So sang The Grateful Dead, and in some ways, methinks Jerry Garcia and Co. were onto something. For while I’ve thankfully been deprived of many of the potential punches that can be thrown an international volunteer’s way, adjusting to a new country is always difficult at first. A few cases in point:
-After a vivid flight from Miami to Lima, in which my 6`4″ frame was sandwiched between two considerably shorter people, I arrived in Peru on the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 29, a very tired man. I call the journey vivid, because the Peruvian woman seated next to me spent the duration of the flight shifting and turning in the quest for a perfect sleeping position that proved elusive. Her inability to sleep made for a long night of my wondering what else my karma had in store for me.
I got my answer when the airline informed me that my guitar was MIA. I say MIA, because while my guitar might have still been in MIAmi, the airline representatives couldn’t tell me with any degree of certainty where it was, making it Missing In Action.
-Having obtained a minor in Spanish in college, I expected the language aspect of my foreign experience to come quite easily. Wrong-o. If one can believe it, listening to my Spanish professor (the one who looked like Gene Wilder) slowly tell me what would be on my exams is different from attempting to keep order in a cafeteria full of school children. At one point, I realized that instead of telling students to stop throwing food, I had been telling them not to clean.
-No matter how in shape you are or how strong your stomach is, the combination of living at 10,000 feet and eating a consistent barrage of rice and potatoes will take their toll on the stomach. At the end of my second week, I excitedly messaged a few friends to let them know that the side effects of my dietary troubles seemed to have passed. Unfortunately, my elation was premature. Something I ate or drank–probably chicha, the fermented corn-beverage I stupidly bought from a street vendor–had me spending more time in the bathroom than I would have liked to the following Sunday.
-It’s been hard to avoid a general feeling of being in over my head and not up to what lies before me. Shortly before my arrival in Peru, I learned that I will be teaching English to high school students. In some cases, English is their third language (supposedly the most difficult to learn) and in almost all cases, it is an idiom they hardly know. The greater problem, however, is that I am quite simply unqualified to teach, at least by the standards I expected of my educators in the U.S. One of the volunteers who has already lived here for a year let me lead a review session for one of his classes. After 80 minutes of botched Spanish, students capitalizing on my ignorance of the rule preventing them from going to the bathroom after recess and failed attempts at stopping the kids from hitting their classmates on the head, I had a few questions regarding the Jesuit Volunteer Corps’ confidence in my abilities.
Thus, there have been a few downers in these first few weeks. But St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, encouraged his companions to look not only for such desolations but also the consolations in their lives. So what have the consolations been? There have been many, but I think they can collectively be summed up as generosity.
When Susan, my fellow first-year volunteer and I, finally landed after our aforementioned journey, we were welcomed with lavishly-decorated posters by two of the volunteers we would be joining. Since then, we’ve encountered almost nothing but graciousness. One day, a woman I had never met saw us passing by her house and ushered us in to try some corn she had prepared. Padre Oscar, the Jesuit who works in Andahuaylillas and the surrounding area, makes a point of speaking to us in English in order to give us a Spanish break. The mother of the host family I have been staying with for the past week insists on feeding me beyond capacity and refusing any kitchen assistance I offer. And as their signs indicated, the second-year volunteers have consistently gone out of their way to make us feel at home and part of their community.
I’m trying not to suffer from any illusions about the difficulties I’ll face in the next two years: challenges at my work site, homesickness, low supplies of Pepto Bismol, struggles living in community, etc. But the people here have made these things seem a little more manageable and more importantly, have made me feel like they’re glad I came.