Tag Archives: Experience

Sebastian, Inequality and Good People

23 Jun

On Thursday February 3, I went on my first and only house visit to Pumamarca in the Cusco region. That afternoon I met a fourteen year old boy, Sebastian, who possessed the kindest and purest heart that I have ever met. He has suffered a lot in his life and is heavily malnourished due to poverty. His mother is a severe alcoholic, who in her states of delirium sells the family’s only source of revenue such as a cow for S./5 (approx. $1.80). Sebastian is then forced to go into town to buy another one for 50x the price with money that they do not have. His father is currently in hospital as a result of being hit in the head by a bull. He has younger brothers that he has to look after as well as the livestock. Despite all this and then some, he is hopeful that things can better for him and his family and he still clings onto his dreams. He has a bright personality and humble heart. As we were speaking to his mum, we heard him up the mountain while herding the bulls, singing joyfully. Meeting Sebastian and this house visit remains to this day the best day of my life.

The lives of people in poverty are so far removed from the minds of us in the western world. Sure, we can empathise because it is not fair that people should suffer and an indignant anger is a natural response but what of it if nothing were practically implemented? We should be compelled to care more and be moved to DO something greater then our feelings and emotions dictate otherwise we are wafting to and fro in a haze of emptiness. That’s why I love Peru’s Challenge, because they are practical and are respected in the Cusco region. The work that they undertake has a goal of sustainability which is crucial in development yet the concept of sustainability is often made redundant in favour of instantaneous change which is ephemeral. Change can be immediately tangible but it’s success is in its longevity and sustainability. Empowering local communities, families and individuals is the best way to implement change and aid.

Another hurdle that the natives of Quilla Huata and Pumamarca must face is the discrimination between rural and city folk. There is still a great disparity between those from the city and the indigenous people and this inequality makes it difficult to complete an education as most of the secondary schools are situated in the cities, which makes it almost impossible for the children from Quilla Huata and Pumamarca to attend as the costs of transport is so high. Often times, families favour their children to make handicrafts to sell to tourists instead of completing their education. Or the children would be working on the things they should sell in class therefore their attention and efforts are divided. I heard of one story where a bright young boy in Pumamarca was aspiring to be a politician in Peru and had the intelligence and charisma to go far, however his family demanded that he stay home and care for the livestock. I have no doubt that these unfortunate occurrences are common.

Despite these negative realities, I have seen for myself that the future of Quilla Huata and Pumamarca is bright because people are starting to understand how important education and community is. Furthermore, the children and families are eager to learn and give back to the community. I can name a plethora of stories that I heard about the community members going out of their way in their strengths and efforts to give back to each other and Peru’s Challenge. One story that has stuck with me is when a family’s house was completely ruined and unlivable due to flooding. Peru’s Challenge intervened and built a new house for the family who was already undergoing extreme domestic hardship. As a result of Peru’s Challenge’s benevolence, Christian, a fourteen year old boy contributes his strength to building classrooms, walls and other people’s houses. He shows up on the work site ardent and committed to help those who are less fortunate. For someone so young to understand pure generosity completely blows my mind and challenges me to live better and kinder.

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Lucia

7 Jun

We never really know how lucky we have got it until we open our eyes and see other people’s stories. One of the moments that will never leave me is the afternoon I spent with Peru’s Challenge on a social house visit.

Her name is Lucia and she has four children. From the rural village of Puma Marca, she has overcome adversity and is a testimony of the successful work that Peru’s Challenge is doing in Cusco.

She ate infected pork meat which led to her developing a brain cyst. Despite her obvious deteriorating condition, she was unable to see a proper doctor due to monetary constraints which is an unfortunate commonality in Puma Marca. However, when she began to lose her motor abilities she went to see a local doctor but he missed the cyst because he did not have the adequate tools to see what was really wrong. Peru’s Challenge intervened and paid for a proper visit to a hospital because at that point, she could hardly walk or remember her children. That is when they found that she had a cyst. Peru’s Challenge scheduled her in for an operation at their cost. It cost them a few thousand but it was successful because after a week, she was able to move better and start constructing some coherence in her sentences. After two weeks, she was able to remember one of her children.

