Monday, August 2, 2010

Hi everyone,

I dont have time for an update, other than I am about to leave Chincha for Lima, and eventually go to Iquitos in the Amazon jungle! So stay tuned for that later on.

For now, I have some photos. Even though they are on Facebook, you dont need a Facebook account to see them.

Album 1:

Album 2:

Hope you enjoy!


Update and cultural differences

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hi everyone,

Its been a while since I posted, and I want to give you all a bit of an update on what I am up to here…heres the Coles Notes:

I got back from my trip to Chiclayo, Cuzco and Lima, arriving to an extremely warm welcome from my host family, who welcomed me back with open arms...this made all the difference since I had been pretty homesick in the Lima airport, knowing that I could conceivably get on a plane and be home within 10 to 12 hours.
I started teaching Phys Ed at Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy), a Catholic school here in Chincha, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. After a few chaotic classes with my 4, 5 and 6 year olds, I realized that I was drastically OVERestimating the level of organization they could handle, and drastically UNDERestimating how much time was needed to explain each activity we were doing. Since then things have been going well and the kids seem to have taken to me (Profesor Da-VEED, Profesor Da-VEED!) and I have pretty much fallen in love with them.
On the other days of the week (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) I am still helping to build houses, but work is less frequent and less intense because Blaise, the Canadian Oblate brother who runs the whole operation, is on vacation in Canada and he is the one who approves any new construction.
Last week, we had three Canadian visitors here, as a part of a Canadian trip to see the work that Oblate priests are doing here in Peru. Since Blaise was out of the country, and the Canadians spoke no Spanish, I was their translator. It was a great experience…I got to see new parts of town and meet people in the community that I had never met before, and I learned a lot since the Canadians were full of questions that I had never even thought to ask. It was also great to practice switching between Spanish and English, and I realized just how far I have come with my Spanish so far.
Also last week, I had my birthday (24 years old!), which involved being woken up at 6:30 in morning by my host family serenading me. For lunch (the main meal of the day), my host mother then made my favourite Peruvian dish, the specialty of the Chincha area: Carapulcra sauce (made with dried red pepper, potatoes and peanuts) and Sopa Seca (pasta with basil and a local spice called achote). It was so good that I ate until it hurt (4 platefuls) and then I ate it again for breakfast the next morning too (due to the general deliciousness of my host mothers cooking, and my tendency towards gluttony, my waistline is expanding…surprise surprise). And at night, we ate some cake, drank some beer and danced…all in all, a pretty great birthday.

Now that you all have a bit of a background, I want to talk about some cultural peculiarities, or differences that Ive noticed so far. Keep in mind that Im not an anthropologist, this is just how I see it.

This is probably no surprise at all…but religion is not the same in Canada as it is in Peru. Before I left, I was aware of the following differences (easy to find in a good encyclopedia), and Im assuming many of you know this as well:
-the vast majority of Peruvians are Catholic, while Canada has more different groups of Christians (Protestants and Orthodox), as well as Jews, Muslims, and Hindus
-Peruvians are more likely to describe themselves as religious, while Canada is more secular, with a larger population of agnostics and atheists
-Peruvians are more churchgoing, while many Canadians who describe themselves as believers do not attend church (or organized services) regularly

This nuggests of info, however, really don’t quite describe just how different religion is for Canadians and Peruvians. I would put it this way: religion is a cornerstone of life in Peru, in a way that it is not in Canada. It is absolutely fundamental to the Peruvian communities I have seen, and this is not the case in Canada.

In Peru, as in all former Spanish colonies, the centre of the town (or Plaza de Armas) is a square with a church to one side, government buildings to another and a mix of houses and businesses to complete the lot. The Plaza de Armas is the centre of life in the town, and Peruvian churches reflect this. The central parish in Pueblo Nuevo (the part of Chincha that I live in) is so much more than a church…there is a discount clothes store and bookstore, where donations from abroad are sold at extremely low prices; a kitchen which sells food at prices cheaper than anything available off the street; a clinic, where a doctor can be called in for those who cant afford a private consultation, and discount medicines are sold; an auditorium for 600 people, by far the largest public space in Pueblo Nuevo, which is used by any group in town that needs to address a large group of people; a psychologists office, with free consultations (this has become extremely important because of the traumatic effects the 2007 earthquake had on the public here); and plenty of multi-purpose rooms for all kinds of activities – addicts support groups, choir practice, and so on. In short, the church is the community centre, and the only option for support for the many people who are too poor to afford things otherwise. Where there is a need, the Catholic Church (as the major denomination here) seeks to meet it, with the belief that we should help the poor.

At one time (for example, when Anne of Green Gables was written), things were similar in Canada - the church played a central role in peoples lives. It was understood that Sunday would be a day of rest, and that at some point you would go to a service. The church was the centre of social life, and if you didn’t meet your spouse in the one-room schoolhouse you were taught in, there was a decent chance it would be at church picnic (okay, that is pretty much taken right out of Anne of Green Gables).

This isn’t the way things are in Canada anymore…our society is more secular, and many people are happy about this. In some circles, religion is seen as a force for bad in the world…something that divides people, and makes them feel bad for doing things that are perfectly natural human instincts. Im not trying to romanticize the past, or suggest that things were better before. I have met plenty of people who have very bitter memories of religion in Canada – being unable to marry or even fraternize with people from other religions, children born out of wedlock being shamed for not knowing their fathers, and of course, the residential schools. But what I do want to suggest is that as more and more Canadians have become less religious, our society has lost something as well.

I also don’t want to romanticize religious life here, because there are definitely many problems. The presence of the Catholic Church in peoples lives does not stop some absolutely deplorable things from happening: robberies, especially in the poorest areas, which lack the security of a house and makes the people an easy target; abuse and neglect of spouses and children, since the breadwinner sometimes spends a large chunk of his paycheque on alcohol and drugs; and unethical behaviour by factory owners, who break labour laws by making their workers work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, because they can replace them if they complain, and they can bribe the authorities that they need to. And at times, I suspect that Catholic teachings might be hurting, not helping…such as in the case of the plethora of young, single mothers, who probably never received the sex ed that could have helped in their decision-making. Additionally, some of the problems that plague the Church in Canada – specifically the pedophilic abuse of minors – are said to occur here as well, but given the stature of the Church in Peru the cases are kept under wraps.

That being said, in my opinion, the best aspects of religion (read: Catholicism) in Pueblo Nuevo are: the way that on Sundays, almost everyone in the community leaves their place of residence to meet and mingle with other people in the community; at mass, people have time to reflect on the way they are living their lives and if there is anything they should be doing differently; the ethical message that there is more to living life than making money and buying things with it; and the good works that are done in the name of Christian charity. At their best, this is what religious communities in Canada do, and continue to do today. And I believe that as Canadians have slowly abandoned religion, they haven’t replaced the good aspects of religion with a secular equivalent: time to meet with others in the community, time to reflect, doing good works for those in need, a belief in the value of ethical behaviour – and not the in assumption that power and wealth are inherently good.

When my Beyond Borders professor, Joanne, visited Peru last month, she told us about being in Uganda and watching a British TV special with the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins debating the value of religion in modern society with a devout Christian of some sort…at the end the audience was polled and over 90% said they believed that religion was a force for bad in society! At the same time she was visiting all sorts of Church-based groups who were the boots on the ground and the community organizers in one of the poorest and most AIDS-affected places in the world, helping some of the worlds poorest citizens.

Things just aren’t as rushed here in Peru…if people plan on meeting you at 8, its generally okay to show up at 8:15…for those of you who know me well, this is great news because I have a bad habit of showing up late for things. Except that in Peru, its not really a bad habit, its called showing up when you need to! And as in most of the developing world, any time you do anything that requires technology (booking a flight, withdrawing money, using the microwave), theres a decent chance that it will inexplicably fail on you. The website you are using to book a flight wont load, and you cant use your credit card over the phone; the ATMs that have the PLUS sign on them to indicate that foreign debit cards can be used in them just wont work, with no explanation; and the occasional blackout will take away electricity.

Im sure that for a lot of people I know, this would be a nightmare, but Ive done okay with it so far. Basically, the best strategy I have come up with is to figure out what is incredibly important (Do I have money on me? Where is my passport? When do I need to book my flight?), and give yourself a huge lead time when addressing any issues with them, because you can bet that something will go wrong. For everything else…don’t worry about it too much, things will sort themselves out.

I also think there are valuable lessons to be learned from technology and systems failing on you. For one, you realize the value of simplicity…the simpler your answer to a problem, the fewer links in the chain of events that need to take place, the less likely things will go wrong. For another, the time you spend waiting, or frustrated, is time for you to reflect…suddenly, there is nothing to do but wait, and I think that is something that North Americans are generally uncomfortable with. Sometimes Im at a construction site, all ready to go, but there is something missing and we cant get to work right away…my instinct is to make myself busy but the Peruvians with me generally take the opportunity to socialize and catch up with whatever is going on in each others lives, or in the World Cup.

Buying/Spending money and alternatives
The community I am living in is pretty poor, so the people don’t have the disposable cash that North Americans typically do. They just cant afford to be pulling out their wallet all the time, other than to buy food and transport. If they do go shopping, it is to go to the market for food, and possibly some clothing…although if they want to buy clothing they generally make the trip to Lima, since everything is cheaper there.

