Sorry that I have been missing for the past month! I actually got stumped with final exams and the trip to Cusco! I finally have some time to gather all my materials and write you a lengthy blog post about my experience. So here it is!
In early May, I was given the opportunity to volunteer with MEDLIFE in Cusco, Peru. During my time in Cusco, I kept a small journal to document my experiences and today I have decided to type out my journal into the blog! Before I start my journal, I would like to give a little background about MEDLIFE and how I became involved. MEDLIFE is actually an acronym for Medicine, Education, and Development for Low Income Families Everywhere. I heard about the organization from a Facebook friend that actually attended a different university. After learning more about MEDLIFE and the work they do across South America, I was inspired to open a chapter in my university. Therefore, I talked to my close friend and we took the initiative to bring MEDLIFE to Wayne State. As a chapter, we not only focused on fundraising money for the clincs abroad, but we worked as a team to create an impact in our local community, Detroit. After graduating, I finally found some time to see the work abroad and experience, first hand, the impact we students make in the lives of those living in Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Tanzania, and New Delhi, that is when I decided to sign up for a mobile clinic trip in Cusco, Peru.
Day 1: May 7,2016
The flight landed at 9am, and the first thing I learned about the locals is that they are extremely smart! One local read the name tag of my suitcase and MEDLIFE from my sweatshirt, and he tried to convince me that he was from MEDLIFE. But I’m smarter than that, and I was able to convince him I wasn’t from MEDLIFE and politely asked him to go away. The bus ride to the hotel was interesting, the roads here are made from cement and stones, which makes it very difficult to navigate in. The city is small, almost everything is walking distance. There is a lot of history in the city! the Incan’s fought the Spaniard’s several times, there were several wars taken place on the land I’m standing in right now! Hopefully we learn more during the city tour. The hostel is very nice, I mean obviously not 5 star, but it is clean and the staff is extremely friendly. Showers are amazing, but since there is not a central heating system and the buildings are made from cement, it gets really cold here, especially since it is their winter! We stole a couple of heaters we found from an open closet and plugged them into our room, they sort of help with the frigid cold. We were also greeted with a local tea called Mate de Coco, which is used to help with altitude adjustment. It tastes just like green tea, I love it! But I also think it’s a drug because online it stated that the leaves have some alkaloids in it and they are used in the process of making cocaine. So if I got drug tested right now, I would test positive for cocaine… even though I never had it -_-. Not sure how true that is, but oops? I’m loving the locals! I accidentally started speaking French with one dude, but I caught myself when I realized he wasn’t responding. Google Translate is really helping a lot with reading menus and conversing. Overall, I’m excited for the next week- so much to learn! Today was mostly rest day, I need to convert my money. They said the best rate is at the main square, so tomorrow I’ll hit that up!
Day 2: May 8, 2016
Woke up in the morning to the sound of fireworks and the rays of the sun, 7:30am! Had a beautiful tour of Cusco. The city of Cusco has so many temples because the Spaniard’s believed that if they killed the God’s, they could control the people showing they are more powerful than God. The main plaza translates into “cry place” because it used to be a cemetery for those that were killed during the wars. For one of the church’s, the architecture of Peruvian’s and Spaniard’s is evident. The Spaniard’s used cement, whereas the Peruvian’s used rocks and stones. Rule of thumb, never run in the streets of Cusco, the stones are slippery! I fell right onto my knees. There is delicious Peruvian ice cream at Quchantas. The process of how they make it is really cool. You first choose a base, then a fruit, and then a topping. I picked Mate, piña, and Nutella. IT WAS DELICIOUS! They “chop” the ice cream and mix it all up. For lunch we had El Cuadro, the vegetarian lasagna was pretty much a pot full of cheese, extremely heavy food. I decided to skip dinner and drink tea, which sort of helped with the groggy food coma. Sunday mass is extremely important to all the locals, the city was alive! We visited a cathedral, which was very exciting to see the differences in church architecture compared to the US. After the tour, we met everyone in the hotel and created a group chat. One student is of Cuban descent, and he was telling us stories about how strict the Cuban government is with their people.. No rock music is allowed, no long hair, no internet, and multiple massacres. There is also something called “youth island” where they put cement on feel and drown people. I really learned to appreciate all of the things we take for granted in the US. I also learned that Indian music and culture is really celebrated here. Mateo, the person who is in charge of the clinics loves Indian food, culture, and he has read the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Bhagavad Gita! I found that amazing! One local girl I talked to was telling me how much she loves Hrithik Roshan, it’s astonishing to see how much Indian cinema is appreciated here! I bought this delicious candy from the market, it’s made from the purple corn. Tomorrow is a long day with the animals, I can’t wait!
