Thursday, November 27, 2008

So what am I actually doing here?

I realize that I have yet to tell you anything about my job description and what I actually do at La Restinga on a daily basis. This is partly due to the fact that my job description changes all the time depending on how many other volunteers are here and what the greatest needs are. But I will do my best to give you a basic idea of my schedule and what the everyday life is like here.

Pascual helping Betman, who has just learned how to read.

Elin and I usually get up around 7.30 and arrive at La Restinga around 8.30 each morning to help out at Aula Movil. This is a homework help program (most of the kids go to school in the afternoon), but there are always other workshops and projects going on. Each month they choose a new theme to work with, and for the last month we have been working up towards the World AIDS Day on December 1st with the theme Sexuality and HIV-AIDS. I'll write more about this, and our celebration of December 1st in a later post. The homework help and workshops usually lasts up until 11.30 or noon, when we all have lunch. There's a strict rule that everyone has to finish their food, which could seem odd because the portions are huge and there are kids and youth in all different sizes and ages, but this is usually not a problem since this is the only meal some of the kids get consistently every day.

After lunch, we slowly disperse (the kids go to school and I go back to the apartment). Two days a week, I return in the middle of the day to go with the team to Belen (a poverty stricken part of the city) where we have a separate project with at-risk kids and youth. Here we work as health promoters, and our workshops are centered around the prevention of sexual abuse and explotation, HIV-AIDS, and STIs, and promotion of healthy behavior, self-esteem, and personal hygiene. Taking part of the planning and execution of this project is definitely some of the most demanding, but also the most rewarding work here. It is so fun to plan and be part of the planning process and figure out how we can best reach the kids, but really hard to put it into practice, because of countless challenges, including lack of attention (keeping a group of hyperactive kids interested for a full 2 hours is like a mission impossible), lack of attendance, lack of place to work (when we arrived on site last week, we were surprised to find that the roof of the building had been removed, which, in 100 degree heat made it impossible to work, so we had to cancel the next two sessions until we had a roof over our heads). Needless to say, I'm learning to be flexible.
Good friends: Angela and Lucero are always together when they're at La Restinga.

After returning from Belen, we make dinner in the apartment, which is always an adventure. Elin and I love trying new things, and with a market full of unfamiliar vegetables, fishes, and fruits, we've had lots of exotic (though not always that tasty) dinners. Then, at around 7pm we return to La Restinga to help out or particitpate in different workshops (including juggleing classes, making t-shirts, capoeira, moviemaking, danceclasses, theatre, and much much more). The workshops usually last till around 9pm, but sometimes people keep hanging around late into the night telling stories and talking. These late night talks have made for some of my best memories so far. I especially remember one of the first nights when a group of about 10 of us, including Puchin (who is one of the founders and basically the second father to all the kids) were gathered around the table eating a late night meal. Everyone was laughing and making fun of each other in such an intimate way. In that moment I realized that La Restinga is not charity, not a project, not a center, but simply family. And I am so thankful to feel part of it.

La Restinga as seen from the outside. The banner across the heart says "Creo en ti", which means "I believe in you."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Belen baptism

The seasons here in la selva (the jungle) are pretty much non-existent, as the climate usually stays around 95 degrees farenheit or 35 degrees celcius all the time. Unlike in Norway, where you always need to bring extra clothes and be prepared for a sudden change in wheather, a pair of shorts and a t-shirt is usually always all you need here. However, we are now entering into the rainy season, which means that within just a few seconds, the weather can change from completely dry to torrential downpur.

We got our first taste of what this looked like when we first came with to a workshop with 3-5th graders in Belen, an area of the city where the majority live in poverty or extreme poverty. On this particular day, we had just spent hours making paper kites with the kids, and just as we were wrapping up, the rain started pouring down. As is the case with most of the houses in the area, the roof of the house where we were gathered is made of straw. It’s really fragile and must be replaced every few years, but most people don’t have enough money saved up to invest in a more sturdy and safe roof (even though this would of course be much cheaper and safer in the long run)**. Anyway, this particular roof was pretty old, and had large holes all over the place. So when the rain came down, large parts of the room (including many of the childrens’ kites) became soaking wet. Seeing the dissapointment in the kids eyes as they ventured out into the torrential downpour outside, I wondered if even a single one of them would be able to bring their kite home safely. But when we left the building a few minutes later, the kids had apparently already forgotten about the kites, and were running around laughing, playing football, and enjoying the coolness of the rain. Thank God for children's ability to just move on and find something positive in every situation...
Above: A typical example of what the straw roofs look like
**This makes me think of the eternal problem of the poor: the lack of capital. Because most banks don’t want the business of poor people (the cost of handeling their business is greater than the gain), many poor people have to accept loans with APR as high as 200% because it’s their only viable option. In other words, the life of a poor person may be far more expencive than the life of middle class. Many microfinance institutions, however, are giving many poor people new opportunities by providing collateral free loans, both for building private businesses, but also for other needs, such as housing. Learn more about how Stromme Foundation uses microfinance to eradicate poverty by clicking HERE.

Floating down the Amazon

After having spent less than a week in Iquitos, Elin and I were invited to come with Pascual and Willy (two young leaders at La Restinga) on a weekend trip to Requena. Since Iquitos is technically an island, surrounded by jungle on all sides, the only way to get to Requena is through a 15 hour long boatride on the Amazon. Impressed by the incredible warmth and hospitality of the people here, and intrigued by spending the night on the river, we accepted right away, and a few hours later were streched out in our hammocks on the top deck of the lancha (boat).
We had an absolutely incredible weekend, but rather than giving you a long list of what we did, I just want to describe one of my favorite snapshot moments from the trip for you:

The view from the hammock

It is 6pm, and I’m stretched out in my hammock, admiring the lush, green lanscape as we slowly float down the Amazon. The sun is slowly setting behind the majestic clouds, and the fresh breeze from the river alliviates the humidity of the air. Though the deck is crammed with people and their belongings (including a small cage with live chickens right behind me), I’m filled with a sense of awe for the vastness around me, knowing that I am surrounded by miles and miles and miles of largely untouched jungle. In the hammock next the me, Elin is sitting upright, smiling and chatting with the young girl that’s brading her hair. Behind her, is another group of other curious kids surrounding us, one of them slowly tracing her fingers up and down my bare calfs (not sure if she is fascinated by my leghair or just wants to cuddle). The kids listen intently, and laugh from time to time, as they observe the spanish lesson playing out before them. Jenni, the 40-something woman in the hammoc next to me has made it her mission to teach me spanish in the course of the next few hours, and we move systematically through my notebook of vocabulary words.

Jenni and I in the middle of our session

”Re-co-no-cer,” she says slowly. Reconcer. ”To admit or aknowledge” according to my vocab list. Next she gives me an example of how to use it in a sentence: ”Tengo que reconocer que hice algo...” I quickly write it down. We continue with the next word: tacacho – the name of a typical Peruvian dish made of grilled platano (a non-sweet banana) mushed in pork grease. Sounds strange but is actually delicious. Jenni tells me that if I ever come back to Requena, she wants to show me how to make it. She even writes her phone number in my notebook, and says she means it seriously. I believe her. The sincerety and geniune warmth of the people here makes me feel at home, and as we curl up in our hammocks go to sleep a few hours later, it feels like I’m curling up to family.

Elin looking out over the bustling bay as we arrived in Requena at 7am

Floating houses outside the bay in Iquitos