Thursday, June 30, 2016

Machu Picchu

Our flight to Cuzco was at 5:00am, which means we got to the airport at 3:30. The Taxi stopped at my apartment first, and of course, half of the team was asleep when we arrived to pick them up. It’s a good thing I factored that into the timetable! I hadn’t however, factored in how long it would take to do my laundry and pack. I finished at around midnight. I was worried I would be the one who didn’t wake up for the taxi, so just decided to stay up until Jonny arrived for me at 2:30. I was happy I decided to just stay awake; the undergrads were all very groggy and grumpy when we picked them up.

We arrived at the Dragonfly Hostel at around 8:00 in Cuzco, but couldn’t check in until 11:00, so decided to get breakfast. After finishing, we walked around and shopped for souvenirs for our families. It was nice to get out of Lima and explore Cuzco, which is very small and quiet by Lima’s standard. It was hard to take in everything my sleepy eyes passed over: cobble-stone streets, many old churches and innumerable people in traditional Inca dress, selling their crafts and moving about their business. We saw several women with an alpaca, llama and cria (baby llama) standing near a church entrance; we did the very touristy thing and asked for photos with them. They then asked us for a tip, which was smart on their part. I’m sure they get that sort of thing all the time.

We actually arrived in Cuzco during the 400th anniversary of something. We still don’t know what though exactly, because we all received different answers from locals when we asked what was being celebrated. Either way, there was almost too much for us to take in. Traditional Inca dancing with music and dress were at the center of a parade that seemed like it never ended. I began to run out of room on my phone for pictures/videos pretty quickly and decided to save the rest for Machu Picchu. We made it back to the hostel, took a much-needed nap, went Salsa dancing and came back a bit after midnight. The youngin’s (undergrads) went to bed, but I stayed up with some British people I had met, who also coincidentally happened to be watching the Brexit vote on T.V. My inner nerd/wonk will always find a way out in the open. The British went to bed very upset that night.

The next morning, with a two-hour each bus and train ride, we made it to Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the base of Machu Picchu. We found a soccer pitch in the middle of town and some asked to join in. After being shot down, they started their own match with about 20 kids, average age, I would say about 7 years old.  After every goal, they would dog-pile on top of a Fellow on their team. The kids seemed to be having more fun doing that than actually playing. We went out to dinner after, where I had Alpaca with a quinoa risotto. Very tasty. Early night though, Machu Picchu was at 5:30 the next morning.

We thought that by taking a 5:30am tour, we’d beat the crowds; everyone else had the same idea. We had a great guide, his name was Carlos. I quickly used the rest of the room on my phone for photos/videos, deleted all of my music and used the room again. It was hard to get photos without other tourists in the frame. After our tour, we found some llamas on their own. I tried to feed one out of my hand but it wasn’t in the mood. We walked along a ridge that took us away and above the hidden city. After sitting there and admiring for an hour or so, we headed back. Bus and train ride again. The British were still in a sad mood when we returned.

Half a day of travel and we made it back to Lima. Renée and I had anticipated complications with our project with Perú Champs, of which Renée had confirmed upon my return. I spent a weekend flying high in the mountains, learning about the centuries-old traditions and history of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and returned to 2016 Lima, working with an organization with 2016 concerns. More on that next post.  

Monday, June 20, 2016

I've had the privilege of working with and meeting several great people since I arrived here in Lima three weeks ago. Stepping out of my comfort zone and speaking Spanish with everyone I meet tires me out by the end of the day, but has proven worthwhile nonetheless. Many of the people I have met remind me of myself; introverted at first but open and honest once the ice has been broken. Three were extroverted from the beginning though, and have been fun to get to know.

María Elena is our maid. She comes earlier in the morning on Saturday and takes great care of us. I generally have issues with someone picking up after me. Maybe it’s because it makes me feel like a child or because I’m embarrassed of the mess. Either way, when she arrived early that first Saturday, I had forgotten she was coming and immediately began to help her clean. She seemed friendly enough, and therefore a great person with whom to practice my Spanish.

Politics are never a great topic with someone you just met, but the Peruvian elections were the next week and were really contentions. I knew little about either candidate, so just jumped right in. She quickly realized that I was still just working on my Spanish, and began to speak slowly and clearly about her political opinions. I made her laugh once or twice talking about the elections in the U.S. as well. I don’t know if it was because I was actually funny or because I butchered the explanation in Spanish. Either way, she laughed.

On her way out that day, she asked if I wanted her to cook Peruvian food for us. I said yes, but that I wanted her to teach me so that I could make it for myself, and she agreed. The following Saturday after she was done cleaning, we walked down to the grocery store together and she helped me pick out all of the ingredients for Ahí de Gallina, which is a traditional spicy Peruvian dish. We returned and began to cook. I helped for a little bit, but then just felt in the way, so I decided to watch and take notes instead. When it was done, I insisted that she stayed and eat with me. All along, we spoke about our families and why I was in Perú.

We agreed to do the same thing the following week. I put my notes to work, making the dish for myself a couple of days later, once the left-overs were finished; it was good but hers was better. Practice makes perfect. This past Saturday we made Gallatines Verdes, which is a pasta dish with chicken and a spinach and basil Sauce. It looked more complicated so we’ll see if I can remake it when I run out. As we cooked (she cooked), she showed me videos of her kids at school and her singing Karaoke with her friends. She asked if I had a girlfriend and when I said no, she immediately began showing me pictures of her daughter on Facebook.

The Emzingo group is gong to Machu Picchu next week so we will skip our cooking lesson until two weeks from now. We are planning on going to a bigger market in central Lima to buy particular groceries. I think she wants to make a specific kind of Ceviche. She said it’s really easy.

