A Twist in the Tale

Morning Mayhem

My mornings began by catching a ‘combi’, one of the hundreds of rattly, old minibuses which zoom around the city of Huancayo and its suburbs, ferrying the inhabitants around on their daily business. My morning project was in the rural area of Huari, which took about half an hour to reach, and the journey there and back became a favourite part of my day. I would flag down any combi going in the right direction from the corner outside Eli and Neto’s house. We then bumped our way over the train tracks which run through Huancayo, and through the bustling, ramshackle city centre, with its caterwaul of traffic, market stalls and street sellers, and buildings supported by crude wooden scaffolding, weaving through the colourful mix of westernised fashion and indigenous outfits; bowler hats, narrow-brimmed sombreros, long black plaited hair, and large skirts. Slowly the clash and colour of the city would begin to calm down as we moved through the suburbs and came to a poorer area, with sandy, brick buildings in various states of decay or repair, then I would disembark in a small, paved square which was Huari’s central plaza and make my way through some pre-Inca ruins to the preschool.

The preschool is a government project aimed at poorer families, providing a safe place for young children to go so that they aren’t left alone in the house if both parents work, as well as being a stimulating environment for development. There are two classes, the younger class I helped out with, made up of fifteen 2-4 year olds and taught by ‘missita’ (an affection form of ‘miss’ which most female teachers are known by, whatever age the children they work with are), and an older class of 4-6 year olds.

The daily routine of the younger class roughly ran as:

puzzle play time

‘work’ time, such as talking about their families and then colouring in a picture or painting pieces of pasta, and invariably their own clothes, with bright colours →

indoor play time involving an obstacle course of soft foamy shapes →

a complicated hand washing session before ‘lunchera, or mini lunch →

outdoor play time

I quickly became known as missita myself, though more usually as ‘tia’ (aunt), and learnt the names, and varied personalities, of the tiny kids in my class. They were both amazing and fascinating, in equal measures, and I quickly became attached. I would exclaim in delight at puzzles they had completed and brought to show me, help roll up sleeves and squirt soap into their hands for the hand washing routine before lunchera, observe the delightful food negotiations: the yolk of a tiny hard-boiled egg for a quarter of a cracker, or a clammy handful of boiled rice for a grape, or roll lumps of plasticine into long ‘tails’ as they called them, to make bracelets so that they could be like me, with ropey bracelets on my wrist from each country I have visited so far. The most fun came during outdoor play time, when they all clambered onto a sphere-shaped climbing frame roundabout. They would climb high up the curving edges or dangle off, as I spun the frame as fast as I dared with the little ones sat inside, high fiving those who had climbed the edges as they passed me. The older ones found it hilarious to try and grab me and exclaim to everyone else that I was caught, giggling uncontrollably when I managed, with great difficulty obviously, to get away. My record was spinning twenty-five children at one time, as they hung and chattered like monkeys, or yelled for more speed.

As the week progressed, I began to feel more and more accepted. The reserved and quite shy mothers, who dropped off and picked up their children, began to smile at me. One outdoor play time, roughly fifteen of the children formed a queue simply to each have a turn at me picking them up, so I hoisted child after child onto my hip for thirty seconds, had a quick chat, before moving on to the next in line. On day four, two of the little girls in my class ran to meet me and hold my hands as I walked the path to the school, and when I entered the play area, seven boys on the roundabout all leapt off and rushed at me, forming a clamouring mob at my waist. The same day, missita left me alone with eleven of her class for half an hour, as she carried out an activity with a couple of them outside, and I managed to keep them all entertained and quiet, the time passing, somehow, without incident

On Friday we went on a school trip. We met in Huari’s square in the morning, and the mothers and kids all climbed aboard a combi decorated with balloons and streamers. We rattled though the city and out the other side. I knew we would have several stop offs, but other than that had little idea about the plans for the day.

We drove into a complex. The main street was lined with rickety stalls and sellers wandered around showcasing all manner of snacks. There was restaurant after restaurant, and school buses by the dozens, with hundreds of uniformed school kids of all ages and many parents and grandparents as well, filling the road. A disorganised mass of people by the entrance gates, which would have alarmed any Brit with their ideals of orderly queuing, all pushed to get in. Missita handed out tickets and eventually our group managed to elbow our way through the gates.

