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We’re back now, heading our separate ways, but with Peru not very far behind.  I’m writing this on the train, my bag on the rack above, full of dirty clothes, dusty camera gear, and a few souvenirs.  Just a few minutes ago, sitting in the station, I watched people going about their busy day, everything comparably clean and modern, provoking a kind of traveler’s vertigo.  It takes time, I know, to re-enter this other world.  Twenty-four hours ago I was on a crowded bus, heading into Lima, looking at all the limenos staring out bus windows of their own, seeing the hills beyond, full of thatch wall and roof houses, trash scattered all about, the hard-packed dirt in front of metal shops and other businesses lining both sides of the Panamericana a dirty black gray.

My second project for the two week visit started several days before with a car ride from Huarmey to Casma and Casma to Yautan, where we stayed the night in the labor and delivery room of the posta (the health clinic).  We woke up at 5:30am and within minutes we were dressed and packed and ready to leave (this always amazes me).  We drove for a little more than an hour to Cacqui, at least until the road became too narrow and we had to walk, which we did with the students from the local school who had run down to meet us.  In this village we installed a solar panel and hired donkeys for the hike to the next place, Canchirao, probably about 12,000 feet.  When the donkeys still hadn’t come around John and Sarah hit the trail, to get a head start, and Eduardo and Oscar and I waited.  It took another hour, though, to get blankets and bridles and ropes and then to pack, putting the three of us on the path pretty late in the afternoon.  We also soon realized that leading donkeys (we didn’t have any other guide) is a pretty difficult thing to do.  Almost ever five minutes they tried to stop and eat, as the climb got steeper and steeper, forcing us to yank and cajole and push, adding another challenge to the walk.  Also, after the first two hours, the sun went down and the moon wasn’t yet up, so we switched on head lamps.  The moon eventually lit our way, fairly brilliantly, but we had another three hours to go.  The only thing that made it bearable was when I gave up hope, remembering all the Camus I had read, particularly the Myth of Sisyphus.  Once I no longer thought about reaching the summit, it was a little less difficult.  Except we did reach the village, tied up the donkeys, and went into the clinic to meet John and Sarah, to rest, and to eat dinner, orange juice from a box, water, soda crackers, tuna fish, and chocolate bars.  When we went outside to see about feeding the donkeys, though, they were gone.  I heard dogs barking on the other side of the village and ran over (who knows how, with what strength or wind) to find one donkey cornered.  I chased him back toward the posta where Eduardo finally caught him.  The other one, we figured, had managed to get back on the trail to Cacqui

Anyway, the next day we went over to the school and the team started on the installation while I filmed.  There was plenty of interest in this on the part of the kids (we seem to pretty much undermine any lesson plan for the day when we arrive to work) although it took some time for the girls to get used to my camera.  At first when I pointed it their way they scattered and hid, chattering in quechua and squealing and giggling like any silly kids would do.  They were dressed the way you might imagine, in the boldest colors, a few with bowler hats, even more odd for the fact that the boys wore plain pants and shirts and sweaters.  Well, by afternoon we were finished, had a quick lunch at the school director’s house, and packed for heading out.  The other donkey appeared then and so we led that one with us, descending the other side of the mountain toward Tumipampa, where we would have a taxi waiting.  It was certainly easier going down than coming up except much, much harder on the knees, and a four hour hike is still a four hour hike.  Again we had to do part of that in the dark.  Unfortunately, Oscar also convinced us to take a “shortcut,” a lot more steep, extremely narrow in places, with a long drop down on the side, slippery for the fine dust and gravel that covered it.   Somehow we made it and got in the car, which ran low to the ground for all the weight and kept hitting big rocks.  We got a flat tire as well and we walked more while the driver fixed that.  He picked us up and after we got the rest of our gear at Yautan we hit a paved road, which apparently had no real speed limit (we were going nearly 100 miles an hour for long stretches).  In Casma, after midnight, we checked into a hostel, went out for a later dinner, and got our showers.

That’s a chronicle of events, of course, lacking anything like reflection or interpretation, the kind of commentary and observation that would begin to make sense of the journey in all its parts and as a whole.  The work exhausted me (I’m still tired, even after sleeping on buses and planes, as if the tiredness settled deep inside me) and I’m going through the shock of being back.   Maybe in the next few days I can sift through the memories and add one more final post, including some pictures.

My previous post was written in Huanchay-Huaraz and this post is being written in Malvas, "El Balcon del Pacifico." Malvas is yet another town approximately 10,000 ft. above sea level, but unlike Huanchay-Huaraz there is a lot more walking, in other words, I'm out of breath for most of the time.

