It Starts with Reflection: Backpacking Adventures in South America


Jenna and Natasha continue to share their beautiful stories, making a full circle back to where it all began, with Solidarity in Action in the community of Pacifico de Villa, Peru…

As many of you know, the work that Jenna and I have been doing in Peru for the last 4 years initially started with the impression that we would come here and be giving out selfless time and energy to a program that works in poor communities in Peru. This is still the impression we uphold however it has developed into so much more than that. The last two weeks have been spent sharing our experiences and building what solidarity means for 30 other participants who have embarked on this journey for the first time. Not only has Solidarity in Action been developing their programs to ensure that the community of Pacifico de Villa is maintaining projects and programs that we initiate for them, it has also been expanding the roles of past participants and leaders’ role to sustain the passion and drive we have for making this world a better place. Larry Shuttleworth, the director of SIA, has been an influential person in mine and Jenna’s lives the past 4 years. He has a special eye for potential in people when they, themselves are unable to recognize it. Needless to say, Jenna and I thoroughly enjoy the ‘work’ that we do to prepare for such trips because we have been privileged to see the impact it has on the hearts and minds of many. 

Jenna and I arrived in Lima, Peru just days before a group of 17 adults (ages 45-70 ) and a group of 5 high school students who would be pairing up with 6 Peruvian students for the next two weeks. Mine and Jenna’s main responsibility was to plan and implement a program for the 11 high school girls including an inter cultural component. Jenna and I have led many trips in the past. However, this was sure to be a new learning experience, having been the first time we ran a program with adults and high school students, and simultaneously. This year also marked the first year that we would be challenged to develop our roles as leaders and also take on logistics for the entire program. 

 After our long adventure to Lima from San Perdo de Atacama, Chile, Jenna and I managed to get a taxi to our very familiar and hospitable retreat house in Chorrillos. We were immediately greeted by familiar staff at the retreat house and within seconds by Larry. There was a rush of emotions upon us, seeing a Canadian familiar face after 3 weeks of being away from home. As usual Larry greeted us with open arms and a huge smile.  We excitedly took almost all of our clothes to be washed. You can imagine how awesome it was to receive our freshly washed and still warm package of clothing after 3 weeks of continuous wearing. We had dinner with Javier (our Peruvian SIA representative and whom I stayed with for 2 weeks last summer). Now after being refreshed, fed and informed and updated on the programs, rest was the only thing left on the agenda for our first day back in Lima. 

 The following day we spent the day finalizing the itinerary and looking closely at how we would tackle having a group of high school students for the first time, while in addition determining how we were going to facilitate having them participate in a program simultaneously with 6 Peruvian students. It would be a new and exciting challenge for both of us and it was only hours before their arrival so anxiety was beginning to build. 

 Given the experiences Jenna and I have had over the past three years, Larry, thought it may be wise to begin developing our roles independently. It has been a great privilege to work as a team with Jenna, I think we were both ready and excited to continue to build on our partnership in two different roles. Jenna would be taking on the logistics of the trip (coordinating transportation, payments, etc.) and I would be facilitating and guiding the group with the help of Mayra. 

 The week quickly got underway with visits to the placements and an outline of the program and the expectations. For this group, we had arranged for the students to choose from placements at Laura Alva Saldana (a facility for children and teens win exceptionalities), construction at PRONOEI (the daycare we frequently work at in Pacifico de Villa), assisting with English classes for mothers in the community, child minding for the mothers’ children, after school homework help at Virgen de Carmen (the orphanage we renovated last summer) and assisting the adult group in various activities throughout the week. As per usual, the students were able to get a true flavor of the Peruvian culture with evening activities that included trying traditional foods and visiting local tourists sites. We really tried to facilitate the wonderful opportunity to digest their emotional and physical experiences by interacting and communicating with the Peruvian high school students. Often, one of our biggest challenges for participants is understanding and adapting to Peruvian culture, we had hoped that this inter cultural experience for both sets of girls would teach each other about their culture and subconsciously the positives and negatives. I thought a lot about this – many Canadians who participate in this program find it difficult to be patient while waiting for Peruvians. ‘Peruvian time’, as we call it, often has people coming 20 minutes late to an arranged meeting or event or Peruvians can seem a bit sluggish when they get some where as fast as us. Despite being viewed by many as a weakness and frustrating, I think we can learn a lot from this. Western society constantly has us running around and rushing places. Maybe we need to take more time to see the beautiful things around us and with more time will come a better and more mindful appreciation for these things. 

