Friday, June 26, 2009

I want to go to PERU!!!!

Brown is an unique place on earth. It is full of inspiring idealists (despite its share of engineers and bankers :) - no offense- ).
A good percent of the people I know are working in academia or non-profits. Two friends I know moved to Haiti to fight AIDS. My roommate handed out free condoms for four years on the streets, reached out to the prostitutes and helped them be safe. Standing on the streets though a Providence winter would have been enough of a statement in itself. Another couple I know moved to some remote place in China to teach English. Brown even got a Turk to move to Indonesia to teach English.

The most recent rabbit that Brown pulled out its hat is my dear friend Ben. Ben was in finance for the last 3 years. A month ago, he quit his job at Citi and started a grand tour of Latino America. He sent me an email that made me want to pack my bags up and leave to some place. I am very jealous of Ben.

I am posting in here so that you can reconsider your career plans in your job that you started to like less since the summer.

Greetings from Cusco Peru on the first day of Winter (or Summer in the States)!

A lot has happened in the first two weeks, and I'd like to share with you some thoughts and stories.

I am currently living in Zurite Peru, working alongside my great friend Jasper and his newly founded non-profit (Global Student Embassy) providing cultural exchange opportunities for high school students. We are providing financial support and volunteer labor to help the town of Zurite carry out a massive irrigation building project. Relative to other towns between Cusco and Zurite (about 40 miles) it´s a luxurious village of about 1,000 people nestled under massive, sprawling mountains and one of the widest Incan terraces in Peru. The buildings are well kept, there´s a town square with a church, a new hospital in construction, a new central market, a primary and secondary school, running water (the house I am at for now has a flush toilet, which is new since last year), electricity, and warm people. One phone, no internet, and no newspapers.

We are a group of seven volunteers, living with various host families in Zurite. Jasper and I are living under the bustling roof of Tomas and Gladys Ruiz Lopez and their three bright, cheerful children, Joel, 16, Marilyn, 13, and Johan, 9. Tomas, a high school professor of religious studies, coordinates all religious studies in each of the State of Cusco's 100 high schools. The hush hush is also that he will be running for mayor of Zurite in December 2010. Seeing his work and the way he is received in town, I think he will win. Gladys has an endless number of jobs. In addition to being the nucleus of the family and maintaing a house of 6 people, she manages water usage for all homes in Zurite, breeds prize winning cueys (guinea pigs), and helps us coordinate some important aspects of the irrigation project. The most fun comes after dinner when Jasper and I play cards with 2 of the kids in the family we are living with (Marilyn, 13, and Johan, 9) or try to understand the riddles they tell us. And the excitement begins every day by 5AM with bantar about water usage rights or the sale of a decently-bred toro (Tomas admits they don't have the time to raise prize winning toros go figure!)

Cesar is the most eccentric character I've met in Zurite The first night I met him, we stopped by his shop and started playing poker with him. A few others joined and within 10 minutes a small crowd gathered in his store. The game was Texas Hold em of course. The pace of play was a cheetah running across the desert. I tried to stall on the second hand, but was reprimanded by Cesar (he´s about 78). We played with chips, but no real money. When you ran out of chips, whoever had the most gave you some. I´ve never heard so much laughter and cheer around a game of poker. And after Jasper lost about 8 hands in a row, Cesar called him inutil (worthless). That caused an uproar of course. Cesar´s nickname became La Mafia or La Socialista because he won most hands and redistributed the wealth. Tomas describes him as "no tiene pelos en la lengua" (basically, he's got a sharp tongue). He tries out his few English phrases on us and makes fun of our slow, deliberate Spanish speech.

One of the first lessons I learned about working in an agricultural setting is ¨no golpear sino jalar.¨ Don´t punch but rather pull. It´s about finesse, not strength. This has held true on three types of work I have done so far. Cutting grass for los cueys (guinea pigs). Using pico y pala (pick and shovel) to dig a ditch. And para desgranar el maiz (No word in english. Think of it this way - the corn is dried in the sun for a few weeks. You then twist and turn the corn in your hands to push off the corn kernels. They feel like corn nuts.) Jasper and I did this for about 3 hours and got through about 500 husks of corn. My technique is improving, but I still have blisters and cuts on my delicate city hands after doing some real work. Day 2 of this work, Jasper and I were complimented by Gladys on our speed.

