Group Update from Peru
Introduction: We were first introduced to Salsa in Cusco. Our Spanish teachers decided that a little lesson would be a fun, or funny, conclusion to orientation week. Since arriving in Peru, we've been confronted by extreme poverty and met inspiring people. We've had frightening moments that launched friendships. We've seen remarkable feats of ingenuity and perseverance in others-- and gradual changes in ourselves. We've been dunked into a new country, language, and culture-- and we've taken it on with confidence (or tried to). And every Wednesday night, in the middle of the chaos of the week, we make time for the dance that welcomed us to Peru. In salsa we have learned lessons that reach far beyond the dance floor.
By Mary Irene Burke (M.I.)
Salsa dancing brings to mind dark Havana nightclubs, piña coladas, and complicated steps performed by a debonair pair in perfect harmony. The sunny Cusqueñan dance studio where I attempted my earliest Salsa stumblings was a far cry from any Havana club, and the only reality of my starry-eyed Salsa reverie was the complicated steps. I spent that first lesson with my eyes glued to my feet, counting out the beat so loudly in my head that it was nearly audible. I was lost in a whirl of turns and spins until, finally exasperated, I took a deep breath and stopped trying to guess what was coming next. I kept pace with the basic step, adelante, atrás, forward, back, forward, back, and avoided stepping on anyone’s toes. My months of dancing have left me with few Salsa skills but at least two tokens of wisdom for the casual Salsa dancer: always find a partner who can dance better than you can and, when all else fails, step adelante, atrás.
The day of the Urubamba Biofería dawned warm and clear. The women’s collective artisan groups that Claire and I work with in neighboring communities, Maquiwan Ruwaska, or “Hand-Made” in the local Quechua language, from Media Luna and Ricchariy Warmi, Quechua for “Rise-up Woman,” from Chicón, had secured a table in the plaza with a dozen other artisan vendors at the weekly eco-fair. All of the women arrived early to set up their colorful scarves, sweaters, stationary, and jewelry under a bright blue sky. Excitement was electric in the air- this was going to be a big sale. A different sort of excitement bubbled inside me. I felt this sale was a breakthrough in my project work- the Biofería was a local, sustainable market for the women to sell their goods each week. With wide smiles on our faces, we settled in to wait for the customers to arrive. We waited, and we waited… and we waited. The women quietly began to knit, and their children wandered away to play in the grass. The sun sank low in the sky, and, with only a few pairs of earrings sold, we began to pack up the tents. The early morning chatter became curt commands by the afternoon to fold the scarves. I tried to explain that it was the low season and the real sales will pick up around Christmas and when the tourists arrive in March. These words felt empty to me, and I felt frustrated and foolish about my earlier enthusiasm. The women, on the other hand, did not seem to be surprised by the low sales. I realized that this small disappointment, while it seemed devastating to me, was only one in a series of setbacks to these women who had been dealt such hard hands in life.
Señora Regina, one of the oldest members of the group, greets me every time I see her with incredible openness and love. She takes off her hat, wishes me good day, and plants a huge kiss on my cheek. As I have spent time with Regina and tried to learn more about this amazing woman, she has told me about her childhood on the hacienda, or plantation, that once encompassed the present-day patchwork of Chicón family farms. She began working on the hacienda as a small child, milking cows and picking fruit for exportation while her own large family survived on a diet of potato and corn. She attended school and was exposed to Spanish for the first time at eleven. By fifteen, she was married and at thirty she was widowed with five children to feed. Life has not shown many favors to Regina, but she does not reveal a trace of bitterness. She loves learning new knitting stitches, and she makes every product with the care she has shown to her children, who are now successful leaders of Chicón; the members of Ricchariy Warmi; and to me, a gringa, more than a third her age.
