Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Casa de los Hombres del Sol

When I met Guillermo, I was struggling to color inside the lines of a leather bookmark that I had made. He came and sat down next to me with a shoe box, a dirty cup of glue paste and a stack of bits and pieces of wrapping paper. It appeared that he had collected the wrapping paper over who knows how long. There were pieces of birthday paper, Christmas, Easter, even some that were just colorful ads from the local newspaper.

He sat down and, chewing on his bottom lip, began to fold and piece the bits together into a quilt-like sheet, but never cutting the paper. I could tell that he did not want to cut any off, just in case he needed the paper when it was all done. Once he had the basic layout finished, he began to lather on the sticky and rapidly drying glue onto the back and then to carefully place it onto the top of the shoebox. Then the sides, then the bottom. The whole time he was talking to us, but I couldn’t tell what he was saying. None of us could. Guillermo couldn’t speak English, and he wasn’t speaking Spanish. He was speaking Quechua, which sounded like a mix between Chinese and Spanish. Every now and then he would shout out “HO HO HO!” It was, after all, the middle of December. You tend to forget that when you’re in Cusco, where it’s in the mid-70s every day and sunny. You tend to forget a lot about the rest of the world when you are sitting in the Inti Runakunaq Wasin, or the House of the People of the Sun.

This is a school ran by volunteer teachers that is meant to help street children or other kids with problems, which means about 95% of the kids in Peru would qualify. This school has between 30 and 50 kids at any given time. They don’t actually have classes, most of the kids go to school, but they help them with their homework and teach them other skills that they will likely need in the future.

Most of these kids are of Incan descent, which in Peru means a lifelong uphill struggle. It’s a slippery slope. The parents have children, but they don’t have enough money to provide for the family, so they have to put the kids to work, which keeps them from going to school, which keeps them from moving up in this world. In the meantime, the pressures of survival are constant and strong, which leads to temptation and often crime. It’s a hard life in Peru for many people, many children. It’s a hard life in South America for many people, many children. It’s a hard life in the entire world for many people, many children. It’s good to see people that recognize that and act upon it.

The little things that we take for granted are enormous here. If Guillermo had a full roll of wrapping paper, he would have been the happiest kid in the school for the day. If you give a kid a new pencil or an eraser, they hold it with pride and are looked upon with envy from their classmates, a potentially dangerous situation. Clean water, clean clothes. Safe food, safe streets. Art, music, books. Nope, nope, nope; work, struggle, money, live as long as you can.

Guillermo is mentally handicapped, it’s fairly obvious. He is about 14 years old and no taller than a trash can. His voice is deep and resounding, like Luther Vandross and his vocabulary is limited. If I had to guess, I would say he has a mixture of Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism. But he’s never lacking a smile and, even though I have no idea what he’s saying, we have plenty to talk about. He shows me his box, wonders what he can put in it. He’s interested in my watch and fascinated by the stubble on my face. He awes at the size of my feet. I ask him about the soccer shirt he’s wearing. It’s both relaxing and disturbing. Of all my companions, I’m the loudest and the one most willing to totally butcher the Spanish language to try and learn, thus I get quite a lot of attention and laughs from people.

The whole time he’s been pasting pieces of wrapping paper on his box, I’ve been attempting to create a bookmark. Something simple I would assume. My bookmarks are typically business cards that I find laying around my office or the receipt that was in the book when I bought it. Not the case here. These kids don’t own any books; the bookmarks are made to be sold. Straps of leather are cut then, using a hammer on a metal carved awl, impressions are made of local touristy locations on a tree stump out behind the school. Awls in the form of Machu Picchu, the name CUSCO, the Nassau lines, an alpaca, a cactus are smacked repeatedly onto the battered leather then colored and painted by hand. A kid can make anywhere from five to twenty of these a day. They’re sold on the street to gringos for one or two Soles (33 to 66 cents), the proceeds are used to buy more materials and leftovers are kept by the kids. It’s not a sweatshop, it’s more like a home economics class combined with a business school.

While I am totally destroying this poor piece of cow skin, around the corner, some of my traveling companions are doing similar damage to a beaded necklace and others are ruining weeks of work on a cross-stitched blanket.

Not much of a volunteer work huh? That’s pretty much what I thought. However, after a while I notice something. These kids that were kind of shy when we got there are actually sticking their noses into our business and laughing, pointing, but more importantly, helping. All the sudden it hits me, whether it was the intention of the trip or not, our lack of coordination is building confidence in these kids. It’s like a third class, home economics, business, and finally people skills. It’s important for them to realize that they actually do have skills that are not common, which helps them realize that they are not common and if there’s one thing that I’m good at, it’s not doing things right and letting people laugh at me. Holding a hammer and a piece of leather, I had no free hand to carry my pride around with me. It’s like I was made for this kind of work.

