Archive for February, 2010

For the last couple of weeks during my teaching and online livelihood investigation, Lou has been steadily tearing her hair out trying to find a reliable home for the donation sent to her by Peros to help the homeless communities affected by the flooding in the Sacred Valley.

It has by no means been an easy road, with community infighting for resources, allegations from all and sundry about the validity of some claims about being homeless/in need of food etc. and a great deal of NGOs stepping on each other’s toes, not to mention the process of starting and managing a project here between locals and extranjeros, an experience akin to herding cats.  There’s also been the overarching issue of how best to use the finances; short-term aid relief or long-term sustainable development project?

In the darkest hour of a haphazard meeting, Lou plucked a solution from the ether; why not buy animals for the affected communities so that they can be reared, sold and eaten?  It covered all the bases for handing self-generating resources over to the communities and avoiding the situation where all the money would be spent after a couple of months, leaving the communities no better of then when the floods first hit.

Amusingly, the most suitable animal of choice turned out to be the cuy, or guinea pig.  These squeaky little furballs are normally classified as pets to be polished off by over-zealous children in the UK, but here they are precious commodities.  Growing to full maturity in about 3-4 months, your average cuy can then mate to produce more (and believe me, they do given half a chance) or be sold to restaurants and suppliers at a tidy profit.  This forms the basis of a very stable business, which has the obvious benefits of additionally generating a food supply and a much-needed source of nutrition to the diets of the locals.  With a certain amount of humoured disbelief, Lou has set the wheels in motion for a guinea pig empire.

She’s been working with a team composed of a range of people over the last couple of weeks, which recent swelled to include a couple of agronomists, specialists in the agro-industrialisation of cuy.  One particular proponent of the crack squad of fur-peddlers has been Carlos, a Cusqueñan who has a powerful desire to help in any way possible.  Sadly, this tends to manifest itself in fairly short-sighted thinking, rushing out to buy building materials at great expense and putting up structures without due planning or consideration for the needs of the community or the wider priorities of the situation.  It seems that Carlos sees the available fund as bottomless and capable of sustaining random unguided projects for all eternity, which it obviously isn’t.

Most of Carlos’ ideas begin with a colourful sketch on graph paper (one presumes to emphasises the engineering importance of the scheme).  Sometimes these drawings include measurements, sometimes not.  Having accepted the cuy project reluctantly (he was angling to put up as many kitchens as possible and keep supplying them with food until the money ran out) he swung into action with these works of art below.

Witness the majesty of...Cuylandia!

When pressed for specific costing on ‘Cuy Land’, three categories were submitted, each with their own question mark (literally) to substantiate the pending financial liability.  Costs, it seemed, were not a factor in this scheme.  No joke, here’s the breakdown in the 4th section of the proposal, “Investment”:

  • Ground: 500m2 * $??? = $????
  • Construction: $????? (does the greater amount of exclamation marks infer a higher cost?)
  • Guinea pigs: $????
  • I have to admire Carlos’ enthusiasm, but the short-sighted nature of his schemes is fairly depressing.  I have to say that it’s a fairly characteristic approach that I’ve seen demonstrated many times in Peru; many people here will insist on taking an extra 20 soles extra out of your hand today without thinking about the possibility that their pushy attitude will lose them future business with you that could add up to a lot more than the short-term win.

    The other sobering point is the complete lack of willingness to take the time to speak to someone who knows what they are doing; Carlos really doesn’t have a clue (his drawings bear strong testament to this), but he’s been insistent in his proposal despite failure to provide costing and also very unsupportive of any alternatives or measures of caution and consideration provided by the rest of the group.  This has demonstrated the double-edged sword of  another characteristic Peruvian attitude; there’s nothing wrong with rolling your sleeves up and having a go, but resistence to experienced or educated advice can be tiresome and potentially damaging.

    All in all, not an easy situation for Lou to manage, but with an increasing number of capable heads around her she’s sure to see the project through to a successful outcome.


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    After the grinding of mental cogs that precede any decision, I’ve decided to start making steady, plodding progress into earning an income online. Searching through the depressingly inevitable mountain of sites that promise “MEGABUCK$ NOW!!!!!! for only $49.99!!!!!!!!!” I’ve found substance to my investigation, showing that there are plenty of people out there that make a modest but entirely acceptable living from hard work that they nevertheless greatly enjoy because they are doing something they love.  Not quite the answer the website below (ranked top of a Google search for “making money online”, of course) would have you believe.


    So as far as I understand it, a fair amount of internet-based graft will eventually allow me to:

    • Travel wherever I want without being tied to one place by a conventional job
    • Stay on the road or choose a place to stay without needing to get back to a desk somewhere after a holiday
    • Find out a bit more about the crazy but interesting communities on the internet
    • Write about things that are important to me and share them with a like-minded worldwide group
    • Keep my eyes open and staying engaged in the ‘real world’ for interesting stories to share
    • Make a bit of a difference through what I do, hopefully improving lives for some people

    It’s a multi-tentacled beast of a concept, and I’ve been navigating the various different possibilities for the last month or two, but I’m steadily getting there.