My other new amigos are our doormen, Dagoberto and Carlos. I like to try to spend a few minutes each day talking to either of them. Carlos was really excited about Copa América, but then became quiet once Perú had been eliminated. He said that he was sad, but that Perú always loses, so that he wasn’t surprised. I felt very unPeruvian because I hadn’t even been watching the tournament. Dagoberto is a chatterbox in the best sort of way. He likes to practice his English with me. I felt bad because I couldn’t remember his name the 2nd time I met him. I had him spell it out for me and I wrote it on my hand, so as to not make that same mistake twice. I came up really late one night this past weekend and encountered him asleep in their makeshift bed, which is really just a lawn chair with a bunch of pillows taped to it. He jumped up to greet me and asked how dancing was. I said it was so much fun, but that I needed to rest, and told him to do the same. He Salsa danced his was back to his bed.

Then there are our co-workers at Perú Champs. They’re all very friendly and patient with my Spanish. Pamela monitors the Champ’s progress in school. We ate lunch in the kitchen together the other day. She was telling me about all of her applications for graduate school in the U.S. and about how she’s waiting for a positive response, which is always stressful. Rosio is a stick of dynamite, and I mean that in a good way. It’s as though she has a cup of sugar and a whole pot of coffee every morning for breakfast. She doesn’t drink coffee, so I can’t explain it. Fabiola and Alberto are whom we work with the most. They insist on speaking English with us, as they are both studying for the TOEFL, which is the English exam you need to pass to get into American Universities. I’ve learned that most people at Perú Champs are just like me; grad students volunteering, both because they believe in the mission of the organization, but also because it helps their CV.

Work will be less stressful going forward because I have a plan for specific deliverables for Perú Champs. I’ll be going out more and I’m sure meeting many more Peruvians. I look forward to it.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

We have been here in Lima for two weeks now and it has been quite the experience. The food is delicious, the drivers are crazy and the culture is rich. The Emzingo Fellows spent a whole week on cultural excursions, meeting locals and taking part in their traditions. We all know that we only scratched the surface and will need to continue exploring until the day we leave. Though after a week of acclamation and fun, it was time to get to work.

Our field partner is called Perú Champs, a small non-profit of 10 or so volunteers, dedicated to helping children who were high-achievers in school, yet lack the funding to continue attending. Perú Champs keeps alive the dreams of not only the children, but also their parents, who know that an education is the best chance they can give their child for an economically secure future.

Today was a big day for this tiny organization. With their ability to secure 75% of the funding for those who have been awarded a scholarship, and the immense number of children who can no longer afford to attend school after their primary education, Perú Champs receives an endless number of applications. Today was one day in three this year where we held testing to accept new students into the program. Only one student in eight will score high enough on the entrance exam to be accepted. I noticed parents making videos on their phones of the school as they entered the campus, hopes as high as could be por sus hijos.

We were met this morning at the testing facility by a line of parents con sus hijos, who were both anxious and nervous for the exam. I wondered if many of the children understood its pressure and significance, all between the ages of 8 and 12. If you don’t rank in the top eighth, your parents will no longer be able to afford to send you to school. As a parent, do you tell them what’s at stake? On one hand, you want to be sure they take it very serious, but on the other, you don’t want to make them a nervous wreck and cause them to bomb the exam. Next month, when the results come out, seven in eight parents will need to tell their children that they can no longer go to school.

Anyway, today was the first time when Perú Champs administered parts of the exam using computers, using computer labs at an Innova School location, who fortunately allowed us to use their facilities for free. Not only do the children need to take the exam, parents also need to complete questionnaires regarding family income and other important info. The laptops were old and I would guesstimate between 30-50% of them didn’t work, some because they wouldn’t boot up, but mostly because they couldn’t establish an internet connection.

I was blown away by how quiet and patient the children were, as we frantically ran back and forth entering wifi passwords. As soon as I could get one on, another would lose their connection. Many had to take the exam on paper, and suddenly a pencil sharpener was a prized possession. We didn’t have enough pencils and the children needed to show their work. Mothers were emptying their purses, looking for a pen their child could use. Peru Champs' Lesson learned: Always make sure your contingency plan is fully prepared.

I made it upstairs where the real chaos was. Mothers as young as 24, to little abuelitos, were struggling with their computers and with the information we needed from them. I never realized how 2nd nature it is for me to recite my address, phone number and email address. “I have no phone, can I use my friend’s?” one mother asked me. “I live on this street, but have no address. Should I only put the street?” I overheard another asking a volunteer. I sat with an abuelita for 10 or so minutes filling out all the info for her as she gave it to me. I figured it was faster than trying to teach her how to use the simi-functioning trackpad. Throw my intermediate-at-best Spanish into the mix, and today was a real doozy.

As we pulled out of the parking lot at the end of the day and waited for a light to turn green, a young man, in his late teens I would guess, rode out into the street on a unicycle and began juggling three bowling pins. Talented no doubt; that obviously took practice. I couldn’t help but wonder though how far he had made it in school.

My partner and I have the whole day booked tomorrow to brainstorm solutions for three different objectives provided to us by Perú Champs: getting the top-performing Champs into Universities in the U.S. and Europe, designing an ESL Bootcamp/Summer school for middle-school-aged Champs and lastly, developing a plan for financial sustainability for the organization as a whole. We present our ideas to the team on Tuesday for their approval. Our experience today made it clear how critical success is to Perú Champs. We as an organization have our work cut out for us. We only need to remember for whom we’re working to push ahead. I included a couple of videos so you could see for yourselves.