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Where In The World Is Miguel?Miguel Hortiguela
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Category Archives: Travel Log
I’m sure it’s just me, but I get the sense that Peruvians really like to partition their map into smaller and smaller divisions. With a similar population to Canada, but within a much smaller land mass, Peru begins by dividing the map into Departamentos (which by the way is also the word they use to describe an apartment that one lives in), or what we call Provinces. The Provincias are then broken down into Distritos, which are in turn subdivided in to Comunidades, not to be confused with the actual towns and cities.
I get that everyone has their own way of organizing the books on their bookcase, but it makes for a very convoluted bureaucracy, with multiple, overlapping levels of government, all within a relatively small geographical region. I gather that the geography in combination with the largely rural nature of much of the country, and poor roads, are primarily responsible for this, and even though, those modes of communication have improved greatly it still remains that the greater the physical barriers the more likely that the various regions will develop autonomously and the resistance to remain so, is likely very strong. I was told that one such Departamento has over thirty smaller Provincias.
Then we move into Lima. Did I mention that it’s a huge city? I believe I did. First, you have to get a handle on the use of the different words used to describe the various levels of municipal divisions, then it takes a while to incorporate the names of the different areas into the vocabulary and finally, it’s a question of visualizing them on a map, to get a better sense of where you are and where you need to go.
What we in Toronto or New York City call boroughs, they call districts, however, they are administratively completely separate from each other, right down to police and fire services and even each district has smaller divisions which are vestiges of what were once colonial Spanish “fincas” or estates. The current count puts the number of autonomous Districts within the Greater Lima at over fifty.
Something I find really neat, although I don’t know that it makes finding an address any easier, is that each city block is numbered, so that if you provide your address as say 456 Avenida Grau, everyone knows that you live on the fourth city block of that street. Question then becomes, starting where. Is it always from a major street, but what if there’s a major street at either end? Or is it away from el Rio Rimac, where the old historic Lima is situated, or is away from the coastline? What about the compass rose, does that come in to play?
The answer is that there is absolutely no consistency. In fact if a street runs through several Districts the numbering begins a new each time, in one example coming from one end and the other, the opposite end. What this means is that it’s not good enough to provide the street name and number, but that you have to give the District Name. To top it off, as the city expands, people squat on surrounding lands and the streets have no names. There’s a song title in there somewhere! We had to visit several such locations but fortunately either the Taxi Driver or Annie, knew where we were going.
My home base, while in Lima, has been Miraflores and between me and the CUSO offices, which are up the coast in Magdalena del Mar, I have to cross through San Isidro, the patron saint of Spain. Heading down the coast is Barranco, and heading inland to the historic centre of Lima, I need to cross through Jesus Maria, and just in case you’re wondering that’s not what you yell at the woman that just stepped on your foot.
I spent a wonderful day on Good Friday with Annie, Jorge and Javier, getting a personal tour of the historic centre of Lima, which we started by having a Pisco Sour at the Gran Hotel Bolivar. Originally built as a luxury hotel for visiting royalty, heads of state and famous celebrities, the hotel is a beautiful example of the grandeur that befits it’s intended purpose. Pisco, by the way, is a fortified wine derived from white grapes and is served in combination with every type of fruit juice imaginable. What that means is that you could have a different Pisco Sour each day of the week for a month and never have the same one twice. We only had four all day.
My day ended on the rooftop patio of a CUSO volunteer that lives in Barranco, who had invited some friends over, before heading out to a dance club. You meet the most interesting people where you least expect it. I spent a good hour talking to three young woman in their early twenties, from Germany, who had attended school together, where they had completed studies in Graphic Design. The way I understood it, it’s encouraged that before starting work, students travel abroad to get a better understanding of the world around them, only that abroad might mean within Europe.
They, however, decided to take it more seriously and traveled to Tierra del Fuego, on the southern tip of Argentina, and are hitchhiking their way up the length of the American continent and couch surfing along the way. The plan is to continue through Central America, up the west coast of the U.S. and then into Canada. They weren’t clear on whether they would visit anywhere in eastern Canada, but I left them my business card and made a pitch for visiting Toronto. One of the woman said her parents fully expected her to meet with an unfortunate death along the way. You’re probably asking yourself how we communicated, and that’s where languages come in really handy.
Join me by raising your Pisco Sour to wish these three gutsy young woman safe travels and much adventure along the way.