Señora Maruja is patient, reserved, and quietly persistent. For weeks, I was curious as to why a woman with a quiet, almost shy demeanor held perhaps the most central role in Ricchariy Warmi as the group treasurer while many other women seemed to dominate daily conversations and decision-making processes. All my questions were put to rest when I stayed as a guest in her home one night and experienced just a fragment of her incredible integrity and strength. A farmer’s life in Chicón is centered around food; Maruja rises before sunrise to feed her animals, tend to her chacras, or fields, of corn and potatoes, and cook on an open fire for her family of seven, including her young niece who was abandoned by her parents. The terrible reality is that when it is time for the family to finally eat the food that they have tended to for months, there is very little to go around. Yet, Maruja always seems to make something out of nothing and ensures that everyone has had one or two servings before she takes a bite. When I told Maruja how much I love arroz con leche, a kind of rice pudding, she dropped everything to milk her cow and teach me how to make it. How could I ever have questioned what qualities make Maruja such a strong force in the group? I believed that authority is only demonstrated in assertiveness and self-assurance. Maruja showed me that generosity, responsibility, and humility are much surer characteristics of a leader.
Aracely is a seven-year-old force to be reckoned with. Panting all the way, she can manage the nearly hour-long hike up the mountain to Chicón from Urubamba faster than I can, and every time she sees me, she runs up and jumps into my arms to be swung around in a circle. She loves trying on my silly pink sunglasses and acting like a movie star, and when she treats me like a human jungle gym (daily), I am more worried about her breaking my bones than her own. Aracely is Señora Regina’s granddaughter, and Señora Maruja has been a constant presence in Aracely’s life as a neighbor and friend. I can see so much of their strength reflected in her. While Chicón is one of my favorite places on earth, I have seen how it is crippled by alcoholism, malnutrition, domestic violence, and a lack of opportunities for education and work. With such odds against these women, I am sure that their resilience has set them apart from so many who have been tripped by these stumbling blocks. In Chicón, for every step forward there is a step back but Regina, Maruja, Aracely, and so many other strong women have taken all of its challenges in stride.
The Biofería is not a panacea market that it once appeared to be. The initial disappointment, though, prompted me to look that much harder for vendors, review product placement and presentation more carefully, and propose new, original projects to the women. The experience also caused me to remember that the success of the women’s collective is not only measured in sales. My favorite memories with Ricchariy Warmi are cooking picarones, sweet potato doughnuts, and pizza together, chatting and knitting with them for hours during our meetings, and hiking to Occoruroyoc, a beautiful grassy field high in the mountains, to picnic and play volleyball. I hope that the group fills them with the same confidence and joy that I experience when I am in their presence and that, even with a few frustrations and failures, it is a big step forward for us all.
Fear and Friendship
By Kenneth Hubbell
After a brief Salsa lesson in Spanish class, I never really thought about the dance while here in Urubamba. Absent from my life were the distinctive shuffles and twirls of Salsa-- at least until an awkward encounter in the Discoteque. We were out dancing with some Peruvian host siblings. The lights were flashing hypnotically, the songs were popular and familiar, and all was right with the world. Then I heard it: The music was shifting. The pop lyrics were fading and a Latin beat was creeping in. I felt a distinctive sway in the crowd and realized that we were pairing off-- It was time to confront Salsa. I ended up dancing (very, very poorly) with Claire's shy host sister Veronica. I was embarrassed and the awkwardness was palpable. I fumbled some twirls, lost the beat, and at one point may have lost a shoe. It was ugly. But somehow, from that scary incident a new relationship was born. Veronica saw me as a comical (but doubtlessly charming) figure and I managed to expend a lifetime's worth of embarrassment in one evening. Now I smile at the memory. It's nothing major, but when I see Veronica we smile and nod, closer than before.
With Veronica, an awkward dance was more than enough to redefine the relationship. It wouldn't be so easy with my middle-aged Peruvian boss.
--“Kenny, do you know any stories about snakes?”
--”Like Adam and Eve?”
--”Heheh, no... No, other stories.”
--”Uhh... I don't think so, do you?”
--”Well, there is a small village near Urubamba ...”
