Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Volunteering in Lima, Peru

Friday May 18 2007

Stayed in Barranco last night, a reasonably affluent neighbourhood with a strong sense of the past; many of the larger streets are dotted with crumbling facades in the Spanish colonial style. Their architectural beauty still shines through although if they don't receive extensive restoration work their days are most definitely numbered.

Although the area has many bars and restaurants and picturesque promenades to attract the tourist, one is well advised to be aware of pick-pockets and crooks - we found only one currency exchange that we trusted not to offer forgeries. It's all too common for the unwitting tourist to receive counterfeit soles. On trying to spend the forgeries, the shopkeeper will call the police, who will in turn demand "payment" from the unhappy traveler to sort everything out - a handy, largely untraceable scam.

Saturday May 19

We are driven to Ate (At-ay) where we will work and live for the week.

According to the 2005 census by the INEI, the district has 419,663 inhabitants and a population density of 5,399.7 persons/km². In 2005, there were 105,190 households in the district. It is the 13th most populated district in Lima.
It's about a half hour from Barranco. From the windows of our combi van, as the cityscape slowly disappeared, we could see from the highway, dusty barren hills with scattered one- or two-room square flat-roofed structures. Most were made of brick. Some of wood, some roofless. They lined the road in a haphazard way and sprawled back and up into the hills until they were no more than specks on the dull brown earth.
"We must be getting close" I thought. I was wrong.

As the road narowed, the neighborhood closed in around us. Small, delapidated corner stores were almost near enough to touch, as were the rickshaw repair shops and the oddly out-of-place looking internet 'cafe".
children, dogs and chickens roamed freely and at times in seemingly equal number, and the smell of urine and faeces intermittently peppered the air, which was becoming increasingly thicker with dust and pollutants.
"This must be it" I thought. Once again I was wrong.

The asphalt, potholed uneven road we had been traveling disappeared and we found ourselves traveling a rough dirt road that belched dust in our wake and greeted us with rocks, holes and and impromptu rubbish piles of bags, animal carcasses and waste - there's no running water here and precious few toilet facilities.

The homes were just feet away from us now and the humble living conditions were within full view.

For the most part, we saw homes of four walls built from brick and mortar, somewhere between 15 to 20 ft square, with a flat roof. Slate is expensive, and many of the roofs are slipshod affairs, some made of reed frames overlapping each other, some of cardboard, plastic sacking or scrap wood.

The area is spreading up into the hills, filling with newcomers from rural areas in search of a better life. These new homes are wooden shacks that straddle a new road flattened from the granite rock. The road is essential if the residents want water which is delivered by truck. The large tank empties via hosepipe to individual 30 gallon barrels outside the homes. 1 sole - about 30 cents, fills the barrel.

As the area spreads, the road needs to be continued. Where this needs to happen, the new residents get together with iron bars, picks and sledgehammers and do this by hand. When we arrived, about two dozen residents, men and women ranging in age from about 15 to fifty, were busy hammering at the granite in the evening sun.

We were met with warm smiles and open arms by the locals, who are glad to see these tall gringos (peruvians are generally smaller than the average westerner) who had come to help out. These people don't actively seek charity. Rather than expect us to do anything for them, it seems they understand that we're here to work by their side and share their workload.

Sunday May 20th

Our main contact in the Ate region was a guy called Dave Costello. Dave is a Catholic priest who is much respected in the area, which is made up of almost 100% devout catholics. Having worked beside Dave, though, it becomes apparent that his main motivation is not so much in the conversion of heathens but more the improvement of living conditions and the furnishing of basic amenities for all, regardless of religious afiliatioon.

We lived with Dave because, frankly , it was safer. This, like many impoverished communities around the world, suffers from it's fair share of street crimes, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, rape and incest. We never walked anywhere alone. Going to the tiny corner store was always done in packs. The store, like all in the area, sold cigarettes singly for 30 centimos - about 10 cents. The gringo who can afford a whole pack of twenty - unthinkable to most residents - is an obvious target for the less scrupulous, not to mention the desperate. Think what else we must have -leather wallets, cell phones, watches, passports ( a huge black market value). We were relatively safe at Dave's house, considerably safer than if we had stayed with local families.

