This last week was bittersweet. I had to break it to the kids that I was leaving, and they each had their own reactions to the news. The older kids tended to ask “Why?” to which I would respond that I’d been away from my family for a long time and I missed them. They would usually nod, knowing that they too would miss their families in my situation. The younger kids, on the other hand, gave me the cutest, saddest looks, then insisted that I was going to stay, wrapping their arms around whichever limb(s) they could most easily reach. No matter the reaction, it wasn’t easy to discuss.
Okay, so that was the bitter part. Now, on to the sweet.
On Monday, I arrived at work and Marcial told me that none of the first graders (which is all we have on Mondays) were at school that day- apparently the teachers had some kind of meeting or something. We chatted for a bit, then he pointed me in the direction of a great market, where I could get hand-made tapestries and other cool souvenirs. I ended up spending a large amount of time and money there, so I think it was successful for both the vendors and me.
I went to the hostel to quickly change after my shopping spree, then went back to school for recess. I decided that even if I wasn’t teaching that day, I didn’t want to miss the best half hour of the day- especially on my last week. When I walked into school, a younger girl (second or third grade) named Rose Esmeralda was looking at me strangely. After chatting for a bit, she finally asked me “Why are you dressed like a tourist?” I laughed and explained that this is just how we dress in the U.S., but she still wasn’t convinced. I took this as a serious compliment- she wouldn’t have been confused if she didn’t feel like I was a part of her community.
The rest of my classes this week went unusually well. I think the kids were extra good because they knew I was about to leave, and I think I was also extra relaxed for the same reason. I played some more hand games with the fifth graders, and developed a couple secret handshakes with some of them (I’m not going to explain them here since they’re a secret).
The highlight of the work week, though, were the kindergarteners. I often have trouble bonding with them, just because they’re so young and hard to understand and communicate with in general (I think that’s true of five-year-olds in most countries). When Marcial and I went to pick up the class for gym, the kids jumped on me and held on, just like usual. One girl, though, was just gently holding my hand and staring up at me. I recognized her from previous classes, but this time I bent down and asked her name. She giggled and told me it was Ursula. For the rest of class, I would catch her just looking at me and smiling, like we had a secret. It was the cutest thing in the world.
The other reason the kindergarteners were so great was because they were doing gymnastics this week, so we set up mats on the floor and they waited in line to make their way down the mat like a worm or a spider or doing somersaults. This is one of their favorite activities in gym, so it was no wonder they were so sweet and adorable.
After finishing up with one of the kindergarten classes, their teacher invited Marcial and I into class for breakfast (it’s at 11, so it’s actually more like brunch). Every day, a different mom brings in breakfast for the class, and it just goes through a rotation. When I went into the classroom, the teacher invited me to look around at the kids’ work on the walls and at all the decorations. The kids then excitedly explained what it all was, which I didn’t understand most of but very much understood their excitement. The mom that was serving lunch that day then served me pasta in a big, ceramic bowl (the kids all ate out of plastic ones) before serving the rest of the class. Talk about hospitality- I felt like royalty. I made sure to tell the mom how much I enjoyed it, and ate every last morsel (partially because it’s polite but also because it was so darn good). I’m really glad I experienced that before leaving- food is a community experience here, bringing people together to talk and share. I was flattered to be included.
We didn’t have school on Friday this week, because Friday was Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun god (one of the biggest celebrations of the year). To celebrate at school, we had a big day of fiestas on Thursday, my last day. It felt a little like they were all partying for me, but I realized I’m actually really not a big deal when compared to the sun god. Marcial told Allen and I (Allen was here for a couple weeks, also teaching physical education) that we could dress up for the occasion, and even suggested that I wear a bit of makeup. I complied, and dressed up in my new alpaca sweater.
The morning consisted of a series of performances, similar to Father’s Day, but even bigger. At one point while we were waiting for the next act to start, I looked up and saw Ursula running in my general direction. Before I knew it, she was launching herself into my arms for a big hug. Marcial and Allen couldn’t help but smile and laugh, and I couldn’t help but feel special that she had beelined for me. She sat on my lap for a bit, before the rest of her class came running over and the teacher called them all back.
Along with the student performers, a team of dancers from a university in Arequipa came, along with a large band, to perform a traditional dance from their area. At the end of their dance, the pairs started breaking off and inviting people from the crowd to join. Before I knew it, one of the dancers was staring at me, clearly inviting me to join. I stared back at him for a little while, frantically trying to figure out whether it would be worse to actually dance or to turn him down. My legs took over and I hopped up, to cheers from my students (luckily there were lots of people out there so I wasn’t really the center of attention). I truly had no idea what I was doing, so I just mimicked his movements and tried not to cause any injuries. According to another volunteer at the school, I didn’t look terrible, and that’s all I could’ve hoped for.
