In Villa el Salvador, a shantytown which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lima, there are hostels, or hostals as they are called, everywhere. Naturally, there are hostels all over Peru for travelers and tourists, but it struck me odd that there were so many in Villa el Salvador. I mean, how many touristas would want to stay in one of the worst parts of a city, where it is dangerous to go out after dark? When I inquired about this, I was told that the ubiquitous hostals in Villa el Salvador are not actually hotels as we know them, but places where men and women go “to have a private moment." Ah ... comprendo. All of these hostals have signs in their windows advertising their prices, which I now understand are hourly, not nightly, rates.
Hermana Jacci explained to me that there are two reasons for the success of these numerous hostals. There are sometimes so many people living in a home in Villa el Salvador, often in only one or two rooms, that married (or unmarried) couples have no private place to go to be together. The hostal serves as their private place. The other reason for the hostals is they provide a place for married men to take their amante, or lover. Peruvian men, she noted, are not known for their fidelity, much to the chagrin of their wives. Unfortunately, unfaithfulness among married men here men is so common that wives have practically come to expect it. Peruvian men themselves have confirmed that this is true, but have assured me that the “chauvinistic” society here is improving. I'm glad to hear that, although I'm sure it will take a while to change social mores that have been around for so long.
But that's not to say that married men with a wandering eye have cornered the market on amorousness in Peru. ¡Al contrario! Peruvians are the most affectionate people I've ever met. Public displays of affection are readily exhibited and highly encouraged here. Even the statues love a little PDA (see photo). Couples walk hand in hand, arm in arm, down the street, nuzzling each other on street corners, on buses, in movie theaters, and at the supermercado, oblivious to their surroundings. (At least now we know there's a hostal available for them in Villa el Salvador, should they need a room.) Even friends display more affection toward each other than I am used to.
Which brings me to one of my favorite things about Peru. When Peruvians greet each other, it is always with a kiss on the cheek, a hug and a greeting of "Buenos dias,” “Buenas tardes,” or “Buenas noches,” depending on the time of day. This ritual applies not only to good friends, but also to people who have never met before. When I first arrived here, this custom surprised me, as I was not used to kissing, or being kissed by, people I didn't even know. What happened to the polite all-purpose handshake? But in about no time flat my surprise turned into delight, as that sort of affection makes you feel immediately welcome, especially when you are clearly an outsider like myself. I have kissed and hugged more people than I can count since I've been here. (Kissing 100 abuelos hello and goodbye three days a week is practically a full time job in and of itself!)
This tradition is yet another thing that makes Peru so special. As far as I'm concerned, every country should adopt it.
The question I received most frequently from all of you in response to my e-mails about the Los Martincitos program in Villa el Salvador was "How can I help?" I truly feel blessed to have friends who are so eager to help those who are not as fortunate as we are, even if they live 5,000 miles away.
I had mentioned previously that it is not recommended to send supplies or donations directly to Los Martincitos, because of the unreliable postal service in Peru. I have since learned that there is a website, which was started by Sister Jacci's niece Marianne Boyle, whose purpose is to raise money for Los Martincitos program. In Ms. Boyle's own words:
"Two years ago, my daughter and I traveled to Peru to perform service work with my aunt, Sister Jacqueline Glessner, a Catholic nun, who lives in Villa el Salvador, a shanty town of some 500,000 residents outside of Lima. I returned from that trip feeling like I wanted to help "her people" in any way possible. After all, it was nice to travel to the area and assist personally, but what these people really needed was money to purchase life's necessities: food and medicines, shelter and clothing."
The website address is via-villa.com. If you'd like to get in touch with Marianne directly, you can e-mail her at email@example.com. She can also receive checks at her address in NJ, which she then deposits into a joint bank account she shares with Sister Jacci, who is able to access the funds in Peru and use for the program. All money donated goes directly to Los Martincitos; there are no administrative costs, or middle men. Her address is:
Mrs Marianne Boyle 18
Flemington, NJ 08822
There is also a link on the website to a program called Adopt a Grandparent, or "Adopta un Abuelo", another website that helps the Los Martincitos program. That website address is adopt-a-grandparent.org.