So, how did I get here? Well first off we took a 3 a.m. bus out of Hunchay-Huaraz only hours after my last post. After three hours in the bus we stopped in Turripampa, where my group helped move a windmill. After that we spent an hour in an asparagus truck to get to another town (the name of which I do not remember) to repair the water pump for a canal system. That was followed by another hour in an asparagus truck to get back to Turripampa then after spending some time deliberating on the next steps of the journey we spent over an hour in the asparagus truck to get back to Huarmey.

Once we reached Huarmey and got to the hostel, Maia (the only person from the crew who had been in Huarmey when we arrived) comes down the stairs excited because she heard people speaking English and knew it had to have been us. She began giving us hugs hello, but cut them short saying, "Eww you smell."

Chad (and possibly others) have mentioned in this blog that after all the traveling, working, and lack of showers, we generally arrive in Huarmey a bit smelly and always dirty. Needless to say, a shower is the first thing to happen, followed by food, when we reach Huarmey. And that bit of comfort was much needed for the next day's work.

Kevin, Ricky, and I got breakfast at the juice bar around 6:30 and then grabbed the 7:30 bus, which didn't leave until 8:30, to head to Malvas. It was a four hour bus ride that brought us to another one of Peru's mountain towns.

In the beginning of this blog post when I mentioned we were in Malvas I typed out it's nickname, "El Balcon del Pacifico," which translates to "The Balcony of the Pacific." It's called that because when you climb to the top of the town you stare out through the mountains and over the Pacific Ocean. It's a stunning view.

Unfortunately, even though the town has excellent views, the internet is not so great. Apart from this blog page and Google, practically nothing else loads (including most email servers). So, while I feel slightly disconnected from everyone back home, this blog should ideally give people an idea of what types of things the Peru Crew is experiencing.

We should be done with our work in Malvas tonight, but there is no bus for Huarmey until Wednesday morning, so tomorrow (Tuesday) we are planning on taking a hike. We have a few options but choose one. The first is a short two hour hike up about a thousand ft. for some great views of the surrounding mountain range. The other two options are each about four hours along, climbing about 3000 ft. each to either see former homes of the Inca people or to see one of the most beautiful lakes of Peru. The Inca homes will be interesting, but the lake supposedly has a curse. The group of us really want to see that cursed lake (but I already can't breathe after hiking through the town for an hour, I'm still trying to figure out how the four hour hike will work, donkey maybe?).

After that we'll have two more days in Peru, leaving Thursday night and arriving in the U.S. early Friday afternoon. So far the trip has been awesome and all of the groups have done a lot of work. I expect the next few days to be a great end to our time in Peru and a chance to buy the souvenirs everyone back home has been asking for.

El mundo se salve

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Walking through the market by the parroquia just before we left for the mountains, I saw a man ahead, carrying a painting, a landscape, with a phrase at the top done in black.  It read, “El mundo se salve si cada uno hace su parte,” which translates into English as “The world is saved if each one does their part.”  It was a fitting complement, in a way, to the task at hand, traveling to a village in the Huarmey Valley to install a solar panel at a school.  We’re back from that now, as of this morning, preparing more equipment and supplies for the same work in other villages in the Casma Valley.   But the one venture (at high altitude) certainly wore out the team, a group of four, and we’ll need to rest well tonight to be ready for the next.

To get to the school we rode a bus to Quishuar for eight hours, and stayed the night there.  The next day we talked with the folks in that village about possible collaboration with the Village Empowerment Project, first in a formal meeting with the community leaders and then in more informal conversation, after which they treated us to crackers and Inka Cola and a bit of guitar.  Then we put our gear on donkeys and made a trek across the valley to Copi, which you can see from Quishuar but which is really not so close.  It made me think of a line I read in the Wisdom of Donkeys book, only turned on its head, to speak to the ‘distance of nearness.’  In any case, it was a struggle at times to put one foot in front of the other on the ascent, trying to catch some air, fighting dizziness and the tingling in our hands and cheeks, realizing how steep a mountain can be.  We made it, though, and immediately went to work on the installation, finished the next day, yesterday, in the afternoon.  

