Azul Wasi: Breathtaking Beauty
Click Here to See the Peru Photo Album
It probably helps that the lobby at the hostel, at which I'm paying a cool $10/night (breakfast included), has unlimited Coca tea. Yes, coca. The plant that cocaine comes from. The plant itself is incredibly good for you, and has a ton of benefits, one of which is helping with altitude sickness. Contrary to a common misconception, chewing the leaf or drinking the tea doesn't effect the body at all like cocaine. The coca leaf has to go through a long process of changes to be turned into cocaine. So, with the leaf, it's nothing but good things. Too bad it's not allowed in America.
A day of relaxation and reading today, and getting my bearings around Cusco. I wandered past the town square. Looking forward to being here for the next month plus!
I ended up at a restaurant called "Aroma", which is right next to an exotic plants museum. The food was delicious, as was the coffee. A nice change of pace from the darn espressos of Europe and the instant varieties of Africa and Asia. I know it's really American of me, but I like drip coffee that has been percolating for about 9 hours in a gas station that tastes like the attendant emptied the tray of char from a toaster and mixed it with water, dagnabbit.
Anyway, the point is that the owner, Erick, was really personable and spoke a fair amount of English. He asked what I was doing in Cusco, I told him about the trip, and that I had no place to go for orphanage work here yet. He told me to stop by his other work tomorrow, a Spanish language school, named ECELA, and that he might have a lead for me. Awesome!
After lunch, I wandered around the city some more and got a picture of me next to an alpaca and a local lady. It's staged and fake, but it's their job, and I'll pay a buck for a picture next to one of the weirdest animals there is.
In Peru, if you eat out (which you should, because it's really good and super cheap) you'll come across something called "menu del dia", which I discovered for the first time today. For 5 soles, or $1.50, I got bread, soup, an entree, and a drink at a vegetarian restaurant. It's a fixed menu, and whatever they feel like serving that day is what it is. But, at other restaurants, you can pick from a fixed menu from a variety of different foods for 10 - 20 soles, which is also incredibly inexpensive. Look forward to trying more of these and filling my stomach for the price of a cuppa coffee.
Placement #9 - Azul Wasi
The day started out with me walking back to the English school, and meeting with Alcides. He's in his 50's, with an infectious smile and a quiet confidence. Also, he doesn't speak English. (Time to step up my Spanish game.). So, this made for an interesting and fun hour bus ride of broken communication. I (tried) explaining to him that it was neat he was a police officer, because I used to work in a jail. I probably communicated that I was a prisoner for the last 12 years and just got out.
Oropesa feels like a ghost town. When you get off the bus, you're in a town square with stray dogs and a couple people wandering through. An old church looms over your head, and cobblestone streets dot the way in and out. From here, it's a 20 minute walk to Azul Wasi, and holy lord the surroundings are beautiful. It's in a valley, rolling mountains lining both sides, terraced farms occupying much of the space.
We arrived at about 1, with the kids due back from school in about 30 minutes. Alcides showed me the place. An office, a library, a computer room, kitchen, dining room, several bathrooms with showers and toilets, and about 5 bedrooms, each with 3-4 beds. No hot water, but electricity, so that's a good thing. It's basic, but it's on a good plot of land. They also have a small garden with corn, apple trees, mint, etc. And 4 dogs, 3 cats, 12 chicken, 3 turkeys, and a parrot. Suddenly, I have the craving to watch Doctor Doolittle.
The first thing I noticed when the kids arrived is: they are undeniably happy, and it's not an act. They didn't know me from a hole in the wall, and each of them gave me a hug with an "hola amigo." All of them are vibrant, and so full of life. I really look forward to being here and learning from them and helping out as much as I can with whatever needs to be done. There are 14 boys, 3 girls, a worker named David, and another named Anastacia. All are hospitable and kind. This will be a great place to be.
It was fun working with the kids. Like Romania, even though there's currently a steep language barrier, a lot can be communicated through the shared sweat of the brow. Plus, I think respect is earned when they see people who are here to pitch in actually working hard.
After working for a few hours on this, some folks from Cusco came out. I still have no idea who they were, but the kids were all super excited to see them. It may have been something to do with the fact that they came bearing fried chicken and potatoes, which Alcides later told me is the food of choice of 99% of the kids at Azul Wasi, and they rarely get it.
After the 20 minute walk back to Oropesa, hour bus ride, and another 20 minute walk back to the middle of town, I arrived at my new hostel: Dragonfly. Aside from the fact that the wifi is infinitely faster than the last place, there's an interior courtyard exposed to the night sky. It's a cozy nook to watch the stars as I scribble down these words for you that I hope make sense. Also, the workers are all really nice. Looking forward to being here for the next week or so!
When the kids got home from school, we worked on homework together. They helped me with some Spanish, and I helped them with some English. Mostly, it was just saying "hi, how are you, what's your name, how old are you, nice to meet you, bye, etc..." The highlight came when Alfredo, one of the youngest at Azul Wasi, read a book written in both Spanish and English. He read the Spanish to me, excitedly, and together we read the English one word at a time. It's rewarding to watch learning become something tangible.
Aside from the work, another good day of getting to know the kids little by little and, while the language barrier is still great, smiles and hugs and handshakes are universal.
I should probably talk about lunch out here, lest I forget. It always starts with a hearty soup, followed by an even heartier main course (rice, potatoes, veggies, and fish, for example). Everyone gathers around one huge table on tiny plastic stools. The English alphabet lines the walls, with pictures of whatever word is the letter example painted. No one takes a bite until grace is said, and afterwards, everyone remains on the quiet side. But that doesn't mean they don't talk a lot and give one another the business. There's a good atmosphere here.
It poured today in the afternoon after lunch, and the two turkeys - who are both pretty large - decided that would be a good time to attack one of the roosters. Before they could be stopped, they'd gouged pieces of the chickens neck, face, and chest. Carmen Rosa, eight years old and one of the youngest members of Azul Wasi, sprinted out in the rain with no jacket, scooped up the chicken and cradled it, and ran it into shelter to help nurse its wounds the best way she could. David, the general handyman and caretaker here, helped her out. It was really endearing to see her dart out there, rain be damned, to pry the thing away from the two vultures.