Francisco has just had his third stroke and is thought to be beyond rehabilitation. When we visited him, he clearly knew we were there, but was unable to communicate with us, as his speech and most of his movement had been affected by the stroke, except for movement in one arm. No communication was necessary for us to know that he was miserable. He so wanted to talk to us, and yet all that came out of his mouth was unintelligible sounds. His daughter (his wife was in the kitchen and didn't seem to want to talk to us) told us that the night before, he had made a hand signal across his throat indicating that he wanted to die. Hermana Jacci told him firmly it was God's decision when he would go, and he had no say in the matter. He cried when we left, and I did too.
Although Francisco was still able to attend the program at Los Martincitos after his first and second strokes, he is no longer able to attend because of his deteriorated condition. We now go to visit Francisco on a regular basis, since he cannot come to us. We talk to him and even try to joke with him, but it is difficult for him to respond. We believe he is comprehending because he squeezes Hermana Jacci's hand, and gesticulates wildly with his good arm when he doesn't agree with something, or wants to make a point.
Perhaps Francisco will improve, and will be able to attend the program again someday. If not, I pray that God intervenes and grants him his wish. No one should have to suffer, through no fault of their own, a life they cannot bear. Vaya con Dios, Francisco.
Petrona, one of our abuelas, lives with her daughter and son-in-law. Her son-in-law is abusive to her, but her daughter is unable to do anything about the situation. One of Petrona's legs is very swollen, and she doesn't know why. My voluntaria friend Margaret from Ireland, who is a nurse, is on this visit with us. She thinks Petrona has some sort of infection, possibly cellulitis, and should see a doctor immediately. However, it is very painful for her to walk so she will need to figure out a way to get to the doctor.
While Hermana Jacci discusses the situation with Petrona and her daughter, I catch a glimpse of a little girl peeking out from behind a door. It is Petrona's granddaughter. I go over and try to talk to her in my broken Spanish. She is wary of me, and won't talk to me or even smile, but she agrees to have her picture taken. She begins warming up to the camera, and proudly shows me her prized possession, a Barbie backpack, which she insists be in the photo with her. She finally manages a slight smile after I have taken several shots.
This niña bonita was a bright spot in my day. Perhaps I (but more likely my camera) was a bright spot in her day too.
My camera serves an amazing function here in Peru, allowing me to communicate with people with whom I otherwise I would not be able, due to language or cultural barriers. It has become my most valued possession, and I keep it with me at all times. Thank you, Dad, for the best birthday present you've ever given me.
In the mornings at Los Martincitos senior center, before desayuno (breakfast), and before the oraciones (prayers) that precede desayuno, the abuelos must do their exercises. It is important for the seniors in the program to loosen up their muscles and joints, and to get their blood flowing. They do this to dance music, and the exercises are led by an incredibly limber older staff member named Raul. After a week of working here, it became obvious to me that the only three songs they had in their warm-up repertoire were the Macarena, the Conga and the Hokey Pokey. I am astounded at the fact that I have done the Hokey Pokey more times in the past four weeks than I did during my entire childhood. (This is not something I had anticipated doing much of while in a foreign country.)
My fellow voluntario Quinn and I decided one day that we simply could not go on any longer sticking our right arm in, and then out, and shaking it all about, so we decided to choreograph our own exercise routine for the abuelos. Quinn thought that “YMCA” would be the perfect song for the abuelos to get down to. However, since we had no means by which to obtain the song and play it on the ancient boom box they use at the senior center, we had to settle for one of the three songs they already had. So, one morning, after practicing our routine the night before (we took this very seriously up until we actually had to do it), we asked permission to lead morning exercises.
