What the World Needs Now

It’s difficult to know what to write about our annual mission trip to Peru.  I suspect that even if I wrote one hundred posts, accompanied by 1,000 photographs, I would have only begun to express what time in Peru means to me.  So, I will attempt to be concise.  And I will fail.

Peru is among the poorest countries in the world, and Chimbote, is the poorest city in Peru.  At one time it was considered the “honeymoon capital of Peru,” a bustling port city on South America’s Pacific coast.  IMG_3291Chimbote Harbor.  Most of these vessels have been docked for more than ten years.

Fishing, particularly anchovy fishing, was the greatest in the world, and processing plants were the top employers.  Today, that work is sporadic at best.  Most fish factories are closed, although this spring and summer have seen an increase in fishing and processing.   Men who work in the plants can earn as much as 40 soles a day, which works out to be a little more than ten dollars.  Like most of the world’s poor,  many in Chimbote live on less than a dollar a day. IMG_3173 The above picture is the back side of several houses in a neighborhood called 25 de Mayo.  It’s named “May 25th” (in English) because that’s the day that literally hundreds of families from the Andes left the mountains together to settle in Chimbote.  Some left to flee the brutality of The Shining Path; others because they believed their economic futures would be brighter on the coast where they were not limited by the archaic inheritance practices of the Quechuan Indian tribes.  Technically, this neighborhood is called an invacion, or invasion, because the settlers are essentially squatting on private property. IMG_3310 I told you I wouldn’t be able to be brief.  If you are interested in reading more about Chimbote and the poorest of the poor, please visit Los Amigos, a website devoted to explaining the plight and the hope that is Chimbote.IMG_0971Brenda graduated second in her class.  She is studying nursing at the technical institute in Chimbote.

Our group is a rather unique one in that we are not from a specific church or even denomination.  Some of us have met before, but many of us have not.  Professionally, we include several business owners, a lawyer, a surgical nurse, a photojournalist, a stay-at-home mom, a couple of engineers, a bank president, an outdoor guide, a couple of students, and a priest who was born to rock. Geographically, we primarily call home the southeast U.S., with a cluster of folks from Charlotte and another half dozen from Saint Simon’s Island, Georgia.   Spiritually, we have evangelical Protestants, not-so-evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and skeptics.  In age we range from 22 to 58.  About two-thirds of us are married, but only a third of us are traveling with our spouses.  We are divided into four teams, and we are competitive.IMG_3288

We begin each morning with breakfast, which is followed by a time of devotion and prayer.  Then we fill our water bottles and head out into one of the 14 barrios that comprise the parish.  One of our goals is to build six houses this week.  Each team  is assigned a Peruvian interpreter as well as three local men, who are skilled in building. 

Social workers from the parish have chosen the homes that are to be rebuilt this week.  My team is assigned to rebuild a house for a single mother of three children and one grandchild, who is two.  The grandchild is the result of incest between the father (now in prison) and the daughter, now 16.

IMG_3143 Before we can rebuild, we must first tear down the existing house.  Above, Manuel disconnects the electricity.  All the electricity in the barrio is stolen from a city transformer and strung from house to house in an alarming tangle of unmarked wires.  It is early in the day, and already the skeptics are praying.IMG_3144Before we arrive, the family has moved all their possessions into the open air kitchen/laundry room at the back of the house.IMG_3153Water for drinking, bathing, cooking, and laundry is collected and stored in a 55-gallon drum.IMG_3151It usually takes about an hour to pull the old house down.  IMG_3142These homes are made of estera, or woven palm, panels secured to frames of bamboo and cane.  All the floors are dirt; there is no running water.  IMG_0725A latrine is dug by the men at the back of the house.    Once the old house is torn down and dragged offsite, neighbors immediately begin rummaging through it to salvage any useable estera, wire, or nails.IMG_3167

The next several hours are devoted to raking, leveling, and smoothing the dirt floor and  framing the new house with cane poles.  This house will have a living area and three rooms opening off the hall to the kitchen/laundry area.IMG_3174

Once framed the estera walls are wired and nailed into place.  The two homes on either side of ours boasted wood fronts and porches, however, all the remaining walls are still estera despite the houses’ more prosperous facades.

IMG_3165Children and their mothers are nearby all day.  Everyone is always delighted to play with the sweet kids as well as to attempt conversation with their mothers.  These boys are romping on the materials that will finish the roof.IMG_3164IMG_3149The Mister and I were so happy that our old friend Father John was on our team.  IMG_3171 Father John was born in the Bronx, and I think he had his first epiphany when the Beatles played Shea Stadium.  He has been rocking ever since, and he is amazing.  He was in a band that opened for The Who, among others, and he always brings a guitar on our trips.  Music opens doors that words alone cannot.  Called to the priesthood later in life, he has a heart as big as Texas and the intellect and life experience to match.  Every year, with prayerful discernment, he gives away his guitar to a young Peruvian who seems to have a proclivity for music.  I believe he has given away at least 20. IMG_3191Shortly after lunch, we get into a rhythm to get the house finished.  To leave it undone with dark approaching is unthinkable, as theft and violence are the norm on these rough streets.IMG_3169 With the estera walls done, our team waits for the cane poles to be delivered, so that the roof can be completed before nightfall.IMG_3181 In the meanwhile, John of Saint Simon’s teaches the hand-slap game, which is a huge success.IMG_3187 Clean, cold water also hits the spot with these little guys.IMG_3190  The first section of poles is up, and the cross bracing is slid into place.IMG_3197The remaining poles have arrived, and we have plenty of help.IMG_3193    A rooftop view of neighboring houses is humbling to me.  Beneath the cane is a layer of plastic tarp for insulation.IMG_3196 The Mister works to get the poles in place.IMG_3211The new estera exterior and the first half of the roof are complete.IMG_3200This sweet girl was quite bemused by the pale gringa with the camera.IMG_3210 All the children loved being airborne by the tall gringo men.  The cry once more or “ una mas!” was heard many, many times.IMG_3212 David, a Colorado environmental consultant, takes a moment to play ball with Elena, the youngest member of the family.