There's a really odd phenomenon I've noticed on the buses in Cusco: two-stop salesmen. Let me explain. Someone gets on the bus, asks for everyone's attention, gives a speech about some product, like mints or shampoo, tries to sell them, and then gets off the bus. Sometimes you get lucky and have someone who performs a song for you before they go into their speech. Other times you get incredibly lucky, like I did tonight on the way back from Azul Wasi.
A well-groomed man in his early 30's got on the bus. He stood at the front and started to give a speech, the contents of which I didn't understand in full because of my gross inefficiency in Spanish. As he was talking, he pulled a three, maybe four inch nail out of his pocket and hit it on the hand railing to prove it was real. He then swallowed it. He took out two more and put them gradually into one nasal cavity, all the way to the end of it, and he kept talking. Shortly after, he pulled three nails out of his nose. For the grande finale, he put the nails back in his pocket, picked up a bag of cookies, and tried to sell them. Not one sale. I almost bought the whole bag just because I was in such awe of his showmanship. How was no one else on the bus as captivated?! He stood awkwardly at the front of the bus for a few more minutes, then literally skipped off it and across the street. Fascinating.
They included me on their upcoming tours in and around Cusco with a private guide, and I got to see many things today I ordinarily wouldn't have because of a) a lack of funds, or b) a lack of time. So that was an added bonus.
On top of that, I get to stay in their hotel for the next week in Cusco, rather than share a dorm at a hostel. I was fully prepared to sleep on a cot, on the floor, or on the front lawn. So you can imagine my surprise (and my folks') when we were upgraded in our room for free. To the presidential suite, which is basically a mini apartment. I have two queen beds in my own room, which I anticipate the best use for them being to make a monumental fort.
This is going to be a very nice respite.
Sacsay Ouman was the first stop today, and it was impressive. Perched above Cusco, it's a wide open space of green grass and ancient Incan structures. The grass is maintained by a herd of Alpaca that graze on it daily. The structures, which were 90% destroyed by the Spanish, are still impressive largely due to the awe-inspiring architectural engineering.
The Incans were masters of stone work. There's no mortar holding things together, just several thousand pound stones perfectly polished and placed atop one another. It's so perfect that a person wouldn't even be able to fit a razor blade into the spacing between the rocks. Compound that with the fact that these stones are massive, some weighing in at hundreds of thousands of pounds, and that some have 12 angles. That means other rocks needed to fit around those twelve angles perfectly. Insane.
After Sacsay Ouman, we visited two more ruin sights, both also impressive, and had a really good (private) picnic lunch. Good food, good sights, and even better company in my folks makes for an outstanding day.
To be honest, it wasn't bad, but I wasn't the biggest fan. Chicken was delicious, as was everything else. But qui I probably won't choose to have again. Inca Cola, on the other hand, that's good stuff. If you've ever wondered what Bazooka Gum would taste like if it were made into a beverage, fly down to Peru and have yourself a bottle.
Joanne, my stepmom, grew up effectively an orphan. Her mom died when she was young, and she was one of eight siblings. Her dad couldn't afford to keep them, so they all lived with separate relatives. Her dad passed a few years later. She's one of the most even-keeled souls I've ever met, and I knew that even if the experience at Azul Wasi was powerful for her, she'd keep her cards close to the chest.
I may be biased, but that doesn't change the fact my dad is one of the best parents and role models a kid could ask for. No doubt in my mind that he'd get along great at Azul Wasi with all the kids. I anticipated his emotional reaction might be a bit stronger than Joanne's because he shows his a bit more, and this is something much more foreign to him.
It was a privilege to watch them interact with the kids, and to see how much the kids loved them. To show them a microcosm of the experiences at Nkosi's, Ebenezer, Namastae, UPSV, and now Azul Wasi, was beyond compare. The hugs, communication beyond language, and the smiles on their faces as the kids read to them, was enough to even bring a smile to the cold, iceberg of a face that is the Grinch...or simply Dick Cheney.
I'd been looking forward to this day since my folks said they'd come to Peru. It met the hopes I had for it. They were both a bit emotional at the end of the day on the long bus ride back, and the truth is if they weren't, that would've thrown me off. It's hard to describe the experience of being at a place where incredible people, especially kids, have nearly nothing. (In all honesty, the kids at Azul Wasi have a fair amount by orphanage standards, though still very simple.) It's something that needs to be seen, to be heard, to be felt - in person - to be fully understood. It gives inward perspective and reflection in a way few, if any, other things can. And I'm grateful they got the chance to experience that.
For the better part of the day, I returned to my old friend, shoveling sand, while Joanne helped Anastacia in the kitchen preparing food. Anastacia is the main worker at Azul Wasi. She lives here with her five children: Wilmer, Anna-Rita, Danny, Carmen-Rosa, and her one-year old daughter whose name I can't spell correctly and don't want to butcher. She's about the size my Grandma Zetta was - five feet in heels - but is incredibly strong. She carries her baby around on her back all day while she works tirelessly in the kitchen making food and cleaning. She's a bit shy at first, but once she starts opening up and becomes comfortable, she's hilarious. It was fun to watch her and Joanne work together peeling potatoes and trying desperately to bridge the communication gap in the process.
So, the other day I taught Anastacia's 10 year-old son, Danny, the basics of boxing (not that I'm, by any means, an expert). I thought this would be good exercise for him. Turns out my intention kiiiiind of backfired. A kid at school was picking on his younger sister, and Danny bopped him upside the head and got in trouble. Oops.
There's a duck at Azul Wasi named Pepa. This is seemingly unremarkable, I know. But the cool thing is that he knows his name. Kind of cool. And also, when Alcides throws corn out for him, the turkeys, and the chicken to eat, he sprints from all the way across the property flapping his wings so he doesn't fall down, screaming the whole way, and seems to have a luck on his face saying, "OH PLEASE OH PLEASE OH PLEAAAAAAASE SAVE ME SOME!!". The Aflac duck doesn't hold a candle.
