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Volunteering for a very different Christmas

Tessa Okell

How old are you?

I’m 25 years old.

Where was your project?

In a small town called Urubamba, in Cusco, in the Sacred Valley of Peru.

What dates did you go?

I was actually in Peru (and other countries including Bolivia, Chile and Brazil) between September 2009 to September 2010.

Why did you pick this particular project?

I chose to go away with Projects Abroad because it is the largest (and probably best) organiser of overseas volunteering and the staff really does its best to match volunteers’ skills to the needs of the partner organisations abroad. My sister volunteered in Ghana and she highly recommended the whole experience with Projects Abroad.

Why did you choose to go away over the Christmas period?

It just so happened that Christmas fell during the time I was away and it wasn’t a decision I made in order to be away for Christmas, it just happened that way! There are plenty of reasons to spend a Christmas abroad: get away from infuriating TV adverts, avoiding Christmas songs and shop displays from October, learning about Christmas and associated traditions in another country with new found friends, to learn to appreciate Christmas as a time to share and be with other people, move away from being the greedy, superficial people we tend to become in the lead-up to Christmas. It was especially interesting being in a very Catholic country (and with a fairly religious host family) as Christmas involved several trips to church and was a lot about giving thanks and being grateful for what we had. It was actually very touching and humbling to see people significantly worse off materially than the majority of people in the UK being so generous, giving and grateful when in comparison they had so much less than us.

My time abroad, especially being away during this period, really did open my eyes and I’ll certainly remember those feelings for a long, long time and hopefully I will try and remember the spirit of Christmas I found in Peru.

Did you find it difficult begin away over Christmas – did you miss family, friends etc?

I felt so welcome and wanted within my host family and with other volunteers and with Projects Abroad staff that I didn’t really find myself missing home. My family made a funny video for me to watch with their Christmas messages and it was nice to see them with their Christmas hats and all wrapped up in big coats, scarves and gloves. I made sure I spoke to my family on Christmas day so that made me feel close to home. I would’ve loved to have some snow around Christmas – that was probably the one thing I missed out on and would’ve liked to have been there for.

What was the best thing about being away over Christmas?

The best thing was probably being able to appreciate Christmas more simply and to learn another way to celebrate rather than thinking it’s just a day to eat too much, drink too much and spend too much.

What did you find difficult about the project you chose?

Just after Christmas the Sacred Valley was hit by torrential rains and the river which runs through the valley burst its banks. This led to catastrophic flooding and a huge amount of destroyed houses and crops as well as loss of lives and many injured people. This was probably the hardest part of my time away as the level of destruction was so great I just felt completely helpless. Staff and volunteers with Projects Abroad did what we could, distributing fresh food, warm boots etc and helping with the workshops for the children and women especially to come to terms with what had happened but the damage was just so immense, and the repercussions will be so devastating, that overall it was a very difficult time for people in the valley.

What did you enjoy?

I enjoyed so much about my time in Peru. I cannot recommend enough living in another country and a completely different culture. It completely opens you up to new experiences and removes any judgements or preconceptions you may have about a certain place or group of people. Projects Abroad offer people the chance to work in another country alongside local professionals and this really is a unique opportunity and one which can be exceedingly beneficial for both the volunteer and the partner organisation. I absolutely loved living with a local family and was really treated as one of the family and not a guest. I was expected to help out and join in and in return I was given an insight into life for the people living in the valley. It was a fantastic opportunity to improve my Spanish and I loved using it at every opportunity to meet new people and make new friends!

Would you do it again?

I would most definitely do it again if I had the chance. There are so many good things that outweigh the bad. Obviously it can be very hard work and frustrating and difficult living in another culture and especially if you don’t speak the local language. My advice for anyone thinking about doing this in the future would be: learn the language, take a skill and be prepared to use it (you are going to help after all) and be flexible and open to new experiences and challenges. Don’t give up, if things are hard, learn to move on or find ways to improve a situation and remember to be patient. Try and enjoy the simpler things in life – all too soon you’ll be back to your busy, bustling, stressful life and wishing you were back sitting around the kitchen table with your host family eating yet another plate of chicken and rice!

Tessa Okell travelled with Projects Abroad. Read more on their website.

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