Sunday morning came early, with Dave celebrating mass in the open air in the heart of the district at 7.30 am. For the devout in our group, it was a chance to share mass with the local community. For the rest of us, it was a simple act of solidarity -we were in this together for a short period of time to get some things done. This feeling ws mutual, which became apparent as soon as mass ended; the teenagers who had sang and played guitars during the mass made it clear they wanted the musical ones in our group to play with them and dance while some of the kids gave us home made chocolate which was delicious.

At that time of the morning, a fellow volunteer and I grabbed guitars and delivered a fairly bleary-eyed version of Stand By Me and a few other things, and then danced with some of our new friends. We proved no match for their energy at that time of the morning, and were glad of the invite back to one of the local women's home to sit and enjoy coffee.

When we got there, we sat on long wooden benches at a table in the center of here one-room home under a roof of plastic sack and cardboard. The home quickly filled up with 12 gringos and at least as many locals eager to interact with us. We were served sweet coffee in paper cups, bread rolls with goats cheese, and a sweet pastry i couldn't quite recognise, we were acutely aware that although this was a modest presentation by our standards, it was far more food than any of these folks could afford comfortably, we accepted graciously , eager not to offend. We each introduced ourselves in broken Spanish and English, and after about an hour, headed off in the wake of much hugging and expressions of thanks on both sides.We gringos were moved and uplifted by the warmth and open-heartedness of our hosts.

We later learned that the woman of the house had only borrowed the table for our visit, and returned it after we had left.

MOnday 21st

At 8.30, we went to the building site to work on the new church/community center. We spent five days with the bricklayers and the foreman/conractor, Sulka.

Sulka is a middle aged, good humored father of two with an eagerness to please his employer, and a keen curiosity for the english language. In fact between us, the main entertainment between us all was the swapping of spanish and english words and phrases.

Emir, at 29, is the youngest on site and worked with speed and accuracy and enjoyed sharing a joke. Also a phenomenal soccer player.

Santiago, or "machucha" as he was introduced to me, is by far the oldest at 59 ( the average life expectancy in this region is in around 55) and worked harder than most men I've ever seen, only lifting his head from his job in response to a question from Sulka, or a break for water -
always much welcome in the 80 degree heat with a throat full of dust. I learned later that "Machucha" meant something like "old man"

More than once did Machucha see me struggle with a 50 kilo bag of mortar mix only to lift it out of my hands with apparent ease and deliver it to it's destination without breaking a sweat, and return to his wall, putting the next brick in place. Everyday he started a half hour before me and finished a half hour after I left in the evening.

These skilled laborers were earning 40 soles a day, about 13 USD or 10 EUR.

Byy the end of the week we had raise the walls to roof level, at which point the Peruvian contingent took making the structure earthquake-proof using steel rods and concrete/gravel mix.

At the end of the week , we all ate dinner at a newly finished soup kitchen that a previous group of volunteers worked on earlier in the previous year.

A representative from each group said a few words before parting. We thanked the guys we'd worked with for the camaraderie, the little bit of Spanish we picked up and for welcoming us with such openness. They thanked us in turn, but before they did, they thanked God for the work.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

East Coast Tour in March

New London

New London, NH hadn't seen this much snow since 1876. It also hadn't seen the band i was in town with ( the Cathie Ryan Band). It was my first time there also, so we were all just getting to know each other; 3 musicians, about 5 feet of snow and nearly 1,000 students and faculty members n historic New London.

The Colby Sawyer College made sure we were fed and housed for a couple of nights, and we spent most of our time off ooh-ing and aaah-ing at the picture -postcard scenery.
It's a small town with one "tavern" and store fronts that are really modified colonials or brownstone houses. Norman Rockwell comes to mind, as does, on this particular visit, the urgent need for ear-muffs. The wind harassed every physical protrusion into submission, and sunk the temperatures to any number you can think of as long as it's preceded by a minus sign.

