Author Archives: akomar

And Back to the Story…………

Acchuhuata

Wow. It’s been almost exactly 3 years since I last posted on this blog! Since that time, I have continued to live in Peru. Built a successful solar light distribution program, and gotten lights to over 75,000 people!

I’ve been recognized with several honors and awards, and most recently, been asked to do a TED talk. My life has changed so much in the 4 years that I’ve been living here in Peru. Not only have I been able to give of myself, my time and my knowledge, but I have LEARNED an awful lot. And so it is that I am on to my next chapter….

I have come to realize that in this world – we are people. We are all just people. And we all have a lot to share. And so often, we get stuck in our own little worlds, our own little bubbles, doing our daily tasks – surviving. But we ALL have the ability to reach out to others – to learn a little bit about their worlds – and to ultimately have more purpose in our lives. We actually become a BRIDGE between two things. Between ourselves and them. And in doing that, we can make not only our lives better, but can contribute to a better world.

And, so, my dear readers…. I ask you to follow along with me on the next chapter of the story. The bridging of two worlds. Follow me on my new site and learn more about what it means to BE A BRIDGE.


Lights Have Arrived!

Yes, they have! What an exciting time. I have been back in Peru for 2 months now, and together with my business partner, Washington Gibaja Tapia, we have opened an office, hired a bunch of local people, and started getting solar lights out into the communities where people have NO electricity at all! The last months have been exhilarating  exhausting, and rewarding. Our first real shipment of lights arrived a few weeks ago, and we have been able to start our distribution to the wonderful people in the communities.

Instead of my usual ramblings, I would really like to share with you a glimpse of our work through Washi’s eyes as he tells about our trek to Yanamayo and Testayoc:

October 26th and 27th were memorable days in our lives, when we departed Cusco, the capital of the Incas Civilization, to drive 4 hours to the Andean communities of Yanamayo and then walk to Tastayoc, at 14,000 feet. We took Solar lights

Bringing the Lights

Bringing the Lights

with us to share with approximately 78 families that since their Ancestors are living with no Access to electricity. They use just kerosene and candles that have cost so much pain in their communities, because their homes made out of Straw and wood roofs have been in fire and damaged and killed so many children and entire families in this part of Peru and as well around the world. As well, they spend 75 to 80 dollars a year in buying these low light Candles and kerosene.

Washi Explains Solar Light

We shared the lights and explained every single detail on how to use them with all the families of Yanamayu, and we experienced the connection with all the children, smiling and being curious with the solar lights. We then walked for 4 hours to the Paso at approximately 15,500 feet and to the community name Tastayoc, were a hailstorm came back for some time and then the sun returned to charge every light that I am sure were used by the families the night before.
Every family now in those two communities has the three lights S1=$14, S10 = $19 and S250 = $49 that will be used for many years, because every one of them has a 2 year warranty and they are LED lights which last about 30 years.

She will have more time to weave

During this trip, we distributed lights to 78 families. 61 families were subsidized through Path of the Heart www.pathoftheheart.org , and the rest were from other donors. This is why we are excited to bring more lights in the near future to more communities with your help. The cool rain, hailstorm, sun and low oxygen won’t stop us from keep doing the good work in all the communities that are waiting for us to change their lives in the best positive way and change the darkness of the past with lights of the future.

Her First Light

Her First Light!

Best wishes and thanks for your support on bringing lights to the communities.
Washi.

In closing, I would like to thank Washi for helping to make this incredible journey possible. Without his help, knowledge and hard work, Lights for Communities would not be possible. If you would like to help support our project, you can go here to buy a light! Thanks to everyone for your support in the past, and your continued support.

Look at those lights!

Beautiful Family with Lights!


And Then There Was Light

In my last post I shared with you the  incredible solar panel project we did for the community of Qelqanqa. Well……… that project changed something inside of me. I mean really changed. Although I had been living in Peru and working with people from the poorest of communities, it was the gratitude of those community members that really made me realize what a difference one person could make in the lives of others. The tears of joy that were shed that day as parents relayed the fact that their children’s lives would be different set off a burning fire in my heart. They would have more opportunity, because they now had light. They would be able to actually read and do homework after 5:30 at night when it gets dark. What a simple concept. So simple that most of us in the First World never even think about it.

