- The 2011 Go Peru Team
By Mike Beckage
Upon arriving in Newark, NJ from Lima, Peru in January of this year, the only words I saw fitting to describe my GO! experience were, if anything, vague and abstract: indescribable, unbelievable, unparalleled, etc. Quite honestly, I had never experienced anything like what I just gone through, and my foremost problem upon returning was explaining what exactly I did and saw. With a new semester in full swing and weeks already flying off the calendar, I still find it difficult to sit back and adequately sort everything out.
Imagine your thoughts and ideas about the world stored in a large, neat filing cabinet, everything in its place. Now imagine watching drawer after drawer being taken out and emptied onto the floor in an unintelligible heap of ideas, sentiments, and thoughts. This is the feeling I had upon touching down at Newark International Airport. Luckily, I’ve had the help of my fellow team members and some close friends to help me put my thoughts back into a new order, but the process will be an ongoing one.
With the help of Community Links International, our time in Peru was split among working with a local parish and community center, San Esteban, and going on cultural excursions to archaeological sites, museums, and the like. As such, GO! Peru is a hybrid project – half immersion based and half service based. The twelve members of our team, as well as eleven volunteers from Washington University of St. Louis, stayed in the house belonging to the family of our Community Links contact, Grower Rios Castillo.
This being my first time out of the United States, the opportunity to live with a Peruvian family for a week was something I anticipated eagerly. I wanted to absorb the salient details of what life in Lima, Peru was like, and with the help of Grower and his family I truly felt that I accomplished this goal. We were prepared meals, taught how to dance, and taken all over the city and the region.
In the second half of our week in Lima, I experienced one of the more revelatory and significant days in my life. After trekking through the pre-Incan ruins of Pachacamac, we piled into the bus that took us around the region all week. I didn’t know exactly where we were going, but soon enough, we were driving through one of the more impoverished areas surrounding Lima.
I had noticed these regions from afar earlier in the week, sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus; I saw vast stretches of very small, flimsy houses built into the sides of what seemed to be huge sand dunes – sand mountains even. There was no grass to speak of, only sand.
Now, in the middle of one of these regions, our bus came to a stop, and we got out. We were ushered into a church by a nun who introduced herself as Sister Claire from County Clare, Ireland. She had moved to this region, which I found out was called Villa El Salvador, with the intent of staying there only three years. She has now been living and working there for fourteen.
In the middle of this arid district, which I initially saw only as poor and dilapidated, I suddenly found myself wanting to drop everything and move there to devote all that I could to these people. Sister Claire sat us all down and spoke with us about the history of the region and the spirit of the people. As she went on, and as my questions piled up, she seemed to be reading my mind and answering them one by one. She spoke with a confidence and clarity seldom found among people today, at least people that I have met. After our talk, we agreed to a tour of the region led by the Sister.
As our group took a closer look at Villa El Salvador, I noticed the depressed state of the area further. Where we have grass on our ground at home, they had sand and trash. Dogs had free roam of the place, and children were tramping around this trash-littered sand barefoot. But the most striking feature I noticed amid this landscape had nothing to do with what the people didn’t have, but rather what they did have: smiles. Almost every person whom we met in Villa El Salvador greeted us with a smiling face, an amiable disposition, and genuine hospitality.
Sister Claire had explained to us that much of the social progress in the region was achieved through the hard work and sacrifice of those who lived there; residents of V.E.S. were happy to have a chance to make a difference for their community. Indeed, electricity, sewage, and water services were all attained by those in the community, and progress is only improving. New sewage pipes were being installed as we walked around the district. Indeed, I saw more smiling faces in the hour I spent walking around V.E.S. than I have seen in New York City in the two years I have lived here. As Sister Claire led us back to our bus and saw us off, I was sure that what she imparted to me and what I saw was a game-changer for me; indeed, it was a life-changer.
My feelings about poverty before this experience were feelings of charity with a hint of condescension, although this was not intentional. I had always seen the issue as a matter of what I have versus what those in poverty don’t have materially, as well as what I could give to others. I always thought that those living in places such as V.E.S. automatically wanted the help of others. I never for a second paused to think about what those in poverty could give to me immaterially.
What I learned on that dry summer day in Peru with the guidance of Sister Claire and my team members was that value does not, and indeed should not, stem from those material things that you have or can give to others. I recognized the worth and impact of the spirit of people I met, and I saw what a community motivated to work together can accomplish. I learned that considering myself to be altogether “privileged” wasn’t exactly the right way to see things, and that I stand to gain much from interaction with and observation of others, whether they have twice as much as I or half as much materially.
This is why I think the immersion aspect of GO! Peru was unbelievably important. It not only exposed me to another way of life, but it forced me to bring together mine with another wholly different one in order to create a more holistic, informed, and passionate view of the race which I belong to – the human race. I learned that those things uniting us take preeminence over those that divide us. This is something invaluable and precious to me, and as I continue to process the lessons learned on my project, I will always remember the week as the most formative experience of my life.