That was the introduction to the little conversation that changed my days working on the water filters project. I'm using the term “conversation” in a loose sense to include exchanges where other people talk and I nod, say “si, claro” (yes, clearly), and occasionally toss out a couple of vulnerable sentences in my two-month old Spanish. My patient partner in this instance was Ernestina, the Peruvian full-time Pro-World staff member on the water filters project. Ernestina is a short muscular woman with long black hair and the face of a trickster. I had been working with her every Tuesday and Thursday for the past month to mix, weigh, and finally press clay into ceramic filters. After a few fizzled attempts at small talk, we had settled into a routine of productive silence punctuated by short requests and instructions. The work was rewarding in the long run--and dull in the moment. Things changed on the day of the snake talk. On that day I was startled, disgusted and impressed. Finally, from the ashes of an uncomfortable conversation, a new relationship was born.
Ernestina and I were leveling a lumpy patch of ground in order to construct a new kiln. 11 o'clock in the morning found us lugging rocks around to fill in holes. The silence was comfortable and the sun was not. As I pried one of the last rocks from the ground, out slithered the sort of animal that one would expect to slither. The sort of animal that squeezes meters of itself into small unexpected spaces so that it can surprise you with deceptive speed, a flash of exotic-colored scales, and a bite that floods you with toxins and brings your stay in Peru to a tragic and sudden end. At least, those were my frantic thoughts when the snake appeared. In reality, it was about a foot and a half long, brown, sedentary, and probably generally benign. I froze. The snake froze. Ernestina did not freeze. Ernestina took a pickaxe and bashed the snake repeatedly while explaining that this type of snake was very hard to kill. She was more than up to the challenge. When finished, she must have seen the shocked and appalled look on my face because she told me that the little guy was, in fact, poisonous and that it would have been a very bad idea to let him crawl around in the filters work shop. I was impressed (and unsettled and still a bit startled).
We sat down for a break, and the conversation started. When she learned that I had never heard any “proper” snake stories, Ernestina took it upon herself to educate me with some folklore from her childhood. The stories were horrifying. I spent the first few minutes doubting my Spanish and the rest of the time politely nodding and trying to stop my jaw from dropping off my face. I don't think that we need to go into more detail, except to say that if you ever, EVER think that a snake may have gotten INSIDE your body, you should get an MRI immediately and pray that the snake hasn't consumed ALL of your internal organs. Yuck.
Somehow though, that 20 minute session of gross-out did the same thing for an 18 year-old foreigner and his middle-aged Peruvian boss that the great game of gross-out has been doing for elementary school kids for ages: It made us friends. The conversational dam shattered like a tired metaphor and we started talking about her snake-filled childhood. That turned into talk about Quillamba, a nearly mythical source of all of Peru's tastiest treats-- chocolate, coffee, mangoes and the like. Then to food, to cooking, to the traditional delicacies of Peru. Ernestina wanted to learn to cook American food, so I invited her to our volunteer dinners (we take a night every week to cook for each other). I wanted to learn more about chocolate so she told me about the process that takes weird fruit to beautiful bean to molten brown happiness.
With the silence broken, filter days became more than morally rewarding manual labor. They became a time to talk with someone who shared my interest and curiosity for food. One day, Ernestina brought in cocoa beans from Quillabamba and, together with another volunteer, we roasted, shelled, and ground them into bar form. I will dream of the smell till the day I die.
I see that snake talk as a turning point in my time in Peru. The obvious reason is the impact on my work here-- it made me a friend which in turn has made work richer. It marked one of the first substantive connections I made with a Peruvian outside my host family. I realized that I (or anyone really, there was no special role I played in this) could fly thousands of miles to a totally new country with a totally new language and bond with someone over something as silly as snake-based horror stories. A humanist might cite this as an example of some universal connectedness. A cynic would point out the insufficient sample size of my data set. An herpetologist would just accept it as proof of the fascinating nature of snake talk. Fortunately, I don't need to try and mine this incident for more meaning. I have a new friend at work and a great opportunity to learn more about Peruvian food. I'm happy.
