Since we volunteers are encouraged to get to know Peru on our free weekends, I decided to go exploring on my own in the southern coastal area of Peru. My motivation to visit this area was primarily to see the famous Nasca Lines, which are considered one of the world's greatest mysteries. They are giant geometric lines, shapes and figure drawings etched in the Pampa Colorado (Red Plain) in the town of Nasca, six hours south of Lima. Three hundred geoglyphs, 800 straight lines, and over 50 enormous outlines of animals including a spider, a monkey, a hummingbird, a pelican and a condor can be seen. These drawings are thought to date back to 400-600 A.D., and to this day, no one knows how they were made, or why. The interest in these enigmatic lines never seems to fade. National Geographic featured a story on the Nasca Lines just last month, in the March 2010 issue. As the lines are almost invisible from the ground, one must see them from a plane. I booked a flight for Sunday. The flights are usually scheduled very early in the morning, as that is when the sun's angle is best for viewing las Lineas de Nasca.
My volunteer assignment in the Villa El Salvador area of Lima is twofold. The first part is working at Los Martincitos, a community-based initiative sponsored by the Catholic Church. Three times a week—on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays—up to 130 poor senior citizens who are eligible for the program receive two hot meals, recreational activities, organized prayer, basic health care and the opportunity to socialize with others, something that many of them never get to do. To be eligible, one must be at least 65 years ol, and live below the poverty line of $2 a day for a family of four. (The "absolute poverty" line is $1 a day for a family of four.)
My first reaction at seeing Villa el Salvador during my volunteer orientation was the same as everyone else's in my program. As we entered the neighborhood for the first time, we all fell silent, our eyes scanning the streets for something, anything, that would make us think, This isn't so bad after all.
The first thing I noticed, aside from the ramshackle homes, were the dogs. There were dogs everywhere, roaming the streets in packs, walking in front of cars, humping on corners, scavenging through trash for something to eat. None had collars. The second thing I noticed was the trash. It's everywhere—in the streets, on the sidewalks, in empty lots, in front of people's homes. Garbage seems to define this barrio. I'm told there are trash trucks here, but the trash pick up system clearly needs massive improvements. As unpleasant as it was to look at, I had a feeling that this garbage was what was keeping many of those stray dogs alive.
Some of the homes we passed, while small, were perfectly respectable. The nicer homes were made of brick. Others, however, seemed to be constructed of materials not normally used to build houses—very thick cardboard or something that looked like woven bamboo. (The woven material, I later found out, is called esteras and is similar to tatami.)
A lot of the roofs were pieces of thin corrugated metal or plastic that lay on top of whatever the walls were made of. Some of the houses had only partial roofs, which is OK, because it doesn't rain in Lima. However, because of the lack of rain, there is very little green in Villa el Salvador—just a lot of dirt and dust. Landscaping does not exist here. People who can afford water use it for the necessities, and landscaping is not one of them.
The main modes of transportation in Villa el Salvador (most cannot afford cars) are public buses, which are almost always overcrowded, or mototaxis, which are strange-looking three-wheeled vehicles that are basically just wheels and a motor with a few flaps of blue vinyl acting as the walls and roof. Needless to say, to ride in one of these motorized tricycles with curtains is to take your life in your hands. Many residents just walk to wherever they need to go. However, walking after dark, or even being outside after dark, is not safe because of the high crime rate.
The volunteer work I do here is in a barrio of Lima called Villa el Salvador. It is the largest shantytown development in this city with slightly fewer than 400,000 residents. It’s received many accolades and is considered a model of urban social development in Latin America. But sometimes it’s difficult for me to believe that when I am there. I have attached some photos of people's homes.
Villa el Salvador was started in 1971 when a group of 200 poor families living in inner-city Lima slums decided to "invade" a tract of desert land on the outskirts of the city. In less than two days, 9,000 people joined them.
The government reacted violently to the land grab, sending in troops to evict the invaders. After several people were killed in the standoff, the government tried to resolve the conflict peacefully and offered the families a massive plot of land 12 miles further south of metropolitan Lima. The land was on a large sand dune and had no water, electricity, sewers or access roads. Nearly 7,000 families relocated there in May 1971, and Villa el Salvador was born. It was officially incorporated as a district of Lima in 1983. All the residents there own their land (which was given to them by the government) and live in houses built by their own means.
