How do I begin to describe my two months studying, volunteering, and living in Peru? I came to Cusco, Peru without clear expectations, excited and nervous about my first time being abroad on my own. As I look back on my experience, I am filled with joy and appreciation for the countless priceless memories I made. I’d like to try and reflect on my time in Peru through the lens of Positive Psychology, focusing on my experience volunteering.Besides the nostalgia I feel for everything wonderful about Peru—the friends I made, the amazing Inca culture, the delicious food—as I cleaned my room upon my return, I was struck by how much my experience in Peru has changed me. I wanted to get rid of all my old clothes, jewelry, books, etc., realizing how little I really need and how much these things would be appreciated by someone else. Specifically, I desperately wished I could send practically everything in my room back to Peru, to the Casa Acogida/Virgin Natividad, a detention home for young girls pulled off the street for prostitution.
I volunteered at Virgin Natividad for one month, arriving every afternoon to the joyful welcome of eleven girls who each kissed me on the cheek to say hello. Before meeting the girls, I anticipated that working with them would be more difficult, that they would be more hardened to the world. Instead, every time I came, I felt their joyful appreciation for my presence. They would affectionately take me by the arm, and we’d play volleyball, make jewelry, or just sit and talk. Some days I felt restless because I felt like I wasn’t doing anything to make an impact with the girls; I had expected to talk with them about the difficulties of their past, to listen to their stories of running away from home or being sold into prostitution by their broken families—but their pasts rarely came up.
On our last day at Virgin Natividad, another InterExchange volunteer, Jana, and I organized a Christmas party for the girls with music, cake, ice cream, and individualized gifts. We mixed up the presents and had each girl say something nice about the girl whose present they were holding before giving it to her. Watching the teary exchanges, I realized what my purpose there really was. Volunteers usually only stay with the girls for a month, and that is hardly enough time to create the trust needed for them to open up about their pasts and their struggles. In fact, the girls didn’t need me to rehash or make sense of their past, because they are remarkably resilient and live in the present. What they needed from me, and what they actually give so generously, are love and friendship. Listening to their thoughtful words of appreciation for each other as they exchanged gifts, I was struck by the depths of their affection for one another. And as they presented Jana and I with large, handmade cards to thank us for the month that we spent with them, I was struck by their affection and appreciation for us.All the times that I thought my presence there was ineffective, just by being there and being a friend, it mattered to them. Now I realize how much the presence of past volunteers endures at Virgin Natividad. There are physical traces—all of the girls were clothed in donations from past volunteers. There are memories—I remember one spunky thirteen-year-old, Sonya, who showed me her photo album with pride, pointing out past volunteers and telling me about each person with care. There are continuing friendships—when a past volunteer would call the house, all the girls would shriek with excitement and run to take turns talking to her.
When I was at Virgin Natividad, I used to marvel at how giving and generous these other volunteers were, to donate their clothes, their resources, and their continued time over the phone. But when I left Peru, I left a huge bag of clothes and other items that I had brought with me from the US at Virgin Natividad. When I got back home to Hawaii, I immediately uploaded the hundred photos or so that I had taken with the girls, and had them printed and shipped to Peru. I’m going to get a phone card to call them. Because now I realize why I, like other past volunteers, will make such an effort to stay in touch with the girls and give them photos, clothes, and whatever else I can.
It is not because I am such a wonderful or generous person, but because I receive so much from them in return, more than I could ever give. Their love and affection when I call, just like on the first day I arrived. Renewed appreciation for my life and the things I am fortunate to have, after seeing their immense gratitude to receive things I can easily afford to give away. Greater perspective on what it means to struggle in life and how resilient one can be in the face of poverty and prostitution. Awareness that friendship and companionship sustains people, and that you can make a difference in unexpected ways. Without conscious awareness of its benefits, the girls practice the strengths of gratitude and love so freely, and I believe that these strengths are the foundation of the resilience that allows them to carry on living so cheerfully in a detention house, separated from their families and homes.
Peru is a wonderful and rich place, full of natural resources, spectacular and diverse tourist attractions, delicious food, and wonderfully warm and loving people. It is also very complicated and harsh; in two months I witnessed many manifestations of chronic environmental, economic, social, and political problems. However, through my conversations with my host family, taxi drivers, teachers at the Spanish school, and local friends, I have an impression about what it’s like to really live in Peru. I’m sure that it’s an incomplete picture, but it’s one that broadened my outlook on what it means to live a good life and has changed how I will live in the future.
I brought back from Peru great friendships, memories, and impressions of how I can incorporate the things that I loved about Peruvian culture into my life. I love how families in Cusco always eat lunch together, beginning with a soup, then a main course and always accompanied by a fresh drink or followed by dessert. I love the way that my host mother always kissed her husband hello when he came home for lunch and how the couples in Peru generally seemed to sustain more romance and passion in their relationships than their American counterparts. I love how often Peruvian families get together and how close they stay, and how they teach their babies to dance salsa.
I left Peru anxious to go back very soon, to see more of the diverse landscape and learn even more about the wonderful culture. My time in Peru was a priceless treasure that will stay with me forever, and not only because it was my first time being abroad on my own. I think that I gained so much from this experience because I was able to really immerse myself in another culture and thus broaden my conception of what I want in the future and how my life can affect other people.
I recently came across a new book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, by Eric Weiner, which caught my attention for being part travelogue and part personal-discovery memoir, with the words “positive psychology” thrown in on the inside jacket cover. As I set out for more travels—India at the end of this month, possibly Spain in March, and Argentina in August—I want to read this book as I try to refine my jumbled ideas on what it means to approach Positive Psychology from a cross-cultural perspective, and how traveling, with its natural aptitude for peak experience and mindfulness, contributes to our growth and well-being.
Weiner, E. (2009). The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. New York: Twelve.
Campesinas del Cusco courtesy of Maurizio Costanza
Machu Picchu courtesy of Pedro Sezekeley