Monday, July 30, 2012

The Boys of San Vincente De Paul

San Vincente De Paul is located in Chiclayo. It is a home for boys, operated by the Peruvian government. There are many like it throughout Peru. The building is exceptionally clean and well maintained inside and out. It is long and L-shaped, having much more interior room than this photo would indicate.

At present this facility is at maximum capacity with twenty boys ranging from six to twelve years old. Some have been here only two weeks; others over one year. None of the boys entered voluntarily and none remain willingly. They are here because a judge placed them here. Many have been removed from their homes by civil authority because of mental and/or physical abuse. Others have simply been abandoned.

Rosario (left) is the director of Chiclayo’s San Vincente De Paul. She explained that, following placement by a judge, the boys are subjected to an intense three-day physical and psychological evaluation. Of the present twenty boys, twelve were diagnosed as having deep-seated psychological problems, a ratio Rosario said is normal.

The home has a small medical clinic on site, and there is a large public hospital nearby for emergencies. Two blocks from the home is a public school the boys attend daily. On Sundays the boys attend Catholic mass at a church four doors down the block. There is a basketball court/soccer field at the rear of the building, and a male employee who teaches sports to the boys. Three meals per day are provided from government donated food cooked on site. Inside the home the boys have freedom of movement. Outside they are escorted everywhere. According to Rosario they would not return if left alone. I find that hard to understand given everything that’s provided for them.

There are only four ways to leave San Vincente De Paul. A boy can be legally adopted. He can also be placed in a foster home either temporarily or permanently. He can return to his biological parents if a judge has found that the initial cause(s) for his removal have been eliminated. Some boys do have family visiting them twice weekly. The fourth way to leave is have the maximum stay of one and one-half years expire. When that happens the boy is transferred to a much larger facility for older boys located near Pimentel.  

We were at San Vincente De Paul today because one of the boys struck up a conversation with Maribel at church last week and extracted a promise from her to visit him. We took empanadas, chocolate milk, candy, a few balls and some toys with us (the photo was deliberately blurred to mask the kid’s identities).

When we do this sort of thing at a school there is a whole different feel to it than occurred at San Vincente De Paul. At the schools there is excitement and laughter. At San Vincente De Paul it was quiet…a strange, subdued atmosphere. The boys silently sat at tables as we passed out the food. At most (but not all) tables there were softly spoken “thank-you’s”, but neither warmth nor smiles accompanied them. These are street kids…old for their age. Life has thrown too much at them too fast. I think it would take a very special set of adoptive or foster parents to open their homes and take on the responsibility for kids like these. I also think it would be a very long time before these kids would openly and unreservedly show or return affection.

Rosario said what these kids need most is therapy. She has plans to attempt music, art and dancing as therapy. When asked if we could help, she laughingly asked if we had any spare cajon drums and could teach the kids how to play them, or Marinara costumes and could teach dancing. It just so happens that we do know an expert Marinara dancer. We’re working on the rest of it.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

A little more about Jaèn

In rereading the last post, I think I may have been too hard on Jaèn. I stand by my comment that there is nothing the average tourist would want to see, but that’s not to say a person couldn’t enjoy spending a day or two in the town if  you can take pleasure in exploring the little slices of life around you.  

For example last Sunday Jaèn held a mini festival.  There were kiosks erected in the Principal Park displaying and selling artifacts and food…all of them just a bit different than seen in other regions. Some of the artifacts were made by inmates of the local prison. It’s fun to talk with the vendors, learning about their lifestyles and how they produce whatever it is they’re selling. Later in the early evening there was entertainment, games and dancing.

In a chance discussion with a bakery owner we discovered we had a common interest in collecting unusual rocks.  The next thing we knew we were sitting at her kitchen table looking at her rock collection. What is this thing? She believes it is man-made. She calls it Buddha. I believe it is natural but whatever it is, it is far heavier than it should be for its size. Perhaps a reader knows and can comment on what kind of rock this is. But the point is we spent a very pleasant hour talking with this woman and her family.

Jaèn is very hot during the day but it cools down to a comfortable temperature in the early evening. That is when the populous gravitates to the park. On our last evening in town Maribel and I sat on a park bench for several hours watching the minutia of life unfold before us. We watched the kids tug on the leg of mom or dad as they passed the vendor in the photo, asking for cotton candy or a ball. There was an ice cream vendor nearby, and more than once we heard a parent give the child a choice of ice cream or what this man was selling. A ball or cotton candy cost 35 cents – ice cream is 20 cents. Often the kids opted for ice cream but the man sold enough to probably make his time worthwhile. 