Years of protests by residents have resulted in running water, electricity and even some paved roads in the more established sectors of Villa el Salvador. In newer sectors, water can be purchased from a "water truck," which comes twice a week to fill whatever type of water container the homeowner provides. However, in some of the newest sectors, many of the homes have no running water, no electricity and dirt floors. The houses are made of such flimsy material that it looks like the walls would collapse from a mere gust of wind.
These are the homes of the people that I visit weekly.
The beach is not where I originally thought I would be on Easter.
When I first came to Peru and heard everyone talking about the upcoming Semana Santa (Holy Week), I assumed it would be very religious because 90 percent of the population here is Catholic. When I asked around in hopes of finding a church to attend on Easter Sunday, I found out that during the holiday, most Limenos don't go to church. Instead, they head for the beach. Businesses close on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and everyone (including volunteers) have a four-day weekend akin to our Labor Day—a celebration of the last official weekend of the summer.
I was invited to the beach with my new best friend Guillermo, a Peruvian whom I met through none other than the Alibi's own Joseph Baca. Joseph and Guillermo went to high school together in Lima, and when Joseph found out I was coming here, he asked Guillermo to take care of me, a task in which Guillermo has outdone himself so far. He is determined to show me the "other side" of Lima, the upscale side that I don't see in the area where I volunteer daily.
Armed with our Inka Kolas (the much beloved national soda of Peru) and our bathing suits, we drove about an hour south of Lima, passing beaches the entire way. (The whole coast of Peru is a beach, just like California.) We stopped to pick up Guillermo's friend at whose beach house we would be staying for the weekend, and then proceeded to go to eight beaches in the next two days, hopping from house party to house party until very late at night. (No one goes to sleep here before 2 a.m.)
Playa Minka Mar
At one of the beach parties, I met Marisol and Celine Aguirre, two famous Peruvian actresses who were celebrating their birthday (they are twins). In between fiestas, I took my first dip ever in the Pacific Ocean.
On the third day, Saturday, we went to a bullfight festival, the Festival Taurino Las Palmas 2010, at the beach of Las Palmas. While bullfighting is not a sport that I normally associate with Peru, (or with the beach for that matter ), apparently the country is one of the top bullfighting hotspots in the world, right up there with Spain and Mexico. The day started with the "running of the bulls"—probably the closest to Pamplona that I will ever get. The bulls in this festival are called "toritos," as they are a bit smaller than full-size bulls.
After the running of the bulls (no, I didn't run with them—maybe next time), we attended an outdoor luncheon for more than 2,000 people on the lawn outside of the Plaza de Toros, the bullring. We dined on paella and vino and watched a Flamenco dance performance on the nearby stage. Despues de almuerzo, off to the bullfight!
We had front-row seats in the bull ring, thanks to Guillermo's company being a sponsor of the event. I'm not sure if that was a good thing or not. Bullfighting is difficult to watch, especially up that close. The wails that come from deep inside the bull as it dies are horrific. Although it is a barbaric sport, most of the time I couldn't take my eyes off the action. I skipped one of the six fights to watch them butcher a bull in back of the bull ring.
Then I did something I still can’t believe I did. In a clearly crazy “when in Rome” moment, I drank the fresh (and still warm) sangre de toro, bull's blood. No, I'm not kidding. When I returned to my seat, the crowd sitting around me was astounded that a "gringa" had done that and offered me a Pisco chaser from a deerhide flask. Afternoon cocktails will never be the same for me.
On Tuesday I attended a Passover Seder in Peru. It was held at the conservative synagogue in Lima, Asociacion Judia de Beneficencia y Culto de 1870. The seder was led by Rabbi (Rabino) Guillermo Bronstein, the same rabbi quoted in my update on anti-Semitism in the country. I was assigned to sit at his table. Rabino Bronstein has a brother who is the rabbi of a synagogue on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Both rabbis were born in Argentina.
Another man at my table, whose impeccable Spanish convinced me he was Peruvian, was actually from Queens, N.Y. He moved here 12 years ago because he "needed to get away." He never went back. He didn't speak a word of Spanish when he moved to Peru and learned it without ever taking a class. (There is hope for me yet!) He was there with his wife from Bolivia, who doesn't speak a word of English.
At another table was a British couple from London who was passing through Lima on their way to the Amazon rain forest. At yet another table there was a group of folks from Argentina. There were 120 people in all. Few spoke English. It was the most international Seder I have ever attended.
The prayers and songs during the service preceding dinner were all in Hebrew, as they are at every Seder everywhere in the world. During this wonderful service there were no language, social or cultural barriers. There was nothing about the meal afterward that indicated I was even away from home. The seder plate, matzoh, gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, roast chicken, fruit compote and flourless cake were all present and accounted for, as was the traditional kosher sweet red wine, although it wasn't Manischewitz. It was the most food I've eaten since I've been in Peru.
