The seeds of my visit to Peru were planted many years ago. To start, from a young age I was fascinated by the stories of the Inca and the Spanish search for El Dorado and legendary cities of gold. But aside from that, there was also a personal connection. About 25 years ago, our local parish in Pesotum was between priests. To fill the gap until a more permanent priest was assigned, priests would come down from the Newman Center at the University of Illinois to say mass and take care of a variety of pastoral duties. One of them, Father Ed, was working on his PhD at the U of I after having spent time working in Peru. My parents became interested in his work with the indigenous populations in Peru and after he finished his PhD and moved back to Peru, my parents stayed in touch with him. Over the years, as I would hear of the work he was doing, an idea formed in the back of my mind that it would be an interesting experience to go and visit him in his village. But I always just considered it a youthful fantasy, never really expecting it to reach fruition. But as my trip to South America began to form, I realized that this would be an opportunity to actually make it happen. So my parents gave me his email address and I reached out to Father Ed while I was still in Colombia, and a few months later, he was meeting me at the airport in Lima.
After running a few errands, we had an excellent dinner at a restaurant in the Miraflores region of Lima (Peru is known as the culinary star of South America, and in my time there and a few other countries, I have come to agree, even if I do not have a skillful palate by any means.) and caught up on the past 25 years. That night, we stayed at the Carmelite house (his order of priests) in Miraflores before beginning our cross-country road trip, along with his assistant Bernacio, through southern Peru and to their village in the Andean highlands. To stay in a simple but comfortable room in a community house such as that is a unique sensation, with the quiet and reverent atmosphere filling the building, and religious art and décor and books all around.
The next morning, as we were preparing to leave, we came across one of the priests with a group of men, and after the introductions, the older man in the group, the obvious authority figure, gave Father Ed an update on his work. My Spanish was (and is) still rather weak, so I was only able to catch bits of what he was saying, but Father Ed filled in the gaps for me afterward. This man runs an organization, Comunidad Terapéutica Programa San José, that serves as a halfway house and treatment center for recovering addicts. He had told Father Ed that many of those they were serving at the moment were Europeans and Americans who had come to South America for the cheap and easy access to drugs and now found themselves destitute, and their families back home had all but abandoned them., leaving them with nowhere to turn. It is interesting to hear about their work after my observation (and anger) regarding the Americans and Europeans that came to South America for drugs, taking advantage of and perpetuating the conditions on this continent that I pointed out in an earlier post. However, this group were selflessly caring for those that did just that and lost themselves in the darkness of addiction. It is such an amazing display of affection for those whom so many others would despise.
Upon leaving Lima, we took an amazing 3-day trip through southern Lima. Through the coastal desert and Paracas, to the desert oasis of Haucachina and its lake surrounded by mountainous sand dunes, down to the mysterious Nazca lines that can only been realized from an elevated perch or (more often) from an airplane.
At Nazca, we turned inland and began climbing in elevation into the Andes. After about 3 days of travel, and dropping off Bernacio at his home in Sicuani, a small city of about 30000 people outside of Cusco, Father Ed and I arrived at his home, next to the church in the small mountain community of Santa Barbara. Upon arriving, I was introduced to Veronica and her daughter, Noelia, who stay in a small attached guest apartment and help Farther Ed around the house and church on the weekends.
I had hoped to do some direct work in the community supporting some type of a project, however, for a variety of reasons, during the time I was there, Father Ed did not have any major projects underway. Instead, I just helped with a few small tasks where I could here and there, accompanying Father Ed to some of the other communities he served, helping organize a few things, and helping pick up some supplies for an upcoming youth retreat that would bring together young people from some of the surrounding communities.
Many a late night after dinner were spent with Father Ed and I having a drink and a cigar, discussing a wide range of topics, usually social and historical, regarding Peru and the local area, and the differing influences of the Inca, the Spanish, the church, and industry. These were easily some of the most enlightening conversations about the region I had during my time in South America. I also learned more about some of the variety of efforts to improve the lives of the people. It was especially comforting that even though he is a priest, Father Ed fully acknowledged and did not excuse the sins of the Church in the history of the area.
One of the elements that continuously came up during the conversations was the role of education. It is almost cliché to anyone that studies history, but as always, much of the social and economic inequality in the area has been maintained over the centuries by denying the indigenous and lower classes access to high quality education. This allowed the educated moneyed classes to exploit the lower classes for cheap labor in the mines and on the farms. Unfortunately, the Catholic church was often complicit if not supportive of this power dynamic, serving both the spiritual and educational needs of the higher classes, while offering only basic support to the lower classes during the colonial era, and the early history of the independent nations.
Father Ed pointed out that this has been part of the reason for the rise of evangelical churches in this region of South America over recent decades. Missionaries would come to the area and provide the local populations with relevant education that would help them to improve their lives in some way. That, combined with the Catholic Church’s relative indifference, makes these new missionaries much more appealing to these poorer demographics. Father Ed has seen it happen throughout the communities that he serves, as many of the parishners no longer consider themselves Catholic and have joined these other churches.
We also discussed about how he has been trying to counteract this lack of education and what he hopes to do going forward. One interesting organization that Father Ed told me about was Fe y Alegria, which seeks to provide education opportunities, usually through Jesuit schools, to the poorest and most vulnerable populations in South America. Father Ed said that he had previously tried to get a Fe y Alegria school set up in the area a few years before, but ran into some logistical and political problems. While this specific attempt did not work, upon hearing about the organization from Father Ed and doing more research on it, I found yet another shining example of people trying to improve the lives of those less fortunate by focusing on the fundamental and underlying challenges they face.
