We can find a sense of belonging in the most unlikely places. Last Sunday was “Día de los Padres” here in Peru, as it was in the United States. My host family invited me to join them at a family gathering for Father’s Day. Berta, my house mother, is one of 6 siblings, the youngest I believe. All her siblings but one came, along with their spouses and children. There were probably 15 to 20 people total. They gathered at the house of Berta’s brother, who also lives in Miraflores. Berta’s nephew, Wesley, spoke English very well, but Christy (my house “sister”) told me very sternly that we ought to speak in Spanish because I need the practice. Si, Christy, haré como dices. I managed to hold my own, more or less, in conversation. I was able to understand about 50% , 75% with Christy’s assistance. The curious thing is that several of them complimented me on how well I speak Spanish. My suspicion is that they have developed very low expectations based on the language ability of the other exchange students they have encountered. Because most of the time, I feel victorious when I am able to communicate my point, but I also suspect I sound like a 5 year old attempting to read a Charles Dickens novel. I can already tell that the time spent with my host family is the thing I will remember most and cherish most from this trip. They have welcomed me to participate in their daily rhythm of life, and this is the most flattering invitation that we can receive from another person. To me, it says, “You are welcome here. You belong here. You are a part of our family for the time you are here.” Today, Berta plans to make ceviche for lunch, and after that we are going to bake a carrot cake together.
I have just 2 weeks left in Peru. The past few weeks have been much busier, since our group of 10 students began our volunteer work in a community called Villa el Salvador. Lima is made up of several different districts, and they are all very different from each other. Miraflores, where we live and go to school, is modern, posh, upper class. Barranco is also middle to upper class, hip, and bohemian. The center of Lima is bustling with huge markets, museums, churches, and government buildings, a mix of tall modern buildings of commerce and old buildings in the colonial style. And Villa el Salvador, is poor, working class, with roughly paved roads and stray dogs everywhere. Access to water and electricity are limited. Homes are crowded close to one another, built from whatever materials are available. We’ve been told this is the reality of Lima and much of Peru.
In Miraflores, there is a cart on every other block selling fresh fruit, or sodas, or crackers, or magazines along the sidewalk. There is also construction on every other block, contributing to the noise of the treacherous traffic. And there are city workers in blue uniforms who sweep the streets and sidewalks, wearing masks over their mouth and nose to protect against the fumes the buses expel into the crowded streets. The people who work on these streets and on these construction projects most likely commute from districts like Villa el Salvador.
This is not the first time I’ve encountered this type of poverty, although it is the first time I’ve become acquainted with it in Peru. I am finding it difficult to describe the experience, and even more difficult to make meaning of our interactions with the community. We are trying to build a garden, and trying to construct a house/meeting place. And we are trying to understand a new culture, and we are trying to respect the leadership of the community. And sometimes we play football and volleyball with the children, and other times we carry bundles of wood up a flight of 200 concrete stairs. Our projects make us tired, frustrated, and joyful all at the same time. I don’t know if we will finish them, as we only have 4 work days left in the next 2 weeks, but it is a start, and I hope that it serves to support the development and health of this community.