Group Update from Peru
In six months in Peru, we've had incredible adventures filled with staggering views, exhausting hikes, intimidating foods and twisting ruins. Our time has been sprinkled with highs-- and yet, and the end of every trip, excursion, crazy weekend or festival, our lives slide back to daily patterns. From service work with youth groups or clinics, to sports with locals or relaxing with family, to quiet reflection on a familiar car ride, we each have our routines. In the chaotic flurry of our schedules, these stretches of the regular can hold the greatest meaning.
The Incredible Increíbles
It’s 3:00pm, half an hour before we’ll begin, and already the first bunch of kids comes running up to the building we’ve taken over. A quick greeting, “¡HolaProfe Helena!”and then they scatter, some to play in the nearby soccer field, others to sneak a peek into my bag of supplies to figure out what we’re doing today. “¡Van a ver!“You’ll see!” I say, as I shove open the ancient, ornery wooden doors, unhinge the shutters of the giant windows, and watch as light floods into the rooms, falling onto the picture-autobiographies they made last week. Artwork has replaced spider webs in these once abandoned storage rooms, which now fill with the sound of footsteps and chattering voices every Tuesday and Thursday. I move on to setting up for today’s main activity, making family trees, while next to me Gonzalo snags the soccer ball from the corner and Emily tugs my shirt to show me the stickers she brought from home.
They are two of “Los Increíbles,” the Incredibles, members of the youth group I started two months ago in Media Luna which has become a highlight in my weekly routine. Every meeting brings surprises, from the number of kids (anywhere between 13 and 34) to the shenanigans they come up with (like the time 4-year-old Marvin cartwheeled onto the grass from a high step, making my heart stop till I saw that he had miraculously landed on his back, slightly stunned but unhurt). The meetings can be challenging, and there are moments when the shenanigans become disruptively rowdy, but overall, working with these kids and watching them develop has brought so much joy into my day-to-day life in Urubamba.
I began the youth group with a confidence built on years of baby-sitting and taking care of my three little sisters, but I soon realized that leading Los Increíbles is a whole different ball game. One challenge I hadn’t anticipated lies in playing games and indoor activities which include acting or out-of-the-box thinking. In a school system which does not focus on encouraging creativity, the kids have little experience with games that are common in Germany or the States. As a result, seemingly simple games such as Capture the Flag turn into a reckless free-for-all, and activities involving acting are killed by an embarrassed silence. On days where every game ends in general confusion, or the boys seem to be bouncing off the walls, I ride home with my head full of questions- am I actually helping these kids? I want to increase their curiosity and their self-confidence with these crafts and games, but is that actually what’s happening? Yet every time I feel filled with these types of doubts, the kids show me that my efforts are paying off. When shy Yaison speaks up in front of the group, or Bryan, usually a trouble-maker, sits intently focused on cutting out a paper apple, the moments of frustration become completely insignificant.
The combination of moments like those with the pure fun of playing with kids (hour-long Red Rover marathon anyone?) leaves me convinced that working with children is the best job out there for me, regardless of the challenges the work can bring. At times I’ve arrived at the two rooms worn out by a long day and worried I won’t be able to handle the group for two hours. Every time, it takes only 5 minutes of talking to spunky, bright Maria or Leonel greeting me with a kiss on the cheek to give me a massive energy boost. By the end of the meeting, I feel re-charged by spending time with these kids, especially those days when I think the lesson plan can really make an impact in their lives.One such occasion was the time we spent a good two weeks on geography after I realized that even the 10 year olds in my group weren’t sure what their continent was called. I know that I didn´t change any lives, but I hope that, in a few years when Moises and Kevin start colegio (Peruvian middle/high school), that geography lesson will give them an edge up on their classmates that could boost their confidence and even their grades.
That was one of the moments that helped me to understand that service work isn´t just about the size of the impact you´re making, but rather about the effect on individual people. Just like it’s the one-on-one moments with the kids that make my day, it’s the individual impact that really matters and gives significance to what you do. Also, working with Los Increíbles has made me realize that if you’re happy, you’re more likely to succeed in making that sought-after impact, no matter its size. The never-ending curiosity of these kids, their excitement for every art project, and their courage to just reach out, grab someone’s hand, and go play is so fun to watch that it fills me with the enthusiasm I need to “make a difference” which, I would argue, gains instead of loses importance the smaller the individuals are that you’re working with.
I fight through the gaps in traffic to cross the highway that runs past Urubamba. It's clinic time. Squatting on the far side of the road, the run down Minsa clinic offers government subsidized medical attention in all flavors, from physiological counseling to childbirth: not a beautiful building, but an important one, and volunteering there has been both enjoyable and eye-opening.
