Friday, July 23, 2010

Ayacucho in Miniature

Huanta, PERU

Huanta is a town just over an hour from Ayacucho. I went there last week having recently read about it and the devastating effects that the Sendero Luminoso (the "Shining Path" - a communist terrorist organisation that was founded in Ayacucho. Between 1980 and 2000, 69,280 people died or disappeared as a result of the armed conflict between the Shining Path and the government) had on the town. Apart from the effects of the Shining Path, I found many things in Huanta that are similar to things in Ayacucho:

A nice central plaza;
A mirador overlooking the town;Breastfeeding is so openly prevalent there is even a statue;
Several churches, big and small;
Adobe houses (I find the process by which a Hannah Montana poster ends up in the window of a house in a mountain town in Peru mindboggling);
Street art - the phrase translates as "The majority of people waste a lot of time talking about the problems that confront them" - I didn't realise that smurfs were such great sages!;
Educational and instructive wall paintings;
Moto taxis - these three-wheelers are everywhere and for €0.30 will take you anywhere in the city. Many are pimped, though manily with religious quotes and pictures. Most Peruvians I know are shocked when I tell them that I walk the 25 minutes walk (at my fast pace) between my house and my work - the concept of enjoying walking doesn't seem to have caught on here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Serious Clowning

Ayacucho, PERU

Last Monday, on my day off from Los Cachorros, I spent the day volunteering with another organisation. The day involved dressing up as a clown and driving in a van into the mountains surrounding Ayacucho.

After driving through amazingly scenic mountain valleys, we visited three villages. My job was:

  1. Attract all the children to the center of the village (this was easily done as not much seems to happen in these remote villages, so the sight and sound of a van full of clowns certainly got their attention);
  2. Join in the games that the "head clown" played with the kids, where the prizes were toothbrushes;
  3. Once we had all the kids happy and lined up, I put on surgical gloves and a facemask over my painted face and acted as a dental assistant as we cleaned the kids' teeth and gave advice on dental hygiene - and boy did they need it judging by the terrible state of their teeth.

Being a dental assistant while dressed as a clown in remote Peruvian villages is certainly an image I'll keep with me for quite a long time.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Upwardly Mobile

Ayacucho, PERU

Last week while I was bringing the kids in my PE class to the nearby public frontón (a cross between squash and handball) courts, we came across a young boy asleep on the side of the road. The boys told me his name is Robert and that he used to live in the Los Cachorros' shelter. Although he ran away from the shelter just before I came, I had heard of him because soon after I arrived the kids told the staff that they had heard rumours that Robert had died on the streets. But then the staff found out that he had gone back to the jungle (about seven hours south of Ayacucho) where his family lives.

When we got back I told the staff that we had met Robert. The next day when I turned up for my 2pm - 10pm shift, I found him back living in the shelter - it was great to see that the hungry- and dirty-looking boy who I saw sleeping on the streets the day before now had clean clothes, food and a bed. The staff think that he will leave again after awhile, so I am happy just to teach him a few things (I introduced him to Tetris in my computer class) while he's here. And I was glad to hear that he remembered some of the English words that a previous volunteer had taught him - so I see now that even with the kids who leave some of what we're doing sticks.

Speaking of people on the up, I went paragliding in the mountains surrounding Ayacucho. After our first attempt to take off resulted in a crash landing (we just avoided landing on a large cactus!), I then had a great, relaxing flight - a nice way to spend a morning.
Then to round off a good week, all the staff and boys in the permenant shelter went on a day out to the countryside where we played games and some football before swimming in a pool heated by natural springs - it was a fun day out.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Señor Gringo

Ayacucho, PERU

As I left my house the other day, a woman dressed in the traditional (and in Ayacucho still typical) clothing of woolen tights, layered skirt, cardigan, hat and with long hair in two plaits came rushing up to me and said "Señor Gringo, ¿quieres comprar mi cuy?". As I said "no, gracias" I thought that that woman and her question, which can be translated as "Mr. Foreigner, do you want to buy my guinea pig?", sums up a lot about life in Ayacucho.

Firstly, there is a huge amount of casual street trading here - the streets are full with people just standing in a spot holding a few random things for sale, like socks, toothpaste or a few pillows. While others have a wheelbarrow or some other type of stand where they display their goods,which can include things like "Bin Laden" insecticide (I'm not sure what the existence of this product says about Peru's attitude towards the US or Al Qaeda).For the record, while the other cities that I've visited in Peru (Lima, Ica, Arequipa) all have large, modern shopping centres that wouldn't look out of place in Dublin, the best Ayacucho (which has a similar population to Cork) has is a poorly laid out shop smaller than Bishopstown's Centra.

The second thing that the woman's question brought to mind was all the different names that I am called here:
  • Shop assistants or the women working in the markets call me either joven (young man) or papá (dad). Bizarrely, it is usually people around my age or younger who call me joven and old women who call me papá.
  • The boys in the shelter call me profesor (or more usually profe), although since I shaved my head they've started calling me pelado (baldy) and when the Dutch footballers Robben and Sneijder appear on TV they say "look, profe Kieran is on TV!" (speaking of the World Cup, as Los Cachorros is a Dutch charity I decided to support Holland, which has turned out very well!).
  • But the name/title/insult by which I am referred to most often is "gringo". When I started my trip (on the so-called "Gringo Trail") in Mexico I was told that gringo is an insult which technically only refers to people from the US. But here in Ayacucho I think it just means foreigner. While I have heard people here call me gringo with a tone indicating their dislike of foreigners, most people here simply say the word as a statement. For instance, as I walk through the markets (Ayacucho may not have modern supermarkets, but it does have loads of fruit, vegetable, fish and clothes markets) many people running the stalls say "gringo" as I walk past - half to themselves and half as a greeting or just as an acknowledgement of my presence. And in my neighbourhood many people reply to my "hola" simply with "gringo".

Maybe its just me that finds this quite odd, given that in Ireland we wouldn't address someone as "foreigner". Then again, I sort of like the sound of Señor Gringo, and besides "what's in a name?".