Saturday, June 26, 2010

Last Week!

I can't believe I am writing my about my fourth and final week here in Peru! This week, and this whole trip, went by much too fast and saying goodbye to the children and the other volunteers was much harder than I had imagined.
Friday was tough, as it was the last day I was with the children from the prison. However, we also heard some great news! One of my favorite children, Wilmer, was released along with his mother after spending over two years there. I was so happy to hear that this little boy would finally sleep in a normal home, attend an actual school, and live a more regular life. We took the kids to a local parade at the plaza downtown, where they fed the birds, bought some small toys, and ran around like crazy. Dropping them off at the prison was immensely difficult, despite knowing that there are many people still here who care deeply about their well being. I just worry because I feel that many of these children will have no real say in the direction of their future and my biggest fear is that they end up like their parents, forced into a dangerous lifestyle because of a lack of other options. The closing of CCS in Ayacucho makes this danger more plausible and I sincerely hope that another organization will pick up where we leave off.
Today was a perfect last full day. We went to a kindergarten about 20 minutes away from our house and completely redid the inside. We took down all the old decorations, cleaned and repainted the walls, and hung up colorful new decorations. It took about six hours and we left tired and dirty but completely thrilled with the tangible difference that was made. The school is located in an extremely poor section of Ayacucho and has no running water or electricity. Many of the neighbors are illegal squatters, who cannot afford other housing. Despite this obvious poverty, the many parents and students who came by throughout the day were clearly thankful for the help and were excited to see the small renovations we made.
It's hard to sum up this experience in a photo album or a blog. This country is a combination of unreal beauty, desperate poverty, vivid colors, and amazing people. I feel so lucky to have met the children, the staff, and the other volunteers over the past four weeks and am confident that many of these friendships will be life long ones. Leaving is bittersweet, as I am ready to come home and see my friends and family but I am also so sad to say goodbye to this country and its people.
There have been some points at which I do not feel I made as big of a difference as I had hoped. I think I came here somewhat naively thinking that I would be able to dramatically and postively alter the lives of these kids and be able to see clear results by the time I left. However, at the end of my four weeks here, the kids still struggle with their colors and numbers and many are obviously overwhelmed by their strange living conditions. I think it is unfair that these children are also paying the price for a crime committed by their parents but I am not sure what can be done about it. It is a cultural belief that children should stay with their mothers for as long as possible and my personal opinion is not going to sway that perspective. However, after voicing these concerns to some people, I am reminded that even the littlest things can make a difference. Even though I was not able to remove these children from their upsetting circumstances, I still helped to make them feel loved and appreciated every day I was with them. Even if my presence here was only a temporary distraction from their troubles, this small nicety was surely appreciated by both the children and their mothers. One my last day in the prison daycare, one of the mothers hugged me and asked who was going to take care of her son once I left. I told her she was a great mother and was more than able to provide the love he needs. Proof of that was her willingness to do whatever it took to keep her children from going hungry. Her choice may not have been the right one but I don't believe that anyone can pass judgement unless they have been in a similar dire situation and have had to make a difficult decision. This trip has really given me the ability to more clearly view both facets of an issue and be less likely to make a hasty decision about which side is "right."
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience Peru in such a profound and intimate way. Traveling to incredible places like Machu Picchu as well as struggling rural communities showed me the vastness of this country and the needs that plague all regions of it. I am sure I will continue my connection to this place through the friendships I have made and am excited to see where these relationships go.
Thanks for reading about my adventure here and feel free to email me if you have any questions!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Third Week!

I can't believe it's the end of the third week! This week was pretty low key since a new group of volunteers arrived on Sunday and the staff spent a lot of time getting them acclamated. We worked with the male inmates on Monday and then worked in the regular day care on Tuesday. The kids are doing really well but there is still no real teacher there which makes me worry about what will happen when CCS closes down here. Wednesday was really cool because we went to a "model community" about an hour away. A few years ago the town was really struggling but some NGO's came in and redid the school system and set up a new health clinic. By Peruvian standards, the town is now thriving and the school was really amazing too see. The kids were hilarious and had some songs prepared for us. The health clinic was definitely lacking, as there were only three nurses to support the town and its surrounding areas, in which over 3,000 people live. Some patients have to walk over four hours to the clinic and it is oftentimes closed for various reasons. However, after visiting this town it was clear that it was in much better conditions than those surrounding it and that similar help was needed in these areas as well.
Thursday we were back in the prison and Friday we took the kids out to a local river and farm. They were thrilled to run and splash around, chasing donkeys and scaring tadpoles. Because we were being eaten alive by bugs, we finally got them all back into the van and took them on a drive around the city. Might not sounds too thrilling but all the kids love being in cars and couldn't be happier to be driven around.
This weekend is going to be a relaxing one, much needed after last weekend's craziness! We said goodbye to two of the volunteers last night, a sad reminder that most of us will be leaving in the next week. Today we're going to the local club soccer team's game and then a sunset hike to the top of a mountain near town. Tomorrow we're planning on eating at our director's new restaurant.
I keep adding new pictures to the album on here so check those out!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Weekend Trip