The cost of living here is lower, not only because things are cheaper than in North America, but because there are plenty of things to do that don’t involve spending much money. In two months with my host family, we have only eaten out twice, and that was for family members birthdays…its just much cheaper to eat at home. Instead of socializing by going out for coffee, drinking or dancing, the people I know play soccer at least 3 times a week. It only costs 1 sol per person to rent the cement court we use, plus another sol if we share a couple litres of pop afterwards. If you want to go out and see people on the weekend, you can go to the Plaza de Armas at night and just hang out (it helps that the weather here is pretty good – warm and dry, by Canadian standards).

Don’t get me wrong, there are still advertisements, and flashy displays, and the market is an absolute chaos of people trying to get you to buy something from them. But since many people cant afford to buy things, they find alternatives – and often that means doing things for themselves. As North Americans, we can buy our way out of most problems we are faced with…feeding ourselves (tv or microwave dinners), building shelter (architect, contractor and subcontractor), and washing our clothing (ie, the laundromat). In some cases (especially in the case of microwave dinners) the bought solution really isn’t the best, but we don’t know how to do anything else, so we just keep buying…and as such, we have lost a lot as a society – traditional knowledge passed down through generations. I also think that every time we buy a pre-made solution, we lose confidence in ourselves…we are reliant on that bought solution to feed us, clothe us, clean our clothes, entertain us, etc. I think that the average Peruvian, if dropped into the wilderness somewhere, would fare much better than the average North American.

I have some more thoughts, but Im out of time for now, so Ill stop here. I hope you are all doing well!

Peru update

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hi everyone,

I havent posted in a while and when I last posted I was sick, so Id like to start off by assuring you that Im still here, and things are going well. Im actually in the middle of a 10 day trip in different parts of Peru than Chincha Alta…at the moment I am actually in Cuzco, the capital of the former Incan Empire, fighting the altitude. We are at 3450 metres above sea level here, which is past the point where people start to get altitude sickness, and I havent been feeling the best, but on the plus side this hotel has Internet access and televisions that show the World Cup so things arent so bad.

Although Ive been keeping a daily diary of my trip, writing down what I did and any thoughts and reflections that jumped out at me, I dont think Im going to give you guys a day-by-day breakdown like I did last time, only because it took a LONG time to write the last post. But heres what has happened just to keep you all up to speed:

Although I was optimistic that I was over the worst of my sickness, I was dead wrong…I ended up very sick one night and out of commission for the better part of a week, unable to work. When I didnt get much better after a few days I finally went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with a bacterial infection in my digestive tract and prescribed me some antibiotics that I had brought with me from Canada. Within a few days I felt a lot better and although I didnt do any hard labour during that time (my suspicion was that working hard after the initial bout had only made me worse) I did take advantage of the opportunity to do some reading, choose my classes for the fall semester and to attend a school sports competition with my host brother Henry, who is a teacher.

Visiting the school was like nothing I have ever experienced before, mostly because its extremely rare for anyone to see a gringo (thats what Peruvians call anyone white and obviously not Peruvian…even Argentinians! I was recently mistaken for an Argentinian while wearing a Team Argentina soccer jersey but thats another story). When we walked in, a girls team from Henrys school was playing volleyball against another school, and the other school was hosting because Henrys school is too poor to have much in the way of facilities or equipment. Even in Chincha, where everyone is relatively poor compared to the ultra-rich in Lima, the difference was pretty noticeable…the visitors just seemed so much more sad, disorganized and unmotivated as a team, although I guess it could also be due to home court advantage. As soon as I walked in I was the centre of attention, and once I pulled out my camera to take pictures they absolutely surrounded me, elbowing each other out of the way to get into the frame. Once the girls volleyball game was done I was drafted to play for Henrys school in a teachers vs teachers game. I did okay, mostly because I was tall, and it was interesting to note that the best players on the court were the women. Apparently in Peru, soccer is the dominant sport for men and the ladies play volleyball.

During my sick week I was also paid another visit by Blaise, the Canadian Oblate priest behind the whole house-building operation in Chincha. As I got to know him better and talked to him about his work, I began to realize that he runs a very impressive operation. In part this seems to have a lot to do with his personality – he is by nature extremely practical, stubborn and willing to find unorthodox solutions to the problems he sees. Some of the stories he has told me about himself clearly reflect this – for example, while serving in the Canadian military he wasnt granted a vacation that his unit was promised, so out of anger he threw his belt containing his gun and ammunition at a wall. Knowing that he had done wrong, he marched HIMSELF to his bases holding area and informed the warden what he had done…within a day he was granted his leave while the rest of his unit remained behind. Another time, a Peruvian police officer asked for a bribe (all Peruvians think the police and government are corrupt, and they dont think too highly of public officials in general), so Blaise gave him a rosary that he had in his pocket and was sent on his way with no further harrassment. He gave the police officer a ROSARY as a bribe…incredible.

As for the house-building operation, I am extremely impressed. Blaise is very clear about his goal : to build houses for the poorest people in Chincha, so that they can begin to build their life. At times, this has meant saying no to options that may attractive, but really dont help him and the community. For example, several years ago, a group from Italy came and built around ten very attractive houses in one of the poorer parts of town, using materials donated by Blaise, and providing water, electricity and furniture for the future occupants. As we drove by the places Blaise said that while he had provided the materials, he didnt support that kind of work because it gave people everything and they didnt necessarily know how to take care of it…in his opinion, the buildings will probably start falling apart in the next few years due to neglect. In contrast, the homes that are built through Blaises work are very simple 5 m by 10 m buildings constructed using cement bricks, and no light, electricty or finishing work is provided because that could potentially double the costs and take away from the other people in the community who need homes. Also, the people who are to live in the houses contribute to the cost (somewhere between 25% and 40% of the costs, I cant remember exactly) and take part in some of the less complex building tasks, with the idea that if they are personally involved in the process they will appreciate what they have more. However, in cases where the future homeowners are extremely poor and simply cant afford to pitch in at all, Blaise works out an agreement so that they can be less, sometimes nothing at all. Furthermore, there is no moral component when choosing who gets a house built for them…no questions are asked about alcohol or drug use, marital status or family situations, the only criteria is need.

Where does all the money come from? From what I gather, the donations mostly come from Canada through a letter-writing campaign. Blaise never asks for money directly, he simply informs people of the work that is being done and what is being accomplished…or if the person has already donated money he will take pictures and send them a letter informing them of what was done with their money. As a result of the way he does things, I strongly support his work and plan on becoming a regular donor in the future.

Spanish Lessons
Another result of my conversations with Blaise was that he recommended a Spanish teacher to me, so once I was over my sickness and feeling up to it I started taking Spanish lessons in the evening. My teacher, July (pronounced Julie, not like the month of July) is an English and Spanish teacher for young children, and our lessons consist of me going over to her house around 5:30pm while she tutors a group of young boys that need extra help. They are all 7 to 9 years old and all call her ˝Miss˝, which I thought was strange until I realized that she was an English teacher and I know all my French teachers in Canada as ˝Madame˝. Francisco, Angelo, Stefano, Hans and I make an odd group, studying English, Spanish, Cursive Writing, Arithmetic and generally trying to stay out of trouble while our teacher hops from person to person trying to help each one of us out. On the second day I found a kids Spanish-English picture dictionary that I ended up devouring in the next 3 lessons, and which finally taught me all the basic words in Spanish that arent just a modified version of French – in my first week here I was able to have an abstract discussion about politics and corruption in Peru, but I was completely incapable of asking for any kind of eating utensil in the kitchen. No longer.

Overall the lessons have been a big success – once the other students leave I usually stick around for a while afterwards and we talk about different things…politics, the different regions of Peru, poverty, Peruvian cuisine (which is a pretty great topic to talk about with all Peruvians Ive met, and probably with people the world over since its a lot less controversial than politics). Her Spanish is much more clear and easy to understand than my host familys , and I ask her any questions I have about the language, and Ive definitely started to see some real progress.

Meeting up with the SJU trip
Before I left for Peru, I discovered that the SJU residence was planning an experiential learning trip to Peru during my time there. The goal of the trip is to give interested students the chance to get a first-hand look at issues in the developing world and give them a better understanding of how their actions in Canada connect to issues and problems in other countries. At the heart of the trip would be a visit to coffee growers in a remote area of Northern Peru who produce the coffee beans used to make Café Femenino, an organization that distributes an organic coffee brand in North America and Australia, as well as contributing to the organization and development of the people in the area. Additionally, the group would visit a retreat centre in one of the pueblos jovenes, or suburban slums, of Lima, and an organization for abused people in Cuzco, before embarking on a trek to Machu Picchu, the ancient city of the Incas that is on the itinerary of practically every visitor to Peru. Although the group had done a retreat and some group building activities before leaving Canada, I was invited to join and I set about organizing everything I needed to do the trip with them. I found out all the flights, tours and hotel rooms I needed to book, but actually booking them was another thing altogether…things just arent as predictable and reliable as they are in Canada. For example, LAN Peru charges foreigners roughly double the price that Peruvians receive, and with the competing airline, Star Peru, paying online is impossible since the webpage where you pay doesnt actually load. After about half a day of frustration I decided that using a travel agent was the best idea and she easily took care of everything, including sending me copies of my boarding passes to print out. I smell a bit of a racket (the travel agents clearly get a lot of business this way, especially from foreigners) but having wrestled with the alternative for several hours I was okay with it.

