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!