We wanted to race, but that went out the window when my kart required a push to get going by the track owner. And then it died three times on the first lap, and I had to hold a bolt on the engine block in place, which singed my hand quite nicely, just to keep the thing running. Of course, my dad's drove great. I think it goes without saying, though, that it was still an incredible experience and I wouldn't have wanted it to have happened any other way.
Today was also the last day for my folks at Azul Wasi. It was a joy to volunteer with them for the week, and to see how much they loved the kids and the kids loved them. Goodbyes were said, hugs were had, and we got a ride halfway back into town with Alcides. Then, we switched to the "rapid bus" to get into Cusco, which happened to be slower than the regular bus. That said, we had a return of the "spontaneous, impromptu bus performer salesman", and this one sang an epic song of lost love in Spanish before selling breath mints.
After work today, the three of us wanted to go to a nice dinner in town and happened upon a Peruvian steakhouse (which is unfortunately right next door to the town veterinarian :(. Holy moly it was delicious. For reference, we each got appetizers, entrees, drinks, and desert, the portions were large, and the total bill was $30/person. And that's expensive for Cusco.
Fully exhausted (jokes) after a day of souvenir shopping, we went to the Pisco Museum. It's not really a museum, that's just the name of the place that has basically every kind of Pisco known to man. Pisco is the national drink, more or less, and it's a liquor made from grapes. Like wine, but clear, and 80-100 proof. It's also delicious. It's also worth mentioning that our hotel came with free Piscos every night, and we adoringly referred to 6:45PM as "Pisco time."
If/when you come to Cusco, which should be a when, you need to have one. Or one hundred.
After, we went to the Pisac Ruins, which were phenomenal. I'll just put pictures here instead of blabbering on.
The day ended with us arriving at our hotel. Which actually ended up being a resort. Which also happened to be the nicest place I've ever stayed. Just as an example as to why: there's a towering fireplace in the center when you walk through the doors, and the rocks at the base are peppered with eucalyptus seeds to give the entire place a soothing aroma that's hard to describe. Hard, but not impossible, so I'll try: you know the family friend who was sort of like your grandparents, but wasn't really, and you'd go there for holiday parties and random summer days with your parents when you were little and there was always something baking in the oven and the house had the softest carpet and best natural lighting ever? Like that.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that it was hard to rationalize the concept of a food buffet, let alone being at one and participating in it, when the last 9 months have been spent with kids who have extremely limited nutritional resources or options. Even now, as I volunteer at Azul Wasi - which, compared to the food scarcity at many of the other orphanages, is pretty well off - I can't help but wonder what it would be like to introduce the kids to the concept of unlimited delicious food.
This is something that would ordinarily see me overcome with so much guilt that I'd leave the buffet entirely, unable to reconcile the visions of the kids at Ebenezer going to school on one meal a day while I sit with a never-ending supply of kiwi tarts and smoked salmon scrambled eggs. But the thing I've come to realize is: not a solitary child out of the hundreds of incredible ones I've been blessed to spend time with would begrudge me, or you, the opportunity to enjoy something luxurious like a buffet of food. It's the volition that one carries into it, the mindfulness, that determines whether it's right or wrong.
For what it's worth, one of the billion things I've learned from the kids on the journey is that everyone likes to indulge when possible, to be a little extravagant, and there's nothing wrong with that on it's own. But if it becomes a habit and the images of their faces fade, and action isn't taken to give back so they can have the freedom to enjoy an equal luxury, then there's a problem. So, indulge mindfully, with reverence and respect, and appreciate it while it lasts because it's temporary like everything else. As it should be.
After breakfast, another day of incredible sightseeing. The Ollayantatambo Ruins, Maras salt mines, Moray terraces...and for lunch? A buffet. Go figure.
It's an interesting process, boarding. There's not really any direction, and I'm sure anyone could just hop on without proof of a ticket. So there I was, waiting for my train when a really fancy one pulled up. I wanted to walk along the tracks to the front to take a picture of it, as it's nestled in a valley, buttressed by mountains - quite scenic.
As I walked parallel to the line of older white folks clamoring to get on, I was elbowed in the chest by a guy of about 70. "Hey, this isn't for you" he said as he held his elbow firmly in my sternum. (What gave him the hint that I wasn't first class eligible? The unkempt beard? The paint and mud splattered workpants?). I politely removed his hand and said "First of all, I'm just going to take a picture. Second, you don't need to talk to people like that." I just...don't understand why some people go out of their way to be turds to others.
When my train did finally arrive, a few people were furiously trying to get off, so I stepped aside. As I, and the few people behind me were loading on, the train blew its whistle and the people who disembarked sprinted back on, using me as a point of balance to push off. Strike two, rich folks. Strike. Two.
I was happy to hear that I had a window seat, though. But I was less happy to see it.
This was the equivalent of being the person who saved up for years to take a trip to Fenway, only to have his seat be the only one located right behind the proprietary beam in right field.
Machu Picchu ahoy!
I had to get up at 4:45 in order to make the bus to get in line at the top in time, but when you're on the way up on the hike, and the sun is just creeping over the edges of the monuments as clouds surround you in solitude, words and thoughts cease to exist. You just...are. I could go on and on about how beautiful it was, and how it looks like Michelangelo is still alive and doing incredible 3D renderings and placing them in the middle of a rainforest near the Andes, but instead I'll just post some pictures (which still won't do it justice).
It was a dream come true to be here. For the scenery, for the history, for the sheer gravitas of the experience...but also because I've carried around a picture of one of the greatest life teachers I've ever had in this very same spot. He died a little over a year ago of a sudden brain tumor. He was one of the most noble and wise human beings I've ever known. To have been able to be where he was, with visible reverence and adoration on his face, was the stuff of myth.
P.S. On the train ride back, I got to ride first class with my folks. There was a runway fashion show, conducted by the train stewards. Yes!
For these last couple weeks, I couldn't have imagined better travel companions and I'm so happy to have had the chance to share this journey with them.
Back to Cusco for the night to catch up on some journaling and work before heading back to Azul Wasi in the morning.