Day 3: May 9, 2016
Today we went on a Reality tour, saw the communities we would be working in. It was a very interesting experience to see individuals live so high up in the mountains. The first area we saw was the MEDLIFE built Mama Wasi. It’s an area where pregnant women can stay with their families, and receive proper pre-natal care from the clinic right next to it. There are a total of 13 provinces in Cusco, all of which have only a one or two clinics. The largest problem in Cusco is Cancer. In all of Peru, there is only one cancer center which happens to be in Lima. Therefore, it costs a lot of money to receive treatment for cancer because the individuals would have to pay for their own costs, which includes traveling. For that reason, many people forget about their treatment and just wait to die. It is also very difficult for children with Leukemia because there aren’t many donors so the children end up passing away. Several individuals only donate blood if they are paid for it (and it’s usually just 1 unit), the children usually need 5-6 units of blood. Education in also a huge downfall. Some communities have the schools, but the communities higher up in the mountains only have primary education and that results in children having to travel hours to attend the next level of schooling. There are some state universities but for each one you have to pay 400 sols in Cusco ($1~ 3.31 sols). State universities are more competitive and teachers don’t get paid well, so private schools are better. In Cusco, there in only 1 university. For women, once they are married their educational careers are considered over because they have to stay at home to take care of the baby. In some instances, the husbands leave their wives and the women don’t have an education to fend for their family. Today we had our first group meeting, and the topic focused on medicine in the world and Peru. 40% of cancer cases in Peru are diagnosed at an advanced stage, so many don’t survive. In developed countries, 63% of the population has access to cervical screenings, whereas in developing countries 19% of the population has access to cervical screenings. During the mobile clinics the “risk” of the patient is categorized by color, red being the worst. We enjoyed touring the mountains and visiting the animal reservatory. In the reservatory, they shelter animals that were in the wrong hands, and eventually release them into the wild. Did you know the color red is actually made from beetle blood? Yea I saw it happen. We also visited the community where we will be building stoves! After dinner we had an amazing conversation with Mateo about culture, religion, and the impact youth make in this world! He gave me a list of books to read, he’s such an amazing individual. Clinic’s officially start tomorrow!
Day 4: May 10, 2016—- >FIRST DAY OF CLINIC’S!
Our first day of clinic’s was in a village about 40 minutes from the city. My first station was OBGYN and Triage after that. We set up the clinic in the “city hall” of the village, the room where OBGYN had their station was very dusty. It was evident that the room isn’t sanitary enough for pap smears. Locally pap smears are called papa Nicholas, I thought for the longest time that every lady had a husband named Nicholas (awkward). There were forms regarding medical history and history of breast examinations, but the physician mostly asked the questions verbally. Something that I noticed is the hesitation the females had of practicing safe sex, many of the women did not find it necessary or important. One patient constantly denied the condoms the physician was offering her. Some common problems seen in women in the communities across Cusco include: HIV, urinary infections, and STD’s. I did not get to see anything exciting during OBGYN besides consulting. During triage I focused on reading the blood pressure using the blood pressure machine. The patients body temperature as well as weight were recorded as well by other volunteers. A problem I noticed was that the weight and temperature did not seem to be as accurate because they were taken with the clothes and shoes on, and the height was recorded by standing against a wall. High blood pressure did not seem to be much of a problem in the area, but the natives looked much older than they actually are. It was surprising to meet people my age already married with 2-3 kids and here I am still attending school! It was fun interacting with the local school children after the clinic and eating some Granadilla- a native, jelly like exotic fruit. The first clinic was chill and slow, but we saw a lot of patients! The meeting topic for today was Education, there were quite a few interesting and eye opening statistics that were mentioned, which include:
- 17% of the world is illiterate
- 75% of that 17% are women
- 79.7% of women finish primary school
- 88.6% of men finish primary school
- In Peru, education is primarily for men, women are held responsible for all household chores.
- 1, 300,000 (1.3 million) Peruvians are illiterate, 75% of those are older than 65.
- For every 1 illiterate man, there are 5 women that are unable to read and write.
- The official languages in Peru are Spanish and Quechua. In the jungle, the native communities have 50+ languages.
- Teachers in Peru are now emphasizing to teach English, but there is no benefit for the kids because that language is never used in those communities.
- When it comes to private vs public education, 79% of Peruvians believe private education is better than public education.
- 38.2% of Peruvians have access to the internet, which can negatively affect much of the younger generation.
