High Altitude Attitude
So, I was back again in the Andean city of Huancayo, living with Eli and Neto’s family and volunteering with their charity, Carisma Peru, which had linked me to the same preschool as before my sudden trip back to the UK. But this time, I had Sam in tow.
Our morning routine was similar to my previous visit. The weekdays began with us squeezing into a combi (the old, dented minibuses of the city), which wove through the bustle of the city centre, jostling with other vehicles as an assistant leaned out of the sliding door yelling out our destinations, then out into the rural area of Huari, with its tumbledown, shabby buildings, potholed dirt road, and the preschool.
Straight away, Sam was well received by the children, so much so that during outdoor play time on the first day, he was mobbed by well over fifteen kids all asking to be picked up, who responded to his desperate ‘no, no, no’ by chanting ‘SI, SI, SI’, yes yes yes, whilst pulling at his t-shirt, so that afterwards it resembled more of a dress. Most unfortunately, I was unable to come to his aid as I was laughing so hard that I had to use a wall for support, and both teachers had come to the doors of their classrooms to watch, grinning.
We were helping out with the class I was already familiar with, made up of 2-4 year olds, and their teacher, affectionately referred to as missita. The daily timetable began with puzzle time, followed by ‘work’. Over the two weeks, ‘work’ ranged from sticking fluffy blobs of coloured wool onto a drawing of a sheep, to creating a picture of a house by gluing painted lollipop sticks onto paper, to making jewellery by threading beads made of cut up pieces of red and white drinking straws. Sometimes, to relieve the strain of all the fun, this was followed by a few dances to nursery rhymes played over a mini speaker, or plasticine was handed out. When Sam rolled a piece of plasticine into a ball for one of the girls, she took it back to her table to show her friends and we heard a collective gasp at the originality and beauty of the piece.
Then came the hand washing ritual. The kids all lined up by the door and we would roll up their sleeves, squirt some soap into both hands, then, in turn, hoist them up to reach the taps of the outdoor trough sink. With clean hands, they each took their small rucksack and unpacked their lunchera, proudly showing off what they had to eat and negotiating exchanges. It didn’t matter that food time was at 10.30, we found we were also already hungry, and as the days went by our own luncheras got larger. On a couple of occasions, the tracks issuing from the mini speaker ran on from gentle nursery rhymes to western club music, and the kids danced as they ate, with a kind of raise-the-roof, hand-pumping action, hopefully unaware of the occasional English expletive.
Post-lunchera activities were usually a mixture of outdoor and indoor play time. Outside, we played chase, helped children on and off the seesaws or to climb the slide the wrong way, because of course it is much more fun in that direction, endlessly picked up, hugged and tickled them, and spun up to twenty-five kids at a time on the climbing frame roundabout, occasionally getting a ride ourselves when the urge to be the pushers came upon a few of them. Indoors, we built obstacles courses and dens with large, soft, foamy shapes.
By home time, and our climb up the steps of the nearby pre-Incan ruins to reach the road to wait for our combi, we were always exhausted. Our afternoons were much more chilled. Sam took Spanish lessons with Eli, whilst I wrote, read or ran short errands.
Our second week was off to a full-on start; missita had something urgent to attend to and so Sam and I were left in charge for the whole session. The three hours went by without incident, though we constantly had to be at least one step ahead to ensure they were always entertained and distracted. A cold going around reduced numbers that week, so that on one day there were only four in the class and Sam himself had to miss a session having caught it as well, but by the time it came to our last day, numbers were almost back to normal. As a leaving present, we picked out a number of photographs from those we had taken over the couple of weeks and had them printed, to add to the decorations on the walls of the classroom. The children absolutely loved them, mobbing missita to get a better look as she held them up, and proudly pointing themselves out. Two picture books my mum specially bought for me to give to the children also went down a treat. Several kids crowded around each book, and one of the youngest girls was so keen to look through the book that she sat in the middle of a table to get a better look as classmates leafed through. Saying goodbye was slightly heart wrenching, especially when they all lined up at the end of the session to give us each a hug.
