Voluntourism: Brynna B.’s first-hand account of volunteering in Peru

LAFL team member Brynna B. explains how even small actions can make a big difference.
Young girl in Puno offers to give Brynna a new hair-do. Photo from Brynna B./Latin America For Less
Young girl in Puno offers to give Brynna a new hair-do. Photo from Brynna B./Latin America For Less

Voluntourism is a great way to get a rich cultural experience while giving back to the local community. There are several nonprofit organizations throughout Peru doing amazing work, each offering a unique volunteer experience.

Brynna B., one of our Latin America For Less team members, came to Peru for the first time as a volunteer after she graduated from college. The enriching trip and the people that Brynna worked with during her time left a lasting impression that marked a shift from not only wanting to travel, but live abroad. Five years later, she remains in Peru.

In our interview with Brynna, she shares her experience of working with local women, gives us some advice about volunteering and even describes what it was like dancing in a Peruvian festival.

Volunteering with local women in Puno

LAFL: What sparked your interest in volunteering in Peru?

Brynna: I studied abroad in Costa Rica during my junior year in college and decided that I absolutely wanted to go abroad again so I starting looking for ways to travel and still get school credit. While I was in Costa Rica I watched the movie “Motorcycle Diaries” and decided that my next trip abroad would be Peru and from there I started looking for internship opportunities in Peru.

I originally looked at opportunities in Cusco, but ultimately ended up going with FSD who only worked in Puno. They provide micro-finance loans to various women’s groups in Puno as well as offer different types of workshops about reproductive health, nutrition, budgeting, and basic accounting. I was able to use the internship to get credit for my Sociology degree and went to Puno for my winter semester in 2007. I knew absolutely nothing about Puno (and not very much about Peru) when I signed up for my internship, but I bought a bunch of guidebooks and started reading up.

LAFL: What type of work did you do?

Brynna: About half my time as a volunteer was spent organizing the micro-finance documents and accounts that the non-profit kept. I did a lot of work passing hand-written records into computer files and ensuring that the staff knew how to access all of the account information in Excel files.

The remainder of my work was to meet with and monitor the various women’s groups in different neighborhoods in Puno.  Each group had monthly meeting to review their microcredit accounts. The group acted as a “backer” to the individual women that took out loans, in that the women would have to be part of one of the groups we worked with and receive training on how to use and budget the money. Most of the loans were pretty small (less than S/. 400) and the payment schedule was based on the size of the loan. In some cases one of the women would be behind on loan payments and the entire group would need to pitch in to cover the payment cost, so the group made sure that its members came to the meetings, paid on time and that their businesses were going well.

During the monthly loan meetings, we would also talk with the women about what kind of trainings they were interested in or needed and then I would prepare a workshop and schedule a time to provide the training. A lot of the trainings were related to women’s heath (especially reproductive health and regular health screenings). We also did trainings on budgeting, basic account keeping and basic business planning, so that the women could make the best use of their micro-credit loans and make sure that they knew how to keep their own records, grow their small businesses and be able to make loan repayments on time.

LAFL: What was the most rewarding part of your experience?

Brynna: As a volunteer or intern, you always imagine that you will be doing “life changing” work and often go in to your experience looking to make a difference in a BIG way. While some volunteers may be fortunate enough to literally save lives, in most cases it’s important to adjust your perspectives and realize how even seemingly small actions can make a big difference.

At first I was disappointed that I would only be preparing and presenting workshops on health, nutrition and other training points. With a few hours of internet research I was able to prepare all the presentation information and felt like I should be tackling much bigger issues. Then I realized that while reproductive health or basic nutrition was something that I could easily research and present on, most of the women I was presenting to didn’t have the time, resources or (or in many cases) the basic education required to gather this information on their own. Creating presentations was something that I was able to do because I had received education in how to search for, summarize and communicate ideas clearly – and this isn’t something that people “just know how to do”.

Lake Titicaca, Puno, responsible travel, Peru For LessBrynna takes a break and admires the gorgeous view of Lake Titicaca.
Photo from Brynna B./Latin America For Less

LAFL: What’s your fondest memory of being a volunteer?

Brynna: I don’t have one specific memory that stands out, but my time as an intern was definitely a life changing experience. As an intern I came to realize people – across cultures, languages, clothing and life experiences, we have much more in common than we tend to realize.  It amazed me that I could feel “at home” thousands of miles away from my home in the United States in a setting that was so different from anything I had experienced before.

LAFL:  Can you tell us about an interesting cultural experience you had?

Brynna: Dancing in the Virgin de la Candelaria celebration was probably my most interesting experience. The annual celebration takes place in early February and happened about a month after I arrived in Puno. There were two other volunteers in my program at the time, and we were invited to dance with the Lacustre, one of the local groups that participate in Candelaria.

It was interesting to go from watching the dances and parades when I first arrived to Puno, to actually participate and dance in them for the Candelaria celebration. There are several different types of dances that are presented in Candelaria, from traditional dances that are performed by people from Taquile Island to very colorful and modern dances, like Diablada, that come from Bolivia. The Lacustre group dances Sicuris, which is much less intricate (more free style) dance accompanied by zampoñas (wood flutes) and percussion instruments. In my case, I wore a Xena Warrior Princess costume.

The entire event was the craziest, most unique thing that I have ever experienced and I am very glad to have had the opportunity to participate.

Puno festivalBrynna is the one dressed up as Xena Warrior Princess!
Photo from Brynna B./Latin America For Less

LAFL: What are some tips for a volunteer that doesn’t speak Spanish?

Brynna: I majored in Spanish and had already spent 9 months in Costa Rica before I went to Puno, so luckily I didn’t have too many problems with the language during my internship. For volunteers that don’t speak Spanish, I would recommend looking for volunteer opportunities where speaking the language isn’t as important. Working with children, for example, is something that doesn’t require speaking the local language. Even speaking a minimal amount of the local language and making an effort to communicate however possible makes a big difference in the quality of experience that the volunteer has.