Visiting Families in Testayoc

The community members asked me – no, begged me – to help them get more panels. Could I teach them to make them? Well, the wheels got turning, and I started doing research. What they really wanted was light. In their houses. But to make an entire system for each house would be oh, so costly. Then I came across a solution that is being used in quantity in India, Africa and China. Personal Solar Lights. Brilliant! Long story short – I was able to secure these lights for distribution in Peru. That’s right – we can now bring these very cool – very well made – very AFFORDABLE – lights to the 21% of the population in Peru that have NO ELECTRICITY at all!

Trekking Lights into the Communities

I came back to the States in early June. Three weeks later, I was on a plane back to my new home away from home – Cusco. I trekked to a few communities to see how the residents would react to these lights.

It was cold – and dark – as we camped out in the communities

The response was overwhelming! Look at the joy on these faces! This lovely family invited us in. You can see here – that even in the bright light of day – their home is very dark inside. There are no windows for light.

Making Yarn at Night with a Solar Light

This woman creates alpaca weavings to support her family. Here she is spinning yarn from the alpaca she has raised and sheared. Previously, she would have to stop work early in the day, as there is no good light to work by. My good friend, Washi, and I set up a S250 lantern for her. It not only gave her light to work by, but literally lit up her whole stone house!

Sisters Doing Homework

Reading by Light

Can you imagine that over 20% of the population of Peru has no electricity? This means that when it gets dark – at about 5:30pm – year round – people go to sleep. Or maybe they use dangerous candles and kerosene lanterns to light their pitch dark huts for an hour or two. Children often have respiratory problems because of these fumes. There are often fires in the straw roofs. As we bring solar lights to these families, children will be able do homework and study – giving them more opportunity to succeed. Parents will be able to work in their homes safely, and for longer. People will be able to hike back from their chakras (farming plots) with light. Women will be able to give birth at night with the safety of light. Life-changing? Not only they, but I think so.

Happy Family!

I have now dedicated a large part of my life to getting this project off the ground. I will be living between both worlds until we really make a dent in providing opportunity to millions. Would you like to help? For as little as $14, you can buy a desk light for a child. Through the nonprofit organization my son Jacob started 10 years ago, we will be able to get lights to families in these mountain communities. 6.5 million people without light. Each one of us can make a difference in one person’s life. See our website and let us know how many you’d like to help. Tell your friends. Pass the word……………..

This baby will grow up with light!

The next morning after I made this incredible trek to Testayoc, I sat in that little stone house while the Mami cooked me breakfast. Boiled potatoes, of course. I sat on a tiny little wooden stool on a dirt floor – as she cooked over a wood fire with no ventilation. Cute little puppies played at the door. Her day would consist of doing basic chores to survive. But right now, her goal was to fill the stomach of her son and us visitors – so that we would have energy to carry on the day. So, boiled potatoes it was.

Yes, that is meat hanging from the rafters

As I sat on that humble stool, looking down into the dirt, and around me, at the meat hanging to dry, the few possessions her family owned spread on the rafters, I literally choked back the tears. Not from pity – not from sadness – but from gratitude. Yes. Gratitude. I was so grateful to be a part of this family’s life. To experience what they do on a daily basis. This is not some Disneyland rendition of a colorful family in the Andes. This is real life. How many people in the First World get to experience this? Only a handful, I am sure. But how fortunate am I- to be able to partake in a life that is so genuine and so humble – and shared by BILLIONS of people on this earth. No electricity. No running water. No lights. For a majority of the world, THIS IS LIFE. All I can do is hope to be able to give some of them more of an opportunity through lights. So, if you’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to lately, this is it. Thanks for your support.

14 Bucks. Buy a light if you can. Give a kid an opportunity –

LIGHTS FOR COMMUNITIES


A New Sort of Empowerment

Yes, school has re-started with a new year, thank you for asking. I will take time to write on that, but first I feel compelled to write about a project that we just completed last week. You see, my son Jake just spent the last two weeks with us here in Perú, and for various reasons, we decided that a solar panel project would be a pretty awesome thing to implement in a remote community that has never had any electricity at all. Thank you Dr. Nurmikko and Brown University for allowing Jake to take time off and complete this project!

