The Peru I Know Part 2: Crises Precipitate Neglect

Though connecting to places all over the Americas (as far as the Alaskan highway to Argentina), the officially recognized portion of this road system that is called the Panamerican Highway stretches from just North of Monterrey, Mexico, all the way to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Since it is easy to transfer by car (or bike  for that matter) onto this route from various crossing points in the U.S., I think it is safe to say that just down the road, on the coast of Peru, exists a city called Pisco.  I certainly did not feel too far from home here.

In 2007, Pisco was hit by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that lasted for over 3 minutes.  80% of the city was leveled, and this once beautiful coastal town was destroyed.  The result has been a humanitarian crisis, chock full of all of our favorite symptoms of third world disasters.  Corrupt police and politicians, lack of adequate disaster response, thousands of displaced, years of waiting for nothing, a lack of significant media attention and a biased focus on bringing revenue back to those who already had it, leaving those who did not with less.  Originally arriving here to meet a friend for a few days before I headed off to Lima, the next chapter in the saga, I was struck with the longing to make somewhere my home for a while, and fell in love with this place and the organization I worked with, Pisco Sin Fronteras.

We had finally made our final descent to Nazca and had a nice day of decompression from months spent at sometimes crippling altitudes.  Excited that we never had to face the toil of getting up ¨just one last hill¨only to be disappointed with yet another peak to reach, we were faced with a new emotion that the windy Andean roads did not offer: boredom.

The PanAm shoots you straight out of the mountains, literally.  As if our twirling decent from the Andes had been a decommissioned satellite using the gravity of the moon to gain enough inertia to send it off into the next galaxy, we found ourselves on a straight line through nothing.  Sand as far as you could see in either direction, and the only thing to remind us we were still on planet Earth was the semis that now brushed passed us more violently and frequently than in the remote mountains.  Arriving at the coast was like discovering water on Mars.

Anyway, cut the drama, its not much more interesting than the road.

If you can neglect to acknowledge the damage done to Pisco in 2007 upon first entry to the city, well, you’re blind.  Remnants of the quake that killed over 500 people and displaced thousands sit as constant reminders.  Cracks vein their way through portions of road and sidewalks.  Empty lots sit piled with adobe rubble.  The church in the center of town remains a work in progress after it collapsed during a funeral service, trapping and killing most of the mourners.  The main market, normally a pinacle sign of community and commerce in Peruvian towns looks as if it fell down and was picked right back up and put on stilts like a busted camper shell.  If you walk down to the beach, a once pristine waterfront known for great fishing and surfing, you will have to walk through huge mounds of debris just to see the water.  Not knowing what to do, and with very little help in the aftermath, many residents carried their destroyed houses to the coastline where they sit as unofficial monuments.  Essentially, Pisco looks like a post-apocalyptic beach town.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of post disaster Pisco is the psychological damage sustained.  Minor tremors and aftershocks are enough to send people into the streets overnight, afraid to return to their homes in fear of “the big one”.  Much of the coast has been abandoned out of fear of tsunamis.  In the town of Tupac Amaru (the place I passed most of my time), just outside of Pisco and further from the ocean, new neighborhoods of plastic sheeting and scrap wood have sprung up.  Higher altitude and less material to fall on you could be the theme of a real-estate reality show here.  Many families are just beginning to construct “real” houses, a long process with little money.

In some, but not all aspects of Pisco’s post seismic life there exists a sense of hopelessness.  Perhaps the combination of the loss, and the neglect by outside instiutions has left some with a lesser sense of worth.  Embarrassingly enough, the damage done to nearby Paracas, a small ritzy beach town that centers on tourism was repaired immediately.  It still houses some of the more popular sites in the region, such as the Islas Ballestas, and even has a Hilton and a Double Tree.  Back in Pisco, the mayor ordered walls  (unofficially called walls of shame) to be built around the worst of the damage so as not to clean-up and rebuild, nor have an eyesore in his city (the same mayor is also being accused of embezzling tens of millions of dollars in public funds as well).  In Plaza de Armas, the center of the city, you can look one direction and almost see a normal Pisco.  Banks, restaurants and hotels still serve what small amount of tourism comes through.  Though if you turn around you might see a destroyed house, a begging child or a road never repaved.

Back to real time.

My French mates and I arrived because we had heard of a relief organization in Pisco.  I normally think volunteering with some organizations is tacky, not because I do not wish to help, but because sometimes the act itself serves the volunteer more than it serves the people.  I was definately wrong in this instance.  Upon my first visit to the headquarters of Pisco Sin Fronteras, I was strangely enamored by its basic accommodations.  Built out of a wrecked hostel, the center courtyard serves a space for meals, afterwork beers and tool storage.  The meals are cooked in a small kitchen by whatever volunteers decide to cook for the day.  The rooms are basic dorms with dirty cement floors and straw mattress bunks.  For the 65 to 90 volunteers here at any given time, four or five bathrooms are shared, and cleaning jobs are distributed daily.  Projects are pitched to coordinators and allotted money and man-power.  They range form all out construction sites to community development and education, and to office jobs and fundraising.  Sometimes one can simply just play with the local kids.