For those of you that caught my previous posting, today I’m going to walk along the sunny side of the street. Our days typically revolve around scheduling interviews with volunteers and their beneficiaries, and the rest of the time is ours. My priority, after finishing our interviews, is always to download the flash cards to my Epson P5000 Viewer then to my laptop, process my images using Lightroom and finally generate a backup onto a small 2.5” External Hard Drive. That gives me three copies of the photos, which means that other then when I’m travelling between communities, there is always a copy somewhere that I’m not, with an extra level of redundancy for safe measure. Nothing would be worse than to spend all this time, effort and money and have the images, either stolen or lost, due a technical malfunction with any one of those three devices. So, after taking care to secure my work, I’m free to stroll the streets, soak in the sounds and of course photograph whatever catches my fancy.
It was while strolling the streets of Huamanga, Peru that I was approached by a young man, who upon seeing my rather large Nikon camera, cozyed up to talk photography. I had been warned about people approaching on one side to distract me, while another would sneak-in on the blind side to liberate anything of value, so I casually secured my bag and tripod and politely answered his questions, but it quickly became obvious that he had a sincere interest, without any ulterior motives.
It turns out that John – ya I know but it isn’t that uncommon for people to have English names because parents will name their children after well known movie and TV actors, and as it turns out his full Given Name, is Johnn Rhys – who at only eighteen and with a high school diploma, rents a small office in the beautifully restored Centro Turistico Cultural – San Cristobal. where where he has a small graphic design business, producing signage, brochures and restaurant menus for local businesses.
Most of the architecture in Huamanga, and the Centro Turistico is no exception, follows the southern Spanish formula of an austere façade facing the street, with a very large, solid door through which one passes into a sun-drenched Andalucian courtyard. It’s like stepping into another, secret world where lazy cats stretch out on cool stones and the trickling water from a simple fountain sooth the commotion just steps away.
John’s space although on the dark side, has just what you would expect to see in any similar business back in Canada a desk for his computer, monitor, printer and book-case to store reference materials and office supplies. He also has enough room for a small studio to photograph table-top product or portraits. I’d be tickled pink to have his space as a studio / office. I’m viscerally inspired by well designed spaces and beautiful architecture and just being on the second floor of this cloistered courtyard, made my head spin.
Although John does have competition, when I asked him how he manages, he emphasized the importance of Customer Service, noting that it’s not a concept that is ingrained in to the Peruvian culture, but that helps distinguish him. What ever it takes. Not a bad philosophy for everything in life.
We spent around three hours together talking and walking around with our cameras, taking photographs and comparing notes, after which we returned to one of the handful of little patios in that beautiful Andalucian courtyard, where I invited him to lunch. Although not nearly as poor as Bolivia, the exchange rate in Peru is around one Canadian Dollar to two and half Soles, making it very inexpensive to travel here. I of course am not travelling with Canadian Dollars but rather with Soles, just as every other CUSO Volunteer, but we none-the-less, both had a wonderful home cooked meal, and by that I mean that it didn’t come out of a bucket or re-heated frozen package, for approximately $3.00 CDN each, while sitting in that priceless, beautiful courtyard.
Annie and I stayed in Huamanga for three days and three nights, in yet another beautifully restored building, come the Santa Maria Hotel. Nothing luxurious, but quaint and appropriate under the circumstances in any location. We arrived on the Wednesday before Palm Sunday and everywhere we went we could see that preparations for Holy Week, were in full swing. Soon there wouldn’t be a vacant room for rent, anywhere in town and beginning on the Thursday, small processions leading up to the big event on Good Friday, began to meander through the narrow streets, at some point passing through the main square, La Plaza de Armas.
However, there was another nationally significant event scheduled for Friday night that no one could ignore, a FIFA World Cup qualifying game being played in Lima, between Peru and their arch rivals Chile. Annie and I arranged to meetup with a few other volunteers in the central square and then made our way to a local watering hole, Restaurante Nino, to catch the game. I didn’t have a favourite team in the contest, but I thought it prudent to cheeeeeer and ohhhhh in tune with my hosts. However, it wasn’t long before I too was infected by the ebb and flow of the game and grimacing at the near misses in favour, and sighing in relief at the close calls against. The final score was Peru 1 – Chile 0 and everyone went home happy.
In the three short days that we were there, Huamanga grew on me and Saturday rolled around way to soon. I became familiar with the streets around La Plaza de Armas, had been charmed by a handful of the townsfolk and wanted desperately to spend more time photographing the architecture and street scenes.