When I arrived, the kids had just finished up with school and lunch. I was only gone for a little over a week, so I didn't expect any fanfare upon my return. So I was surprised when Alfredo, Nilo, Carmen-Rosa, and Danny all stormed me with hugs and yells of "Amigo Alex!". Surprised and heart-warmed. They even helped me with my luggage, which I quickly realized was a simple coup to get me out of the tuk-tuk so they could climb into it and romp around like it was their own personal bounce-house.
Spending the first night out here was such a wonderful experience, and I'm looking forward to the next month of it. The only thing that'll be a challenge is eating enough to keep my weight. Dinner is really simple: bread and tea. It's delicious, and I'm grateful for it, but I'm an ectomorph and gotta get my calories in somehow. A worthy tradeoff to sit and stargaze with 14 incredible kids after watching the sun melt away over the rolling hills of a Peruvian valley.
One things my folks wanted to be sure I did when they left was to get a couple week's worth of food for Azul Wasi with the money they donated. I told Alcides, and he wanted me to go with him to the market to see just how much food the money would buy (a good sign of a good orphanage director: keeping finances transparent).
So we, together with Wilmer and Alcides' daughter, went into town to the biggest outdoor market I've ever seen. Imagine Pike's Place in Seattle. Now double that, put it outside, and double it again. That's about halfway as big as this place. Row after row, stall after stall, of fresh vegetables, aromatic flowers, severed pig's heads…and thousands of patrons navigating the vendors to buy all they needed.
So how much food did $100 get Azul Wasi? Roughly 30 pounds of grains, 30 pounds of vegetables, 20 pounds of fruit, 10 pounds of fish, 10 pounds of chicken, 10 pounds of beef, 5 pounds of cheese, and more that I'm forgetting right now. Pretty wild, I'd say. Pretty. Wild.
The good news is that after the brief period of showing off, I was brought back down to size when my next task was breaking rocks with a sledgehammer. So there's that.
In high school, a group of friends and I would spend long summer days making five minute movie masterpieces, which usually revolved around some form of butchered kung fu or cap guns. Filmmaking then just felt…magic. To be honest, much of the drudgery of film school kind of lifted away a lot of that, or maybe I'd just become more interested in other pursuits. Working on a video documentary for the adventure certainly has helped to make the process of filmmaking fun again, and returned some of the magic. Another thing that did, in a big way today, was helping Dante make a movie for a school project.
A couple neighbor kids, along with Danny, Alfredo, and Nilo, transformed into pocket-camera thespians for his school project (which I have no clue what it was about, and I don't think language was the culprit), with Dante behind the lens directing all the actions. It helped re-ignite the film spark that had been dormant in me for quite some time, and reminded me of the alchemy that can turn a regular old school day with friends into gold.
Fortifications in hand, I started on the bulk of my work today, which was plowing the rows of corn in the Azul Wasi gardens. I was surprised at the relative ease with which my lungs were handling the work at altitude, and that the whole process of plowing, weeding, watering, and reorganizing by hand went pretty smoothly. That is, until I realized that my t-shirt had stuck to my back for the many hours I was bent over using the ho, which resulted in a sunburn 4 inches high and the width of my entire back.
You win this round, sun. Again.
After plowing the corn fields some more, some of the kids and I worked on their English homework, and they taught me Spanish. I'd ask them to teach me Kechua, too, but something tells me they'd laugh at me even more. That said, helping them laugh more is one of the main goals, so it looks like tomorrow I'll be learning some Kechua.
Alfredo and I usually sit near each other, and we have a game we play at dinner (tea and bread) time, and it goes like this: you reach behind the other's back and poke them on the shoulder, and then act casual and blame it on someone or something else, like the kid across the table or one of the dogs or a fly. Complex, I know, but I didn't make the rules. It certainly brings a smile to his face, so the game shall continue.
I went into Cusco today for an overnight at the trusty old hostel, Dragonfly, and got some good writing and picture editing in. I also stumbled upon a new menu del dia place, which yielded pizza, salad, soup, and wine for about $4. The waiter happened to be an ex Navy Seal from Florida, who now lives in Peru with his wife after having lived in Colombia for about 10 years. After I finished he wanted to know if I could help him promote the restaurant a little bit, so we walked around the city. That's when he showed me the fresh scar on his neck.
Apparently, he stumbled into a part of Cusco where he wasn't supposed to be, got held up by a group of guys and stabbed near the jugular, and required 16 stitches. Sure, he could've been making it all up, but it's a good reminder to not get too lax when walking around in a city where not a local. He asked what I was doing in Cusco, so I told him about the trip. He told me he used to operate an orphanage of sorts about 2 hours away, but the bureaucracy of it all motivated him to close it. I was going to start recording him talking about what happened, but when I started to ask further he changed the subject and proceeded to try to sell me a suit he had stashed behind the counter at the restaurant. Interesting night.
I got back to Azul Wasi in the evening, just as dinner was being served. While it certainly isn't filling in the least, it's impossible to beat the company of the kids, not to mention the free Spanish lessons that ensue. When I get back home, tea time with everyone at Azul Wasi is definitely something I will miss.
The night ended with us gathering around a tiny computer monitor watching a poorly bootlegged copy of Lord of the Rings, dubbed in Spanish. Whoever they got to play Gandalf had to have been the guy from the "Most Interesting Man in the World" commercials. Stellar.
In the evening, I was invited to attend an open house get-together for Bautista, Hernan, and Ana Rita at the culinary school in Cusco, where they attend night classes every day after high school. I remember how wiped out I'd be after a full day of classes alone, so the fact that they go to more class afterwards is dedication and a half. It's inspiring to see them chasing dreams and putting in work that would, much like so many of the kids and caretakers met along the way, make Sisyphus look like a chump.
After hopping off the bus, Anastasia (with the little one bundled to her back, of course), Carmen Rosa, Jubal and I entered the open house. Turns out, the place is a mega tech school, not just a culinary one. They also offer cosmetology, computer, and daycare training, in addition to the culinary arts. While I didn't understand all that was said by the guide who was showing us and some other parents around, I did understand enough to know that the curriculum is very hands on and intensive, which is a really good thing to see. I also was polished enough in my Spanish to know when to eat food that was served to me.
