Hola Happy House

Student Maginnis Connell shares her adventures of volunteer life at 3399m above sea level.

As an occupational therapy student and a chronic over-committer, I’m spending nine weeks of my summer volunteering at a home for children with disabilities in Cusco, Peru, and I’m LOVING it!

It’s 7am. I wake up to Mr Brightside blasting through the house. In the distance, I hear the cries of ‘Chinchero, Chinchero!’ from across the road.

The Sacred Valley bus station announces its destinations morning to night, and it’s become a bit of a running joke in the volunteer house. Contemplating what to do with my free morning, I reflect on the exorbitant amount of churros I’ve eaten in the past month, and decide a walk is in order.

As any reasonable traveller would, I pick one of the highest points of the city as my destination. The mountain of Pukamuqu (Quechua for ‘red hill’), with the Cristo Blanco (‘White Christ’) statue at its peak, is a gentle hour-long stroll from the Plaza de Armas (city centre). By gentle stroll, I mean 500 stairs up the hillside to a peak elevation of 3600 metres above sea level. Anyway, I wander up, falling only once, and befriending three different dogs along the way. At the peak, I am rewarded by not only the overwhelmingly large monument to Christianity, but also a clear view of the whole of Cusco. I try to find my homestay with limited success (so many similar red roofs!), and take a minute to reflect on where I am.

(Holy heck. I’m travelling alone in South America and living in Cusco and not totally screwing it all up?!)

I begin my descent back to the plaza, accompanied by my new stray dog amigos.

Reaching the plaza, my doggos and I go our separate ways, and I head down Avenue El Sol. Picking a random street cart, I point at whatever is frying, and ask ‘Cuanto cuesta?’ (‘How much does that cost?’). ‘Tres soles’ is the reply, so I agree, and order one. For the equivalent of $1.20, my mystery lunch turns out to be chicken feet, potato and corn. Yum! At the next street cart I buy three kilos of pepinos for 7.50 soles, or about $3. Pepinos are a delicious local fruit best described as an apple pretending to be a cucumber. Armed with my fruit, I head to the volunteer office.

In Cusco, my afternoons are spent with the 25 residents of Kusi Wasi, a home for children and young adults with intellectual disabilities.

I spend three hours there each day, entertaining the kids, folding laundry, braiding hair, serving food and mediating fights.

Reflecting on yesterday’s biting incident (long story!), I decide that two activities are in order today, so I grab some crayons, my pepinos, and a bucket of hula hoops and head for the local bus. For 0.80 soles ($0.32), I board a bus that more closely resembles a well-packed tin of baked beans. Half an hour later, I’m at Kusi Wasi.

The moment I open the door I’m swarmed by hugs and ‘hola’s.

For the next hour, I entertain the masses with drawing, singing, horsey rides and braiding, before it all deteriorates in to a mess of crayon-eating and hair-pulling. Must be snack time! The pepinos go down a treat, and we move on to hula hooping. All the while, I have a kid on each arm and one attempting to braid my hair.

Kusi Wasi (Quechua for ‘happy house’) has two staff at any one time, and I honestly admire all they do. Caring for 25 residents in a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house is no easy feat, but they do amazingly with what they’ve got. The residents look out for each other and the staff genuinely care, and it’s a safe and happy place to be.

I didn’t come to Cusco to change the world, but I am proud to say that I feel like I am helping here.

And I’ll never complain about staffing ratios for disability support work back home again!

At dinner time I pass out 25 bowls of soup, medicate 15 kids, and use my minimal Spanish to encourage them to sit and eat (‘Sientate. Come.’), then it’s home time. A chorus of 25 ‘ciao’s sings me out the door, and I dash down the street, dodging a less-than-friendly pack of dogs to board my bus back to my homestay.

Walking down the dark streets from my bus stop, I treat myself to a churro, because its only one sole ($0.40), and heck, I’m on holidays!

When not at Kusi Wasi, I have had the chance to explore everything else Peru has to offer.

In the Amazon, I caught and ate piranha, danced with a local tribe, and befriended monkeys at a rescue centre. I saw pink river dolphins, sloths, toucans and anacondas, and canoed down the river in the dark of the night.

In Lima, I came face-to-face (barrel?) with a soldier’s gun (apparently I wasn’t supposed to walk across that bridge), discovered magnificent street art and catacombs, and got thoroughly lost in the streets late at night, where, although the opportunity presented itself, I did NOT buy cocaine.

Since being in Cusco, I’ve struggled up Rainbow Mountain, hiked six hours to Machu Picchu, admired the salt mines of Maras, and driven ATVs faster than I’ll admit to my mother. I’ve suffered through food poisoning, overnight buses and the realities of being 13,000km from everyone I care about, and fallen in love with almost every dog on the street. I’ve eaten 47 bowls of soup and, as you know by now, overindulged in churros on a daily basis.

Basically, I’ve gotten more out of this great Incan nation than I ever could have dreamed of.

Maginnis is volunteering through International Volunteer HQ and Maximo Nivel, and was given financial support from the UQ Employability Office.