Author Archives: samanthabalaban

Building Trust in Cusco, Peru

Making friends in Peru

As a veteran participant of the NGO Amigos de las Americas in Honduras, Panama and the Dominican Republic, I was used to walking into host communities and being offered piles of food, a place to sleep, a drink. I was used to finding three, sometimes four, host families per community. You could say that I was very much accustomed to a certain level of acceptance – immediate, welcoming, hospitable, generous acceptance. This meant that I was also not very accustomed to having to think too hard about why I was being accepted, or even if I should be accepted in the places where I was asking for food, housing, protection for two or three volunteers for a period of two months. People were nice, I was nice, they said yes, I said thank you, what was there really to think about?

This all worked very well until I went to Peru, where everything was suddenly flipped on its head. And here is where I want to talk about one of the struggles I faced conducting research in indigenous Peru.

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The Community Asamblea Process

A community asamblea in Peru
Photo credit: Claudia Behnke

Since I’ve mentioned it in previous posts, I thought I would give a brief description of what a community asamblea is and why it is so important in Cusco and for my organization, Amigos de las Americas.

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To Pay or Not to Pay, Heritage Tourism

host community in Cusco, Peru

When I first started my research on turismo vivencial, or homestay tourism, I thought that Amigos de las Americas, the NGO I work for, was correct to not pay host families in cold hard cash for hosting volunteers for a summer. According to the traditional AMIGOS model, host families agree to house and occasionally feed volunteers for two months.  In return, the volunteers work on behalf of the community. In most places, this means the volunteers hold educational activities and organize the community to support a development project funded in part by AMIGOS. In our Peruvian communities, this also meant that the volunteers did manual labor for various people in the community. Ideally, the entire community benefits from hosting the volunteers.

In addition, the theory goes that not paying host families benefits the volunteers by weeding out any family that would agree to host a volunteer just for the money. Since volunteers are sometimes as young as 15 years old, AMIGOS wants to select families who will act as families and provide cultural exchange, support and guidance during the summer. The idea is that if you don’t pay someone, they must be doing it out of the kindness of their heart and not for monetary gain.

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4th of July in Cusco, Peru

A View of Cusco

Since it’s America Day, I thought I would write a blog post about privilege. While I ate Doritos, deviled eggs, ice cream, macaroni and cheese and hot dogs today, I thought about some of the experiences I’ve had here that have made me both terrified and very appreciative. Here is one story:

Our volunteers have been in community for a few weeks now and, since then, I’ve spent a lot of time at the hospital. So far, we’ve seen one orthopedic injury that required surgery, one case of salmonella, a handful of gastrointestinal infections, the case of Giardia that I suspect I am currently suffering and, a few nights ago, a miscarriage.

Now, when our volunteers get sick we call our regular doctor, he makes a home visit and we pay him $25. When someone requires extensive treatment, we go to the fancy private clinic here in Cusco. When one of our volunteers broke her foot, she stayed in a suite, nurses changed her sheets every morning, staff slept on the couch under a heavy wool blanket and we all watched cable television for a few days. It was boring, but not terrible. Doctors let us ask questions, we got lists of the medications. I was allowed to watch the surgery and even got to keep a pair of scrubs. It was not a bad place, relatively speaking, to spend a few days. And the grand total? For two patients, seven nights in the hospital, one surgery and a pharmacy’s worth of medication, we only paid $1,024. To me, this seems like a pretty good deal. I could come to Cusco for all of my medical needs. This is pretty cheap, considering. This, however, is way more than the average Peruvian can afford. As I’ve mentioned before, life in the communities surrounding Cusco is hand-to-mouth. There is no real disposable income. So when most Peruvians get sick, they don’t get taken care of at the private clinic. So where do they go? The regional hospital, which is where one of our Peruvian colleagues had to go when she had a miscarriage the other night. Continue reading

Community Development in Cusco, Peru


Volunteers Prepare to Leave for Host Communities

June 16, 2012. Bienvenidos from chilly Cusco! I’m writing from Casa Campesina, a lovely hostel in Cusco where 42 of our volunteers and many of their community members and a handful of students from the local university are training for their summer projects. Project Staff has spent the past few weeks preparing to place our volunteers in homestay families in rural communities in the regions of Ccorca, Lamay, Combapata and Paruro. The volunteers leave tomorrow and then the real work begins – helping them and their adopted families benefit somehow from the next two months.

Throughout training, we’ve pushed the volunteers to think critically about their role in their new communities. Are they here to help? Or to support? Are they here to teach? Or are they here to learn? Each community is budgeted approximately $400 which they can use to carry out a Community Based Initiative – a small project designed by the community. In the past, communities have used this money to paint a mural, to build a community stove or to construct a bus stop. Many communities, in my experience, see this money as a gift – our volunteers live with them, eat with them and learn from (them all for free) for two months and in return the community gets a project of their choosing. Some volunteers, again in my experience, see the Community Based Initiative as their responsibility – they feel that if they don’t give their community something cool then they have failed. This is not true and neither of these things is our goal in AMIGOS.

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Samantha Balaban – Cusco – the early days

Balaban - Peru - cold

Trying to stay warm in Cusco, Peru

Hey everyone! After an arduous journey (not really, but it did take 26 hours) I have arrived in Cusco with all 90 pounds of my luggage. It is cold here so I brought a lot of sweaters. And then I walked up one whole flight of stairs and couldn’t breathe. It appears I am susceptible to altitude sickness.

Anyway, I got here on May 15 and started working as the Associate Project Director for Amigos de las Americas with my Project Director Sierra and my Senior Project Supervisor Claudia. We started working immediately to prepare for the arrival of our six Project Supervisors and more than 40 volunteers. I’m planning on using the volunteers’ experiences living in rural communities as a part of my comparative research on turismo vivencial, or cultural tourism, in Peru.

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