Upon hearing the first few notes of the Macarena, we promptly forgot everything we had prepared for our big debut. We managed to fake it, though, with each of us taking turns leading dance moves that incorporated various body parts. Our rendition of the “twist” was extremely well received, and it was hard for us to keep straight faces while watching the elderly abuelos try to gyrate their hips, something that most of them were clearly doing for the first time in their lives. Apparently, our “non-routine” was a hit, based on the applause we got after the song was over. I always knew that those aerobics classes I took last century would come in handy someday!
Angelica lives with her grown son Pedro, who is blind. Her other son, who also lived with them, and with whom she was very close, died recently of tuberculosis, a disease that is rampant in Villa el Salvador. She has trouble getting around because her legs are very swollen, despite the special stockings she wears. Her condition is not helped by the fact that she is overweight, something one does not see often in Villa el Salvador.
The walls of her house are made of a medley of strange materials that look as if they are about to collapse at any moment, and part of the house has no roof. The squalor inside is eye-opening. Hermana Jacci warned me about this the first time we visited her, saying discreetly before we entered, "Angelica is not the best housekeeper." There were piles of trash? ... knick knacks? ... worldly possessions? strewn everywhere. Apparently Angelica's neighbors had to come over and help her clean up the mess before her son's wake (which is always held in the home of the deceased, with the casket in full view. Burials happen quickly afterward, as there is no embalming available.)
Their front door
Angelica has stopped attending the Los Martincitos program because she has been in a depression since the death of her beloved son. The second time we visited her, she cried because she misses him so much. Hermana Jacci tried to reason with her that she would be less depressed at the program, surrounded by her amigas, than sitting at home every day in the room that she shared with her son—the same room in which he was laid out after his death. She gave this some thought, but didn't seem convinced.
Her remaining son Pedro is supposed to be taking care of her, although that is difficult because he is blind. He is very domineering, and Angelica fears that because the deed of her house is in his name, he will eventually put her out. Recently he has acquired a new girlfriend, so has been spending much more time away from home ... and away from his mother, leaving her alone much more than she is used to.
We will continue to encourage Angelica to return to Los Martincitos, because if she misses too many days, she will be dropped from the program, as there is a waiting list of other needy abuelos in Villa el Salvador who would be grateful to have her spot.
--- On Sun, 4/18/10, <******@verizon.net> wrote: OK… when do we find out more about the toilet etiquette??
Many of you have asked me about the "toilet etiquette" in Peru that I mentioned in a recent e-mail. I wrote about the toilet etiquette here when I first arrived: "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!"
When I tell new voluntarios about this unusual custom, they are as grossed out as I was weeks ago when I arrived. Of course, now it's old hat, although still somewhat weird. You will never find a toilet in Peru without one of these next to it. They come in all different sizes, depending on how many people use one toilet, but always look the same. There are exceptions to this particular toilet ritual, of course. It does not apply in big fancy hotels. Perhaps these hotels have their own plumbing systems.
While we're on the subject of el baño, another thing you must always do in Peru is carry toilet paper with you at all times (especially if you are a girl.) Toilet paper is not a priority in public restrooms here, nor are paper towels, soap or sometimes even toilet seats (I'm not talking about lid covers, but the actual seats themselves). Luckily, with or without paper, the public restrooms here are still a step above many of the the public restrooms in France, some of which consist of a drain in the ground surrounded by a privacy screen.
If you happen to be in a public restroom in Peru that requires you to pay to use the facilities, women pay more to use the ladies room than men pay to use the mens room. Why? Because the ladies room has toilet paper. What if men need paper? Lo siento, yo no se!
My new name in Peru is "Elena." The abuelos at Los Martincitos call me that because it is much easier for them to pronounce than "Ilene.” I soon realized that "Elena" it was much easier for ALL Peruvians to pronounce, so that is how I introduce myself now.
At work last week, I hung out a shingle and opened my very own nail salon, Spa de Elena, and gave manicures to the abuelas. My lack of experience was not a problem; after all, what self-respecting girl from the Big Apple doesn't know everything there is to know about mani/pedis? Apparently, receiving manicures is quite a special treat for the abuelas, as I had a large number of them crowding around me when they saw me bringing a shoebox full of nail paraphernalia to a small table that Hermana Jacci and I had set up. The nail polish and accoutrements are all donations from former voluntarias.