From that same park bench we watched a police officer write tickets and place them on five motorcycles that were illegally parked. It was interesting and entertaining to watch the different reactions as each owner returned to their bike and discovered the ticket. We saw anger, distain and total disregard.

Sitting on a bench doing all that observing is hungry work, so Maribel and I decided to walk across the street and eat dinner at what has to be the most popular restaurant in town; Lactobac. After looking at the menu we agreed we really weren’t that hungry so would have something light. Maribel ordered jello. I changed my mind and pigged out on what the menu called a “Royal banana split.” There was nothing light about it.

All of the above is pretty tame…there’s nothing that would cause you to place a hurried call home to share the excitement. But in my view it is quality time and is rewarding in so many ways. Despite a lack of tourist attractions there is always something of interest to see or do if you can enjoy the simple things in life. We will have fond memories of our visit to Jaèn.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Visiting Zapotal by way of Jaèn

The trip by bus from Chiclayo to Jaèn (pronounced ‘ha-en’) can take anywhere from 5 ½ to 8 hours or more depending on road conditions encountered in the mountains. Jaèn is located in a valley at an altitude of 740 meters and is surrounded by mountains. Delays caused by mud and rock slides are common and are viewed as minor inconveniences by veteran travelers.

During our recent trip we were delayed for about an hour as work crews were still dealing with the aftermath of a major rock slide that occurred two weeks previously. This particular incident involved the partial collapse of segments of two mountains and is still having serious repercussions for communities many miles away. We’ll talk more about that later.

Jaèn has a population of 52,000 and doesn’t look any different than any other mid-size town we’ve visited. The economy is based on rice, coffee and several other standard crops. The principal park is surprisingly plain and colorless for a town this size. There is no tourist information office, probably because there are no attractions the average tourist would be interested in. It’s been our experience that most every town we’ve visited has something – an unusual building, a waterfall, petro glyphs, historic ruins, a scenic overlook…something the town identifies with and points to with pride. Not so in Jaèn. When asked what there is to see or do, locals simply shrug their shoulders. When pressed for suggestions some will mention a museum at the university (Instituto technologic 4 de junio de 1821), but are quick to add “don’t go there at night; it’s not a good area.”  

We went there on a bright, sun shiny morning and were pleasantly surprised. The museum occupies three large rooms and contains photos and displays of original objects from the Pacamoros culture that flourished in the area at about the same time the Moche culture existed to the west on the coast. Our tour took over an hour and our guide was knowledgeable and patient with our many questions. There is no admission fee and the staff refused our offer of a gratuity, but did point to a box at the entrance labeled “For help the museum.” 

From our hotel in Jaèn it is a 15 minute moto ride to the colectivo (private car) station where it will cost $5.75 to buy a seat for the 1 ½ hour ride to Zapotal. Probably a full chapter in a book could be written about this 90 minute trip. I will be much briefer.

Shortly after leaving town we were stopped by police who apparently do this randomly looking for criminals.   Not 200 meters further was a road block manned by Ronderos. This was my second encounter with these guys, who are supposedly quasi-police maintaining law and order. They have no legal authority and as far as I can tell their approach to maintaining law and order is to demand tribute from every passing vehicle. I noticed that every vehicle from each direction would slow down enough to hand money to a rondero before continuing on. This was a tough looking bunch. They were young and fit, wearing skin-tight black t-shirts, black military pants, black boots and black jungle hats. They were all carrying assault rifles. I didn’t take a photo because frankly, I felt intimated. Our driver slowed down, but no one approached the car so we continued on. 

The road quickly changes from asphalt to gravel to not maintained. We forded many small streams before coming to a swollen river I felt sure the driver would not attempt. He stopped the car; opened the hood to let the engine cool down and then put some material over it to “keep it from getting wet.” At its deepest the water covered the tires and the spray washed completely over the car but did not get inside.  The driver told us conditions can change from minute to minute, and there are days when Zapotal cannot be reached. I saw no difference on our return later that afternoon.

The road stops 30 minutes before reaching the village of Zapotal at the Chinchipe River, where two barges transport trucks, cars, motos and people across for a fee. This is an interesting process. There is no electricity available and the barges do not use engines. Instead they are tethered to a thick steel cable spanning the river.  Two cables are attached to the barge. The cable attached to the rear of the barge is lengthened or shortened depending on which side of the river they want to go to. After everything is secure the barge is pushed from shore and the strong river current does the rest. It takes less than 3 minutes to cross.

