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Saturday, September 27, 2008

And now, back in time, to Peru! Another volunteer adventure

Two years before my Czernowitz trip, I had gone to Ayacucho, Peru, also on a volunteer trip. And while this trip didn't have quite the emotional impact of the trip to Ukraine, there were also family ties involved.

Max and Carolina, my two children, were both born in Peru, where Loring and I adopted them as infants; Max in 1988, Carolina in 1991.

When we'd decided to adopt, we needed to choose the country we wanted to adopt from. How does one decide from where you want your child to be? For us, actually, the choice was an easy one. We'd travelled to Peru a couple of years earlier, and had fallen in love with the country, its physical beauty, warm people, and rich culture. When the director of the large Boston adoption agency ran down the list of 20 or so countries, I held my breath. Each program had its own restrictions, only a certain religion, no single parents, no one over a certain age, etc. When she got to Peru, she indicated that both parents had to go, and one had to stay for the duration of the process, two to three months. I was elated! Not only did we qualify, but I would get to spend time in the country of my child's birth. What better way to start our lives as parents! And it was wonderful. But that's another story.

After the two adoptions, I'd made several trips back, some with the family, some to buy handcrafts. And now, in 2006, I saw the volunteer trip to Peru that I knew I wanted to take.

It was to Ayacucho, a city in the mountains that had long been off limits to tourists because of terrorist activity. Ayacucho had always intrigued me, because in addition to being the place where Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, had been born, it was also where many of the incredible craftspeople of Peru hailed from. I knew of the Sullca weaving family and also the retablo makers, especially the Jimenez family. They had largely relocated to Lima during the years of violence. This, in addition to my volunteer job working with children, would be my opportunity to meet some of the artisan families, and also, hopefully, to understand the roots and effects of the violence that had plagued Peru for so many years.

My job in Ayacucho involved working with children, as had the other volunteer stints I'd previously done. This was with a social service agency that provided activities, music, crafts, homework help, etc. in the afternoons after school. In the mornings we also worked with kids, some of the same ones and some others, in four different groups. Two groups worked with kids in the markets, the preschool aged children who hung out there while their parents worked in the market stands. Another part of our group worked with children who literally sang for their supper in a fancy outdoor restaurant on a hill overlooking town. The last group, which I chose to be in, worked in the cemetery with children who worked there. In retrospect, it's very interesting that I have actually worked in cemeteries in two of my volunteer projects!

The kids, all boys, who worked in the cemetery, went to school too. Half worked an early shift in the cemetery, half a later shift, around their school schedules. Urchins would be the word to describe them, like something out of Dickens, except they were anything but devious, rather honest and sweet. I was amazed at the lack of competition between them for the few jobs that came their way. Each had a bucket and a rag. When someone entered the cemetery, one boy would approach and ask if the person wanted help to clean his or her relative's grave. In Peru, the graves are built in layers, stacked quite high. You can glimpse a bit of one in the picture above. I will try to find a clearer one to post later. If one's relative's grave is high, you might or might not want to climb the ladder to reach it. This is where the nimble boys come in. They dash up the ladders, replace the flowers in the empty soda bottles, for that is what most people use, and wash the grave with a wet rag.

During the week, business was pretty slow. I am not exactly sure what our role was supposed to be, aside from helping them learn a little English, but it was certainly interesting to be there. We brought games(we are playing dominoes in the picture) but Twister was the big hit. It was incongruous, to say the least, to be playing Twister in a cemetery! The agency with whom we were working had the idea to encourage the children to create microenterprises, for which they had small amounts of money to lend the children. A noble, but far from practical idea. But I did try to pursue it, collecting all our empty plastic bottles and buying crepe paper, sequins, etc. My thought was for the kids to decorate the bottles and sell them for a small amount to the visitors, to be used for flowers rather than the plain soda bottles, which didn't seem particularly aesthetic. I watered down glue and brought paint brushes for them to adhere the materials to the bottles. We spent an afternoon decorating bottles, which the boys then gave to us and to each other. Very sweet, but not much progress toward any microenterprise.

In the afternoons, we worked with the children who came to the center on a drop in basis. Some came sporadically, many came regularly. Among the regulars were a family of boys who were among the singers at the restaurant. Every afternoon, several of the adults played music, mostly guitars, and some of the children sang. There was a girl of about 12, Rosa, who sang very intensely and dramatically, pretending to hold a microphone in her hand. I thought it a bit much. But, after the first week, I found out that there was a singing competition coming up, and that several of the kids from the center were going to participate. The day before the competition, Rosa and the other performers donned traditional costumes for a dress rehearsal, and suddenly the theatrics became understandable.

