Cusco: First Impressions and Volunteering

Trip Start Feb 13, 2012
Trip End Jul 31, 2012

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Friday, May 4, 2012


The 10+ hour journey to Cusco (or Cuzco) via Puno was filled with "cultural" events. We boarded the bus in the morning and it wasn't long until we hit the Peruvian border. First, we needed to “check out” on the Bolivian side. Then, we walked just down the street past several llamas and across the border to “check in” with Peruvian immigration. So far, so good. While we waited for everyone on the bus to go through immigration, we took the opportunity to exchange our remaining Bolivianos. Kev was up first. He seemed to be given the value he expected, but quickly realized it was in Bolivianos and not Peruvian Soles. This would have been a hefty profit for the cashier, but Kev promptly demanded the correct exchange. Based on the smug reaction of the cashier, this looked to be a common trick and something to look out for.

The adventure continued onto Puno. The bus passed by what looked like a dirty slum with the bus terminal blocking the view of Lake Titicaca. By the time we got off the bus we were glad we decided not to stay in Puno. Nevertheless, we still had to change buses. A man from the bus took us into the terminal, took our tickets, and disappeared. Our gringo group looked at each other and thought for sure we were going to be stuck here. We tried to ask what was going on, but got a mixture of blank stares and annoyed head nods telling us to wait “over there”. After 30 minutes, another man arrived and provided some information that no one quite understood. He eventually led us to the departure gate, gave us our tickets back, and we were off on the next leg of our trip. Strange way of doing things, but at least we were on our way.

On the way to Cusco, the bus seemed to become a local market. Countless vendors were picked up and dropped off on the side of the road. You name it, they were selling it. Perhaps the most disturbing was a woman who busted out a huge piece of pork right next to where we were seated. She proceeded to slice off the ham with side of potatoes to anyone willing to pay a few Soles. To our surprise, despite the revolting smell of the partially cooked meat, she managed to bring in at least 15 customers before getting off at the stop (leaving the uncomfortable stench behind).


We finally made it to Cusco after dark and headed straight for Yanantin Guesthouse, a nice little B&B close to the historical center. The next few days would be spent sorting out admin and making the most of our time with Kev and Alice before we started our volunteer work and they started their Inca Trek.

Historical Cusco (or Cuzco – everything has multiple names here) is a lovely area surrounding the main Plaza de Armas. It’s full of life, great restaurants, clubs, and tourist traps. If you can look past all of the people constantly trying to sell you tours, massages, artwork, and the like, Cusco is a great city to spend a few days. In addition to the city center, there are some great hikes around the ruins in Sacred Valley as well as day trips to nearby towns, such as Pisac with its wonderful outdoor market. Of course, there are also trips to Machu Picchu, but we’ll get there in a separate blog.

An additional highlight worth mentioning would be our visit to Frog Restaurant and Lounge. We went in looking to take advantage of the happy hour special and got way more than we bargained for. We started out with a few drinks and some foosball, and later progressed to the frog game, involving 6 thick gold coins which you need to try and throw in the frog’s small mouth to accumulate points. Several drinks later we joined the crowd watching what they called “a version of Cirque du Soleil show”. At best, this was a children’s magic show gone horribly wrong. It began with a magician who selected David to be his assistant. Not only were all the instructions in Spanish (which at this point David didn’t understand), but the magician couldn’t seem to take his hands off David. In David’s defense, Kev eventually called out, “He’s from Yorkshire. He doesn’t like to be touched!” The rest of the acts included a tight rope walker who couldn’t stay on the rope, a clown who kept falling off the stage, and an amateur ribbon acrobat/dancer who we watched breathless, hoping he (or she) didn’t plummet to the ground. Oh what a night…


Eventually, it was time to go our separate ways. The next day, we were picked up outside the B&B and taken to our homestay, where we would live for the next month. The homestay was situated in an apartment complex (or block of flats) about a 30 minute walk from the volunteer headquarters, Maximo Nivel.

