Monthly Archives: December 2011

Tis the Season…..

It is rainy season in Perú. A lot of people ask me what that means. To be honest with you, I am not quite sure myself. I have asked lots of locals, and have gotten just as many different answers as the people I have asked. So, for now, I can only go by my last month’s experience. IT RAINS. Well, it rains every day, or night. Really hard. It always stops though, and then it may be gray. Or the sun may come out. Really strong.  What is the pattern? Who knows? All I know is that if you are trying to get crops to grow, the weather is perfect.

I was thinking about the rainy season yesterday as I spent the day in local communities, spreading a little holiday cheer. First, I stood in the rain for many hours, then, in the sun. Many people have also asked me “So, what’s the holiday season like where you are?” My answer…. “Pure.” If someone dropped you here from another planet, you would probably have little clue that this was any different than any other time of the year. No mall madness. No shopping frenzies. No credit card debt. In fact, it is really impossible to even use a credit card here. Well, there is really nothing to buy anyway. Now, if you travel to the big city of Cusco (2 hour drive by collectivo), there are some shops where you could buy things, if you wanted to. But living a simple life, here in Ollantaytambo, I cannot really imagine anything I would buy anyway. I mean, what do I really need that I don’t have? I really can’t think of anything. Ah….. well there is one thing that I did ask my husband for (and we’ll see if I get it when he arrives here tomorrow.) It is a thermometer. “Why?,” you ask. Well, there just are no thermometers here. Anywhere. I guess it doesn’t really matter what temperature it is, does it? I mean it just is what it is. The weather changes so frequently that you are either burning in the strong sun one minute, or shivering in your unheated room from the damp weather. Hot or cold. The bigger thing is if it’s raining or not. The locals find no need to put a number on it. Dress in layers. So, why do I want a thermometer, then? Well, the truth of the matter is that I still talk with a lot of people who do NOT live here. And they are always asking about the weather. So, as a courtesy to y’all, I would like to be able to quantify the “temperature” that it is here. But I digress.

Nativity Scene in our Main Plaza

Back to the season at hand. It is Christmas Eve. A small nativity scene was put up in our main Plaza, just a few days ago. Very nice and simple, it is decorated with all natural mosses and plant things from the jungle. People here in town will celebrate with their families. They may go to Church, and will definitely have a big meal and lots of chicha and beer. Perú is predominately a “Catholic” country, as it was conquered by the Spaniards. They built many churches and cathedrals on top of the native Incan places of worship. Peruvians have adapted the Catholic religion, incorporating their own traditional belief system. It is truly a syncretic religion. So, although they may attend Church, many still have their own polytheistic worship which dates back to their Incan culture. The Peruvian Constitution states that there is freedom of religion, but the law mandates that all schools, public and private, impart religious education as part of the curriculum throughout the education process. So, if kids go to school, they are taught Catholicism. But I believe that privately, in homes, a combination of religions, or a syncretic religion is practiced.

The Tree in Rockefeller Plaza – It Ain’t

I would like to believe that this is why the holiday season is still so “pure” here. People will practice what they will. No bastardization of a religious holy day into a frenzy of commercialism. I may be idealistic in that thought. It could very well be that capitalism and commercialization just haven’t made it here yet. I mean, after all, you can’t even use a credit card here – yet.

I know that in the mountain communities that our girls come from, there will be no Christmas tree, no presents, no holiday meal. I don’t know how to explain it more plainly. These people have very little. So, there are a few organizations around that spread a little holiday cheer to the poor children in the communities. And that’s what I was doing yesterday for 10 hours in the rain/sun. A community persona “Washi” has been bringing chocolatada (homemade hot chocolate) and pancito dulce (little sweet breads) to children in the communities for the last 10 years. He, as well as dozens like him, is like a Peruvian Santa Claus.

Waiting for Papa Noel to Arrive

Waiting for Chocolatada

Yesterday, we visited 6 communities in a very sparkly van – with tinsel streamers and loudspeakers on top. Today, 7 more will be visited. We were playing fun Christmas songs – from Spanish songs to dogs barking Jingle Bells to Feliz Navidad. As the van rolled into the communities, children flocked in, clutching empty mugs to get their chocolatada. We saw up to 100 kids at each stop we made. Community leaders already had a huge pot of water boiling on an open fire, and Elisabeth, a friend of Washi’s, would get to work, adding oatmeal, pure chocolate, sugar, milk and cinnamon. We had about 9  local Ollanta kids, mostly teenage boys, with us in the van – who hauled ingredients to the cooking station. One was even dressed up like Papa Noel to bring further delight to the kids. The kids waited patiently as the hot chocolate was made, then lined up to get their cup filled, and have a treat of sweet bread.

Elisabeth is the Chocolatada Making Queen

The moment everyone’s been waiting for!

Oh, to see the excitement of kids at Christmas! There were not dozens of brightly wrapped presents under a tree. No huge “wishlists.” There was not days spent buying the perfect ingredients for the perfect meal. No holiday cards. No decorations…. Just a cup of hot chocolate and a sweet bread. In the rain. The gratitude from these kids was more touching than I think I have ever experienced. So much for so little. I think back to all of the time and money I have spent “getting ready” for the Christmas holidays, as well as the stress that goes with it. Of course, it’s always turned out to be lovely. And of course, I have always enjoyed the time spent with my family. And I think about the fact that here, there was none of that. Just about a buck spent on each kid, and stopping at the market and bakery to pick up some supplies, the same morning. So much for so little.