A South American Constant
Our one weekend in Huancayo, between our two weeks of volunteering, began very lazily, with a day essentially spent sleeping in and pottering around the house after a tiring week and a late Friday night out on the town. By Sunday our energy levels were restocked, and around midday we headed to the main plaza with the intention of checking out the Sunday Market. Upon arrival, we found one of the roads blocked off and crowds gathered on either side. Time and time again on this trip, across multiple countries and in the most obscure of places, I have found that when in doubt in South America, suspect a parade. This situation proved no different. A massive celebration for what turned out to be the 150th anniversary of the city of Huancayo was in full swing. A National Police band accompanied the proceedings and an announcer, his voice full of theatrical flourishes and rolling rrrs, introduced each section. We joined the crowds as passing groups dressed in multi-coloured, sequined, costumes, adorned with dragons, flames, or the sun, demonstrated native dances. Each group was led by several men wearing boots covered in bells, leaping and stamping around energetically, followed by girls in heels, sparkling bowler hats and tutu-like skirts, gracefully twisting and spinning.
After the dancers came the city’s official bodies, all goose stepping with vigour: the National Police dressed in dark green, the Transport Police with fluorescent gloves and bibs, riot police wearing helmets and carrying guns and grenade launchers, detectives from the Criminal Investigation Unit dressed in suits with their badges pinned to their fronts, the Municipal Police all in black, and what we think was some kind of army unit wearing maroon berets and led by a flagbearer carrying a sword. Next, police motorbikes, flashing their red and blue lights, glided past in formation, followed by police double-cabins, and a single crowd-control police dog who walked with its handler, unbothered by all the fuss, along the centre road marking. The focus of the parade was a gazebo for the city officials, who stood and saluted each time the national flag passed. Every now and then, a confetti machine spurted a white flurry across the parade, and at one point several white and green balloons were released into the sky.
Eventually, the city ran out of agencies and the parade came to an end. Pleased with the unexpected gift that Huancayo had offered us, we made our way to the Sunday market. The white awnings of the stalls lined one street, stretching into infinity on both sides. We wandered along and found the market mostly made up of clothes stalls, though with a large fruit section at one end. When we felt we had seen enough, we headed to the central market, on either side of the main street of the city, which the train tracks run through. This was more haphazard: piles of fruit were laid out on blankets, churros (a doughnut-like, pipe-shaped snack) were fried at portable stands, orange juice was freshly squashed at pull along carts, and salted, hard boiled quails eggs cost 20p for a little bag of four. Near the set-menu stalls, where a two course meal cost £1, we saw a cow’s head being unloaded from the back of a car, horns, eyes, nostrils intact but completely skinned. We wandered through a hardware section, an electronics sections, more clothes and accessories, and dotted amongst these areas we passed obscure stalls; near a food section I noticed a lady who sat behind two blankets upon which were heaped mounds of buttons. This was clearly the market to go to for… well, anything you could possibly think of, and much more besides.
Our two weeks here are up. Sam now has covered the basics in his Spanish lessons and I have noticed how much he is able to tune into conversations already. We are ready to get on the road properly now and raring to go.
The Gringo Effect
Since I have been having daily Spanish lessons with Eli, I am increasingly able to understand fragments of the conversations I hear, mainly Helen’s input, as the local pace is far too fast for me at the moment. My lessons haven’t been without some amusing, if not slightly awkward, miscommunications. From innocent mistakes, such as saying, “My potato is a teacher” rather than my father — papa instead of papá — to more embarrassing claims; according to me, Huancayo is famous for vagina, rather than its trout — chucha instead of trucha — and, thinking Eli was asking my age rather than the number of siblings I have, apparently I am endowed with 23 anuses, as I confused anos with años (pronounced anyos, meaning years).
Huancayo is not much of a tourist city and so does not have many visiting gringos (non-native Spanish speaker), especially not tall, pale, sandy haired gringos with brown-green eyes, using public transport. The effect of my peculiar look was exacerbated by the preschool being on the very edge of the city (why would a gringo go there?), making particularly the return bus journeys an interesting although slightly awkward affair. We headed home around the time that some of the local children were travelling into the city to go to school, and it turns out that I am such an object of interest that they could happily stare at me for the whole journey. And I mean properly stare, only looking away to whisper about me to each other. It was common for at least six pairs of eyes to be fixed my way, as children’s faces peeked out from behind their parent’s bodies, often taking their chance to grab a recently vacated seat to get the optimal viewpoint. One woman told Helen, in Spanish, that her daughter thought I had beautiful eyes (thank you, random child!). I just take solace in knowing we are so far off the beaten road that I have become an oddity.
For more information about volunteering with Carisma Peru, visit: www.carismaperu.org/