An Alibi staffer’s journey through impoverished Peru
By Ilene Style
What follows are excerpts from a complete travel journal originally posted at alibi.com. Click here to read extra and extended posts.
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.
I somehow managed to become deathly ill on my very last night in Peru. It was the dreaded "stomach thing" again. Everyone traveling here gets it at one point or another. I've had it twice in six weeks, as have all my voluntario housemates and people I've traveled with. Milt, who flew here to visit Machu Picchu with me, and to make sure I actually came home from Peru, got it a few days after he arrived, despite brushing his teeth with bottled water and following all the suggested food precautions. Generally this is nothing that a little imodium won't cure. But what hit me on this last night was the "stomach thing" with a vengeance. It came on swiftly, relentlessly and violently, con mucha fuerza. I spent my last night in Peru camped out on the bathroom floor in a hotel room in Cusco, memorizing every floor tile. By the next morning, I was so sick I could not stand up. The problem was, I had not one, but two flights to take that day, one from Cusco (the airport closest to Machu Picchu) to Lima, then later from Lima to the United States.
I crawled out of the bathroom, which I had locked myself in six hours earlier, and knew there was no way I was getting on a plane in this condition. I just couldn't imagine camping out in an airplane lavatory for eight hours, and certainly couldn't fathom what the turbulence would do to my stomach. I told Milt to go without me, that I would fly home sometime in the future when my stomach stopped hurting. When Milt realized I was totally serious about spending the rest of my life on that bathroom floor, he sprang into action. After all, part of his mission here in Peru was getting me home. He dressed me, packed my suitcase and ran to the nearest store to buy me the Peruvian facsimile of Gatorade. Meanwhile, the hotel sent someone up to my room to administer oxygen, which they made me breathe for 10 minutes. Then they tried to make me drink something, anything—coca tea, Gatorade, water—to help revive me, as at that point I was completely dehydrated. But to no avail. I could not even keep an imodium pill down.
All I wanted to do was to lay down on the cool bathroom floor again, next to my new best friend the toilet, but no one was having any of that. Milt practically carried me downstairs, and handed me three or four plastic bolsas, which he had thoughtfully confiscated from our hotel, for me to use as barf bags. Upon our arrival at the Cusco airport, no Spanish translations were necessary. The staff from LAN Peru Airlines took one look at me, promptly put me in a wheelchair and rushed over an oxygen tank for me. Then they wheeled me to the plane. OMG, was this really happening? Aren't I still too young to be pushed through a busy airport in a wheelchair with an oxygen mask over my face?
Despite their efficiency at keeping paying customers like me alive, LAN Airlines does have a track record of removing really sick people from flights before takeoff. Milt, having heard horror stories about this, kept propping up my limp-as-a-ragdoll body in my airplane seat after we pre-boarded (being in a wheelchair has its perks), and lifting up my lolling head, begging me to smile and look happy every time the flight attendants walked by my seat. I tried to tell him that if anything were to give away my true condition, it would be the unattractive pale green color of my skin, not whether I was smiling. But at that point, my words were coming out slurred, so I'm not sure if he understood. I made it through the 1 hour flight, clutching my barf bags for dear life. I spent my last afternoon in Lima sleeping in a dark hotel room until it was time to catch the next plane, not having enough energy to even go outside to give my beloved city of Lima a last look, or a proper goodbye.
I was still feeling shaky as we headed to the airport for our flight to the U.S. I slept for the entire eight hours home, something I have never done before. Milt kept checking to see if I was still breathing. I still couldn't look at food, even though I hadn't eaten in almost 36 hours. This isn't the method I would recommend for losing a quick 10 pounds overnight.
