June 5, 2013 by jiejie768
At 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 1, GeGe opened a window on the second floor of her apartment, poked her head out, and found four eager students already waiting outside the front door. The kids had been told the day before not to show up before 8, and that they wouldn’t be let in until 8:30, but such enthusiasm is not so easily quelled.
The excitement for that day’s trip to Muyurina was such that I’m sure many kids woke early and laid in bed ticking off the minutes until they could head to the school and get on those buses — a veritable Christmas in June. By 8:45, as the buses pulled away, those original four had been joined by 106 of their classmates (and two unlicensed stowaways), and our annual field trip to the river was under way.
The day marked the fifth anniversary of Kids at the Crossroads here in Ayacucho.
In Peru, organizational anniversaries are a big deal, and hardly a week goes by without a fireworks show downtown announcing the anniversary of one bank or another. GeGe generally shies away from the parties and fanfare if she can, but she does celebrate each year with a paseo, or field trip for the kids.
By and large, the key ingredient to a successful paseo is sunshine and water to play in. The sunshine is out of our hands, but a pretty good bet during June. The water, on the other hand, became something of a sticking point in the weeks leading up to the trip. Apparently, the river next to Yanamilla, the site the program had visited the past three years, had dried up early this year in the wake of a weak rainy season.
This was cause for much consternation at our weekly staff meetings as we attempted to plan the event. At one point, it was thought we’d have to go a different route and simply rent a recreo down the road from the school and have the party there. As playing in the river was the primary attraction of the paseo, the kids would be deeply disappointed, but there seemed to be little recourse. Fortunately, about three weeks before the party, one of our teachers did some recon work and found a decent site near another river in a small town called Muyurina about 20 minutes outside Ayacucho.
The week before the trip, GeGe, Meg, Alejandro and I took a taxi out to Muyurina and confirmed that it would be ideal. We ended up arranging to use a recreo that was owned by Rudy, a friend and former employer of Alejandro. A recreo is essentially a catch-all word used by Peruvians to define a locale where one can participate in any number of recreational activities ranging from soccer to volleyball to dancing to getting very, very drunk (obviously that last one was not part of our game plan).
Rudy’s recreo was tucked off the main road about 500 meters and provided a picturesque site for our day of merrymaking. The main building is a gorgeous two-story house filled with antiques that wouldn’t be out of place in an American Western. In addition to a pair of volleyball fields and a soccer pitch, there are a couple of horses that graze freely on the grounds. Tucked away in the corner of the complex is a path that leads down to a river which provided the perfect combination of depth and rapids to be fun, but not dangerous, for our students.
Pleased and relieved at having secured such an ideal location, our attention turned to the much simpler task of arranging the food and refreshments for the day. Pollo a la brasa (spit-roasted chicken) with potatoes and qapchi (a cilantro-y green sauce popular in Ayacucho) would be the main course. Lunch would be washed down with chicha morada (corn punch), while mandarinas and cookies would be handed out at various points during the day. We were ready to go.
The energy and excitement on the bus were palpable as our caravan left the familiar streets of Ayacucho and wound through the countryside north of town. We had about 40 kids on each bus, and it wasn’t easy to keep them seated (sometimes four to a seat) as they attempted to peer out the windows at the changing countryside.
It’s easy to forget as you age the excitement that accompanies simply leaving the familiar routine of everyday. Certainly the games and swimming later were highlights for the kids, but it was clear early on that simply being on the bus with all their buddies was thrilling well.
We arrived at the recreo at about 9:30 a.m., and after a brief pep-talk from GeGe (“Don’t litter!”, “Don’t break stuff!”, “Behave!”), they were off to the races.
The pre-lunch portion of our day was reserved for activities such as volleyball, soccer and just generally running around to work up an appetite. Despite frequent reminders that we wouldn’t go to the river until after lunch, kids couldn’t help but ask if it was time to go in the river yet.
In addition to the various open, grassy areas around the complex, the recreo featured a small, shallow pond abutting the volleyball courts. This was a source of much excitement for the kids. Though no one dared enter for a swim (Meg and I had great success convincing some of the kids there were sharks and crocodiles in the deep end), they were captivated by the presence of small fish, which they quickly set about trying to catch.