To meet up with the group I would have to take the bus from Chincha to Lima. Interestingly, the bus line that everyone recommend (Soyuz) costs only 10 soles, or about $4 Cdn, for the 250 km trip, cheesy movies included. However, the experience was a stressful one. My host mother, Enma, insisted that her son Henry accompany me down to the bus station, which was actually just people hanging around on the street. I was also peppered with all kinds of advice…such as putting my bag on the rack opposite my seat so that I could keep my eye on it at all times, and making sure to get a taxi from inside the bus station once I got to Lima since unscrupulous cab drivers are scared of the police there. Fortunately, I had arranged for Luis, a priest from the Oblate house in Lima, to meet me at the bus terminal, and when I got there he showed me around. We eventually found the travel agency where I had to actually pay for everything I had booked…4 flights, a hotel room in Cuzco for 4 nights, and a guided tour to Machu Picchu, and the grand total came to around $900 CDN. I really wished Luis wasnt there to see just how much money I was blowing – we both knew that that money could easily finance half a house in Chincha – and I felt like a complete jerk. I was going to parts of the country that my host family and Luis didnt have the means to visit, I was going by plane, an experience that none of them had…but I received nothing but the best wishes for my trip and the only thing they asked of me was that I take a lot of pictures for them to see. I spent the night at the Oblate house, sharing a delicious chicken dinner, and they all noticed that in the three weeks since my last visit it was clear that my Spanish had greatly improved.
The next morning I got up at the ungodly hour of 4 am, because I had to catch a flight to Chiclayo, in northwest Peru, at 6:30 am. Once again Luis helped me out, taking the cab with me to the airport and showing me around until I went into security. In security I started to see some foreigners and hear some English for the first time in 3 weeks, and I noticed something odd: the Americans in security were much more scared than any of the Peruvians. Without any prompting they took off their shoes (this actually isnt required for domestic flights in Peru) and seemed to generally cower in the presence of the security officers. I have to admit that I was shocked when a pair of scissors that I had in my first aid kit were approved by security because ˝they didnt have sharp ends ˝. NEVER would that happen in the USA.
I finally met up with the group as I was waiting for the same plane to Chiclayo, and it was really nice to see some people I knew again, and to speak some English. When we arrived in Chiclayo I realized that I was going to be really useful, since there was only one other person in the group (my friend and Beyond Borders alum Becca) who could speak Spanish and my language abilities were, relatively speaking, excellent. The fact that I was good at Spanish hadnt really occurred to me, since pretty much everyone else I had met so far was a native Spanish speaker and I had been unconsciously comparing myself to them…but my confidence soared as I realized just how far I had come – I could haggle with vendors at the market and cab drivers, ask waiters what their favourite dishes were, and find out from the hotel receptionist the best places in town to visit. Our first afternoon in Chiclayo, we were given a presentation at the headquarters of Café Femenino, whose staff spoke no English, and Becca and I translated the entire presentation and question-and-answer period for the rest of the students. It was a pretty great feeling.

Café Femenino
The presentation gave us a broad overview of the work that Café Femenino was doing in the Chiclayo area, and the next day we set out in some heavy duty 4x4 trucks to meet the coffee growers themselves. We were treated to quite the experience…driving up the Panamerican highway through different towns where all the walls were covered with campaign slogans for next years election, as well as elections over the past 10 years; cutting off the highway onto a dirt road that headed up into the mountains, starting with a desert and progressing into wetter vegetation as our altitude gradually increased. We finally arrived in Tallapampa, 1800 metres above sea level, to a small town with an absolutely breathtaking view.

The people in this area of Peru are very poor, and it is extremely rare for them to receive visitors, unless they are involved somehow with Café Femenino. Compared to Chincha, smiles were rare and the people seemed much more downtrodden…a ˝buenos dias˝ would usually get a response, but not necessarily eye contact and rarely any kind of positive energy. The situation seemed particularly bad for the women, who were more likely to keep their distance from us…the presentation had told us that spousal and child abuse were rampant in this region, and this was why part of the founding principles of the Café Femenino (which translates as ˝Feminine Coffee˝) are to achieve greater respect and influence for women in their communities.
Still, though the community was poor and life was difficult, the situation we witnessed was actually progress. When Café Femenino first started, women were not at all involved in meetings or decision making, but when we walked to the neighbouring community of Caracha they were taking part.

In our three days in Tallapampa, we accomplished a lot...we helped to dig a huge hole in the ground, which would be used to hold water during the lengthy dry season in the area and allow them to irrigate their crops better, and would eventually be lined with a plastic membrane to prevent water from seeping out; we got a sense of how the community worked and how they made decisions; we played a game of soccer at a high enough level to show that we werent entirely illiterate in the worlds sport; and probably most importantly, we built friendships with people that we hope to have a lasting connection with, despite the language, culture and wealth barriers that were so obvious between us (despite having a month in Peru under my belt, I still couldnt understand what some of the people with stronger accents were saying!). And by talking to both the local coffee growers and the members of the Café Femenino, we got a sense of how disempowered a poor farmer in the developing world can be: volatile commidity prices on the world market make it anything but certain that you will be able to sell your produce, and what you will get for it - but the alternative, working with an organization like Café Femenino to be a registered organic grower involves a pile of paperwork, and faith that by working together with other people you can actually stand up to the Goliath of the world coffee market.

Despite how life-altering our visit to Tallapampa had been, we were all happy to head back to Chiclayo, and stay in a hotel with running water and appliances. We made the most of our couple days there...we went to the beach, which we mostly had to ourselves given that it was the off-season; we went to market and haggled with vendors while trying to avoid pickpocketers; we hung out in the main square and watched and evangelical minister preach until he was red in the face, and local people practice capoeira, a type of Brazilian martial arts inspired dance; and we found a nice restaurant where we tried a Peruvian specialty called cuy...actually, cuy is the Spanish word for guinea pig. After eating just about anything that was put in front of me, this turned out to be too much...although it was grilled to perfection I just couldnt shake the fact that it looked less like a delicious bunch of meat, and more like a poor dead creature that had a run-in with a flame thrower...I still ate more than 3/4s of the thing anyways though.

After the first leg of our trip in Chiclayo, we headed to an entirely different part of Peru - Cuzco, located 3400 m above sea level, and the old capital of the Incan Empire which dominated most of present-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and some of Chile as well, before being overrun by the Spanish conquistadors. Cuzco is also the staging area for visitors to Macchu Picchu, known as the Lost City of the Incas because it was one of the few places that the Spanish never found and therefore it was saved from being sacked. Macchu Picchu is possibly the single most popular tourist attraction in South America (save, possibly, Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval) and as such, Cuzco is much more touristy than anything we had really been faced with. Also, the fact that it is 3400m above sea level makes the possbility of alititude sickness very real, so plenty of people planning on going to Macchu Picchu spend a few days in Cuzco getting used to the altitude.

First post from Peru

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hi everyone,

Its been almost a week since I left Canada and I have some time this afternoon, so I thought Id post something to let you all know that Im alive and doing well. You may notice a lack of punctuation at times, please try to get by it, its just that I havent quite figured out how to do apostrophes and all that.

Heres a play by play of whats happened so far:

Monday, May 17th

The day before I fly out. Still got lots of things to do, things to buy, important documents to photocopy. I meet with Glen, who works at St. Jeromes University and is leading a trip to Peru in June, and we figure out a good time to meet up. I make it home and finish packing up all my stuff from school into boxes so that it can be put into storage, and then start packing up everything I have gathered for my trip...documents, clothing, medications, lots of important stuff. Im stressed because I dont want to forget anything and I dont know what Im getting myself into, and I blow up on my family when problems arise. My brother and mom help me back and eventually everything gets done, at 130 am. My mom and I drive to Toronto, to sleep and my Omas i.e. grandmothers, for the night before I fly out the next day...Mom falls asleep while I drive but fortunately Ive been living on Pacific Standard Time, waking up late and going to bed late, so Im okay. We get to Toronto at 240 am and then go to bed right away...I set my alarm for 630 am. Yay.

Tuesday, May 18th

My alarm goes off at 630 am and I immediately hate my life…not a morning person and on 4 hours of sleep Im even less of a morning person. I get up and shower because I havent for a while and Im not sure when I will be next. Oma plys me with lots of food and coffee and I stop hating the world quite so much. Mom and I drive to the airport…when we get there it takes a while to find a parking spot and the right gate. We say our goodbyes and she waves, and I start into the unenviable task of going through security and assuring everyone there that no, I don’t have any explosives in my shoes and my laptop wont be used to set off a bomb or anything. Fortunately the airport staff are pretty nice. I make it through security and head to my gate…knowing I have some time before boarding at 1025 I decide to set my alarm for 10 and then take a nap. My alarm goes off at 10 sharp and within seconds, the flight attendants start calling for preboarding for my flight. Im pretty happy with myself and my ability to optimize nap time.

I eventually get on the plane and the guy Im sitting next to strikes up a conversation with me, and we have a good chat throughout the entire flight to Atlanta. His names John and hes on his way to Orlando to meet up with some family members vacationing there. When we get to Atlanta, we exchange contact info and he goes to his terminal and I head to mine.

