A new home in Arequipa

Trip Start May 18, 2007
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Trip End Jul 28, 2007


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Flag of Peru  ,
Monday, June 4, 2007

Whenever I travel to a new city, I ALWAYS ask myself whether I could live in that city for any extended period of time.

When I landed in Arequipa, Peru's second largest city, on Saturday evening right after a most beautiful sunset, there was no doubt in my mind that living here for a month would not be a problem.

The city is set in a valley surrounded by three stunning mountains, Chachani, with its 6000m summit covered in snow, the volcano El Misti, and the slightly lower Picchu Picchu. For a mountain lover who finds Toronto sadly flat, I find myself well rewarded for my patience.

The flights from Cusco (via Juliaca, hence "flightS") were very short- total flight time: 2 X 35 minutes... LAN Perú was excellent - a brand new Airbus 319, great service, on-time departures, and, for entertainment, a series of "gags" from Montreal's "Just for Laughs" festival. So there I was, 30,000 ft above rural Perú, watching Montrealers get caught on tape while undergoing various (mild) humiliations in public. What a small, wonderful, weird world we live in... Humour did prove universal, as the Peruvians on the plane laughed out loud - along with the few foreign tourists on board as well.

The folks from Global Vision International ("GVI"), the organization through which I'm volunteering here in Arequipa for the next month, have been great so far. We all went out for dinner Saturday night - all 5 new volunteers plus the team already here on the ground. The other new volunteers include 3 young women from the US (Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and Buffalo), and one guy from the UK (former stock broker turned hippie traveller a year ago! Fascinating...).

We spent yesterday morning receiving information about the schools where we'll be volunteering. The two school projects run by GVI are located in the "pueblos jovenes" (literally, "young towns") on the outskirts of Arequipa; those pueblos jovenes are more or less ghettos or "favellas" where people from the nearby mountains have come down to live, hoping for a better life in the city. But - no job = no housing, and up sprang a mini-city of tin and brick sheds filled with uneducated people with loads of children and extremely limited opportunities. Fortunately, 10 years ago, a Peruvian teacher found an old building that could still serve and essentially founded a school, called Maldonado, where she single-handedly recruited street kids, and got them enrolled in Perú´s shaky education system.

With limited government support, she struggled alone for several years, until GVI decided to get involved and lend her further support through financial assistance and volunteer support.

Thus - my one-month stint as a school volunteer starts tomorrow at Maldonado.

We have been told to expect fairly extreme conditions - the children are "dirt poor", illiteracy is rampant in the pueblos jovenes, and the kids often have to work late into the evening with their parents before coming to school, restless and hungry, every morning. Nonetheless, GVI and the local teacher have been able to create feeding and washing programs in the school in recent months, ensuring that the kids at least receive a minimum of nutrition and hygiene on a daily basis.

On a personal note, I moved in with my home-stay family last night. I consider myself immensely lucky -- my "family" is in fact an older couple whose children have long left the house, and who inhabit a very posh slightly older home in a very nice neighbourhood. I have my own room and bathroom, and can come and go as I please. The couple, Doris and Luis, are both very very nice, and I hope my Spanish improves to the point where I can have great conversations with both of them. Just last night, we watched Luis on TV as he is the host for a local program where a panel discusses political, environmental and other "intellectual" issues and events. The theme last night was APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) - Arequipa will be hosting an APEC meeting next year, and it will be a huge event for Perú. I was thrilled to be able to understand so much of the show, and also to find out that Luis can be a source of knowledge about Perú and a great teacher of Spanish and history along the way.

Another volunteer, Christina, is also staying with Doris and Luis, but this is her last week. She is very nice as well, and will help me across the next two days to get the lay of the land.

Next weekend, starting Friday, we - 6 of us volunteers - are going on an adventure to Colca Canyon, the 2nd deepest canyon in Peru, and in fact, deeper than the Grand Canyon in the US...  Three days of trekking, bathing in hot springs, camping, and viewing condors soar from the bottom of the canyon to high above us... It is apparently an incredible adventure - I know I am looking forward to it, though I have been warned the hike out of the canyon, all uphill, is quite hard (harder than my hike up to Dead Woman's Pass when I was sick...??? I can't imagine...)

Well - I am off to visit Arequipa today. It is different than any other city in Perú, I can already tell. Several buildings are white-ish, made as they are from sillar, which is volcanic rock of a light gray colour. More colonial buildings here, and less Inca influence, than in Cusco; a greater sense of intellectual predominance here than in Lima, and a blue sky - sadly tinted by smog... - that seems endless... I think I am going to enjoy living here for the next month.

Pictures to come later - will have to find a faster connection to upload them...

Stay well, and thanks for joining me on my adventures!
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