Nighttime had fallen, and finding a bus at the bus stop proved to be a little tricky. While we were waiting, Jubal saw an elderly woman crossing the highway with a couple big bags of groceries. Before I could move a muscle, he sprinted into action without hesitation, and hoisted all of the bags onto his back to help the lady across the street. Random acts of kindness like this really speak volumes to the character of these kids. Despite the demons in their background, despite the struggles they overcame, despite the battles they are still waging daily, they still take time to help those in the same fight, so that it may be a little easier for another.
When we finally found a bus going our way, it was a tour bus, like a greyhound. I don't know if we crashed it, or if it was just decommissioned and now only used for shuttling around the city, but in any case, it was packed so we stood in the aisle. In the same vein of Vietnam, the ceiling was about 5'8", so ducking was necessary. Also, basically everyone on the bus was asleep, which definitely led me to believe we were crashing said tour bus.
I heard "Nelson Mandela" and "muerte" in the same sentence over the radio on the bus, and that's how I learned of his passing. I can't help but think of all the kids and women at Nkosi's, and how hard this must be on all of them. I hope there is a sense of peace throughout South Africa that comes with his passing, as folks remember what he stood for and still will as he lives on in the hearts and minds of everyone who heard his message.
As we walked back through Oropesa, Jubal and I separated from the rest of our companions a bit. It was a clear night, and the sky looked like the ocean at sunset: a million shining diamonds, shimmering on as they always do and always will. Our conversation meandered through talking about the cosmos, the beauty of life, and his childhood.
It's nights like this that will make it impossible for me to explain how hard it will be to leave here, how hard it has been to leave everywhere.
Also, remember how the other day I washed a pile of dishes? Well…today I had a really long session of dishwashing meditation.
There are few smiles I've seen in my life bigger than the ones Nilo, Alfredo, and Ivan had while they took a hot shower for the first time ever. Remember your first time on a slip-n-slide? That's what this was like. They danced around in their tightie-whities under the tap, singing at the top of their lungs. Alcides asked me to film and take pictures of it, so I went and got my camera. When I got back, they were all naked. I asked Alcides if he still wanted me to film. "Of course!" he exclaimed. I explained to him that in the US this would probably be frowned upon, and the police would probably show up in 17 seconds if they heard a guy with a big beard was filming naked kids showering outside. He laughed, completely understood, but wanted me to capture the sheer joy on all of their faces. So that's what I did.
Here's hoping I make it through customs without having my footage scanned through…
Also, Jubal wanted to hear my music so I rapped a couple songs for him. He really liked them! Looks like I've finally got my rap student for Azul Wasi!
12.9 - 12.10.13
Also, beyond happy to report that the hot water is now fully operational in the showers! It's conditional on the sun, and there's a leak in the hose on the roof that heats the water, but hey. It's something.
Alfredo, Nilo, Danny, and Carmen-Rosa were playing in the grass in the late afternoon and dusk. It's always amazing to me how any of us make it out of childhood alive. Watching some of the spills they take, and remembering times when I would be on the receiving end of my older brother's fist, or fall time and again when learning how to ride a bike, or just out of the blue slide down a hill, I can't help but think our bones and joints must've been made of rubber. I mean, as I'm typing this, my shoulder is hurting just from typing. Typing! I'm not even moving!
So there I was filming them romping around, when Alfredo takes one of those spills where you think, "holy lord, is he breathing??? No really, check his pulse! Give him some space!! I'll call an ambula-" and then he pops up and pushes the other kid. And then he falls back on the ground and does his best impersonation of Cristiano Ranaldo getting tripped and pleading to the ref to see his agony at stubbing a toe. And then, when he realizes everyone knows he's faking it, hops right back up and starts wrestling again. I guess these are my reflections on childhood for the day.
Also, I got a hot pot today, so no more bottled water will be needed. It tastes a little on the funky side, but it's safe and will keep piles of plastic out of the landfill. Minor victories.
It's a mile down the road from Azul Wasi, and is K-12. They are nearing the end of their school term and coming up on Summer vacation, so they had an open house today. I took along my camera, as always, just in case there were some shots that came up that'd be useful for the documentary or just my own memories.
99.9% of kids in the travels absolutely love being in front of the camera, but the kids at the school here…they love being in front of the camera. I spent about an hour outside in the courtyard, intending on filming B-Roll and environment shots, and ended up having an hours worth of kids posing for the camera, playing tag, and generally just being ridiculously photogenic. The whole time I was outside, there was a combination of recess, P.E., and lunch all happening simultaneously which helped make for interesting footage.
School lunch here is a little different than back home. Rather than having pre-packaged frozen meals with 73 ingredients just for the crust on the pizza, served by under appreciated and underpaid workers, revered women in the community get together and have local, fresh, wholesome homemade food in little booths right in the middle of the school. I went over and got a huge plate of ceviche and rice for 60 cents. Now, I was lucky to have parents who brown-bagged lunch for me almost every day of my school career, and I always felt beyond fortunate for that; it was also always delicious. But if I had the chance to have this food everyday, for 60 cents, well, it'd be hard to pass.
After walking back to Azul Wasi, Anastasia asked me if I could again accompany her to school for what I understood to be a reunion of sorts for the fathers of the kids at school. Something got lost in translation.
We arrived to a packed auditorium, of predominantly women, with a younger woman on stage giving a Powerpoint presentation on the prevention of sexual abuse of children. Then a guy got on stage promptly after and gave a 20 minute speech about the importance of encyclopedias and tried to sell them for $100, which may as well be $1 million for many of the families here. Adding to the confusion, he got more applause than the woman who gave an impassioned presentation on the prevention of sexual abuse.
When I got back to Azul Wasi, Jubal was pumped to show me what he'd written for his verse. I asked him to write 4 bars, and he wrote 8. Overachiever. They're good, too! Excited to hear the rest and help him along the way!
