Alumni Spotlight: Sierra LeBlanc

Sierra graduated with a Marketing degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 2017 before packing her things and moving to Australia. Although she is hoping to continue her adventure down under more permanently, Sierra looks forward to broadening her travel experience in the coming years.

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Why did you choose this program?

I originally heard about Operation Groundswell through my university, and through my own research on other (somewhat) similar companies, I decided that this company offered programs the most aligned to what I was looking for in a summer program. From there, based on my interests in places to see, actual volunteer work to be done, trip itinerary and the overall experience described, I narrowed down my choice to the Peru Amazon Adventure program. Even two years later, as I continue to be in touch with my group members and often reminisce about my time there, I couldn't have made a better choice!

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

Operation Groundswell did a great job in preparing me for this trip (a huge plus for me as this was my first "solo" adventure). Although I was ready for full details as soon as I had heard I'd been accepted as a program participant, communication was made in a timely manner addressing all important concerns, things to pack, cultural differences to be aware of, a more in-depth itinerary, and more.

I was responsible for arranging my own flights, all travel vaccinations needed, travel insurance and what I wanted to do on my ITT (Independent Travel Time, a key component to OG programs). None of this was much of a hassle, as we were told where to fly into and on what dates, were told what vaccinations were required and were put in contact with group members early so that some of us could start planning some ideas for ITT as a group.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

I wish I had done a bit more research about mobile phone use in Peru, or in general when traveling. I opted to not unlock my phone before leaving Canada, with the plan to only use my phone in wifi zones, however, there were not necessarily many times when these were available. This was not an issue necessarily in terms of contacting home, as there were enough areas to keep family and friends updated, however I've learned that when traveling with others, it is quite convenient to have at least some data (in the case that the group wants to separate, if you need to access a map while you're on the move, etc).
I wish I had done a bit more research about mobile phone use in Peru, or in general when travelling. I opted to not unlock my phone before leaving Canada, with the plan to only use my phone in wifi zones, however, there were not necessarily many times when these were available. This was not an issue necessarily in terms of contacting home, as there were enough areas to keep family and friends updated, however I've learned that when travelling with others, it is quite convenient to have at least some data (in the case that the group wants to separate, if you need to access a map while you're on the move, etc).

For trips longer than a week or two, personally, I would argue that it's worth it to unlock your phone and purchase a cheap sim card when you arrive in the new country. Do a bit of research on which provider has the best service in the country or offers the best pay-as-you-go rates and it will pay off.

Also, if you intend to change altitudes quickly (e.g. Fly to Cusco and hike Machu Picchu), you need to bring altitude sickness medication with you and start taking these as directed before you leave to the higher altitude location. One of our group participants suffered huge (and very scary) medical issues without taking these necessary precautions, so it is really important to be prepared.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Days of this program really varied, as we moved locations often and were sometimes focusing more on activities and sometimes more on work with the local partner organizations. Work would be in the earlier part of the day (with a lunch break) possibly until 1 or 2 pm, at which point we would return home for a shower and usually a little nap. Evenings were spent having a group dinner and then either doing educational (and fun!) group activities or having deeper group conversations (or sneaking off to go buy ice cream or a few cervezas). On days we weren't working, we could be found hiking, finding waterfalls to swim in, exploring the city or town, making artwork, listening to each others' music, interacting with the local wildlife, or having a few drinks together and letting loose.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

We actually journaled about our biggest fears going into the program and reflected on them near the end of the program, so this is an easy one! Personally, I was worried that I wouldn't be physically fit enough for some of the more intensive parts of the adventure (like our 3 day 30km hike through the rainforest), as this was all new to me, and that our group would be really cliquey and exclusive.

In regards to the worry about fitness, that one long hike in particular really tested me physically and mentally, but I can't explain the satisfaction gained through pushing through and completing it with a team of motivating people by my side.

As for the social worries, these flew out the window when many of us were cuddled up in a blanket fort, drinking wine and sharing personal secrets on the very first night.

Going into this program, I really didn't realize that we would all be in the same boat, this being our first big adventure away from family and friends, so we were all keen to get to know one another and create a family of our own.

Any final crazy travel moments to share?

I definitely have a ton of these, but will narrow it to a short bullet point list of some of the most out-there ones:
- Buying some sort of berry alcohol from the one (1) shop in the village (BYOC, bring your own cup/mug/thermos/Tupperware container)
- Accidentally hitchhiking part of the trip to Machu Picchu
- "Third Eye" opening powder at the markets
- A strange amount of comfort in nudity
- Knowing each others' bathroom habits more than you would ever think is necessary (and celebrating when there are causes for celebration)
Plus so so much more.. to be discovered when you take the trip yourself! :)

Anything you'd like us to know?

Thanks for the opportunity! As someone who checks reviews religiously before I go anywhere, I know that people can really rely on hearing the experiences of others in order to reassure them about their choices or to help them make decisions. It's great to see Go Overseas promoting their reviews to be completed as it makes things easier for everyone (and most of us who have gone on these incredible programs don't mind sharing!).