Whew, I'm back in Ayacucho after an amazing whirlwind trip to Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Lima! It was certainly hectic, especially after our supposed tour guide somewhat abandoned us with little direction but it was an unforgettable experience that was worth all of the hassle.
We woke up at 5 on Friday and rode to the airport for our flight at 6:30 (security here is pretty lax so there is no need to get there any earlier!) We flew from Ayacucho to Lima where we had to run through the airport to make our connecting flight while our names were blared over the loudspeakers for the flight's last call! Yikes, not a relaxing point in the trip but we made it! Then we flew to Cusco where we met up with our tour guide who took us throughout the Sacred Valley, where we looked at different ruins, visited an animal sanctuary, and went to a llama and alpaca farm. From there we went to a huge outdoor market where I did some Christmas shopping (can't be too prepared!) and had lunch. From there we went to a small town where we would take our train to Aguas Calientes, the town next to the Machu Picchu ruins. This is where our tour guide made the anouncement (much to our surprise) that he would not be coming with us on the rest of the trip! After a few frantic minutes, we boarded the train with little knowledge of what hotels we were going to be staying at and how we would be paying for them. Amazingly, we found the right hotel, paid for them under the guide's name, and finally collasped into bed. The next morning we were up at 4:45am to meet our new guide and headed to the ruins around 6am. The early morning was worth it as we were able to watch the sunrise over the mountains. The ruins lit up and we spent the rest of the day touring the site and hiking the nearby peaks. It was unbeliveably beautiful and amazing what the Incan civilization was able to accomplish. The ruins were well preserved and we were mainly free to walk where we liked. I would HIGHLY suggest visiting this amazing place!
After the ruins we had dinner, got on the train back to Cusco, where our supposed ride was unfortunately not waiting for us like the travel agency had promised. After more confusion, we found our driver in another spot away from the designated meeting place and after getting into the fan around 12:30am, we promptly got a flat tire. Needless to say, we were an exhausted bunch when we finally got into downtown Cusco around 3am. The next morning we walked around Cusco until our flight to Lima around 3. When we finally got to Lima, we found a cab to our hostel, which was an experience to put it nicely. After a great dinner in Miraflores, we went back to the room until our 4am pick up back to the airport. Since our travel agent had given us the wrong time of the flight, the check in process was pretty chaotic to say the least. FINALLY we made it back to Ayacucho at 7am Monday morning and made it to our internships on time. Since it was Father's Day here in Peru, we hung out with the male inmates for the whole time, talking and playing different games like musical chairs and dodgeball. Not an experience I'd ever thought I would have but definitely a fun one! I finally went to bed at 8pm, not even caring that the shower was icier than usual!

I am in the process of posting pictures now! Internet here is a little slow so they're going up one by one.

Halfway done. I'm both sad to leave but looking forward to sleeping in, hot showers, and seeing my family and friends.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Week 2

Mission accomplished: a local told me I spoke Spanish well... but then quickly added "for a gringo," meaning a white English speaker. Well, I'll take whatever I can get!

This week has been really good at work since the kids are starting to become much more comfortable with us. Today we managed to keep them still long enough to go through their ABC's, colors, body parts, and animal noises! May sound trivial but it was a big step. However, I am noticing how far behind most of the children are in these types of activities. They can't differentiate between the colors and few can count past three. While this doesn't seem to bother anyone else, they will be starting kindergarten and I think they will be much further behind those children who have been enrolled in a regular preschool.