PSF was formed by a group from Burning Man (Burners Without Borders) that came to help with basic disaster relief in the wake of the earthquake.  It has since blossomed into an organization in which volunteers (overwhelmingly English, Colombian, Australian, Peruvian, and Argentinian) have taken time out of their travels, work, education or what-have you to work in Pisco.  Unlike other more bureaucratic NGO’s, it has garnered much respect in the community and its location, general life-style and attitude does not give off any sort of elitist vibe that alienates the community around it.  Oftentimes, community members assist and help plan projects.

Lacking adequate time to work before hopping a flight to China, my friends Nico and Thomas had to depart for Lima, but I myself, unsure of how to spend my two weeks (which turned into quite a bit longer) stayed behind.  I settled in and quickly began working on a eco-park project in the neighborhood of Tupac Amaru Inca.  Over the course of the week, my  friend and I became the managers of this project, seeing it all the way through to completion.

Now, I have to sidetrack for a second to give special recognition to the neighborhood of Tupac Amaru Inca and all the people living there.  Being an awkward process to assimilate into foreign place, the people here treated me like family, and have labeled my such on several occasions.  This neighborhood is testament to the generosity of people everywhere, and despite the lack of aid in this region, it a community putting in much work to turn itself around.

Despite the commradery developed here, and the mutual respect earned, there is a sad reality to the kind of work a groupe like PSF does.  My experience in Venezuela was different in this aspect.  There, there is an education process around creatig drive to turn around your community, and resources can be procured to do so.  In Pisco, and Tupac Amaru, there is an entire people ignored by their governemnt, and the fact that a group of foreigners is even needed to help provide basic necessities is a shame to some degree.  The government of Peru has made grave errors in choosing to deal with the situation in a different way.

Peruvian Street Sweepers

If the Pope, bearing the weight of much responsibility and perhaps guilt-laden from his failure to adequately address pedophilia in his clergy, decides to visit the most dangerous slum in, say Brazil, what do you think is going to happen?  The area, not capable of pacifying itself from its own internal socioeconomic problems will most likely not lay down arms, cease illicit markets, banish condoms and seek atonement from the church.  The government and police will sweep the streets, remove any and all offenders, crowd its prisons for a weekend and blood will most likely be shed.

No offense if you´re Catholic, it happens with politicians too.

Pisco is no exception when the newly elected President comes to visit.  Ollanta Humala, the first socially conscious candiate to win office in Peru in decades came for a visit to see the hardship and neglect Pisco has experienced by the hands of the previous regime, stated upon his arrival that Peru could not accomplish anything if they could not fix Pisco.  The events leading up to this statement, however showed quite the contrary to his often socially conscious tone.

As a freelance writer who has found himself in the middle of some pretty hairy situations in Latin America, I was displeased by the fact that PSF would not let us exit our headquarters (with the threat of expulsion from the organization for doing so) for the two nights prior to Ollanta’s arrival on the anniversary of the earthquake.  The reasoning, a tug-of-war between local government and Police was taking place throughout much of the city.  The city had ordered street vendors, many of whom turned to this line of work out of desperation after the earthquake shut down their businesses, and homeless people go elsewhere by their own will or otherwise.  The market, one that would be shut down and fined many times more than its annual revenue in a country capable maintaining universal health-standards, was also forced to close.  The streets were being swept to create the illusion that the city was more or less handling itself in accordance with its obligations.

The anger that ensued throughout the general public after years of neglect and this final swift kick from the boot spiraled into demonstrations and scattered rioting.  From our compound, we could not see much but it seemed as if the moto-taxis had proliferated in our area, taking people to and from the center of town.  Motorcycle police patrolled more frequently, and we were told that downtown Pisco was a warzone at the moment.  Speaking to our neighbor, Fabiola, I was put on to rumors that three people had been shot and killed, but it was unconfirmed if all of these were by the hands of the police (though I was told some were).  And that is the reality of reporting here, many rumors are passed around with no official accounts readily available.

By Monday, when Ollanta came in his convoy, the city was quiet.  We went to work as usual, but noticed more security around the main avenues in which he would travel.  The market remained closed and despite the eofforts of the Police to paint a prettier picture of Pisco, I think Ollanta got the point.  Pisco needs the help of a central government that is willing to decentralize itself more than previous regimes, and if you cannot help one of the most depressed regions of South America, what could be accomplished anywhere?

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