The gig was good, with a strong number of the 1,000 strong student body and faculty listening attentively as the wind outside was no doubt skinning some unwitting mammal to the bone.

As cold as it was though I was glad I had been outside earlier to see the turquoise of the mid-day sky slowly deepen as the day grew longer, and watch the sun slowly disappear behind virgin snow.

As with most of New England, you're never too far from history, especially in communities of this size - it's hard for an outsider to deduce which came first, the town or the college.
In small towns like this one, it feels as if the pilgrims are not quite a thing of the past, but that they had just popped out for a minute, and rather than hear anybody say "The British are coming", one might be more likely to hear "The british are over there, turn left at the coffee house - you can't miss 'em".
Although the word "quaint" doesn't quite cut it here, the town does have a life outside of it's picture-postcard quality .......

( oh but it's so cuuuute....)

In season it attracts skiers, and so needs a hotel, an Inn, a coffee house, and a ski supply store, all of which are housed in colonial style houses, thus maintaining New London's old-world feel.

All in all, New London may not be a destination in itself unless you're a skier, or just of a curious nature, but definitely worthy of a leg-stretching break in a long drive and a few good lungfuls of mountain air.

Newark, New Jersey

It was late and wet when we arrived at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark. The lobby was a hive of activity; from the bar, dance music pumped it's hypnotic beat for the drunken revelers. The reception area was non-stop, with a small swarm of new check-ins eager to get to their beds.
While waiting in line, I couldn't help but notice a certain "vibe". Many young men were either over dressed or under-wearing what looked like low-brow high-end suits and hats, while maintaining slightly shifty demeanors. Maybe I'm a little over-imaginative, but I got the impression that any one of them would know how to use a baseball bat in a less than sportsman-like fashion.

Room key in hand, i took the elevator to floor 12. The room was small and comfortable with ambient noise bleeding in from the hallway; running, some garrulous laughter, arguing.
Next door, a high whistling sound that oscillated in pitch, emanated from behind the wall periodically through the night, leading me to conclude that my neighbor was either a shortwave radio enthusiast or a dolphin.

Next morning before soundcheck i took a 12th floor look over Newark. The weather - grey and rainy - gave the place a kind of Dickensian feel, and somehow, it fit the mood of the place; a work-a-day place with a rainbow of characters braving the elements, and a beautiful symphony hall, just around the corner from the hotel- if you ever find yourself in the area and in the mood for a show, check out this venue in all it's finery.

Not quite Dickensian but old-school none the less are the pump attendants at the gas stations in the Garden state. No card-swiping action here; just like the old days you get to say things like 'fill 'er up' or "just gimme twennie bucks". You won't find THAT in the brochures I tells ya....

Washington DC

Far more informed accounts of the various historic sites of DC are available to the curious reader, so i'll stick to my personal experience and not even try to compete with those most learned tomes.
I had a few days off on my east coast tour, and decided to hit the nation's capital for a look-see

Between the monuments and museums, there was way too much ground to cover in the 2 and a half days until my next gig, but keeping in mind that fortune favors the brave, I just started at one end and covered what I could.

Not knowing my way around town, I picked a train stop downtown and went in search of breakfast to fuel the first half of my 2 and a half day culture-sprint. The sunny March morning streamed down through the office buildings, and the many many suits moved fast and deliberately - the denim jeans could be counted on one hand. I settled for a sandwich from a chain sandwich place and watched the suits feeding - it was about lunch time. As one of the the few denim wearers in the area, i felt like I should be in a camouflaged tent with binoculars lest I disturb the button-down wildlife, but the place was comfortable so I just sat and wondered at the fast-paced uniformity parading before me.

Onward to the Monuments, and the second most noticeable sight on the horizon was the seemingly never ending stream of school groups and families, and just like me , they wandered with a slightly upward gaze, in awe of the impeccable craftsmanship that towered above us, drawing each one of us in - one hand clutching a camera, one finger poised on the shutter button.
The monuments themselves are awe inspiring in stature,and for reasons mentioned earlier, i'm not about to catalogue them here. But.....