Our host, Ana Maria, was a nice, animated, and a self-proclaimed “modern” woman. She shares the three (arguably two and a half) story apartment with her father, son, and up to 3 volunteers at a time. On first impression, the overall atmosphere of the accommodation was considerably more depressing than our experience with Ani in Ushuaia. First, Ana Maria was surprised to see a couple as she had been expecting two men (despite the countless emails confirming our accommodation arrangement as fiancées traveling together). Then, our escort helped to haul our bags up to what we thought was an attic or storage area. Nope, it was the bedroom. To get to the bedroom we had to climb up a metal spiral stair case that was only tentatively attached to the wall. Luckily, we were placed in the same bedroom. When we opened the door there were two single beds. One was longer, wider and higher than the other, while the second sported a charming Casper the Friendly Ghost duvet from the early 80s. The room itself was basic with no curtains (sunrise at around 6 am was our alarm clock) or draws to put our clothes. For the next month we would be attic roommates.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of our new accommodation was the bathroom facilities. It was the usual Peruvian electric showers (make sure not to touch anything metal or you get a nasty shock), that gave only cold to lukewarm water and could only be used during daylight hours. Apparently in the evening when more electrical equipment is on, such as lights and TVs, the fluctuation in power made it too dangerous to use the shower. Naturally, we chose not to risk electrocution.  However, it wasn’t long before we fell into the routine of walking 25-30 minutes to take a combi-van to our school out in the countryside, play with dirty kids, and teach in classrooms with petroleum-treated floors leaving you stinking by the end of the day. On a few occasions, Nicole would come home and look longingly at her bottle of water thinking how good it would be to bathe inside its freshness. But alas, it wasn’t enough. Needless-to-say, we didn’t go out too much.

Let’s move on to the most important thing (in David’s eyes)…FOOD. Breakfast was typically often stale bread, salty plastic-textured cheese, and fruit (if we were lucky). We supplemented this with eggs and yoghurt otherwise David wouldn’t have even lasted the morning walk. The evening meals were a bit of a lottery. They varied from delicious traditional Peruvian food to a chicken patty-something out of the freezer. AND rice. All meals always have rice. The leftovers would always be our lunch. In summary, we experienced some brilliant Peruvian food (our favourite being a dish called Causa), ate way too much rice, day dreamed about vegetables, and occasionally jumped at the chance the eat out with our fellow volunteers.

The house was generally clean despite having to change our own sheets. The house maid did her part in all rooms except the volunteer quarters. We assumed that was due to her priority of her own life over climbing the scary spiral staircase.

Finally, with no TV, computer, or access to internet, we had plenty of time for preparing our lesson plans and catching up on sleep. So, if you’re wondering why we weren’t spending more time writing blogs, please factor these things into the equation.

All that said, no major complaints overall (seriously). We wanted an authentic experience and this place was probably better than most!


We should start by saying that volunteering is a great way to learn about a country’s culture. Overall, teaching English really opened our eyes to the education system in more rural parts of Peru as well as introduced us to customs we would have ordinarily missed on the tourist trail.

On with the story…

We were initially greeted with mostly smiling faces in the Maximo Nivel office and directed to our orientation. The room was filled with a variety of different people of various ages and nationalities, with the demographic majority being in their early 20s and Canadian. The orientation was OK, but limited. It was given by the deputy director of the volunteer program who seemed generally irritated and disinterested. The message came across authoritative, not very friendly, and generally directed at all types of volunteers ranging from medical placements to construction. We walked out still wondering, “How do I teach English as a second language in Peru?”

That question would have to wait. It was time for our Spanish placement tests used to determine the level we’d be grouped with for our lessons. The written and audio comprehension test could only really distinguish if you spoke absolutely no Spanish or were on your way to fluency. In addition, there was an oral exam with Deputy Attitude from the orientation. He grilled us with questions in a Nicaraguan accent barely waiting for a response and before we knew it he was on to the next person.  At the end of the day, David was put in Basico and Nicole in Alto Basico. We later found out that there weren’t any classes offered above Alto Basico anyway making this whole song and dance quite a meaningless exercise. Lacking faith in the system, we ventured off to sign Nicole up for private Spanish lessons, a service that was advertised at a good rate in our previous reading material. As it turns out, private tutoring was not possible for the first two weeks due to staffing issues. To add insult to injury, the coordinator also put the responsibility of availability on Nicole due to a teaching schedule she hadn’t yet been made aware of.