Saturday, woke up warm and sunny and since our flight didn’t leave until mid-afternoon, I hurried back outside for one last walkabout. I wasn’t disappointed. Along all the balconies surrounding the main square, were hung intricately, handmade, palm-leaf motifs in anticipation of Holy Week and the plaza had definitely taken on a festive mood. Walking about were hawkers selling everything from balloons to religious trinkets, and sunglasses to windup flying-birds-of-paradise. An overdose of sights and sounds, but what caught my attention most, was a line of woman in traditional folk dress, strung along the west side of the plaza making fresh ice-cream… by hand. What a send off. I couldn’t resist, so after discreetly photographing some of the woman, I shuffled over to try some for myself. It was delicious.
Till we meet again.
I returned to Lima last night after having spent 3 days in Ayachucho, also known as Huamanga. Located in the Andes at about 2,700 metres, it is best known for it’s 33 churches, which represent one for each year of Jesus’ life, as well as their Holy Week celebrations. But enough with the Wikipedia details. Huamanga is a lovely small city and though it may sound cliché, the people I met, both on the street and in relation to our CUSO assignment, were very friendly. Oh, and yes the weather was wonderful. On the dry and hot side during the day, due to the altitude and clear skies, and just cool enough at nights, to put on long sleeves.
Much of CUSO’s work in this part of the world, revolves around Social Justice and Capacity Building. In simple terms, that refers to empowering people to use the existing institutions to claim their rights, and transferring skills so that once the volunteers have left, the local people can implement best-practices and better fend for themselves.
Our purpose for travelling to Huamanga and Huanta, a smaller village a short distance away, was to visit volunteers working for La Defensoria del Pueblo ie. Neighbourhood Ombudsman. There is a heavy emphasis on woman’s and children’s rights, but can and do encompass institutional issues such as licensing and regulations.
We interviewed a woman with a claim dating back 30 years to a disturbing period in Peruvian history when a very violent Marxist terrorist group called Los Senderos Luminosos, known in English as the Shining Path, waged war against the Peruvian government. As often happens during internal conflicts, atrocities are perpetrated by each side and in the end it is the innocent who pay the highest price. Helena recounted how government forces entered her village accusing them of supporting the terrorists and as a result both her parents, a brother and her husband went missing, never to be heard from again. Her home was destroyed and after being held in a prison for a few days and personally subjected to the ultimate humiliation that a woman can endure, was released as a demonstration of mercy, so that she could attend to her children, which had been left alone, on the condition that they leave their village.
Overcoming the daily struggles of the human condition require that we learn to put our personal challenges in perspective and move on. Most hardships are easily and quickly forgotten, others, not so much. From personal experience I know that some events in my life, although not nearly as traumatic, can and do generate strong emotions, so much so that they feel as real today as if they had just occurred.
Thirty years ago, may sound like a long time ago, but to Helena it was clearly something she could not get over. Seeking justice requires her to keep the events alive. Hearing her story, put the three of us listening, in that village with her and keeping our emotions in check was very, very difficult.
Despite the horrors of her ordeal, Helena, who is now in her early sixties, walked with poise and grace, and spoke without any sign of personal shame but rather strength. The strength required to flee her village with young children, travel the long distance by whatever means to Huamaga, and with what little money she had, purchase trinkets to sell on the street so that she could feed her children. The strength required to rise from that level of destitution, to see her children attend university, and even though publicly funded, provide them with all the associated costs like books and materials, not to mention food, clothing and shelter.
La Defensoria del Pueblo, has taken on her case, under an existing law intended to settle damage claims against the Peruvian government, dating back to those dark days. The process is long and complicated, as they establish the validity of her accusations and negotiate the extent of her pain… When asked, after reaching the end of her tragic story, if she had anything more to add, she insisted on drawing attention to the support she has and continues to receive from La Defensoria, fully aware that what she was sharing with us, would serve a greater purpose by helping CUSO International to put a face and a voice to the good work it does and, thereby, providing material to use in it’s Fund Raising efforts.
Here but by the grace of God go us.
It’s tough to put down the camera, but here I am back indoors settling in to share some photographs and paint some mental pictures as well.
In October of 2012 I received an E-mail from Sean Kelly at CUSO International to cast another tempting opportunity my way, “Would I be interested in signing up for another photographic posting, this time to Peru”. It had to be a trick question, because it would be like asking a hungry man, it he’d like a three course meal. I felt a little like Sally Field “You like me, you really like me.”
It did, however, come down to timing and the initial timeline was for departing in mid January. Not bad weather-wise, but I had to consider other family responsibilities that were pressing on me at the time. However, by mid December I’d made up my mind and the wheels were set in motion. CUSO’s greatest challenge would turn out to be finding a Journalist that would also be interested and available, and who spoke Spanish. As a result it was the end of January before they were able to confirm departure dates and who my Hardy would be, this time around.