This year, the holiday season has new meaning for me. It is not about all of the trappings we so easily get caught up in. It’s not about finding the perfect gift or planning the perfect meal. It’s not about taking the perfect photo to commemorate the season. All of these things will come and go. It is about taking the time to think about your beliefs, and quietly celebrating them in an appropriate way. It is about doing what you can to bring joy to others. Even if that means standing in the rain.

I gave my hat to this cute girl in Sillky

As my holiday gift to you, I would love to share some of these kids and the joy that they bring ……… Enjoy them, in addition to your family and friends, this holiday season.

Happy Holidays!


Education is Just So Important

So……. what is this program all about, anyway?  When the project began, I think the original thought was to provide the girls with a safe place to stay during the week, so that they could attend school. Easy, right? Well – ummmmm, not exactly. As the program progressed, everyone realized that it was a little more complicated than that. The reason? Well, all of the girls came from different communities and had different educational backgrounds. Most had been taught in one-room mud ‘school’ buildings – one teacher for all grade levels. So, needless to say, they all have different ‘holes’ in their learning.

John and the Girls Hard at Work

One focus that we’ve had this year is on Math. We’ve been extremely fortunate in that we have a bonafide math teacher from the U.S. volunteering with us this semester. His name is John Mauro. John’s been doing an outstanding  job with the girls, not only tutoring them in their homework, but in trying to catch them up with all of the elementary stuff that they’re missing. The huge problem, though, is that it’s hard to teach algebra when the foundations of working with fractions or multiplication tables are missing. The homework that the girls get is well, just plain ridiculous. It can cover 10 different advanced topics, none of which they seem to have learned in the classroom. And, although John does an excellent job trying to teach each new topic on the homework, their basic skills are just really lacking. That’s where we come in.

Just a little math

About 10 years ago, my son Jacob started a non-profit organization, Computer for Communities, which provides technology and training to people that typically can’t afford it. Over the years, we’ve done all sorts of programs – from in-home computer donation and training, to prison programs and city-wide Internet access and after-school inner-city technology programs. Needles to say, we have quite a bit of experience in using technology to help people in all sorts of situations. What a perfect fit! Through CFC, we raised some cash to bring brand new laptops down, and set up an awesome computer lab for the girls.

Jake Showing the Girls Some Cool Technology

Although we are in a non-permanent space, the laptops really are the ticket in this developing country. We can charge them when we have power, and they can run on battery. We don’t have to worry about drawing too much current at one time, with monitors and desktops and whatnot. And…. if there’s no power – which happens all too often – no worries! We can still use the lab.

Just Working Away!

As part of my job of working on after-school curriculum, I have found an awesome, awesome online program that works perfectly for our situation. It is called ALEKS. With ALEKS, we have given each girl an initial assessment test (I chose 3rd grade level.) The program then identifies any areas (128 topics at that level) that are not mastered, and creates individual tutoring and testing for each girl. The girls can actually see and track their own progress on a pie chart – talk about motivation! They absolutely love doing the program – and beg to spend more time on it! In addition, we can access lots of cool reports that show us their progress, areas of mastery and deficiency – great for John to set up group classroom teaching topics! Anyway, it may seem like I am gushing about this program – but, well, I guess I am! We have seen such strides and improvement in the girls in the 2 months that they have been trying it out…. not only in their math skills, but in their responsibility level for their own learning, that it really makes me feel like we are accomplishing a huge amount.

Loving Math!

Another educational program I’ve introduced is a much broader, cross-cultural curriculum. The idea is to have our girls work together with “sister schools” in the U.S., or anywhere else that is not Peru. So far, we have two groups of students, one from Conserve School, and the other that my good friend Annie has set up, with students that are mostly from Brown University. Sister schools exchange letters with our girls (in Spanish). Since our cultures are centuries apart, students on both ends discuss things about their daily lives, living conditions, music, family life, etc. We follow up with discussion on our end, so our girls learn more about the world. Students on the first world side learn more about what it’s like to live in a developing country, as well as about local traditions and culture. And, ALL students get to practice their Spanish! As the program develops, we will add in Skyping from our new computer lab. So far, it’s been a win-win for everyone. As the program develops, we may even be able  to get some financial support from our sister schools – if kids decide to do fundraisers, like sales of alpaca wool hats. Anyway, it is turning into an awesome program – with a lot of excitement on both sides.

Fancy Letter from Anita to her PenPal

One last note on education – the supplementary work that we are doing with the girls in the after-school program is way too important. The support that they need to succeed in school is huge, as the schools that they attend typically have over 40 students in a classroom – with one teacher and no aids. ‘Nuf said. I’m not going to get all philosophical on you – as I think you can see the enormous strides we are making. We had girls from mountain communities, where their education stopped in 6th grade. We now have girls that are communicating – not in Quechua, but in Spanish – with students from around the globe. We now have girls that are learning to use modern technology to learn. They are REALLY learning skills that my kids had access to when they were in elementary school. They are continuing their education – supported – through high school.  The opportunities that will be available to them have multiplied exponentially. What’s next? It’s their choice. But at least they now have options.

This is a classroom at the high school

Our Fall Fundraising Campaign is drawing to a close on IndieGoGo – only 3 days left! Click here to find out more about what we’re doing (there’s a cool little movie we did about the program), and feel free to donate a few dollars…. You can even get a neat alpaca reward, to keep or give as a gift!