Being A Mercenary Volunteer

So I’ve been fortunate in that during my first four months of service, I wasn’t chained to my site (not that you ever really are, but still). In February and March, I was invited to journey down to the south of Peru for a week and work with a group called Builders Beyond Borders (B3). In short, they’re a non-profit group that brings between 20-40 high schoolers from the Connecticut area down to a developing country to do a bunch of manual labor. They fund raise around $2,500 to cover for travel, meals, supplies, etc. and take a week out of school or their Spring Break to attend this project. And through the glories of networking and past experiences with Peace Corps, B3 hooked up with some of our Water and Sanitation 12’ers (the group before me) to assist on their bathroom and water system projects. And they were kind enough to invite other volunteers down (like me!) and feed/lodge us, plus let us go with the kids to local activities such as sandboarding and white water rafting (Peace Corps is hard!!!).
In February, I worked with a group in the province of Canyette, which is already ripe with Peace Corps volunteers due to the effects of the 2007 earthquake. This particular group’s mission was dig a ridiculous amount of trenches in various parts of this remote agricultural town and install main water lines, which would later be connected to houses. This was really the thankless part of the project because the kids wouldn’t really get to see anything ‘completed’; just pipes laid and if all went well, no leaks. My job in this instance was to be a point person for technical advice (or talk with the town plumber), translate, and be a ‘role model’. After a week, I was really impressed with the kids and their work ethic. Most of them kept on going strong until quitting time, and even past that. Digging ditches in the hot Peruvian sun is not really a fun way to spend your winter break, especially when $2,500 could be used for so much sweeter stuff (like 2/3 of a Peace Corps volunteer’s living allowance!) but the kids never really complained and really liked the experience of manual labor and getting dirty (probably two things they never really get to do up in Connecticut).
In March, it was more or less the same routine except I was working on a bathroom project in the south of Ica, where the earthquake really took it’s toll. Most of the communities were rebuilt with thatch housing and people were just starting to rebuild with adobe. I worked with two different teams of kids during the week, with two trained maestros (campo handymen/masons/carpenters/etc) to build pour flush bathrooms. This project was a little different because the teams would finish a bathroom in about two days, and therefore just restart from scratch. But they persevered throughout the week and hit the number of bathrooms they aimed for. They all got on really well, and what was interesting is that the maestros really liked the kids, even if they couldn’t fully communicate with them. The kids wound up leaving on Saturday morning, while the PC volunteers and the maestros worked during the morning to finish up some loose ends, and some of the maestros were generally sad that the kids were gone. I was talking with one of them and asked why he looked a little sleepy (it was Saturday morning), and he said he wasn’t sleepy but sad that the kids were gone.
And I think that’s part of what B3 aims for, especially with organizations who just jump in, do a quick project, and leave. B3 really aims for the cultural and emotional experience for their kids, who largely grew up in privilege or at the very least with most of their needs met. These trips allow the kids to see a different way of living, and poverty, and reflect on that as an individual however they want to interpret it. To be honest, I was a little skeptical of these trips…’volunteer tourism’, where you jump in for a week, get to slum it, and then go back to your comfortable living condition. But what I personally hope for with these trips is that the kids hold this experience with them and use it as a bit of a spark to either serve abroad or at home in the United States to help and work people achieve better means and levels of living. And I also benefitted from the trips as well by working with the maestros and seeing what the more experienced volunteers were doing and how their work went from the first couple months like where I’m at, to over a year in and actually doing projects.


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