A volunteer stint at Cambodia years ago sparked Lau Kia Yong’s passion for helping out the needy and unfortunate, and even led him all the way to the other side of the globe to Peru (and South Africa too!) to teach English to underprivileged kids. Read Part 2 here.
Lau Kia Yong, 23
Tell us more about Tinkuy Peru. How did you find out about it?
Tinkuy Peru is a non-governmental organization that organizes volunteer programs in Peru, where volunteers teach English. My best friend, Vincent, was the one who suggested volunteering at and travelling in Peru. I visited the website, saw pictures and the programs they offered, and quickly became interested.
I thirsted for experience and wanted to put myself in a totally different place, where I can completely immerse myself and learn more about a country. Going to Peru was the biggest step I had taken in my life then.
Was it difficult liaising with the organizers of Tinkuy Peru?
Not at all. I had doubts initially about the credibility of the organization. However, after expressing interest with the coordinator, I found that he was a pretty cool guy and our administrative matters, such as lodging arrangements and volunteer duration, were processed quickly.
How did you finance your trip? We hear that Latin America is very expensive. Is that true?
Well, I pretty much used all of my savings from my term in the army. The flight to Latin America was the costliest part of my trip. I spent approximately SGD$3,000 for a return flight.
But when you are there (in Peru), everything else is relatively cheap (except for the touristy areas such as Lima or Cusco). I could get a full meal – with half a chicken, fries and a can of soda – for only 10 Peruvian Nuevo Sols, which is about SGD$5.
How was it like when you first arrived in Peru?
I arrived first in Lima (the capital of Peru). Life is really simple there and so different from Singapore. Everyone pretty much speaks Spanish and all of them are very friendly. The Peruvians were amazed because my friend and I were almost the only Asians there. We felt like walking exhibits most of the time!
I guess being Asian was an exotic thing for them. Quite a number of people asked if we could take a photo together. We also had to get used to stares from the locals. It was pretty funny but interesting.
How was the city like compared to Singapore?
The buildings there are not modern. Unlike the modern skyscrapers and high-rise residential flats we have in Singapore, Peru has relatively low and less structured buildings. Shopping malls are not fancy or like those in Singapore. Instead, there were many street stalls, which are very much similar to the pasar malams we have in Singapore.
Although the main capital has decent infrastructure, there were a handful of slums and settlements at the outskirts of the city. Buildings that were not completely built were commonly seen along the hillsides and streets there. Aluminum foils and bricks are typically used as shelters and some locals were seen wearing torn and tattered clothes. Unfortunately, their living conditions are not as luxurious or comfortable as ours in Singapore. But begging was not a common sight.
Tell us about your experience with Tinkuy Peru.
I had an amazing time there. I took a seven to eight hour bus ride from Lima to Huancayo, where Tinkuy Peru is based. The moment I arrived, Tino (the founder of Tinkuy Peru) and his wife Maria greeted us.
The house may be small but it was simple and felt very much like home. It had traditional décor, furniture and paintings of the Peruvian culture. I felt very comfortable.
A typical day in Huancayo went like this:
– 7.30 a.m.: Rise and shine
– 8 a.m.: Breakfast with Tino, Maria, and the other volunteers
– 9.30 – 11 a.m.: English Language class
– 12 p.m.: Lunch
– 1 – 2.30 p.m.: Spanish lessons (on alternate days, they are optional and organized for the volunteers)
– 3.30 – 5 p.m.: English Language class for second group of students
– 5.15 p.m.: Soccer and basketball with the kids
– 7 p.m.: Dinner
– 8 p.m.: Spanish lessons (Part 2)
– 9.30 p.m.: Rest
This schedule typically goes on for two weeks, but we also go on excursions and have other activities with the kids.
How was it teaching the kids?
It was challenging but very fulfilling. For starters, we had to overcome the language barrier. We used some of the Spanish words that we learned to guide us in explaining some concepts. I felt honoured too, because I felt that I made a difference in their lives by teaching them something useful and applicable.
We were only given a marker and a whiteboard to work with. Prior to each lesson, my friend and I would come up with a lesson plan and think about how to teach in the most effective and fun way. For example, we used English to play Battleship, Bingo and Pictionary and the kids loved it!
We teach the kids the basics of English, such as grammar and sentence formation. Though there was a language barrier, we still forged a strong bond because of all the things we did together.
PHOTO: Lau Kia Yong
They come from very simple but huge families. Families there have a lot of children and they may not be well to do, but they are sufficient. They are just such simple people who find joy in the simplest of things. They are really, really fun to hang out with.
You mentioned there were excursions and activities with the kids. Share with us what are some of them.
I attended one excursion that was a hiking trip up to the snow-capped mountains. Typical day-to-day activities included playing soccer and basketball and even Five Stones with them. There were special activities such as Graduation Day and Christmas celebrations.
Graduation Day was similar to the graduation events we have in kindergartens in Singapore. It was for the kids aged six to seven and families volunteered to provide and cook food.
We had to dress up as mascots during the Christmas celebration to entertain the kids and play with them. Tino asked me to wear that outfit (above) and did not give me prior notice! But it was cool. We played Santa Claus and distributed Christmas presents. One of the best students at school received a brand new bicycle.
Sometimes, we would go grocery shopping too. It was very interesting! The streets there are so colourful – there are the textiles, the meat, the produce, the crockeries, etc. There were many basic necessities that you can get in just one place.
Things there are relatively cheap. A huge watermelon costs about 6 Peruvian Nuevo sols, which is about SGD$3. There was certainly value in the money I spent. For example, I bought a kebab from a street store and paid only a small amount but received a huge portion. It is unlike Singapore, where the servings are really small.
Come back next week for more on Peru!