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.