Tuesday: The Guilt of Privilege



It’s amazing how little space you really need to live.  I’m in a house with ten people and I’ve managed to cram my entire life into a twin sized bed and three small drawers.  My bed doubles as a storage space.  I sleep all the way against the rails and store clothes, books, medicine and various other things along the side of the wall.  I cuddle with the neck pillow that I would normally use for the plane.  There is nowhere else to put it anyway.




We are working on a mural with the women in Zone Z.  They’re not quite sure about how it works or why we’re doing it, but we’re trying to teach them about the reasons murals are used/popular.  Giving them examples of Diego Rivera and various other types of political style murals.  One of the girls I work with designed a beautiful mural for them to paint on the wall of the school room of our building.  We gave them the mural broken down onto pieces of paper for them to do a test run of the grid system.  The mural is a picture of what is quite clearly a Peruvian woman with a child strapped to her back in a colorful blanket.  Each woman received a square to paint however she liked and every single woman who had any skin color in her drawing, colored her in to be a Gringa.  It was weird and a little sad.  Like those social experiments back in the day where little black girls were made to choose between two barbies, and they were always picking the white one.  I hope the real mural turns out to actually look like them.




After the mural in Zone Z, we run to catch the Combi to Zone S.  It’s starting to leave without us, and we’re already late.  So I start running and yelling. Chelseafollows me.  We already attract plenty of attention to ourselves and now we’re two loud-arse Gringas sprinting after the Combi in our flip flops and backpacks, yelling in poor Spanish.  The Combi stops and we get on, panting.  All the natives are shaking their heads and laughing at us.


Each of the Zones is sort of set up the same way.  There’s dirt road leading away from the main roads of the “city” that go uphill at about a 45 degree angle.  Off these “main” dirt roads, are smaller dirt roads where people have set up makeshift houses.  The further uphill you go, the further you are from the city, the worse the poverty becomes.  Zone S is one of the newer Zones we’ve started to work with.  The Combis for this area only go about halfway up the hill, at which point you have to get out, and hope to find a Mototaxista that you think/hope won’t rob you (“Look the driver in the eyes,” the Peruvians will tell you, “this is how you know it’s safe”).  Alternatively, you can walk about 15 solid minutes up this desert hill at a 45 degree angle, through an area of the Zone where no one knows you, all the way up to the tippy top of the mountain where we work.


In Zone Z, we work with the people who live right in the middle of the mountain path, we’ve been there awhile and everyone knows and sort of watches out for the Gringos.  The ladies wait with us at night after class, the children greet us.  It’s safer.  But in Zone S, all the locals in the middle of the hill know, is that a few times every day a bus drops off a bunch of Gringos in backpacks, ostensibly filled with loads of expensive, stealable, items, and they trek uphill to do god knows what, totally unattended.


During the day it doesn’t feel like that big of a deal.  Lots of people are out and about, women and children, etc.  It’s busy.  You’re always with a voluntario buddy, so it’s fine.  At night, it’s less so, and I’m not keen to walk down the mountain in the dark every night at the same time.  It seems like just asking for trouble.  The other voluntarios keep telling me they’ve never had a problem and it’s fine.  But it’s not for me.


Tonight, three of us begin walking down the hill and we’re suddenly surrounded by four very large, ferociously barking dogs.  Stray dogs abound in Huaycan, but mostly they’re either disinterested or friendly.  These four are obviously neither.  The Peruvian non-friendly-dog-repellent-method is a three step process.


Step 1) Clap your hands and make noises in their direction;

Step 2) if step 1 fails, pick up a rock. Usually even motioning in the direction of a rock is enough to send them flying.

Step 3) if steps 1 and 2 fail, throw rock.


I have only ever made it to miming a rock pick-up and it’s been pretty successful.  But now it’s dark, and we’re outnumbered.  Maybe we could scare off a few of them, but really, who knows?  Maybe one of them will end up being really brave and attack.  We all try to stay calm and keep walking at an even pace.  Don’t look back!  We’re in their territory and as soon as we’re out they’ll go away.  We walk with them nipping at the air behind our heels for about a solid 40 seconds, and they give up.  We start to laugh and feel relieved, but this is obviously a sort of provocation as far as one of the dogs is concerned, because he chases after us and starts up again.  Dear God don’t let a dog bite one of us.  It’s not even the bite itself that worries me; it’s the Peruvian hospital I’d have to go to thereafter.  Or possibly even the transportation I’d have to take at this late hour to even get there:

– How’d Abby die?

– Dog bite.

– Geez, I thought it was just a minor wound.

– Yeah. She got shot on the way to the hospital.


The dogs all give up and we survive.  Halfway down the hill we run into some kids we know from class and warn them about the dogs up the hill.  “Oh, those dogs are okay.  You just have to remember to never run and you’ll be okay.  If you run, they’ll bite you.”  Noted.  I can’t believe these kids have to trek through that everyday to get home.  Alone.  In the dark no less.  I wish I were as brave as this 11 year old.


We get to the middle of the hill and wait for the Combi with a large crowd of people.  Three little girls are staring at us like we’re aliens.  They take turns pushing each other forward, no one wanting to be the first girl to speak to us.  They finally walk over.

– Do you live here?

