Teaching Swimming in Peru

Can’t really believe it was three years ago that I said to Jody I have found your perfect job in Perú, Cooking/Helping/Waiter At A Vegetarian Restaurant and I was emailing Regina from Otra Cosa Network about running swimming classes in Perú.  So the seed was planted and our trip to South America was taking shape.

Then whilst we were travelling across North America in August last year I made contact with Beata (Bibi) to reconnect with the NGO (charity) Otra Cosa Network.  I didn’t really give any thought to the name of the NGO but Otra Cosa translates to Another Thing, which is quite an unusual name.

Bibi emailed me and welcomed me to Otra Cosa Network and let me know how it all works and how I could help them with teaching the young children to learn to swim, also providing them with some IT support as and when they needed it.

I am an accomplished long-distance marathon swimmer and where I see water I am like a labrador, I just have to jump in it.  Over the years I have taught people to swim but not in a professional capacity.  So before setting off on our travels, I had enrolled on an ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) teachers course in England, just really to get some grounding and understanding of a structure to teach swimming.

We finally arrived in Huanchaco, Peru the early part of January and I was feeling a little nervous about what I was enrolling for. I finally got to the meet the office team, Bibi, Jenny and Amy whom all warmly welcomed us to Huanchaco and Bibi explained how the swimming project was running.

In Perú the children’s summer holidays are January and February and the swimming classes were to run during this time.  I then met up with Fiona from bonny Scotland, a bright, bubbly lass, who was full of energy and put herself 110{9ae7efccebb107403efc7d88e058be8ef13f5c383a9945b6d86e6e0522acfe17} into the project.


The plan was to start the swimming lessons on Monday, meet the children from El Comedor (which is a community centre style place for the children to spend their holidays whilst their mums were working) and then head to the beach for a few hours.

Between us, Fiona and I spoke next to no Spanish so it was going to be difficult to communicate with the children. So we were introduced to Quique, a young 19-year-old student from Trujillo who was volunteering for the summer holidays and going to be our translator during the swimming classes. He was a true godsend and he would be invaluable to help us teach the children to swim.

On Monday morning at 9:30 am, Bibi, Fiona and I walked to El Comedor which was only a short walk from the volunteers’ house and when we arrived at El Comedor, OMG, the children just went crazy for Bibi.  All 30 of the children just ran towards Bibi with open arms, kissing her on the cheek, giving her big hugs and screaming “Bibi, Bibi”  I think you could say they really like Bibi. Watching the children being so happy brought a smile to both Fiona and my face, we knew from that moment this was going to be a lot of fun.

Bibi spoke to the children in Spanish and explained that Fiona and I would be taking them swimming, then all the children got really excited.  All three of us then took the children to the beach, which was about a five-minute walk.  The beach in Huanchaco has known for it perfect surfing conditions, for both beginners and advanced surfers.  So that means waves and not just small waves.  We had twenty-six children that first day who could hardly swim, and Fiona and I were responsible for their safety and we had to teach them to swim too – another OMG! moment. How was this going to work?

Even though the beach is mainly sandy, the water’s edge and the shallows have rocks in so getting in and out of the water posed a little hard and our feet were so sore after the first day and something had to be done to protect our feet.

After the first day of swimming Fiona and I started to work on a plan of how we can teach the children to swim in the sea, thinking of what we can get them to do – remembering we only had the short time between the waves to be able to teach them and even then the children would be screaming as the next wave approached. Not sure if this was excitement or fear or perhaps a little of both.

yeah we are off

I also worked on the different stages of swimming I had learnt from my ASA course, as in England all the course is structured around being in a swimming pool and not teaching children to swim in the sea with waves. So with a little adapting, I produced some ocean-going swimming stages.

The next swimming session Quique came with us and by now I had made a trip to the Mall in Trujillo and bought some crocs, which Clare (another volunteer) and Fiona for some reason called them my contraceptive shoes and laughed every time I wore them. I never really did find out what they really meant by that.

The new crocs worked wonders in the sea and I was able to help the children much more easily both getting in and out of the sea.  The children have a level of confidence in the water that you don’t get with the English children.  Yes, they scream when a wave comes towards them, but they all go under the wave holding their breath and surfacing the other side to continue as if nothing happened.

After the first week of taking the children to the sea a few things had become apparent:

  • The waves change from day to day, for no reason. One day could have huge waves and deep water and other days a small calm environment, with other days been very shallow waters with about a metre of water to swim in.
  • The undercurrent is so strong everyone is pulled in that direction.
  • Keep them away from the body-boards, they give a false sense of security for the children and when they fall off they go under…..!
  • Set a limit on how many children you take into the sea at any one time.
  • Having someone on the beach to look after those waiting to come in is a must.
  • Having someone who can speak the Spanish is a great help and a must mainly for when it is time to head back and the children won’t come out of the sea.
  • I was finding it hard to teach the children some skills due to the waves, as this not only distracts them, it also makes them look for the waves and not concentrate on the skill.
  • The older children always look after the young children, it seems to be in their nature.
  • The children do whatever you ask them to do and really try as hard as they can.
  • Having all the children come running up to you hugging you and kissing you on the cheeks when they first see you, every morning is the norm because they are so excited to be going swimming.
  • On mornings when the children have maths lessons before swimming, DO NOT arrive early, the maths teacher will kill you for disturbing the class.
  • Not having anything for the children to hold onto except the teacher (ME), and finding out that more than six children cause the teacher to disappear underwater.