Some of the polishes were dried out to the point of being almost unusable, but that didn't bother the abuelas. I had to dispense with niceties such as nail soaking, cuticle trimming and clipping/filing early on, as the abuelas were interested only in having their nails painted the brightest and most garish colors that were still usable. They awaited their turns patiently, and despite my warnings of "¡No toca nada!" (don't touch anything!) when their manicures were finished, they immediately went off and touched everything in sight, effectively ruining their manicures within minutes. They then lined up again for me to fix the smears. My frustration eventually gave way to laughter, as it is hard to be cross with someone who is so excited, even for just a few minutes, about her newfound beauty.
Check out the "after" photos of some of my new spa clients.
The talk of the town has been the temblor or small earthquake, that we had last week in Lima at about 3 a.m. It was a 4.3 earthquake, whose center was about an hour and a half south of Lima. It was the second temblor we've had since I have been here, and I am mortified to say that I slept right through it. (I did feel the first temblor though, which was about a month ago.)
I love my new home in Villa el Salvador, the home of Antonio (Tonny) and Silvia and their three children. It is the first time in 4 weeks I have been able to sit straight up on my bed without bumping my head against the top bunk. Margaret, another voluntaria who I met at Los Martincitos and who is now my NEW new best friend, is also staying here. She is from Dublin, Ireland, and has been living here in Villa el Salvador for 4 weeks.
Familia de Palomino Nunta
Margaret and I, without a doubt the two whitest people in Villa el Salvador, walk to work every morning. We try to stick to the main roads and travel over an interesting mix of terrain, including sand, rocks, dirt and several unfinished sidewalks. We've visited together an internet cafe here to check email and a locutoria, which is a store with public pay phones that are very cheap to use. These locutorias come in very handy for residents of Villa el Salvador who don't have phones, like me.
Casa de Palomino Nunta en Villa el Salvador
After work at Los Martincitos yesterday, Margaret and I went to help teach English to children at an elementary school just outside of Villa el Salvador. We took a bus there with Lady, the student teacher who invited us to help her. It was the first public bus I have taken in Lima. Buses are a little scary here. There are thousands of different ones, and I have no idea how anyone knows where they all go, as they all look the same—terribly old, run down and always overcrowded. Strangely, the buses in Lima are all privately owned, so anyone can buy a bus, make up their own route, and hire anybody to drive it. The government does, however, set the fare. All buses in Lima cost 1 sol, or about 30 cents. There was a man selling bread on our bus, a little girl selling candy, and a little boy playing a guitar who solicited money from passengers after his concert. I felt like I was back in NYC!
Escuela Mi Dulce Hogar
At the school, we taught English to 3- and 4-year-olds in the form of songs and nursery rhymes. We practiced singing "Mr. Golden Sun" and "Good Morning Teacher" and then Margaret taught the class "Itsy Bitsy Spider." When we got off at the bus stop on the way home, we took a taximoto (the 3-wheeled, completely unsafe motorized vehicles that we were warned never to take) the rest of the way home, because it was almost dark and it was safer to take the taximoto than to walk home from the bus stop. The taximoto was fun, but I discovered quickly that you must hold on to the bar on front, as there are no doors, windows or seat belts to hold you in.
That evening, Carmen, a 22-year-old student who also lives with the family and speaks no English, asked me shyly if I would help her with a writing assignment for her beginning English class. After we worked together for awhile, I realized why I had never heard Carmen utter a word of English. She cannot pronounce the words. At first I thought it was odd that she was struggling so much with the word "the," one of the simplest words in the English language. As I watched her frustration, it suddenly dawned on me that there is no sound in the Spanish language that equates to "th" sound in English. We spent 20 minutes alone on the word "the," as I tried to teach her how to position her tongue so the "th" sound would come out correctly. I now have a profound new appreciation for speech therapists. We practiced English together for the next two nights, and I wished her luck on her presentation, which is today. Before she left for class, she said to me, “Me gustaria que te quedaras mas tiempo aqui" ("I wish you could stay here longer"), a compliment I will never forget.