I get pricked by a curious looks as I walk into a waiting room full of Peruvians. Maybe it's my lack of obvious medical needs, or my odd arrival time (around 2, when only a serious injury should pull one away from lunch). Or, it could be my white skin, bulgy backpack, and the variegated set of scrubs that I found lurking in a dark corner of the ProPeru office. I like to think that it's an arrival time thing. Feeling slightly out of place, I quickly retreat to a more comfortable locale: The dentist's office.
Minsa's dental unit is a single white-walled room with two big tables jammed with countless instruments of hygiene. The impressive collection of shiny dental paraphernalia sits out because there is no room for storage. It lends the room a daunting, slightly sinister atmosphere. Fortunately, any negative impression is soon swept away by the two cheery men in white coats. Javier is a pudgy middle-aged man with subtle Santa-clause like tendencies. Reserved with adults, he's great with kids, and they usually leave his care smiling. Or at least not crying-- which is no small feat for a dentist. He also makes a mean latex glove balloon. Jaime is a young, passionate, fresh-out-of-school-er. Patients are always a bit surprised when they wade though the gray bureaucracy of a state medical program only to be greeted by an energetic dentist with a radio blasting American pop. As usual, I'll spend most of my time today with Jaime. He's been fantastically welcoming to the strange gringo who showed up in his office. I get the impression that another pair of hands (even foreign, untrained, barely competent in Spanish hands) are always useful when there's a flood of patients.
And what do those hands do? Well, today they'll be holding the saliva vacuum. I'm sure the thing has an actual name, but my limited Spanish vocabulary usually leaves me calling it “La spiradora de saliva.” I think my Spanish buffoonery may actually ease tension in patients, and it certainly eliminates any status as intimidating foreigner. The suction device only works about 50% of the time, but I have job security through my roles as instrument rack, sink cleaner, pliers fetcher, and stitches holder (when we have to sew up gums, I help hold the thread so that Jamie can get a nice, secure knot). Dental work is unsurprisingly gruesome: today, we'll inject Novacain, pull teeth, and see a lot of blood. At first, I found it hard to watch any part of the work. I'd blindly hold the saliva vacuum and focus on not feeling nauseous. Now I've adapted; it helps to know that the patients really can't feel anything through the Novocain. This afternoon, I'll only squirm during the actual injection of the numbing agent. The first minutes of our operations are nothing but needles, gums, and pure, tense discomfort, but things soon relax into light banter, saliva suction, and the yanking of molars. Peruvian dental work has become a normal part of my Wednesday-- just another routine. Arrive, wash up, chat, help, and wash up again. I have a good time goofing off with Jaime between patients or in slow periods, and I get to feel useful in the rushes. Above all, I get exposure to a basic, and revealing aspect of life in Peru.
In my clinic time, I've felt a gradual, growing understanding of poverty. I listen as Jaime explains the two options for filling: the free, mercury-based filling or the ceramic filling, with a three dollar per tooth surcharge. People always opt for mercury. I listen as Jaime explains how the clinic doesn't have the technology to save a tooth-- we can pull it out, or the patient can go to a costlier, private dentist to repair it. People always opt to pull the tooth. I listen to Jaime explain the need for braces, and watch the patients cringe at the price. Minsa is a clinic for people without options. The clinic itself is stretched thin. Every day, I notice small wants, from the finicky, barely operational suction machine to the supply shortages to the lack of space that forces the exam room to double as storage. Minsa is built on good intentions and staffed with dedicated doctors-- but chronically underfunded and poorly equipped. I've asked myself why, but there is no good explanation: the government either can't or won't provide for the poor.
Together, the clinic and its patients tell a story. For me, they've shaped a new conception of poverty. Instead of a statistical description (x percent of people lack Y) or an emotional understanding (the shock of realizing that a friend lives with his entire family in one room), my time in Minsa is narrating poverty though an ugly process. Every day, for a flood of people, Minsa is the only choice. Every day, patients have no alternative but cheap mercury fillings and the removal of teeth that could be saved for a bit more cash. Watching this flow, I feel the human pain of poverty, but captured on a whole new scale. This is a pain bigger than individuals, or even villages. This is systematic, substandard health for people who have done nothing to deserve their lot in life, and I know that every day, the flow of patients continues. It's sobering and frustrating beyond belief.
The hours I spend in Minsa will stay with me for a long time, a sharp reminder of inequality-- and yet when I walk out the door, I will feel satisfied. Maybe that's because I'm reminded that the world is filled with Jaimes and Javiers, wonderfully dedicated people. Or maybe it's because I feel like I've helped in some tiny way. Or maybe it's just hard to feel gloomy when watching a five-year-old play with a latex glove balloon. Whatever the reason, I'm always glad that I braved traffic and stares to go work with the dentists. There can be no better way to spend Wednesday afternoons.
