It’s been about two months since I returned from my Mes de Misión trip. I’d like to think it’s a perfect amount of time to recount my adventures in Talabaya with a little more objectivity and a lot of good humor.
Painting the picture: a group of about thirty teens head into the mountains on a mission trip during their summer vacation. They will live together, prepare food together, and work side by side for the month of January in the town of Talabaya — an isolated town in the sierra with a population of 70. Their guides: one professor in his fifties and two very newly arrived gringas (Faith and I). To assist, some of the older teens of 18 or 19 years will serve as counselors, or asesores, as they have already participated in the program in previous years. The goal of Mes de Misión is to immerse these students into the life of a volunteer, to give them a taste of what it means to live at the service others.
Now this is not a sleep-away camp. You are not given a cot of your own with daily activities planned from eight in the morning to 8 at night. This is a truly shared experience. You find yourself sharing a mattress with a girl of sixteen, sandwiched in a room of 19 girls who are all sharing mattresses just like you (some of them astoundingly squeezing three bodies onto two beds, or even six people to two mattresses as I saw the last night). You wake up at 4:45am so that you can quickly dress, then wake up your group of teens at 5 sharp so that everyone is stumbling out of bed to make breakfast over an open fire for the entire thirty-person group. After breakfast you head out to chacras (farms). At an altitude of about 11,500 ft or 3,500 meters, you breathlessly climb up a hill with pick-axes and shovels in hand and begin to pull out what seems like an endless amount of mala hierba (weeds). You do this all morning. You pull sackfuls of weeds out of the dry earth, feeling the heat of the sun scorch your neck and the blisters break out on your hands as you swing the pick-axe over your head in a motion unfamiliar to your body. By the time you head back to lunch you are worn out, slightly dehydrated, and quite a bit hungry. Post-lunch you find yourself hoping that the afternoon rains will come in so you have an excuse to give your body a nice restful nap. The day goes on, either with communal activities, cleaning duties, or soccer games. At some point you find it’s already 10 pm and the girls you are in charge of were supposed to be asleep an hour ago.
I want to remind you dear reader, that this picture I am painting may sound like it’s only about me but it isn’t. Those long days were not just mine, not just Faith’s, or our dear professor’s; they were days shared with the thirty-some teenagers who chose to embark upon this journey with us. This program is optional, and yet almost the entire class of third-year secondary students were up there in the mountains with us: working on farms at high altitude under the hot sun for long hours, away from their families for the first time, and learning what it means to live in community.
I watched many of my students struggle through this month. Some came to me on the second or third day begging to be sent home, others found the final week to be an impossible wait for freedom. I watched friendships blossom and kids learn more about each other than they had before- which is especially impressive considering they grown up together in school since the age of four. I watched these fourteen and fifteen year olds face realities that most had never faced before: cooking over a fire, working with dangerous farm tools, and facing new responsibilities of leadership and community.
So many times I hear older generations complaining about the lack of work ethic in today’s youth: how little drive they have or the lack of respect they have for their elders. I can say that Mes de Misión was proof that it is not quality of character that is lacking in today’s teenagers but quality of guidance. Here we were, throwing a group of teens onto a mountaintop, shovels in hand, telling them: “Go! Tend the farm!”, expecting that they would instinctively understand what a full day of work entailed. Some teens responded in stereotypical fashion: fives minutes in I’d find them seated on a rock, forlornly pulling at a weed no longer than my thumb. Other teens left me in utter awe: they would be the first to grab a pick-axe or shovel and the last to put their tool down, swinging away with intense focus for almost five hours. I could sense how deeply these students believed in the message of the mission and the importance of service to others. Even in hours of rest, these students would be looking for ways to help the members of the community, whether it was carrying firewood to their respective houses or playing games with the children of the town.
I think we forget about teenagers. We forget about them because we think they are close enough to adulthood that they can simply figure it out themselves. How many times have we heard someone tell a teen: “You’re too old for that,” or “Act your age,” or “When I was your age I never would have…”? How are these fourteen year olds supposed to know what to do all on their own? This is their most vulnerable time as they transition from childhood to adulthood and somehow we think it’s the perfect moment to throw them out of the nest and go back to our own business, assured that they can figure it out for themselves.
I’m not saying we need to hold every fourteen year old’s hand as they learn to take on more responsibility in their lives, but at the pinnacle of their development why are we not more present? We forget to accompany our teens, to stand by and watch them struggle, and be there when they look back at us and ask: “Does this make sense?” I remember moments in my month of Mes de Misión when I didn’t even need to have a response or lesson prepared. I simply needed to hold a crying teen in my arms as they processed being away from their family for the first time in their lives. Sometimes I even just needed to listen without any judgement in my heart as teens unpacked their own insecurities and shortcomings to me. And yes, other times I did pull someone away from the group to give them a lecture about respect towards me as a leader and respect to the group as a unit. But all of these experiences happened because these students were going through growing pains, and someone was present to it and giving them guided space to understand themselves for the better.