This was NOT, needless to say, how I wanted my last memory of Peru, the country I had fallen in love with, to be. No one wants to remember leaving anywhere in a wheelchair, with an oxygen mask on, in extreme pain, convinced she is going to die. I cannot allow myself to remember my goodbye to Peru like that. So, I will remember my farewell in a different way. Perhaps whatever brought on this illness the day I was to fly out of the country was telling me that it wasn’t time for me to leave Peru yet. Perhaps I was meant to stay longer. Perhaps I still had unfinished work to do here. I don't know. It's a nice thought. Whatever it was, I have made peace with it, and the less-than-perfect ending to my mission will in no way tarnish my feelings for this wonderful country, or my feelings of happiness and pride in making a small contribution to the community of Villa el Salvador during my short stay here. In the words of my seatmate who got sick in our tiny plane in Nasca, "It's all part of the experience."
I received an amusingly large number of responses from many of you after I mentioned in one of my first emails that Peru is the world's second largest producer of cocaine. Here are more facts on that subject.
Peru is one of only two countries where it is legal to cultivate coca. The country grows about 56,000 hectares of coca, and can produce about 400 metric tons of cocaine.
Cocaine is the second most popular illegal recreational drug in the U.S., behind marijuana. The U.S. is the world's largest consumer of cocaine, accounting for 50 percent of the world's annual consumption.
The U.S. has spent roughly $1 billion in Peru since the year 2000 on anti-drug efforts. The result? A net increase of 18% in land here used for drug crops. Back to the drawing board, Washington.
According to Peruvian sources, 1 gram of cocaine that would cost between $80 and $120 in the U.S. would cost between $5 and $10 here in Peru. And, it is pure, not cut, like it is by the time it arrives in the U.S. There is a test, involving plain household bleach, that can determine how pure your cocaine is. Most drug dealers or addicts are familiar with this test. Sorry, amigos, but I was sworn to secrecy on the method.
Drinking coca tea (mate de coca), an infusion made from the leaves of the coca plant, is a popular remedy for alleviating altitude sickness, which many tourists get when traveling to Machu Picchu, Peru's most popular tourist destination. Chewing on the actual coca leaves themselves is also a well-known remedy. This method of consumption has been practiced for many centuries by the indigenous people of Peru. I have attached a photo of a coca leaf.
Drinking coca tea or chewing on coca leaves does NOT give you the same high as cocaine, although it will give you a mild stimulation and mood lift. However, you should be aware that you WILL test positive for cocaine if you are subject to a drug test after using these remedies. It is best to refrain if you will be looking for a job after your vacation to Machu Picchu!
Peru has the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca in Puno. It sits 12,500 ft. above sea level.
Peru has the two deepest canyons in the world, Colca Canyon and Cotahuasi Canyon. They dip down 10,600 ft. and 11,000 ft. respectively.
Peru has the second highest peak in the Americas, the mighty Huascaran, which rises to 22,200 ft.
Lima, Peru, is the second largest city in the world that is located in a desert, after Cairo.
Annual rainfall in Lima is 0 inches. It NEVER rains there. And I thought Albuquerque, with its mere 8 inches a year, was dry.
The world's longest river, the Amazon, starts in Iquitos, Peru. Iquitos is the gateway to the world's largest and most diverse natural reserve, the Amazon rainforest.
With a population of 400,000, Iquitos, in the Amazon rainforest, is the world's largest city that cannot be reached by road, only by water or air.
Sixty percent of Peru is jungle, or selva. Most of Peru's Amazon remains unexplored, and hence has some of the best untouched rain forests anywhere in the world.
Should you decide to explore the unexplored Peruvian selva, make sure you get vaccinated for typhoid, yellow fever and malaria. And be sure to bring LOTS of bug repellent, with at least 30 percent DEET. I can always spot tourists who have recently been to the jungle by the huge red welts all over their arms and legs!
Machu Picchu, the most famous archaeological site in South America, is the iconic symbol of Peru. It is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, rubbing elbows with India's Taj Mahal, Rome's Colosseum and the Great Wall of China. It was discovered in 1911 by Yale University historian Hiram Bingham, who, incidentally, was the role model for the Indiana Jones’ character in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark"
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.