The Atlanta airport is huge, since it’s a Delta Airlines hub. Knowing that I have a few hours to kill I have some spicy chicken…I get it in a huge food court that has a bar in the middle, a fabulous piano player doing his thing, and lots of military guys everywhere. Sweating a little from the chicken I go to the bar and order a beer Ive never heard of. The bar staff and everyone at the bar are super friendly, and I eventually meet a few people…a guy from South Carolina whos done work throughout South America and is on his way to Brazil, an English hairdresser who lives in Florida, and a girl from Texas who is trying to get a flight to Italy for her sisters wedding. Getting the flight is not going so well, and shes kind of upset with her sister for selfishly deciding to have her wedding in Europe. I drink two more beers, partly because there were two kinds left that I didn’t recognize, and partly because the English girl tending the bar applied the perfect amount of pressure. Given that I havent slept much for a couple days, the three beers hit me pretty hard, and I switch to water…eventually I take a long trip to the loo and then head to my gate, which I had scoped out earlier but which is now packed.

Everyone on the flight to Lima seems to be Spanish speaking, but also perfectly bilingual. I eventually make my way onto the plane and find myself next to a young, Spanish speaking mother, and her 8 month old son. I know its gonna be a pretty interesting flight. The boy, named Victor, is pretty excitable, but he eventually calms down and I start reading a book I bought in Atlanta…its called Nudge, and its fantastic. After a while Victor wakes back up and starts grabbing my arm, which breaks the ice and I start talking to his mother…turns out she was born in Nicaragua, studies in the US, but is going to Peru to do some development work…WITH her 8 month old son. Im immediately impressed, and am even more impressed when she manages to fill out her Peruvian customs form, eat dinner while standing up, and maintain her grace and patience in the presence of a pretty exasperating young son. As we get closer to Lima, I start to get anxious and I cant concentrate on my book, so I watch an in flight movie…Its Complicated, with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin, and I really enjoy it.

Eventually we land in Lima, and given the horror stories Ive heard about drinking water in the developing world when your not accustomed to it, I decide to ask for some water to go as I leave the plane. The flight attendants are nice and give me a huge bottle…crisis averted, for now. While waiting for baggage in the airport, I notice that the people on my flight neatly divide into two categories…Spanish speaking people who are dressed a little more formally and seem to know what they are doing, and English speaking backpackers wearing trekking gear, and a little less comfortable with the territory. After a long wait, I finally get my backs and head out, where I am immediately accosted by taxi drivers, but I eventually find a short man holding a David Hewson sign, and Im introduced to Father Alberto. We head outside, where it is warm and humid and the air is salty. We get out of the parking lot and Im introduced to Lima traffic…although its around midnight on a Tuesday, so I wonder how much worse it is in the day. Father Alberto and I start off speaking English, but then switch to Spanish, and he points out sights of interest along the way, but I really cant see much since its dark and most things are walled off. Eventually we arrive at the Oblate seminary and Im rudely introduced to the fact that by Peruvian standards, Im a giant…the staircase leading up to my room on the second floor is way too low for me to walk out without stooping. Im told that there is a morning mass at 700 am the next day, and I dump my stuff in the bedroom Im given. I plug in my super high tech, UV light water purifier, just to make sure that it will be charged when I need it, and go to bed…its 1230 am.

Wednesday, May 19th

My alarm goes off at 650 am and I hear the people in the house walking around, ready to go to morning mass, but I wimp out and decide not to, although its in part due to the fact that Im exhausted. When mass is over I go downstairs for breakfast and learn that there is one priest, Father Cesar, and the other 6 people at the table are seminarians. I have some of the Peruvian coffee at the table and its GOOD, and my first Peruvian breakfast turns out to be pretty typical of my breakfast most days…fried eggs with some meat, and white bread and butter.

After breakfast Father Cesar informs me that I will be going to Chincha that day, so I pack up my stuff upstairs and then head ty to the common area, where I start talking to Luis, a seminarian who happens to be from Chincha. I find out that given the large Oblate presence in Chincha Alta, a lot of the seminarians in Lima are actually from Chincha too. Eventually our ride shows up…I meet Pati and Umberto, two other people from the parish, and with Father Cesar driving we head towards Chincha.

In Lima, we drive past the Catholic University, and down to the beach, then back up towards the Panamerican Highway. Lima seems to be a pretty chaotic city, with some ritzy areas along the beach and some really poor areas on the outskirts of town. We get pulled over twice by police officers, not for any obvious reason, but Father Cesar doesn’t seem to think much of it, hands over his papers and is very respectful, which I think is probably the way a priest or other moral authority should behave in that situation. Eventually we make it to the highway out of town, and Im struck by the landscape…everything is very dry and sandy, but hilly as well. We drive close to the ocean…closer to Lima are ritzy compounds that Father Cesar points out as vacation spots for rich people from Lima, but as we get further away we start to see poorer people, with horse or donkey drawn carts carrying crops, and we pass some massive chicken compounds that smell so foul my eyes water. When we arrive in Chincha I immediately start to get uncomfortable, because it seems incredibly poor…very dry and barren, garbage and rubble on the roads, and dogs keep running out and barking at our car, narrowly avoiding getting run over in the process.

We arrive at the house where I will be staying, and on the doorstep is my host father, Paulino, wearing a baseball hat and talking on a cell phone. The house seems to stand out from the others in the area, as it is colourful and it has some well kept trees outside. Father Cesar introduces me to Paulino and my host mother, Engma. Paulino and I sit on the couches in his front room and Im pleasantly surprised to find that I am a lot better in Spanish than I thought I would be…although he speaks fast and in an accent Ive never quite heard before, I can understand him pretty well. After a while Paulino has to go and gives me the remote control for the TV, and I find that there are at least 70 channels, and I realize that I maybe wont be leaving as many comforts behind as I thought. They also show me my room, which is at the back of the house and is all laid out ready for my arrival.

In the next little while I meet the other residents of the house…Henry, 27 years old, who is on a motorcycle on his way out the door to teach at a school, Paulo, 25 years old, Katarina, or Kati, 11 years old, Alexandra, Henrys girlfriend, and 4 dogs …Ling, Lincito, Gordo and Clementina, in declining order of size. All the people are incredibly nice and friendly, but not overwhelmingly so…and the dogs just seem to view me as another warm body that might drop some food on the floor once in a while.

Around 230 pm we have a big meal…I will later find that this is a pretty common time to have the big meal of the day. We eat a lot of carbs…soup with pasta, and chicken and rice, which I will later find to be pretty typical of what we eat…lots of calories to give you fuel for hard work. I spend the rest of the day sort of hanging around, talking in Spanish and listening. I also nervously eye my bottled water situation as it slowly becomes depleted and try to figure out how my UV water treatment system works. Around 1100 pm we eat again, this time some delicious hamburgers, and I go to bed, exhausted.

Thursday, May 20th

I wake up late, around 9 am, not very well slept…throughout the night Id been woken up by dogs howling and a bunch of activity around 7 am. Turns out this family gets up early. Even though there was only a one hour time change, and traveling to Peru consisted of sitting for hours on end, Im exhausted, so I go back to bed pretty soon after, taking a long nap which lasts until Paulino wakes me up in time for the 2 pm meal. Somewhat sheepishly, I head to the dining area and once again, enjoy some of Engmas exotic Peruvian cooking. During the meal, I discover that the family doesn’t drink their water straight from the tap either…instead, they boil large quantities at a time and drink it when its cool, and Engma encourages me to take as much of this water as I need. I remember that somewhere I had read that a rolling boil, for several minutes, is required to ensure that water is safe to drink, and Im not sure that Engma does this…but instead of living in fear, I decide to throw caution to the wind and drink from the houses boiled water, effectively daring Peruvian water to do its worst. Conveniently, this also means that I can stop worrying about my fancy shmancy UV water treatment system which I still havent figured out yet.

Throughout the day, I hear various rumours that Blaise will be coming by to see me, so I stay put…Blaise being the Canadian Oblate priest that met with Joanne, the Beyond Borders program director, last year and arranged for my placement. However he doesn’t show, and I spend more time in the house sort of hanging around, watching Spanish TV and talking to people. Truth be told, Im a little wary of going out because I stand out pretty clearly in the crowd…Im white skinned, taller than the tallest person anyone has ever seen, and uncomfortable with the poor area Im living in. The house just seems so much more comfortable. I eventually go to bed, early once again, this time after some of Engmas delicious homemade pudding.

Friday, May 21st

I wake up late again, around 9 am, and Engma once again spoils me by showering me with different delicious breakfast foods. Throughout the visit, Ive been eating a lot, in part because Im a glutton, in part because Im expecting to get very sick from the water eventually and I want to have significant glycogen stores whenever that happens, and in part because by happy conincidence, my research tells me that in most places around the world, stuffing your face with food that someone offers you is a sign of respect and admiration for their cooking abilities. This strategy had worked well for me when visiting family I didn’t know that well Germany, and judging by the smiles Engma gives me whenever I overindulge, its working here too.

Feeling a bit of cabin fever after a few days cooped up inside, and sheepish at my timidness in getting to know my surroundings, I convince Paulo, Kati and Alexandra to go for a walk after the 230 lunch. While getting ready for this involves taking off sandals and putting on shoes, the other house members take about 20 minutes to get ready and emerge looking very presentable and well made up. We start walking and go to the nearby park, Parque Revolucion, and I ask everyone which revolution this is referring to…Simon Bolivars rebellion against Spanish colonial rule in the 1820s? One of the military coups in the 1960s? They seem to find this funny and I don’t end up getting an answer. We move on the plaza of Pueblo Nuevo, which is the centre of our part of town, with a nice park in the middle, the Oblate parish centre, and shops on all four sides. The area is really nice…theres grass, shade from overhanging plants, and tiled walkways. There are benches everywhere, with lovebirds gazing into each others eyes and young kids running and biking, and generally being young kids.