Yesterday after work we had a speaker come to the house and talk to us about the coca trade and the two sides of it, the "green" side and the "white" side. The green side is in reference to the positive aspects that regular coca leaves provide. They enhance one's energy and reduce hunger and thirst. This is good for the highland farmers, whose long hours are made possible by these traits. Since the area is so impoverished, many of the locals also rely on the plants since they cannot afford adequate food supplies. The white side is in connection with the cocaine trafficking, which is obviously a major problem here in Peru. The speaker told us that one kilo of cocaine will sell for $1000 in Lima and when transported to the US, one gram can be sold for as much as $150. In such a poverty stricken area, it's easy to see why there is such a pull towards the drug trade.

Today we visited a local women's center, where women who are survivors of various types of abuse can go to for legal and psychiatric help. There is a great need for these types of programs, as it was reported that one section of town has a 90% abuse rate and it is likely that these rates are similar throughout the region. Reasons for such a high prevalance rate include the terrible economic situation, the machovist views of this society, and the lack of opportunities for women, which makes them hesitant to leave abusive situations. In addition to these horrifyingly high numbers, we were also shocked to hear about the "punishments" dealt out for abusers. Like I mentioned earlier, being involved with drugs will receive a sentence of 20 to 25 years where as murder will receieve a sentence of five. Abuse is usually between five and 10 years, but the supervisor said that sentences are rarely served. Abusers usually walk free and it is difficult to ensure the woman's safety because there are rarely tabs kept on the abusers. The center seemed well run but was so small considering the high abuse rates and large region it supports. We may start volunteering there some afternoons with the children who are brought in along with their mothers.

Tonight we went out for dinner before some of us leave tomorrow for Machu Picchu! Our flight leaves at 6am and we will get into Lima around 7. From there we'll fly into Cusco where we will take a train into Agua Calientes. Saturday we will tour the ruins and Sunday we'll take a train back to Cusco for the morning and then fly to Lima for the night. Monday we'll leave at 6 and be back at work by 8! I'm sure there will be plenty of pictures to document the weekend!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Start of the second week

One down, three to go! We started our second work week yesterday and I definitely feel more adjusted now. The kids are used to me and much more talkactive and wanting to play. However, yesterday the teacher (a female inmate at the prison) decided that she wants to learn how to sew so she can work in that facet of the prison instead so we are on our own. This is slightly overwhelming because we're now responsible for creating lesson plans and trying to get the kids to listen to us in our still somewhat halting Spanish. Wish us luck! Yesterday wasn't too bad but it's definitely a big challenge trying to teach about body parts and animals when I sometimes have trouble remembering the words myself. I guess this is what people mean by "total immersion!"
Sunday was definitely a day of rest or as it's called here "dia muerte," meaning "dead day." Everyone caught up on sleep and not much else! That's fine with me though, I was ready for some down time.
This week we are working and in the afternoon visiting different sites and listening to several speakers, one on the economic situation in Peru and another one discussing the role that the cocaine trade has in Peru. We'll also be getting ready for our upcoming trip to Macchu Picchu this weekend!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

PERU 2010

First week!

I made it through my first week in Peru! I feel like I've been here for so long but I have really fallen in love with (almost) all things Peruvian. Granted, the lack of hot water and the rooster wake up calls at 5:30 can get a little old but everything else here is just so unbelieveable.

Thursday was my first day at the prison. It's a high security prison, with a capacity for 1,000 people but there are actually 1,700 inmates. Most of them are in for drugs, especially the women as there is a lack of other money generating livelihoods available here in Peru. Here in Ayacucho, murder will get you 5 years in prison but drugs will get you 25 years. The system is definitely broken and in need of much change. There are a lot of kids in the prison who live there with their moms, but about 11 attend the program we help run. One of the inmates is the "teacher" and it is supposed to be set up like a regular pre school program. We pick up the kids at 8:30 and walk with them down to a separate wing of the prison, where we work with them on their numbers, colors, and all other toddler-friendly lesson plans. The room is tiny and dirty, a far cry from the pre school I attended. It's amazing the lack of amenities, including school supplies, cleaning supplies, and even toilet paper. After the kids struggle to sit still during their lessons, we play with them and help get things like snack organized. Four hours later we return them to their moms, who spend their days making beautiful blankets, bags, and other handicrafts which they sell to help them generate the 22 soles (aproximately 9 US dollars) needed to pay their monthy "rent" at the prison. Each woman is responsible for generating this revenue and there is no instance in which the women cannot pay this fee.