At night, Dante asked me if I wanted to go into town to a fiesta. How could I not? The entire population of Oropesa must've been in attendance because it was packed. There were fireworks, there was dancing, there was guys in terrifying gorilla costumes, there was street food, there was lots of laughter.
A couple people came to Azul Wasi today, one dressed up as Santa (who is a friend of Alcides). The others were: two women in their 60's, one woman in her early 20's, and a late 20's Peruvian woman. The friend of Alcides had been here before a couple times, but for all of the other's it was their first time. Within 30 minutes of being here, they had their cameras out and were firing pictures away at the kids. This is a big pet peeve. One or two pictures right away is fine. But anything more than that and I can't help but feel…How are you being present for the kids? In what way are you being human and helping out? It seems objectifying, like the kids are exhibits at a zoo. I've seen it a lot, and it really, really bothers me.
I know it might sound hypocritical of me, given that I was only at the school for a few hours when I was filming. But to me, the difference is that I went there to film the kids from Azul Wasi along with some B-Roll, not to film kids I didn't know. And the environment of a school is quite a bit different than that of an orphanage.
When I went to introduce myself to the people who came out, I was met with a look of utter disdain, contempt, and disgust by one of the women. Near as I could tell, I didn't have a Confederate flag t-shirt on and my fly was zipped, so I didn't immediately understand the reason for that response to my smile and wave. Looking back at it now, I'm chalking it up to another recurring experience on this adventure, particularly at the orphanages: territorial volunteerism. Here's what I mean by this.
In the orphanages in each country, there have been volunteers who would glom on to certain kids at the neglect of others in the orphanage. Then, when a new volunteer would arrive and pay a little attention to "their" child, they would immediately rush over and shoo them out of the way or give them a dirty look. Why? What help is being given, what presence being offered, if the interactions between some volunteers boil down to competition for affection and attention from the kids? It's an ego and thing, no question. It's territorial. It's, "I want these kids to love me most. I want to be the first volunteer to do x,y,z. Who do you think you are?" It's now no longer about volunteering for the sake of volunteering. It's volunteering to fill a void, to reap external validation, and it's about the volunteer not the people.
This is hardly the norm. I've also encountered and worked alongside numerous great volunteers. But it has happened enough that I took notice of it and felt compelled to write about it in this here journal. I don't think people do it maliciously. It's just an awareness thing. Being aware of how and why one is volunteering is just as important as the volunteering itself in many respects.
Here's a good example of volunteers making it about them rather than the children: Alcides asked me to film a brief 30 second video for the Azul Wasi website, thanking donors for their support over the last year and wishing everyone happy holidays and new year. I asked the guy dressed as Santa to help coordinate, because he was fluent in Spanish. So, he explained to the kids what needed to be said in the video. All of us gathered outside, and he was in the video with them as they jovially thanked folks in the video. I took a couple takes. On the last, he turned to the kids and said, "Hey, how about you also say 'Gracias, Papa Noel'?" (translation: thanks, Santa. Santa being him, of course.) Why, in a million years, would you tell the children at an orphanage, who have next to nothing, to thank you for a present?
To be fair, they did bring a nice meal and gifts for the kids - that's worth noting. That was nice of them. But why did it have to be done in the context of "hey, kids, look at the great things I am doing for you"?
One of the 1239839857349850 things done by the kids that melted my heart was when Alfredo and Jubal gave me some of their candy from their presents. And it wasn't even the discards, like the wax lips or the popcorn balls. It was the good stuff. They shared just because they wanted to, and because they wanted to make me feel included.
At night, Dante and I went to the fiesta again. It was just as majestic as the night before.
12.16 - 12.17.13
The rest of the day was spent dropping off laundry and backing up pictures from Romania to my cloud server while watching a movie. Also, got a chance to Skype with my folks, which is always wonderful.
The next morning I went to pick up my laundry; simple enough. I was curious, though, as to why a couple pair of boxer briefs, couple pair of socks, a pair of shorts, and two shirts supposedly weighed 7 pounds. I didn't question it when I dropped it off, as I'd gone to this place each time I've been in town and it's run by a little old lady that couldn't possibly try to hustle me. Or so I thought.
I got back to the hostel and weighed my laundry with their digital scale: 2.5 pounds. Roughly 3x lighter than what I paid for. I went back to the lady, laundry and scale en toe. She accused me of removing clothes (even though the bag was still taped shut), of somehow the clothes weighing vastly different on a digital scale vs. an old-fashioned one, and refused to admit she was being a little hustler.
I suggested we go into the grocery store and find a bag of something with a fixed weight listed, like a kilogram of flour, and weigh it on each of our scales. Precise, easy enough. She refused. Mind you, she spoke no English, so I was explaining to her how ridiculous the whole thing was in Spanish, how I didn't care about the money (only a couple more bucks), but rather the principle, and asked why she was being a bad person. Proud to say I explained everything in Spanish with no pauses. Getting better! Finally, she called her boss and told her there was an "angry Gringo who wanted his money back." Her boss acquiesced. Mission accomplished, silly though it was.
Here's the thing: if someone hustles me and they get away with it, I respect it. It's like they earn whatever they take from me if they do it so smoothly that I don't notice it. But if the hustle is found out, I think the code of hustling ethics clearly necessitates admitting guilt and fixing it. That's just the game. But I digress.
All of the kids had their parents there, and when the time came for each of them to get their 6th grade diploma, the parents went up with them and made a short little speech. Yulino's an orphan, so his parents weren't there. The only representative he had there was me, and I was asked to give a speech. With far from perfect Spanish to draw on, what I said was that Yulino is a great student and worker and, more importantly, a great person and that I'm lucky to know him. At least, that's what I did my best to say.
I was struck by how much he enjoyed my presence there, and how little he seemed to care that other kids had their parents there and he simply had me. I believe in empathy being one of the biggest keys leading to true understanding and compassion of one another. The truth is, that having been fortunate enough to have been raised by two sets of incredibly caring and engaged parents, I simply can't empathize with Yulino - or any of the other kids at Azul Wasi for that matter - on that level.
