The Galapagos was an unforgettable experience. It’s a sun soaked open air gallery of wonders where you stand toe to toe with the wierdest birds nature has to offer, and sea lions swim up to you and nibble at your flippers.
Here are just a few pictures, we can´t help ourselves. Look how cute these animals are!
(How many lizards can you find in this picture?)
We returned in a state of bliss, having been in denial all week about the how stressful our return to the mainland would be. Beginning a period of 50 consecutive hours of hassle, we prepared Mancha to fly to the states, a process which included the near-tragic misstep of giving her three times the amount of tranquilizers detailed in the Lan Airlines animal cargo requirments (she´s fine). We then sat in a food court for 8 hours, waiting for the night bus that would to carry us 900 miles south to Trujillo, Peru, a ride broken up by three transfers, a border crossing, and a police raid. When we finally arrived, we checked into the first hotel we saw and blacked out immediately.
Our motive for coming to Trujillo was purely financial, as the cheapest flights to Cusco (our next anchor city) were from there. We had done no research on the area unrelated to air travel. Luckily for us, Trujillo is built around the ruins of the Moche and Chimu civilizations, two cultures that preceeded the Incan empire, dating back to year zero. Their temples have been uncovered but largely unexplored; to this day grave robbers and archaeologists race to uncover the sacrificial gold treasures hidden within.
My favorite part of Trujillo was the Casinelli exhibit, a private collection of ancient regional artefacts located in the basement of a gas station. The Moche and Chimus are famous for their pottery, and 2000-year old pieces regularly surface intact in the rural outskirts of Trujillo. Luckily for us (unluckily for history) guests are allowed to pick up and play with the artefacts. Here´s a video of Karen playing clay trumpet older than Jesus, uncovered near the Moche´s Sun Temple.
Our flight to Cusco was spectacular – our little plane banked within spitting distance of the mountains that form the perimeter of the ancient Incan capital. Our first walk around the city was enchanting, Cusco is a multi-layered masterpiece. The foundation of most buildings is original Incan mortarless masonry, so precise that you can´t fit a knife between the stones. Perched atop is the equally beautiful Spanish archetecture that flows through cobblestone streets to its seemingly endless town squares and cathedrals.
Unbeknownst to us at the time of our arrival, June is “Cusco Month”, their annual cultural expo of parades, traditional dance comptitions, orchestral recitals, folklore theater and independant film screenings. Cusco is exploding with energy and pride in its history, and not just during this month. Cusquenos work all year round to prepare for this celebration. In many ways, Cusco is a cultural paradise.
Since arriving, however, we have been affected by a very upsetting and frustrating phenomenon, that has been a huge wake-up call and has challenged us to sharpen and refine our organization’s identity. We had our first inclinations that Cusco was different when we offered our program to an orphanage, and were told that there was no more space for volunteers, that they were at maximum capacity with 30. They offered to pencil us in for August, if we put a $100 deposit on our reservation. We then visited an after-school care program for street kids, and there was a 1:1 volunteer to child ratio.
We walked to another orphanage, and enjoyed a very promising discussion about our program and how to implement it, and were getting down to scheduling when the director abruptly asked, “In addition to your time, what can you give us?” I asked her to repeat the question several times, because it was so unlike anything that we had heard before that my brain couldn´t process it. Only when she started giving examples, “Money, clothes, food,” did I realize that she was not interested in our program at all, that she was merely tolerating our presence until she could hit us up for a material donation.
We finally connected with an organization named Aldea Yanapay, an after-care program that didn’t charge volunteers admission. It is the manifestation of the very powerful, honorable vision of its director, Yuri. It is both an after-care program and cultural center, their primary purposes are to lead both children and adults by example to diminish a cultural tendency of violence, disrespect, and low self-esteem. Although it was saturated with volunteers as well, at least it was a respectable organization that was functioning on a high level.
This was our first time working through another organization, and the first thing we learned is that Yanapay was highly structured. There were mandatory volunteer meetings nearly every day, and we were informed that we needed to cancel our weekend plans to go to Macchu Pichu because we had to prepare our curriculum for the weekend. Karen and I were split up into two “Family Groups”, and paired with two other volunteers each. We were told that the theme of our program was to be the “Teaching of the history of Buddhism” and that teaching the principals was expressly forbidden because that would constitute going ahead of schedule. We were also told to wear colored smocks that corresponded to our family group. We started feeling cagey almost immediately.
However, our engagement with Yanapay was only a week long, and certainly had its merits. Yuri is an incredibly passionate, involved director, and as a result his school achieves its aims. The kids were very respectful, open and trusting. The school was beautiful and succeeded in creating a safe, nurturing place. We also learned a great deal from Yuri during his endless, daily monologues.
In our first meeting he detailed the source of the “volunteer problem”, most pronouced and exploited in Cusco but found all over the world. According to Yuri, volunteer tourism is the fastest growing industry in South America. 35-50% of tourists to Peru volunteer to some capacity, in schools, orphanages, or shelters. This, on one hand, is a wonderful thing. There is a great need in Cusco for social work (behind closed doors there is endemic abuse, lack of education, and poverty). Also, it is honorable that so many people want to donate their time to interact with these people and try to help.
The bad news is that more than 80% of the available volunteer placement agencies are businesses, and many of them are for-profit N.G.O.s (did you know that those existed? I didn´t.) For this reason they cannot be regulated by the Peruvian government. These organizations monopolize the internet, creating the impression that it is normal to pay a $1000/month placement fee at an orphanage, which many people gladly pay, assuming that the money goes into developing the charity that it serves. Usually, the money does not go to the orphanage or shelter itself, but to the coordinator’s salary.
These organizations not only take manpower and would-be donations away from honorable charities, but also creates mistrust in the volunteer community. Most insidiously, it´s complete and total exploitation of underpriveledged children and communities.
Originally I was tempted to say that if these organizations put volunteers in at-risk communities at the end of the day, it’s helping society, regardless of what transpires financially beforehand. However, I have since changed my mind completely, as we have now been prevented by these agencies from offering our program on multiple occasions due to their practice of keeping spaces available for paying customers. It’s nauseating, really. This has challenged us to redefine our organization, to distinguish ourselves from the (sorry to say) hordes of unskilled yet good-natured volunteers throwing money at these organizations.
We began our work at Yanapay, happy to be with a noble, financially transparent institute. At this point, I hand the blog over to Karen. I am now taking online courses as prerequisites to my Master’s program that begins in the fall, and I am drowning in a deluge of writing assignments; combined with 2 hours of Spanish and 3-5 hours of teaching every day, the blog has inevitably taken a back seat.
Luckily Karen is here to tell the story of Yanapay, and our current work in the Institute for Blind Children. Just so you can imagine your narrator, telling the story, here is a picture of Karen on an archaeological dig in Ireland (that’s her on the right).
Just out of curiosity, does anybody else think think that Karen looks like….
Shaggy 2 Dope from ICP?