Last summer, I had the privilege of spending six weeks in Peru in the Healthyouth Program, which is dedicated to improving the well-being of youth and communities. My first few days were spent exploring the parks and corner stores of Lima, feasting on empanadas (stuffed pastries), and surfing at the beach. There were a total of 23 volunteers from the UA, ASU, U of Illinois, and Yale. By the time we left for Huancayo, a rural city in the highlands of Peru, we had already become a close-knit group.
My home in Huancayo was affectionately known as "La Casa de Naranja" for its orange exterior. My host mother and her two children, both young adults like we were, made me feel welcome at once. Even though my Spanish-speaking ability was limited, I willingly made mistakes and rapidly improved as a result. Some volunteers chose to teach English to elementary or middle school students for five weeks while the majority of us spread out among five different clinics within driving distance from Huancayo. My main clinic was in Pilcomayo, where I shadowed obstetricians as they checked up on patients and went on wellness campaigns in the countryside. Each week, I shadowed or worked with a different physician, ranging from general doctors prescribing medications and giving stitches to oncologists who would diagnose and surgically remove tumors from patients. When working with nurses, I helped to fill out patient check-up forms and measure the weights and heights of babies. I remember going with a doctor to an elementary school one day to help teach children about good hygiene habits and getting swarmed by requests for autographs after the presentation. Not a day passed when I was not greeted by whispers or exclamations of "chinito" (Asian), which I found amusing and eye-opening. "Gringos," or foreigners, seldom visit Huancayo and I was glad to be able to leave a positive impression through our volunteer work.
We also took turns visiting kids in an after-school program to tutor them in math and Spanish. After the students completed their homework, we drew, colored, and played games with them, such as the Peruvian version of freeze tag called "Cementos y Aguas." I still remember how excited they were after figuring out a division problem or receiving crayon drawings of unicorns. On weekends, we drove and hiked through an amazing variety of jungles, valleys, and glaciers. We took advantage of long bus rides to share about our interests and values with each other in depth - and to break out into spirited sing-alongs. At night, we entertained each other and the natives with our dance moves at discotecas or our singing skills at karaoke bars.
My last week in Peru was spent exploring Cusco, zip-lining, mountain biking, rafting, and hiking to Macchu Picchu with my housemates. Macchu Picchu was breathtaking and we shared our experience with many a llama hanging out in the Incan ruins with us. Leaving Peru was bittersweet; I not only renewed my passion for medicine, but also made many lifelong friends and unforgettable memories along the way. Much thanks to Eli and Neto, our loving Peruvian parents who opened up their homes and hearts to us, Michelle Mendez for coordinating our trip and making sure we all got home safely, and my fellow volunteers for their goodwill and friendship.