At the competition, the children participated by age group. There were many children, and it seemed that they were all accompanied by their parents and/or music teachers, except for ours. Yet we had the largest cheering section, with most of the volunteer group and staff from the center. And, incredibly, some of our kids won, including Rosa, and a little boy named Pedro who was one of the restaurant singers.

As Rosa practiced, I had begun to catch some of the words of her song, and realized it was about the times of violence. One line talked about blood running from 5 corners in the streets of a village not far away.When the children in her category performed, they all sang in the same stylized, over dramatic manner that Rosa did, and I realized that this was the traditional style of this ballad type song.

The volunteers later went on a field trip to several towns, including the one Rosa had sung about. Knowing of my interest, our guide took us to the five corners, an actual place, not just a poetic image. It was peaceful, with a nice plaza and several teenagers riding skateboards. How hard to imagine the massacres that had occurred there. Later we drove over a bridge, and our guide told us of mass murders at the river just a decade earlier.

The horror of the violence was that the common people were caught between the terrorists and the military police who were determined to wipe the terrorists out. Many were killed, and many disappeared.I heard several stories from people in town who remembered rampages of either terrorists or military or both, and people being shot or taken away. There is a small museum in Ayacucho dedicated to the memory of those who died. There is a group of mostly women, mothers and wives, like in several other Latin American countries, who continue to push for information about the fate of their loved ones. There was a woman who spearheaded the movement. She was now quite elderly. I spoke to a man at the museum, who told me the woman would be there shortly, and then introduced me to her when she arrived. She was quiet but intense, and seemed to draw other people to her. I felt privileged to meet her. A few weeks later, when I was in Lima with Loring and the kids, there was an exhibit about the years of terrorism at a museum. There, I saw references to, and then photos of, the woman I'd met, and her missing son.

The man I'd met at the museum was a retable maker. Retablos are boxes, sometimes small, sometimes quite large, that are made out of a potato dough whch is painted. They contain a scene, or sometimes several scenes, that are sometimes religious, sometimes secular. Many depict harvest scenes, or sometimes shops like a hatmaker's, for instance. I had discovered them years before in the Lima crafts markets and purchased several then. I'd also met a master retablo maker, Nicario Jimenez, who had a studio in his house in Lima. He made the most incredible retablos, including some that depicted scenes of violence, with bloody details, helicopters hovering overhead, etc. All made out of potato dough. I had hoped to visit him this trip in Lima, but discovered that he had moved to Miami. He'd also been "discovered" and now sold his retablos for large amounts of money, which I'm sure he deserves, but means I couldn't afford them anymore anyway. So I will just treasure the few small ones I have.

But here, in this museum in Ayacucho, was another man who made political retablos. And I hadn't been able to find any other retablo makers in town at all, and the few retablos I saw in the market weren't of very good quality. I don't know if most of the retablists(I think I just made that word up) had moved away from Ayacucho like Nicario Jimenez, or if the craft has mostly died out, or if I just wasn't able to track anyone down. Except for this man, who was flattered at my interest. But he didn't have any retablos available to sell at the time.

There was a crafts museum in Ayacucho, too, but, sadly, it was closed for setting up a new exhibit. The last exhibit had been about Nicario Jimenez!

I did, however, find the workshops of the weavers. Up at the edge of the city was a small square with a couple of crafts shops and several studios of various members of the Sullca family and several other weaver families. All of their rugs were beautiful. I had had a request from a crafts store at home to bring back woven placemats. I gave the order, with details of colors and types of designs, to Norma Sullca, the one woman weaver among the Sullcas. Several days later, she had them ready for me. I purchase several small rugs from her, and several from one of her uncles as well. Another uncle was one of the most renowned Sullca family, and had exhibited various places internationally. One place, in fact, was at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, just 15 minutes from where I live, where he had been artist in residence several years back. His is an amazing three dimensional quality, like waterwalls, or tumbling blocks, almost reminiscent of some Escher works.

I had, I guess, to some extent fulfilled my desire to meet some of the artisans of Ayacucho. And I did also buy several small items from vendors in the marketplace. I sold several, but could only bear to part with one or two of the wallhangings. One was a wedding gift for my friends Sadie and Will.

