I sit at the top of the ridge amongst cactus spines, dirt, and dust. The view is spectacular with a crisp, blue sky and mountains dotted with eucalyptus trees as far as the eye can see. We were sent here to dig a ditch for the water pipe leading to the cemetery and the work has been hard and frustrating. Given only shovels and rakes, what we desperately need are pick-axes to break the hard, dry earth. I had hiked back earlier to bring two pick-axes and of course within minutes of my return one lies on the ground with its point already broken. I now sit by my co-asesor, both of us chugging water from my worn Nalgene and staring down at the town below us. We are too tired to speak. I turn when I suddenly hear my students shrieking. On the opposite side of the ridge they can be seen chucking rocks towards the river far below. The enthusiasm they show for rock throwing is a far cry from the limp hands that listlessly pushed at dirt five minutes ago. I forget my frustration at their work ethic and watch in awe as the quietest boy becomes more and more competitive and animated. He is opening up, making mistakes, laughing with classmates he has never before connected with. Profe’s words come to me once more “In the end, it doesn’t matter the work we do for the community or how much we do. What matters are the changes we see in our students”.
The profound changes that Mes de Misión evokes within its participants are not only present in my students. Those who have worked closely with me on Mes de Misión can attest that this experience brings out my most intense self. The words people use to describe me in Spanish are exigente (demanding), temperamental, and renegona (scolding). I have a direct way of expressing myself which has often clashed with the subtler Peruvian forms of communication. But it is not just the students who transform, something has changed within me as well this year. “I am so much more at peace with the disorganization,” I write in my first journal entry, on our very first day. I’ve written all of three lines when I am suddenly cut off and called to go fix I don’t remember what problem, a typical occurrence throughout the month.
We stay in the municipality’s hotel, something I wouldn’t exactly call a five-star establishment. Paint flakes from the ceiling onto my mattress shoved into a corner on the floor and when it rains water droplets begin to fall from the ceiling onto my bed and clothes. I become an expert, improvisational plumber — wire, string and sticks are my tools. Every toilet in the hotel seems to implode at the same time — I admit my friend Hector has to come to the rescue on a number of occasions. Sweeping water is a regular chore as the hotel seems to be sinking at all sorts of odd angles. No hot water means that showers are excruciatingly icy and quick, and if I am honest, I never manage to wash my back all month.
Each group takes a turn at cooking, which isn’t a nice day in the kitchen but rather out in the elements over an open fire. The smoke makes your eyes burn and the smell lingers in your hair long after bedtime. “Turno days” were stressful for me in previous years, but something happens this year when we reach dusk and wait for the evening tea to boil. Our group sits and teases the poor student in charge of the fire, his efforts more smoke than actual flame. We sing and dance to cheap reggaeton. There is a deep sense of camaraderie between us as the shadows lengthen and the cold of the night sets in.
I breathe deeply and dive further into my memories. So many moments replay themselves in my head as I write this, snapshots that capture the essence of this special January:
• Watching students load onto the back of motorcycles, two at a time, making the total number of riders three to a moto.
• Loading the town’s garbage onto the truck, then loading ourselves, racing around hairpin turns and arriving to unload the garbage at a precarious cliffside, the students screaming as we back up over the edge.
• Watching lightning clash above us and then the heart-stopping moment when it falls right on top of us, taking the town’s electricity out.
• Waking my students up with Jason Mraz or Jack Johnson, their groans and yells of complaint only fueling my antics.
• Finding myself with the respectful nicknames of Miss Camel and Miss Camote (Sweet Potato), and then discovering that my student has in fact brought a toy camel to serve as our group’s mascot.
• Working one day with a student of mine, carrying trunks and branches of eucalyptus who stops suddenly and looks out at the landscape around us. “Miss, nature is beautiful”, he says to me. “Isn’t it? You know what I love about nature?” I ask him, “It never judges you, you can be exactly as you are.” “¡Verdad!” (How true!) My student is unbelievably excited by this. This is the first of many days that I will see him reveal a tranquility that I had never seen before. “I feel peaceful here,” he tells me.
• Throwing 6 foot trunks down a hill-side, hoping my teens don’t end up with concussions or smashed fingers. Watching them slip and fall on fresh eucalyptus leaves and then promptly falling on my face in front of everyone in the most comical way possible. —I often ask myself: how do I have any authority?
• Listening to my girls talk late into the night about DIY spa tricks and fashion tips, so out of place amidst the mud-spattered clothes and my worn hiking boots, holes peaking through their sides.
• Unloading one thousand bricks, bodies twisting, wrists straining, powder and cement exploding onto my shirt. A break and a race between two wheelbarrows, which I joyfully watch until one student trips and sends his live cargo flying across the plaza.
• Laughing so hard I am unable to walk as I watch one of my students roll a wheelbarrow down the hill, branches of eucalyptus spread out every which way, in danger of toppling over at any minute, his teetering steps looking like a young bird desperately learning how to fly.
• Receiving letters from friends and family in Tacna and realizing the depth of my friendships and connections that I have built over the last two years.
• Asking myself: Who is God to me?, and finding it in the faces of Estique Pueblo:
Señora Dora, who lives next to the comedor, and her husband who always looks so serious as he rides up on his motorcycle; Señor Primitivo who this year yet again tries to offer snacks and sweets to the students without our knowing, his wife Señora Dina, who watches and observes everything from her perch on the steps next to her house; Dairo, one of the few children we see here, who plays soccer every chance he gets with Wes, a fellow Jesuit volunteer; Señora Alicia who lives next the hotel and greets me as I read in the early morning before the students awaken.
• And on the last night… my students surprising me with an envelope so large two of them have to hold it. “SORPRESA!” they scream as they flick on the lights. They are beaming from ear to ear but their grins waver as my eyes begin to water. They gently open the envelope for me and spread a giant paper wide apart, messages from all my students who I have laughed with, scolded and taught these past two years.
Feeling truly seen and loved as I am and allowing myself to receive this love – something I would not have known how to do before coming to Peru.
And there it is, the unwavering and unshaken truth of why I returned. Mes de Misión forced me to face the weakest, most ridiculous, most embarrassing parts of myself, and my children taught me to love and honor those sides of me that I would much rather hide or erase. I am not sure if I can explain the magic of 27 days in the mountain region of Tacna, but each year spent with my alumnos of Miguel Pro out there in the wilderness changed me. I am not a better or wiser person, I have simply come to love more fully that Camila I got to know out there on the mountainside.
Originally published at www.jvcwithcamila.blogspot.com