I spent the month of October in a shanty town outside of Lima, Huaycan volunteering with the NGO, The Light and Leadership Initiative. Huaycan has a population of around 100,000 and was founded around 30 years ago. The city was founded as a place where people could live that was close to Lima and so could commute into the city for work. As is still happening now, many people from the countryside are moving towards cities as it is believed (and is often true) that there are more work opportunities and chances for a brighter future.
In the eighties and early nineties Huaycan was taken over by Shining Path, the communist party in Peru and because of this, even today, Huaycan for many people is seen as a dangerous place. It is for sure not as safe as some parts of the world but I never felt in a great deal of danger during my time.
The climate in Huaycan is one that is very different for me indeed. It never rains. Never. Or it did once four years ago and it was a disaster. It is in a desert and as such there is virtually no green in site. If there is a tree it is because someone is watering it. Peru is full of microclimates. The weather in Miraflores in Lima is completely different and it’s only 20 miles down the road.
LLI is an NGO focused on education. I spent most of my time teaching English to children and adolescents as well as doing some computer classes for women. Huaycan is split into zones named as letters. Myself and the other 9 volunteers lived in a house in Zone D (very close to the main commercial area) and we worked in several of the other zones as well.
The Main Street in Huaycan, Quince, was always buzzing. Combi buses and auto taxis filled the streets while street vendors filled the pavements outside the shops. Depending on the time of day you could find food stalls selling ceviche, hamburgers, chifles, churros and a mountain of fruit and veg. At the end of the street was the market where you could buy everything from chicken feet to laundry detergent to that nice pair of leopard print leggings you’ve always wanted. There were more hairdressers on Quince than in the whole of Brussels I’m sure, as well as countless pharmacies and pollo a la brasa establishments. There were a couple of juice shops that were frequented often by volunteers as well as some bakeries selling some yummy snacks. It was always fun to take a walk up the street, there was always something new to discover.
One time walking up quince we noticed that a bakery had been temporarily closed due to tax reasons. Walking up the street again a few hours later it was obvious that this hadn’t stopped business, the bakery had simply moved their displays into the juice shop next door! How street vendors operated I’m not exactly sure but you can be sure that you will find them in the same place every day. I don’t know if it’s actually that they rent that space or it’s simply understood that the corner outside the second bakery belongs to the lady selling underwear.
To get around Huaycan the cheapest way was to take combi’s. Combi’s are minibuses or buses that are normally crammed full beyond belief that take people up to the high zones and back again. Depending on what zone you wanted to get to depended on the combi. The combi up to Zone Z was probably the most difficult. It wasn’t as frequent as other zones and it was a very small minibus that we would normally have to stand up in. This wasn’t a problem it just wasn’t the most comfortable ride as it required bending your neck and back quite a bit whilst trying to hold on to your things as well as a seat/other person to prevent yourself from falling. It all added to the experience of course 🙂 Being some of the only gringas in town we were often asked questions about what we were doing there etc which was always fun as often they were quite interested in learning English themselves.
For the English classes, we would have one hour of English class and then one hour of sports or vise-versa. The kids were either aged 6-9 or 10-14 and both classes, whilst having quite different dynamics, were equally fun. We followed a curriculum and before each class would plan the different activities we would do to help teach. The classes that the NGO offers are all voluntary and are extra curricular. This can be both a blessing and a curse as of course it is much easier if the whole class is there for every class, which, unfortunately, was not always the case. Doing lots of reviews and taking things slowly was normally a good way to combat that.
There was a lead and a co teacher for every class which, for the young ones especially, was definitely needed. At least the older children did get English lessons in their normal school, the problem is that the level of education is not fantastic in Peru. Many of the English teachers are not as proficient in English as would be ideal to teach the language. This became apparent when a couple of students would ask for help with their English homework and there would be mistakes in the assignment. Also, knowing the level of English of the students and then seeing the homework they were given really didn’t match. The homework was normally of a subject that was of a much higher grammatical level which I’m sure must make it very frustrating for the kids. I hope that with the extra classes from LLI they will feel more confident in their English skills and will continue to learn!
Sports time was really just playtime, a chance for the kids to run around and play with the various playground toys we brought with us. Volleyball and football were very popular as well as a skipping rope or chalk as well as the game, Peces y Tiberones or Fishes and Sharks. For one of the classes, instead of sports time, they got to learn about gardening from a very generous local man who had some vegetables growing on the terraces not far from the classroom. I thought this was great for the kids as it was something different that they normally wouldn’t get to learn. Who knows, maybe some of them are budding gardeners!
As volunteers our weekends were Wednesdays and Thursdays. This was because our classes were extra curricular and so the normal weekend was our busiest time of the week. As I arrived on a Saturday evening, my first week was very short. For the first weekend, I stayed around Huaycan. On Wednesday we went to Chosica to visit which was very nice. It is a town just a few towns away that has a bit more greenery than Huaycan, although to be honest that doesn’t take much! It has a pretty town square and there were a few market stalls there too. The river is very pretty here as well. There were a few market stalls around the square selling various souvenir items. I bought a warm hat to keep my head toasty when I went further on my travels up to high altitudes. It was a lovely afternoon 🙂
The second weekend we went to visit the ruins at Pachacamac. They are pre inca ruins and really quite big. Because of the desert climate, a lot has been preserved as decomposition rates are so slow. It’s a really huge site with several temples and buildings that were used as schools. It has a beautiful view of the ocean too! The next day we went into Lima to get some Thai food, delish!
The third weekend we went to visit an old peoples home in the region of El Salvador. There was another big group of volunteers the same day but we still managed to help out a bit washing dishes and things. We then went into Lima to get some Korean food. I’ll be honest, it really wasn’t my favourite thing ever but at least I can say I tried it.
The next weekend several of us went to Chincha and El Carmen, the heart of the Afro-Peruvian region. There is a lot of traditional dance and music that comes out of this region that has a very strong african influence, very different to what most expect from Peru! We go to visit here as one of my roommates, Sara, had connections there. Really cool place and a culture I never even knew existed. In the times of slavery, there were huge plantations in Peru worked by slaves. One of these huge haciendas is now a luxury hotel. We got to visit and really it was one of the strangest things. If you had seen this hotel in any western country you would have thought it was incredible. And then the fact that it was in the middle of nowhere near a village in the middle of Peru added another level of incredibleness.
We got to learn a few of their dance moves and how to play some of their instruments and eat some typical food. In Chincha, we even got to go to an aerobics dance class with moves from their traditional dance. Was another fab weekend in Peru 🙂
During my visit I also got to go to a fruit market which was really cool. We got there around 7am and it was already jam-packed with fruit and people. You had to buy things a bit in bulk but it was also super fresh and super cheap!
On 1st November it is the Day of the Dead. In Huaycan, it is a holiday day and everyone gathers at the cemetery in Zona Z. The graves people have here are much more colourful than those you are probably more familiar with. Children go around on the day with cleaning equipment and a pot of paint and families will pay for them to do up the grave with a fresh coat of paint. Many graves have bench type things and so you find the whole family sitting down with food and drinks.
There are fairground rides at the bottom of the cemetery as well as several food stands. There is load music blasting, it’s really a party! I think it’s a great way thing to celebrate the dead and not to be too morbid about it.
I got to meet a great group of people this past month and I am very thankful for my experience. I hope I get to see some of you again in the future!