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.

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