It’s difficult to encapsulate the range of experiences I’ve had in the past week – I smoked a joint rolled in a page from the Bible with a woman going through a mid-life rebirth. I wandered around in a convent and contemplated the notion of a cloistered existence. I taught kids how to wash their hands. I sampled Peruvian wines and Piscos in the vineyards outside Ica. I sang to two 14 year-old girls in a town plaza. I slept in the vacant hacienda of the proprietress of an artisanal chocolate factory. I floated in the waters of the Hitchcockian-reminiscent Islas Ballestas. I saw a real oasis.
I’ve mentioned my surrogate family in Peru. I met them through a friend of a friend I worked with in New York, and they have taken me in like one of their own without really knowing me at all. One of the two sisters, Karla, is the director of a daycare center for children living in what they call a ‘human settlement,’ just outside the city of Ica. Ica and the surrounding area was devastated by a massive earthquake in 2007; while a typical earthquake lasts between 20-30 seconds, this one lasted four minutes. Corruption and misuse of government funds and international donations has resulted in a town that still barely seems to be getting back on its feet, even three years after the fact. Imagine the stalled reconstruction efforts of Ground Zero but covering the surface area of an entire city.
These settlements existed before the earthquake, though, and I’m sure they exist all over Peru. Basically it’s a shantytown built on a gigantic sand dune – houses of cards, literally, held up by sticks and covered by tattered woven roofs. A family’s latrine might consist of a tarp stretched around a shapeless frame reaching a few feet off the ground. There is no water, save for the Rotary International-sponsored spigots that appear here and there, irrigating the towns – and that’s when they’re functioning. The day Karla and I walked through the neighborhood (which had some kind of euphemistic name like ‘The Beautiful Hillside’), they neighborhood had been without water for four days; the people of the town had gathered around one providing faucet and were joyously filling their buckets and large plastic tubs. We stopped to talk to a few different people; Karla wanted to check up on how people were doing with their small gardens -- another project that the daycare center helped implement.
It wasn’t until after I had spent a couple of days pushing the kids on the merry-go-round, spotting them across the jungle bars, auditing their Spanish language classes, which were right around my level of sophistication (‘Fresa, manzana, tomate. . . que color es? Rojo!') taking their photographs and generally enjoying a Madonna level of celebrity that I heard some of their stories. As is often the case, the most heart-breaking moment happened at lunchtime.
I’m not sure why but I’ve always felt that lunchtime or perhaps the meal ritual in general is something that exposes people’s vulnerabilities – a packed lunch reveals a lot about where somebody comes from. The girls lined up to wash their hands; I assisted with the washing and the teacher dried. Next came the boys. The quietest table would be rewarded by having their lunches first; the kids, all around four years old, put their heads down dutifully and took their turns retrieving their little lunch bags from the cubbyholes. Incidentally, the cubbies were filled with ants – which one of the teachers attributed to Diego’s lunch bag.
One of the many goals of the center is to teach people better nutrition; at three or four, many of these kids already have rotting teeth and have subsisted on diets of potatoes (I have heard estimates ranging from 350-1500 varieties of potato that Peru produces) and candy and soda. They had crackers, fruit, bread, eggs. . . almost all of them had an old soda bottle filled with water or juice. . . progress! Then there was Luis. . . little Luisito. Luis opened his bag and pulled out one article, a plastic bag filled with orange liquid, which I can only guess was some kind of orange soda. Seemingly unperturbed, Luis brought the bag to the teacher to help him untie the knot and she looked at it disapprovingly, then turning to the class to solicit donations for Luis’ lunch. The children came forward, one by one, offering a piece of fruit, a cookie. . . all until Luis had a decent lunch. I couldn’t help but feel the embarrassment that I imagined Luis might be feeling – the shame in not being provided for and needing to ask for charity. Of course, it’s possible that I was just projecting and that Luis is too young and too pure to have any problem with the situation at all. . . there was just something about the whole scene that tore me up.
At the risk of approaching a Mexican telenovela level of drama in my storytelling, I will also recount that one of the other little girls, Soledad, lost her mother and two sisters in a car accident when she was just a few months old; Soledad survived because her mother threw her from the window of the moving car (she’s the little biscuit with the monkey t-shirt). One of the boys had been found dying in a backpack at around four months by a cancer-ridden taxi driver. The driver took the child as his own and after a multitude of treatments, his cancer has gone into remission -- and the boy is happy and healthy.
Karla and I encamped at the practically-vacant hacienda of a friend of her mother’s, a confectionaire and singer named Helena who started a chocolate factory in her kitchen when her family’s other businesses and assets were claimed by the Velasco Alvarado regime (a president who won his seat by coup d’etat in the late 60s). The dramatic contrast between this gigantic empty-but-for-the-caretaker Spanish-style house and the shacks meant to shelter five, six or seven people was a bit hard to process.
After a brief stopover in Lima – long enough to peace out with and enjoy the Jewish motheresque caretaking of Vito and Erika – I landed in Arequipa, the white city of the south, named for its construction in sillar (a white stone). The streets of the center of Arequipa are lined with tourist agencies, most of whom promote a trip to the Colca Canyon – which is mostly in a bus and required more days than I had. After stopping in several times at Naturalezza Activa to see if any groups had formed, I arranged for a private bike tour with the owner, Lalo. Lalo seemed to have some kind of outsider status in the tourist business, which of course made me like him more and also compelled me to promote his business – which, unlike the others, seems tailored to the individual and doesn’t hard sell a bunch of crappy expensive bus tours. Lalo and I spent a day cycling the streets and dusty hillsides of the small pueblos that surround Arequipa, finishing the tour with an exotic beverage new to my seasoned palate: Coke and beer -- a cocktail of contrasts, a toast to Peru.