Today I will be leaving my comfortable home base in Lima and moving to Villa el Salvador for 4 days, where I will get to experience firsthand what it is like to live in the same hood as the people about whom I have been writing. I will be living in the home of Antonio, the director of the Los Martincitos program where I work, with his wife and three children. They have a large house (by Villa el Salvador standards), and for $15 a day, I will get 3 meals a day and a place to sleep. Tonny, as he is called, speaks no English at all, and his wife speaks only a few words, so it will force me to practice my abysmal Spanish.
My mother is not happy about my decision to move to Villa el Salvador, but I have assured her that I will not go out of the house after dark, when it is the most dangerous. I'm not sure what the Internet situation will be like there, but I will try to continue to send e-mails. I have seen a few internet cafés in Villa el Salvador, and understand they are very cheap ... 1 sol, or about 30 cents, per hour. I use the term "café" very loosely, as you can see by the photo I have attached of an Internet café in Villa. If it is safe to walk to one, I will do so, and will continue to send updates.
At our home base in Lima, new volunteers are constantly arriving and leaving. The number of occupants here changes on a weekly basis, as do our roomates. Each of the rooms in the house sleeps up to 6 people, in bunk beds. Most of the voluntarios here are from the English speaking countries of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia.
My best friend here at the home base up until a week ago was Samantha, a 23-year-old from Ontario, Canada. She made me promise when she left that I would get on facebook while in Peru. Working on it, Sam!
After Samantha left, my new best friend was Quinn, a 39 year old from New York who has a wicked sense of humor, and kept me laughing constantly. He left yesterday to travel around Peru for a few weeks. We spent our last day together at la lavanderia washing our clothes.
Mikal, 25, who has been here since January, was one of the first voluntarios I met. We became friends when, shortly after I arrived, he asked me if I would help him "buzz off." Huh? That night I learned how to shave someone's head, a skill which no doubt will come in handy someday.
The food here at the home base is simple, delicious and typical Peruvian. It is served family style. Rice and some type of potato (there are 4,000 indigeous varieties of potatoes in Peru) are served at every meal, Often corn, pasta or beans are served in a stew, along with the rice and potatoes. Once, we had rice, potatoes, corn and pasta at the same meal. I have done enough carbo loading since I've been here to run several marathons on a moment’s notice. The corn here is called choclo, and has the most enormous kernels I have ever seen. I have attached a photo of the choclo kernels, which I pick off the cob and eat one by one, like grapes.
We are warned when we arrive that we should never drink tap water, and never eat raw vegetables, fruit or fresh dairy products in Peru. I was happy to learn that the fruit at the home base is treated with a special solution that makes it safe for us to eat. Local milk may not be pasteurized, so it is best avoided. The milk we drink at the house is ultra pasteurized, has a shelf life of a year or so, and does not need refrigeration.
There is a condiment served with everything in Peru, a paste made from local aji chiles. I have fallen in love with this chile paste. It is served at every meal here, and I have yet to find a food that it doesn't pair well with. It's not quite a substitute for New Mexico green chile, but it does the job when I need a chile fix.
When a volunteer gets the dreaded "stomach thing," as we all do eventually, despite our rigorous care with eating, we are put on a diet of rice, bread and a special homemade chicken soup. We are advised not to eat any fruit, vegetables or the beloved aji (that was the hardest part for me). Usually the bug clears up with in a week. We all share pepto bismol and imodium on a regular basis.
The seasoned volunteers usually initiate the new volunteers about things they need to know, as most newcomers arrive on weekends when there is no staff here who speak English. I'll never forget my first bunkmate telling me about the "toilet etiquette" here when I first arrived. When I tell new volunteers about it, I can't help but laugh at the look of sheer horror on their faces—the exact same look I had 4 weeks ago.
I am looking forward to seeing what my new home base in Villa el Salvador will be like. Adios, amigos!