Sometimes you plan something but life intends for you to experience something completely different. It is from these instances, when you are shoved outside your comfort zone into a situation you never dreamed you would be in, that you gain the most. Oftentimes we live our lives confined within a protective bubble of safety – of what is known and comfortable. We forget to venture beyond the familiar, explore the great wide unknown, because we are creatures of comfort. But the truly amazing experiences, the ones that change our lives, only happen when we leave that bubble.
This summer I landed myself in one of those experiences. I began my trip to Peru in oblivion, not having the slightest clue what I would be getting myself into, with the sole knowledge that I would be volunteering at a children’s shelter slightly south of Lima for a month. I thought it would be a great opportunity to practice my Spanish, and having done similar volunteer work previously, assumed I was fully prepared.
Slightly south of Lima turned out to be a two-hour drive into isolation – the nearest “town” was a 30-minute drive on a dirt road through the mountains. The shelter was in a village of several hundred people nestled amidst the rocks. An ever-present mist draped snugly over the tops of the mountains and contributed to a semi-claustrophobic feeling. My dusty high-school Spanish proved not as helpful as I’d hoped, as not a single person spoke even one word of English. I vaguely managed to grasp that they needed help with the babies, and that was where I was to work, whereupon they showed me to a bunk bed in a room with 12 cribs and three other bunk beds. That was the sole guidance I received for the duration of the month.
I won’t pretend it magically transformed into a “life-changing” experience. Those first three weeks were miserable. I was in charge of eight toddlers ranging from nine-months to three years old. I was with them 24 hours a day, sleeping next to them at night in my bunk bed and waking up at 5am every morning to start the day. To make matters more dismal, every single one of my kids got sick, which subsequently meant I was sick for the first three weeks. My nights consisted of periodically waking up when one kid or another began crying or coughing, rushing to calm them down before they woke the others, bouncing the baby back to sleep, or giving little Wendy, a three-year-old with bronchitis, her inhaler when she couldn’t breath. The days began to blur into one everlasting snot-wiping, diaper-changing, fly-swatting, whirlwind of time.
The reality of the situation hit me when a little one-year-old boy, Tom, began calling me “mama.” Found abandoned on the streets a week before I arrived, Tom was left with nothing. He would transfix me with a gaze, his eyes dark pools of questions looking into mine for answers that I did not have. He remained glued to my side, keeping constant contact with me for fear of further abandonment. Should I leave the room his world fell to pieces and he cried with such devastation, unable to breath with such profound desperation.
Tom was one among roughly a hundred children at the institution, all with variations of a similar story. The children ranged from infants to 18-year-olds, some of whom had been there all their lives. The older children helped care for the younger ones, as well as with other duties such as making bread, cooking, sewing, or working on the farm. This was their reality, and they didn’t question it. The one thing that amazed me each and every day was how full of joy they were. Despite their circumstances, these children embraced life every day with a smile, happier than most people will ever be with a hundred times what they had.
Though I never thought the day would come, eventually my life began to feel routine, even verging on normal. It is amazing what we can adapt to given the chance. I grew to know my kids as if they were my own, and when leaving during the weekends they were all I could think about. The days were exhausting in every way – physically, mentally, emotionally – but to see smiles on their faces, to watch them learn to share, to tuck each one of them in at night, made it worth it.
Before I knew it, my month was finished and it was time to return home. The dreaded day of saying goodbye finally came, and I left a sobbing, heartbroken mess. The shock of having my own bed, the silence of being in a room alone, had once been things I dreamed of but now felt lonely, empty. I was viewing my own life through alien eyes, a new perspective never seen before.
Putting in words what I gained from that experience is impossible. It was, as clichéd as it sounds, a life-changing experience for many reasons. I arrived at the beginning with the intention to give, to dedicate my time to a cause, and yet I left at the end of the month having gained more than I could ever have possibly given.
Image credits: Haley Scheer