The Orphanage (not the movie)

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There are two Original Volunteers sponsored orphanages in Cusco, a boys one and a girls one. The girls one can only take female volunteers, while the boys one can take both male and female, so there are generally more here.
At the time of writing, there are four of us here at the boys, but two went to Machu Picchu this morning, two are currently there, and one is in Bolivia until the weekend. However by this time next week we’ll actually have been reduced to two of us here at the boys: me and a guy from Essex who arrived last week.

This kind of exemplifies the nature of volunteering here. Very much relaxed, allowing people to do their own thing. It means that activities for the kids are usually pretty spontaneous, although I hope we can do some lazer tag with them, and maybe I’ll be able to do a mini movie, although thinking about it that will be pretty hard. Yesterday we did have a pretty action packed day. It was the last day of a couple of Sundays of carnivals to mark lent. On the last one, me and the guy from Essex, Marc, went into town and came out covered in silly string and water after a city wide water fight. This time more planning went in to targeting the boys, and with more of us here, we filled up two bags of about 60 balloons with water, and 20 bottles, covered them in glitter and waited for the boys to leave. The result was carnage. Both on the way out and coming back in, it was like a water version of Stalingrad. We got them, they came up and got us back, so we got them again. I have video evidence which I’ll try to upload, although it’ll be a pretty big file.

A few from the trip to the hot springs

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A healthy green

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A local striking a seductive pose for me.

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Angel, the youngest…

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… Hasn’t earned a reputation for nothing.

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Later we also went and played football against some locals. Although we put up a fight, they managed to win overall, probably due to far superior fitness… and skill.

The boys themselves vary from 9-17 (they usually leave when they’re about 17 or 18, or whenever their parents – yes many have parents – request for their return). The youngest, Anhul is also the cheekiest and cutest, so gets a lot of attention from the volunteers, as does Moises, the second youngest. Both of them look incredibly young for their age (as all the boys do), probably because of a past of poor nutrition and emotional issues at home, and the fact that the national average must be 5ft 5in. The reasons they’re in here vary from person to person. Some were involved in gangs and drugs (I’ve never seen any real gangs though, and we live in one of the poorest areas of the city), many were just neglected at home. You wouldn’t know it though, as they are pretty much all the chirpiest, friendliest, most inquisitive and happy bunch of kids you’ll meet. While it sounds a bit racist, it’s quite easy to mix up people of a different race when you first meet them, especially when they’re all roughly the same age and height. But now I know them all by face, if not name, and can see their different personality characteristics, it’s far easier to interact and have a good time with them.

On Wednesday last week we also took a day long trip to some hot springs up high in the mountains. After waking up at 4 to leave at 5am, we packed 45 or so people into a 35 seater coach and set off on a 9 hour round trip which involved many hyperactive and vomiting children. Once we got there we enjoyed 3 or so hours of hot springs bathing and an anthill volcano before making the return journey. One advantage of this was I met a friend of one of the volunteers who works in film, at home and in Argentina/Chile or had lots of advice and some work opportunities for when I return. Also a very funny Northern guy who ripped into us on the following night out (he says it’s because he hasn’t managed to have English banter in about 5 years.

Generally days where we do a lot with the boys are followed by days of doing not much. This is partly because we’re so exhausted, partly because Marc and I are doing Spanish classes which start from 8am and run until 12, followed by lunch and sometimes a trip to a good gym I’ve found. The Spanish classes are really well taught, much more interactive and well thought out than the ones I had in Utila, which were just from the text book. They also come with an opportunity to do traditional cooking, which I’m doing tomorrow (Marc: “there’s no way they’re gonna force me to cook anything.” Strange man) and Salsa, which we’re going to  do on Friday.

I’m hoping that soon I’ll be able to take the opportunity to get up one of the mountains surrounding the city (Cusco is situated in a valley) to visit the Cristo Blanco (a smaller Rio Statue of Jesus), Saksaywuman Inca temple (yes that’s it’s actual name) and look down on the city from above. I also need to start planning my coming travels, as I want to go back up to visit a friend in Central America, but also want enough time to travel South America. I’ve now been told (by Oscar, the Northern film guy) that going down Patagonia on the Argentinian side then going back up through Chile is the most breathtaking scenery in the world (New Zealand has to be up there, but it’s so expensive!).

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Cusco, Peru: The Navel of the World

Ernesto ‘che’ Guevara, who visited Cusco in 1952 as part of his epic journey up South America, wrote extensively and admiringly of Cusco during his time here, describing it as ‘evocative’.