- 98% of men have attended high school and 96.7% of women have attended high school.
- 33.5% of Peruvian children work and 19.1% of teenagers are married.
There are a total of 580 schools in Cusco, 383 are public and 187 are private. But even with a large number of schools, 55% of the population believes that the teachers are not qualified to teach. 10% of all the public schools have infrastructure problems that disrupt the quality of learning for children. When it comes to subject comprehension, 24.5% of elementary students achieved learning in math and 36.5% of elementary students achieved learning in reading comprehension. Public education is free but there are problems in the school system,which also hinder development. Public schools are known to be overcrowded, 14.2% of total Peruvian Government spending is dedicated to the education system. As I had noted earlier, Public schools are located at a distance, especially those in the mountains. The continuous strikes in regards to teacher wages results in school being called off and students being deprived of their right to an education ( there is a very similar situation in Detroit, MI as well). Education can improve the quality of living by teaching the use of preventative care so students don’t engage in risky behavior. Also maternal and infant health improves if the mother receives the proper education about infant care.
After dinner, I had a nice talk with Mateo. We had a discussion revolving around religion, youth, culture, and the similarities across different cultures. Something I found extremely interesting is that a Greek astronomer had calculated the circumference of the Earth by calculating the angle of the shadow and distance between Alexandria and Syene. Eratosthenes, the astronomer, realized the angle of the shadow during the summer solstice (June 21) was 7.2 degrees. With calculations, he figured out that 7.2 degrees is 1/5oth of a full circle, so he thought that if he could measure the distance between the 2 cities and multiply it by 50, he would have the circumference of the entire Earth. Once technology advanced, scientists learned that Eratosthene’s calculations were about 1/1oooth off from the accurate number! A point Mateo made was that without the technology we have today, man kind was able to make such discoveries. With the technology we have today, Mateo said, as mankind we can excel so ahead with our intelligence, we just have to believe in ourselves. Going into a conversation centered around spirituality and mankind really brings out the best in people, and that evening Mateo motivated me to work harder towards my end goal.
Day 5: May 11, 2016 —-> Pisac
Our second day of clinics was in a village about 30 mins away from the city. My first station today was pharmacy and then I shadowed Dr. Caesar, which many know as Dr. 3. Working in pharmacy was easy for me because of my previous experience as a pharmacy technician. I noticed a few things though, a lot of the patients are vitamin deficient and the physicians prescribed Complexo B, vitamin B. Also patients were provided with a limited strength options for the medications. For example, Ibuprofen was available in only 200mg and 400mg, whereas in the US multiple strengths are available, the lower ones even available over the counter! It was interesting to see the difference in health care depending on the country you live in. Living in a developed country, we have access to all the advanced health care medications and facilities that sciences has to offer. In developing countries, the people have limited access to the medications and facilities, some not even close to being near modern science! It’s surprising to notice that all of us being humans, living on the same planet, but have a vast difference in the quality of health care we receive because of where on this planet we live. While shadowing Dr. Caesar, a patient with severe varicose veins on his legs came in for a consultation and complaints about pain. After examining the patient, the doctor states that the only option the patient has is amputation. The veins had enlarged too much that it could compromise his life. Dr. Caesar prescribed him Ibuprofen for the pain and referred him to a surgeon in the hospital located in the city. If that patient was seen in the US, there could have been other options besides amputation, and he would have been prescribed a medication much stronger than ibuprofen. Another patient came in, a female complaining about pain during urination. The doctor was able to have her admit that she engages in unprotected sex with her husband. She forbid the future use of condoms because she had tubal ligation at the age of 20, after she had her 3 children. Due to the lack of education, the patient had a difficult time understanding that condoms not only protect against pregnancy, but they also decrease the chances of spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Dr. Caesar referred her to the OBGYN to receive a pap smear and specifically wrote a note on her paperwork to the OBGYN to explain the importance of protected sex. The day was slow in general, so I had a chance to learn more about Dr. Caesar. Dr. Caesar actually grew up in a village in Cusco, so he did not come from a wealthy family or a wealthy area. His uncle paid for his education in Lima so he could receive his medical training, and he returned to his hometown to help his people. He stated that if it wasn’t for his uncle that he may have been a patient at these clinics rather than a physician. It’s inspiring to see Dr. Caesar return to his people and provide them with the best medical care he can offer just for the sake of humanity. The evening meeting focused on the last pillar of MEDLIFE, development. We learned…
- 1 out of 5 people in the world don’t have access to safe drinking water.
- 77 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean lack access to safe drinking water.