Once the panel was in we ate a late lunch/early dinner and left for the journey to LLaclin, where we could catch a bus to Huarmey (since the bus from Quishuar only comes twice a week).  The hike took us four hours, almost half of that in the dark, but we had a guide, a thirteen year old boy named Wauker (an old Quechua name), who also led a donkey packed with equipment.  At one point he told us there were some “wild” dogs ahead, guarding goats, which would probably be a danger.  When he picked up a rock I picked up one too, then he picked up another and I did the same.  The dogs came up, but Wauker’s dog held them back for a bit, we made it around them, and then Stephanie ran at them, chashing them off for good.  Well, between that sort of thing and the walking by the time we hit the town we were absolutely beat.  There was no place to get a real meal so we bought canned tuna and crackers and ate that before sleeping in a room above the store (you don’t know how good tuna and crackers can be until you’ve had them this way).   During the night we slept little since there were a lot of dogs barking and fighting on the road below, and we had to wake up at 3am for the bus.  So we came into Huarmey dirty (probably smelly), very tired, and a little hungry.

Now that I’ve been making notes and keeping a record of events and observations in my head, as well as on this blog, I realize there’s a great temptation to emphasize the foreign and unknown about Peru.  This is partly because the attitude belongs to the “travel writing” genre and partly because, in fact, there is plenty of difference all around me, constantly.  Just crossing the street here in town is an encounter with a flood of contrasts to what I know and expect.  But for the rest of the trip I’m going to make an effort to notice the universal, the things that allow us to connect across what might otherwise separate.

I never imagined how difficult it could be to lug around about 50 pounds of camera equipment until I needed to carry it up a really tall flight of stairs, and back down repeatedly, at 10,000 ft. above sea level. Don't get me wrong, there are definitely other locations that are at higher altitudes, but I am definitely getting winded by the time I'm up the stairs.

Allow me to put that altitude into perspective for you. When I look up, I see nothing but layers of blues with each layer getting progressively darker as I keep looking up until I look straight up into the air and I see nothing but a sea of violet. When I look down the side of the mountain, there are a couple hundred yards of cliffs and steep hills and then they hit a floor of clouds. At sunset, you look down at the sun and everything around you looks like it has been painted in fire. The view here in Huanchay-Huaraz is completely stunning.

Those views are some of the things I caught on camera so far. Other things include the work being completed by Richard and Kevin. I've filmed them taking apart a windmill as well as constructing a tower for a solar-heated water tank.

I must say, however, the most interesting thing I have filmed was a pack of stray dogs chasing down mototaxis after midnight. I needed to avoid a shifty looking man, a transvestite that was hitting on me, the dogs themselves, and the driver of the mototaxi (he was not too happy that I had filmed his torment), but I got the footage. Then when I sat down to look it over, I realized that my white balance was really off. My heart sank. All that hard work and the footage looked horrible because I didn't set one thing properly.

Since then I have been much more careful with white balance and everything else. I want the footage I capture to accurately represent what I see, whether it be stunning mountain vistas or dogs on a hunt.

On the bus yesterday we went from point A to point B, riding for all of 6 hours from Lima to Huarmey, but really it was more than a matter of moving through space.  There was a change in landscape, going from a huge, sprawling city that seems delimited by nothing except its own endlessness to a much smaller, compact one situated in the dry coastal desert at the foothills of the Andes.  There was also a social shift, from the faster and more precarious life of an urban area plagued by all the problems that arise from mixing  incredible population density and economic inequality to a place still infused with the deliberate habits and attitudes of hard-working people not so far away from the isolated rural village (in some cases because they either recently migrated or never did and simply come to shop or visit family).

This morning Dimitrios, Maia and I did an interview with Jacinta, the mother of Javeth.  She has a stall in the local market, selling fruit, and of course she had heard about the leg.  But Jacinta has troubles of her own, some kind of eye ailment, maybe a cataract, and Maia had done the work of finding a free clinic in Lima that she needs.  For whatever reason, the hospital here is not a place that could help her access that care, even merely to tell her about its availability.  I mean, it’s not that hard to get there.  Later in the morning, a few of us walked over, to check on the hospital’s communication radio, and I decided that would be as good as place as any to interview Sarah and Maia about their work on the leg, which we did.  Then we easily walked back to the church.

So that’s where we are now, at the parochia, a church in the middle of town, between the market and the main plaza.  Someone has turned a radio on and the packing for leaving for the mountains is happening to a salsa beat.  There are tools, rolls of cable, and all manner of other things on the floor, to be divided up between four different crews.  One will go to the Casma valley, another to the Huarmey valley, a third to the Culebras valley, and a fourth to an area somewhat between the Huarmey and Culebras valleys.  Dimitrios will be in the second, filming Kevin and Ricky working on their passive solar adobe house, and I’ll be in the last, following Steve and others taking batteries to certain villages still off the grid, possibly requiring a bit of hiking (if that’s how it goes, we’ll carry our own packs and put the 100-lb batteries on mules).

