FOR many, the experience of voluntary work in one of the world’s poorer nations can be a life changing experience. For Calum Munro, originally from the Drakies area of Inverness, it also proved to be career changing.
In 2005 he joined volunteers from the city’s Hilton Church on a work party at two boys’ homes in Peru, Puerto Alegria in the Amazonian rain forest and Kusi high up in the Andes. Two years later, he now works full time for the small Scottish charity which organised that trip, The Vine Trust.
"One of my friends and I did a bit of travelling in South America and as part of that we just went along for a couple of weeks," he explained.
"I got back home and got an IT job, but didn’t especially like it, so I phoned Willy MacPherson, my current boss, and asked if there were any opportunities and here I am today."
Calum spends around two or three months of each year in Peru, but also has a lot to do back home in the trust’s Scottish headquarters — previously the director’s garage in Port Seaton near Edinburgh.
"We work very closely with an organisation in Peru, Scripture Union Peru. In this country it’s just four of us, but because of that it is quite varied," Calum said.
"I’ll go into schools and speak about the work, organise trips for people — this year we have had over 300 go over to Peru — I’ll organise training for groups going to Peru, itineraries while they are there, I do some stuff with the website and I do things with the media."
He was also in Peru recently to co-ordinate filming on the follow up to STV’s documentary series about The Vine Trust screened earlier this year. The second series will be broadcast in February.
"The other week we were going over the Andes with a little medical ship," he added, pointing out that it took five days to drive the boat on the back of a lorry to the edge of the rainforest before it began its five-day voyage to Iquitos, the capital of Peruvian Amazonia.
There it will join the two existing ships and a medical clinic funded by the charity which already treats around 52,000 patients a year.
Medical volunteers from the UK will help out with these clinics, but work teams like the Hilton group, medical teams and even school groups, which combine work with education to examine issues of poverty and globalisation, will also get involved in helping the Trust’s street children projects. By the end of next year there will be eight residential homes hosting around 40 boys, as well as a number of day centres and night centres offering refuge for Peru’s street children.
"The hope is the whole project will eventually become self-sustainable," he explained.
"We are setting up micro enterprise projects, for example a bakery, a taxi business, a rickshaw business and a car park business. They can help some of the former street boys, which is very important because there is a lot of social stigma against them which means it’s hard for them to get training or employment in the future. That also raises revenue so the project will become fully self-sustaining."
A party of 35 Highland volunteers led by members of Hilton Church and their friends recently paid a return visit to Puerto Alegria and Kusi, further strengthening the links they established in 2005. They included Raigmore eye surgeon Iain Whyte, who performed several operations, builders from city construction company Tulloch and a range of other occupations from plumbers to hoteliers.
"There are a number of groups that go out more than once," Calum added.
"There are very strong links with Inverness through Hilton Church and other groups and we’re very grateful for what they have done. They have also done a lot of fundraising as well. The team has raised £30,000 for the work. That will fund a home centre for a year."
The Inverness party included a number of family groups, such as Highland Hospice medical director Stephen Hutchison, his wife Ingrid and daughter Fiona (16).
It was actually the second time members of the Henderson family had visited Peru. Two years ago Stephen had visited with his son Iain and older daughter Karen.
Stephen, who has one other daughter Ruth who is yet to make the trip, commented: "It was certainly nice to do something as a family on each occasion and nice to have each other’s support while we were there, but it wasn’t, in a sense, as important as being part of a larger group because the group bonded together well.
"The homes are fairly remote. One of them is almost an hour’s journey in a banana boat from Iquitos, which is itself fairly remote. You can only get to it by boat or plane and Puerto Alegria is up river from there."
He continued: "There were a whole variety of jobs, from bricklaying and various electrical and plumbing things that the various workmen did, but as a far as my family were concerned, we were just being labourers, I suppose."
Stephen had another function as team doctor, though fortunately had only a few minor ailments to deal with despite the arduous conditions faced by the Highland workers.
"Puerto Alegria, is extremely hot and humid. You get really, really sweaty and dirty — it’s incredible. It’s the dirtiest I have ever been in my life," Stephen remembered.
"In Kusi, you don’t get quite so hot because you’re up in the mountains. It’s a much drier heat, so it’s not quite so unpleasant in that respect."
Fiona also had another job, along with the other youngsters of the party, in making friends with the boys at the two homes, despite the visitors’ difficulties with the language.
"It turned into a little bit of a joke with them, trying to say things and them not understanding," she said.
"The younger ones would be quite cuddly and generally wanting to come up and listen to things like iPods. The older ones would play table football and proper football. So there was plenty to do."
Friendships have been formed with the boys, but Fiona will also take some important lessons away from her Peruvian experience.
"To see how poor things can get has been quite shocking really and just to see how nice and lovely people can be.
"The culture there is to treat the street boys like dirt, but this lets you see what fantastically lovely people they are," she said. "I definitely want to go back. I’m already planning my next trip there."
Scott MacRoberts of Milton of Leys, Highlands and Islands regional worker for Scripture Union, also believes his visit will have a lasting impact.
"The boys had obviously been through hell, but in many ways they were the fortunate ones and it was a happy thing to see them having a second chance in life," he said.
"It would be fair to say we felt we gained more in many ways than we were able to contribute. Having said that, we did get a lot of physical work done. We’ve had our horizons broadened and we’ve learned a lot about what goes on in the world."
Angus MacLeod, a Gaelic development officer, said the Hilton visitors had suc
ceeded in introducing some Highland culture to Peru.
The boys were presented with some penny whistles, donated by Highland music tuition organisation Feisan nan Gaidheal, while Caley Thistle may also have picked up some new fans with the donation of a number of strips.
"Some of them were very keen on dance and choreography and we ended up doing the Gay Gordons with them," Angus said with a laugh.
As well as helping construct new buildings in Puerto Alegria and learning to make bricks the old fashioned way from bricks and straw in Kusi, Angus also had some very close encounters with Peruvian wildlife.
"I went to the bathroom in the morning and there was this big-eyed frog looking up at me," he laughed.
"Then where we were eating, some of the boys turned over one of the benches and found a tarantula having a kip!"
More seriously, he added: "Before we went over we didn’t know what difference we could make, but I think just the fact that we are willing to help and are doing something to raise the profile of issues over there is important.
"It certainly makes me appreciate what I’ve got."