This summer has been an absolutely amazing and unforgettable experience. I am incredibly thankful that I had the opportunity to do a DukeEngage independent project in Peru and for all the people I met along the way. I feel as though I’ve learned and grown so much after the summer.
First of all, it was a completely new experience to be living in a foreign country. It was not at all what I was expecting. We were staying in a pretty major city, and I expected it to be basically the same as a U.S. city with simply a bit of Spanish culture. It was completely different. It was much more run down than I had expected, with less infrastructure. The roads were full of potholes everywhere and required careful navigation. As well as there were large amounts of trash and rubble throughout. I expected to feel mostly at home until we reached our installation site which was in fact a small village. I guess the installation site met my expectations for the most part, but it was how the people that were in the cities lived that surprised me.
At the end of the day after you contribute your months’ work to set up one small turbine that can power a couple lights you realize that progress is slow but good. You see the entire town with dozens of turbines spread across it and realize that you were a small cog in doing WindAid’s work to empower the entire village. I learned how small progress can feel.
The fact that I was living somewhere that I didn’t speak the language took more of a toll on me than I expected. I was able to get by with limited phrases and gestures, as well as by spending most of my time with the fluent Martin. What I didn’t expect was how quickly I forgot what it was like to be able to communicate with everyone I met. On my flight back to the U.S. I had a “conversation” with someone about our seat numbers completely non-verbally. Looking back, he definitely spoke English. Everyone at the airports that spoke English surprised me. I was used to only being able to communicate with my friends and only being able to convey basic messages to everyone else. I also hadn’t anticipated being left out of the jokes in the workshop. Everyone there had a good time and joked around, but I couldn’t ever join in. I could communicate well enough to get basic instructions from them but not enough to have fun like some of the other fluent volunteers.
This summer also gave me a good view of what real humanitarian work looks like. A lot of the time it felt like we were being ineffective. We spent most of our time in a remote workshop from the people we were helping. It just felt like work. Then we went to our site of installation where I felt like a complete outsider with my unimaginable privilege compared to these people. Here I was just on a fun summer trip building stuff. When this was their daily life, living in small houses with dirt floors and no electricity. But at the end of the day after you contribute your months’ work to set up one small turbine that can power a couple lights you realize that progress is slow but good. You see the entire town with dozens of turbines spread across it and realize that you were a small cog in doing WindAid’s work to empower the entire village. I learned how small progress can feel. And through constant discussion we thought more about how difficult it is to actually make a difference on a small trip or in your everyday life. It made me think more about how I want to continue helping people in my life.
It became clear the difference between what a skilled laborer and an unskilled laborer can do to help others. It very difficult to, without marketable skills, to go to a small village and want to help. We got to have a taste at what being a skilled engineer can do to help others. We got to do a little bit of research and design on our own to attempt to make a change to problems facing WindAid. It gave me insight into what working as an engineer might be like. I got a little bit of experience doing some mechanical and electrical engineering work to create things to solve problems facing others. On top of the specific skill learned by working it also gave some insight into what real work is like. Working 9-5 then coming home as well as having weekends off.
I was doing things that I would never had seen myself doing a year ago. Here we were a bunch of college kids basically exploring another country, you never knew what the next day would hold.
On top of working like an adult, it also felt like living like an adult. You learn a lot from essentially living on your own in a foreign country for two months. On weekends we were encouraged by WindAid to travel and get a taste of Peru. That was on us to plan and organize. We bought bus tickets, got hostels, and provided ourselves with meals. One of the most memorable trips was planning and going to Machu Picchu with the two other people from Duke. We spent a couple days just living in Cusco together. We had an apartment-style hostel so it really just felt like having an apartment with a couple friends.
My favorite thing about the summer was how it all felt like an adventure. We would constantly ask ourselves, “How did we get here?” You would just have to step back and think to yourself about where you were and what you were doing. I was doing things that I would never had seen myself doing a year ago. Here we were a bunch of college kids basically exploring another country, you never knew what the next day would hold. We were all very aware of how privileged we were to be there.
This summer really revealed how many levels of privilege we had. We were incredibly lucky to be spending an amazing summer in Peru thanks to DukeEngage. We had the life-changing opportunity to go to a university like Duke that provides so many experience and opportunities to its students. Paying to enable us to travel like we did. Living in a foreign country also really placed the United States in perspective. Our influence as a country was visible everywhere. From Westernized malls to the movie theater basically only showing Hollywood films. We take our culture for granted when we are simply surrounded by it and we don’t realize how incredibly pervasive it is to the rest of the world. Everyone else in the world has to live with American culture just overhead. And, of course, we saw incredibly different lifestyles from our own. We lived for a week with people who had next to nothing by our standards. Who lived off of the fish they caught that day and didn’t have electricity or many modern amenities. It is completely foreign to the lifestyles that we are all able to enjoy. It forces you to put things into a little bit of perspective.
Beyond everything I put into words, I feel like I just grew up a bit this summer. I feel as though I know myself better and can’t be thankful enough for the opportunities that allowed me to spend my summer the way I did.