    One fantastic and very inspiring resource that I recently came across (thanks to Amy) is “The Art of Non-Conformity“, a blog written by Chris Guillebeau.  On one particular post about dealing with ‘reality checks’, Chris included this wonderful quote by Joseph Campbell:

    “People say that what we’re seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. What we seek is an experience of being alive.”

    Whatever you may think of motivational websites, books and speakers, it’s certainly food for thought.

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    Mavericks goes off

    While the poor folks of the Sacred Valley are picking up the bits of their houses, infamous Californian big wave break Mavericks went off the top the charts this weekend, registering up to 50ft swells according to the San Francisco Chronicle!

    The crowds that swarmed to the clifftops overlooking the contest were so big that there were several injuries amongst spectators.  At least they didn’t get mauled by the monsters that the Chronicle photographs were showing…my respect goes not just to the 24 competing surfers, but also to the photographers who swam quarter of a mile offshore to take a beating in the freezing cold water to get shots like the one below of Kelly Slater dropping in.

    Even though the sight of these cold grey slabs causes my balls to rise up into my abdomen somewhat, I’ve suddenly realised that it’s been almost SIX MONTHS since I went for a surf.  With the longest break in the world within range, I think an escape from the mountains of Cusco and a reconnection with the sea is in order…watch this space.

    It's behiiind you...


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    I stayed the night in Ollantaytambo after the comedor building efforts, falling into a deep sleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.  The next day presented the opportunity to spend a few hours in the morning helping the residents of the tongue twisting village of Huayronkoyocoyocpampa (!) outside Ollantaytambo to dig building materials out of their shattered houses.  Most of us mow the lawn or wash the car on a Sunday; can you imagine pick-axing your way through the remains of your house?

    Village remains in the Sacred Valley

    The community was a mess.  Thick mud covered everything, and the looming carcusses of adobe houses lay sprawled in it.  Men moved about the dead buildings, carrying tools and steadily extracting usable remains from the building materials, presumably to being the long process of rebuilding with them elsewhere.

    I arrived towards the bottom end of what must have been a very pretty little village with fellow volunteers Leander, Lou and Kirsty, passing flowerbeds in which colourful blooms still thrived, winding their way around collapsed doorways and walls.  Introduced to Alfred, one of the residents with a kindly and weary face, who was clad in a yellow football strip and standing beside a tangle of wood, wire and earth in which he once lived, the girls and I split forces as they headed off to assist a neighbour shifting roof tiles.

    Salvage work in the Sacred Valley

    Alfred and I huffed and puffed together as we dragged the thick roof beams from the wreckage and piled them to one side, placing planks that were once floorboards next to a defiant abode wall that had resisted the floods, pockmarked with a thousand holes from which a busy traffic of wasps came and went.

    As we turned our attentions to the remaining wooden beams, doors and windowframes buried by the rubble, Alfred and I talked.  He’s a chef, working in the Casa Andina hotel down the road towards Urubamba.  He’s on holiday right now, not laid off due to the flop in tourism like some many other Peruvians in this region, thanks to the rains.  When I ask him what his priorities are, he tells me that he needs to build a new house, and must get back to work in order to pay off the 15,000 soles loan that he will have to take out for the rebuilding process.

    “How long did your house take to build?”, I ask him.  “A year,” he replies.  “And how long did you live in it for?”, I continue.  “Eight months,” comes the sobering response.

    Albert and the rest of the community were awoken at about 4am in the morning as the river broke its banks and rose rapidly to the foundations of their houses.  They ran for the higher ground, sitting on the ancient terrances made by the Incas, on which they grow some of their crops.  As they sat, powerless to do anything, the waters rose up the walls of their houses, dissolving the abode bricks and causing the buildings to subside into the rushing flood waters.  For three days they waited, trapped on the side of the hill, unable to cross for assistance to Ollantaytambo as the bridge was severel feet underwater.

    We dig deeper into the heap of adobe.  Albert’s pickaxe strikes a pink child’s bicycle; it belongs to his daughter, Carola.  Severel minutes later we encounter a shattered flowerpot, the plants inside incredibly still green and living after two weeks hidden from the sun under a couple of feet of earth.

    Picking through the rubble

    Albert tells me that finally, this week, the municipality have been delivering food to the school in which the locals who have lost their homes are sheltering.  Its the first clear support that has been provided since the flood over a fortnight ago, a handful of tents from the Ministry of Defence aside.  The current concern of the homeless families is that the school will resume  its term again at the end of the month, forcing them to find elsewhere to live until such time as they recieve somewhere to live.  The government has promised new housing in three months, but as Albert tells me, “They don’t deliver on most of their promises.  They give words, and nothing else.”