And yes, we did come here to work. It's been a back and forth with the Mayor, who has the last call on the use of the municipality's equipment and money. There´s plenty to talk about regarding the decision making process at the mayor´s office (actually, it went quite smoothly after he tried to stall first our meeting then the project by a week then a day then agreed to the original plan), but the most pleasant and happy sight was on the first Monday in Zurite - the first day of work. The President of Agriculture, Julio (he's puros negocios, pure business) had organized the farmers to meet for La Faena General. It´s like a town hall that takes place at the beginning of each week. Day to day, about 10 - 15 volunteers are needed to help keep the farmer's land and equipment in good repair. But we were in for a special treat on Monday, as it was the launch of a new project. We arrived probably 5 minutes early (I have no idea) and already there were about 70 campesinos. Julio spoke mostly in Quecha but we were told that he used the time to rouse the people and get them motivated about the project. The only line I understood was ¨no va a borrechar¨ (don´t get drunk). By the end of the session, there were about 170 farmers. Every two people were 'assigned' to 10 meters of canal digging (we were widening and cleaning an old canal). The assignment process basically entailed the group walking along the canal and stopping when they found a spot they liked. Jasper and I ended up at the end of the canal. Probably about 1.5 kilometers down. Work started around 10am. At 12pm we were done with our 10 meters (we had a relatively easy part compared to some of the other sections) and went home for lunch. Gladys, the mother of the host family, insisted we eat at home during our first day of work. Lunch started late of course but was mighty delicious (a heaping plate of fish, tons of veggies and lots of rice). We returned at 2pm and headed for the top of the canal to get some video footage. No one there. We started walking. No one. Still more walking and still no people. Within 4 hours, 170 farmers had cleared the way for 1.5 kilometers of cement irrigation to be built. When we put together a video, we´ll have to explain why there´s no footage of the digging! It will be a great story to tell.

For the next 8 days, we have been organizing a team of workers, buying material, and pushing the mayor to let us have our way. Finances are tough, but we've been told by Julio and Ruiz (President of the Zurite Community) that he will try to stall from time to time. When we left yesterday (Friday) for Cusco, all supplies had been purchased and work had kicked off in full force. When we return Friday, we'll start pouring the cement over the wooden frame. Can't wait to get back to Zurite!

Oh, and day 2 of work was unreal. Let's call it Home Depot - Inka Style. Wednesday morning we wake up at 6am for an early start. Our task today is to build a make-shift tent to store the wood and cement as close as possible to the canal. We wait in town until 8:45am for the materials only to learn that they had been dropped off at the camp site, rather than the Plaza. We two step it up to the building site. Our greeting is put down our backpacks and follow them to palos (wood logs). I hear palas (shovels). After 20 minutes of walking, I'm wondering why the shovels are so far off site. A loud crash should have warned me that we were carrying town trees not shovels, but in my state of stomach churning induced delirium, this thought does not cross my mind. Over the next 4 hours, a group of 9 of us carry down about 20 eucalpytus trees, making 2-3 trips each, 2 miles each trip. For the 7 volunteers, it was the hardest day of manual labor any of us had ever done. 12,500 feet altitude, smashing through dried corn fields, keeping balance on over turned grass fields, making small river crossings while carrying a tree between 40 and 90 pounds, 7 to 25 feet long. Not your average trip to Home Depot.

Many nights, we are joined at dinner by up to 6 people. A few nights ago, 4 farm hands and 1 of their children joined us. Their wage: 10 soles/day, plus dinner (3 soles to 1 dollar). After dinner I started thinking about the economics of poverty, as I do quite often. This time I had the beginning of a real observation. One cannot measure the tangible benefit of a meal as payment, the caloric intake aside. It's a social and cultural benefit; a form of human expression. Like most people in the world, these workers live alone or in small families. Dinner, in this form, becomes a gathering place, a social time. The benefit was made more apparent when Juan, the 4 year old, started to cry when his dad picked him up to leave. I asked Gladys why he was crying. She said because they had to leave dinner. He was in a social environment entertaining non-family members with his new radio and boisterous laugh Of course, this is no way a lift out of poverty. Simply one unseen benefit missed when looking at numbers and statistics.

Finally, on the political front, you have probably been reading about the conflict between the government and the indigenous people living in the jungles of Peru. Peru has 28 million people, 8 million of which live in the jungles. The current conflict is not only one of indigenous rights, but also resource and water usage/rights. Las huelgas (the strikes) have closed down road and train transportation between Cusco, Puno, and Arequipa. If you find a picture, you will see why. The streets are packed side-to-side with people and rock barricades. As I write this email, 7,000 protesters are headed to Cusco to arrive on June 24 - Inti Raymi, the most sacred festival of the year. It's attendance across South America is topped only by Carneval in Brazil. Gladys and Julio believe things will get worse after the holiday season ends. Tomas warned that if tensions continue to escalate, a civil war may break out.

Time for La Chifa (chinese-peruvian food) at our good friend Uriel's restaurant. He lives in Cusco and helped to found GSE from the Peru side. More about him later, but he's an amazing 29 year old, in his 4th year of dentistry school.

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