“Religious workshop, community service, a week of intense physical activity, poverty, culture shock, and sacrifices” were my thoughts before traveling to Villa el Salvador, Peru for a Mission Trip. Coming from a fairly religious family, I expected my trip to consist of seven suns packed with muscle-work and seven moons dimmed by some sort of meditation retreat. I spent the entire week packing and preparing; in other words, trying to resist the temptation of not stuffing my excess clothing into the suitcases that were strictly intended for donation items. My departure was scheduled for Friday afternoon and until then, I crammed my final days with shopping for closed shoes since I was warned of the infamous desert sand that apparently snuck its way into any sneaker. Light and semi-heavy coats that were also essential in the shivering dusk till’ dawn air. My worries were farthest from pondering about what I would actually do during the mission, far from mentally preparing myself for what I was about to see and experience, and far from actually thinking about the skill and understanding I needed when four days later, I was to be named the decision-maker of whether the Salazar family was going to ration their leftover rice again or eat the delicacy of fried meat for dinner that night. My last minute nature insisted I do something about my expired passport 16 hours before my flight. I set my alarm clock for 5:00 a.m. that Friday morning only to stand in a jaw-dropping line in the middle of downtown Miami where you could feel the hundreds of cameras eyeing you; policemen suspiciously glancing at you, and where fingerprint requirements were as common as signing papers.
After miraculously issuing a passport in one day, missing a flight, and rushing to catch another, I was on my way to Peru. Welcomed by an unexpected cup of airport Starbucks coffee and multiple warm hugs from my fabulous friends, the international hub held a façade that was soon unveiled the second the two automatic entrance doors spilled thick, cold, humid air onto my face. The grey sky held dust particles that caused my nose to instinctively scrunch, and the buildings were colorful and shanty. Our driver, Jose, was a short old man dressed in a perfectly ironed button-down shirt with a pair of mismatched pants. He pierced my eyes with his and dismissed all of my insecurities with his inevitably contagious smile. All 19 of us – teenaged, middle aged, and aging – sat crammed in what looked like a real-life version of the miniature Magic School Bus vehicle. Our ice-cold, two-minute, and inedible daily showers were hosted by our own idea of complementary awakening salsa music provided by our iPhone playlists. We, the missioners, grew so attached to one another that some double rooms were left abandoned while others exceeded their maximum capacity as we merged two twin beds together to form one giant bed to squish ourselves into one space as we slept. Our one hour chapel reflection time frame was extended each night as each missioner poured their emotions away into the anonymous dark space, purging away their feelings of shock, guilt, and anger at the socio-economic structure of world.
As instructor of one the religious classes for the teens in one particular parish, I knew the topics we had prepared were going to be unquestionably skewed as there was no way to discuss the so-called “issues” if we did not address the actual dilemmas that the native “students” faced. I realized that they would treat that time preciously, as they found it their only opportunity to discuss their feelings, self-reflect, and consider the direction they were paving for their life. While many classes ended in tears of sorrow, many closed with tears of joy. And while the students, many of whom were my age at the time or a few years younger, believed that my partner and I were the teachers and mentors. I found myself as the student 90% of the time and found myself speechless countless times. “The reason?” you may ask. Well, many of the problems my Peruvian students faced were nothing like the first world problems I faced on a daily basis. These issues ranged from what they had to do in order to acquire up to 30 cents a day or the abuse they had or were undergoing in their personal lives. Their literal survival depended on the choices they made day by day, unlike what I thought were survival problems such as, “I have a flat and haven’t the slightest idea of how to change a tire.” As an obvious result, I “winged” many of my responses due to my growing up in a “bubble,” learned more than I thought possible in a week, and more importantly, the “wake-up call” that was more or less expected, smacked me; tattooing a red mark across my cheek. It was a week of pure catharsis as it had grounded me and centered me in a way no other experience has.
Whether it’s out of the sincerity of your heart, because you are being forced to do so, or for the simple reason of acquiring community service hours, mission trips are the way for you to experience something different and leave that comfort zone you have been clinging onto your entire life. And whether it is traveling to a foreign country or even taking a hike ten miles away from your town, the thought of either can be quite scary due to the expectations that are anticipated. Anything from a language barrier, exposing yourself to another culture, or even not having the slightest idea of what you have just signed up for can make your bones shiver. However, having good support, staying open-minded at all times, and thinking positively is the key to a great experience.
One more thing: expectations will always be blurred and one may never fully know how to prepare emotionally for a mission or volunteer trip. For our mission team, “Mision Manos Hermanas,” we had monthly meetings to give the newcomers an idea of what we were going to face and what was expected of each person. This included testimonials from previous missioners, an infinite amount of raw photos taken previous years, and a detailed presentation of our daily schedule (that, of course, was altered when it needed to be). However, each trip is totally subjective as it depends on what you make of it. The only advice I would ever give anyone would be to let go of any egos, begin to detach yourself of material possessions as soon as possible (including my lifelong illusion that you need makeup), and prepare to be flexible with yourself. In other words, prepare to use your adaptation skills as they are needless to say, vital.
Both of my summers in Peru, the first because my parents implied I had to go and the second because I voluntarily signed up, were educationally enriching, refreshing, and foundational. My friends in Villa el Salvador are unforgettable souls that hold a treasured spot in my heart. As one of the most memorable and humbling experiences of my life, I highly recommend taking a mission trip. “What should I expect?” they ask, to which I will always reply, “Anything.”