    Alfred salvaging materials from his house

    I feel slightly hopeless as I leave Albert next to the remains of his house.  In the two and a half hours that we worked together, we stacked up beams, planks and doors.  We chipping away the the land on which his seven by four metre two storey house used to sit.  But I can’t find him and his family somewhere new to live; the municipality is supposed to be taking care of that.  I can’t build him a new house before they become homeless again; I don’t have the skills or time.  And most of all, I can’t help him avoid the long, hard years of toil that are going to bring him back to the place where he was fifteen days ago.

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    Thanks to a stirling effort by Bullfrogs nightclub in Cusco, a few thousand soles were raised from one of their nights to put towards the efforts of  Hogar de Los Niños del Sol (Home of the Children of the Sun), a project founded and run by Carlos Gibaja Tapia.  Priorities for Carlos were to create a covered communal space for the homeless members of the Sacred Valley communities to be able to cook and eat, providing an end-point for the foodlines that he had already been set up.  Solutions for housing would be shortly to follow, replacing the crowed Ministry of Defense tents that had been distributed in limited amounts around the affected communities.  Thanks to connections with Leander, founder of the UK charity MySmallHelp that was acting with Carlos to recieve donations from  overseas, our presence was requested to assist with the building of a comedor, or cantina.

    Building a comedor, PaucabambaBuilding a comedor, PaucabambaBuilding a comedor, Paucabamba

    We met Carlos early on Saturday morning and shot down into the Valley in a hired truck to pick up some wood to build the frame of the design that he had been drawing up over the previous couple of days.  A straightforward timber frame affair with tarpaulin sheet walls and a corrugated plastic roof, it wasn’t going to win any design awards, but it was relatively cheap, quick to put up and apparently very durable.  A similar design had been installed in a community a few years back and was still standing to date.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    We arrived in the community and got to work straight away, the community members levelling out an empty patch of ground with picks and shovels, shoring up the downhill side of the plot with stones.  Throughout the day I was very impressed with the skill that the locals showed in everything they did, shaving paper thin layers off wooden beams with unwieldy picks and knocking 7″ nails into wood with a couple of blows after I’d bent a handful trying to do the same job, cursing for all I was worth.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Lou, Carlos, the locals and I worked together for about 3 hours until a couple of trucks rolled up stuffed with volunteers from Bullfrogs and a Cusco-based social project that Lou worked for, Aldea Yanapay.  Despite the enthusiasm of the volunteers, there were more hands than tools and tasks and progress actually slowed for a while as people charged around the crowded plot trying desperately to find ways to assist.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Eventually a debris clearing operation was found a little further down the valley and half the mob left in the trucks topull building materials out of flattened houses.  The pace of work picked up again, and soon the comedor was taking shape, as Lou and I committed our efforts to make a table for the comedor.  After our cheerful construction of a frame that could only be described as ‘functional’, idle locals descended upon our efforts to finish the job, resulting in a pretty decent looking piece of furniture.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    We finished the comedor in about 8 hours of solid work, and as night fell the last nail was hammered into place.  The structure was christened with a meal from the food which had the result of donations from two lovely Americans, George and Kathy; simple but wholesome fodder of noodles, potatoes and meat.  Beer bottles arrived to toast the efforts of the construction crew, and by the light of the single bulb suspended from the rafters of the roof, Carlos thanked all present for their efforts and instructed them to make the most of their new facility.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba
    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    It was a fascinating experience in which to be involved, and very interesting to see the interaction of volunteers with the work effort of the locals; there’s a great deal to be said for striking the balance between helping aid recipients to build their own facility, but giving them the lead in taking ownership of the resource that should be theirs for years to come.

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    A nice surprise...

    Since the last weekend of sobering revalations, people have been busy in Cusco.  Tuesday morning dawned and I stumbled down the stairs to find Lou staring slightly confounded at her laptop.  She was coming to terms with the fact that she had just recieved a very generous donation from some UK business contacts, a fairtrade sales and distribution company called Peros.  If you want to know how much, check out the JustGiving link, and while you’re at it, please leave a few quid yourself…

    Now to anyone, a donation of this size would be a marvellous godsend.  That is, until you realise that you have to navigate the tricky waters of how to spend a large amount of money and make sure that you get every ounce of value possible.  With small donations, the logical route is to chip away at relief effort, but a large sum opens up long terms options; how can the money be invested to really benefit communities in the long term?

    Options pop up for the coming months, including:

    • Debris clearance, relocation and reconstruction projects for affected communites
    • Investment in small businesses to diversify income from farming, which has been seriously affected by the distruction of the crops

    and of course, right now

    • Ongoing relief aid; people need food, water, clothing and shelter, and in many cases are still not being provided with it

    How do you balance the immediate need for aid and the sustainable investment of donations in longer term projects?  And just as importantly, how do you choose the right partners for the long term options?  There are a lot of community projects, NGOs and government schemes, but the waters are muddied with the mistrust between locals, government and foreign interests founded on a long history of corruption.

    Rest assured the connections that are already forged with the communities of the Sacred Valley allow for a diverse range of perspectives about choosing the right options for development, and the right  partner to do them with.  It’s just a matter of time…

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