We soon realised that teaching the children to swim in the sea, with the waves was almost impossible, so Fiona and I decided we would see if we could find a swimming pool that we could take the children to.  We checked in Huanchaco as some hotels had small swimming pools, but in the afternoons they were too busy with residents.  Finally, we found the perfect pool, which was a short bus ride away. The pool was about 10 metres in length and about a metre deep, it was called La Fuente.

fun at the pool

Next, we had to do some fundraising, as we needed to pay for the bus ride and entry into the swimming pool, which would cost between £5 – £10 a time altogether depending how many children we were taking.

Some of our wonderful friends from around the world had sent some parcels to us here in Huanchaco, but due to the Peruvian postal strike over December, there was a backlog of parcels stuck somewhere in Perú waiting to be delivered. They would be delivered eventually but not until the beginning of February.

As we just needed cash to take them to the pool, I set up a GoFundMe webpage and I promoted it to my friends on Facebook.  The next week we started the swimming pool lessons, despite not having any money coming into the GoFundMe page, after a week still no money coming in, I started to wonder if the GoFundMe website was working and if people could donate any money. It was some two weeks before money started to arrive and then we received a lot of generous donations which enabled us to have two swimming lessons in the swimming pool each week which was fantastic.

The swimming pool sessions were improving the children swimming abilities tremendously. One of the girls would not take her feet off the swimming pool bottom to start with, but once Fiona supported her, gradually she found the confidence to put her head down and she swam perfectly for about 5 metres!  Slowly and just magically with her head down she was off just like that. We were so impressed. Both Fiona and I smiled with a sense of achievement that what we were doing was genuinely giving these kids a valuable life skill.

It was time now for Fiona to leave so we held the Thursdays shared dinner on our rooftop and had a BBQ. I had got one of the old posters from the volunteers’ house office and got everyone to write something on it as a farewell to Fiona. She loved it and it brought a few tears to her eyes (and perhaps a few other people too).  Fiona had only been with us for a few weeks of the swimming, but her impact was tremendous and very inspirational. We were going to miss her Big Time!

The swimming pool lessons were a perfect addition to the sessions in the sea. We took a small group of older children and we were able to provide a structured swimming lesson for them. The plan was to teach the older children to swim and then for them to pass on this skill to the younger children when we were gone.

The young girls loving the pool

Thanks to the GoFundMe page we had enough money now to buy some noodles. These were fantastic and perfect for assisting the children to swim, both in the swimming pool and in the sea, as they would provide enough buoyancy to keep them afloat but not enough to give them a false sense of security.

Fiona’s replacement arrived too; Chloé from Belgium. She is a pretty, young student who was on an internship with Otra Cosa Network as part of her coursework, and she can be described as being a little crazy with a French accent. She is crackers!

Chloe and the girls

Now it was Chloé’s turn to meet the children from el comodor, by now then when I turned up the children were running and screaming “professor Bryan, la playa?  la piscina?”, getting hugs and kisses on the cheeks. This was a wonderful feeling every day when we picked up the children.

Every day both Chloé and I, along with Quique from time to time, when he was free to join us, would take the children to the beach on Monday’s, Wednesday’s and Friday mornings and on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to the swimming pool.  The beach was more about having fun and giving the children more confidence in the water and if they didn’t want to go swimming they could dig holes in the sand.

Finally, the Peruvian post was catching up and we received about seven parcels one afternoon, containing everything from books for teaching English, to goggles and armbands for the children to wear whilst swimming – we even got some ducks too. It was brilliant!

Hello Great Britain

We took the ducks and goggles to the swimming pool as we used them in the second half of the session – this was the time for them to practice what they had learnt in the first hour and also give them time to play in the pool too.  What was quite amazing was watching Tanya and Pamela put the goggles on and go underwater. They came up for air and the look on their faces was just sheer amazement as they could see under the water for the very first time.

On the final swimming pool lesson, we decided to take 12 children including some of the very small children, as this would be more of a fun pool session. Both Chloé and I watched as all the older children had fun in the larger pool and the smaller children first played in the very small pool, which was only about 30 cm deep.  After about an hour the smaller children ventured into the bigger pool and without any prompting, the older children took them and started to support them in the water and teaching them how to swim. Both Chloé and I felt a huge sense of achievement and we gave each other a big high five.

let’s go to the pool

Like all good things, the summer holidays have to an end which is sad in a way, but it has been so rewarding for me and all the volunteers who have helped.

I turned up to El Comedor to copy all the photos onto the children’s computer. When I arrived all the children ran up to me once again shouting “la playa? – la piscina?” But no, sadly not this time as it was the last time I would visit El Comedor. The computer was very slow at copying all the videos and photos so I got to play with the children one last time, trying out the slow-motion video capture on my iPhone while they blow raspberries and played with water, it was so funny.

Finally, after an hour, the photos were almost copied and I started to say my goodbyes. We were all sad and upset to say goodbye but it has been a fantastic two months that will last in my memories for the rest of my life. Not only that, it was so rewarding and a real pleasure to have had this opportunity to teach them a precious life skill.

I’d like to personally thank Fiona Weir, Chloé Joseph and Quique Landa Cuba for their help as maestros.  Also, the generous donations received from Katharine, Leigh, Deborah, Cheryl, Mum, Dad, Lorraine and Fiona, which allowed us to take the children to the swimming pool twice a week and buy the much-needed noodles to help the children learn to swim.

two for Ruth

Altogether, we had 13 children pass stage 1, and 2 children pass stage 3 of the ASA levels for which we were really proud of them all. More importantly, the older children now have the basic skills to teach the young children to swim, leaving a legacy for future generations.

I’ve made a video as a reminder of the fun we had in January and February this year of our swimming lessons in the sea and at the pool every day of the week, hope you enjoy it too.