Before coming to Peru, basketball and tennis always fascinated me more than soccer. One important standard with which I evaluated sports is the frequency of one´s contact with the ball, and it doesn´t take a math major to reach the conclusion that, with the number of balls constant, fewer participants means more contact. There was also the problem of finding soccer fields in my hometown Shanghai, a city half the size of Lima but with a greater population than all of Peru. The brutal length of a match, along with the high definition pictures of leg-breaking injuries that come up once in a while on the front pages did not help soccer´s cause either. In short, I used to prefer to play soccer by pressing some colorful buttons that players on a screen interpreted as commands.
The opportunity to play soccer in Urubamba came by chance. It all started with Jaime the dentist giving me a tour of the public hospital on my first day volunteering there. At the end of the tour, he pointed to the stadium next by. “Come to play soccer with us this Friday night at eight!” he said passionately. In desperate need of exercise to counterbalance my calorie-heavy diet, I gladly accepted the offer. Well familiar with Peruvian customs, I showed up that Friday at the stadium half an hour later than the proposed time, confident that I would have still been among the first to arrive. To my utter surprise, two teams were already playing on the field, while Jaime and his team waited on the sideline to replace the team that concedes first.
“What took you so long?” Jaime came over and asked, “We’ve been playing for thirty minutes.”
“Sorry about that. I was…watching a movie.” Wanting to question his Peruvian status, I scrambled to come up with an excuse instead.
“No worries. You can sub in for me the next game.”
Five minutes later I made my world debut in a five-on-five soccer match. My goal was simple; since I had learnt in my few past encounters with soccer that my dribbling skills are non-existent, I wanted to connect my teammates through efficient and accurate passing. Two minutes into the game, the first opportunity to show off those missile launching legs of mine emerged. A teammate was wide open on the right wing, and a comfortable pass from me would leave him one-on-one with the goalie. My eyes looked to the left, attempting to trick my defender as my left foot gave the ball momentum in the other direction. The pass seemed brilliant initially, with the ball on trajectory to finding my teammate in stride. The goalie on the other team, however, thought otherwise. He dashed out of his goal and intercepted the ball just as it was about to arrive. I hurriedly put up my hand to apologize for the insufficient velocity on that pass, but just as I stood still waiting for my teammate to see the gesture, the goalie dribbled the ball forward and launched a quick counterattack. Realizing that my team would only have three defenders to mark five players, I start running back. The effort was too late. Before I reached midfield, the opposing team ripped apart our defense through concise one touch passes and topped it off with a shot that winded up in the back of net. Embarrassed by my horrendous performance, I marched off the field staring at the ground, avoiding eye contact with my teammates.
“Not bad,” Jaime patted me on the back when I walked past him, “You just need to get used to the pace of the game.”
In our next game I began to comprehend what Jaime meant. Due to the limited field size, passes had a high chance of being intercepted, which directly increased the frequency of conversions between offense and defense. Learning from my debut, I altered my strategy to making more short passes and getting back on defense as soon as possession is lost. The adjustments worked instantly, and by not committing any crucial mistakes, the team was able to snatch a goal and stay on as the winners.
By the final game of that day I was already comfortable enough to call out a teammate for taking the low chance shot instead of making that extra pass, and the level of my game progressed rapidly in the following weeks. A week later I had my first assist, a cross from the left side that Jaime back heeled into the net. Two weeks after that I scored my first goal, directing a shot right through the goalie’s legs.
In many ways, the improvements that I have made in indoor soccer resemble my accommodation to life here in Peru. First, there was the ignorance phase, in which I neglected the change of environment and did everything the same way as I would at home. Then followed the alert phase, the phase where I realized the need to take on different manners. After trying a new approach and appreciating its benefits, I arrived at the comfort phase, converting new approaches to routines and feeling comfortable once again in the environment. Finally, when the comfort is there to stay, there are the occasional goals, those unexpected ecstasy-inducing moments when a shop assistant asks me “You are Peruvian, right,” to which I always answer “Claro que si,” of course I am.
6:00 p.m. In a town full of references to the “hora Peruana,” and a generally laidback attitude towards time, I am regularly shocked by Tatiana’s sudden concern for punctuality around the start of Combate, a popular reality TV show in Peru. Tatiana, nine years old, is the youngest daughter in my host family of five mujeres. She color codes her homework, has a disarmingly sweet smile, and is a fierce card player. Perhaps tapping into that competitive spirit, she is an absolute Combate fanatic.