 The week of placement was quite a success! Despite being two very differently designed programs the students and adults were able to build a relationship and partnership that opened their minds to many new perspectives. They worked effortlessly to build their relationships with the adults and the Peruvian girls but to also dig trenches and then fill them with cement for the classroom and washrooms they are adding to PRONOEI. Beautiful new artwork was added to the daycare on our Day of Solidarity when we invited more students from Cristo Rey (the school the Peruvian students attend) to come and see what poverty looks like in their country. As always, the community welcomed us with warm hearts and showed their gratitude by offering us traditional dishes from the coast, the Andes and the jungle. It never gets easier leaving the community that we continue building relationships with but it is reassuring to know that SIA is developing sustainable projects and relationships so that their community can have the strength to overcome the hardships they are faced with on a day-to-day basis. Even though it is difficult for our participants to say goodbye, it’s always easier knowing that they have the beautiful city of Cusco in sight. After a farewell dinner with friends and the students’ families,  at our retreat house,  a presentation from both Peruvian and Canadian high school students on their respected countries was presented. Who would have thought Peru has over 400 varieties of potatoes? Or that they celebrate and get a holiday for almost anything – they have a day to celebrate the chicken, which happened to be the following day.

 Off to Cusco we went with 30 participants to take in the wonderful sights of the Plaza de Armas and Machu Picchu. Always a beautiful sight, Jenna and I enjoyed the afternoon away from the group while they were taking the tour, to reflect on just how lucky we are to be viewing one of the 7 new wonders of the world, for the 4th time. With many of our participants falling ill to the climatization adjustment, we had our hands full for 3 days. We are very thankful that our group of participants were so flexible and caring during the unfortunate event when our bus broke down and while they waited nearly 2 hours for another one to come. 

 Jenna, Larry and I said our goodbyes and travelled back to Lima, Peru together on Wednesday morning. Jenna and I were anticipating a calmer two weeks ahead and some rest after only sleeping about 10 hours in the span of 3 days. Jenna and I had planned to leave Peru today. Some what of a brief sketch was drawn out while Jenna and I were in Cusco about our travels to Ecuador in between now and the next program. As always, Larry had some other plans perculating in his head.  He recommended we leave Saturday instead, so that we can revisit the community we have been working in (Pacifico de Villa) and set things up for our August group. That conversation quickly turned into a discussion about the possibility of postponing our Ecuador plans until the end of our backpacking adventure. Jenna and I hashed out the positives and negatives to this and decided it would be best for our August program if we spent time planning and speaking with the community to make sure there are concrete plans in place. We are trying to recruit the youth to be more active in their community and create sustainability in relationships and projects amongst them. In order for this to be effective, Jenna and I need to work on building a relationship with them. So for the next two weeks we will be planning our August trip and visiting various locations to finalize details.

 Solidarity in Action, Larry and the experiences that I have in Peru have shaped who I am, over the past 4 years. Jenna and I work very hard to support the programs and despite the time, energy and lack of sleep, we could never express how grateful we are to work alongside such an amazing team. I hope that this blog has given you a small taste of the effort that goes in to make a difference in our world. Travelling to a developing country in the world or making a difference in your own backyard – you can make a big difference little by little. It starts with reflection. Reflect on the world you want you children to grow up in, reflect on the politics that shape our society and the world around us. Don’t always buy into what they tell you. Investigate it yourself and believe that YOU can be the change you wish to see in the world. Western society is far to concerned with shaping our lives for us, it’s too influential. Start with what you believe in your heart and mind, this knowledge is far more powerful than anything dictated to us!

-Jenna and Natasha