Emily Hooks - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I studied abroad in Spain during college for a semester. As one of the best experiences of my life, the seed had been planted to want to see and experience more outside of my safe, comfortable life bubble. You can only imagine what I felt like inside by the age of 32. I was still living in the same town I grew up in and leading a successful job in sales, but something was missing and tugging on my soul.

It wasn’t until August 2016 that I began to feel this urge inside me to volunteer in Peru, and I acted on it. I will never forget: I was on the elliptical machine (out of all places) working out and I was researching different programs. I loved the set up for IVHQ with the homestay option, taking Spanish courses, and the childcare volunteer program. A force inside me said, “Just go, you have to,” So I clicked on the “register” button and boom that was it. Four months later I stepped foot in Peru for the first time.

Peruvian women with a foreign tourist in Plaza de Armas, Cusco
Plaza de Armas in Cusco with local women and a baby llama

Why did you choose International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ)?

I chose IVHQ because of the wonderful support they provide: setting you up with a homestay family (meals included), Spanish courses, and childcare volunteer work, and they had a program in Cusco, where I wanted to be. They take care of everything, and it was not super expensive compared to some of the other programs out there.

What was your favorite part about Cusco?

Where do I begin? Cusco is such a special place, with a very forceful loving energy that you can’t shake. The people are genuinely nice, it is super safe (which is important for a female traveling alone), the food is outstanding, there is so much to see and do. But the number one reason why I loved Cusco so much was being surrounded by nature and the Inca history, including Machu Picchu. You are surrounded by the beautiful Andes Mountains in Cusco, and a 20 minute walk can get you to some of the most magnificent views of the city and its surroundings. The Incas built Machu Picchu and it stayed unfound for over 400 years; the beauty of this magnificent fortress is unlike anything I have experienced before.

What made your experience abroad unique?

I think going alone into the unknown was different. So many people from home were shocked to discover I was taking three weeks off from work and going to Peru on my own. Honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was given the opportunity to be selfish with what I wanted out of the experience, and that was becoming more connected with my true self. Being thrown into a foreign country, not speaking the language, volunteering at an orphanage, traveling on my own – it all taught me so much.

Life is too short to not pursue your soul’s passion and to live life how you want to. Life is limitless.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

From the moment I stepped into the IVHQ office, I was met with smiling faces and excitement that I was there. I arrived a few days early and my orientation wasn’t until that Monday, however, they wanted to make sure I felt comfortable and safe in Cusco, so they set up an additional orientation that same day I arrived. They went over the local customs, money exchange, where to buy food, what to avoid in Cusco, even some good Spanish phrases to use while living there. I took a Spanish test and placed into a one-on-one Spanish lesson, which I went to every morning for an hour and loved.

The first day of my volunteer work, one of the program coordinators took me there, introduced me to everyone and stayed with me for a few hours until I felt comfortable being on my own; I really appreciated this as it would have been super overwhelming without her on that first day. The home stay they set me up with was perfect. I had my own room and bathroom and the family was so incredibly sweet, and the food was outstandingly delicious! There were a few other travelers staying there too, which I loved so we could swap stories at dinner. It really felt like a family all around.

Peruvian countryside
Traveling to the ruins = beautiful

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had extended my stay for another few weeks. I cried when I left Peru as I knew that I was leaving the most special place, and a place that allowed me to grow. Although, I’m not sure my boss would have understood.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

Each morning I would wake up and have breakfast at the house. My host mom always made the most amazing food. Tamalito verde con queso for breakfast? Yes please! I would usually walk to Maximo Nivel, where the Spanish lessons were given, and take my one hour Spanish course.

I had the rest of the day to explore until about 2:30 p.m., when I would need to start walking to the orphanage. I went to the same café every morning for Mata de Coca, which helps with the altitude sickness and just tastes good. I would then explore Cusco, which included all the little barrios, including Plaza de Armas, San Blas, San Pedro Market, cathedrals, Coricancha, taking it all in. After lunch and exploring, I would come up with ideas of things to do with the kids at the orphanage. I had bought a few games to bring in with me and had to translate the instructions into Spanish for them through writing it down. One of the most fun games we played was Pato, pato, ganso (Duck, Duck, Goose).

At around 2:30 p.m. I would walk to the orphanage, sign in, and go see the kids. The orphanage had about eight casitas which housed about 12 kids, and I was assigned to one casita (with eight boys age ranging three to 12 and two girls ages eight and 12). There was a “Mama” who lived in the house and took care of the kids, so I was never truly alone, which was comforting! Once I arrived we worked on their homework, and then played, colored, and went outside some days; it was amazing. I felt like I was a kid again. Even with the language barrier, it’s amazing how body language and a smile can make a difference. I still think of that today in my everyday life to make sure I am still putting out that good energy that the kids reminded me is so easy to access.

At around 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. I would leave the orphanage to walk home (a 20 minute walk) and have dinner with the family. I would usually stay up reading or writing emails, and then call it a night.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Visiting Machu Picchu was the trip of a lifetime

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

Exploring the ruins, traveling, eating out at the local spots, river rafting (this was my first time river rafting and was one of the most amazing experiences of my life)

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

The house was located in a safe neighborhood and close to the orphanage. The house itself was huge and housed about eight travelers at a time. It was cozy and comfortable, and I loved my host family; they took really good care of all the travelers. I think what I loved best about the accommodation was my room, especially my bed. It was a nice, safe haven to relax, unwind, and sleep! My bed was ultra-comfortable, which I was always grateful for each night.

Do you have any tips for volunteers headed to Cusco?

The sun is super strong in Cusco. Make sure to wear a hat, sunglasses, and tons of sunscreen. Lesson learned.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Anyone that is making a decision to give back in a foreign country already has an open mind. But I guess I would say be open to your life being changed and just to surrender to that feeling. A lot of times we experience things in life that can be challenging or even difficult, but it is serving a purpose – to shape who you are or reveal who you truly are.

I will never forget the day I got sick in Peru. I woke up with the worst stomach pains no human being should experience. I thought for sure I had caught a parasite. I went to my Spanish lesson and ended up on the floor curled up in a ball because my stomach hurt so badly. I bought electrolyte water and headed home to rest. I woke up around 3 p.m. still in a ton of pain, but something told me I had to go see the kids. I arrived pale, sick, and had no energy whatsoever. I walked through the casita doors and was greeted by the sweetest faces just wanting to hug me.

Miraculously, within 10 minutes (no joke), my stomach stopped hurting. The pain was gone. I think I was healed by the children’s energy, and ironically, that was the most fun day we had playing “pato, pato, ganso outside,” playing ring around the rosy, and swinging on the swings. I had the most energy that afternoon. It was such a contrast to what I had felt ALL day, and I will be forever grateful to setting foot into the orphanage that day, as I was open to their energy and love and it changed me, mentally and physically.

Girl at Huayna Picchu, Peru
Hiked all the way up Huayna Picchu

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

I experienced so much during those three weeks in Peru, it is no wonder my life is so different now that I am home. I have never thought or seen things so clear in my life now. Things that used to affect me negatively, don’t even get a glance. It’s a new energy and zest I have for living the way I truly want to, and not the way family members or society thinks you should. I am so grateful for Peru helping me to access this new found love to live life the way I truly want to.

Life is way too short to not do what YOU feel is true to your soul.