Las Caritas De La Selva: My First Mission Trip in the Peruvian Amazon
How do I summarize an experience to a country that has impacted my life on so many levels? Well it hasn't been easy, to say the least. A precursor to what you are about to read is that this post has been one of the toughest I've written so far. Not only did I battle a terrible cold upon my return, while playing catch up with work and school, but I also struggled with summarizing an experience of a lifetime.
When you are a comfortable middle class American girl who spends a few days in an indigenous village in the Peruvian Amazon, how do you come back the same? How do you even begin to articulate what you experienced: the challenges, the lessons learned and the relationships formed?
This mission trip was an experience unlike any other. It was straight up difficult.. it challenged me mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. I'll be honest, there were times I just wanted to come home. But it was still one of the most impacting and unforgettable trips of my life. And in the end, I left really loving Peru: the people, the food, the culture, their hospitality, etc.. I'm excited to share with readers, as best I can, my trip...and the adventure volunteering abroad entailed.
Volunteering abroad to assist a desolate and impoverished region has always been a huge desire of mine. As a business student with a concentration in emerging and developing markets, I am passionate about working with (and in) the third world. So when my friend Cindy approached me with the opportunity to go to Peru, through a mission trip organized by her mom's church, I quickly hopped on-board! The plan was to travel to an indigenous village and minister to, play with, love on, learn about and experience life with the Amazonian children. Prior to leaving, we raised money and collectively bought food, clothing, toys, and clean water to bring to the village. I was beyond excited ( a little scared) but mostly ecstatic to be going on such a life changing trip.
We began our journey by making the 10 hour flight to Lima, Peru's capital. The following day, we immediately flew out to a city called Pucallpa, that borders the amazon jungle. Once in Pucallpa, we visited the local market to buy all of the supplies we would take to the village. From Pucallpa, we then took an 8 hour boat trip up an Amazonian river to the village. I was pretty exhausted by all the traveling - it was literally "a mission" to get there lol.
As we arrived, the children were waiting for us excitedly along the river bank. I picked up my luggage and handed it off the boar to one of the men helping us. The "dock" (if you want to call it that) entailed balancing/walking off a long slab of plywood, not firmly secured to either the boat or mountainside. I made my way into the village by following the kids who quickly became our little tour guides (it was cute how they took control, excited to show us their village). I was immediately taken aback by the natural beauty I was surrounded with: vivid greenery and a stunning sunset reminiscent of a national geographic magazine.
Upon arriving, the children led us to the village's only school-house (where we would be sleeping) to drop off our stuff. Aside from straw/grass/wood huts, the village only contained that one school, a makeshift soccer field and a small church. After placing our stuff inside the school, it was time to eat dinner. That first night we had a stew that was made with fresh fish caught that evening and a side of delicious plantain. Once we finished, we proceeded into the church as the locals welcomed us with a ceremony that consisted of traditional singing and dancing customary to the village.
The next couple of days were full of fun, laughter, kisses, hugs, snuggles, questions and lots of learning (for both the kids and ourselves).
As soon as the children were a little more comfortable with us, they began playing with our hair, touching our finger nails, holding our hands all in awe of these strange visitors and their unique cleanliness. They asked to see pictures of our hometowns from our iphones (most of which had never seen an iphone before) and to teach them words in english, like dog or house.
The volunteer group had 16 total individuals; 6 of us had the privilege of working with the kids. Cindy is a teacher back in the States so she was in charge of coming up with games, activities and lesson plans while the remaining 5 of us followed her lead. We had between 100 and 150 kids with us everyday.
Being in the village only a couple of days, I would have never imagined how attached we would become to these kids. I also didn't think we were going to be so blessed by their strength and joy. We went into the village, with the belief that we would be helping them out (with clothes, food, clean water, etc.) but I felt like I left so much more encouraged by their lives and their individual stories. These kids had absolutely nothing. They were living in the middle of an excruciatingly hot jungle, many without shoes and walking on dirt roads, maybe two or three outfits each (max.) with no access to electricity or running water (there was only one communal water pump that provided residents with unsanitary water from the river). They didn't have toys to play with, books to read, Ipads to play games on, board games to pass the time or TV to watch at night. They literally only had their imaginations and mother nature, and they were so content with that.
And we were to. Surprisingly, none of us missed the technology we are all so addicted to back home. It was actually nice to spend a few days unplugged...to reacquaint ourselves with life before the techie takeover.
Despite their lack of resources (and opportunity) these kids NEVER complained, scarcely cried and seldom disobeyed. Put simply, they were such well-behaved kids who were so happy. During my time there, I couldn't help but feel guilty for the amount of times I caught myself complaining about the heat or mosquito bites. In fact, I realized how often I only think about myself, whether on that trip or at home. I came to the ugly realization of my own self-absorption: something I promised myself I'd work on from that moment forward. Not only did these kids never complain, but they were also very responsible and took good care of one another. Many of the children didn't have both parents in their lives, and I was touched at how much they loved and supported each other.