Otherwise, the town is full of Sunday sounds, with so many people out sitting and talking, kids playing, and the ever-present sound of various mototaxi (three-wheeled motor bikes) and car horns.  Also, voting has been going on through the day, the country teetering on the edge of going left or right, selecting either Keiko Fujimori (daughter of the imprisoned, former dictator) or Ollanta Humala (son of a general famous for advocating indigenous empowerment).  Judging by most polls, Fujimori will win, helped by a propaganda campaign associating Humala with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.  More on that later.

Just as I finished this, it turned 4pm, and the results are coming in on the radio, with Humala the likely winner, contrary to all the earlier predictions.  Amazing.



Peru's Places

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We have touched down in Peru, been here a couple days and have been spending our time in Lima. So, I have not yet seen much of Peru but I like what I do see.

We’ve been staying in Barranco; it’s one of Lima’s neighborhoods and also happens to be the arts district of Lima; I feel at home.

Just the other night we took a walk down to the beach (first time I have seen the Pacific Ocean mind you) and right next to the beach was a massive mosaic. I was simply stunned at the piece’s beauty.

But I forgot my camera.

In just a few hours we’re going to get on a bus that we will stay on for between five and six hours until we reach our destination and homebase for the rest of the trip, Huarmey. From there we will be going into the smaller villages in the valleys and cliffs of the Andes mountain range.

While there I know I won’t be in any arts districts, but the way of life will be a form of art in and of itself. The culture will be drastically different and I can only wait to see some of the traditional items that the people in the mountains make for everyday use, whether it range from a hat made of alpacca wool or a small piece of jewelry. Those pieces are art of a different kind.

Along the way I will be filming what I see, what the other members of the Peru crew see and our reactions to the culture and their reactions to our actions. How are these people affected by what we do?

Well, I can tell you that I know some of them are truly touched. Chad already talked about how we filmed the donation of a prosthetic leg to Javeth. Well, I have to say, as soon as she saw the leg her demeanor completely changed. She went from a cordial and kind person to someone who was simply happy. Happiness defined her in that moment. When we interviewed her later she said "Sentio contento," "I feel happy."

Making people happy and helping these people out is one of the main purposes for this trip and I am glad that I have the opportunity to be able to tell that story through both film and this blog.


I spent part of the time on the plane the other day reading a book, The Wisdom of Donkeys, and came across a couple of lines that fit well as a description for the Village Empowerment Project.  The author had made his own journey through France (leading a donkey of course) and described that traveling as ‘a door opening out to chance, with only vague plans,’ most of which ‘were subject to change. ‘


At packing day on Wednesday (when every one going to Peru gathered at the solar lab to pack gear) and in the airport today (when we sat together during the three hour layover), we did finalize “to do” lists.  But those tasks will be governed by the rules I learned from past trips to Peru (thanks Diana and Cheryl).  One is that the best answer to many questions (when are we leaving, how are we getting there, where are we going, what are we doing there, where will we sleep, what will we eat) is often “depende,” or “it depends.”  The other rule is the fact that things happen here “poco a poco,” little by little.  And already I`ve seen both of those play out.


Today we delivered a prosthetic leg to a clinic in Callao, an area of Lima, with Dimitrios and I tagging along to film.  At first we thought the event wouldn´t happen, because there was a mix up in trying to find Javeth, the young woman who was supposed to get the leg.  We were about to leave, to try again tomorrow, when I saw Javeth, her husband and daughter in the hall, and told Maia.  Then, the doctor wasn´t ready to do the fitting but accommodated us anyway.  Two (or more hours) later, in a crowded rehabilitation room (full of sublime light coming through the windows), the thing was done and Javeth was in tears, beyond happy. 


So Saturday we continue.  We’re off to Huarmey, a long bus trip up the coast (including a few spectacular views of dry brown hills on one side and the Pacific ocean on the other).  In Huarmey, at a church that serves as our base, we’ll pack and repack and divide up into crews, figuring out transportation for each, and then do still more hours of traveling into the mountains, to finally get to work in the villages.  Then we’ll see.



We have arrived in Peru and I am writing my first blog post from the country. And just typing this entry is proving to be a challenge in and of itself. Why? The keyboard is set-up differently.

The biggest issue I'm faced with is the fact that there is no actual key for the "@" symbol. Rather you need to press and hold the "alt" key and then type in the code for the character, 64. So, small differences like that will take some getting used to. I am re-learning how to type. While it may not be something completely new, it is different enough that it will take some getting used to. I have the feeling that the same can be said for many more experiences to come while I'm in Peru.