All the while, Peru’s Challenge faced opposition from the village because Lucia’s husband was depressed because they kept Lucia in the hospital for so long. He thought that they were taking her away. The women in the village gossiped about Peru’s Challenge, saying that they were doing Lucia wrong. However, Iris (the social worker) mediated and set the bar straight and told them of Lucia’s situation. She said that Peru’s Challenge was helping her and her family. It was necessary that they step in because Lucia was not receiving adequate care on her own. Unfortunately, she was discriminated against because she is a rural lady and the disparity between rural and city folk is still great. Without the support of Peru’s Challenge, she would not have received the care that she got.

After seeing the work that Peru’s Challenge did in Lucia, the village grew to respect the NGO greatly. Lucia is significantly improving. She can remember two more of her kids and her husband’s depression is getting better. Peru’s Challenge have also started teaching the family about hygiene and cleanliness in the house. They have built them rooms and a pig pen.

Remembering this story brings tears to my eyes because I saw her. I met Lucia and I saw the state of her house and her family. I felt her old hands grip mine as she looked into my eyes and smiled. She was real. I cannot take for granted the work that local NGO’s do because they are effective. I have so much love and respect for Jane and Selvy who are in the midst of people’s struggle and poverty, helping them in whatever way they can.

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Pangs of Jealousy

1 Jun


This is my 10th blog on this thing. What have I learned? Do I feel more resolved because of this? In short, lots and yes. I am starting to realise that perspective is everything in development and beyond. It is the reason why volunteers are effective. My experience was both humbling and rewarding. Writing and publishing about my time in Peru has caused me to seriously reflect about what I want the world to know about them and what I did. Of course, in doing so, I hope that others would want to volunteer with Peru’s Challenge one day but I think the reason why I love blogging about it so much is for me. To retrieve my experiences from my brain to something tangible provides a sense of closure. It reminds me that my experience was real.

PACE are sending a new Macquarie Uni group to volunteer at Peru’s Challenge this July. I am really happy for the new volunteers because their lives are going to be changed forever and they are going to have the time of their lives just like me only a few months ago. But in all honesty, I am jealous of the experience they are going to have. I am jealous that they get to see my favourite kids, Cynthia and Doris. I am jealous they get to live in the house that I lived in, surrounded by lush mountains. I am jealous they get to work with Jane and Selvy, the NGO founders, and I am jealous because it’s not me this time around. I know that it should never be about me, but I have realised that those kids mean more to me than I can imagine and they have done more for me, more than I could have ever done for them. Just being around them makes me want to be that little bit better.

The thing I fear the most right now is that the kids will forget us. Or worse, replace us with the new group. I hope they don’t. But if they do, then I pray that all the future volunteers would love these kids the way that they deserve. I hope that these kids would squeal in delight while playing with the new group. I hope that they latch onto the new guys like they did with us. They deserve big brothers and sisters who will lift them up and spin them around. They deserve piggy back rides and hand clap games. They are kids. Sometimes they are forced to grow up a bit faster because they are obliged to look after the family and complete a tonne of chores, but in their heart of hearts, they are just kids.

I walked higher than the clouds

23 May

For my whole life, one of my distant dreams has been to visit one of the famed Seven Wonders of the World – Machu Picchu. Never did I imagine that I would be able to tick it off my proverbial bucket list so soon. We started out our journey to the ancient ruins with a very long bus and train ride, leaving home at 6am and arriving just after lunch into Machu Picchu town, Agua Calientes. The town was small and surrounded by mountains and a thundering river flowing behind it. After we checked in, everyone was starving and dispersed around the costly town looking for lunch. Afterward, an endeavour to shop and explore the new place filled us all expectantly. Unfortunately, everyone was disappointed. Everything = touristically overpriced.

We enjoyed our day by cafe crawling and playing truth or dare. Then it was dinner then it was bed time because we had to catch the bus at 4:45am. When the early early morning hit, it was still dark and soon time for us to rush to breakfast and embark on our exciting journey. Thankfully we arrived early enough because the line to catch a bus was loooong. When we arrived at Machu Picchu, it was cold and raining with mist everywhere therefore it was difficult to see anything, but the allure of mysteriousness was enticing.

