The little round sign above the door told me I was at the right place: Aldea Yanapay – Otra Forma de Vivir. A voice approached from behind as I searched for the right buzzer.
“Are you here to volunteer?” It was as much an eager welcome as a question.
“I just came by to see the after-school program,” I started to respond, but it suddenly no longer seemed necessary to give a calculated, uncommitted answer. Her unfeigned enthusiasm was already convincing me that this would be worthwhile.
My breathing was still noticeably labored as I followed her through the doorway into an open courtyard. I had only been in the thin Andean air of Cusco since the previous morning and despite two months of living in Peru; I had not abandoned my New York City sidewalk pace when I followed the rising streets from the center of town.
My first month had been spent as a volunteer based in Piura, an energetic city in the country’s northern coastal desert. Each day an over-packed combi van brought me the twenty-five kilometers out to Altos de los Mores. I took a moto-taxi that jolted me through the impoverished community growing tenaciously from the dust and sand, to the school where I taught English to the fourth and the sixth graders. The kids were eager and responsive. I witnessed third world poverty and was beginning to develop the insight I had hoped for. However each day questions resurfaced in my mind. Was I really helping? What could I offer to these children in my short stay that might improve their lives and their community? Was this the best investment of my time and energy?
Just outside of Cusco’s center, weary façades begin to shed their paint to reveal the earthen material beneath, and once even rows of terra cotta roof tiles now meander down to sagging eaves. It was in such a courtyard where Becky and I introduced ourselves over the squeaks of cuyes (guinea pigs) which were seemingly overrunning the house on the left. A few kids in school uniforms followed us through the doorway, pushing their way past each other. They paused to greet us – an exchange of kisses with the girls and quick but sincere handshakes from the boys – then raced across the uneven stone path and disappeared past the far corner into the school. Reports I had read by former volunteers boasted about the warmth of the kids and volunteers at the Yanapay School, and I could already see that their superlatives were not an exaggeration. Here I was already the familiar “profe,” – teach’ – and I hadn’t even entered the school!