Suffice to say that the Washington monument is both awesome and interesting in the story of it's development which was stunted about halfway due to the war, and also the financial contribution of a Catholic organsation - something the protestant monument developers took umbrage with. The Lincoln monument, especially the Colorado marble seated statue of the man himself seems to project a quiet, noble serenity, and the 7 acre FDR memorial provides much food for thought, peppered as it is with quotes from his speeches.

So ended day 1

As a a starting point the next morning, the Smithsonian, in all it's glory, was an obvious starting point - from the castle information center and it's serene flower gardens, it's a short jaunt to the air and space museum. On the way there, though, I couldn't resist a quick detour into the Hirshhorn museum of Modern art - a beautiful cylindrical building with an eclectic collection of artists over three floors.
The building itself is an experience - literally walking in circles past paintings and sculptures and video installations draws the viewer ever inward the work of Louise Nevelson spring into memory.

Onward , speedily, to the aforementioned Air and Space Museum , the most visited museum in the world, where hordes of teens and exasperated teachers and parents milled around in ordered chaos between sattelites, military aircraft and impressively large models of unimaginably large planets.

Because the American History Museum is under renovation, a small microcosm of it's contents are housed in one corner of the Air and Space Museum.
I'm not sure that I'm fully tuned in to the subtler nuances of American culture through the ages, so maybe it will always escape me me how President Lincoln's hat and a baseball signed by Babe Ruth shares space with Jerry Seinfeld's puffy shirt and a laptop used by Sarah Jessica Parker's character in Sex and the City.

All this learning is hungry work, so it came time to feed the ol' noodle.
The food court consisted of three major Mcfranchises laid out in a "pay here- pickup there"/communist russia style arrangement, maximising the easy flow of burger-chomping school kids with matching school sweaters.
It didn't warrant sticking around too long, so with a burger and fries gone and already forgotten , it was time to head back out there.....

The amount of information available here, from the wright brothers, through the world wars and into the universe and man's exploration of the heavens, is almost overwhelming, and a hell of a lot of fun and definitely worthy of spending one whole day, should you have the mind to. My mind was fried by the time I got to something to do with comets, so before a complete meltdown occurred, I decided to hit the Museum of African Art, located on the Smithsonian Castle grounds.

A small building with a bright, spacious, modern interior, it includes tribal art from mostly eastern and central africa, ranging from the slightly disturbing (masks made of skin), to the incredibly beautiful, displaying a breathtaking level of craftsmanship (ivory bracelets carved with the minutest detail). As well as that, the schoolkid-free environment served as a great way to decompress after the hectic Air and Space experience.
with weary limbs and feet that were begging for mercy, I decided to call it a day.

For the last day, I figured I'd split it in half; in the morning, the natural history museum, in the afternoon, the Holocaust Museum.

Once more, the most prominent display at the natural history museum were the hordes of fledgling bipeds with their matching school sweaters and cacophonous social rituals. Navigating through the swarm, the ground floor serves as a walk through the earth's pre-history with it's plant and animal fossils, and on into the world of todays mammals - an enlightening stroll with plenty of interactive exhibits aimed mainly at the aforementioned bipeds, but distracting enough for the hopelessly immature.

Upstairs, the minerals and gemstones on display are breathtaking, and the explanation of how they were formed is educational and fascinating without being overly technical.\

Altogether, an educational celebration of the earth's rich cornucopia of life and it's delicate balance.

A few blacks away, the holocaust museum.

Having left the museum, about a block away, I spotted a headline at a news stall declaring that Willie Nelson suggested in a recent radio interview that maybe the attacks on the World Trade Center were an inside job. "Oh c'mon Willie", I thought, " that's unthinkable..."

Alexandria VA

Alexandria VA, a satellite town of the capital, has it's morning and evening migration of suits, and once that's done with , seems to get on with the business of being a picturesque, historic downtown with quaint shop fronts and eateries, and a pretty laid back feel.

