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A Glass Half Grey: A Reflection on Homestay Experiences

Written by Alex Yant, 2014 Peru: Mind & Body

Does the love and gratitude of a small Peruvian village outshine the darkness of language barriers, isolation, and the lack of familiar creature comforts? I struggled with this metaphor as I was thinking about my summation of our volunteering and homestay experience in Chosecani, a rural community of roughly 200 people about four hours outside of Cusco. How could I make you, the reader, understand that even though I retired to my family’s house every night with blistered fingers and sore shoulders, wanting nothing more than a good night’s sleep, that there was pleasure to be found in the experience? I soon realized I was oversimplifying things; to give an honest depiction of this volunteer project, I’d have to combine light and dark to make a hazy, muddled grey. It is though this lens that I will tell the rest of our story.

As soon as we arrived, there were those who stared and whispered “gringo” under their breath, yet most of the community welcomed us with an enthusiastic “buenos dias!” accompanied by a hearty smile. Many of these Peruvians had only closely interacted with Westerners a few weeks before, when the early summer Mind & Body group helped them complete the first half of our combined project. Thus, I didn’t take the special treatment negatively, and I felt quite welcome from the get-go.

Our mission was to enhance Chosecani’s community center, so it would be a more welcoming space for mothers and their young children (the center’s target population). We accomplished this with a few shovels and scrapers, our willpower, and Zack and Meg’s expert Spanish-speaking abilities so we could communicate with our Peruvian comrades.

Our team did not have the power tools I was used to from spending 24 years in the United States, but that actually was a nice change of pace. With these simple tools, I knew that every stroke of red paint from my brush onto the center’s floor and walls was solely reliant on my own elbow grease, and not some motor-powered appendage. It was a fully authentic experience to use just my muscles to pull up the old, worn fence and eventually replace it with log-sized “colored pencils” wrapped in wire to ward off errant bovines, who would occasionally mistake the front lawn as a giant bathroom.

After the new pencil posts had been erected, we dug holes alongside the walkway to make room for half-buried tires, which were then painted an array of inviting colors. Five other tires were placed off to the side and half-buried as well to create an obstacle course for the local kids (which of course, as oversized kids ourselves, we also had to test). The end product was vibrant and full of life. Through the collective blood and sweat of OG and Chosecani’s inhabitants, young and old, the building metamorphosized from a lifeless shell into a fully functional resource center for the town’s most vulnerable people.

Of course, the manual labor required to revitalize the community center was only half the battle, and no amount of extra muscle could have prepared me for dinnertime with one of the sweetest women I’d otherwise never really know. Our group of thirteen was split into twos and threes to live with Chosecani families, most of whom knew no English. Some even struggled with Spanish, as Quechua was their first language.

Rylan and I were matched up with Rina, a middle-aged woman who wore long braids, a colorful dress and a straw hat, her outfit characteristic of women in the countryside. Her smile could light up a room; however, this simple gesture was about all she could share with her Western guests.

My Spanish was quite poor, as was Rylan’s, and we were reliant on my Latin-American Spanish phrasebook and dictionary in order to communicate the most basic concepts. Most evenings were spent with us two North Americans muttering to each other in English, our low volume a reflection of our guilty conscience, while Rina looked on, seemingly trying to catch anything we were saying. Oh, how I wanted to include her in the conversation, especially after she single-handedly prepared all of our meals from scratch! But I just didn’t possess the necessary Spanish lexicon. While we sometimes got through to her and had a joyful moment, most of the time both parties felt quite uncomfortable. Hopefully she found my parting words genuine as I read a few pre-assembled goodbyes from the phrasebook, not wanting to deviate from the script and lose the intended meaning.

We stayed in Chosecani for five days in total, and I have to say that each one was a big challenge for me. No sugarcoating or rose-colored glasses here. As someone who’s used to flush toilets, digital distractions, and paved roads frequented by fancy four-wheeled machines, Chosecani was far outside of my comfort zone.

But life lessons never come easy, and I firmly believe people have to struggle a bit in order to truly learn. I saw how little our Peruvian family needed to be happy – an honest day’s work, a home-cooked meal, a nice chat around the dinner table, and a warm bed to retire into at sunset. They gave me these simple pleasures, and I really couldn’t ask for anything more. Though I’d never want to live their lifestyle any longer than I’d have to, my few days on the farm helped me further redefine my conception of what “matters”, and it heightened my appreciation of manual laborers who engage in back-breaking work day in and day out.

I just hope I remember how blessed I am to be alive and well when I’m surrounded by material pleasures back in the US, so I can step outside of my comfort zone again and again to become a change agent for others who aren’t as fortunate.

Alex Yant
2014 Peru: Mind & Body

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