No hay problema
By Claire Zarakas
Saturday night, shortly after arriving in Peru: the five of us were an English-speaking bubble in a small, listless restaurant in Urubamba, so I could not help but notice when a group of spirited Peruvians with ganas de bailar entered the nearly empty room. With a simple shift in music, salsa seemed to erupt from every corner. There was hardly any space, the woman-man ratio was not quite right, and the atmosphere was decidedly restaurant as opposed to chic-Cuban-bar, but that was not going to stop them. Those already dancing assured us that no habia problema, there was no problem, and, before long, each of us had been whisked off our feet to join.
Carolina scurried up the uneven bricks of a dilapidated wall, hoisting a plank to the top of an abandoned pig shelter. “Un rodadero!” she explained, “A slide!” Though I was impressed with her ingenuity, this was potentially the most dangerous contraption I had ever seen. The board clung, unattached, to the top of an unstable adobe wall, and several nails and cinderblocks surrounded the slide’s whole trajectory. Carolina’s mother, a member of the women’s artisan group in the town of Media Luna with which I am working, was nowhere to be seen, and I compensated by running back and forth to shadow and catch Carolina and her cousin Juan every time they skidded down. I was almost disappointed when, just after mastering the frantic dash, Carolina and Juan moved on. In a whirlwind of ideas that I hardly could follow, the plank transformed into the mast of a ship, a see-saw, a territory-marking bridge, the beam of a swing, and, when even that became too boring, a Tarzan-style vine.
Only after the tempest of games had calmed and Rosa, Carolina’s mother, recruited me to peel potatoes for supper did I synthesize what had just happened: Carolina and Juan had made an entire playground with a plank of wood. In some ways, they reminded me of my own childhood, when a neighborhood of children and what felt like all the time in the world converged to make countless afternoons of fort building. At the same time, their ability to take advantage of the tools they had and their practical, make-it-work attitude is a part of Peruvian culture that is hard to pinpoint, but harder to ignore.
Carolina and Juan had wanted to play, but there were few traditional toys, no concept of extracurriculars or structured play space in the community, and little parental presence, so they created almost everything they wanted out of what they had. When the women in the artisan group decide to cook a meal together, they begin by asking what each member can contribute from her chacra, and then transform the inevitable potato, corn, and onion, into the aromatic, starch-heavy deliciousness that has so unabashedly increased our waistlines. Metcha, the ProPeru water filter coordinator and Peruvian force to be reckoned with, ended a marathon pursuit of internet for the office by rallying the whole organization to raise a 400 pound telephone pole. It was a messy operation; she used only a ladder and some rope, and at one point enlisted several passing strangers and one woman in heels to join in. Despite the sheer weight of the telephone pole and our lack of technical expertise; Carolina’s lackluster playthings; and the limited produce in the chacras, no habia problema.
While America is the self-proclaimed land of hard work and innovation, innovation takes on a whole new meaning here in Peru. More than just an ability to make do with the tools at hand, its essence lies in truly taking advantage of them. No one praises or acknowledges the day-to-day creativity that overcomes the obstacles that could render a project impossible, because that creativity is expected. In a community where it is easy to identify challenges of widespread underemployment and malnutrition, pervasive alcoholism, and a lack of clean water, this attitude is a distinguishing strength that gives me hope in Media Luna’s ability to face all of these setbacks that, to me, can seem insurmountable. At the very least, I know it has changed the way I think about problems, creativity, and nondescript wooden planks.
Poco a Poco
By Helena Hengelbrok
“¡Ven a intermedio! Ya tienes el ritmo, no es tan difícil!” (“Come to intermediate! You’ve got the rhythm; it’s not that hard!”) said Raymi, the resident Salsa teacher in Urubamba after my second “basico” class. Hesitantly, I agreed to stay, my nervousness abetted by his confidence and my desire to learn the graceful figures I had seen in Salsa dancing. Yet from the moment the Salsa music started, I felt hopelessly lost. Overwhelmed in a sea of steps and turns I couldn’t keep track of, I wanted to apologize to anyone who had the misfortune to partner with me. They all laughed off my apology however, and carried on teaching me the “Miami,” so I followed suit and concentrated on the actual figure instead of on myself. I left my first intermediate class with my confidence rather shaken, but already hooked on the Salsa beat and encouraged by the support of the others in the class. “Poco a poco vas a aprender,” assured Raymi (“Little by little, you’ll learn”). He was right! In the months that have past, Salsa class has transformed into a challenging, but wonderfully absorbing hour and a half. The original Salsa coaching led to further conversations, and as my Salsa skills advanced, so did the friendships. I spend the whole class breathless and beaming as I spin from figure to figure, and the moment the music starts has become one of the highlights of my week.