Throughout the walk I realize a few things…firstly, the town isnt quite as despicably poor as I first thought, given that it is so barren. The fact things that look barren has a lot to do with the fact that this is an incredibly arid climate, and the natural countryside is desert. Although in North America this might mean that people would water the crap out of their lawns to make them lush and green, the people here don’t do that, partly of course because they cant afford to do so.

Secondly, I don’t draw as much attention as I was fearing I would, and Im happy about it. Although I am the only non native I see among hundreds, if not thousands of people, nobody seems that impressed, although I do get some curious looks. My fears of being harrassed to no end by vendors thinking that Im full of money, or being climbed by random kids amazed at how tall I am, go thankfully unrealized.

Later that evening, Paulo takes me to the centre of Chincha Alta, which is much busier and congested than the centre of our district of Pueblo Nuevo. We go there in a mototaxi, and just getting there is an experience in and of itself. The mototaxis are modified motorcycles with cabs in the back, enough to squeeze in three people…like most other drivers, our driver has his outfitted with a combination of religious quotes and icons, such as a sticker saying Jesus loves you and pictures of the Virgin Mary, and other paraphernalia, in this case a bunch of Spiderman stickers. Like the other mototaxi drivers hes a complete lunatic, honking his horn if he goes through intersections to warn people and other cars, motorcycles and mototaxis to get out of the way. Despite the craziness of it all, it’s a strangely efficient system, and everyone seems to get where theyre trying to go.

The downtown is congested with mototaxis honking and people shouting, and everything seems tight and cramped…I have to duck to avoid overhead wires going to vendors stalls. It’s a bit of a sensory overload but I enjoy the experience, and we run into some girls that Paulo knows and chat a bit. I get my first introduction into the standard Peruvian greeting, a handshake and kiss on the other persons right cheek. Once again my Spanish does me well and Im pretty happy with myself.
When we get back, Paulino informs me that Blaise is really busy and wont be able to see me for a while, but in the meantime Im supposed to work with him and his house building crew the next day. Since were supposed to get up at 630, I go to bed early, once again with some of Engmas delicious dessert in my belly.

Saturday, May 22nd

At 630 am, I get up and Paulino and I have some sweet breakfast quinoa prepared by Engma. In the past Ive tried to make quinoa, an Incan staple in precolonial times, as a sort of rice substitute, but it didn’t turn out that well…this stuff, on the other hand, is delicious. Full of delicious carbs, Paulino and I walk down to the nearby main street, where he flags down a friend of his from work named Walter. Walter gives me a ride to the construction site, and Im dropped into the world of backbreaking manual labour; on this day, we are putting in a concrete foundation for a house that is being built with support from the Blaises Oblate mission. The job involves moving a bunch of rocks from the street into the middle of the house to be, and then making and bringing in concrete with wheelbarrows. It’s a pretty tough job…the future house owners do the hardest part, which is shovelling gravel and rocks into the cement mixer, but other work includes getting the cement, or lime, ready to be put in the mixer, making sure theres enough water, and then actually moving the prepared concrete with a wheelbarrow and dumping it into where the foundation has been dug out. Im definitely a newbie and at one point I even fall into the hole where I am dumping out my concrete, fortunately without any severe damage except to my severely wounded pride. Every time I dump my wheelbarrow loads after that, I get some help from the guys working to level out the foundation, since their confidence in me has evidently been severely shaken. After about 5 hours, the job is done, and our rewards are steaming plates of rice and chicken from the women next door to our house. Im struck by the fact that while rigid gender roles are something I don’t support, the sheer seamlessness and perfectness of this is breathtaking…as we walk from the street, where we have just finished cleaning all the concrete off our equipment, to the back yard, where we will eat lunch, a girl passes us each plates of steaming hot, fresh food as we go by, the perfect reward for all our hard work. We devour our meals, along with a large bottle of ice cold Coke, and then Walter gives me a lift back to Paulinos house.

Back at the house, we turn on the TV, because the final of the European soccer Champions League is about to start and weve been excited about it all week. All the guys in the house watch the game, and when Engma has our 230 meal ready, we turn the TV to face the table so that we can still watch the game as we eat…although we do turn it off while we say grace, which is taken pretty seriously here.

After the Champions League final is done, Henry informs me that there will be a soccer game in the street at 430…its tradition, and everyone shows up at that time. We go outside and warm up, kicking around the ball, and I meet some other guys from the neighbourhood. Instead of the makeshift nets that we usually use in Canada, which usually are two backpacks or shoes for each goalpost, these guys set up actual nets out of wood, with actual goalposts and crossbars.

We divvy up the teams and start playing…and to say it is the most fun Ive had playing soccer in a while is a huge understatement. Everyone there had been playing together for years, and they are all GOOD. More than that, it is really intense, with fouls, arguing and slide tackling. When I later tell Henry that in Canada, we save the slide tackling for the official games and not for playing with your friends, he tells me: no hay amigos cuando jugamos al futbol (there are no friends don’t when we play soccer). Throughout the game, there are pauses for passing trucks and mototaxis, which come barrelling through honking their horns, and passing pedestrians, including on one occasion a very old grandmother. Needless to say, I pretty much have the time of my life. We play until the streetlights come on, and near the end I have a clear view down the field…the warm lighting of the streetlights, the dirt of the street, dust rising in clouds from people skidding around, and people yelling at each other in Spanish…and I know that it’s a memory I will never forget.

After the game, we sit down on the front step of the house and drink a 2 litre bottle of Fanta soda, which predictably tastes delicious. Reflecting on just how much fun the game of soccer was, I start explaining to Henry and the others that while their society is definitely poorer than the industrialized world in many ways, in some ways their quality of life is so much higher…they have very small houses, but this means they are close enough to easily interact with all their neighbours. In my time here, Ive noticed that there are lots of kids in and out of the house, and no one is surprised by this…one kid even stays for dinner one day. The people who had just been playing soccer with us all lived within 200 metres, but this was enough to put together a fantastic 6 on 6 game. I explained that in Canada, our houses are big and far apart, and people don’t always know their neighbours. When kids play soccer, often its in an organized form with practices and games with referees, and they either drive or are driven to and from the game. And when it comes to playing on the street, I tell them that there really arent that many kids outside playing as there were even when I was little, since they are just as likely to be inside glued to their TV or computer screens. This isnt the first time we have compared life in Chincha to the life I know in Canada, and they are interested to hear it…Paulino tells me that hes noticed a difference in the last couple of hears as well, since some people now have internet (including my family) and they buy and meet online more often, meaning that they are less likely to go out to do things.

Sunday, May 23rd

On Sunday, Engma promises me that she will finally make ceviche, the Peruvian national dish, which is made by cooking raw fish or seafood in lime juice…the acidity of the citrus juice cooks the raw seafood. But first, we have to go to downtown Chincha Alta to buy everything we need, and this turns out to be a thoroughly exhausting experience.

The experience of the market downtown is a complete overload…so much to see, so much going on, that there is no way for me to take it all in. Ive been to markets in Canada and been impressed by how much is going on, but this is an entirely different level of activity. There are vendors everywhere, packed into stalls with extremely narrow walkways that seem unreasonably low and narrow to me, the giant foreigner. The market is MASSIVE…we walk throughout it and it just seems to keep on going. The entire time, Henry and Paulo look at me and laugh at the expression of amazement and confoundment on my face. Im struck by the sheer number of different types of foods there are…apparently this is in part because Peru has a large number of different climactic zones for such a small country…the coastal desert, with extremely productive fishing grounds offshore, highlands and canyons further inland with a more temperate climate, and then the jungle of the Amazon basin further east. However, I also start to see that when people buy everything at a market, there is less standardization…no major corporation telling you to grow a certain type of potato a certain way, because this will make it easier to feed into a fry making machine. However, Henry and Engma inform me that despite the apparent plethora of food options, there is actual less choice today than in years past, and that crop standardization is starting to take hold in Peru.

We finally emerge from the market and into the main street in downtown Chincha Alta, and it is even more insanely busy than it was when Paulo took me here on Friday. Theres a feeling of general pandemonium, which isnt helped by the fact that a guy selling bootlegged DVDs is hurling free samples into the air and there are little kids everywhere trying to get a hold of them. We put Engma and Kati into a mototaxi with the groceries we have accumulated, and then go to a liquor store for wine and pisco, which is a liquor made from grapes and is the national drink of Peru. Its set up as a sort of bar along the street, and they let you sample things before you buy them, so we take advantage of this. My first taste of pisco sets my throat on fire, but I start to get used to it. We also try some wines, which are all very sweet, much sweeter than anything Ive had before. By this time a more senior saleswoman has come out to help out the first one, and I tell her my theory that Peruvian wines must be much sweeter than Canadian and European wines because theres so much more sun in Peru, as they are in a desert closer to the equator, and this would cause the grapes to be more sugary. The senior saleswoman seems to take this as an indication to give us a sample of every wine she has available. 11 or so free samples later, we stumble away from the counter with 2 bottles of pisco and a moderately sweet bottle of wine and some big grins on our faces.