Zapotal, though isolated and at the mercy of the whims of nature for contact with the outside world is not as primitive as we’d expected. Many of the houses are constructed of concrete or regular brick instead of adobe, and the school and medical clinic are cleaner and better maintained than many we have seen in villages close to Chiclayo. There are only 9 streets and a population not over 300. The town has electricity only from 6:30pm to 10:30pm, which means no television, radio or refrigeration during daylight hours. Computers in the school are powered by solar panels built by town folks.
We were in Zapotal because a teacher at the school had invited us to attend a celebration. Promesa Peru was happy to furnish prizes for students who won competitions in math, science, and other subjects. We also donated balls, toys and candy.  As always we were afforded a warm welcome and invited to return anytime.

The town has no sewage system but does have water provided by a series of canals and pipes from mountains far distant. The mountain collapse of two weeks ago that delayed our travel to Jaèn also destroyed large segments of the system providing water to Zapotal and other remote villages. Until repairs are completed villagers are using the Chinchipe River for bathing, washing clothes, cooking and irrigating fields. Every farmer we talked with said they didn’t like using the river for irrigation because “the water is too dirty for growing rice.” I wasn’t able to learn what they meant by that comment.  

Although several families offered the use of their homes for sleeping overnight, it is very hot in Zapotal and by mid afternoon we were ready to return to Jaèn and our air conditioned hotel room with shower. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Where are the people?

We have a tradition of inviting friends and family to our apartment to look at photos taken during our trips outside of Peru. We show the photos on the television, and provide snacks and beverages to help lessen any boredom (I admit it; I take way too many photos). Most viewers seem to enjoy the photos and there are usually lots of questions and comments.  Last week we showed photos of our recent visit to the US and Canada. The evening pretty much followed the script until the showing was over, when two people asked almost simultaneously…”Where are the people?”  I didn’t understand what they meant at first until they asked to fast-forward through the photos and stopped me at various points. Then the reason for their question became obvious.

This is Main Street in Crivitz Wisconsin. The photo was taken in mid-morning. According to the sign at the edge of town Crivitz has a population of 998 (It had the same number when Maribel and I lived there, so either town authorities have not yet noticed we’re gone or two more residents have arrived). The town’s population is comprised mostly of retirees, so you probably wouldn’t expect to see a whole lot of people on the streets, but still…nobody?

This location is near downtown Sault Ste. Marie Canada at noon.  The city has done a great job of developing their boardwalk area bordering the Saint Mary River. It’s a flourishing city that is tastefully blending the preservation of heritage with renovation and modernization.  With a population of 80,000 it has the feel of a vibrant community, yet it is noon and I am standing in the middle of the street and the only person in the photo is Maribel.

Wells Street is in the heart of downtown Milwaukee. At one time years ago I thought this city of 600,000 was in a death spiral with no hope of salvation.  The mostly blue-collar neighborhoods were deteriorating and the downtown area was a collection of crumbling office and manufacturing buildings. I was wrong. It has rebuilt itself, and every time I return to it I fall in love with it all over again.  The photo was taken shortly after noon. In it are Maribel, a woman behind her and a maintenance worker. Three people…on Wells Street…at noon?

 Almost every other cityscape photo showed the same sparsity of people.

This is the intersection of Balta and Elias Aguire in downtown Chiclayo Peru. It could be any intersection near downtown at any time of the day. Chiclayo’s population is 630,000; almost exactly that of Milwaukee. The difference is that no matter where you are in Chiclayo, it seems as if the entire population is there with you. 

What is the answer to the question “Where are the people?” in the first three photos? Maribel and I struggled when trying to respond. Part of the answer is that there are no money changers, street vendors, shoe shiners or beggars in those photos. Another factor is that commerce – banking, shopping, etc is spread out over a wider area. Another reason is that Chiclayanos are less inclined and have far less opportunity to use the internet for shopping and banking.  Cultural policies also play a part, forcing Chiclayanos to physically visit banks, schools, government and private offices for trivial matters.

The above explains in part why there are so many people in Chiclayo’s streets, but our guests (and ourselves) didn’t feel that we adequately explained the empty streets in the photos.  Hey! folks in Crivitz, Sault Ste. Marie and Milwaukee….where are you?