- 80,000,000 (80 million) people don’t have access to water in Peru
- 35% of homes have no access to drink water
- 49.4% of homes in Cusco don’t have a reliable source of sanitation
- In rural areas, only 11.1% of homes have access to portable water while 56% still use water from the rivers- the limited access results in several diseases
- 93% of people in Latin America have access to electricity
- In Peru, only 77% have access to electricity
- The mountains make it difficult to provide electricity to all individuals in the Andes and in the jungle
- Minimum wage in Peru is 750 sols, which is about $220 per year
- The poverty line is 303 sols, which is about $86
- The extreme poverty line is 162 sols, which is about $47
- 7/10 kids live in extreme poverty and 58% of teenagers live in extreme poverty
- 26% of the teenagers are in Cusco and face extreme poverty
The leading cause of such poor conditions are because people in the mountains don’t legalize their stay or pay taxes, so the government does not supply them with the resources to gain access to water and electricity.
Day 6: May 12, 2016
Third day of clinics! The village we went to today was about 1.5 hours away from the city, it was all the way on top of one of the mountains! The drive was horrifying because it was an one way road on top of the mountains with no guard rails or protection. Yes, it was horrifying! My station for today was hygiene and Doctor 1. I was very excited for hygiene because I would be teaching little children on how to wash their hands properly. The community we were in locally had very few children, but some children from the neighboring communities walked 30 minutes to come visit the clinic! The children had extremely dirty hands, dirt was visible deep into their nails, and a thick layer of dirt on the palm of their hands. Literally had to rub and scrape their palms with their nails to get all the dirt off! A simple habit we are taught beginning of potty training was so foreign to them. Many of the children didn’t even know the soap we gave them wasn’t edible and had to emphasize several times that they can’t eat it. I had to chase one kid down and take it from him because he thought I was trying to steal his chocolate! The line for the hygiene station ended up getting very long, so the other volunteers and I played a local ring around the rosie combined with tag type of game, and we also had the chance to teach them how to do the chicken dance- I’m sure we were a nice piece of entertainment for the kids. The kids LOVE soccer! We had a chance to play a little with them with a deflated soccer ball they had in the schoolhouse, they were ecstatic to be showing off their futball skills to the foreigners. I know for a fact that if you gave a child in the US a deflated soccer ball like they had, the child would complain about the ball and opt not to play at all. Those children taught me how to truly be happy about everything life has to provide. Something is better than nothing, and even with nothing there is always something! A lesson learned from school children, who knew they would be such great teachers. While shadowing Doctor one (I didn’t get a chance to write down his name and now I forgot), he was kind enough to teach us some anatomy terms in Quechua! I decided to ask him why the children in Cusco has dried red cheeks, and he explained to us that the high altitude of Cusco means stronger sun rays, which burns the child’s skin because they don’t use sunscreen. At night, it is really cold and the body is working to maintain blood flow throughout the body to stay warm. Something different about the locals in Cusco is that their body actually produces more hemoglobin than our bodies, so when the blood is flowing to those dry areas it creates a redness. We also met with a patient and his mother, a 5 year old boy. The mother was complaining that her son wasn’t eating much and his stomach seems to be extremely bloated. The doctor quickly figured that it was a parasite, which is relatively common amongst young children in Cusco due to the living conditions. The villagers live in homes built out of mud, they drink unsanitary water from the rivers, and their farm animals share the same living space with them resulting in interactions with animal feces. The children don’t know any better and touch everything around them and then place their hands in their mouth, ears, nose, etc. Doctor 1 explained that education and medicine go hand in hand, he is able to provide this mother and child with medicine to get rid of the parasite, but they don’t know the importance of washing their hands before eating and after using the bathroom so the chances of the parasites returning are very likely. Tonight, our meeting was a breakdown of our Machu Picchu trip, we have to be ready by 3am on Saturday! :O
Day 7: May 13, 2016—> Project Day!
