I love volunteering abroad because it allows me to make a positive impact while having the opportunity to travel to a new land. Fortunately, through fundraising and having a supportive social circle, I was able to volunteer twice with Maximo Nivel in two different countries–Costa Rica and Peru.
My project in each country was different; I got involved with a construction project in San Jose, Costa Rica which was designed to help soundproof the walls for therapy sessions at an all-girls drug rehabilitation clinic. Many of the adolescent girls were young mothers and our work helped to provide a safe space for them to meet with their children and families. The work was laborious, but we kept each other motivated knowing that we were helping to develop a very important facility in the community. I was able to successfully complete the tasks at hand, even without a construction background, thanks to the knowledgeable local foreman who helped guide me throughout the project.
In Cusco, Peru I chose to participate in the Animal Care project. In comparison with Costa Rica, my challenge wasn’t so much the work, which consisted of cleaning the enclosures, feeding and grooming the animals, and educating visitors on the different species and their stories, but it was the difficulty I had with the language! Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I completely took advantage of the fact that there never seemed to be a communication barrier in Costa Rica even though I was immersed in a Central American country. Many locals in Costa Rica learned enough English to communicate effortlessly, but this wasn’t the case in Peru.
I learned quickly that Peru took great pride in their traditional culture and language(s). Not only did most of the locals speak Spanish, but they also spoke the traditional Quechua language. Unlike Costa Rica, which was very “North Americanized” (large shopping malls, fast food chains, modern and upscale restaurants and bars, and an interest in fashion), Peru was very authentic in their traditional fashions and completed tasks in more traditional ways (lots of tasks are still gender based with women caring for children and families, and men working labor intensive jobs).
Outside of volunteering, I made sure to find time to visit some of the exciting tourist attractions in each country. Costa Rica is known for being a world leader of nature conservation and maintaining some of the most unique and diverse ecologies, so it was a no brainer when the opportunity to visit La Paz Waterfall Gardens presented itself. It was a true rainforest experience as we hiked in a downpour through a forest that harbors over 1,000 animal species and Costa Rica’s most famous waterfall. Sights, sounds, and smells of nature surround you on this unforgettable adventure.
In Peru, my favorite excursions came only within a few days of one another– Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain–although I would advise you space these visits further apart on your own trip; hint: there’s a ton of walking/hiking involved in both. Even so, I was in constant awe of the magical views of Rainbow Mountain and completely impressed by the ingenuity of the Incas at Machu Picchu.
While in country, I made sure to take advantage of the institute’s free salsa lessons! It was such a cool experience to learn a traditional dance that is so widely known around the world. The lessons were fantastic and so much fun, and the weekly event made it easy to meet other international volunteers and local students. But the best part? Chips and guacamole!
Regardless of the differences, my favorite part about volunteering with Maximo Nivel in both countries was my experience with my host families. Being welcomed and cared for by a host family is what really gave me insight into the daily lives of the local people and helped to bridge any gaps that may have been fostered without their kindness and compassion. It was with open arms (literally) that I met family members who lived inside and outside of the home, and spent time getting to know the people who made my stay so memorable. It was amazing to be part of their culture and family, even if only for a short time, as it was the greatest learning experience of all.
Not only did they open their homes to me, but they introduced me to the local flavor of the country. In Costa Rica, I gorged in the traditional rice and beans. I don’t eat it often back home, so it was one of my favorites, and my host mom was happy to cook it! She also did her best to make me feel welcomed by preparing some North American favourites like French fries and pasta. My host mom in Peru would often make a delicious vegan broccoli soup that tasted like a classic broccoli cheddar soup! I also really loved the fried plantains.
Without having had these great experiences, I would never have met the wonderful people I am honored to call my hosts families and the amazing friends I met at the institute. The sense of pride of being able to contribute my time and energy to others made the work at the projects (both physical and mental) completely worth it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and hope to do so soon!
If you want to see more photos, you can visit my blog at www.tialoryssaphotography.com