Teaching English in a South Peruvian shanty town


Smiling faces from Flora Tristan: From left, Diego, big brother Dario and cousin Katy

“Carga, carga,” beg Dario, his brother Diego and their cousin Katy in unison.


Giving a piggy back to Katy on the way to the yellow minibus

It’s time for the daily dilemma…

Who gets the piggy back to the gravel road?

“Come on then Katy,” I decide, mainly because she looks like she’s about to cry if I don’t pick her, and the dirty-faced little girl giggles with delight as I hoist her  on to my shoulders.

“Corre! Corre!” she screams before roaring with laughter as I run up the dirt track, mimicking the stride of a galloping horse.

In the distance there’s a warm orange glow as the sun sets behind the surrounding mountains.


The bleak landscape in the communities of Flora Tristan and Chachani

This is Flora Tristan. A desolute shanty town in the north of Arequipa.

It is a sprawling tangle of dirt streets, corrugated tin roofs, giant potholes, unviting breezeblock houses and scores of stray dogs.

The breathtaking scenery contrasts so starkly with the immediate environment that it doesn’t look real – more like a make believe backdrop from a Disney fairytale.

My eyes jar as they shift from the natural beauty of the giant snowy mountains and the awesome spectacle of Mount Misti to the bleak dirty wasteland around me.


Walking along the sparse, dusty landscape on the outskirts of Arequipa

In Peru the striking and the startling are often uncomfortable neighbours.

I lower Katy down and the three-year-old Peruvian says “thank you”.

A yellow minibus pulls up next to us, the conductor repeatedly spitting out place names in lightning fast Spanish.

Sophie and I squeeze into the rickety people carrier. It’s so full it looks like it’s about to burst at the rusty metal joints.

Standing room only makes for a pretty uncomfortable hour-long journey back to the centre of Arequipa, but as I glimpse over the passengers’ heads to see little Katy, Dario and Diego wandering back to their unelectrified, waterless breezeblock homes I realise I have no reason to moan.

From the off, the odds are stacked against anyone born here.


Youngsters by the colourful walls of Flora Tristan school

But three years ago a project was launched to try and give kids like Katy, Dario and Diego a better chance in life.

A Peruvian man, Luis Antonio Chavez and his British wife Jay set up an organisation called Traveller Not Tourist. Its aim is to provide youngsters with an escape from their grey lives and give them the opportunity to climb out of poverty.

At the end of 2008 volunteers from around the world began to construct a small school on the border between the communities of Flora Tristan and Chachani.


Wilmer, Maria and Julio in one of the colourful classrooms

Today this bright colourful structure boasts four classrooms, a small library, two computers and its own play area.

The purpose of the school is to teach English and there is barely a spot on the classroom walls that doesn’t feature an English word, rhyme, or phrase.

While the majority of those attending lessons will sadly never be able to afford to visit an English-speaking country, being able to speak the language is hugely desirable in the historic city of Arequipa, which is awash with English-speaking tourists.

A few blocks down a sandy path a whitewashed building is the home for adult English learners and this is where I start my volunteer teaching. A friendly young American by the name of Chris fills me in.

“I’ve been trying to teach a class containing students who have never spoken English before along with three or four others who are pretty advanced. It’s very difficult so it would be great if, with your help, we can split it up.”


With Gustavo who is in his early 20s

I work with the more advanced students Gustavo, Julio and Marcel. They are in their late teens and early twenties. All are keen to learn even if they are not the most punctual of attendees, often strolling in up to 30 minutes late.

These are kids from hard knock lives, but one of the school’s most important values is to instil discipline.

A boy who brings a knife into class one day is instantly told he is not welcome anymore.

There is also a punishment system. If a student is flashed more than one red card a week certain privileges, such as computer time or borrowing a book from the library are removed.

With the late but well-behaved adults I work through articles and exercises featuring more advanced English words, on topics such as Guy Fawkes’ Night and organ donation.

They are keen to know about some American-English song lyrics – Western songs have well and truly permeated into Peruvian life.


Sophie with her little gang of youngsters

The following week I get the opportunity to work with Sophie teaching children between the ages of five and eight.

I am surprised at how good their standard of English is as we play games and use flashcards and worksheets to try and get them to remember different bits of vocabulary.


Sophie and I with class 4


This lively end to the lesson seems to set them up for cancha (playtime) a short stroll away on the school’s own concrete play area, complete with basketball nets and goalposts.

Teachers get involved by swinging a skipping rope, playing on a football team or just looking after some of the babies on the sidelines.