The school is somewhat frightening in appearance. Like most buildings in this part of the city, you don’t even know it’s there until you are inside. You have to knock on a wooden door until they unlock it from the inside and you walk into an inner-courtyard that is overgrown with unknown plants and trash. Most of the windows are either broken (inside windows) or have bars on them (outside windows). The roof leaks, due to the fact that the mud and straw mortar that was used to build it has been soaked by the heavy rains and dried by the intense sun on almost a daily basis for all of eternity. What paint there is is chipped and cracked, uneven and muddy. There is a single water line that feeds the bathrooms, the kitchen and the outdoor washing sink.

After a couple hours, I couldn’t remember who was teaching who. The teachers are teaching the kids Spanish and math and how to make jewelry. The kids. Man, they’re teaching the serious stuff. Patience, understanding, forgiveness. What am I doing here? I’m not teaching. I’m a student of this place and everyone is my teacher.

There’s a Dutch girl running around, standing out worse than me. She’s tall, well over six foot. Bright red hair flowing down her back. White as a sheet. Speaking flawless Spanish and I assume her Quechua is probably coming along nicely. She’s been volunteering here for several months now and is so busy she can barely stand still. You just don’t expect to see North Americans/European types here for such a long time. As soon as the front door closes, it’s like being shot into the most remote place on the planet.

By the second day we began the painting. It wasn’t much, but it was something we could do unsupervised, or at least initially. After about an hour, the kids had decided to come out and help us in full force. We started by cleaning off the surfaces that we would paint. It was mostly futile, as most of the walls were made of mud and were caked with multiple layers of paint over the year. The more you cleaned, the thinner the walls got. I bet that’s how Jesus felt; the more he did, the less we became. But yet he did it. Yet we did it.

Guillermo had taken a broom and dustpan and began sweeping the dirt into a trash can. It wasn’t long before he was shoveling the dirt from the gutters and then the dirt from the dirt road that ran along side of the school.

Once we had cleaned the dirt appropriately, we broke out the paint. The chosen colors were white, light blue and pink and we all got into the act. As the tallest person in the entire city, I was lucky enough to be in charge of all overhead painting projects, which translated to me getting drenched in paint for about seven hours straight.

About halfway through the project, the kids were released to go home and I was the lone witness to something that reminded me of how precarious of a situation we were dealing with. One of the kids decided to bully one of the others for some money. They were all outside of the school and I was the only adult around (aldut-ish).

Hector was about 16 years old and built like a dark brown brick. He was about as tall as a shopping cart and about as wide as one too. He had absolutely no teeth and eyes that were like steel. Out of all the kids, this is only one that honestly frightened me. Not that I thought that he would do anything to me, but when he was around, I kept one eye on him at all times. A couple times I caught him trying to sneak over to where one of the two girls were painting with their backs turned to him. He was not moving over there with wonder or cheer, it was like watching a shark move and the kid had street smarts. I shudder to think what he could have done to one of the girls, but I would always choose that time to walk over and talk to the girls and he would slink away into the shadows when I got there, staring me down with some form of hatred that I doubt he even understood.

When I was watching him move on the kid outside I knew that even if I stopped him here, he would just re-approach the boy when they moved out of sight. He stared the kid down in front of everyone and moved to within inches of his face, not blinking, not smiling; perfectly straight faced and perfectly knowing what he wanted. The smaller boy handed over the money and Hector kneed him in the side and moved away.

Whether it was my place or not, I stepped in and took the money back and gave it back to the boy. Now, where I come from, if someone steps up to defend you, that was your death warrant, but I had been picked on enough when I was young that I couldn’t let it happen.

I didn’t tell anyone about it and hesitated to even write about it, but I did for a reason. I have to call it like I see it. Sometimes I am just too weary to offer my opinion and this is one of those times. Maybe seeing a bully hit too close to home. Maybe seeing that kid made me feel the hopelessness of these poor lives. Maybe it made me lose faith in helping. Maybe the baby blue and pink colors that we slathered across the wall were there as a way to dull the pain; a way of poking fun at it. Maybe it was more for the teachers than the kids. I just don’t know.

But it’s there and it’s happening. So if you’re driving around the ghetto of Cusco, the area not five blocks away from the Irish Pub that the white people spend thousands of dollars a day at and two blocks away from the market that North Americans barter for scarves that are already practically free; and you see a building that has about as much pink and blue on the sidewalk as it does on the mud walls, just give pause for a moment. The murderer, the victim, the witness; we all think we’re playing the lead role, but that just means you’re not paying attention to the play.


Quassie said...

You're my hero:) So proud of you!

Jay said...

I am so glad that I found your blog! Your insight is so awesome! I really enjoy your writing and thoughts. Keep up the great work!