I hope I've been able to supplement that inability to fully empathize out of historical difference with a surplus of compassion and support. It's the best I can do, and I hope its helped in some small way, not for me or to feed my ego, but because they are incredible kids who deserve all the good that's in the world.
Happy to report that the hot water is now, again, fully operational. The leak in the PVC pipe got fixed because all of the piping got replaced. Rather than super thin plastic, it's now the really strong stuff. I think it'll work well.
With the rain coming in to stay for the next couple months, building new stories and structures will have to slow, and so the building materials need to be moved under cover. Remember the bricks that were carried up the rickety ladder to the second floor of the new building? Well, they all have to come back down to be hauled across Azul Wasi to the now empty garage/shed/guinea pig mansion. Danny and Alfredo were on the second floor loading bricks, one at a time, into a bucket and then lowering them down with a rope to Nilo and Carmen-Rosa below. Jubal and I then loaded the bricks into the wheelbarrow to cart them across the rugged terrain. We had a contest to see who could haul the most bricks at once. I got up to 32. Jubal? 34. Well then.
As with so many of the amazing kids on this journey, they have an incredibly sad backstory. Their father hanged himself. He was a drinker, and one day he just ended it. Their mom couldn't afford to raise them alone, and when Alcides heard about them, he went to visit and brought them back to Azul Wasi. Alfredo was the one who told the story. When something so heartbreaking comes out so matter-of-fact from an 8 year-old, it's doubly heart wrenching. Alfredo also knew no Spanish before coming to Azul Wasi. Only Kechua. That was 3 years ago, and he's now fluent in both. Incredible.
Ivan is a bit of a wildcard, and he'd definitely be labeled as having ADHD in our Aderol riddled, over-medicated society. He's a great kid, and his background is very similar to Alfredo, Nilo, and Yulino's. The fact that he is the good person he is, that he's fighting for good in a world that has given him the opposite so many times, is a testament to his innate strength and character.
Throughout the course of the whole journey, it has been rare that I've been afforded the chance to interview siblings at the same time, and doing so changes the interview dynamic completely. It invites them to open up, probably more so than they would on their own. They also get a chance to finish one another's sentences, or talk about their background story more cohesively.
After the interviews, Bautista and Hernan wanted to experience rap class. We held one in the evening after their schoolwork was finished. Though I think it will be tough to get a verse finished for the song before I leave, if their incredible enthusiasm is any indication, they will continue to work on it solo. It's such an inspiring thing to see, enthusiasm. It reminded me of how I felt when I first started to write lyrics.
We were going to start in the morning in order to avoid the relentless sun, but the pouring rain put a nice kibosh on that. You may recall that Nilo is 9 going on 90. When it started raining, and we were discussing doing the climb, he came out of the dining room holding a cup of tea, wearing a denim hat, turtle neck, and scarf to ensure his body would be warm and dry. He looked up at the clouds and, in his surprisingly grizzled-sounding voice said, "well, looks like it'll be a cold one today…" and then took a sip of his tea while pacing back and forth. Yes.
A couple hours later, we had a break in the weather and started the climb. In order to get the base of it, we had to first make our way through the fields of livestock and farmers, leap across a river, and navigate crossing the highway. This brought us to basically someone's backyard to begin the ascent. I imagine it was quite a scene for the townsfolk to look at: 8 kids between 8 and 20 (Alfredo, Nilo, Yulino, Danny, Dante, Bautista, Ivan, Hernan), a white dog about the size of a great dane (Cassan), and a lanky, pale white guy in a green bucket hat that says "VIETNAM."
When I reached halfway, Bautista and Hernan were nice enough to stop and wait for me. In the far distance, I would see Alfredo dressed in nothing but a pair of sweatpants and a windbreaker, leading the pack and scrambling up the face like a Billy Goat. I had to zoom in about 30x on my camera to snag a visible shot.
I don't know what it is about hikes, especially ones in the dark, that build such camaraderie. Maybe it's the whole "us vs. nature" thing. Maybe it's the seeing (all of them) needing to lead the blind (me) to safety. Maybe it's the unmatched solitude that comes from walking stride for side in silence, each step fully calculated so as to not fall off the side of the mountain, the only sound the deep breaths, the only sight the moisture on the plants reflecting the moonlight. Whatever it is, there was no place in the world I would've rather been at the very moment than with these incredible human beings.
We made it back in the pitch black without having had one person fall. That is, of course, until I took the last step up through the trench to the property of Azul Wasi, and proceeded to promptly fall back on my keester.
I offered him the other bed in the room, but he opted to head outside, my loyal sherpa catching z's under the stars in the shadow of the mountain we'd just conquered.
So he started doing pushups and planks and using the resistance band, which is taller than he is. Once Nilo walked by and saw him working out, he wanted in, too. And then Jubal dropped in. Pretty soon, I transitioned from struggling at knocking out a couple sets of pushups to being a poor man's Tony Horton. I'm not sure how that happened, but they seemed to have fun, so hey.
After, I was lucky enough to be a part of their soccer game outside. It was 6 on 6. I'm real not good at soccer, but I had Anna Rita on my team, and she picked up the slack for me.
It's interesting to see the dichotomy of lifestyles play out between rather affluent kids who arrive with their parents, and kids who have next to nothing and one or no parents. While the affluent sometimes view the children at the orphanage with a cautious skepticism, the kids at the orphanage never seem to greet their counterparts with anything other than open arms. I shouldn't be surprised by this, given the character of the children at each orphanage on the journey. But I can't help but feel if I were in their position, I'd look at these people who show up in designer clothes that were bought new, not handed down through three siblings, with more than a tinge of spite.
Black Friday is crowded. But I assure you it doesn't compare to holiday shopping at the local markets in Cusco. There are vendors selling everything, from My Little Pony to Soccer Balls, TV's to designer watches, tents, coats, food, everything. So we honed in on practical presents for all of the kids over 10 - really heavy duty rain ponchos - and toys for Nilo, Alfredo, and Carmen Rosa. We also got a brand new soccer ball and pump.