Not a great start, but we agreed to reserve judgment and gathered up our excitement for the official start of the program the following day.

On the Monday we met at the combi-van bus stop and were taken to our placement. Now would be a good time to stop and explain the “combi-van”. A combi-van is a small 15 seater mini-bus (about the same size as a minivan on the inside) used for local transportation at the cost of 60 or 70 centimos a ride. The exciting part is that they usually pack in around 20 people, with the most we counted at 27 (the money collector literally pushed David in as if he was a sardine to be able to close the door).

Back to the first day…after almost an hour in the combi-van we were dropped off near a school in a town called Poroy.  Inside we (4 volunteers in total) sat in the head mistresses office and Sara, the site leader from Maximo, discussed what we were going to do there. It turned out they only needed volunteers for one hour a couple days a week.  As Sara unsuccessfully tried to sort things out, we all looked at each other questioning if we were in the right hands. After our experiences in Bolivia, we were wondering if this was some kind of con. We had paid a lot of money (in advance) to be here and they had plenty of notice to set up the placement! Sara was very apologetic and promised something better for the next day. This was our first cultural lesson – even if you agree to a volunteer arrangement with a school, they may still react as though the planning never happened.

That evening we had a phone call and were told that we would be taken to another school, Luisa School, where we could observe and determine if it was the right fit. Three Canadian girls in their late teens had been placed there the day before, but had refused to go back the next day. It was now our turn.

The school was along the same road, but only about 30-45 minutes outside of Cusco in a town called Chinchaysuyo. By “observing” they actually meant “throw new volunteers into classroom to teach a one hour lessons without any training or preparation whatsoever”. David was assigned a “sixth grade” of thirteen 11-16 year olds and was instantly in a panic. Nicole thought that maybe she could survive with her consulting reflexes until she was given the “third grade” class of sixteen 7-9 year olds. Hopeful optimism quickly turned into fear and despair. Oh and by the way, there was not an English-speaker for miles.

Nevertheless, we marched into our classrooms with what little Spanish we knew and took Sara’s recommendation to start with numbers. This was pretty much a disaster - 1) it had been so long since we had actually written numbers (have you ever tried to write the number 19 in front of a group of people without spell check?), and 2) written numbers are far from phonetic, especially in a foreign alphabet. For example, one ('oh-ney’) and two (‘tah-woah’)…forget about eighteen altogether.

Back at Maximo, we reported our failed first attempt only for one of the staff to reply, “often unplanned lessons are the best.” In one of David’s rare confrontational moments, he replied, “this was our FIRST lesson with the class and from my teaching experience it was CRUCIAL to present this lesson well in order establish trust and authority.” Nicole followed up with, “Is it possible to get that crash course in teaching English now?” It was clear that this experience would be an adventure unto itself.  

Later that day, we were finally given an hour long crash course in how to teach English as a second language. One hour. Apparently, that’s all you need. At last we met someone who seemed to know what she was talking about. Kezia, a bubbly 20-something from Kansas, led us through some helpful material. Unfortunately, all the tips and tricks were geared towards teaching adults. However, for a nice change, she didn’t try to hide this and was honest about the limitations of her experience. Throughout the month, she turned out to be a great resource for all of us, always willing to listen to our lesson plans or brainstorm new games for our students.

So, there we were one hour later equipped with “everything we needed” to teach these young minds.

Overall, everything seemed extremely disorganized and none of the staff seemed to have a clue about our site or resources to help us. Over the course of the month, the staff (particularly, Sara, Daniela) were very responsive and seem like they were in the process of developing tools to make it easier for other incoming volunteers. That said, Maximo Nivel is not a new organization and despite frequently changing staff we would have expected a more professional onboarding experience.

To avoid harping on our frustrations with Maximo, let’s move onto some Highlights and Shockers of our volunteer experience.