IMG_3218And here’s the Mister with three darling girls.IMG_3207

The next day, the Mister and I returned to the house to finish the roof while the rest of our team went on to our next site, where we would join them after lunch. IMG_3230Here are the oldest son, Miguel, and daughter, Lady, who will call this home.IMG_3228 Miguel was a big help in finishing the work on the roof.IMG_3225 Three little neighbors peek under the temporary door.  At first, I thought they just wanted to see what was happening, but they were most interested in carmelitas, or candy.  Surprisingly, red licorice is a big draw, second only to Nerds and Lemonheads.IMG_3226

Here is the camera shy, Maria, matriarch of the house, washing her dishes.  I’m not sure what the Spanish is for “punch list,” but I honestly think that by this point she was ready for the gringo contractors to be out of her house.

Seriously, she was heart-breakingly grateful.  It was such an honor to tell her that her house was built in love.  Sweet love.

In the name of Jesus.

That’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.

Getting There is Half the Fun

After a good night’s sleep in Charlotte at the home of dear friends, the Mister and I left early in the morning for Peru via Miami, where we waited in the American Airlines Lounge while the lights flickered and the television meteorologists looked serious as they warned of severe thunderstorms in the area.  Despite the foul weather our flight was not delayed, and we arrived in Lima on time, just before midnight.  IMG_3095

All together we would be traveling from Lima with 32 others.  About a third of the group were with us on the flight from Miami while the rest would arrive via Atlanta or Houston.  The Lima airport is absolute chaos from about 10 pm until 1 am because of the all the North American flights arriving. IMG_3094 Happily by 12:30, everyone was accounted for and no one was detained in customs.  This is a real fear for us because everyone carries large quantities of over-the-counter medicines as well as antibiotics, hygiene items, and school supplies that could easily be confiscated by greedy customs agents.

From the airport, we loaded our luggage onto a bus for an hour bus ride to a small hotel in the El Barranco neighborhood of Lima.  Our hotel is extremely modest, in part to prepare us for our living conditions for the next few days.

IMG_3096IMG_3097Above is our view from our room, which although rather ugly is relatively safe.  El Barranco is considered the artsy, Bohemian neighborhood in Lima.

After sleeping a few hours, it was time to load our Cruz del Sur bus for a seven-hour ride north to our final destination, Chimbote.  Loading the luggage took awhile because everyone brings so much with the intention of leaving it behind for the people we serve.  IMG_3101If you are wondering about the Hula Hoops, those were bought in Lima to take to the children of Chimbote.IMG_3105The ride along the Pan American Highway is absolutely stunning and terrifying.  Guardrails are extremely rare, and the shoulders are quite narrow.IMG_3111 We arrived at the mission late in the afternoon to warm temperatures and overcast skies.  The average rainfall in Chimbote is one inch every 40 years.  The city, which is just under a half million people, is located in the San Luis desert in the province of Ancash.IMG_3112 Many Peruvian parishioners as well as the curious were waiting for the “gringos” to arrive at the mission.  For those of us who have been before, it is a bit of a surreal rock star moment to get off the bus to people chanting your name.

IMG_3120 After we unpacked, our host for the week, Father Jack Davis (in a black polo near the center of the photo above) took all of us on a walking  tour of the neighborhood.  IMG_3122IMG_3124The Peruvian children are quick to make friends with us, in part because they are curious and in part because they know our pockets are filled with candy and gum.  IMG_3126One of our first stops is always Calvin’s Farm, which is a sort of a rehabilitation center for men with addictions.  Here they raise and sell goats, cows, chickens, turkeys, guinea pigs or cuy, and fish. IMG_3128 The local steel mill donates wooden pallets, which the men make into straight-backed chairs and single beds.  These are then sold to the mission, which gives them to the poor.IMG_3130 A variety of fruits and vegetables, including bananas and mangos, are also grown on Calvin’s Farm. 

After a bit more briefing on Chimbote, we return to the mission where we have a light supper and a meeting to discuss the week’s projects.  We are finally dismissed at ten.IMG_3163

I’m always doubtful that I will be able to sleep.  Chimbote is an extremely noisy place—dogs are barking; young men are playing soccer in the street and on the nearby field; and taxis, who blow their horns, which sound like car alarms, at every intersection, are constantly sounding.  In addition to the noise, I’m always a little unnerved by the wide open windows, which have no screens.  Still, the women head to our quarters, where 14 of us share one shower and toilet, and half an hour later, all the reading lights are out and we are sound asleep.

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