A Grand Reunion

From what I read, building the solar panels that Jake chose should take around 3 hours. Well, I guess that’s if you are in a developed country. Total course of the project build was actually more than one week. “Why?” You may ask. Well, we just can’t run down to Home Depot and get supplies. Jake brought the actual solar panel grids with him from the States, as well as the aluminum frame, inverter, light fixtures and LED bulbs, solder, sealing plastic, and a few other odds and ends. That left us with the task of finding polycarbonate (only sold in 5 meter sheets – try getting that on top of a combi for a 2 hour drive home! – We eventually went with glass instead), batteries, a new inverter (the one he brought shorted out), wire, new bulbs, wood for framing (no such thing as a standard planed 2X4 – or a straight planed anything), a heat gun (really? who the heck uses that in Perú?), wire nuts (totally non-existent in this country – hmmm… use electrical tape, or as my landlord does – plastic bags tied around your live connections), fuses and fuse holders (since the new inverter didn’t think about including  this ‘fancy’ feature), silicon and a gun, as well as a soldering iron.

Looking for Glass in Cusco

Oh my. You can start to see the issues already. 3 separate trips to Cusco (2 hours each way in a van) and a 1/2 day trip to Urubamba for wood and fuses (which we eventually found in the outskirts of town in a garage that fixes moto-taxis. ) I have seriously planned kids’ scavenger hunts that don’t even come close to this adventure!

How to apply silicon when you don't have a gun. (Use an umbrella!)

Jake did an awesome job, though, in building the panels – hand soldering all those leads and what-not. I think we both did a pretty awesome job in problem solving to get the darn things built with the resources we had.

Day 1 of soldering

Back-Breaking Work

Not to bore you with all of the intricacies of building the darn things, let’s get to the cool part. On Saturday, Jake, Ana and I went to the remote community of Qelqanqa. Now, as the crow flies, Qelqanqa is about 13 miles from our home in Ollantaytambo. The trip, by van, actually took about 2-1/2 hours each way. We had many mountains and valleys to navigate up and down on dirt “roads” which were not more than cow paths in many places. Since we are still in rainy season, mud was a huge issue in several parts of the trip. There were 4 separate instances in which we had to get out and push the van, hoping that it would not slide off the mountain. I was told that if we had tried the trip a couple of weeks earlier, we would not have made it. The roads were too bad.

All Smiles at the Get-Go

The trip, though, was incredibly beautiful. We were going to a community that has been relatively untouched by outside civilization in a gross way.

Fortunately, the local government does send equipment to try and fix parts of the road at times. Here you can see some rocks being pushed around the mud. We also came across a small encampment of locals who were selling (cold) soup, menú, and of course, chicha.

Stop for Lunch on the Way

We finally reached Qelqanqa, and were greeted by people from the community. Needless to say, they were thrilled that we had arrived when we said we would (give or take a few hours – hey c’mon, this is Perú) and eager to pitch in to help with the installation.

All Generations were Involved

You can see that there are no McMansions in this neighborhood.

Typical House. No cable TV here!

Jake and I delegated tasks – he was set on doing the interior installation of equipment, while I focused on working with the group outside, getting the panels properly set and secured.

Which Way is North?

Curious Onlookers

Community Pitches In

This Kid will Grow up with Power

Once the installation was complete, we held a ceremonial community meeting in the community building, which was now blanketed in light from our panels. My heart was touched deeply as member after member addressed the audience, and us, and gave their heartfelt expressions of gratitude. What really touched me was their outpouring of indebtedness, as they pledged any of their resources – and help – to me and my children personally. They spoke about how the power that we brought would help their children to have better lives. These people have almost nothing, yet they were extending whatever they had to us. That is really an awesome concept.

Glorious Day for All

Then we had an awesome lunch that was prepared especially for us, and the president of the community.

Whole Fish for Lunch! (Where do I hide the heads?)

Now that I’ve been living in this country for seven months, I’ve struggled with many questions – moral, ethical, philosophical. The question often comes up about interfering with a culture that has been in existence for centuries. Who are we, as outsiders, to impose our value system on them? Where is the line drawn? The experience of doing this project really helped me define an answer for that. I really do not think that any outside entity should come into a culture and change things so that they will have a ‘better life’ according to their standards and way of thinking.  BUT…. when a community identifies a need and ASKS for help, and they are motivated to change an aspect of their lives, I think that we are totally justified in helping them. Just look at those smiles!

And Then There was Light!