My first day in Ocurruro, Lalo, my boss, welcomed me with the words, “Today we’re covering a building with mud.” I initially assumed that the most difficult part would be avoiding getting myself covered with “barro” (mud), but this seemingly simple task turned out to be more complicated than I had expected. It involves your stomping around in the specially prepared barro, collecting it in buckets, and then throwing it onto adobe walls. Next you smooth out the mud, first using your hands and then a wooden pole. Repeat steps two through four many, many, many times until you have covered all four walls (and usually much of yourself) with barro. And there you have it!
For the first month and a half of our time in Peru, that was how I spent two mornings a week, working alongside other volunteers and a few Peruvians. Together, we threw mud onto walls that belonged to “galpones,” or huts for the guinea pigs that almost all families in rural communities here raise. These are part of a wider ProWorld Peru initiative in Ocurruro called “Viviendes Saludables,” or “Healthy Homes,” that aims to improve health conditions in the community. The galpones do so by providing a space to breed the guinea pigs, as they normally live in the kitchen in close proximity with the family’s food.
The work was a lot of fun, but there was one catch- though we worked hard and learned quickly, we were half as efficient and a fraction as skilled as our Peruvian counterparts. In the time it took four “gringos” (the innocuous Peruvian nickname for foreigners) to finish one wall, two locals would finish two. What’s more, their walls would be almost perfectly smooth, while ours would look like a four year old had tried to finger-paint with their eyes closed. Though we knew the reason behind the difference, namely that the Peruvians had worked with barro many times in their lives, it was still tough to shake off the feeling of inefficiency. I would feel the need to apologize to the owner of the house for the roughness of our workmanship, joking that they should please forgive us; gringos just don’t have the skills!
Thankfully, the Peruvians were always very understanding, and never seemed to mind our slow pace or rough patches in the barro. They just wanted to get the work done. Some even showed me tricks, such as smoothing the mud with a tool right away instead of using your hands. These exchanges would often break the previous atmosphere of silence, and would open the door for more conversation. As a result, I realized our inexperience had one of those proverbial silver linings- it served as a gateway between us and the Peruvians, and gave us the opportunity to build relationships while we helped build galpones.
This realization changed my attitude towards our work, and I began to see further positive aspects. We still never reached anywhere near the level of the Peruvians, but at least we improved. Also, even if I was unhappy about the pace of our work, we were doing something that otherwise would not be completed. The need of the people of Ocurruro for us to finish the galpones forced me to forget the perfectionism that had previously frustrated me, and instead allowed me to focus on working the best I could.
We’ve since moved on to building the cages for the guinea pigs, a project which brings along a whole new set of fun jobs and challenges. However, even though the work has changed, the core set-up has not-- it’s still a Peruvian and a volunteer working together, as the Peruvian carries on steadily and the volunteer does as much as they can before sitting back and asking for advice. Now, when that moment comes, instead of feeling frustrated, I’m grateful for the excuse to reach out and bond over the moment of them helping me learn, poco a poco.
By Chong Gu
A phrase that I constantly hear in Peru is “con confianza,” which translates to something like “just do it” in English. However, unlike its English equivalent that has been taken hostage for advertising purposes, “con confianza” can be used in pretty much every situation. You can drink a plate of soup con confianza, carry a bag of sand half your weight con confianza, say something in Spanish that is bound to contain multiple grammar mistakes con confianza, and even pour a kilo of shampoo onto your head con confianza (usually after a morning of hard work). The idea is to simply execute, without worrying about the negative consequences. Now, this mindset, obviously, is not always helpful, but in a tranquilo little town like Urubamba, where the biggest sin is not finishing the last grain of rice on your plate, doing everything con confianza works out surprisingly well.