It was a trout farm. Yes, a TROUT FARM. I felt like I had missed some crucial detail. We wandered around looking at large trout, shoals of tiny trout, channels of water rushing between the various pools, and at the end there was a small playground, but it was by no means the main attraction, and I never did figure out quite why hundreds of school kids were brought there, nor what all the fuss was about. I mean, a TROUT FARM.

I had to leave the school trip before the next stop off as everything was taking a long time, as it does with kids, and I had business I had to organise back in Huancayo (more about that in a minute).


The Afternoon Artist

My afternoon project was a half an hour walk away, along the train tracks which run through the city and which are only used for the monthly train and therefore function as a sort of additional pavement most of the time. I went with the two other girls currently volunteering and living with Eli and Neto: Marty, from the States, and Agathe, from France. We helped out at a centre for worker kids. The children, ranging roughly from 6-13 years old as far as I could tell, earn money for their families by selling things on the street. The centre, therefore, provides a place, both morning and afternoon, for them to do their homework, as well as a safe environment.

Due to extenuating circumstances (again, more about that later), I only managed to help out for two afternoons that week. Nevertheless, it was enough time to get to know a few kids and become known as the ‘artist’: on my first visit, their missita, or teacher, asked me to copy out a few drawings from a book of fairytales so that one kid could make his own book, and I was soon inundated with requests ranging from more fairytale figures or scenes, to animated characters, Spiderman, and a variety of animals, whilst a small crowd gathered around and exclaimed that my copying was beautiful and I was an artist, much as I only saw the flaws in what I considered rather poor imitations of original pictures.


Upcoming: Dramatic Plot Device

Midway through the week I began to investigate a problem with my passport: I would not have enough blank pages to enter and exit the number of countries left on my trip. This may seem like a stupid oversight on my part, but seeing as my passport had more than eight blank pages when I left and was only four years into its ten year lifespan, I hadn’t really considered the issue pressing.

Well, I was certainly wrong. Emails back and forth to the Passport Office in the UK, British Embassy in Lima, and Peruvian Immigration, as well as hours spent on the Foreign and Commonwealth website, revealed the problem was complex if I didn’t want to overstay in Peru and make sure I could definitely leave the country legitimately.

Having skyped my parents about the problem to ask about certain documents I needed, I woke up on the Friday morning to a message from dad saying that he had phoned the passport office, and the best solution to the problem was to return to the UK and get a passport done via an emergency procedure which means a brand new proper passport is made in four hours as you wait.

The idea seemed somewhat crazy and drastic. However, once it took hold of me and I adjusted my thinking (after all, I was prepared for eighteen months away), I could only think of the exciting possibilities, primarily: seeing my beloved grandma.

I skyped my parents that evening, and we talked over the various options, but really there was little choice, and the safest and only real solution to the problem was to return.

I went out with Marty, Agathe and the family for a goodbye meal, and the next night the three of us girls went for a night out in Huancayo, hitting a couple of cocktails bars before the nightclub Insomnio, where some famous Peruvian star ponced around in sunglasses (I mean sunglasses IN A NIGHTCLUB) and the girls all fawned over him.

After that, plans were put in motion pretty fast. I caught an overnight bus to Lima, and stayed in a hostel by the airport for two nights. I whiled away the days doing travelling admin stuff, such as catching up on my diary, writing up this blog, and working out that for this leg of the journey, I will have stayed in thirty-eight different places (excluding the jungle or boat in the Galapagos, for example, only permanent mapable places were included on the list). The most exciting event of those couple of days was making a fry up which included the tin of baked beans my family brought over for me especially. Baked beans may not seem very exciting to you, my friends, but after seven months they were utterly delicious.

I then had a long haul journey back to the UK, with two overnight flights and a stopover for ten hours in Houston.

And now I have arrived! So yes, I have flown all the way from South America to get my passport renewed, and will return to Peru in just shy of three weeks, on the same day as my boyfriend was originally going to fly out, for my remaining ten months.

One thought on “A Twist in the Tale

  1. Alison says:

    Dearest Helen,

    That is such a lovely touching post you have written, working with the children and all you did with them in Peru. And then this strange twist in the tale ending with that joyful photo of you and Sam. I hope all goes well now in Cambridge, with passport renewed etc. and also that there will be an opportunity to see you before you leave.

    Lots of love to you both

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