Ceiling insulation, plastering and cement already complete, a cheer sounded as the final nail was hammered into the floorboards. Finishing the classroom was a moment of real achievement for our group as we had accomplished one of our core goals and ahead of schedule at that. From March, there will be a third classroom in use at Quilla Huata school, allowing 40 more schoolchildren to attend. This classroom will become yet another of the many distinctive blue and yellow buildings of Peru’s Challenge that already dot the Andean countryside.
Within Quilla Huata, these blue and yellow buildings include flower greenhouses, guinea pig farms and the Women’s Workshop. It was what made Peru’s Challenge special for me: this holistic, community-oriented approach to sustainable development. With a steady, non-seasonal income from greenhouses or handicrafts, the parents can afford better clothes, food and housing. Consequently, the children are not required to spend as long in the fields, allowing them to remain in school longer and have a better shot at the future.
The visit to the Women’s Workshop in the second week really stayed with me, particularly as I eventually hope to work with Indigenous women and development. Built in the last few years, the Workshop is a safe space for the women of the community to weave, sew and knit beautiful, brightly-coloured llama wares. Money from selling their handicrafts provides a steady income for the women, which is not dependent upon seasonal produce or weather. Their partners also respect their ability to support the family financially, with the incidence of domestic violence dropping from 96% to 42% in 2009. Given the opportunity to buy scarves, tablecloths and beanies and, above all, to support the women, the Macquarie volunteers did not disappoint.
Undoubtedly, one of the hardest moments of the project was the farewell. Just like the welcome ceremony; the schoolchildren, their mothers and our fellow construction workers turned out to show their thanks. Confetti was sprinkled, bunches of flowers were presented and lots of hugs were exchanged. The main difference to the welcome was the connection we now share with the people here, whether it was banter with the construction workers, cutting fruit with the mothers or playing soccer with the kids. This friendship was reciprocated; instead of calling us ‘gringos,’ which means ‘foreigners,’ the children now call us ‘amigos.’
It has been a month of fabulous new experiences and adventures. Catching the crowded local bus into town and navigating around the Cusco streets to our favourite cafes, we no longer felt like tourists. However, the ‘special’ prices of souvenirs for us at the markets reminded us that we were not quite locals. Bargaining down the price of bulk llama socks, salsa dancing on Friday nights and trying new foods like guinea pig (a delicacy, which tastes a lot like chicken) are moments that I will always remember.
In the final group reflection session, we were asked, “What has this project meant to you? What makes the work of Peru’s Challenge so important?” Simply, it has shown me the enormous potential for hope. The people of Quilla Huata, the volunteers and everyone with Peru’s Challenge all believe that this is a chance for the entire community to rediscover itself and build a more sustainable, healthier future. When the mini-bus drew away from the village school for the last time, I was not so much sad that this program has ended as grateful that I had this opportunity to meet such wonderful, inspiring people. Dear blog readers, if you ever get the chance to do a PACE International program, seize the moment and never look back.