldn't read very well for her age and absolutely loved to practice reading, and we would sit for hours taking turns reading books in Spanish. I remember one day we were just playing and laughing, pretending that we were on the beach, and she told me things about her life and I told her things about mine in our funny ways of communicating since my Spanish wasn't super good.

I still have the letters and pictures the girls drew me and I look at them every once and a while (I shouldn't do it too often, it makes me too sad!). I have so much admiration for the kids that I volunteered with. They had been through so much more than I ever will and my heart really went out to them seeing just glimpses of what they had to go through. I won't ever forget those kids and the relationships I formed with them will always be with me.

It really impacted my life for the better

I went to Peru a year and a half after I graduated from High School. I had done a year of university and then decided to take a year off to work for a semester and then go to Peru. While I was in university I was so stressed. I did fine academically, but was personally really struggling. It was a really hard time in my life - I felt so lost, had so many struggles that I didn't feel equipped to deal with, and just wasn't in a good place. I didn't know what I wanted to do, felt so many pressures (mostly self-inflicted), and felt so unhappy with myself.

If my reason for going had been to try and change my life, that would not have been a good reason to go and I wouldn't have had the right intentions behind my trip. That wasn't my reason for going, but looking back on it, this trip was an (unintentional) huge turning point in my life.

When I try to think of why this trip changed and impacted my life so much, it's hard to say because there are so many possible reasons. I would say, though, that growing a lot as a person had a big impact and I was able to carry that forward after I came home from my trip. It was also an incredible change from life back home. My focus was also on completely different things while I was there. At home, my focus was more on myself. Life was busy, fast, stressful and full of pressures. While I was volunteering my focus was not on myself, I was relieved of the pressures and judgments that can come with our society and instead had responsibilities and something to focus on that I really cared about. It also gave me a new clearer, broader perspective.

Peru also gave me a break from all the stress and problems I was having, and I saw that I could be that super happy person that I used to be who had motivation, energy, and purpose.

When I came home I won't say everything was just wonderful and I was a new me. I had changed, though, and with new confidence in myself and because of all the experiences and relationships volunteering gave me, I could handle the things thrown at me a lot better. I think I also saw what I could do in Peru, and that gave me "proof" that I could be that person at home too. I would think, "Well if I can get on a plane by myself and volunteer in a foreign country, I can do this." It also gave me proof that I could be that happy and purpose-filled person that I was while I was there. The trip served as a catalyst for me to really change and for my life to change as well.

I got to volunteer at the zoo for a day!
I formed amazing friendships and met amazing people

I am still friends with some of the other volunteers I met while I was in Peru. One awesome thing about traveling alone is that you have no person to lean on who you feel comfortable with, so you put yourself out there and that allowed me to make some amazing friendships with people I really admired.

I made one friend named Zoe and we would laugh so much and tease each other constantly. She would laugh at me for how I would eat everyone's leftovers at dinner (I was always hungry!) and I would try to imitate her British accent brutally.

On the weekends I would get to travel with the other volunteers and went on beautiful hikes in nearby towns, and got to see more of the beautiful country of Peru. One weekend when I was going to a city called Arequipa with a group of fellow volunteers, we were on a night bus where I was lying on the seat holding my backpack that was sitting on the floor of the bus. Somebody crawled under my seat, cut open my backpack, and stole my camera! It was crazy! I was sad to lose a portion of my photos but tried not to let it get to me too much, and I remember my friends being so supportive and caring so much.

I had heartfelt conversations and formed such great friendships, had so many great laughs, and felt so loved and appreciated for who I was and I also loved and appreciated the amazing people who had also come to volunteer.

I saw and experienced a place and culture that is so different than my own

Before my volunteer trip started I did a two-week tour around Peru where I got to see the most amazing sites, including the jungle, Machu Picchu, and the Inca trail. Before childbirth, hiking the Inca trail was one of the most physically difficult but rewarding things I had done. Childbirth beat it by a landslide in both areas, though ;).

After a few days of volunteering, the realization hit me that during my tour I did not see the real Peru. I saw amazing physical landscapes, but only saw such a surface version of the culture and what it was like there (even with volunteering for six weeks it was still a surface version, but I could see so much more than while just touring).

It was such a culture shock for me to live there for the little bit that I did. The crammed minivan-sized busses (called kombis) I would take to get to the orphanage with a man yelling "Baja! Baja!" and rushing you in, driving away before the door even shut. Seeing all the poverty, always being on your guard against pickpockets. It's really hard to describe how it is just so different.

For the first week I, volunteered at Policia de Familia (the police station where the kids were locked in the room upstairs). I have to admit that it was a very difficult week for me in certain ways. The kids there were often so sad, unless they were young enough to not really know what was going on. We did our best to play with them, cheer them up and keep them company. It was so heartbreaking to see and hear about their situations, though. Two of the girls I met at the police station were sent to the orphanage that I later volunteered at. Even the way the police would treat the kids was hard to watch at times. So much of what I saw made me so sad, but I think it was so good for me to see a different way of life than I have in my little bubble in Canada.

There were also so many positive things that I got to experience living in the Peruvian culture. There were so many babies everywhere, and one thing I noticed is that the babies always seemed so happy. They were always strapped to their mamas with the classic Peruvian woven fabric, and the women would go about their work and their days with their babies attached to them. I found the Spanish language to be so intriguing and became really determined to learn as much of the language as I could (every day I would sit memorizing flashcards of Spanish words, studying my little book, and took Spanish lessons while I was there. The increased communication it allowed me to have was a great motivator!). Going to mass in Spanish there was another amazing experience.