Class 4 get ready to sing…

On mine and Sophie’s final day it’s assembly time and our little band of merry souls try to remember the words to “Heads, shoulders…” in front of the rest of the school.

I think there are a few nerves, but they do their best.

The highlight is class two’s hilarious version of the American rap ‘I like big butts’ complete with dance moves.


Grinning Daniel with his one of his new shoes

Everyone is given a slice of cake and a party bag before me and a couple of colleagues try and control the sugar-high rabble enough to play a game of musical statues.

The excitement reaches europhic levels when they are each presented with a new pair of trainers thanks to an incredibly generous donation from former volunteer Chris Kondas.

Party over, we begin to wander back to the main dirt road.

I feel someone pulling on my arm.

“Teacher Phil, teacher Phil, carga, carga.” It’s little Dario. “My turn, my turn,” he says desperately.

So for one final time I plonk him on my shoulders.

The sun descends behind the mountains as I start galloping down the dusty track.

He roars with excitement. Just like every other kid in the world.


Giving Dario a piggy back for one final time as brother Diego looks on, the beautiful Mount Misti in the background


About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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18 Responses to Teaching English in a South Peruvian shanty town

  1. Tony C says:

    Wonderful stuff Phil and Sophie. I guess it must have been pretty heart-wrenching to leave the little mites at the end of your teaching.
    It’s always amazed me wherever I’ve been that the most deprived kids seem to have the most amazing philosophy and outlook on life, and are grateful as much for the contact and attention yoiu can give them as any gifts – although I guess new trainers would have been hard to beat.
    I sense a calling in the making……
    Take care, and watch out for broken glass!

    • Hiya Tony,

      Yeah was sad to say goodbye. You are absolutely right, these youngsters certainly have an amazing spirit and are so happy and smiley.

      Thanks for taking the time to drop us a little comment, as always mate. Getting ever closer to having to use our emergency dollar!

  2. Tia Annegret says:

    Ich kann mich meinem Vorredner nur anschliessen – herzzerreissend.

    That strange German language:-) again? … it just means – Tony C has taken the words out of my mouth and “heart-wrenching” in German…


  3. how nice that there are people in this world so beautiful, and put their bit to change this reality. I’m Cesar, Arequipa of birth and name of my country ndarle want to thank you for what they are doing for these people that God Vendig

  4. Anonymous says:

    Dear Sophie and Phil, Just lovely. your friend from Ohio, Chris

    • Hey cheers Chris. I wish you could have seen the kids faces first hand when they opened the plastic bags to discover they were now the owner of a brand new pair of shoes. They were soooo happy, couldn’t believe it. And all thanks to your generosity and kindness mate. Brilliant.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi I am Adam’s mom…this was very touching. What you are doing is amazing! Keep touching the world one person at a time!

  6. Anonymous says:

    My daughter is leaving to volunteer with Traveler Not Tourist tomorrow morning. It was so nice to read about your experience with the children. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Oh, shame we won’t get to meet her, but rest assured there is a really nice bunch of volunteers involved with the school, so she’ll have a great time and Sophie and had a fantastic experience. Thanks for dropping us a line.

  7. Renee says:

    Loving your post this morning – what a great organization. Learning and reading are so important to a child’s future. Must have been hard to leave the kids – so darling and eager:)

  8. Angela says:

    Beautiful story and pics. I found your blog through Jay’s facebook. I volunteered with travelor not tourist a few years ago as an English teacher/painter. I still think about those kids all the time. Peru is such a magical spiritual place. If you need a place to recharge I highly recommend stopping in Pisac. It’s a small town near Cuzco. Right outside of the main strip, walking distance is a hotel called Paz y Luz. Diane Dunn owns it. She wrote a book about Andean traditions and she is a really interesting person. Have fun on your journey!

  9. Hi Angela,

    Thanks for taking the time to drop us a line. Yeah those kids are pretty sweet. Cheers for the recommendation, that sounds really nice. If we have time we’ll try and get there.

    Great paint job on the school by the way, love the art work 🙂

  10. Pete says:

    What a fabulous Blog. Can’t wait till you put the video you made there on the net. That will tug even more heartstrings!

  11. Meera Jagannathan says:

    Hi Phil and Sophie,
    What a great journey you have undertaken! I came across your blog as I was researching places named for Flora Tristan, a feminist-socialist form 19th century France who spent a year in Peru with her father’s family. I am writing a chapter on her in my PhD dissertation. I am coming to Peru and will be traveling to many of the places she writes about in her memoir, like, Lima, Arequipa, Cusco etc. If I can squeeze time I wold like to visit Flora Tristan. Please contact me via email.

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