– No. We live in Zone D. (Looks of disbelief)

– But where did you come from?


– English!  You speak English?

– Yes.

They each take turns mimicking the way English sounds to them “Wa wah wah wah.”

– Yep that’s about right.

– How did you come here?

– In a plane.

– No way!  What is a plane like?

– Like a Combi I guess.  But it flies, and there’s no cobrador [and the seats are welded to the floor, and you don’t have to shut the windows in the 90 degree heat because people walking by might reach in and steal something from you, and the driver’s not nuts, and no one is asking you to hold their chicken while they make change…but other than that, it’s mostly the same].

– Do you think we can visit you inAmerica?  Can we take a plane?  Will we take a plane one day?


No.  No, you won’t.  That’s the sad thing.  Most of you will probably never even take a Combi to another Zone….and with that, the guilt of privilege sets in….

Week one: Tuesday – Day One in Peru:


My arrival to the house is short of epic.  Everyone is crowded around computers in the dining room, not really speaking to one another.  The house is smaller than I thought it would be.   The house manager shows me to my bedroom.  I sleep in a room with three other girls and two bunk beds.  She rattles the ladder on my bunk,  “It seems like it’s coming loose, but it’s not.” – Oh.  Well, as long as you say so.  I climb to the top and pretend that the whole bed is not rocking.  It only seems like it’s rocking, I’m sure she’d tell me.

The town is rough.  Okay the pueblo.  The pueblo is rough.  I live in the nicer area too, in Zone D.  All the different areas are identified by letters, and the farther along in the alphabet you go the worse things get.  The boss, explains that we mostly work in Zones S, R and Z.  Wow.

Today we head up to Zone S, where one of the girls is giving a presentation to the women.  Three of us get on a Combi (their version of a city bus, that’s really more of a 16 passenger van).  The signs on the bus apparently don’t necessarily correspond with the direction the bus is actually traveling.  This Combi heads in the wrong direction.  We get off and take another back to where we started.  They overcharge us because we’re gringas, but we’re late and we don’t care.  We try to get on a Combi going the right way.  No Combis show up.  We try to take a mototaxi.

All the drivers pretend not to know where Zone S is located because it’s uphill and they don’t want to spend the money on the gas.  One agrees to take us up, but he stops exactly at the border of the Zone and goes no further.

– No, we need to go to those stairs up there.

– What stairs?

– Those stairs directly in front of you.  The yellow ones.

– I don’t see them.

– Do you see them for another 5 soles?

– Oh THOSE stairs!  Yes.

We drive up the dirt hill at a 45 degree angle.  I feel like we’re going to flip.

This Zone just got electricity.  It’s full of little shacks built into the side of a dusty, desert hill.  As soon as a child can walk, he’s free to run around the hill totally unsupervised –  half dressed, dirty children are everywhere.  The older ones holding the hands of their younger brothers and sisters. The kids all yell to the three gringas, “Meees.  Oh Meees.  Hola Meees. (Miss)”

As we arrive a woman who has a big loudspeaker on her house (read: shack) is announcing that there will be a presentation for the women and that everyone should meet in the school room to attend.  Her husband is something like the mayor of the Zone and this is how they make announcements everyday.

The class begins and it’s total chaos.  Everyone has brought their screaming children.  I take the kids outside so we can color and try and stay quiet.  Stray dogs abound and two make their way under the table where we’re coloring and get into a huge dog fight.  I scream and try and drag some kids to safety.  They look at me like I’m crazy.  None of the kids even flinch, everyone just keeps coloring while I try to convince them to move away from the table.  One of the mothers comes out and picks up a long reed from the ground and whips the dogs with it ‘til they break up the fight.

The kids start asking me to draw them various things.  Art is not an area that I excel in, but whatever, they’re like five right?  Who cares?  One little girl asks for a dog and I draw one.

– Eso no es un perro, eso es una salsiccia!  (That’s not a dog that’s a sausage!)

Another kid: – I want a sausage dog too!  Can you make me a sausage tiger?

I draw another kid an elephant and write the word underneath it.  Later one of the other volunteers comes out of the classroom and compliments the five year old on the elephant she drew.  I don’t say anything.

Tuesday night

9 hour overnight bus to the jungle at top speed.  There is a sign in the bus that says the driver is not allowed to go over 90km/hour.  But instead of having a regulator on the bus that keeps it from being able to go over 90, it actually just has a effing ALARM system where all the lights go on and a siren goes off in an OVERNIGHT bus where people are trying to SLEEP. Alerting the passengers to the danger of which they can do nothing about.  Awesome.  We are speeding around these winding ass roads with the side of the cliff just centimeters away.  A few hours into our bus ride our driver side swipes another car, gets into a fight with the driver and leaves, I’m going to assume, before an appropriate exchange of insurance information occurs.

The bus alternates between being so hot you want to die when we are in the valleys, and so cold you want to die while we drive through mountain peeks high enough to cause altitude sickness.  I ask for a blanket.  There are no blankets.  I pass out and wake up a few hours later to find every Peruvian on the bus covered in a red blanket with the company logo on it.  Hmmm.  I take the clothes out of my bag and layer a tank top over a skirt, over a t-shirt and use them as blankets.  I take the little cover off the back of the seat, put my arms through it, and shiver myself to sleep.