Especially because there were certain cultural norms/ traditions within the village that were haunting and incredibly sad. Incest is very much still practiced amongst the villagers, which causes many of the children to have deformities and other illnesses. Additionally, once the young girls enter into puberty, they are free for the men in the village to take them away from their families and make them their wives (some, as young as 9 years old). After finding all of this out, I had no idea how these children remained so resilient. My heart went out to these kids and I was instantly grateful to live in a country where children are protected and kept safe. I wondered what the heck would happen to these young girls that I had grown attached to...It wasn't fair that I got to go home, unafraid of being sold as a bride to some random man while these girls' futures were so uncertain.
After all (as I came to know the kids more and more) the only real difference that differentiated them from American children was geographic location. Because they were born in an indigenous village in the Peruvian Amazon, instead of in the San Francisco Bay Area, they had to succumb to hurtful and traumatizing practices in addition to having less opportunity and educational/financial resources.. It just isn't fair.
But! One of the last nights in the village, we had a service in the church and one of the female pastors (Sandra) that was with us shared her testimony and gave an incredible sermon on sexual exploitation/ unethical practices. At the end of her sermon she asked if any of the villagers wanted prayer and at least 100 women went up! Even more surprising,though, was that there was a handful of men that went up as well. One man even approached her and thanked Sandra for the sermon she preached. He told her that he knew many of the traditions and practices of the village were not morally right and were hurting their women, mothers and the familial unit. He was happy that she was able to expose such secretive and harmful issues that needed to be discussed openly.
Although these are just baby steps, our volunteer group left knowing that change is near for the village.. and that we would be back to continue to speak hope, life and freedom to these men and women.
Note: Although incest and child brides are serious issues and practices looked down upon (and rightly so) by the first world, keep in mind that these traditions are just that: beliefs that have been passed down for literally hundreds and even thousands of years (when the Spaniards came to invade Peru, they never reached the Amazon- which is why so much of the indigenous culture is still intact). These practices are as normal and natural to them as eating and sleeping. Of course this does not make them right, but they simply don't know any better. Which is why we went to the village, to humbly and kindly share how much these norms are hurting their youth/families.
Also, never once did I ever feel scared, unsafe or "hit on" by any of the men in the village. They were incredibly respectful and kind throughout our whole stay (I thought this was worth noting). I still love and respect both the women and men of the village, and believe that change can and will occur (and is wanted!) . It won't occur forcefully, but lovingly through education and respect shared and received over time.
I also want to talk a little about our awesome guide, Aberardo. It was only through him that we were able to enter the village in the first place (indigenous villages don't usually allow foreign visitors, you have to enter with either a member or someone they know and trust). Aberardo was literally awesome! He was our interpreter (he spoke the indigenous language- Chipibo) and host, making sure we were taken care of, well fed and safe.
Aberardo is very humble and hardworking. In Peru, he is a pastor to a small church in Pucallpa (most of his attendees are children under the age of 13) and makes a livelihood by making artisanal beaded necklaces and key chains. He is married and has 3 young children: Ruth, Deborah and Eli. His son Eli, unfortunately is very sick. At only 5 years old, Eli can't eat, walk, talk or play on his own. He doesn't really have any control over his body and relies on his family to do simple everyday activities, like eating and going to the bathroom. Because he cannot eat, he must be fed through a plastic tube that goes through his belly button. Eli also needs a special type of milk (it's the only thing he can eat/drink that provides him with the necessary nutrients to survive) that costs $500.00 American dollars.
Although Aberardo was clearly in need of finances, he never once asked any volunteer for money, or for help in general. In fact, he was intent on serving us the entire trip. Before we left, he even gave each member of our group a key chain and beaded necklace (a total of 36 pieces ), embarrassed that he wasn't able to send us off with more extravagant gifts.I was so humbled by this gesture. Buying milk that is $500.00 dollars is expensive for Americans, I can't even imagine how Aberardo comes up with the finances to support Eli using soles (the Peruvian currency: 3 soles equates to about one dollar). If he would of sold those 36 pieces, the money could have contributed to his son's milk or simply fed the rest of his family for weeks. But despite his circumstances, he was still kind enough to give abundantly out of the already little he had.
My experiences with both Aberardo and the children have humbled me so much. It's difficult spending 10 days with such resilient, strong but simple people and coming back unaffected.
Overall, my trip taught me (maybe, reminded me) that I don't have a heart for missions because of my love for travel. I choose to volunteer abroad because I love God, and I love His people (allllllll of them). And if I have to journey around the world to poverty-stricken villages (that few people will ever visit, or care to even visit) to spread His love and impact/help those who truly need it most, then I will do it.
A picture from our day stop in Lima
My challenge, now to you, is to allow that passion that keeps tugging at your heart to ignite. I wholeheartedly believe we are all called for a greater purpose (whether your passion is social justice, environmental restoration, animal activism etc.) You are never too young, too old, too rich, or too poor to make a difference. We are meant to do more than make a ton of money and self-indulge. Step outside your realm of comfort and step into your "truer self" that is aching to make a difference and change the world.
The Missions Team
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you." John 15:12