It was pretty impressive just how creative they got in their attempts. After a few short, futile minutes trying to simply grab the fish from the shore with their bare hands, several students grabbed sticks, cut the tops of bottles and jerry-rigged makeshift fishing nets in no time.
Adding to the lakeside excitement was an unexpected surprise from Rudy. Unbeknownst to GeGe and the rest of the staff, the recreo was in possession of two inflatable river rafts.
About an hour after we arrived, Rudy plopped the rafts in the pond, provided a paddle for each raft and offered 10-minute boat rides, two per boat. This quickly became the dominant activity for the morning. I’d never before seen these kids wait patiently for anything for longer than 30 seconds at a time. But once those boats hit the water and word spread, there was a line, about 40 kids long, as each student (relatively) patiently waited (often for as long as an hour) for their turn to play skipper.
Though the complex featured plenty of shade, most of the activity took place under the strong, Andean sun. This meant that gringos such as Meg and I were frequently applying sun screen. This led to any nearby child begging for sunscreen as well. As soon as one kid got a drop, sure enough, 10 more would materialize and ask for some. This amused me, as I’m pretty sure that these kids are immune to sunburn and were covered head to toe in clothing and hats, just in case … the sun is considered quite threatening here.
Seriously, several of the kids rubbed screen on their arms then proceeded to roll their sleeves back down to their wrists. Better safe than sorry, I guess.
Mosquitos, on the other hand, were a universal threat. Meg and I likewise were vigilant with our repellent (and were likewise solicited by dozens of children at each application). It was annoying, but effective, as Meg and I returned home that night as pale as ever and with a single mosquito bite between us. GeGe, who failed to apply repellent to her legs when she went in the river later, was not so lucky.
Lunch was a mostly successful affair, as we were seated in our groups (each staff member, Meg and I included, had a group of 13 kids whom we were responsible for keeping track of throughout the day). Chicken and potatoes were served, and I spent most of my meal telling the kids at my table how to say various things in English.
Once the food was consumed, however, the urgency to get into the river increased. This led to a bit of good-natured impatience, as, with 112 kids, not everyone had been served (or finished) their food at the same time. My group was among the first served, and thus first finished, and they wanted to swim.
They didn’t have to wait too long (longer than they wanted, sure, but not really that long) before their wish was granted. After lunch, we gathered in our groups, grabbed all of our stuff and headed over to the river. This was, for kids and adults alike, the highlight of the day. At first, I planned on staying on the shore and simply taking pictures of the mayhem, but after about 10 minutes (and 10,000 pleas from the kids) we couldn’t stay dry any longer. I stowed the camera, Meg and I changed into our swimsuits, and we waded out into the water.
Shortly after getting our feet wet, a group of girls made sure the rest of us got as wet as possible as well. It was a pretty warm day under sun, but the river water was anything but (not as cold as some Peruvian rivers I’ve been in, but still pretty darn chilly). Thankfully, the water wasn’t too deep, and a few short minutes after the shock of a cold splash, the sun dried you off and warmed you up.
The kids occupied about a 300 meter stretch of river and took part in just about every water-bound activity you’d imagine a bunch of 6-12-year olds would. Some kids built dams, others splashed each other, and several took their ingenuity to new heights by sitting on beach balls and riding the current down river. Some kids (Yohan) swam down river with their mouths open like a fish, likely contracting any number of parasites in the process. It was an absolute blast.
The teachers got into it, to varying degrees, as well. GeGe and Percy stood at either end of the approved swimming area making sure kids did not wander to far down or upstream. Others, such as Gloria and Noe, played in the water like they were kids themselves (at 16, I guess Noe still is a kid).
We spent a good hour and a half playing in the water. Meg and I were amused at the dichotomy between the kids that did get in the water (the vast majority) and the few who choose to stay on the shore. The kids in the water were in swimsuits (or just underwear in some cases) reveling in warm-weather attire while, on the shore, the abstainers were bundled up in layers of fleece as if it were the middle of winter (which, technically it is, but it was like 80 degrees outside).