So, the next time you flick on a lightswitch in your house, turn on your televsion, or open your refrigerator – take just a second to think about how fortunate you are.  And how there are still about 1.5 Billion people in this world that have NO access to electricity at all. Amazing, huh?


Blast from the Past

The year was somewhere in the mid 1960’s. I was a kid, and we had a green paper bag that held  “kitchen string” in a drawer in the kitchen. The bag contained several small hanks of white and red twisted cotton, which came from cake boxes from Dorzbacher’s Bakery on Flushing Avenue. On very special occasions my family would get a cheese danish twist or crumb cake from Dorzbacher’s. And when one of these magical boxes arrived in our house, I would wait with great anticipation as my dad would very, very carefully un-knot that string, wind it up, and add it to the kitchen string in the paper bag in the drawer, to be re-used at some future date.

OK, This was 1976, but the cake and string were the same

Fast forward thirty years. It is the mid-1990’s and I am sitting in a cute cottage in De Haan, Belgium, with my young family and dear friends, Lee and Alex. Alex is a retired Colonel from the U.S. military, working at NATO. He is married to his lovely bride of many, many years, Lee, who was born in Czechoslovakia.  During World War II, Lee’s family had to flee their home with only the clothes on their backs. The family eventually settled in Austria, where they rebuilt everything from scratch. I have a long history with Lee and Alex – and their generosity is overwhelming. So, that day, sitting in their cottage, I am struck with a sense of first annoyance, then awe, as Lee very, very carefully unwraps the gift we have brought her from the United States. It seems to take painfully long as she carefully cuts the tape on the package so as not to rip the pretty wrapping paper. She then takes the paper and folds it up, carefully matching the corners, walks across the room, and places it in a drawer which holds all sorts of used treasures – to be used again at some future date.

Reunion with Lee And Alex this past summer

Now, here I am in Perú. It is 2012. My dear husband is visiting for Christmas. What joy! We have a tiny little Christmas tree, and a few small gifts to exchange. He has carefully packed a few beautifully wrapped gifts in his suitcase. As we begin to open our gifts, I find myself taking, oh, so much time to carefully, very carefully, cut the tape on the packages with a knife, so as not to damage the wrapping. Floods of memories of Lee come back to me as I carefully fold the paper and then, I feel the presence of my dad, as I put it in a special drawer for safekeeping. Oh my. I suddenly understand. I mean I really understand a whole other side of these people have been a big part of my life.

Living in a small village in Perú, we do not have much. It is difficult to find things to buy. The two sheets of cheap wrapping paper that Ana and I used to wrap our Christmas gifts came from a 2 hour trek (each way)  to the city of Cusco. So, when we were presented with beautiful, heavy, colorful paper, it was such a treasure to me. I later used the paper to wrap gifts for my mom that my husband brought back to the States with him. Later that day, I nearly hit the roof when my husband went to wrap up an open package of yeast to keep it from spilling. He had found my precious little roll of aluminum foil, and ripped off a huge (to me) sheet. “Oh my gosh! Do you know how much that foil costs? And how hard it is to get? Please, put the foil back, and use a little piece of tape instead…” These occurrences are now so common to me. I am so used to  scraping,  conserving, improvising and going without that I don’t even notice it anymore – until someone from the States visits.

We have no hot water - so I "cook" my dirty dish towels on our cook stove to wash

Ana has also been positively affected. Both my husband and friends brought us some maple syrup during their visits. The jars are sooooo precious, as it is impossible to get maple syrup in Perú. We opened the first one yesterday, during a special good-bye breakfast for our beloved volunteer Rachel. Ana carefully monitored everyone’s use of the syrup – “Mom, I thought you were not really a fan of syrup – do you really need to have that much?” In my defense, it was about a tablespoon’s worth, and, yes, even though I almost never use syrup at home, ah….. it is wonderful to get a little taste of ‘normal’ food from the States once in awhile.

