Updates from Peru - October, 2009
By Agnes Cho
As October came to a close, we took a mini-vacation to Arequipa, a city in the south of Peru. Though it was refreshing to be away from the routine of our days, especially in a city as modern and accommodating as Arequipa, it was our return back to Urubamba that revealed our true sentiments. As our collectivo (public taxi) pulled into the grifo (the one gas station in town), we all sensed that we were home. Urubamba has ceased to be just an impersonal town. The roads to Spanish class and ProPeru are as familiar to us as the back of our hand. While walking across the plaza, we frequently encounter local children from our projects who love to run up and greet us with a hug and kiss. Urubamba is now comfortable. We no longer feel like newcomers as we navigate between the traffic of motos (an Urubamban motorcycle carriage). We are embedded into the rhythm of this tranquil town.
Urubamba has many quirks for us to discover and incorporate into our lives. With our increasing language dexterity and growing grasp of the subjunctive tenses, we’ve all struck up conversations with Ricardo, the man we fondly call “Churro Hombre” who sells the best deep fried dough with caramel filling on the market street every evening. Every Friday afternoon, we are greeted by the sight of the man who likes to stand around the main plaza with his pet ostrich. Leah and I have found the community oven that makes the best wheat bread, a welcome addition to the white rice and potatoes that usually accompany our meals. David and Tugce have also been trying every pasteleria (bakery) in Urubamba to determine which bakes the best alfajores and tortas.
We’ve established our individual niche in Urubamba. Every Wednesday is a “ceviche” lunch (a typical Peruvian dish of raw fish and lime juice) at Leah’s house, as her host mom buys fresh trout from the Wednesday market. David is practicing his handcrafted guitar and has sought the mentorship of his great uncle, Tío Guido, who taught him the legendry chord he dubbed “El Rey”, also known as, A7. Tugce, the most vocally talented member of our group, can be found humming under her breath the popular Latin songs, “Tu y Yo” and “Suavemente.” Brian, eager to partake in competitive sports (he is an ardent lacrosse player in the States), pays the 50 centimos (17 US cents) to enter the public park and shoot some hoops with whomever may be playing basketball at the given moment. As for me, I have perfected the art of making soymilk, a trade my host mother, Rosi, taught me after finding out about my obsession with soy products.
Our weekdays are filled with Spanish classes, project work, meals with home stay families, and hikes up the nearby mountain to a giant white cross. But Fridays are set aside for our group meetings when the five BYP crew and Anna Welton, our program director, sit down to work on our group development project. In addition to our individual projects that we work on during the weekdays, we are planning an independent development project that we will implement over the next several months. Trying to come up with a focus for the project has been a dynamic and challenging process. We are currently exploring the many forms our project can take, but of primary importance is the collaboration with a community. The objective of the project is to work alongside a community to address local needs. This has been a work in process that has included the cooperation of the entire ProPeru staff. With them, we are working to identify what could best be accomplished with our resources, and they have helped to get us started.
One of the first possibilities we researched was an invernadero, or greenhouse. This idea had come about after observing the severe malnutrition in nearby communities and realizing our shared passion to work with children. A greenhouse project could possibly serve as both an educational experience for the children, providing a venue to learn about nutrition and the environment, as well as a means of providing a more diversified diet.
The project development process also inspired us to reach out to several communities. Early morning on a Saturday, we met with community leaders of Chícon Bajo, a rural community right outside of Urubamba, to gain a better understanding of the town. They described the strongest aspect of the community as their openness, commitment, and eagerness to work together and with us, all great qualities of a potential partner. We also visited the town of Marcuray. We first heard of Marcuray through Mercedes, the Social and Economic Director of ProPeru whose brother, Gonzalo, is a professor in the local school. We were interested in learning more about Marcuray, because we were excited by the prospect of working with a more remote alto-Andean community that, according to Mercedes, was overlooked due to its isolation.
In many ways, Marcuray is an idyllic place. It is nestled between vast mountains and can only be reached by driving an hour to the rural town of Socma and hiking up another hour into the mountains. Along the way, we passed by donkeys that were lugging down agricultural goods to sell in the Urubamba market and children who were beginning their hour long daily descent down the mountain to go to school. When we finally reached our destination of Marcuray, we were greeted by the sight of scattered adobe houses, bright turquoise outhouses, rows of adobe bricks, and a long yellow building that was the primary school.
With the help of Gonzalo, we were able to informally talk with several members of the community, who predominantly spoke Quechua. In these conversations, we learned about some of the town’s needs. At the most basic level, the town lacked a water reservoir and electricity. It is also located at such a high altitude that only core crops, such as potatoes and yucca, can be grown. The primary source of income is the little money they make with the sale of the crops in the markets of larger towns, like Urubamba. But when they take the crops to sell at the markets, they are forced to lower the prices to stay competitive. Unable to grow and buy much else, the children reluctantly drink government issued mezcla fortificada, a vitamin and mineral enriched mix. This drink is the only source of nutrition for the kids in their unvaried diet of soup and mate, herbal tea.
Although the need of the Marcuray is great and the community of Chícon Bajo seems like a great partner, we are still exploring more possibilities. We are visiting more communities in the area and taking note of former successful projects of ProPeru and other local NGO’s. It is important that we don’t rush into the project without a plan that we all feel enthusiastic about.
Wherever our group development project ends up, we would like to incorporate the concept of Ayni. We were first introduced to this Andean idea of reciprocity during an orientation session we had upon our arrival to Peru in early September. But we only had a theoretical and academic grasp of it after a lecture from a university professor in Cusco. This lesson came to life in Marcuray, as we found ourselves to be the active participants in this dynamic tradition. The people of Marcuray demonstrated the spirit of collaboration that Ayni represents when they offered to provide adobe bricks for whatever we would need to build. They live and embody this concept of teamwork, and we felt honored that, though we were foreigners and younger than the community members, they included us in this practice.
David captured the prevalent mood of the group as October came to a close when, during the hike up to Marcuray, he kept repeating every 10 minutes or so, “I’m loving this.”
“What exactly are you loving?” I asked after his fourth or fifth exclamation.
He just waved all around him, attempting to encapsulate as much as possible in his physical gesture, “THIS!”
David was right. Looking around, it was hard to keep from being overwhelmed by the beauty and significance of the situation, the awe-inspiring landscape of the Sacred Valley, the breathtaking views of the mountains, the crispness of the unadulterated air, and the anticipation that comes with being a part of a new project so unlike anything we have done before. Never would we have imagined a year ago that we would be where we now find ourselves to be. Even walking down the street of Urubamba, where you pass by several cows as you try to avoid an oncoming moto, is a life that is foreign to the one we lead in our suburban bubble back home. We have come to nestle into our lives in Urubamba. We are getting comfortable in the unfamiliar (food, language, sense of time, lack of showers). We have “typical” days but they consist of hikes, Quechua, and two hour lunches.
During our trip to Arequipa in late October, we went rafting. After our exhilarating passage through a class 4 rapid, Leah turned to me and said, “It’s Monday. We should be in class.” Instead, we were white water rafting down the Chili River with the volcano, Misti, as a backdrop to our Peruvian adventure: an adventure that was characterized by day to day life in Urubamba, outdoor excursions through Peru, and the enriching experiences we find and give through service.