After the Seder was over, the rabbi and his family insisted on walking me to an area where I could get a "safe" cab home. (Taxis are sometimes a bit sketchy in Lima.) They told me to please call them if I needed anything during my stay. I think I have a new family here.
It took a week of calls (and a lot of help from my program director), but I finally have been approved to attend a Passover seder tonight at the conservative synagogue in Lima. There are only two synagogues in the whole city (population 8 million): one orthodox and one conservative. The Jewish population here has declined to less than 3,000 from a high of 5,200 in 1970.
According to the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Lima, anti-Semitic attacks and the number of neo-Nazi groups are increasing and threatening the Jews here. Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein, chief rabbi of Asociacion Judia 1870, has been observing the rise of anti-Semitism in Peru and attributes the increase to two main causes. Many Jews in the community are viewed as having close ties with the government and having too much influence over government decisions. Another cause is the rise in neo-Nazi groups throughout the country, who Bronstein describes as “a tiny minority but very noisy.”
The community is closely watching the activities of these groups. Because the conservative synagogue I will be visiting has been bombed twice, the security level is very high, which is why I had to be approved and why I will have to show my passport when I go. I am hoping someone there might speak a little English. If not, Hebrew will be our common language tonight.
I have been assigned my new job in the Villa El Salvador shantytown in Lima. I will be working with the senior citizens, who are referred to as "abuelos," in the church-sponsored Los Martincitos program. Unlike other volunteer assignments in Villa El Salvador, in this program you actually go to recipients’ houses in addition to working at the senior center. I was told not to wear sandals as many have dirt floors. I am looking forward to the opportunity to see people’s homes.
Volunteer Work Placement
Programa Especial de la Tercera Edad "Los Martincitos," Villa El Salvador
Los Martincitos is a community-based initiative sponsored by the Catholic Church in Villa El Salvador. Three times a week, about 130 senior citizens receive basic services (two hot meals a day, recreational activities, a literacy program, arts and crafts classes, basic health care and counseling).
Participants face different challenges: neglect by their families; physical abuse; poor health and nutrition levels; inability to adapt to a new urban environment; and social rejection for racial and age reasons. They wait for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to come together and share their meals, sing and pray, play games and have fun. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the staff members pay followup visits to their homes.
Peru is the third-largest country in South America. Lima is the capital and largest city.
Peru is the world's second-largest producer of cocaine.
There are almost 4,000 native varieties of Peruvian potatoes. (Guess what the staple of my diet is here?) Potatoes have been cultivated in the Andes for at least 7000 yrs. How about THAT, Ireland?
The Andes, the world's second-largest mountain chain, rise rapidly from the coast to spectacular heights of over 20,000 feet.
The median age in Peru is 25. The average life expectancy is at an all-time high of 70 years, a vast improvement from 1960, when it was 48 years. In the Andes, the life expectancy is 55.
The national culinary dish is cuy, or roasted guinea pig. It is served whole, with the head and feet intact.
The national beverage is the Pisco Sour, made from locally produced Pisco, or grape brandy. (Some of you were lucky enough to have sampled my homemade version before I left!) Peruvians celebrate an annual Pisco Festival in March, as well as the National Day of the Pisco Sour every Feb. 8.
Peru's Macchu Pichu was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, along with the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.
More than 50 percent of Peruvians live in poverty. The poverty line for a family of four is $300 month. Per capita income is $3,500 a year. About 60 percent of Peruvians earn less than $190 a month.
Because of the rampant poverty, Lima has a large number of pueblos jovenes, or shantytowns, where residents live without running water or electricity. Villa El Salvador, where I volunteer, is by far the largest, with slightly fewer than 400,000 people.
Unemployment in Peru is so out of control that it can't be measured. In Villa el Salvador, the unemployment rate is estimated to be up to 75 percent.
Earthquakes in Peru are common occurrences as the country in a seismic zone.
The postal service in Peru is extremely unreliable. Your mailed letter may or may not get to its destination, and if it does, it could take a month. Mailing packages is not recommended.
The water here is not safe for tourists to drink and should not even be used to brush one's teeth. Forget about ordering a drink with ice.
And the weirdest: Because of the unsophisticated plumbing in Peru, used toilet paper is not flushed down the toilet but is placed in a separate bin next to the toilet. This was a hard concept for me to grasp. Like, gross!