Driving past the Peruvian villages, the streets were dotted with homes made of mud, brick and sheet metal.
The shoddy living conditions conjured up memories of images that 17-year-old Karsen Gradidge had only seen in a National Geographic documentary.
“It was a shock. The first two days were really bad,” the White Rock teen admitted after returning last week. “I was nervous, but it was definitely what I wanted. Something shocking was what I wanted.
“I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie.”
Gradidge had travelled to Peru at the beginning of December through U.S.-based non-profit United Planet, which offers participants the chance to visit and volunteer in more than 40 different countries.
She was given the opportunity to visit Costa Rica, Romania, Peru or Mexico.
The teen picked Peru because she felt it would give her the most culture shock.
“I knew I would land and be like, ‘what have I done?’” she laughed.
She eventually connected with her host family – an elderly couple – and set up her base in Cusco, a city in the southeastern part of the South American country.
After two difficult nights of managing language barriers, Gradidge travelled to the children’s centre where she would spend her time volunteering, teaching English to older children.
“Once I was at the school, and there were people speaking English there, I thought OK, OK, I can do this,” she said.
Children would visit the centre after school and receive help on homework, English lessons and were provided with necessities, such as tooth brushes.
Over the three weeks that Gradidge was at the centre, she made connections with many of the children who lived in poverty, including four-year-old Aricili.
“She was adorable,” she said.
While teaching English to a group of students who only spoke Spanish – and she herself spoke limited Spanish – Gradidge relied on body language to help get her point across.
“You realize how important facial expressions and tone of voice are, and how much they help in communication,” she said, adding that despite the language barrier, she was able to achieve success with her lessons. “I wasn’t sure when I left that I would feel I made an impact or that I would actually see that I had made an impact. But by the end of the trip, I really felt I had.
“That was really rewarding.”
Now, back at home on the Peninsula, Gradidge said that while she hopes she will able to go back and visit Cusco, as well as other countries, and provide assistance, specifically with trauma victims, she was happy to be home.
“You come back and you’re more aware of everything. You’re more aware of leaving the water running, more aware of eating all your food – you just appreciate everything so much more,” she said. “I knew I had a really great life and I knew I was blessed before I went away, but it was a really wonderful reminder of how fortunate we are here and how fortunate my life is.”