Back at the house, Engma makes an absolutely delicious Sunday meal, with sweet potatoes, chicken and rice, and of course, ceviche. The ceviche is absolutely delicious and I tell her so, profusely. We relate our experiences at the pisco and wine store and everyone seems to find it pretty entertaining.

However, about an hour later, the ceviche isnt feeling quite so good any more, and I realize than the sickness that I was expecting from the water had finally come…from the ceviche. My healthy streak had ended and I spent the night feeling pretty sick…when Paulino told me everyone was going to church for 7 pm mass, I had to decline, given the distinct possibility that I would have to suddenly make a dash for the bathroom at any given moment.

Monday, May 24th (today)

Paulino had told me the night before that I was expected to go with him to work, so I wake up at 730 am, although because of the dogs howling early in the morning I actually wake up much earlier than that. Today is also supposed to be the day that I meet Blaise, after many days of near misses. So despite the fact that I feel pretty weak and generally terrible after the ceviche incident, I head to work, where we are putting in another foundation. Yay. About an hour into the work, however, Blaise finally shows up, so I get to take a nice break.

Blaise introduces himself, and I enjoy the fact that I get to speak in English, something that Im pretty good at…despite my early confidence in Spanish, Im going through a bit a of a language learning slump, which wasn’t helped by the fact that I was weak and exhausted and unable to focus on what people were saying to me. We drive around and he gives me an overview of the work that he and the Oblate community are doing, pointing out houses that had been built through his program, which seemed to be everywhere. From the way I understand it, families looking to build a house are required to make a large contribution to the costs and work on the houses themselves, but Blaise and the oblates provide the materials required and subsidize wages of the workers, using donations he gets from letter writing and other campaigns, largely in the industrialized world. I get to see different aspects of the operation…the gravel pit, where the material for the concrete comes from, the ranch, where the Oblates make adobe bricks and also hold retreats for local youth, and the Oblate house, where the parish priests live. As we drive around, people recognize him and generally give him a big smile and wave, and I observe that hes pretty popular in these parts. He agrees and says that local politicians have noticed and tried to get him to run for a position, or at the very least to support their party, but he has no interest in getting involved. Im reminded of what Joanne said about her visit here…that this is a community with a lot of hope, and that in her opinion, it is at least partly because of the work the Oblates are doing, and how they do it…helping local people do things for themselves.

Im going to end my story here for now, because it feels like a pretty natural place to stop, although there are a few more things that happened in between Blaise bringing me back to the work site and when I started writing this a couple hours ago. In brief, when I returned to the worksite I was exhausted and did the least strenuous jobs possible, but made it through the day okay. Back at the house, I had lunch and started trying to get my strength back, and one meal and many snacks later I think Im almost fully past the whole ceviche affair. This afternoon, I spent several hours typing all this up, but it feels great to give you guys a snapshot of my time in Chincha so far.

Speaking of snapshots, I havent taken any photos yet…although there have definitely been some moments when I wish I had. Never fear though, I intend to take some in the picture and post them…I think they will really help give a sense of the way things are here.

That’s it for now. Thank you for all your support and I hope youre doing well, wherever you are!


Rattling the cage

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sometimes things just fall into place, without any conscious effort on one's own part - and that happened to be for this, the last official (i.e. will be marked) post, after 8 months of Beyond Borders classes. It's nice when things work out that way.

On Tuesday I attended a lecture in given by one of the co-founders of Engineers Without Borders, an organization that was started by University of Waterloo Engineering graduates. EWB recently celebrated its 10th anniversary of existence, and in the lecture the founder talked about the development and possible future directions of his organization. He touched on many different development issues and ideas that we have discussed and come across in our courses so far this year, and I wanted to speak to that.

Just a bit of background: Engineers Without Borders was founded in 2000 by Parker Mitchell and George Roter, two graduates of UW Engineering with the goal of addressing issues in the developing world by combining the technical skills of engineers, engineering students and others with the grassroots work of NGOs to help alleviate the most crushing forms of poverty in the developing world. EWB works in Africa, focusing on enabling rural Africans to access clean water, generate income from farming, and access critical infrastructure and services. In Canada, EWB and its student chapters at universities work to engage Canadians, government and businesses to become aware of development issues in Africa and makes choices to promote human development. For more information about EWB, please see this link.

In his hour-long discourse and question period, Parker Mitchell used examples and reflections on EWB’s development over the last 10 years to bring to life questions and examples of many different development issues that we have discussed and considered so far this year, including:
-what should be the goal of development?
-what does developmental success look like?

You will notice that I said “brought to life” and not “provided complete and satisfactory answers to” because there really weren’t answers, only situations that he had encountered that served to deepen mine and the rest of the audience’s understanding of how things work in the intricate interactions between some of the world’s poorest citizens, the generous and interested people from industrialized countries who donate their time and resources, the governments of these respective peoples, and the organizations that strive to end the worst forms of poverty. Here are some of the issues we have considered so far in Beyond Borders, along with examples from Parker’s experience.

The success of different technologies, and top-down vs. grassroots development
Parker discussed several examples of people (usually “experts”) from the industrialized world using new technology to try to solve problems in African countries, and completely and utterly failing in this regard due to societal and other considerations. Here are a couple of examples:

A pump/merry-go-round combination
The goal of this design was to use the energy from a spinning merry-go-round that children from a village played on to pump groundwater to the surface, where it could be collected by villagers. In this example, when international organizations “drove up in their air-conditioned SUVs” to look at the experimental well, they always saw children playing on the merry-go-round, and water being pumped to the surface. However, an audit later revealed that the merry-go-round pump was providing much less than the required amount of water to satisfy the villager’s needs – which greatly confused the international workers who had always seen children playing on the merry-go-round whenever they had visited the village.

As it turned out, the merry-go-round needed to be operational at least 8 hours a day to provide enough water for the village, and the children had other things to do during their regular day – such as playing soccer or other games, or doing income-generating activities such as herding goats. The children never spent more than two hours a day playing on the merry-go-round, so the pumping was, in the best case, still 75% short of the village’s requirements. The explanation for the fact that all international workers had seen the children on the merry-go-round was that the children knew what they were there to see, and made sure that they saw what they were hoping to see.

Parabolic light reflectors
The goal of this invention was to provide heat for cooking from the sun’s rays by concentrating them into one spot. However, several problems emerged from this design:
-Much of the cooking done in Africa is not done in the middle of the day, when the light reflector would be most useful
-The cooking area is difficult to access when surrounded/shielded by a large reflector
-There was little knowledge in the local community of how to fix/maintain the parabolic shield in the event that it was damaged or broken

Unsurprisingly, the parabolic shield heat source failed to take off in the way its early proponents had predicted it would.

Interestingly, Parker stressed that despite their eventual failure, these inventions were worthy experiments that were worth trying. In retrospect, it appears that both of these ideas were doomed to failure, but it is also possible that these inventions may have become widely accepted for other, unanticipated reasons. In general, however, Parker said that for every 10 inventions or new ideas, 1 will generally work quite well, 1 will be partially successful, and 8 or so will be completely unsuccessful. However, there are ways to increase the chances of success - the major one being to first become involved in the community you are targeting and make sure that whatever you are coming up with can be integrated into everyday life in that community. Parker contrasted the failures mentioned above with an EWB initiative in Mali, which sought to simplify aspects of the process used by women to make shea butter by using locally available knowledge and resources, such as improving the strength and durability of some of the devices used in the process and by replacing some metal devices with ones that could be made from wood, which was more readily available to the women.

Cell phones
In contrast to the stories described above, Parker discussed how cell phones have become one of the massive technological success stories in modern Africa. Cell phone penetration recently reached 50% in the African continent, and in some communities nearly everyone has one. The use of cell phones as phones and other creative ways has brought major improvements:

-As phones allowing for people to directly communicate over long distances, cell phones have increased economic efficiency since people can have answers without walking so far to get them. A profound example of this advantage is seen in a new pilot program in Ghana, where for a set fee per minute, users can get a doctor on their phone and describe their symptoms to a doctor, who can either provide a possible remedy or, in the case of serious symptoms, recommend that the caller go to a hospital. In countries where hospitals and doctors are few and far between and getting to a hospital can be a major endeavor, it pays not to miss time that could be spent generating income in hours spent traveling to a hospital, and allows doctors to focus on the most serious cases.

-As a way to access the internet, cell phones are a relatively cheap and compact way to access information, and require less power than computers. For example, farmers in poor countries can easily access weather data and meteorological predictions, allowing them to make better choices about how to run their farms.

-As a way to do banking, cell phones have made transactions smoother and easier to track. Given that transactions with cell phones can be monitored much more easily than transactions, they may provide a new way for farmers to access loans. Previously, farmers looking to borrow money from banks were denied on the grounds that roughly half of farmers are unable to repay loans provided to them, and there was no good way to differentiate between those farmers who would be able to repay the loans from those who would not be able to. With the rise of cell phones as banking tools, banks may now be able to find a profile for borrowers who will be successful in repaying loans, providing a potential cashflow for farmers where none existed before.

It was really exciting to hear about all the different ways that cell phones are being creatively used by Africans, in ways that further the possibility that “the most crushing forms of poverty might be eliminated within our lifetime,” in Parker’s own words.

