When Sammie Walsh, 17, stopped to tie her shoe while exploring Cusco, Peru, this summer, two women in colorful dresses swarmed her and pressed a baby alpaca into her arms.
When she called for her mother, Sonia Walsh, to join her, Sonia received a baby alpaca as well.
One photo and two Peruvian soles (the equivalent of 60 cents) later, they had a story they’ll always remember.
It was just one of many take-it-as-it-comes moments Sonia and Sammie Walsh, both of Carroll, encountered during the two-and-a-half weeks they spent volunteering and traveling in Peru in July and August, the result of a year-long endeavor of planning, fundraising and brushing up on their Spanish-language skills.
The trip was organized through New Zealand-based International Volunteer Headquarters, which pairs people with projects in locations around the world in areas such as teaching, women’s education, medical care, animal care, special-needs care, forest, marine or wildlife conservation, and much more, while also encouraging them to tour the area while they’re there.
They entered the program knowing a bare minimum: Sonia, owner of Serendipity Acting Studio in Carroll, would be teaching English, while Sammie, 17, a senior at Carroll High School, would be working with children. They were based in Cusco, a city in southeastern Peru.
They left two and a half weeks later with a reserve of experiences they believe will shape them permanently.
“We both talked about that — we’re different for the experience now,” Sonia said.
Sammie, who thought she’d be working with kids with special needs or providing childcare to kids at school as a teacher’s aide, instead was assigned to work in a Peruvian version of a foster home, which mostly housed kids whose parents either worked in another city or were in jail. She played with, worked with and entertained them each day — after a commute that involved about 45 minutes of walking, a bus and a cab that dropped her off each day at a willow tree in the middle of nowhere.
And other than one day early on — when the cab driver didn’t know about the willow-tree stop and deposited Sammie in the wrong place, prompting her to think about how much she missed her cats and pizza and to doubt whether or not she’d made the right choice in coming — the commute was a daily adventure she loved doing.
At the home, Sammie worked with kids who lived in bare-bones conditions, using foam play mats as toys and playing on a rundown playground that regularly swarmed with not only stray cats and dogs but also stray horses, cows and pigs.
“I saw the conditions they lived in, and I thought it was so crazy how happy they were,” she said.
“Her” kids included Ana, who fought back fiercely in tussles with her male peers (“I kinda clapped a little,” Sammie said in reference to Ana’s strategic kick after one boy slapped her); Victor, who slowed his Spanish down so Sammie could understand it and helped her catch stray kittens to snuggle; “Red Track Suit Kid,” whose name Sammie never learned because he didn’t like to speak much; and many others.
“These kids have so much love in their heart,” Sammie said. “I mean, yeah, sure, they might get in fist fights or call each other rude words in Spanish, but they’re just the sweetest little kids you could ever meet.”
Sonia, who’d assumed she’d teach English classes to Peruvian residents hoping to learn the language, learned instead that she’d be one of the first two teachers in a pilot United Nations program providing assistance to Venezuelan refugees. The free program had a long waiting list.
She taught with Flávio Dutra, a 37-year-old man from Brazil who wants to be a diplomat.
“For them, learning English is a path forward that opens a lot more doors,” Sonia said. “This is a difference between OK and really good things happening to them if they can get something out of this class that’s being offered.”
Their students were people who had worked as engineers, lawyers and more in Venezuela who now work as handymen, swimming teachers or chocolate-shop clerks. The youngest student was 11; his father was dead, and his mother couldn’t attend the class because she had to work. Another woman brought her 4-year-old son, who would draw pictures while the students learned.
“They have a shadow of their former existence,” Sonia said. “And they’re just surviving. They’re just trying to get by.”
Sonia and Flavio taught the students vocabulary and conversational skills, crafting different lesson plans for students with different levels of English comprehension.
During an exercise in which students spoke about what they’re good at — cooking, for instance, or reading — one said, “I’m good at dreaming that I can go back to my life. I’m still good at dreaming.”
Another, knowing she might never be able to return to Venezuela, encouraged Sonia to visit the country once the political situation there is more stable, noting that its beaches are beautiful.
“This is the thing about the refugee experience that people don’t understand,” Sonia said. “Those people still love their country so much, and they love where their home is, and they love the geography and they love the people, but things that are completely out of their control blow everything up and wreck their lives, and they have to leave.”
She remembers what her students taught her and still keeps in touch with some of them.
The trip to and from Peru was more than 24 hours of travel and four flights each way. Sonia and Sammie stayed with a Peruvian family, parents with three daughters. Sammie ate dinner with Lucho, the father, each night while Sonia taught, and they’d make bets on a Peruvian show that’s similar to “American Ninja Warrior.”
“I usually won,” Sammie said.
She recalled one night when one of the host family’s daughters had a birthday, and her family sang her “Happy Birthday” first in English and then, inexplicably, in Italian.
“I spent, what, six years of my Spanish career in school singing Spanish ‘Happy Birthday’ every, like, two weeks, and I didn’t even get to use it,” she said.
Since the program encouraged participants not only to volunteer but to explore as well, Sonia and Sammie made a point to see as much of Cusco and Peru as they could.
During their time there, they toured a variety of Incan ruins and saw the meshing of Incan and Spanish architecture. Peruvians are good at recognizing their history, which includes the Spanish conquest of the Incan people, Sonia said.
“They acknowledge that the Incans were super awesome badass folks who were brilliant and smart and had their lovely civilization going, and then here come Spanish conquerors, and they enslave them and kill them and steal all their gold and silver and jewels and blow up their whole civilization,” Sonia said. “And they acknowledge that that happened, even though now they’re all Spanish-Incan blood and they’re almost pretty much all Catholic. … They want to brag on the Incans.”
They also hiked Machu Piccu; climbed Rainbow Mountain (even though Sammie had to “huff canned oxygen like it’s an illegal substance”); and visited Awana Kancha, a “living museum” with llamas, alpacas and vicuñas.
They explored Cusco, becoming regulars at places they ate and shopped. They took salsa and cooking lessons and ate tons of food. They turned down invitations to join parties with ayahuasca hallucinogenic tea that a Polish DJ promised would “make you open up your soul to the planet.”
They were there for Peru’s Independence Day and saw a procession that included men struggling to carry a massively heavy statue of “el glorioso Apostol Santiago,” the apostle James, followed by, of all things, a marching band playing “Avengers” music.
“I couldn’t even deal with how awesome it was,” Sonia said.
And they decided they wanted to do more.
“I don’t want to be done,” Sonia said. “If there is any way, at any time, and you have the time and the talent and the will, go somewhere, somehow, and help other people. Just do that. That’s it. You don’t need to have an agenda. You don’t need to have any other motive except for, you are purely just trying to lend a hand, even if for a very brief moment in time.
“And you will be different for it when you get back.”
Recalling the trip on one recent evening, Sonia mentioned the word “leche” — “milk,” she translated.
“I know what ‘milk’ is in Spanish,” Sammie said. “Thank you. I’ve been to Peru before.”
She’ll never forget it.