Well, back again to the actual volunteer project. In the afternoons we planned activities for the kids at the center, much like what I did in Romania two years previous (which adventure I will describe next.) We helped with homework, organized activities to help them learn a bit of English and a bit of geography, and formed a belly dancing club( yes, bellydancing!) One of the volunteers was a young woman originally from Cyprus, who'd been living in London. She bellydanced and decided to teach the kids. She had a Shakira CD with her (this was my introduction to Shakira, the other volunteers were shocked that I didn't know and love her music) and also went hunting in the market for bellydancing music. I was sure there wouldn't be any available in a mountain town in Peru, but I was wrong. So, armed with Shakira and authentic bellydance music, she gathered whichever kids were interested, which was practically everyone, girls and boys alike. I will never forget the sight of 12 and 14 year old boys shimmying and laughing, their school backpacks on their backs. And I will never grow tired of Shakira singing "Hips Don't Lie" which has become one of my favorites.

After the three week project, I met Loring, Max, and Carolina back in Lima. Our friend Marielena, daughter of our adoption lawyer, told us she was getting married, something we did not know before we left home. I gather they had decided suddenly. Falk, who is German, had to leave Peru because his visa was about to expire. So we shifted around our plans in order to be there for the wedding. It was a secular ceremony at a hotel overlooking the city, with sushi, Mari's favorite, as part of the menu. Mari wore a beautiful bright blue dress, which made me wonder if white was as traditional there as in the US. I imagine it is. When Carolina admired her dress,Mari said she could have it for her wedding!

We spent a week in northern Peru, came back to Lima for the wedding, then a week south of Lima in the Ica desert. We stayed in the oasis town of Huacachina. The big event there was riding dune buggies in the desert. Since there is no vegetation at all, it doesn't seem as though it is detrimental to the environment. It was quite a thrill going up and then down these incredible inclines, not usually my cup of tea. But I'll admit I'm glad I did it, and the stark landscape was incredible. We also went to Paracas where there is an enormous bird bird and marine population including penguins, seals, and many kinds of birds. It is apparently one of the most diverse bird environments in the world. A few months afterwards there was a terrible earthquake whose epicenter was right where we had been. I wondered about the car mechanic, the boat operator, the waiters, all the people we'd met, and hoped they'd survived.

In the north we visited various ruins, some of which were still being excavated. Everyone thinks of Machu Picchu, but in fact the country is covered with ruins of various cultures, and more are being discovered all the time. We also visited the city of Cajamarca, famous for being the place where Atahualpa surrendered to Pizarro. (and then was killed by him.)

Peru is so varied, with mountains, desert, jungle, ocean, cities. I've lost track of how many times I have been there, I think it is six. I've seen so much, and yet there is so much I haven't seen. Have never been to the jungle, to the Amazon, where Carolina's birth mother is from. The last we heard, she had been bitten by a snake and was paralysed. We sent some money, haven't heard anything since. It seems hard to conceive of what Olinda's life is like, even before this injury, and especially now. Carolina says she wants to travel there, next summer, and visit her. That would be quite a journey, in every sense. More intense, I would imagine, than my trip to Czernowitz.

One more anecdote: Fifteen years earlier, when wwe were adoptin Carolina, I had met a family of artisans in the marketplace. They were gourd carvers, an intricate art that involves etching designs and then rubbing the gourd with ash to blacken the grooves. The designs done by the young people in the family, who learn the craft from their parents, is often in the form of animals and has a charming naive quality. Those are usually the ones that are available in the US. The ones done by the older people are incredibly detailed and really of museum quality, yet are sold for a pittance in the market. The Garcias, from whom I bought many gourds to bring back to the States, were dirt poor but always smiling. They lived in the market, behind a plastic tarp that separated their living quarters from their stall. There were the parents and three daughters and a son. I always showed their picture when I did programs at schools and had many handicrafts for kids to explore, including the Garcia childrens' animal gourds.

So, fifteen years later, in the same marketplace I suddenly had the urge to locate the Garcias. The market was so different. It had been spiffed up, the ground paved, the stalls more like little shops. I didn't like it nearly as much. The people that worked there were more like shopkeepers, and had a variety of items. I doubted that many of them were the artisans that made the crafts . I didn't see many gourds at all. But then I came across one shop that featured them. And so I asked if they knew the Garcia family. Astonishly, they did, and led me to them.

One of the daughters had her own stall, selling a variety of crafts but no gourds. They don't make them anymore. She remembered me, told me they had an apartment now, and that her mother still had my picture, with baby Carolina and toddler Max! And so, the next day, her mother came, photo in hand. And when Loring and the kids arrived three weeks later, we all took photos together all over again. I promised to send them pictures, now realize I never did. It was an incredible experience to find them 15 years later, and find them thriving. But I feel sad that the skill will now be lost, at least in their family. I wonder how many gourd carvers there are left, and if any young people are learning the craft.

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