Based on his writing, I don’t think a huge amount has changed in the look of the city. The once great Incan settlement is still buried beneath newer Spanish tiled roof houses, squares and churches, the mountains still surround it imposingly, and the weather is still predominantly grey. This is not to take away from the beauty of the city. From a high point you can observe a sprawling urban mass. Planning has obviously taken place in the construction, yet because of the hills it seems neighbourhoods have simply sprung up where space was available. Indeed when you venture away from the centre you find poorly built roads, houses crumbling or unfinished (tax on finished buildings means they’re often not completed on purpose), stray dogs everywhere (apparently there are more dogs in Cusco than people) and people urinating where they like. It is in one of these suburbs, up one of the surrounding mountains, that the orphanage is situated. At 7:30am on Wednesday I arrived there, after a 25 hour journey that completely exhausted me to the extent that I slept most of the rest of the day. In the evening me and the other volunteers, 5 guys all from the UK, went to dinner for a birthday and ended up heading into town to the two main pubs in the Plaza de Armas, the main square in the city. Both pubs, one a motorcycle enthusiast’s, one ‘the highest 100% Irish pub in the world’, are evidently for Tourists but have great views over the square and aren’t packed with westerners this time of year.

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Our duties at the orphanage mainly revolve around interacting with the orphans at a basic level. Playing with them, playing football, playing on our tablets and iphones with them, watching TV, sometimes eating with them. This is kind of day to day stuff, where we might do stuff 10-12, then 2-5. However sometimes, if they’re free and we’ve got an idea, we can take them swimming, or put on shows or competitions. Today it was a big festival in the city and most of the volunteers went to the pubs to watch the football and get some food. However this festival is one based around water bombs and silly string sprays, and there was no way we were not going to get involved. When we split off to look for a Spanish school, me and one of the other guys kept on getting ambushed, so decided to fight back buy getting equipment of our own and joining in the, massive battle in the centre of the Plaza de Armas. Much fun was had, but on the way back we met a large gang of the orphans skulking around the streets near the orphanage. Using our remaining water bombs we engaged them and everyone got completely soaked. After that we helped them fight other kids on the streets, which they loved.

It feels like our primary role with them is just to be there and give attention and the feeling that they’re loved. Obviously it could be more organised and we could have more official duties, but this does feel like it works, depending on the effort you put in.

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There’s also a lot of free time and time for travel. You’re allowed to travel wherever you like during your time here (doing so you’d still have to pay for accommodation) and many volunteers go down to Lake Titicaca and sometimes further afield. I don’t know where I’ll go yet, or when, or more importantly, when I’ll go to Macchu Picchu, but for the time being I’m going to try to find a good Spanish school with Salsa AMD cooking lessons included, and maybe a gym. Because I’ve been eating too much and not really working it off, although the altitude does punish you in the first few days.

Guevara writes a long and detailed history of the city which I can’t really comment on at the moment as I haven’t been to any museums yet. I would recommend reading his book though, as he writes really well and the section on Cusco is brilliant. As a basic outline though, in Inca Mythology  someone called Mama Oclo into the soil at the site of the city and it sank, signifying this as the place selected by their main god, Viracocha, to be the home of his chosen people. From here Incans built a glorious city and expanded outwards, building an empire from Ecuador to Chile, becoming the greatest and largest ancient civilisation of the Americas. However it was not to last. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, their thirst for the riches of the Incas brought them to the capital, and it was, despite previous surrender, sacked unceremoniously. Much of the gold that once adorned the temples and palaces of Cusco disappeared back to Spain or went to Lima, which grew to prominence as an transit port for the Spanish. Despite this fall from grace, Cusco still retains a regal, imperious quality. As Guevara states, even if it had no history whatsoever, it would still attract people drawn to its location and architecture. However it inescapably feels like a city once the centre of a civilisation.

Some of the dignity that the Incans held has been lost by modern day Peru (although it’s more likely the fault of globalisation than anything else). Watching TV can be hugely entertaining. The most popular show is Gladiators cum Big Brother, with attractive guys and Girls who look anything but Peruvian (I expect they’re Argentinian). Watching it is incredibly dull. They play the same games in low budget sets for far too long and do it over and over again, day after day. The people are devoid of personality, romances are obviously scripted, and for some reason the Silver team always wins. So basically it sounds like half the shows on British TV I guess. There are also continual adverts for growth hormones from unconvincing doctors attempting to make a profit of the small stature of these people. One plus point is there are loads of movies on normal TV, good ones too, but if you finish it, it becomes obvious its just a guy changing DVDs when he feels like it, which can sometimes be hours after a film has finished.

But who am I to judge? Cusco is remarkable because despite the apparent poverty of many of its civilians, there is virtually no violent crime, and many people are quite friendly.

Hopefully my next update will be after some Spanish lessons and some treks.

Hasta lluego