In my first few weeks living with the Rojas Villegas family, I did not have any sense of routine. I would arrive back at the house between five and seven at night and inevitably have some variety of potatoes pushed onto me, even though the rest of my family was content with tea. Sometimes I would sit down with my host mother for a bit, sometimes I would chat with a host sister upstairs, and sometimes I would watch TV with the family – almost always Combate. I was, and still am, fairly bemused by the popularity of the show. In a quick poll walking 15 minutes through Urubamba on a Monday night, I saw six TVs and five of them were showing Combate. Each episode is remarkably similar – competitions between the scantily clad red and green teams which consist of every possible permutation of Latin American pop music, pools, and foam climbing walls.
It took me longer than I would like to admit to realize that Combate’s role in the evening was very deliberate. On my first night in the house, Tatiana asked me which team I was for: the red or the green. Not knowing that this was a matter that would repeat itself every night, I arbitrarily went for the red. A good decision: not only does that perfectly split the family between the two teams, but it pits me against the most dedicated Tatiana in a mock-fight that has yet to get old. My host mom, Eli, often teases that Tatiana is worse than old women and their telenovelas, but Eli has just as many opinions about the infamous Darlin and Miguel Arson.
I never watched all that much television in the US, and I never would have anticipated that a TV show could be a game changer in the relationship with my host family or one of the most predictable parts of an average day in Urubamba. But it is - from the relative monotony of the show, the timing of the water boiling, and my host mom criticisms, the course of every evening is almost ritualistic. I am expected to be home around six. I pour myself a cup of tea upon arriving, laugh over some story about the children in my host mother’s first grade class, and play a simultaneous game of cards with Tatiana and the second-youngest sister, Carolina. When my two oldest host sisters, my age, come back from college on Fridays, or my extended family drops in, they too slip right into the pattern.
I have had a lot of exciting moments over the past few months. I have hiked Incan ruins under a full moon, spent a day cooking food out of a hole in the ground, and been soaked in the town-wide water fight that is Carnavales. In the end, though, the fun stories do not show the real bulk of my life here in Urubamba. For me, the most meaningful experiences are not always epiphanies or tipping points, but the relationships that develop over a course of months as I put down roots in this town - days in the family chakra, talks with my host mother after lunch, and nights giggling over Combate that accumulate into a real friendship.
When I started school, a fellow five-year-old decided that the name Mary Irene was just too long to say. She dubbed me “M.I.,” and the name stuck. Why do Americans like initials so much? Ask J.K., W.B., or O.J… initials are easy, to-the-point, and hip. In my daily life in the Andean pueblo Urubamba where, despite the presence of washing machines in many homes, people find that not washing their clothes by hand feels “weird,” grabbing a banana and dashing to class instead of sitting down to an elaborate breakfast with the entire family is considered rude, and a small stretch of road in the middle of town has been under construction for the entire six months we have lived in Urubamba, no one feels the need to save a moment of their time saying my full name. The harsh English vowels of my name melt into the lilting Latin cadence of Spanish flavored by the smoky, gruff timbres of Quechua, and I have become María Irene. This new persona fits right in to the easygoing pace of rural Peruvian life.
The quickest way to Chicón, the small village where I work, is to take a combi, ancient vans intended for twelve passengers that I have seen carry as many as thirty-two. The drivers wait up to an hour for a full car, pump Huayno music, and ramble their way up the mountain, slamming on the brakes and sending passengers tumbling into each other’s laps each time a señora laden with her market purchases bellows “¡Baaaa-ja!” On holidays, the driver will stop at a chicheria and wait for the passengers to hand around a plastic tumbler of chicha, a frothy, bitter corn beer that was once the sacred drink of the Incans and is now something closer to Andean moonshine. As soon as I wedge myself in the combi each afternoon, I am sure to see half a dozen people I know, and, reaching around various human limbs, sacks of grain, and goats, I greet these friends and distant relatives with a kiss on the cheek and a beaming “¡Buenas tardes!” Three miles and several bruises later, I stumble out of the overladen combi and hand my forty-cent fare to the driver. Urubamba, with its streetlights and paved roads, is now far below the chacras (Quechua for farms) and adobe houses of Chicón. Even farther away is my neat Chicago suburb and my hectic U.S. life. Looking back a year ago, my morning commute could be measured down to the minute I arrived at high school. A clock ticked away in my head, reminding me to wake up, combat rush hour by darting among highway lanes, and dive into my seat moments before the bell rang. This clock has been slowed down by the countless horas de almuerzo, lunch hours, that end up lasting all afternoon, the women’s artisan collective meetings when I glance up from my knitting only to realize the sun is setting, though it feels like no time has passed at all, and the farewells in which you never say goodbye, but rather we’ll be seeing each other.
The pace of Urubamba is a breath of fresh air. It is rarely, if ever, efficient but the people of Urubamba have the same approach to life that they take to saying my name—they don’t skip over the important parts.