We played one night there, and for my days off, it was easier just to hang in a hotel there and avail of the easy commute into the capital.

The first of the many eateries to catch my eye was Eamonn's - " A Dublin Chipper" the logo proclaimed. I snorted a cynical snort, but rebuked myself immediately, and decided to sample some of the fare on offer.

The small comfortable interior is reminiscent of a Dublin pub; hardwood floors and wooden paneling, and the similarity didn't stop there; one lone Guiness tap stood by the register. hmmmm........

I ordered fish and chips and a pint of the old country's most famous brew.

The battered cod and chips ( what the rest of the world calls french fries) were cooked to perfection and came complete with malt vinegar, salt and pepper, and the Guinness was excellent - cool ,smooth and creamy, and for a fish and chip shop to get it right is no mean feat, given that so many bars get it wrong.
My earlier cynicism was sent yelping for the door with it's tail between it's legs and a look of hard-earned humility, and once out of he way I was left to chow down with little else to distract me from the humble yet mighty feast before me.

The following night , it was time to explore something a little more exotic.
La Tascas , across the street, is a large luxurious Tapas bar with exceedingly friendly staff and a broad menu. one menu item springs to mind; the sauted spinach with pine nuts and raisins, yummy. Probably some others would spring to mind if the sangria hadn't been so good. 'Guess I'll just have to go back....

Damn you. sweet liquor....

A few blocks away, one of Aexandria's more historic eateries occupies a quiet corner just off of the main drag; The Gadsby Tavern boasts from it's sandwich board that " George Washington ate here". It did not clarify, however, if George enjoyed the experience or not, and there was more town to see.
The main downtown area is a pleasure to walk around, soaking up the quiet pedestrian pace, browsing the shop fronts and side streets, and were it not for the siren-like call of the capital's many museums, I could easily have indulged in long lazy days exploring the sights and sounds of this historic harbor town. Maybe next time.


Aah... Milwaukee. For some reason , these two words (is the first one a word?) seem to go together. Although I've only ever set foot in it twice, I feel as though we've known each other a long long time.
The first trip saw me almost completely confined to the festival grounds, and were it not for a good friend and Milwaukee native hatching an escape plan, I might never have sampled some of the older, hipper neighborhoods with the cool coffeehouses and old factory buildings now boasting prime studio and loft space. Milwaukee's industrial roots are no distant memory, making it's atmosphere old-world but in no way romanticized. It's charm is real and gritty. It's people, at least the ones I met, down-to-earth and plain old friendly.

On my second trip, the first night was spent at the Old Towne Inn, right down town , lending an opportunity for some real exploring. The weather was bitter cold, naturally, it being early March. but having just flown from DC, something of a rude awakening for the extremities of a weary traveler.


The Inn is a modest and friendly a affair with a basement bar called The Speakeasy that oozed with unassuming character(s), but more on that later. Once checked in to the room, it was time to check out the town. As eager we were to explore , we were also eager not to freeze to death, so we swung around the first available corner to find, luckily enough, the Rockbottom Brewing Co.

It's big and it's got beer in it

A fine array of crafted beers in a fine old building with a large restaurant leading to a comfortable bar. A friendly, knowledgeable bar tender gave us the grand tour of there homebrewed beverages and left us to our devices.

Later that evening , we found Buck Bradley's, for the carnivore, great Brats and hot dogs in the dining area, and afterwards, a digestif at the longest bar in the city, or so we are led to believe.

That's pretty long.....

After a leisurely stroll around the downtown to take in the night air, it was time for a nightcap at the hotel's "Speakeasy" bar before bed. There we found the perfect people-watching experience to end the evening; the friendly barman nodded a heavily dreadlocked hello. We ordered a drink at the bar and wondered if we were blending in with the loosely scattered clientele, a melange of budget traveler, savvy local and nighthawk. Although the name "Speakeasy" can only be a cosmetic in this day and age, I was hard pressed to think of a more fitting alternative. Maybe it was the basement setting or the late hour, but I had a sneaking feeling that I was getting away with something............