Someone at CUSO was thinking and Annie Theriault, from San-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec who is already posted in Lima, is taking a short leave from her current assignment to work with me.
My trip from Toronto to Lima on Tacca Airlines was uneventful, with one connecting flight in San Salvador. As you might imagine I left Pearson dressed lightly with just enough to get me from the car to the terminal in -5’C. San Salvador was a sweltering, humid 30’C and Lima wasn’t much better. The saving grace was that our arrival in Lima was under the cover of night and a cool breeze was blowing in off the Pacific.
Lima is a very large city on the Pacific, built on a coastal dessert with a population approaching 9 Million inhabitants. Now consider that the number of personal vehicles has doubled in the past twenty to thirty years and you have a pretty clear picture of the traffic mayhem. It’s crazy. Now imagine that we don’t start today to build a network of subways in Toronto and you’ve got a living example of the chaos to come.
Therein lies the adventure. My first day in Lima was spent on a refresher course regarding safety & security, diseases & food concerns and how to navigate the complex system of taxis and privately run busses. However, as the work day came to an end, it was back to the apartment that I’m sharing with two other volunteers, change out of my sandals and shorts, and out to navigate the streets in Rush Hour traffic, Fun Wow! I successfully found my way to the “Metropolitano” an articulated-bus right-of-way that runs from Miraflores on the coast, inland to the Casco Viejo or old part of Lima, to stroll the pedestrian boulevards and take in the night life around the central square, La Plaza de Armas.
A great number of streets surrounding La Plaza de Armas, have been transformed into wonderful pedestrian boulevards, and in my experience, wherever this is done, the locals and tourists alike, flock to these people friendly areas, like flies to… bright lights. There was a military band playing in the square, vendors hawking everything from children’s toys to cell phone covers, families with young children, teenagers holding hands, old men lining up for a shoe shine, woman arm in arm recounting their day’s challenges and the lovers. Ahh!! the lovers, taking over the benches and seemingly oblivious to the human traffic surrounding them, aware only of each others eyes. It’s the same everywhere. We are so much more alike than we are different.
For all our orderly by-laws and regulated urban planning, we have a lot to learn about humanizing our large urban centres, from places far more chaotic, like Lima. We could have the best of both worlds, if only there were the vision, the political will and the passion to see it through.
We’ve all listened to the comic who laughs at their own jokes, and on one level it might seem kind of odd, sort of like “well don’t they think they’re funny”? On the other hand their laughter and knowing smile, a la Seth Myers, can be quite contagious, further adding to the humour.
I don’t share my photographs often enough, but it’s not because I’m not proud of them. In fact there are occasions such as this, when I go back through images that I haven’t seen in a while, and my jaw drops, I get goose bumps and sometimes even tears well up. Some bring back fond memories, but others, and I won’t apologies if this sounds self delusional, are simply beautiful.
It’s awesome what one sees if one takes the time to raise the line of sight from the pavement below our feet or away from the obstruction immediately before us. Next time you find yourself, either in the thick of a busy city or on the edge of a seemingly quiet meadow, try standing back and listening, and I don’t mean hearing, I mean listening. Feel the world that surrounds you, all 360’. Doing this may remind you of one of the those endorphin induced moments when everything from how a simple thought in your brain can instruct your index finger to bend, to questions about the vastness of the universe, and become too much to grasp, as they should.
There’s no denying that in our little Western bubble, we are bombarded, daily, with stimuli of every kind: sound, touch, taste, smell and… oh ya! visual. Yet, despite this rich texture of sensations, we are too often insensitive to our surroundings. It’s a clear example of sensory overload.
When they were young, I remember reading some of the “creative writing” my children were instructed to produce for school, and offering this one bit of advice “Don’t be in a hurry to get to the end of the story”. Whether it’s writing a descriptive narrative, telling a good joke or making love, it’s all the little details in-between that keep your audience captivated. The pauses… are just as important, if not more so, than the punch line.
As promised, I’ve added a Gallery of images in my Photo Essays that I’ve given the Title: Bolivia – Places. These are some of my favourite Place Photos from my volunteer posting for CUSO International in the fall of 2011 that I think, illustrate what you’ll find when you look, I don’t mean see, but really look. Some of the images maybe familiar from my Blog Posts while in the field, but regardless, they are worth gathering together for a second look. Enjoy and don’t hesitate to provide any feedback: good, bad or ugly.