Ana Doing Her Laundry

My grandparents were immigrants from Poland, all arriving on ships through Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th Century. My parents lived through the Great Depression, not always knowing where their next meal was coming from. Lee had to leave all of her possessions and live in the woods, hiding from the Nazis during the war. Her family eventually re-built their lives from nothing. Back home, in the States, I really don’t want for anything. I am fortunate in that my husband and I are educated and have had very good jobs. We have a nice home and can take vacations. Yes, we have had tough years when I was at home raising the kids and he was a new teacher – and we had to watch our pennies. But lately, it is usually not a stretch for us to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee on a Saturday. Or to go to the movies – or to pretty much throw anything we desire into our shopping cart at Stop and Shop. Decisions in the States range on the order of “Brie or Gorgonzola”? Now, my life has changed. We are down to one income, with two households. Even though the cost of living here in Perú is much lower, we now are maintaining life on two continents with about half the income. So, of course, I do weigh the choices on taking a jam-packed local combi to Cusco for 7.30 Soles ($2.70) each or a direct van for 10 Soles ($3.70) OR share a private car for 15 Soles ($5.60). The private car never wins – except when we have guests from the States who remind me that they just paid that much for a cup of Starbucks last week. The luxury of any cheese other than home-made from the mountains, only comes with a trip to Cusco – and a hefty price tag – and, still is usually a mystery as to the type that it actually is. The snippets of string, the pieces of gift paper, cardboard boxes… are prized possessions that we treat with care and respect.

Now, where was the Brie?

The values that were of importance to a generation gone by have come back to roost. As I gain a new respect for how precious things are when you don’t have much, I am happy. I listen to my husband tell me through our Skype calls about the huge trashcans of untouched food in his school cafeteria at lunchtime, and am saddened that most children back home don’t appreciate what they have. But how can they, if they have experienced nothing else? I listen in anguish as I hear my son’s response when I relate my agonizing decision on whether or not to buy  bus tickets to visit some friends  for the weekend – “Mom, I spent more than that on lunch today.” Yes, I saw by example from my grandparents, parents and older friends another way – a simpler life filled with appreciation. But, I never really,really appreciated this lesson until I have had to live it myself. And for the fact that I have experienced it myself, I am grateful. I just hope that I remember it when I get back home.


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!


I am Where I am….

I can look out my window and see, 100 feet in the distance,  a solid wall of mountain. It goes straight up for about 3,000 feet. That’s right, over half a mile. It is beautiful. It is breathtaking. It is like something I have never experienced before. Slightly to the right is another mountain – with a glacier of top.  A flipping glacier! Imagine that – not only to see a glacier – but to live right next to one. That’s right, here it is burning hot in the midday sun, and I am looking at a glacier. A world far away from manicured grass lawns or cement sidewalks. This is awesome.

Glacier Out my Window

Every single day, I catch myself, not once, not twice, but many many times, just looking up – how is it that you cannot ignore the shear awesomeness that surrounds you? If I go downtown to pick up some shampoo, recharge my phone, get some over-the-counter antibiotics without a prescription, or get some photocopies made (in our WalMart of sorts – all being overseen by one of the many varieties of Jesus that is ever-present – Señor de Choquekillka)

One Stop Shopping

– there they are…

Downtown

If I turn to rest in the plaza, I still can’t escape them –

Our Plaza

They are gorgeous, awe-inspiring, and need I say more? They just really kind of put you in your place. They sort of make you feel insignificant. I mean, here they are, in all of their massiveness – their beauty – their downright powerfulness. All of a sudden you feel like a little speck of sand on the face of the earth. Your problems, your worries – just seem to fade away. I mean, compared to the grandness of these mountains, everything else seems teeny. Really.

But that’s not all. Carved into the mountains are ancient Incan Ruins. Outposts for the military to guard the Incan trail from Cusco to Macchu Pichu. Grain storage houses. And royal thrones carved into the mountain so that the emperor could sit and look out over his people and watch the sun set. Yes, it’s all right here, in my little town.

Incan Ruins

And the streets themselves are original Incan roadways…

Typical Street

And that’s because Ollantaytambo is the oldest continuously inhabited Incan town that exists! Imagine that… it really blows my mind to think that the stone houses that are in this old section of town were actually built by the Incans. And their families have been living here ever since! They are set up communally – so if you go in one of the doorways you see below, you will find a courtyard surrounded by dwellings where several families live.

Our streets are..... quaint!

The townspeople are quite colorful, too. For instance, here’s a local kid that hangs around with her mom and sisters. Granted, they are looking for tourists to take their photos, and I did give her 50 centimos, but they are, nonetheless, a beautiful indigenous people just trying to make a buck. No protesting for them! They’re just out there working to put food on the table – and happy to have the chance to do it.