Toward the end of the afternoon, I was asked by Amancia to retrieve Isak from the other side of the river. The area was shallow, no deeper than two feet at the deepest, but the center of the river did have a decent current and uneven, rocky footing. Certainly, crossing alone would have been a dangerous proposition for the little guy.
Always happy to interact with Isak, I agreed and crossed the river. Seeing what was coming, and knowing his day was nearing an unwelcome end, Isak made me chase him in circles around a large boulder for about five minutes before I was finally able to secure him and ferry him safely across the rapids to his mother on the other side. (I still have no idea how he got to the far side of the river in the first place, probably Lucas.)
At about a quarter to 4, GeGe issued the command to abandon the river and begin changing for the trip home. This was met with displeasure, but obedience, and the end of our outing was upon us. All of the kids had moved their backpacks from the lunch/play area to the riverfront (about 200 meters away down a secluded path) after lunch. Most of them remembered this; Nelson did not.
On my way to the bathroom (back by the volleyball courts) to change into dry clothes, I saw Nelson, still in nothing but a bathing suit, searching frantically for his mochila (backpack). I told him it was over by the river with the rest of our group’s things. I knew for a fact he’d brought it there, as I’d had to tell him to grab it no fewer than four times when we were moving there after lunch.
Still perplexed, he told me it wasn’t by the table where he’d left it; that table being the one near the volleyball courts. I again told him to go back to the river and look under the tree where our group had left their bags. He headed off to the river, and I went to change. After emerging in dry clothes, I found him still wandering aimlessly and without his backpack.
I walked with him back to the riverside and showed him the tree, under which his backpack, shoes and pile of clothes were sitting in plain sight. Elated at having his bag, he grabbed it and ran behind a bush to change — leaving all of his clothes in a pile under the tree. Oh, Nelson.
Percy and I chuckled and called to him, asking him if he, perhaps, needed those clothes to change into. Sheepishly, he reemerged from behind the bush, grabbed his clothes and returned to the task at hand. I’m going to miss that kid, but fortunately I’ve got several hundred (new) gray hairs in my head to remind me of him every time I look in the mirror.
The buses, slated to return at 4 p.m., pulled in at 4:45, because, well, Peru. There was one glaring issue with our caravan, however: it was missing a bus. Apparently a police checkpoint had sent one of the three back to town because of a busted headlight. Without another option, we set about piling three buses worth of children into the two remaining chariots. It was crowded, but fortunately, Peruvian children are small.
There was a bit more excitement on the way home when our bus, packed to the gills with students (and a few adults), was stopped at the same checkpoint. The standard operating procedure at these things is for the driver to include a bribe (2-5 soles) when handing over one’s license and registration. For whatever reason, our driver didn’t feel it necessary and we waited with baited breath on the side of the road while the police gave his papers a thorough inspection. After about 10 minutes, he finally relented and delivered the required bribe to the police so that we could continue on our way home.
As we made our way back up the hill and into town, several kids began nodding off, including Tony, who was sitting on my foot (and the floor) and resting his head on my knee (I was standing, unlike the kids). We pulled up in front of the house about an hour later than scheduled, and GeGe quickly ushered the kids on their way home.
We did have one last bit of (intestinal) fireworks ahead of us though, as a girl on our bus got carsick right as we got home. In a bit of poetic justice, her payload landed on one of the two non-program girls (siblings or cousins of kids in the program) who had stowed away (and gotten a thorough tongue-lashing from GeGe) earlier that day. I did feel pretty bad for the girl, as her shirt was now carrying a good bit of vomit, but (cue the Dante voice), “She wasn’t even supposed to be there today!”
All in all, it was a pretty fantastic day (see below for a photo gallery of all the shots that wouldn’t fit in this post). Meg and I had been looking forward to it quite a bit, and in the end, it was even more fun that we’d anticipated. Throughout the day, however, we would be struck with the unwelcome thought that our time with these kids was rapidly drawing to an end. In fact, this write-up is posting on the morning of our final day in Ayacucho.
It still hasn’t really sunk in that we’re not coming back for who knows how long. It has been a wonderful experience, and we are excited to be back in Seattle, but it’s impossible to imagine life without these 110 or so kids who’ve become like family to us. Actually, I don’t want to think about it. So I won’t … not yet anyway.