1. All the volunteers were invited to participate in a Mother’s Day celebration, where several mothers and grandmothers were in attendance to watch as each grade level put on a performance. Performances ranged from singing and somewhat provocative dances to skits depicting drunken behavior. This was followed by refreshments of wine, Inca Kola, and cookies. It was great to see all the preparation and excitement from the students!

2. On another occasion, the volunteers were invited to take part in a tradition Inca picnic, called a huatia, where each class was made to build an earth oven in a nearby farming field. After building this oven from the dirt, a fire is lit inside which warms the oven for about an hour. At that point the oven is filled with potatoes and other veggies and collapsed to cook the food. After another hour, the vegetables are removed to enjoy along with salad and cheese. Can’t help but mention that the night before Nicole attended this picnic, David came home from his class and told her that the students were going to some sort of cheese factory, and that he wasn’t feeling well so he would skip the trip. As it turns out, Nicole showed up the next day to several students asking, “Where’s David? He’s bringing the cheese!” After a good laugh at the miscommunication, Nicole had her own adventure shopping for cheese on the side of the road.

3. David’s student showed off what they’d been taught during a guest lesson from Nicole when David was sick. During the picnic, his students also told Nicole how much they liked him and how much they liked learning English.

4. Students from Nicole’s class were reported to come up to other volunteers asking “What is your name?” and “How are you?”, and responding with “My name is …” and “I am good.” A pretty big achievement for a group a rowdy kids.  

5. As we were saying ‘goodbye’ on one particular day, the director of the school ran into another room and came out bearing 3 potatoes as a gift to us. This gesture was a sign that the work we were doing in this little town in Peru was actually appreciated.


1. The environment of the school was a shock. Half the school is a construction site with no boundary between were the school ends and the construction site begins. To add to the matter, litter is just thrown on the ground by students with no consequence for their actions. It’s hard to understand how you could have children playing in an area with exposed wires and construction vehicles driving across the playground. However, given the half-built homes and businesses in the area, this probably didn’t even faze anyone.

2. We knew we’d be teaching in a poor area, but underestimated the concern for hygiene. Children were rarely bathed before coming to school and simple practices like washing their hands seemed foreign. Further, candy and soda were staples for breakfast, lunch, and likely dinner; a habit which resulted in the decay of many of the children’s teeth. It’s not surprising that the average height of a Peruvian is around 5 foot 5 inches.

3. For two weeks David would come home smelling like petrol with no explanation as to why. It wasn’t until Nicole walked into her classroom one morning to find all the children under the direction of their teacher on their hands and knees scrubbing buckets of something into the floor. She inquired about what was going on only to find that the children were treating the wood floor with petroleum. What the F@#&!?! Apparently, this helps to prevent bugs from getting into the wood. A discussion of the dangers fell upon deaf ears. Now we both returned home at night smelling of petrol.

4. Often we used questions like “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” to test knowledge of numbers. At first we thought our lessons on numbers were misunderstood. More often the norm than the exception, these kids are being raised in poor families with 8-10 children on average. They can forget support in doing their homework, and instead expect to get home and help out on the farm with the rest of their siblings who aren’t fortunate enough to attend school. If given the chance to do this again, it may have been more useful to volunteer teaching sex education and sustainability.

5. The method of teaching in the school was to copy, copy, copy without any real “learning” taking place. As a result, trying to “teach” anything in English that wasn’t memorization proved to be a challenge. Further, playing games or giving exams was another interesting experience. At all grade levels, the students seemed to enjoy being engaged, but almost always were found to be cheating (evening on copying exercises). When caught, they would simply laugh and try again, like a toddler trying to get away with something naughty. The worst of it was that the teacher would be laughing right along with them. This is the same behavior we experienced with tour agencies telling you anything you wanted to hear in order to get your money.

Perhaps our most significant takeaway was how remarkably easy it was to see how education translated into societal practice. Our experience was certainly an immersion in Peruvian culture, and we feel lucky we were able to experience that on this trip.

Also, if it wasn’t already obvious, we would not recommend Maximo Nivel for volunteering but, the Spanish classes were excellent!
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