My students weren’t the only ones who learned a whole lot on Mes de Misión. I too, as a newcomer and a foreigner had a lot to learn. I quickly discovered how much Spanish I was lacking and had to build a vocabulary to aid me in doing anything from taking care of ill teenagers, to guiding a group through the day’s work, and even in explaining card games. I learned how much I didn’t know, how sometimes that’s exactly what I had to admit to my students when they came to me with questions. It’s tough to be in a leader’s role and find yourself repeating to your group of students “I’m not sure” or “I have no clue”, even more embarrassing when you are reduced to charades to try to explain instructions. But the students were kind to me in their own way, taking delight in teaching me words I had never heard before, never despairing if I was without the proper answer.
I learned a lot of things. Some important, some not so important, some things perhaps never to be used again in my life (starting a fire with old coals and eucalyptus leaves). My compañera Faith and I took advantage of one of the cold afternoons to write a list of some of things we found absolutely essential to surviving our month. Below are my favorites of our list.
Camila and Faith’s Essential Guide to Mes de Misión:
- Carrying a watermelon up a mountain at high altitude is not easy.
- I don’t care/“No me importa” are very important phrases when working with thirty teenagers. It is understood in both English and Spanish.
- The only solution to a leaky roof is too dangerous: having fourteen year olds work with hot tar.
- Picos (pick-axes) WORK SO MUCH BETTER than palas (shovels).
- Many things break on Mes de Misión: pico heads go flying, bathroom windows explode due to pressure change, and water switches mysteriously break (people choose to to continue to use the toilet without water).
- Work days consist more of pulling out cactus spines from teenager’s toes, legs & fingers.
- There is always music playing: to motivate you to work in the fields, to hide awkward silences at meals, and most importantly to mask awkward noises in the bathroom.
- Some days you have unexpected jobs: chasing a burro around the town for 2 hours or trying to return an escaped sheep with no owner.
- Fashion exists in Talabaya except for the voluntarias (Faith and I) who wear sandals and socks, layers of sweatpants and flannels that smell like smoke, and outrageously spacious pants which have all not been washed for over 2 weeks (See image below for a prime example).
- Never play Uno in Peru. You might end up betting and losing (i.e. washing dishes for your groups in the freezing morning or ending up with a face full of sharpie).
- Amor in Mes de Misión is alive and well. Best way to separate parejas (couples) is to place your big American self in close proximity.
- January is the busiest time of the year for the Puesto de Salud (Health Clinic) in Talabaya. We “dropped by” every day for everything from medical emergencies, to carne (meat), to plungers.
- A pastilla (pill) can “solve” any problem.
- Mopping = pushing dirt around with old pants, baby cardigans and blouses tied to a broom.
- “Has tomado agua?” (Have you had water?) was my catch phrase. A mugful of water does not equal a minimum of 2 liters a day.
- The runner up question: Have you gone to the bathroom? What kind?
- The only place to get cell service is in the cemetery or by a statue of Jesús on the side of the road.
- “Allá no más”/ (Over there, a ways) is the most detailed direction you will receive. It can mean any distance from a few meters to several kilometers.
- Peruvian moms are sneaky: they will hide cookies in socks, pillows, and even shampoo bottles so their children will not “starve”.
- Meat can be bought every Wednesday off the back of a motorcycle wrapped in a white cloth and an aguayo (traditional woven fabric).
- The best snack after a long morning of work is served on the side of a mountain out of an aguayo and consists of canchita (toasted corn) and goat cheese.
- Quaker —pronounced Guaw-kher— (a.k.a. Oatmeal) is served as a drink, no spoon required.
- There is never too much salt or sugar in a dish.
A previous volunteer has described Mes de Misión as “the hardest month of my life”. It is certainly a grueling, often humiliating, all-encompassing excursion. But I found it to be one of the most profound months of my life. As a Jesuit Volunteer I take a lot of the values of my own mission for granted. I live consistently in shared community, engaging with my neighborhood and the city of Tacna through accompaniment and service. Much of my values are lived out simply because my home and work-space are set up this way. But there, in the mountains of Talabaya, I saw what it was like for my students to experience these concepts of accompaniment and service for the very first time. In some ways, the month of Mes de Misión is a concentrated version of what it means to serve as a volunteer in a program with a focus on faith in action. A program like this places you in a completely new setting, stripping away all the skills and education that you thought carried you forward and made you a “successful” adult. Up in the mountains, pulling out weeds and cactus spines, my bachelor’s degree and all of the skills I had picked up in college fell to the wayside. At the end of the day, exhausted and much in need of a shower, the only thing left for me or my fourteen year old student was the strength we had in our soul and the passion we felt in serving others.
Originally published at www.jvcwithcamila.blogspot.com