Friday was a field trip for the kids so the other volunteers and I picked them up around 9 and took them to a local pack. We tried to wear them out (or was it the other way around?) and returned a bunch of sleepy but happy kids back to their moms later that afternoon. We all had a blast but it's so sad to remember that these weekly outings will end when CCS closes its doors this upcoming August when the program is shut down indefinitely. Without the volunteers, the kids won't have the opportunity to leave the prison unless picked up by an outside relative. Some of the children and their mothers are obviously very attached and we've heard terribly sad stories of kids who have had to leave at the mandatory age of 4 only to be brought back because they are so miserable without their moms.

As I had never heard of a situation where children live with their incarcerated mothers until the age of four, I tried to go into it with an open mind. However, just after a few short days, I don't believe this is the best set up for the child. It seems much too difficult for both the child and the mother to be separated at the age of four, when the child is fully aware of what is happening. I definitely think the mothers keep their children with them because they believe this to be the best course of action for them but it's definitely not a normal environment to be brought up in. Some of the kids seem constantly exhausted and others are overly hyper and can be somewhat aggressive. I feel it would be better to allow the children to stay with their mothers for until the age of two and then be separated as they would not be really in full understanding of the situation and wouldn't suffer from such separation anxiety. However, the optimal choice (in my opinion) would be to not allow the children to live in the prison for any length of time. While I definitely don't believe the women to be bad people (many of them entered the drug trade because it was the only way to support their families, not because they were eager to become involved in such a dangerous line of work), I just don't believe this to be the situation that is most beneficial to the kids.

After a busy introductory week, we were all ready for the weekend! Some of the volunteers went to the coast the weekend, but I opted to stay in Ayacucho with about 10 of the other volunteers. Friday after the field trip, we went out to explore the town at night, which definitely picks up on the weekend. On Saturday morning we caught a bus to Huanta, a town about an hour and a half way by bus. All seemed relatively normal until some passengers got on the bus holding live chickens. Then they strapped some live sheep to the roof. I guess that is the kind of transportation you can expect when you only pay 4 soles (about $1.75) each way!

Huanta was beautiful and we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. A bunch of the volunteers are vegetarians and needless to say, Peru is not always the most vegetarian friendly country in terms of its food. We finally found a place that understood the term "sin carne" (without meat) and ate a big lunch before starting our trek. We had our sights set on a local mountain that had massive religious monuments but we definitely underestimated our horrible sense of direction and the difficulty the high altitude would present in terms of catching our breath. Almost two hours later we finally reached our goal and to say it was worth it is an understatement. The views were spectacular; it's just amazing to look out and see the Andes spread outwards for hundreds of miles on all sides of you. After roaming around the top of the mountain for a bit, we clamored back down and caught the bus (sheep and rooster free this time) back to Ayacucho. After another good dinner, we headed back into town until late.

Some people have been asking about my living situation in here so I should probably comment on that. We are living in a four story house just a few blocks away from the main square. The first floor has a living room, offices, kitchen and dining room. The second and third floors have all the bedrooms and bathrooms. The fourth floor is the roof, which has the laundry machine and outdoor seating. Everyone spends most of their time in the living room or dining room, where we're given breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast is always buns with jam, juice, smoothies, and tea or coffee. Lunch and dinner are usually chicken dishes and/or pasta dishes, with a side of rice, some type of salad, and a ton of fruit. The food isn't for everyone but I personally can't get enough of it!

Some first week notes:

-I've definitely noticed a major improvement in my Spanish since arriving here. People are happy just to hear you trying to speak their language and are extraordinarily patient and helpful. I've gotten much quicker and my vocabulary has definitely been boosted. I still get nervous sometimes but all in all I'm happy with how I'm doing so far!

-The people here are so friendly and happy to see Americans. They are equally eager to learn about my culture as I am to learn about theirs.

-The other volunteers and I are getting along so well! This is a relief since I didn't know any of them coming into the program but it's really working out so nicely and we're already planning to visit one another in our home cities and states!

-The in country staff is very helpful, eager to help, and extremely knowledgeable about Aycucho, the people and programs, Peru, and everything we should see and do in our time here.

The link for the pictures I've taken so far should be somewhere on this page so feel free to check those out!