Today I woke up feeling extremely sick and weak, but I had some amazing medications prescribed before I left for the trip and they really helped bring some strength! We met with George, the project coordinator, and walked to our bus at 730am. Today was the first day we jammed to music during our drive, George is pretty awesome. It rained all day, no sun, and very very cold. Worst day to be feeling sick and have to work on the project! Today we made 2 stoves and painted 4 MEDLIFE logo’s. The importance of the stoves are that the villagers were burning glass, plastic, garbage, etc right underneath the food they would cook. The toxic fumes that built up from burning everything was not only unhealthy for the person cooking the food, but also for those that consumed the food. Therefore, to improve the quality of living, MEDLIFE decided to build stoves in this community. The first home we entered to build the stove, they led us into a small room where a bunch of guinea pigs were running around. I learned that there are actually 3 types of guinea pigs. The first two types are large and chunky and are used as meat to eat in most countries across Latin America. The third type of guinea pig is small and less meaty, which is shipped to the US and used as pets. We started the stoves with an assembly line to place the stones first, then a layer of mud, stones, and the final layer of mud. The final layer of mud we had to mix with human hair, rice, manure, and sugar. I decided to cut a piece of my hair and added it to the mixture, now a piece of me is literally in that stove! The reason we had to mix all of that stuff in with the mud and lather it onto the stove with our bare hands is because it provides insulation for the stove. I opted out of touching the mud overall because I was already feeling very sick and did not want to risk compromising my immune system. So for the second stove, another volunteer and I opted to paint the MEDLIFE logo on someone’s home… Painting is much more easier said than done, but I tried something new and brought out my not so artistic ability! Later on into the day, the groups that had the clinics for the day met up with us at the project site and we played a game of soccer- One hotel versus the other. Our hotel, Carlos V, lost pretty bad but it was an unfair game since we had less people! The playground area for the children had animal feces everywhere, but the children still played on the swings and the slides. I tried the teeter-totter with one of my roommates, and later realized that it was broken, and I could have gotten hurt from the nails pointing out from the part I sat on, oops? Before we left, the local villagers made us a local food, steamed potato’s with cilantro dressing. We also had the inauguration of the stoves in one home and a speech from a villager that thanked us fro spending out time improving their village and thinking about them. She said that she saw us as hero’s, everyday hero’s, that really touched my soul. It was then I realized that I had been in this country for less than a week, and the people have taught me how to be kind, compassionate, optimistic, and grateful for everything in life.
Day 8: May 14, 2016—-> Machu Picchu!
Today we had to wake up at 2:00am to get ready and prepare for a long trip to Machu Picchu. We got on the bus at 3am when a lot of people were still hitting it up in the clubs. We had a two and a half hour bus ride and then another two hour train ride. I got to see the sunrise at the train station, it was beautiful! The entire train ride was along the river surrounded by mountains and forest, very scenic! My nose has been leaking like a messed up faucet, it was horrible having to constantly blow my nose. I learned a lot of historical things about the city, so here it is! Cusco was the capital of the Incan civilization, which spanned from 400-500BC until about 1500AD. The Incan territory was called Tawantinsuyo which translates into 4 states that ran along the pacific coast of South America. We took a bus up the mountain to the Machu Picchu area and had a short tour of the area. Machu Picchu was a military base for the Inca’s and a trading ground for those living in the jungle and in the mountains. After we finished the tour, where we learned that the mountain the world knows as Machu Picchu is actually called Huayna Picchu (young peak) and the actual Machu Picchu is across from it! As a small group, we decided to climb up to the Inca bridge, which connected the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. It was a very dangerous walk, narrow path on the side of a mountain with no rails and the bottom was not visible, BUT WE DID IT! Then we climbed up another mountain to see the Sun Gate, that was a treacherous uphill 1 hour walk to see the main gate to enter Machu Picchu. Took us about 20 minutes to walk down, but those unleveled stones sure hurt your back! But once we got to the top, the view left us all breathless (or maybe it was the walk). The clouds were so close and Huayna Picchu looked so small! I truly felt like I was on top of the world! It’s an unforgettable view and experience, so I suggest everyone to go and check it out! If you do go, don’t forget to get a passport stamp once you leave the mini city!
Day 9: May 15, 2016—-> Time to leave home 😥
Even though I only spent a week in Cusco, the adventures in the city, the interactions with the locals, somewhere along the way I fell in love with the people and their culture. I should have felt happy for finally going back to the US, back home with all the facilities in the world, but instead, I felt sad for leaving my new home. A place with much less facilities, but much more happiness. They say don’t flush the toilet paper down the toilets, but we did and the plumbing never backed up, YOLO! I didn’t know the language or much about the culture, but I was able to connect and create long lasting memories with people I may never see again, they still managed to make a special place in my heart. From the guy in the market who sold me the sweaters and became my deal finder every time I hit up the market, to the children that laughed at me while I taught them the chicken dance, they taught me how to live again. I went to Cusco to change lives, but I left with my own life being changed and a list of faces and names who don’t even know they are my heroes.
If you’re interested in volunteering abroad, I highly encourage you to visit www.medlifeweb.org. There is no application, no age limit, and no other restriction to do your part in making this world a better world to live in.