I will not need to completely re-learn how to do everything, but everyday tasks will be different enough to throw a wrench into things. For example, I need to remember not to use tap water while brushing my teeth, otherwise my stomach will be fairly upset with me. If i wanted to use tap water to drink or even brush my teeth, then I need to use these little iodine tablets that I brought with me. That is a process that will take about 40 minutes for a single liter of water.

But it's these small differences that will form my entire experience of Peru. The many small changes that differentiate it from the way of life in the states.

So, I just finished packing about an hour ago and have my alarm set to wake up in less than three hours to give everything one last check, start heading out of the house and make it to the airport by 7 a.m. I am glad there will be time to grab some sleep on the airplane. After that there is always coffee. 

I've done some traveling before, but none of it has been to a place like Peru and it has also generally been more of a tourist type experience. This time, I am going to a country where more than half of the population is impoverished with about half of those people being in extreme poverty. That degree of poverty is one of the reasons the Village Empowerment Program (VEP) exists. It exists so that students can take their education, make use of it, and create the opportunity for others to benefit from this education.

Some students are working on solar energy projects, others are working on drip irrigation. I along with Professor Montrie will be filming the work they complete. The filming is my project for while I'm down in Peru. It's going to be an opportunity for me to improve my camera work while also working in less than desirable conditions (hiking up a mountain lugging around camera equipment will be interesting).

So, I'll end my first post by going back to the whole packing situation. I have no clue if I packed the right things. I am getting that feeling most people get when they pack for a trip, the persistent nagging of that inner voice asking what you forgot. You know the voice, it's a lot like a little five year old with a sweet tooth on a hot day in the summer, no pool, broken air conditioner, and an ice cream truck playing that tantalizing melody outside on the street. Can you picture the kid constantly asking for ice cream? Well I'm constantly asking myself what I forgot to pack. But, I'm not going to sweat it, rather I'm going to think back to a very simple philosophical approach to life that I learned at a very young age when I myself was constantly asking my parents for ice cream from the ice cream truck.

Hakuna Matata (even though I am slightly worried about not having slept enough).


- Dimitrios

The words in the title above belong to Kelly, a member of the January 2008 Village Empowerment Project (VEP) crew.  At the time, she was an engineering student and hoped to actually install the bio-digester that she and a partner had designed “on paper” during the previous semester.  With the system, people could compost animal manure (mostly from ubiquitous guinea pigs) to create fertilizer and cooking gas, both quite useful byproducts.  But Kelly came to understand that the VEP was about much more than bringing a technical fix to a technical problem.  The human interaction and connection across cultures that had to happen, and that did happen when the bio-digester installation started in a place called Laguna, was another equally valuable dimension to her “capstone” experience.  It revealed the larger, social significance of the manner we make our way in the world and demonstrated that this is no less a consideration for engineers than for anyone else.


I was with the January 2008 crew too, filming for a promotional video, and I had a chance to observe Kelly and many others close-up for hours and days at a time.  It did not take long, I noticed, before they were forever changed, pushed harder in a direction they might already have been going but forever changed nevertheless.  This was prompted by the reality of the poverty they saw, by the kindness and modesty of the people they met, and by the varied beauty of the landscape.  Even before going down Kelly had plans to join a convent, which she did right after graduation, yet I’m sure her vocation was more grounded and continues to be grounded by the time she spent in Peru.  And that holds true for everyone else and their particular career path as well.  In this sense, an odd sense, the folks who participate in the VEP probably receive as much as they give to the people in the mountain communities they serve.


As I get ready to leave for my third trip to Peru, departing in less than two weeks, I am fleshing out a list of specific objectives.  I’m a filmmaker (not so great but competent enough) and one job I’ll have is to collect footage that can be edited for still more promotion and recruitment videos.  I also teach filmmaking (among a number of subjects) and I’m bringing down a student, Dimitrios, who I hope to nudge to the next level with his camera skills, guiding and testing him in the practical application of techniques we learned in the classroom this spring.  Finally, however, I'm going because I am hungry to witness the power this particular service learning initiative has to work personal transformations.  I want to see first-hand, once again, how a counter-narrative can develop, challenging the notion that university training (as an engineer or otherwise) is simply a means to get a degree, land a job, make money, and be an individual success.


Following this post, then, before we actually leave, others will join in, some of them VEP veterans like me and others new to the venture, each reflecting on the moment at hand.  During our trip, when we have access to an internet café (in Lima, Huarmey, and Casma), we will update the blog and let readers know what we’re seeing, thinking, and doing.  Ciao for now.

Chad Montrie

Professor, History Department 

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