I could go on and on about the landscapes, ruins, sites, churches, and mountains, but I'll just say this - if you have the chance to visit Peru, go!

I stepped out of my comfort zone and really grew as a person

Going to Peru was definitely out of my comfort zone, and I really had to push myself and that caused me to grow a lot in my independence and confidence in myself.

I was so scared to fly on the plane alone. I was scared I would miss a flight, or mess up somehow, or fall asleep at an inopportune time (a habit of mine at the time...). Once I said goodbye to my family and walked through the doors, though, I didn't have a choice but to figure it out and rise to the occasion.

I had to navigate the streets of Cusco to find places I needed to go, and I am not a direction person. I would try to not look like a tourist, glancing down at my little map. I remember once I got caught in a downpour of rain (I went to Cusco during their rainy season) and went into a shop to wait it out. I was alone a fair bit, traveling solo, and got to have a lot of time to reflect, think, and pray, and even that alone time was out of my comfort zone.

I had to navigate a country that spoke a different language than I did (I mean I definitely tried to use my limited Spanish, but sometimes it was difficult to communicate). I was put in situations that were difficult, like Policia de Familia where sometimes the kids would just be crying and crying or standing in a corner completely terrified and you so badly wanted to find a way to comfort them. Their stories were so hard to hear, especially when it came to little kids and babies.

There was one day at the orphanage when a young woman came to bring her newborn baby to the orphanage because she wasn't well enough to take care of him. He was too young for the orphanage to take but she really didn't want them to call the police. They were trying to figure out another place for her to bring the baby when she fainted and the police were called and it was too late for the staff to do anything, and her baby wouldn't get to go where she wanted him to. This wasn't hard for me directly, but it was so hard to see and I truly cared about these people.

All the experiences I had caused my worldview to change and grow, caused me to care more deeply, and I think I became a better person for all the stretching that happened while volunteering.

I gave love and received it in return

The good that I believe I did while volunteering was to give love and truly care about the people I was volunteering with. While on my volunteer trips, I gave and received so much love in such a deep way - it's difficult to explain.

There are so many different ways to show and experience love. Volunteering gave me such a unique opportunity, it was so easy to love the kids I was volunteering with in all their vulnerability, and I felt so loved by them in such a unique way.

While I volunteering at Policia de Familia there was one teenage girl who was older than most of the others. I spent a lot of time with her and when I came to volunteer one day and she wasn't there anymore I was sad that I wouldn't be seeing her again, but glad she was able to get out. She had really not wanted to be there.

Walking to the volunteer house a few days later I heard from behind me, "Alee-see-a! Alee-see-a!" I turned around and saw her walking towards me! I was so excited to see her again. We talked for a really long time in our broken communication and I was able to learn a lot about her and also about why the different kids were in the police station, their stories were so sad.

I visited with her while I was in Peru, and because it was a unique situation we added each other on Facebook before I left so that we could keep in contact. We still keep in touch through Facebook. I see the pictures of her and the kids she has now, and we've kept in touch this whole time. I pray for her and consider her my friend in a different sort of way.

I felt so much love through the friendships I created and just the time I spent with the girls at the orphanage. I cried when I had to leave them, and I hope that they felt loved by me and through the time I spent with them as well.

To end I just want to talk about a few criticisms of volunteering abroad that I have heard, and give my take on them.

I know that volunteering abroad has been criticized for certain aspects of what's done in the developing countries (building a school that the locals could have built better and thus taking employment away from them, etc.) or certain attitudes of the westerners going to volunteer (thinking of themselves as "above" the people there, going there for a photo-op with poor/underprivileged kids, going to brag about the good they're doing, going for photos for a beauty pageant resume... I witnessed that one...).

I totally agree with some of the criticisms and I think that the volunteer organizations need to be super conscious of these potential pitfalls. I think that volunteers need to go into the situation with humility, respect, and the right intentions.

I don't think that we should write off volunteering in developing countries because some people go in with bad intentions (I think they are the minority and that most go in with good intentions) and I don't think we should discount all the good being done because some programs did more harm than good. I think that if organizations and individual volunteers are really conscious of the potential mistakes and work hard not to fall into them, volunteering in developing countries can be a truly wonderful experience for everyone involved.

While I was volunteering I had another volunteer say to me, "Why are you trying so hard Alicia? You can't change the world." He was a little rude but I wasn't that offended, my purpose for going to volunteer was to put as much effort in as I could and do the best I could so I wanted to "try hard."

I also think that's a terrible attitude to have. No, of course I'm not going to "change the world," and that definitely wasn't what I was trying to do. I wrote this in the blog from my volunteer trip and I think it's so true:

I was thinking today, if we all believed we could make a difference, the world would be a better place.

The belief that we can't make any difference just causes us not do anything. Maybe we can't make a difference in the world, but we can make a difference in someone's day, and maybe even in someone's life. So I think that the attitude that because we can't make a difference in the world means we shouldn't try to do as much good as we can for people is wrong.

It is hard to not despair and think we can't make a difference, so why try (I know I have definitely felt like this), but I think a great encouragement in this area is St. Mother Teresa.

For a great podcast episode on the topic of volunteering abroad with the right intentions:


Before writing this post I went back and read all my blog posts that I wrote during my trip to Peru, and watched the video I put together of video clips from my trip. Unfortunately, when I made the video I put a bit of background music into one part, which is copyrighted and not allowed on YouTube. So if you want to see the video just send me a message and I'll send you my Google drive link!

To pin this post, scroll over the photo below and click save:


  1. So many incredible memories, and because I know how contagious and true your joy and care for others is, I know you really did make a difference in some of those people's lives.