One of our local kids

Someone not posing for photos is the bread lady. She sits outside the market every day – and for 1 Sol (about 30 cents), you can buy a bag of 5 panacitas (little breads) that are fresh from the bakery. The bread lady is there, rain or shine, and is a real fixture in our town. You’ll notice her traditional dress, braided hair and hat. That is NOT for show. Most traditional women dress like this. Every day.

Bread Lady

My new apartment is in a newer part of town. It is, in fact, in one of THE nicest houses in Ollanta. We really lucked out to get such a nice place. Our road, though, is not new. Or maybe it is too new. Either way. It is not paved, nor is it cobblestone. It is dirt. And rock. And you never know what you will find in it. I have come out of my front door to find random horses – just kind of hanging out in front of my house. Not tied up, mind you. Just chillin’ in the road. Of course there are always stray dogs, but several times I have woken up to the squealing of Pigs!!! Right out my front window! And, on more than one occasion, I have come home to find a burro tied up outside the house.

You just never know what awaits you on our street.........

Our house is actually a little further down the street, next to the house with the Pepsi sign on it.

We're right next to the Pepsi sign...

The new house on the block!

Our House

Which brings us full circle. Back to my house, and my own little view. Of the mountains in my yard – and out the window. As you can see, there is no escaping the mountains. Wherever you go, wherever you are – just look up – and there they are. Giving you a sense of security, a sense of belonging to something far greater than you can comprehend. And I realize that it is not just MY view that does this to one’s soul. Anywhere that I’ve lived, or that I’ve been, there is always that nature-inspired awesomeness. Whether it’s the waves lapping in the ocean or the dense, lush forest, the starry night in the city or the throngs of people on the subway – we are part of something a lot larger than ourselves. Everything is one – and we are just a little speck in it. But all of our specks together create an incredible being. I love to look around every day, and find all of the reminders of that. It makes you feel like you are contributing to something bigger, something grand… something good.


The Communities

The town of Ollantaytambo, where I live, is  9,250 feet above sea level. Sound impressive? Well let’s see…. in the U.S, the town that I live in,  in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, is at an altitude of a whopping 801 ft. And, where my dear son is at University, is all of 50 ft. So, yes, I’d say, it’s impressive. However……… we are in a valley. Hence the name. (Sacred Valley – for those of you new here.) So, needless to stay, we are living at a pretty high altitude. It takes most visitors a few days to adjust to the altitude, and pharmacies in the bigger cities of Cusco and Arequipa even sell personal cans of oxygen that you can purchase to stick in your backpack for moments of wooziness. But, my dear readers, 9,250 feet is just where our trek begins.

My last post detailed our truck ride up into Socma – one town that two of our girls live in. Socma is about 13,000 feet above sea level. So now we are really getting up there. The amazing thing is that the people who live in these mountain villages are totally self-sustainable. They farm the land and raise animals. When I think of farms, I think of huge spans of rich, flat fields. Not so in the mountains. Take a look for yourself:

Imagine Farming This Land!

The first stop in Socma was at Nohemi’s house, where we were graciously invited for dinner. We would also stay in this community for the night – in a guest house that has been set up to accommodate random travelers. The families of our girls are always thrilled to see Alex and whoever may be traveling with him. Needless to say, we were treated like royalty. You will notice that all of the houses are made from mud bricks. This is typical. Although you may see power lines in Socma, there is actually no electricity. Yet. A year or so ago, Alex created a project called “Light Up Socma” which brought power lines up to this remote village. They haven’t been turned on yet. So, the villages we visited have no electricity, no running water, certainly no indoor plumbing, and really none of the modern conveniences we are all so used to in first world countries.

Nohemi's Community

Nohemi's Community

In the morning, we rose early, with the sun – as do all people in the mountains, were treated to a breakfast of oatmeal drink and tea, and headed off to our next community, Markuray. The 2 hour hike, which brought us up another 2,000 feet, was exhausting. We had only brought day packs with our sleeping bags and food, but the altitude of  15,000 feet was killing me. I still was not totally adjusted to living this high up to begin with, and trying to keep up with the ‘kids’ in the group that are 25 to 35 years younger than me was a challenge. All I could think of was the old song from Frosty the Snowman “put one foot in front of the other….” and I kept going. I could not believe that this was the hike that Maribel, the student that we were going to visit, did every weekend to get home. I need to remember this the next time I am stuck in traffic.