We arrived at the Waynapicchu (the big mountain everyone sees in all the pictures) gate at 7am. The hike started out simple, flat ground with lush sights around us and the weather was still cold. Twenty metres later, the terrain suddenly changed from flat to Incan flat, which is UP. And the rest of the hour long hike, remained that way – vertical. It was a difficult hike, part of me wanted to die at various points but I persevered the rain, cold and heat and eventually made it to the top of the mountain. If there is anything that mountains have taught me is not to underestimate them.

Victory upon reaching the top could not have been sweeter. It was as if God had rewarded me by opening up the clouds and blowing away the mists as our sights were clear. From the top, we could see the Incan ruins, rich verdancy and a stunning rainbow. We were higher than the clouds and it felt good. The accomplishment of the hike and the mere reality of being there was overwhelming. I needed to stop and sit and look around me and smile because that moment was real and will stay with me forever.

On that mountain we took copious amounts of photographs which boasted our location. We were after all at Machu Picchu. Later that day, we explored the ruins with our tour guide, learning the ways of the Incan from building to family and their sacrifices. Then we walked to the Incan Bridge passing chilled out llamas on the way. It was an exhausting day but one of the most rewarding and finest moments of my life and I would not have changed a thing.

It was crazy to compare the breathtaking sights of Machu Picchu that was swarming with tourists and the quiet village of Quilla Huata. I am glad to have experienced both the beauty of Peru and the reality of its country.

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Food Perspective

19 May

Response to Carlos’ question:
How did you deal with the problems you had while on your volunteer placement?

Isn’t it funny how our short time, comparatively, in our countries have changed the way that we live our lives. Or at least for a while it did. I saw confronting and unforgettable poverty in Peru and I vowed that I would change my materialistic ways and for a while I was doing good. I would indignantly get angry when I saw superfluous expenditure. I would judge people when they would overindulge in their meals, while comparing them to the kids in Quilla Huata who barely had a thing to eat. I know it was not fair for me to impose a standard of living because food and money is more accessible to us in the Western world. Even as I write this, I am eating blueberry pancakes with honey accompanied by orange juice and peppermint tea. Though not super fancy, it still kind of is compared to what some of the kids in Quilla Huata normally get.

The transition from my world to theirs and vice versa was undoubtedly the most challenging thing that I faced. It was culture shock but not in the sense that the Peruvian culture is vastly different to mine, more so a sense of lifestyle shock, if there is such a thing. It was impossible to ignore. Inescapable, surrounding me like a misty haze on a dark night.

It was something I never got used too. The disparity did not plague me incessantly but sporadic pangs of guilt crept up when I would arrive in the village in the morning after having a scrumptious, rich and nutritious breakfast made by our chef at our home. After a while, I was numb to the difference, naively or ignorantly I faced the fact that life was just like that. I’m rich and they are poor and that’s why we were there to help. But somehow, and thankfully, it isn’t so black and white. As many others have mentioned on their blogs, they have so much more than monetary wealth and fancy meals, they have a true and joyous spirit and that matters so much more. So much more.

So when I came back to my real world, I made a conscious effort to not be frivolous with my money (not that I had much by our society’s standards) but still generous with what I have. The cost of meals perturbed me here as I silently and constantly say in my head how much that amount can feed in Peru. Now, four months later, I am still challenged by the difference of our lifestyles. I have learned to cope but feel so helpless sometimes. A few of my friends are ‘living below the line’ this week and I have seen how hard it is for them. Seeing my friend do it has challenged me to remember my little Peruvian kids and appreciate being here where I can eat what I want, when I want.

A meal for $2 a day in Sydney buys:

  • Tea bag
  • Half a cup of rice
  • An egg
  • Half a cup of oats

A meal for $2 a day in Quilla Huata buys:

  • ½ fried chicken
  • Half a plate of hot chips
  • A plate of rice
  • Salad and vegies

If we saw a meal like that here for $2, we would be rejoicing on mountain tops because that is a bargain! But that meal is an extreme luxury for most people in Quilla Huata. My biggest challenge taught me PERSPECTIVE.

