Travel adventures, anecdotes, musings, and memories.

Life in Pisco

A bit more Pisco. An 8.0 earthquake hit the city in August 2007, killing hundreds of people and destroying over 80% of the city of approximately 115,000 people.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, a team of locals joined with expats from Burners Without Borders, an offshoot of the very hippy Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, to create Pisco Sin Fronterras (Pisco Without Borders).

First, a disclaimer about the following photography. Since Pisco was considered so dangerous, I didn’t dare bring out my SLR anywhere, so all the photos are from my (semi-broken) point and shoot.

Security at a random house in Pisco.

Security at a random house in Pisco.

The town and its citizens are incredibly poor. They were poor before the earthquake and destitute afterward. Financial and social safety nets are a pipe dream in a place where people live hand to mouth.

The first real project I worked on was “Mother Teresa”, an incredibly sweet woman with two young children whose house was completely destroyed by the quake. She subsequently moved to a makeshift shack with her family — and had been living there for four years.

Mother Teresa and her son.

Mother Teresa and her son.

Mother Teresa's old house.

Mother Teresa's old house.

Her new modular home. It's basic, but has cement floors, a real roof, and a proper frame.

Her new modular home. It's basic, but has cement floors, a real roof, and a proper frame.

Building a door.

Building a door.

South American kids love to bring small animals as enterainment.

South American kids love to bring small animals as entertainment.

Mother Teresa cooked us lunch on our first day on-site. Although I was not particularly thrilled with the cuisine (spaghetti with canned tuna) or the sanitary standards, once I learned that the families see it as an obligation to feed us to maintain their dignity (the work is then no longer a pure “hand out”), but understood also the amount of effort they go through to scrape together the money to prepare lunch, I knew I was going to stay the full two weeks. Rough start aside, there was clearly something very important and special happening here.

After finishing Mother Teresa’s house, we moved on to Pedro. Like Teresa, Pedro had a real house before the quake, but was now living in a particularly precarious looking tent. Pedro worked harder than virtually any person I have ever met. He is a dockhand in Pisco, but the quake caused freight volumes dropped precipitously, leaving him short on work, but not on energy. If a wheelbarrow was left unattended for more than five seconds, he would commandeer it and finish the job.

Pedro's old digs.

Pedro's old digs.

Since Pedro's new house would be built on top of the same land, we had to tear down his old tent. It was strange to demolish someone's home in front of them; the whole process took an hour.

Since Pedro's new house would be built on top of the same land, we had to tear down his old tent. It was strange to demolish someone's home in front of them; the whole process took an hour.

Pisco forced me to re-examine many of my views and beliefs on aid and development. For better or worse, my general view was that projects like PSF were “band-aids” – basically hand-outs that did little to solve real underlying problems. Given my somewhat skeptical view, my general tendency when I heard about a disaster was to throw my hands up in the air in despair. “Why give people tents and temporary shelter when it will only help some people for some time? Shouldn’t we perform “preventative care” and fix the underlying problem (poverty)?”

Pisco changed this. Most of the projects we did was indeed “band-aid” work. But instead of seeing things from a macro view where “band-aids” seemed ineffective and temporary, I saw it on a micro level where they stopped the bleeding and prevented death. A wood house may not be as good as a brick house, but it is much safer, healthier, and more permanent than a tent, often allowing families to get back to health, work, and school.

A full fix is certainly the best answer, but often this is so far away and elusive that it simply serves as an excuse to do nothing. In a case like Pisco, something is certainly much better than nothing.

PSF has also moved more toward a holistic model, working on both education and community development programs. In addition to building the temporary modular homes, they also started work on more permanent community projects like schools and hospitals (surgery? No pun intended. A longer term fix to still underlying problems…)

My final project: building an addition to a local hospital clinic.

My final project: building an addition to a local hospital clinic.

It's all about PR.

It's all about PR.

In addition to getting a better sense of what life in a post-disaster community is like, I also gained a much greater appreciation for the value (and brutality) of manual labor. I spent three years in Dallas doing Habitat for Humanity, so I thought I already knew. But I quickly realized that is is one thing to work one day at a time and go back to your nice, air conditioned apartment… and quite another to do five and a half days in a row and go back to a dorm room. By the end of week one, I was physically spent. Walking seemed like a massive chore. Cognitive abilities declined. I started to daydream about just lying in bed, not moving.

Like most people, I love cracking jokes when I see ten construction workers on the side of the road, one of whom is working and nine of whom are gazing. “Lazy !@#$ that are wasting our tax dollars.”

Yet, after a day of pouring cement, I was looking for any excuse to take a break. It is easy to judge others from the comfort of one’s car after spending eight hours behind a desk. Personally, I think I am now much more inclined to at least think about the old maxim of “walk a mile in another’s shoes (or construction boots) before you judge them.” Easier said than done, of course, but I will always have my cement mixer to serve as a good memory.

I bled. Every single day. This was one of the less severe looking cuts.

I bled. Every single day. This was one of the less severe looking cuts.

Manning the cement mixer.

Manning the cement mixer.

After my first week, I think I finally got the hang of life in Pisco. Mas o menos. Suicide showers became just cold showers. In a certain light, the rubble on the beach looked a bit historic. Plus, the food was delicious, albeit a bit dangerous (see below).

The other white meat -- dinner.

The other white meat -- dinner.

My favorite South American food: a Tandem bar. Half ice cream sandwich, half frozen Crunch bar.

My favorite South American food: a Tandem bar. Half ice cream sandwich, half frozen Crunch bar.

I stopped focusing on this...

I stopped focusing on this...

... and spent more time appreciating this.

... and spent more time appreciating this.

In the end, I’m glad I gave it a shot. I think I would have been disappointed in myself had I just run away. I learned about life in what really amounts to hell on earth (not for me as a volunteer, but for the actual residents of Pisco), about not judging people by first (scary) appearances, and about myself. It was a draining two weeks physically and emotionally. In addition to lots of bleeding and soreness, I picked up both E.coli and Giardia during my second week. Good times.

But in the end, I was left wanting to push the envelope further. If I could do this, surely I could do something even a bit more intense. Maybe next time it will be a refugee camp in Somalia. Similar to Cotopaxi, by pushing my limits I realized the extent of what I can do — even if I was at first skeptical.

Not exactly a sunset for a postcard, but...

Not exactly a sunset for a postcard, but...

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