Yes, We Were Tired

We arrived at Maribel’s house mid-morning, where once again, we were greeted by her entire family – parents, siblings  and cousins. They had been awaiting our arrival. It is rare to see gringos in the mountain communities, and we were not just any gringos – we were accompanied by Alex – the founder of The Sacred Valley Project that has given their daughter an opportunity to become educated. Needless to say, we were treated very well.

The Kids love Alex

We were ushered into their one room mud house, where the entire family sleeps, her mom cooks over a wood fire, and they raise guinea pigs. Yes, that’s right. As we sat on the floor and had our delicious coffee, potatoes, and egg, there were guinea pigs running around our feet. Many families raise guinea pig or cuy to sell to restaurants as a delicacy. It can be a pretty good source of income.

Maribel's Mom Cooks for Us

We were also accompanied by Bianca, another founding member of The Sacred Valley Project, and a real role model for the girls.

A Humble Meal

Outside, Maribel’s father was proud to show us his plot of land that he diligently farms. He had all sorts of vegetables – potatoes, cauliflower, beans, herbs… and elderberry trees.

Maribel's House

Although it was tempting to stay longer – it was not even noon yet and I was totally exhausted, we had to push on to the next community – Ryan – where Elisabeth lives. Another hour and a half up higher into the mountains. Again, my admiration for Elisabeth and her family increased with every painful step that I took. Did she really hike this every Friday after school? The dedication of this girl and her family – to get to our dormitory every week was unfathomable to me. How can I explain this to my kids? How can I explain this to anyone back home? I don’t know. There are no roads to her community – the only one that did exist was wiped out in a landslide a few years ago. The elementary school for her community is serviced by a teacher who comes on motorcycle… sometimes. Anyway, our grueling hike to visit Elisabeth in Ryan turned up empty-handed. A neighbor told us that Elisabeth’s family was out tending their sheep. Well, I guess it was not really empty-handed. Although we did not get to meet with the family, I gained a true appreciation for the mountain people. The simple, yet physically hard life that they live.

We headed around the mountain, in search of our next family, in Pilcobamba. As we hiked, we came across a set of Incan ruins. Why were they there? Why were these families here?

Incan Ruins

Why on earth would anyone choose such a desperate place to live? I don’t know. Maybe it’s about the view. Maybe it’s because that’s where they could find land to farm…. Maybe they don’t see what the big deal is, living at 15,000 feet – the height that jet planes fly at. Maybe it’s just what they are used to. The same way that other people are just used to living in Connecticut, or New York City, or Iowa. No big deal. But I don’t know many people who roll out of bed and see a view like this….

Amazing Waterfall

Or this…..

It's All About the View

Amazing. That’s all I can say. It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived in Pilcobamba. Anita’s family had been waiting for us, and of course insisted  that we have a meal with them. Her mom had killed a chicken. This was a big deal. We were getting a little worried about the time – we still had a good 3 hour hike down the mountain to get to a road where we could hitchhike back home. But the love and gratitude of Anita’s family was so overwhelming that we had no choice but to stay and wait while the meal was prepared. After the meal, we hastily said our good-byes. Anita walked with us for about 20 minutes, to show us a shortcut to the trail back home.

The rest of the hike down was excruciating for me. As hard as it had been to breathe on the way up, I was in agony from the pain on my feet from the steepness of the mountains on the way down. My hiking boots were a tad too big – and my toes kept jamming into the front of my boots with each step on the way down. Every step was painful. I felt as if my feet were a bloody mess. (In fact, when I took my boots off at home, I realized they were. My toenails are still completely black – weeks later.)  But each step made me think more and more about our girls and their families. This was their life. And they were happy. They had little to no modern conveniences. They had excruciating hikes to get anywhere. And we are not talking to get to the mall or McDonald’s. We are talking about just getting to a town that has a school. And a small market. That’s it. This is a life lesson that I believe will always stay with me. The next time I have to wait in line at the supermarket, with my overstuffed basket of pre-killed animals, and blemish-free fruits and vegetables, I will think of Nohemi, and Maria Elena, Maribel, Elisabeth and Anita… who have never even seen a supermarket. And who have to walk up to eight hours to get to school. And I will be grateful for all that I have – and whistful of this place that is much simpler.


