January 2, 2012
Life here is tough.
I have been writing a lot about how beautiful life is here, but some things happened Monday that I should probably share.
Let me begin with general, simple things. Every meal is rice and potatoes with a choice of an egg, piece of chicken, or a piece of beef. Hot showers are tough to come by, and if you do get one, often the wind blows out the pilot light right in the middle, greeting you with icy water. The streets are covered in all types of feces, from dogs, horses, and cows to human (yes, we have all seen people doing it right in the street). Refrigerators, ovens, beds, couches, and televisions are luxuries that only some of us have (out of those, we have an oven at my house). I sleep on a thin mattress on the floor with nothing else in my room except two fruit crates for my clothes. I’ve had 7 months straight of “stomach problems” and can’t shake the giardia. Internet is slower than dial-up. Electricity goes out randomly. The sewer system isn’t exactly modern. You can’t put toilet paper in the toilet because of it. Corruption dominates. Alcoholism is rampant. Education is inadequate. Misogyny is part of the culture. Many of the locals here turn on each other the moment someone experiences success. There is jealously and frustration magnified by a lack of resources.
We volunteers are away from our friends and family. Many of us have left very high paying jobs to be here. We are missing opportunities for growth back home. Many don’t have health insurance, retirement, or money to visit home. A common phrase is “My parents or grandparents paid for my ticket home”, which applies to me as well. Any type of relationship, romantic or otherwise is practically impossible. The moment you become close with another volunteer they leave. It is basically one big goodbye party, and makes you not want to get to know anyone who isn’t a local.
But there is more. Monday was a good example. Within the space of 10 minutes I received two phone calls from other volunteers who were very, very distraught.
One volunteer began the morning with a visit from a woman who had recently had surgery. Her arm was severely infected and she needed immediate medical attention in Cusco. She had no money, so my friend gave her everything she had to get her there and to pay for medical services. Immediately after that, a man came into her office escorted by someone she trusted. The man was demanding $30 for a simple medical procedure he did 7 months ago! A reasonable price would have been $3. The only reason he was demanding it was because she is a foreigner and apparently a free source of money. Now, I know $30 doesn’t seem like much, but we are living on our savings, that goes a long way down here. But it was more the principle of being taken advantage of by a trusted friend. Then, walking through the plaza she was stopped by a man in town saying that she is stealing money from the people there because she wants to open a new business with a local man. The previous day she was accosted by a local woman who said she was sleeping with all the Peruvian men and she should leave (she has a boyfriend back home, the accusation was based on the fact she has conversations with men here, that’s it).
The second call was from a volunteer working directly with a business down here. Essentially things broke down there and she was blamed for everything in a hurtful way. The previous day she was yelled at for being a part of a NGO (non-government organization). A man told her that we are all just here laundering American drug money and we are doing no good. He said we just give people stuff and teach them to depend on foreign help. She was accused of being a drunk and drug user (she does neither). I often escort her home so she doesn’t have to deal with all the catcalls, whistles, and comments from the men in town. It wears you down.
We long term volunteers are constantly questioning our motives, purpose, and desire to be here. We know international service can be a tricky thing. Understanding the culture, providing needed services, working with the local government, not giving handouts but helping to educate and develop the community are all things we must deal with on a daily basis. We are judged as a group. Everyday thousands of tourists come through here, many treat the locals horribly. There is also a group of foreigners who just live here because it is a cheap, easy life with access to drugs.
But on some level we volunteers are that rich, foreign tourist. We may not have much money, but will still pull out our laptops and iPods. We have safety nets of support back home, people who would save us if things went really wrong. We will never, ever be fully accepted here.
What do we do? Go home? Give up? Are we even wanted here? Are we really making a difference or simply fooling ourselves?
I took this picture on New Year’s Day on a busy street in downtown Cusco. It is a very young girl selling beans for $0.17 a bag who has fallen asleep. She is alone. While I was taking the picture a group of foreign tourists walked right by (as did I).
I don’t know her story. But what circumstances must exist for such a young child to end up there? Something deep within me just doesn’t think this is okay.
Do I have answers? No. Do I question my purpose as well? Hell yes I do.
But for my small part down here, I look at her picture and I have a bit of hope. It is hope that someday she might have the opportunity for an education. It is hope that her children won’t find themselves on the same street. I think about our girls in the project and can't imagine a scenario where any of them will ever wind up there.
We will not give up.