“Riquisimo,” the word comes out of my mouth one syllable at a time as I am still appreciating the last spoonful of soup that I have just swallowed. Having done some thirty surveys earlier in the day on kitchen conditions by going house to house in Chicon, a community where houses are spaced like the galaxies in the universe, I do not need confianza to recklessly annihilate my meal.
Before I can even put down my spoon, Señora Antonia’s voice surprises me, “Te aumento? Can I give you a second serving?” A recipient of one of the thirty cleaner stoves that we plan to construct in the community, Señora Antonia, just like every other mother in the valley, also has the remarkable ability of constantly supervising every plate in the room and requesting to fill yours up the second it is empty.
“I would love to, but I really shouldn’t considering the walk back that awaits me.” In a country where, with respect to cuisine, yes means of course and no means yes, declining food is a fine art. As I feel complacent about my masterpiece of an excuse, Señora Antonia’s two kids exchange some quick words, look up at me, and suddenly burst into laughter on the other side of the table.
“What?” I ask, puzzled, as my hands search my teeth for possible leafy remains.
“She said” the older brother answers, catching his breath first, “that you eat like a cuy.” Characterized by the frantic way they eat and the sound they make when doing so (a sound somewhere between water boiling and an asthma plagued hyena laugh), cuys (pronounced ku-ee), also known as guinea pigs, are commonly raised for food in Peruvian homes due to their high nutrition values.
“Um,” Uncertain whether to feel flattered or insulted by the simile, I digress, “Was that Quechua you were using?” Quechua, an indigenous language, is now to the sacred valley what Shanghainese is to Shanghai (in other words, only spoken in the house, barely taught at school, and endangered!).
“Siiiiii, quieres aprender?” The sister asks with wide eyes and a grin best described as blatantly devilish, “Do you want to learn?”
“Of course,” My confianza spirit answers without hesitation, “what’s ‘I don’t speak Quechua’?”
“Mana Yachanichu Quechuata,” The kids tell me in unison.
“Mane Nisiqichu Quechuala,” I repeat, trying to sound confident.
The kids cover their faces and start giggling hysterically at how inept I am at the language. They dedicate the next twenty minutes to rectifying my horrendous pronunciation. I am told that the first a in “Mana” is different from the second a in “Yacha,” that “Quechuata” is not “Quechua” plus ”ta” but “Quech” + “huata” , and that I need to cross Quechua teacher off my list of possible future careers. Eventually, my hard work pays off, evident in their thumbs ups the first time the sentence comes smoothly out of my mouth. It’s time for the graduation test.
“Mana Yachanichu Quechuata, Señora Antonia.” I raise my voice so that it reaches the other side of the kitchen. She sends me back something in Quechua, leaving me in complete confusion. I thought I just expressed my inability to communicate in Quechua. Everybody else in the room laughs upon hearing her response, and, a few microseconds later, my laughter joins theirs. Pretending to understand con confianza: now that is something I have mastered here.
The experience that day did not exactly kick off my Quechua career, but it certainly brought me and Señora Antonia’s family together. Señora Antonia now invites me to lunch every week, the children always put on their biggest smiles asking for hugs in my presence, and the 21 year old brother and I do the classic slap and fist pump greeting whenever we see each other on the streets. It is occurrences like this that make me believe in the power of “con confianza.” There is no cost in stepping up and saying yes, and the potential returns are tremendous. Why not accept the chicha offered by a Peruvian coworker con confianza? You never know if he will propose a great project idea while you two share the cup.
Despite all my advocacies for confianza, there remains a field in which I have not implemented the belief: salsa dancing. No worries, however, for I have a plan to address the issue, a plan that starts with my Spanish class tonight:
“Are you going to salsa class?” Silvana, my profesora, will ask me at the end of my class, thinking that she already knows the answer and only trying to see what excuse I will come up with this time.
And that’s when I will surprise Silvana. I will reply “Por que no? (Why not),” put on a Ricky Martin smile, lead her in a professional-quality full dip con confianza, and watch her expression change from surprise to amazement, and finally, to admiration.