More unintended consequences
Another “food for thought” moment for me came at the very end of the talk, when Parker was asked to address a criticism of EWB – specifically, that its work benefitted the strongest members of poor communities, often the leaders, much more than it did for the weak or marginalized people within these communities. To the surprise of many in the audience, Parker did not defend himself from this criticism, but then launched into an explanation that justified his organization’s actions.

In one small Ghanaian village, an NGO had set up a program of free vouchers for fertilizer for widows in the community. The idea of the program is that it would benefit the most disadvantaged members of the community (unmarried, often elderly, women). However, Parker witnessed a 20-something young man buying fertilizer one day, and asked him where he had gotten the coupon – which the young man explained he had been given by his aunt, herself a widow. Thinking that he had uncovered a serious abuse of the system, Parker was somewhat distraught until another volunteer explained to him that maybe what was happening wasn’t so bad.

At the risk of revealing that I really don’t know that much about growing crops, apparently the application of fertilizer in agriculture is a very precise process – for the fertilizer to be used to its maximum effect, it must be applied at the right time, in the right quantity…and the people who are most likely to use the fertilizer to the maximum effect are young farmers, not older widows, who may be experiencing weakness and/or health problems, miss a day in the fields, and not use the fertilizer to its maximum effect. Therefore, in terms of the whole community, the abuse of the system that Parker had witnessed would likely provide more food for everyone. Furthermore, family ties in African villages remain strong enough that the aunt who gave her nephew the fertilizer voucher would, as a family member, receive more food than she otherwise would – showing the system to be a success at supporting the widowed population, albeit not in the way originally intended…and as an added bonus, there would be more food for the entire community. The farmer’s personal initiative and ambition would have trickle-down effects for the people around him.

This example really made me think…especially since it touched on an internal debate that has been raging within me for most of my politically conscious life, and even more so in the last 8 months, since I started the Beyond Borders program. That debate is political, and it can be portrayed as left-wing vs. right-wing, economically conservative vs. economically socialist as they are spoken about in the media. To present the various sides of the argument I’m going to present this in a point vs counterpoint form. Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of ALL the pros and cons, but just the way I have considered them.

Point1: Classical economics (free markets, economic conservatism, etc) provides, in theory, the most efficient allocation of resources – as long as certain assumptions are met (access of all participants to information, lack of coercion, etc). The selfish pursuit of individual interests actually benefits everyone, since people looking for money will do so by creating products and services that are in-demand and avoid producing products and services that other people don’t want. Thus, without any central organization or planning, capitalist societies achieve near-optimal efficiency in their actions.

Counterpoint1: The basic assumptions behind classical economics are rarely, if ever, found. There has never been a society where all participants had ready equal access to information, for example. Generally, the rich access information better than the poor (or uneducated), thus widening the gap between classes. When society is left to its own devices, the most disadvantaged tend to become more disadvantaged. Inequalities of opportunity seem to be inevitable with free markets.

Point2: Relying on yourself to do things, and not the government, can lead to creative solutions that a reliance on government and government handouts often cannot. One of the most powerful and exciting experiences in a human’s life is independence…and independence can be crushed when governments get into meddling. When you take your own skills, and what you have to offer, and get out there and make some money with them, the world’s verification of you and your contribution to society is seen in the money that you make…or the money you don’t make.

Counterpoint2: What might be considered “meddling” is often the government’s attempt to redress often-inherent inequalities. For example, some people are introverted and others are extroverted, but extroverts have an advantage over introverts in business because they relish the encounters and small talk with others that are the prelude to almost any business deal. In the long run, these inherent differences will predictably result in extroverts dominating in the business world. While this is just one example, there are plenty of other ways that capitalism inherently disregards certain groups of people – especially the weak (eg. the elderly, the sick, the disabled) who do not contribute to the system as easily as do the strong – as Jean Vanier so eloquently described in “Becoming Human.” The readings we did last term by Paul Farmer, which discussed “structural violence” towards poor, rural Haitians show that these individuals are not in any sense on the same footing as wealthier Haitians, or with poor Canadians. There is simply no way that they would not be exploited by free markets.

Point3: While the strong will come out on top in a free-market society, it does not mean that the weak will necessarily languish – benefits will often trickle down to all members of society. Parker’s story shows an example of this, with the Ghanaian aunt benefitting from her “strong” nephew. Another example of the trickle-down approach in Ghana: Parker says that he and other in the development community joke that if many NGOs had had their way, cell phone technology would have first been brought to the most isolated and impoverished Ghanaian villages…and the technology would have failed – there wouldn’t be enough paying members to support the network, there would be no one to communicate with, etc. Instead, the first cell phone towers were established in Ghanaian cities, at the behest of the wealthy classes, who initially were the only ones who could support the high costs of cell phones. As the technology gradually took hold, costs fell and more people could access the phones, thus allowing more and more people to access the phones…eventually, they spread to the countryside, where cell phones are now able to provide all the benefits described above in the “Cell Phones” section.

Of course, this internal argument is far from any resolution. However, to the credit of the Beyond Borders program, I have been forced – through the readings, discussions and volunteer work that we have done – to further develop these points and counterpoints going back and forth. It definitely is a much more sophisticated debate than before. Many thanks to Parker Mitchell for providing ammo for both sides!

An update - and Vancouver 2010

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hi everyone!

It’s been several weeks since my last blog post and I know I’ve left many of you who were getting used to my regular posts in the lurch, unable to access my thoughts (worth much more than a penny apiece I would say). My excuse for this would be that it’s been busy – but that hasn’t stopped all the other BBers from posting so I’m I know that’s not going to cut it. However I hope to fill you all in with what’s been going on for me since then:

-For Reading Week I visited some family in Vancouver. It was not at all coincidental that the Olympics were going on at the same time, and that was why I thoughts on the Olympics will come later on in this post.

-My fundraising has been a huge success. Due for the most part to the many generous donations that I received from friends and family, I’m now less than $150 away from my fundraising target of $2000!

-Our group fundraising received a huge boost through two successful events that we held:

1.Music with a Mission @ Bomber band night (held on Saturday, March 13) – we raised several hundred dollars from our Band Night at Bomber, our campus bar, where three excellent bands (Stonefox, Junka and IVS) wowed our guests with their musical abilities. We were able to keep our proceeds almost all of our proceeds due to funding from the Federation of Students and the Arts Endowment Fund.

2.Yard Sale / Pancake Breakfast (held on Sunday, March 21) – we raised another several hundred dollars from our event held at St. Jerome’s, where we received incredible support from the University Catholic Community. Members of the congregation donated many items that we were able to sell, and wolfed down our pancakes after mass.

-I began volunteering at St. John’s Kitchen in Kitchener, where many other BBers have gone for their volunteering as well...more details on volunteering to come in later posts.

-I’ve started getting things together for my placement this summer – for example, yesterday I got first round of shots that I will need to take to become immunized against a plethora of disease I most certainly do NOT want to fall ill with this summer (yellow fever, hepatitis A, rabies, etc).

-I’ve hit the home stretch of 4th-year engineering with many final projects coming together, including a design project presentation which we finished just this afternoon.

I hope that brings you all up to speed a bit. However, I’d like to bring you all back to my experience at the Winter Olympics, and how I think it relates to Beyond Borders. I started this post a while ago, when the Olympics were still fresh on my mind – and the rest of the country’s as well – but I got stuck and I wasn’t quite sure how to express my thoughts on the matter. Now I’m going to take another stab at it.

The Olympics

As anyone who was there will probably tell you, being in Vancouver for the Olympics was a fantastic experience, and for me it was a really nice change of pace from the craziness of this term. Just walking around downtown Vancouver was an experience enough in itself - the energy in the city was incredible, with streets blocked and people walking everywhere, wearing red and waving Canada flags and generally acting friendly and patriotic. I was also able to land some tickets to hockey, curling and speed skating, which were definitely worth the two-hour wait in a seemingly endless line downtown. At my last event, the women’s 1000m long-track speed skating, I even saw a Canadian (Christine Nesbitt) win a gold medal with an incredibly hard-fought skate.

Despite the incredible experience of being at the Winter Olympics, I couldn’t help but have a few thoughts that made me a little uneasy with the state of things...I guess Beyond Borders has that effect on you. The Olympics, in all their glory, also made me think of some things that really indicate a lot about our world and some of the problems that we’re facing. So here goes.

The Good

I’ll start with the good...and there was a lot of good. As I mentioned before, the energy of the city was incredible, and there was a really friendly, “good, clean fun” aspect to it that isn’t always there in large crowds. I’ve been to European soccer games, American football games, and there was a different feeling there altogether – although it’s worth keeping in mind that the soccer and football fans tend to be self-selecting as generally obnoxious, drunken, young, and mostly men. Still, the crowds in Vancouver were SO far removed from this that I was shocked – in a good way of course.

In my humble opinion, I think the good-natured crowds were a result of a happy confluence – the fact that they were made up of people who were A. mostly Canadians and B. at the Olympics. There’s something to be said that even at their loudly drunkest (i.e. nights after big wins by the Canadian hockey team), the RCMP officers working crowd control downtown were bored (those being the words of a friend of my cousin’s that I met, an RCMP officer, describing what her colleagues had been telling her). I truly do believe that there is something in Canadian culture that encourages this good behaviour in the midst of celebration.