Getting to School

So I have mentioned that the communities that our girls live in are very far from towns with schools. That is why we have a dormitory for them to stay in during the week – so that they can actually reach a high school. What better way to understand our population, than to actually visit them there, and make the trek myself? Great idea – I can thank Alex (our founder, and inspiration behind the Sacred Valley Project) for taking us for a “hike” into the mountains one weekend to meet with several of our families. It was an experience that changed my perspective on who are girls are, how they live, and what we are doing here.

How difficult could it be to get to school?  I mean, really? I have listened to my in-laws’ stories of how hard it was for them to get to school – walking to school 5 miles, uphill both ways, in the snow…. which made my own high school journey seem like a piece of cake: walk 2 blocks to the bus stop – take the B58 bus for about 15 or 20 minutes, then take the “EE” or “GG” subway line  to Continental Ave. where I switched to the “E” or “F” subway to the end of the line. 45 minutes total. Not bad. My kids, growing up in the suburbs, think that my trip was kind of insane. Let’s face it, they’re spoiled. But neither they nor I could ever have imagined how difficult getting to school could be. Let’s face it. I’m spoiled.

We started out for the first village of Socma. Socma is probably the easiest village to get to – as twice a week, there is transportation that goes there. Luckily, one of those days is Friday afternoon, so the girls from that community can get transportation home for the weekend. Unfortunately, it is not available on Sunday evenings, when the girls return to the dorm – so they have to walk the entire way. Two of our girls live in this community. To start with, we walked to the mercado (market), where we took a combi. A combi is a Toyota passenger van, that in the U.S. would normally hold 8 to 11 passengers. These vans have been re-fitted however, and it is most common to have about 25 passengers crammed in like sardines – some in seats, some standing over the people in seats.  Oh, and of course, you have all of your “stuff” on top. I am used to taking a combi to our next town, Urubamba, as that is where I take language classes once in awhile. Once you are stuffed inside, you try to hold your breath if you are not lucky to be sitting next to a precious window, because let’s face it – it’s pretty ripe in there!

What else can you fit in here?

A 15 minute combi ride to Pachar, where we sat, kind of in the middle of nowhere…. waiting. I wasn’t sure for what, but I have learned that in Perú, don’t ask questions – as you probably won’t understand the answer anyway, and you will just become more frustrated. Watch and observe – that’s the name of the game. It soon became apparent that our next mode of transport was a truck. Really? This is it? Where were we going to fit – it was brimming to the seems already.

Truck to Socma

The truck experience was something I could not have imagined at all. It was a far cry from my Toyota Highlander with it’s plush leather seats, adjustable lumbar, coffee cup holder and sunroof that I practically live in, and have used to shuttle my kids back and forth to school . Well, I guess the truck did have a sunroof of sorts….but there were definitely no coffee cup holders.  We climbed into the truck, along with 80 other people. Yes, 80during the 45 minute ride I counted them. Most were women and children and babies. Piling into the TruckFor most of the ride, I stood on one foot – as there was absolutely no place to put my second foot. I was standing on top of a 50 lb. sack of rice. Crammed in like sardines, my body was juxtaposed so that my foot was at least 4 feet in front of where my head was. I was holding on to a little girl who must have been about 5 or 6 years old  named Marylin. Actually, I had my arm around her waist, and was holding her up so that she would not be completely crushed by the crowd of people as we made our way up into the mountains on a rocky, hairpin turn road. Old women on their way home from market were crowded next to nursing mothers, next to children trying to catch a ride home from school, all on top of huge sacks of supplies from town.

Don't Step on Anyone!

Don’t Step on Anyone!

The amazing thing to me was that everyone was in a great mood. “Why?” you may ask. Not only do they not have cushy seats, but they can’t even rest their Starbucks comfortably in this vehicle. Well, the answer should be pretty obvious by now – they actually had caught the truck, which meant they would not have to hike about 2 hours up into the mountains. Sweet. The ride lasted about 45 minutes, and we jostled against each other the entire way,  holding each other up, trying not to fall underneath the huge pile of human mass. When we finally arrived in Socma, I felt much closer to my new Peruvian amigos…. their joy had rubbed off on me, and my eyes were beginning to open. Be grateful for what you have. Take joy in each thing that comes your way – look for the good in everything. We are truly fortunate.

Look at Those Smiling Faces!

Speaking of being fortunate, every day I am grateful for all that I have – and today I am grateful that you are even reading this, and learning about us!

Next up………. the communities.