Six and a half weeks later, my “life as usual” feels years and miles away. But just hours from now I’ll be in a cab on my way to the airport. My last days in Lima have been positively lovely, and they have allowed me time to say farewell bit my bit, time to absorb all that I have been blessed to experience in the time I’ve been here. I typically shy away from using that word, “blessed.” Due to the cynicism that has emerged in my late twenties, the word rouses my suspicions, and often strikes me as insincere… but in this circumstance it rings true for me.
Last Thursday, 4th of July, was our last day in Villa el Salvador where we spent the past 4 weeks volunteering. Our construction projects are far from complete. We managed to clear the plot for the organic garden and construct 2 out of the 4 walls for the fence that will enclose it. And for the community meeting room, we completed 3 out of 4 walls. Our numbers dwindled in the last weeks, and there were fewer and fewer people from our team each day, due to various reasons – sprained joints, traveler’s illness, fatigue… I suspect for some, it was an overload of culture shock. Despite the abundance of work we left for future volunteer teams to complete, our last afternoon was reserved for celebration. Our program leader, Edwin, showed us how to organize a traditional game called Tómbola. It is a way to offer practical gifts such as food, clothing, and blankets to the community.
We covered more than 2 dozen cardboard boxes with brightly-colored paper, and cut a small door on the side of each one. We arranged the boxes in a circle, and placed a gift on top of each one. Each person, or child, or family selects a box and stands behind it. Then, three guinea pigs, or “cuyes (pronounced coo-wee-es) are released from a box in the center, and the poor frightened little creatures run for shelter in one of the boxes. If a cuy runs into your box, you win the gift that is on top. As it turned out, we had lots of gifts and not a lot of time, so in reality each family won the item on their box. But it was great fun, and an honor to participate in part of the local culture.
Oh yeah, I should also mention that in honor of the USA’s independence day, we stopped to buy fireworks. Our bus driver, “Mr. Slim,” even bought some for us, and he joined us at the end of the celebration to set them off. They were noisy, smoky, and positively terrifying. Dogs were barking, children were crying, and all of us Americans were slightly terrified that one of the cheaply purchased mini-explosives might unintentionally set fire to the wooden houses that abound. In our defense, we told Edwin that we really didn’t need fireworks, but he assured us that it was entirely appropriate, and the neighbors would enjoy them. As I said, we find community in the unlikeliest places and most unorthodox forms.
On Friday, we said our goodbyes to our school, ECELA, and to the teachers and staff who have supported us the past few weeks. We had a cookout on the school patio with hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, maracuya sours, and at least 5 plates of potatoes. My goodness, I’m going to miss Peru’s potatoes.
All of my classmates departed from Lima promptly after our program ended. I was the only one who selected a flight a few days later. And here I’d thought that I would be the only one who did not spend weeks traveling about South America. On Saturday, I took a day trip with my host family to Canta, a pueblo inland from Lima in the mountains, or “la sierra.” We traveled as Peruvians do, closely quartered in a 12-passenger van over a not-quite-fully-paved-road for 2.5+ hours. A priceless experience, and well worth it. Canta had delicious food, stunning views of the mountains surrounding the valley, tranquil walks along the river, and views of mini-waterfalls.
Sunday & Monday were quieter. I ventured out on my own to visit an art museum in Lima, only to find that none of the expositions were currently open. I spent a lot of time in my house, doing normal family things with my host family, like playing cards and making a lazy dinner of pizza-toast because Christy’s boyfriend had a hankering for pizza. These are the healing moments for me, a welcome respite from the often solitary life of the single-twenty-something-American-young-professional, living far from her own family.
And today, my last day, I continued to say good-byes piece by piece. I met up with Edwin, the person who led our volunteer work in Villa el Salvador. Edwin is one of those people with unique relational intelligence. In his job, he has to work well with tourists and locals alike, often serving as a cultural bridge between strangers. He does this with ease, sincerity, warmth, charm, and a healthy sense of humor. Edwin took me to a local market that is typical of Peru, with fruit, vegetables, housewares, and every other thing you might need. There are also fresh food stands, serving everything from chicha morada to empanadas to ceviche. He took me to this market in particular because he knows I love churros (did I mention they are filled with dulce de leche?! I mean really!!), and he has a friend there who he claims makes the best churros in Lima. At the market, I also bought flowers for Bertha – a beautiful arrangement of yellow peruvian lilies and something white and fragrant, for the equivalent of $3 USD .
Of course, the instinct on your last day in a foreign place is to eat as much as you possibly can of your favorite local foods. Lucky me, I need look no further than Bertha’s kitchen. She made sopa verde, a soup made with countless fresh herbs that create its signature color, and causa, this delicious medley of mashed yellow potatoes, veggies, chicken or fish, and a touch of mayonnaise. I know, I lost you when I said mayonnaise, but you can’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
As has happened with my travels before, I am often surprised to see how these life experiences that seem to be mostly about me and how I choose to spend my time end up affecting the people close to me in significant ways. About a week ago, my mom emailed me a letter that she had written in English and translated to Spanish (with the help of Google translate, I can only assume). She asked that I proofread it, print it, and give it to Bertha and her family. In the letter, my mom expressed her gratitude that they had taken such good care of me and been so willing to share their home and their traditions with me. From the start, I saw a lot of my mom in Bertha, and it was a beautiful moment to see two women, two mothers, who have an abundance of love and generosity for the people around them, connect across a great distance through an almost-shared experience.
Suffice it to say, there were a few tears around the dinner table, and I could tell that Bertha especially appreciated my mother’s sentiment, and the ever-present worry that comes from having a son or daughter far from home, since her son currently lives in Boston.
Perú has been kind to me once again, and while there are many other places in the world I still hope to see, I suspect I will be back here a third time.
Por esto razón, no digo “adiós,” sino “nos vemos” a Perú, a mis amigos, y a mi familia peruana, que me han dado recuerdos bonitos.