WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN VOLUNTEERING ABROAD

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On our way traveling down through Peru to meet my sister in Cusco, Ryan and I decided we wanted to volunteer for some time before my brother and sister visited. We decided to volunteer at an isolated indigenous eco-village two hours from Huancayo in the middle of the Andes mountains. Little did we know, it would take us numerous overnight bus rides and a final three hours on a dirt road to 13,000 feet elevation just to get there. After our volunteer experiences, Ryan and I like to reflect on the lessons we gained from our time there. In this blog post, we’d like to share four important lessons that we’ve learned from our experience volunteering at the “farm.” 

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1. Don’t have expectations.

A problem that Ryan and I have been really tackling is letting go of expectations that we have of others, experiences, hostels, bus rides, countries, etc. We’ve realized when we let those expectations go, we can release our attachment to outcomes and be continuously grateful for every experience that we encounter. However, when we have too high of expectations of one another, other people, of a place or experience, we tend to be let down more easily and let that negativity take ahold of us. For this volunteer experience, we literally had no idea what we were getting into. 

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We thought we’d be working on a farm in the middle of a large village, specifically planting, harvesting, and learning about Peruvian medicinal plants, as well as interacting with the indigenous people who lived in the village. However, when we arrived, we learned that this would not be the case. Since it was winter, the plants weren’t able to grow at all. So, for the next week and a half, we collected horse and cow manure throughout the surrounding fields, broke down the manure by hand, grinder the hard clay to powder, mixed this all together and finally, patched up the house with this earthly combination. We also helped pick up the house, cooked simple veggie meals, washed the dishes, made bread each morning for breakfast, created new stone walkways, cleaned up after the chickens and their droppings, and disanfected the compost toilet (most definitely the worst of all the tasks if you ask me). 

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To say the least, Ryan and I went with totally different expectations of what this experience was going to be like. Initially, we were disappointed in this experience not meeting those expectations. However, two days into the experience, Ryan and I discussed our disappointments and ended up laughing about how wrong we had been! We laughed simply because it was easier than being disappointed the entire time. We decided we would make the most of our time there and let God show us how we could grow and learn from this unique experience. 

2. You will be uncomfortable at some point.

Trust me. This lesson is inevitable. Another reason we love volunteering during our travels is because we are always challenged in some way. We are put in situations where we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with new processes, people, and surroundings. Ryan and I love the challenge and always want to find ways where we are getting out of our comfort zones. 

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When we first arrived to this eco-village, we instantly knew we would be stepping out our comfort zones. Firstly, there wasn’t much in terms of electricity, staying warm, nor was there any running water aside from what we wash dishes and our hands with outside. We had to use a bucket compost "toilet" for all of our “business.” To make things even more uncomfortable, we were only allotted a few pieces of toilet paper a day. When we saw the inside of the house, we realized it was much smaller than we expected with only a tiny kitchen, living room space with benches covered in sheep fur to keep the seats warm, and a small bedroom with just enough room to squeeze three bunkbeds for all eight of us to sleep. Ryan and I shared a bunk bed with a mattress as thick as a small camping pad and five blankets to stay warm at night. If we didn’t have each other to lay next to for warmth, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have slept at all during my time there. 

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Because there was no running water, if we wanted to shower, we had to jump in the freezing cold river a few miles away from the house. On days that we finished early and the sun was still shining, we all decided to make the trek to the river after working with manure all day. We all quickly jumped in and washed down to get as clean as we could. To say the least, I’ve never taken a shower for granted since this experience. Whenever we decide to do something new or volunteer in an unfamiliar place, we're uncomfortable, but all things we go through in life are temporary. We've learned to truly embrace the unknown, accept the feeling of discomfort, and soak up the unique experience for what it is and how we can fully learn from it.

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3. You’re bound to learn something new.

Another reason I love traveling and volunteering is because we are always learning something new - a skill, language, other's life views or simply more about each other. While we were on the farm, one of my favorite skills I acquired was how to make bread. I love to bake, but for some reason, I never tested out my skills to make bread. Each morning, all the volunteers would wake up and get right to our different tasks in order to prepare for breakfast. Some would wash the dishes from the night before. Others would cut up fruit for a salad. My favorite chore in the morning was making bread and banana crepes. It was so easy to make the bread in the morning.

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We would get about five cups of flour and mix it with water. After mixing this concoction into small balls, we would then flatten it into round circles. Next, we would make about thirty to fifty pieces of bread for everyone. Then, it was off the frying pan. Using no oil, we simply fried the bread until it was crispy and golden on the outside. Once all of the pieces were ready, we would enjoy our breakfast of fresh bread, mixed fruit, and cantaloupe marmalade. I don’t even like cantaloupe that much, but breakfast was definitely something I looked forward to each morning. 

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I also had never patched up a house with horse manure + water + rocky earth. This was definitely a new skill that I might get to show my kids some day. They will probably run away and scream, but hey, sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty to learn the real lessons of life! 

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4. You will form community. 

Truth is, you form really quick relationships with people that you are spending all of your time and sharing close space with. When we arrived to the farm, we learned that it would be communal style living. At this particular place, we’d be performing all of our daily tasks together, sleeping in the same tiny room, sharing similar common space, and cooking all of our meals together.

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We would work from about nine in the morning until two or three in the afternoon. When our assignments were completed, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. However, most of the time, we would all hang out together. We would either venture down to the river together for a swim/rinse or we would play music, read, and write in our journals. One of my favorite days from our time there started with our normal breakfast tasks. During breakfast, conversing in both Spanish and English (so that everyone could understand), we had long talks about the indigenous people in Peru, life, what makes us happy, and how we can each play a part to make a difference in the world. The entire breakfast lasted about two hours.

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After a long, but enriching conversation, Joles and Laura (who ran this volunteer opportunity), decided that instead of working all day that we would go on a long hike to a small village and meet some other indigenous people in the nearby community. It was an amazing day filled with adventure, fresh mountain air, and wonderful conversations with these individual from across the world that we had really formed great friendships with. 

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