After navigating the stalls and bargaining on all the prices (which were of course already beyond bargains to begin with), we grabbed some ceviche from one of the stalls. Of course, Alcides knew the owners and so they gave us the royal treatment. Delicious. Sushi has a rival, which is something I thought I'd never say.
On the way back it was pouring rain. There was a dog lying in the middle of the road. Hernan ran over and picked her up and took her under an eve. She was in shock and immediately turned quiet once he gently laid her over there. We looked her over. No blood, which is good, but definitely a broken leg. If this were home, naturally we'd just hop in a car and take her to a veterinarian. But it's 8PM in Oropesa, and there aren't any options other than to try to make her warm and comfortable. Hernan cared for her tenderly and dried her off as much as possible before we went back home.
A million times over, words cannot do justice to the selflessness and compassion of these kids.
I went to do laundry by hand today, as it was nice out and I figured I'd capitalize on the quick dry of the sunshine. Just as I put my clothes in the water, which is full of algae and collected from the trench, the last of the soap got used. So, I set out to walk into town, and it was really hot. At 12,000 feet, the sun is real close, and I forgot to wear sunscreen. So I had that going for me.
Got the soap on the other side of town, since every shop but one was closed. I got back and started doing my laundry, now in a grumpy mood. That quickly dissipated when Afredo, Nilo, and Yulino dropped their toys and immediately came over and helped with my laundry. Just…wow.
In Peru, Christmas Eve is a much bigger celebration than Christmas day. It's also a lot different since it's Summer down here. Rather than snow falling down, fireworks fly up, and instead of waking up at dawn tomorrow morning everyone stays up until early morning to exchange presents, have a feast, and party.
After presents, we ducked outside for fireworks. Keep in mind that outdoor lights are few and far between out here, so you can't really see anyone nearby until the firework explodes, lighting up the sky. Standing next to one another in silence, awe, and reverence, I couldn't help but again feeling complete gratitude for the opportunity to be here, now, with these amazing souls.
We all started to trickle off to bed around 2, except for Nilo and Alfredo, busy playing with their toy trucks in the pitch black outside, the sugar from the hot chocolate giving them a gargantuan second wind.
I didn't think we'd be able to get around to it, but Jubal and I recorded his verse for the song - yay! I think it came out really nicely. It's tough to have complete silence during the process while in an orphanage, because kids are going to be running around and shouting no matter what. But I think that if there are sounds of kids in the background and it's imperfect and rough around the edges, that will only add to the authenticity of the finished product.
Afterwards, I joined all of the kids in a game of soccer that lasted well past sunset. Couldn't have asked for a better coda to my time at Azul Wasi.
There's never enough time.
I took pictures of all of the kids. I had an interview with Alcides. Alcides treated me to qui in Tippon, one of the best places in the world to have it. There are always a million things I wished I'd said to the kids. I wish I would have spent more time with them somehow. I wish I would have been more present with the goodbyes rather than letting my mind think about packing, the upcoming 20 hour bus ride, the flight back. I wish I would've written each of them letters. Most of all, I wish I could somehow communicate the immeasurable impact they had on me and always will.
I've said previously that I believe goodbyes are an imperfect art form. I stand by it. But I also feel grossly inept at them when the time comes. So here I am, and my time here is already just a memory. I can't wait to look back at these memories on film, in pictures, in the words haphazardly jotted down, and give you the full story of these kids in the present.
On my way back, I stopped by the wonderful vegetarian restaurant, El Encuentro, I'd frequented at least once a week since I arrived in Peru. By now, the owner, Henry, recognized me as a regular. He'd asked me to stop by before leaving town for Lima tomorrow morning.
When you visit Cusco, you need to go here.
It's also important to mention how wonderful Dragonfly Hostel has been during my time in Cusco. I'd come in once or twice a week from Azul Wasi to relax and catch up on the journal and work for back home. Every single person there is and always has been welcoming, helpful, and inviting. Please, please, please stay here.
Gear packed, goodbyes said, I was off to start my trek back to the states. The first stretch is a 22 hour bus ride from Cusco to Lima…
OK, I have a confession to make. I splurged on my bus ticket and paid $60 for first class, rather than $55 for coach. The difference between the two was that my seat was a reclining lazy boy in a closed room with only 12 other seats, while coach would've been the same as a Greyhound. Worth it.
I've always been thankful that I haven't really been one to get carsick my whole life. But this is also the first time in my life I've rode the back of the bus from Cusco (at 12,000 feet) to Lima (at sea level), through winding roads that'd make a corkscrew look straight. It made me realize that, when it comes to being nauseous, the one thing worse than throwing up is feeling like you have to throw up for 22 hours. So I chewed Coca leaves like a pro, dodged in and out of sleep, and watched the terrain flash by in a blur.
Also, there was a toilet on board. But for some reason, we were told that you couldn't poop in the darn thing. Which of course just made me worry for the next 22 hours that I'd poop my pants.
After sweatily and weary-eyed grabbing my luggage, I hopped in a cab for Miraflores, tossed my bags on the floor of the Dragonfly Hostel here (the sister to the one in Cusco), and caught a few winks.
Lima really reminds me of San Diego. Being back at sea level feels really nice on the old lungs.
I grabbed my last menu del dia at a hole in the wall place near the hostel and ended up having a great conversation with a family consisting of a husband and wife, their 10 year old daughter, and the husband's mother. He used to live and work in Florida before moving to Lima with his family, and his mom is visiting before she heads back to Miami. The conversation was relaxing and engaging - great folks.
I spent the majority of the rest of the day down at the beach watching the tide roll in, people run around, and the sun go from high, to lower, to bidding adieu as it careened over the edge of the horizon and away. What an unbelievably beautiful country and culture, Peru. I can't wait to come back.
Life is also beautiful.
As I sit on the plane home, memories of the last 10 months flooding my synapses, I feel at peace. I feel complete and utter gratitude to the many incredible people who made this adventure possible, to the countless children who welcomed me into their lives, the wonderful caretakers who devote their lives to them, to the strangers who offered a helping hand and showed me how much beauty and sun is still in the world. I feel blessed. I feel lucky. I feel overcome with joy.
And I feel the adventure is just beginning.