Written by Shauna Bell, former Linguistic Horizons Internship in Peru program participant!
A perspective is only as valid as the experience itself. When Peru called my name, I answered, ready to discover a view of my own. My friends and family said I must be crazy for choosing Peru. They thought it would be too dangerous. I was never the girl who feared traveling. However as I arrived at the airport, ready to leave the comfort of home with nothing but a carry-on suitcase and a backpack I panicked. I could not help but wonder should I have listened to my family and friends?
After 24 hours of travel, from sea level to 10,000 feet elevation, I landed in Cusco, Peru. When I landed and first saw the city, I knew in my heart that this was where I was supposed to be. After a 45 minute drive, I reached Urubamba. For the next four weeks I would live there with a group of strangers. When I arrived, one of the other interns said to me, “Shauna, the two days before you got to Peru we felt like something was missing, then you arrived and you completed us.” I know it sounds corny; but, I realized then I was not alone, and without having to search, Peru blessed us with this family. It seemed that my fellow interns and I belonged here. This would be the beginning of a life-changing experience. From building relationships, exploring cultural diversity and being the backbone of a nonprofit for local indigenous women, the outcome of this experience would be more than I ever dreamed.
On the second day, we traveled to Ollantaytambo in a local shared taxi or colectivo as they called it . Ollantaytambo is a town twenty minutes outside of Urubamba. It was interesting because the cities shared transportation did not leave at a scheduled time; they would go when the whole bus was filled up. Urubamba was a central location in the valley of Cusco, making it convenient for us to go to all the cities in an hour or less. We hiked up to old ruins that were above the town and meditated at the top. One day, when meditating, I realized I was in one of the most sacred places on the earth. I felt like a child seeing a strange world for the first time with fresh and hopeful eyes. I had a sense of freedom that I did not know was possible, through love and quality of life. A clock went from a necessity in daily life to a limit of the natural cycles. Time did not seem to matter like it does in the States, we flowed with the moment trusting that Peru would guide us and everything would happen exactly when it was meant to.
On the weekends, we went to the many towns throughout the valley; Cusco, Písac, Machu Picchu, Calca, Huaran, Chinchero, Yucay, Maras and Ollantaytambo to name a few. During these excursions we got to see other interns that were in different programs.
Throughout the week, I went to my internship which was only a five-minute walk from our home. The office was above a coffee shop and next to a preschool with a playground that was enclosed by a large green door. My first day I met my supervisor, Meagan. She was a small-town girl from Pennsylvania who is a five-year expat, living in Urubamba. She is also a USC graduate who was a corporate dropout after starting two successful multi-million dollar startups. Interning with her, I was a creator and an observer. We consulted each other as a team and got what was needed done but never pushed ourselves too far. I had the freedom to learn to listen to my body when it told me to not to work so hard and Megan respected and encouraged that. When we felt uninspired, we took a break. We would sit outside and listen to the birds chirp, watch the trees sway in the wind, and you could almost always find a rainbow on the horizon after it rained. In brief, Megan taught me the value of reciprocity in the indigenous Peruvian culture to give and receive equally. The balanced and mutual exchange taking place within ourselves, other beings, and most importantly with mother nature always appreciating the gift of life she gives us.
The Peruvian farmers I worked with for my internship in Peru comprised of six women from Urubamba. They were all mothers from 30 to 60 years of age who had previous careers as nurses, cosmetologists, teachers, and government workers. Ten years ago a Peruvian engineer visited the community to share the health and environmental dangers of using chemical sprays and pesticides. Even though the city had moved away from natural and traditional farming methods, the women knew it was the right thing to do for their community, their families and their land, Mother Earth, Pachamama.
The woman started with tiny plots to feed their families healthier food yet little by little their farms grew. The original thirty farmers dropped to six in the Sacred Valley, and through incredible difficulty rehabbing their land, learning the independent business and working with the municipality to share and educating the community of the importance of healthy soil and healthy people, they remained. Their small market stands were pushed to the back of the primary market, in a low traffic area next to the meat products because the vendors in the main market found their practices threatening to their own beliefs and ideas. Nevertheless, outsiders and westerners would search high and low for their high quality veggies. Their passion, perseverance, and compassion showed as they stayed unified and continued to grow their farms, their families and their community.
Throughout my internship in Peru, I used my creative passion for the women and the earth to build a baseline for the nonprofit designed to help sustain and protect all walks of life. Specifically through organic sustainable farming and building a bridge between the expats and local communities. Interning for a nonprofit in the first few months of operation was challenging to say the least. I had to start by creating a spreadsheet of all the orders and donations from the very beginning. In addition, I built a client list including; names, contact information, city, number of baskets bought and the size, first and most recent basket ordered, profit made, donations, and preference on veggies. The data collected allowed us to follow-up more efficiently with the customers and create a better understanding of where we were succeeding and where we could improve. Consequently, the feedback gathered helped our order numbers and positive reviews increased each week.
Every Wednesday I designed an inspirational and thoughtful Facebook post to drive in the expats from around the Sacred Valley that desperately craved their veggie baskets. The organization was previously solely working through Facebook to receive orders and communicate with customers, which was inconvenient especially with the language barrier. Once I completed the client list, FAQ, created the order form, and compiled the photos from working on the farm, I had what I need to create the outline for the organization’s website. Learning to build a website was extremely beneficial and something I know I will be able to use in the future.
My goal going into this internship was to learn about compost and sustainable organic farming; instead, I gained so much more. We were not able to expand on the compost outreach program due to language barriers and time constraints; however, working on the families’ farms seeing firsthand the true nature and love for this hard work the women endure was incredibly humbling.
One of the mothers, Luisa, cooked us dinner after we worked in her garden all day as a sign of reciprocity, she felt obligated even after we told her it was not necessary. At dinner she taught me about how they use the moon cycle to get the best harvest when planting their seeds. Each seed followed its own pattern with the moon, they even had a chart of the moon cycle for every day of the year. The night before the full moon they plant the most seeds because the moon’s gravitational pull affects the moisture in the soil pulling it toward the surface improving germination and blessing them with an abundant harvest. This knowledge, passed down by their ancestors has connected their people and the natural world for centuries. This is only one of many stories that put me in awe at the relationship these women had with their mother earth and respect they had to protect it.
When I started this internship, the concept was all laid out on paper. I helped put the plan into action and support these women feed their families while also educating the locals and expats about the importance of their food source. I got to be an integral part of building a nonprofit from the bottom up in a foreign country. During the first two weeks I had these fantastic interns surrounding me and making Peru feel like home. Then after their program ended and they left, I had the chance to discover Peru as an individual. Each week was different, overwhelming, and humbling. I am thankful for the family I made and the growth I underwent. The experience was more than a requirement to fulfill for graduation; it was a gift and gave me a new outlook on life. I can never fully put my experience into words although if I had not taken the leap to travel to Urubamba my connection, willingness, and respect for the natural world would not be as vast as it is today.
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