After the pros from Arequipa came the kindergartners. It was Ursula’s class, and they totally killed it. It’s incredible- these five-year-olds have rhythm in their blood. Their feet are constantly moving to the beat, with the girls swaying back and forth and the boys standing tall. I maybe would’ve performed better with Mysterious Arequipa Man if I’d had these kind of genetics and this kind of training.
After all the partying… came mass. They had set up the courtyard with an altar and everything, and everyone quieted down and took a seat for mass. It was a totally different mass than any I’ve ever been to- there were kids running around and eating snacks and teachers quietly praying nearby. Again, it was a cool community experience (but it did make me think how hard it must be for the Mormons at school).
As I was leaving, I tried to get a picture with the teachers that I worked with. Unfortunately, Marcial had to leave early and I couldn’t get a picture with him, but I managed to find the others.
As I was leaving school, one of my favorite fifth graders, named Yakelin (kinda like Jacqueline), came running up to me, digging for something in her backpack. I watched her pull it out and realized that she was planning to give it to me, so I was protesting at first, thinking it was something of hers. She quickly placed it in my hand, said goodbye and then ran away again. I told her thank you as she went, then looked down to see what was in my hand. It was all I could do not to cry- she had made me a booklet out of wrapping paper and computer paper, taped a pen on a string to it and written messages on the first few pages. Take a look:
As I walked out of school that day, I was really sad to leave. Humberto Luna was my home in Cusco- the place where I felt a part of the city; more than just a tourist. I learned that I actually do like kids, no matter how obnoxious they may be, and I really bonded with a lot of them. The faculty and students at that school made every second worth it, and I am so thankful for their unquestioning love and acceptance. I really couldn’t have asked for a better volunteer experience.
On Friday, most of the volunteers had work off for Inti Raymi, so a group of us went to see the celebrations together. One of the biggest parts of the festival is held at Sacsayhuaman, which are the cool ruins that I saw on my city tour my second week (so long ago!). We trekked uphill to the spot, along with about a thousand of our closest friends.
When we got to the hill where we were supposed to see the ceremony, we realized that it was going to be nearly impossible to see. There were masses of people in front of us, many of them standing up.
As it got closer to the start time, the people behind the standing people started to get agitated, yelling at those in front of them to sit down. It escalated, and people started throwing rocks at those standing. We were all really glad we were a safe distance from the most intense commotion- we were not interested in being hit by stones.
Luckily, the stone-throwing strategy worked, and people sat down in front. Unfortunately, we still didn’t have a very great view, straining our necks just to see the very edge of the field.
As we were sitting and the ceremony was just beginning, suddenly the people in front of us stood up and there was a giant push forward. We were all certain that we’d be trampled if we stayed where we were, so we stood up and went with the crowd. We ended up all being separated, but everyone at least had one buddy. Idan (from NYU, bottom left in the above pic) and I somehow ended up getting great spots with a solid view of the whole performance- a stampede with a happy ending.
The whole ceremony was beautiful and entertaining, involving at least 500 performers. At the end, they sacrificed a llama, pulling its heart out of its chest (there is still debate as to which parts of that were real and which parts were acted out). I was ecstatic that I was able to experience both the excitement surrounding Inti Raymi and have a good view of the actual performance. It was crazy to think that the Incas had done the exact same thing in the exact same place, hundreds of years prior (before they were ruins).
Today, I went to a delicious breakfast place that I hadn’t tried before and spent my last few hours with the other volunteers. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I’ll miss Cusco and the people at school, but I hadn’t realized how much I’ll miss these other volunteers. They helped me turn this strange city into a home-away-from-home, and we’ll always share a special bond because of that.
I’m currently sitting in the Lima airport, looking around at all the people walking by and listening to chatter in different languages, settling into this Starbucks for my 6-hour layover. It still doesn’t feel like I’m going home- I feel like I’ll wake up tomorrow in my bed at Qorichaska to the sounds of French people talking entirely too loudly for 6am. The thing that keeps me in check is remembering how excited I am to see my family in less than a day (so excited!!).
This whole experience has been incredible and difficult and unbelievable and impactful. When I wrote my first post, listing all the things I was sure of, I was exactly correct when I said I didn’t know what to expect. Coming in with no expectations allowed me to take everything at face value, creating my experience as I went. I am unbelievably thankful for this opportunity, and I can’t wait for my next adventure (after a lot more sleep).
Spanish Word of the Day: “Despedirse,” which means “to say goodbye.” Goodbye, Cusco… Until next time!!