I also believe that there was a discernible “Olympic effect” that was seen not only in the crowds celebrating downtown, but throughout the entire city for as long as the Olympics were there. More than any other sporting event, the Olympics focuses not only on who is the best, but the gutsy and brave performances of athletes who do not necessarily end up on the podium. This is reflected in the philosophy of Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who founded the modern Olympics in 1896:

“The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

This spirit is manifested in many aspects of the Olympics – such as the Paralympic Games and the Terry Fox Award (created for the Vancouver Olympics) to honour Olympians who touched the world with courage, humility and extraordinary athletic abilities. Who can forget Joannie Rochette, skating days after her mother unexpectedly died, doing it in her honour? Or Petra Majdic, the Slovenian who competed in the 1.4 km women’s classic sprint in incredible pain from a collapsed lung? (Apparently, a new saying in Slovenia is “When Chuck Norris can’t go on, Petra Majdic perseveres!” haha). For me, it’s the power of humanity in people like Joannie Rochette, Petra Majdic and the Paralympians that make the Olympics truly great.

The Bad (Uncomfortable)

For some reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to say “Bad”, but there were some things that made me uncomfortable. I’m sure many of you have heard some of the criticisms that were given in the weeks leading up to the Olympics about poor and homeless people being displaced for the Athlete’s Village, and I would have to say those criticisms seemed to be justified. I’ve been to Vancouver before, and never have homeless people been less noticeable. I’m not going to talk about it too much though, because it’s probably something you heard about before.

What made me uncomfortable relates a little more deeply to the Canadian psyche, and I’m sure many of you have heard about it, and probably considered it yourself as well. Generally, it has to do with the fact that Canadians aren’t generally known to be nationalistic or patriotic, and there was an “awakening” during the Olympics that hadn’t been seen before. I think there’s something too this.

When I was in Vancouver, Canada wasn’t really winning as many medals as had been hoped for, and the “Own the Podium” campaign had seemingly embarrassed itself. However, the early winners (such as Alexandre Bilodeau, who won the moguls gold medal) were absolutely showered with attention. There was some focus on the other athletes who were giving gutsy performances, but they never got the same attention...well, except for Christine Nesbitt (the speed skater whose victory I saw) – but I think that was mostly because she was gutsy AND she won.

I know many of you might be saying, “what’s new about this?” and to be honest, I really shouldn’t have been surprised...I’m not sure, maybe I held Canadians to different standards. What changed for me was the fact that during the second week of the games, when Canada won the most gold medals, ending up with more than any other country in history in the Winter Olympics, gold seemed to become the only thing that we cared about as a country...and the more human side of things, the one espoused by Pierre de Coubertin, seemed to be forgotten, or at times, given only lip service.

How does this relate to Beyond Borders? I think it has to do with winning and losing. I am (relatively) proud to live in a country where the welfare of others seems to be (relatively) important, this of course relative to other developed countries who have won in the competition for resources and wealth. While we still have a long ways to go, I truly do believe that Canadians as a people care about more than themselves – a position that I feel is supported by the support we have for universal health care (not perfect of course, but where everyone is covered) and the interest many people take what is going on poorer communities, be they in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside, or in the developing world.

Based on the focus on winning, and gold medals...I’m a bit worried that Canadians may have let go of this aspect of themselves. Hopefully I’m wrong – in the several weeks since the end of the Olympics, the general hysteria has died down, and Canadians have taken the opportunity to prove themselves generous in their support for victims of the recent earthquake in Chile. What effect did Vancouver 2010 have on the country? I guess only time will tell.

Iron Ring reflections

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hi everyone! Given that it’s been a week and a half since my last post I’m sure you’re all just aching for more pensive words from David Hewson, Esquire. For those of you who were hoping for another marathon post of 2500+ words, I’m sorry but you will be sadly disappointed – I do like blogging but it’s just hard to find the time.

Last week’s post didn’t really give you much of an update of what I’m up to, and for the most part it’s been more of the same in many ways. I have five engineering courses to stay on top of, my Beyond Borders course, plenty of things to think about to prepare for my trip this summer – at the moment, I have to think about the shopping list of immunizations against a plethora of diseases whose symptoms do NOT sound like fun in the slightest – and still a long way to go on the fundraising front. In the past weeks I’ve begun to finally iron out most of the wrinkles in my Soup and Stew for Peru fundraiser and start to sell my frozen homemade soups, stews and chillies, and the initial response has been extremely positive which is always nice to hear. I’m also spearheading a band night fundraiser (called Music with a Mission differentiate it from the band night last term haha) that our group will be holding in March.

However, last weekend stands out for me in a very important way, because after 4.5 gruelling years, the 2010 UW Engineering class finally got their Iron Rings. For those of you who are entirely unfamiliar with the Iron Ring, let me digress: the Iron Ring is traditionally received by graduating engineers during their final academic term, in a secret ceremony whose details are not meant to be made public (so don’t ask me to tell you about). After the ceremony, the participating students emerge with an Iron Ring on the pinky finger of their working (writing) hand. The iron in the ring (it’s actually stainless steel these days) symbolizes the iron in the Quebec Bridge, which collapsed twice during construction due to faulty engineering, and caused the death of several workers. The idea behind the Iron Ring is to remind engineers of their duty of care to the general public, who trust that engineers will do their work in a thorough and ethical way and will not harm them. By wearing the Iron Ring on the outermost finger of their working hand, engineers constantly feel the presence of the Iron Ring as they work and are reminded of this responsibility.

Personally, I strongly identify with the idea of the Iron Ring and the message it conveys, and ever since I have received my ring I haven’t been able to stop playing with it and feeling it on my hand as I write. It’s also made me reflect on where I’m coming from, where I’m going and probably most importantly, where I am right now. In many ways, I have (voluntarily) branded myself as an engineer – or at least an engineering student – and yet, it was something I was never so sure about. When I applied to university, engineering was just one of several different programs I applied to, including Arts, Arts and Science, and Environmental Sciences. One of the reasons I chose Environmental Engineering is that if I didn’t like it, it would be easier to switch into other programs than if I wanted to switch from Arts or Sciences into Engineering! Throughout the first couple of years of university I often felt like I really didn’t belong in the program, and that I should have done something else. However, as we began to start applying things we learned about in class to real-life designs and were encouraged to solve problems for ourselves, things became lot more interesting. The excitement I’ve felt about engineering this year, which really hit me when I finally felt the cold ring on my hand made me realize: I had been so used to being unhappy in my program, how would I deal with the fact that I now kind of liked it?

At the same time, I’m trying to fight off the influence engineering has had on me, or at least trying to balance it with something else – and this was one of the reasons why I decided to apply to Beyond Borders in the first place. I had always been interested in issues of social justice, equality and development, but I hadn’t really had the chance to focus on them in an academic sense since high school. The program did not disappoint, and as we ploughed our way through readings and confronted issues and emotions that I hadn’t truly addressed in years, I realized that I had changed as a person in the intervening time...arguably ways that made me more of an “engineer.” I was definitely more results- and action-oriented, and more focused on tackling problems that had clear possible solutions than in considering problems that seemed inherently hopeless. I also noticed that I was much more critical of people who did not share these priorities – to the point that I could see my “new” self being impatient and frustrated with my “old”, pre-engineering self. Many people would argue that this shift to being more practical was a good thing, but I wasn’t so sure. For example, I remember on several occasions being upset by my inability to focus on my engineering work after doing a Beyond Borders reading, since I just couldn’t focus on flows and fluxes and fluids when I had just been forced to reevaluate my opinion about one issue or another. Pre-engineering Dave would have delighted in his world being spun on its head, but post-engineering Dave found it disconcerting and annoying. This, of course, is the whole point – as an anonymous wise lady once told me, whose identity will remain anonymous (her name is Joanne Benham Rennick), “if you’re not frustrated, you’re not learning.”

Since then, I think I’ve begun to reach a balance between the two, and I’m incredibly grateful to Beyond Borders and the people I have met because of it. While I think that UW Engineering is an excellent program, I do think that in many ways, it can hurt your humanity. It’s not intentional, but I believe that the extremely technical nature of the program, combined with a heavy courseload that can make it difficult to find the time to do much other than work, led me to neglect important aspects of who I am and who I want to be. Ironically, I think that by trying to break away from the beaten path I could have followed with engineering, and by getting into Beyond Borders, I think I have developed more of the ethics that the Iron Ring supposedly promotes.

Earlier, I mentioned that one of the reasons I ultimately chose to study engineering was because it would be able to switch out of more easily than other programs, but recently my mom reminded me of another reason - one that I had totally forgotten. During the time when I was choosing university programs to apply for, Haiti was hit consecutively by three different hurricanes, causing widespread flooding and death. From what I was reading at the time, the extent of the devastation in Haiti was caused by larger problems, such as the massive deforestation that caused flash flooding whenever any significant rainfall took place and by the general poverty of the country, whose people could not afford to build structures that were strong enough to withstand the flooding. I learned that environmental engineers could help determine how to avoid the floods and the devastation they caused, by reforesting important water reacharge areas, and generally improving the environmental situation. I had completely forgotten about this until this year when Haiti was once again devastated by a natural disaster, this time by a massive earthquake in January that hit the most densely populated part of the country. My mom reminded me that "you went into environmental engineering for Haiti" - which isn't the entire truth, but it was shocking to realize that I had completely forgotten about that. So in a sense, getting into Beyond Borders was like coming home...maybe engineering hasn't changed me as much as I thought it did.