From a pastoral sense, he is hoping to develop a lay organization for younger adults in the community. Most of the communities are basically dying out because young people leave the highlands to go and find work in the Peruvian cities. However, a couple of communities do have relatively stable populations, but the churches (as is common in many places) are mostly attended by the elders of the community. Because of this, Father Ed is trying to find ways to engage the younger community members that may have grown up with the church, but have basically left it for one reason or another.
After a couple of weeks in Santa Barbara (interrupted with the obligatory Machu Picchu trek while Father Ed was visiting Lima for a meeting), I took my leave of Father Ed and his hospitality. Noelia was extremely sweet and my last day, handed me a small cloth bag filled with stones that she had collected around the area that she found interesting, science being her favorite subject. I thanked her and gave her one of the SpaceX mission patches that I had brought along.
I then had a variety of travelling adventures around Peru for a couple of weeks, meeting amazing people from around the world and learning so much about the different cultures of the area. I did the Inca Jungle Adventure Trek to Machu Picchu, including biking down from snow covered mountain roads to jungle rivers for river rafting, and hiking along portions of Inca trails (although not the “official” Inca trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu), as well as steps up the mountain side in the early morning to the mist covered mountain citadel. After Cusco, I went to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, where I was able to visit more indigenous groups on the various islands, from the man-made reed islands of Uro to spending the night with the native people of Amantani, including a celebration in their community hall. I also was able to see condors soaring over Colca Canyon, see a frozen Inca mummy, and enjoy alpaca grilled on a hot volcanic stone.
While doing these tours that involved indigenous peoples, part of me was disappointed in the sheer overly touristic elements of visiting them. It was obvious with the trinket sales, and even the celebration with Peruvian music and dancing, that this was all geared towards tourists. However, as I thought more about it, and reflected upon other indigenous groups I have visited as parts of tours in Colombia and Brazil as well, I realized that this is a source of income that allows these people to maintain their traditional way of life (to an extent). If these touristic opportunities did not exist, they may be forced between living a subsistence existence or abandoning their traditional ways. However, it is important that if people participate in such tours, they do proper research to ensure that the native peoples are truly benefiting rather than being exploited.
After my month in Peru, I then entered northern Chile and the coastal desert formed by the interaction between the Pacific Ocean and the Andean mountains. I had long wanted to visit the Atacama Desert and its high, dry environment which is used for many space observatories, to see one of the clearest night skies on Earth. My first weekend was spent in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, which is basically overrun with tourists. Unfortunately, a wind storm hit the town that week, closing almost all of the outdoor sites that are usually visited. I happened to meet a young couple from Brazil in the bike rental shop as it was being closed, so we decided to go share some drinks, and were then joined by a German guy from my hostel. This turned into quite the fun night. Even though the official “star tours” were cancelled, we were able to find a local taxi driver to drive us (and some beer and snacks) out into the desert so we could do our own star-gazing in the dark, windy, and cold, but clear night sky. While I wish I could say it was the most brilliant sky of stars, it was not quite as impressive as I had hoped, but still beautiful and we were treated to multiple shooting stars against the celestial backdrop.
After my weekend in San Pedro de Atacama, I made my way to the mining town of Taltal on the coast of northern Chile. This trip came about thanks to workaway and my original plans for Patagonia falling through. During my last week in Peru, I had to rearrange my travel and ended up finding a program in Taltal working mostly as an English instructor. It was an incredibly serendipitous experience. Taltal is a mining town on the southern edge of the Atacama Desert. I learned from the locals attending the English sessions that the area is considered “remote” by the government, in that the public workers, such as teachers, are paid more than elsewhere, due to the higher cost of living (as almost all food needs to be shipped in.). Those who work in the mining industry tend to make decent money, but others can struggle.
I was met at the station by Tello (the founder of EFTG) and two other volunteers, one from Lebanon and one from France. After dropping off my stuff at the hostel, we went to the library for an adult evening English class. We had about 9 adults there who worked in a variety of industries. It was my first introduction to this friendly small community that I was welcomed into for two weeks.
The organization offers English lessons to a swath of the community, from housewives to children to working adults. Many of them may not have opportunities to learn, or practice, their English skills. In addition to that, the organization does other social services. One other activity that we did while I was there was go with a group of doctors and nurses to the small coastal town of Paposo. The town only has a small clinic with a nurse available, so many residents do not get regular medical care. This event was a chance for the residents to come and get a quick check-up, while some of the doctors did house calls at the same time. If a woman brought her children with her, we would entertain the children with activities and coloring books. The town was also home to a school that EFTG usually visits once a week to offer additional English language support and engagement with the children. Not long after I left, the group also participated in a beach clean-up.
It was also a stroke of luck that I happened to be in Taltal during Chilean Independence Day celebrations, allowing for even more of a cultural experience. The other volunteers and I were invited to a party at someones house, and after the parade and before the party, we were given a quick lesson in cueca, the traditional Chilean dance. This was just one of the many instances of hospitality that I experienced in this wonderful little community that I had never before heard of and will now always have a special place in my heart.
EFTG was a perfect example of trying to improve the world by simply trying to improve your local community. There were no grandiose plans, simply a goal of helping out those nearby with a focus on English along with a willingness to help in other ways as needed. It is a living testament to the philosophy of “love thy neighbor.”
Perhaps that simple concept is the most important aspect that anyone can take from this. As much as we would all love to change the world in some heroic manner, perhaps we should first focus on those nearby that need our assistance in some small way or another. Helping an elderly neighbor with everyday tasks that have become difficult; babysitting or cooking dinner to help parents of a child in the hospital, working with a local homeless shelter, anything and everything can be a wonderful way to make a change for the better. Sometimes the best way to improve the world is to improve our own little corner of it.
Here are some links to some of the organizations I learned about or worked with while in Peru and Chile.