One of the amazing things that Peru’s Challenge started this year was providing the kids with food at school to help with their concentration and health. Also Peru’s Challenge are aware that some of the kids have nothing to eat at home so by providing a solid meal at school, there is a greater chance of the kids actually attending school now.

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Farewell, Puku, old chap.

15 May

Puku Cafe, 60 Hang Trong Street, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.

A much-loved expat haunt down a dark blue-lamp-lit alley in he centre of downtown Hanoi.

On the third floor terrace, it’s light and airy, cool and relaxing, above the sweltering humidity and dust on the streets below. Yet, the place has an earthy grunginess to it as well. In other words, it’s a down-to-earth place for expats to meet up, chat, bury themselves in a book over a cool beverage or use the free wi-fi on their laptops.

I remember on arrival in Hanoi, the in-country managers of the volunteer program took us volunteers to Puku for our casual meet n’ greet. Ever since then, it’s been a second home to us. The atmosphere is relaxed; it’s got greenery (rare in most cafes in Hanoi) and isn’t pretentious; it has an all-day breakfast menu, and serves the Vietnamese coffees that give you diabetes, as well frosty beers.

My friends and I would rock up there at any time of day, and sometimes stay to eat two meals there. We were well and truly regulars.

It’s no longer there.

Puku moved location and ‘upgraded’ to a more high-class look to lend itself more to expats. It’s lost its chilled-out vibe.

I don’t have many photos of Puku. I searched online on Google images and the above two photos were the only two I could find of the old Puku.

Its online presence has dissipated along with its real physical presence.

It lives on to a certain extent in the blogosphere.

However, it lives on mainly in the minds of those who used to occupy and engage with that space. For those of us who became attached to Puku, we can reminisce and be transported back there and share our memories with those fellow travelers in that time and space.

Another cafe which I heard is no longer in existence is another much-loved expat hangout, called Nola Cafe. It’s similar in concept to Puku, but it’s fittings and décor is informed more so by culture. The interior design is exquisite and also has an earthy feel. Nola was designed by a Vietnamese guy who went to New Orleans and came back inspired and channeled that into the interior design of a new inner-city cafe. Thus emerged Nola. Like Puku, tt doesn’t have a frontage to the street either. Yet, people find it. It has around 5 interlocking half-levels. Each room or terrace area is decked out differently, but it all works together. One outdoor space has umbrellas suspended above the seating area.

Itinerant street food stalls have a similar story. They can be set up and serve customers day in and day out for decades. And then, one day, it may not turn up. By Truc Bach Lake are a row of hot pot restaurants. The owners spread out mats for patrons to sit lakeside and enjoy steaming hot pot. When the police come around, they shuffle all the customers inside the cramped restaurants, take the mats in and throw any plastic chairs into the lake. It is illegal to operate food outlets with seating on the street. Once the police have left, the restaurant owners spread the mats out again and pull the plastic chairs out of the lake. Business continues as usual. It could all come to a stop one day and the restaurant owners would move elsewhere or get into another business. And life goes on in this bustling city.

Another feature of Hanoi is its continual state of being constructed and renovated. There are always buildings under construction, road potholes being filled, residences being subdivided, merged and everything in between.

For those of us who develop emotional attachments to places, experiences, the people we shared those spaces with and the seasons which we occupied those spaces, it’s at times heart-wrenching.

On the one hand, I acknowledge that Hanoi is an ever-changing, always-transforming chameleon. That is the mark of a society and economy which embraces change and strives towards development and prosperity.

On the other hand, the experiences I had in Hanoi are very precious to me and I want some things to remain the same – like my old Puku Cafe, or my Nola, or my favourite lakeside hot pot stall.

I consider them mine, yet, they are shared with everyone as well. The fact they are no longer there to be experienced is terribly saddening and engulfs me with a sense of loss and regret. A regret that we can no longer share in that space, time and experience.

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