OEP Intern Emily McInerney Volunteers in Peru

My name is Emily McInerney and I am a sophomore at UConn majoring in Natural Resources. This summer I traveled to Cusco, Peru for a month-long childcare volunteer project. I’ve always enjoyed working with children and I love the Spanish language so I was ecstatic to embark on this once in a lifetime opportunity. I spent hours researching Peru and organizing my trip, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to experience.

I remember first stepping out of the airport and being struck by the beautiful mountains that loomed over the city. Rolling hills of lush greens tangled with deep browns filled the horizon. At an elevation of 11,200 feet the clouds rested right overhead like marshmallows. It was a spectacular sight but within seconds it was shattered. The loud beeping and flash of a rickety old bus rocketing past brought me back to reality.  I was standing among the poorest people I had ever seen, where buildings stood lopsided, and strolling the sidewalks felt like being stuck in a horrifying video game—take one wrong step and risk falling into a hole. The natural landscape of Peru is mesmerizing and yet difficult to appreciate when distracted by the immense pollution and impoverished Peruvians who line the streets. It’s easy to take the food on your table and the shoes on your feet for granted when all you’ve ever known is a life full of excess but as soon as I walked out of that airport I knew I was in for a surprise.

Sacred Valley
View on the hike up to Machu Picchu

In the U.S. you may see a few bottles scattered throughout a parking lot but in Peru there are bottles piled on bottles and then piled on even more bottles. Take a moment and imagine yourself bringing out the garbage. You lift up the dumpster lid, throw in the trash, and WHAM! You’re hit by a typhoon of putrid waste. You groan and hold your nose until the five seconds of agony are over. Now multiply these seconds into minutes, into hours, into days. This was a place of permanent rotten odors. There was no escape. The rancid smell of trash engulfed the entire city. Streets were heaped with litter, a rather peculiar contrast against the bright, colorful clothes and sweet fruit on sale that lay intermingled through it all. And it made me wonder: how could such a magical place so rich in culture allow its beauty to be lost amongst this trash?

The crowded city Cusco, Peru

It’s easy to criticize our efforts to improve environmental regulations in the United States but the truth is we act as a role model for other countries who simply do not have the resources to educate their citizens or make the necessary changes. Walking to work each day I was absolutely shocked at the soot that hung in the air. Buses driving by would leave an ominous black trail of exhaust in their wake. This would cause absolute and immediate outrage in America. But for the Peruvians, there are other worries on their minds and the unfortunate reality is that many have no idea what adverse effects this pollution is having on their health.

I went to Peru with a backpack and some clothes and came back with my entire worldview changed. There may not be something that I personally can do on my own but just maybe if I can tell enough people about the hardships endured by the fantastic people of Peru, just maybe we can work together to help make a difference. The list of basic needs these people lack is mind-boggling but seeing as I am majoring in Natural Resources, I decided to focus on the environmental concerns. I can recall one day in particular where I had just finished eating ice cream and I was holding a dripping, sticky cup in my hand. I searched for a garbage can, walking up and down the main avenues, but there were none to be found. Yes, that’s right, not one garbage. Finally after stumbling along for fifteen minutes I found myself in a small park and there stood a tiny, dingy can overflowing with trash. Had I been walking through UConn’s campus I would have found garbage AND recycling bins on every single street.

Machu Picchu

Peru isn’t going to suddenly acquire millions of dollars. And the government isn’t going to suddenly set stricter regulations. But, if the citizens of Peru are taught why protecting our environment is so important, then maybe they can uses their voices to bring about the change that is needed. My hope is that all of us lucky and fortunate ones living in a world of luxury will find the motivation to offer our knowledge on sustainability.