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Taking up the challenge

Jennifer Tridgell is a GLP student at Macquarie University. She is currently undertaking a month-long volunteering project in Peru as part of PACE International's 'Peru's Challenge' Project. This project aims to build schools, educate local people and assist the community in becoming self-sustainable. Over the coming weeks Jennifer will be posting new updates on this blog about her journey. For more information about PACE and if you're interested in going on your own international adventure please visit the PACE website at

Fifteen Macquarie PACE students from different backgrounds, degrees and experiences have ventured to the historical capital of Latin America, Cusco. For one month, they will work with a local NGO, Peru’s Challenge, in the community school of Quilla Huata to teach, finish constructing a classroom and, ultimately, help the village to become sustainable.

From the moment our plane dipped through clouds enshrouding the Andean peaks, Cusco had me breathless. Yes, the altitude may have contributed somewhat, but this red-brick city nestled at 3300 metres above sea level is something else. For the next month, this will be home. For fourteen other Macquarie students, our lovely team leader Lana and me, participating in Peru’s Challenge is an exhilarating opportunity to explore South America, face cultural barriers and collaborate with the local people.

Never going to tire of waking up to this stunning view from the volunteer house

Peru, from the brutal 16th Century colonisation by the Spanish Conquistadors to the modern day, has borne witness to clashes and convergence between Spanish and Incan cultures. Like the perfectly-aligned stones in Incan walls being used as the foundation for Spanish Catholic churches in Cusco, Peruvian culture cannot be understood without appreciating both. Local communities like Quilla Huata speak both the local language of Quecha and national language of Spanish, and practice both traditional weaving handicrafts and the religious teachings of a country that is 81% Roman Catholic.

Working in the community will be a moment to experience traditional agrarian life, as well as calling for heightened cultural sensitivity. Whether this requires wearing clothes that cover the knees and shoulders or taking a moment to consider others perspectives, it all helps to build trust and collaborate closer with the community.

The gang in front of the classroom that we will be completing

Orientation and cultural adjustment have taken a few days, particularly with altitude sickness, water-borne diseases and the majority of the group speaking limited Spanish. This language barrier will be overcome by daily interaction with the locals and the four hours of Spanish lessons each week at the volunteer house. If all else fails, mime and interpretative dance work wonders. Nausea, breathlessness and fatigue are common symptoms of high altitude, but these have already subsided. The main ongoing concern is remembering to sterilise hands before meals, not eating street food and brushing my toothbrush in bottled water. Two of our teammates have already been admitted to the medical clinic for treatment, but they made a speedy recovery overnight.

Team brainstorm about what kind of team we want to be

As the first couple of days were dedicated to rest and recovery in the volunteer house, we got to know each other very quickly. By Day Two, Krista described us as, “a family.” Everyone, from the other Macquarie students to our incredibly talented chefs Angelica and Romero, is so lovely, personable and committed to the program. When we discussed what we wanted to be remembered for as a group in the first team meeting, we came up with terms like, “supportive,” “hard-working” and “enthusiastic.” Sharing leadership roles was important to everyone, so we divided group responsibilities into House, Security, Morale and Health teams. For example, Team Morale encourages enthusiasm in the group by performing random acts of kindness like buying flowers and giving hugs. Sharing responsibility and supporting one another will make this the best possible experience.

Hugs and confetti from the Quilla Huata community to welcome us

In Quilla Huata school, we are going to be working on health and hygiene, construction and teaching. Selvy, the co-founder of Peru’s Challenge, school children and community representatives welcomed us warmly, hugging us and sprinkling colourful confetti on our heads. Having met the community and been touched by their reception, we threw ourselves into the work. The priority is finishing the classroom that the last Macquarie University contingent started. Construction initially involved stripping bundles of bamboo, nailing it down as roof insulation and evening out the floor. Not being so fond of heights, I spent most time with the bamboo and shovelling dirt. Needless to say, we’ll all be very fit and ready by the time we have to climb Machu Picchu.

Criselda helping to nail down bamboo on the roof rafters

Until next time, adios amigos!

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