The most amazing part of Peru for me was the resilience and pride of the people living in Pamplona, the shanty town. Where they live, on the dusty and rocky hillsides around Lima, they can see Central, modern Lima with perfect clarity. Yet they live worlds apart where they are denied simple services such as electricity and paved roads and where their water costs seven times more than the water supplied in the wealthier parts of the city. But still, in light of these injustices, the people of Pamplona have an intense pride in their communities and their country. Driving into the shanty towns, I saw countless Peruvian flags waving from the junk wood and corrugated metal houses. The people there form amazing communities that they take great pride in claiming as their own and rightly so because these people truly created their own environment. They came from the hillsides and the mountains, fleeing warfare and injustice and came to Lima to start life anew. This is their land, their community and their source of pride for they have truly nothing else. It is refreshing to see the pride in community and their fellow man these Peruvians have as compared to the increasingly Westernized peoples of the modern city who instead take their pride from wealth who put personal gain over the betterment of the community.
Every way I looked, one-room scrap houses littered the barren, sandy hills of Lima, Peru. Only a few miles from the modern, upscale, seemingly first world coastline, I stood in a neighborhood poorer than any I had ever seen, a place whose poverty was unfathomable to me until the day I set foot there. At first sight, I felt helpless; what could building a staircase possibly do to help? It wasn’t until after five days of mixing cement that I realized just how much the staircase changed the lives of these people; our helping hands made their lives a bit easier. The residents of the shantytown now walked up a flight of a stairs to get to their houses, which were situated on the side of a treacherous hill covered in loose rocks and sand. After the last bucket of cement was poured, the community members were all smiles. For the first time, I found myself seriously questioning what it is that I need to be happy.
Lima is a dynamic city filled with many contrasts. Within Lima are skyscrapers, nice homes with courtyards, and shantytowns with dirt roads. I was taken aback by the living conditions in the shantytowns, specifically in Alta Pamploma. Yet, the area of Alta Pamploma we were in was home to strong families who worked hard daily to improve their living conditions. The families continued to live their lives despite living under tin roofs and lacking running water. In addition, this community genuinely embraces the concept of service. The residents were more than willing to help us build stairs for their neighborhood. I am forever grateful to them.
There is so much pride among these people – pride for Peru, with flags hanging everywhere, despite impoverished living conditions and minimal help from the government of Lima; pride for their homes and neighborhoods and for the stairs we helped to build that represent permanence and progress; pride for their families and communities and all that they do to make sure the children are fed, clothed, educated, protected and loved. There is such kindness, even when the dust is blowing and the roofs are rattling and the cityscape of central Lima appears through the smog of industrialization – industrialization that many in the shantytowns have never seen up close. In a city of immense and often unbelievable contrasts, the respectful and humble character of the Pamplona Alta community was stunning.
Working in the shantytowns outside of Lima while living in one of the nicest parts of the city provided me with a constant reminder of the disparities in the world. At the same time, it also reminded me of the different lenses through which we can view poverty. In this age of globalization, we tend to judge those with less material wealth as impoverished, but we forget the value of community. In these shantytowns, I observed how they made progress together as communities, and realized that they were not as impoverished as they appeared. It reminded me that while my own community is richer by economic standards, it is still light years behind in human progress compared to these shantytowns.
What stands out most about the poverty we witnessed in Lima are the stark contrasts between rich and poor, highlighted by the proximity of the two communities. We would work all day in the shantytowns on the hills surrounding Lima, and from that vantage point, you could see the glimmering skyscrapers of the affluent district by the water. Water itself became emblematic of the disparity: in the same day that we saw the water truck lumber along the dirt roads of Pamplona Alta, supplying residents with clean water at one sole a barrel (there is no running water in the shantytown), we experienced the extravagance of the "Magical Fountain" display in downtown Lima--where the government proudly advertises its ability to expend precious resources on luxury activities, synchronizing bursts of water with different colors, like the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
As we were leaving the work cite the last day, Alonso (a little boy) approached me asking me if he could have my red bandanna like I had promised him earlier in the week. I was more than happy to keep my promise, and he said he'd keep it as a remembrance of me. As he said that, I began to tear up because I felt hopeless in knowing the only thing I could do for him was give him something to remember me by. Wishing for the best for him but knowing the odds are against his favor, the only thing I could think of saying was "pay attention in school." I don't know why, but it was my first instinct; I feel that if anything, an education will be his ticket out of the shantytowns of Lima, Peru. I've never felt so helpless in my life as I did saying good-bye to Alonso.
My trip to the shantytowns of Lima, Peru made me think a lot about the complications of poverty and industrialization and the flaws that can come with "progress." In the shantytowns we worked in, we often as a group thought about the children we played with every day, and considered what their chances were at a life outside of a shantytown. Sadly, we realized that if by any chance these children were able to leave the shantytown, they would probably only move to the outskirts of the shantytown, an area that seems plagued with issues of poverty, but also other problems including a significant rise in crime. This led me to consider the complicated solutions that are needed to improve people's poverty stricken lives. A simple change in income or location does not necessarily mean that a problem is fixed, and realistically, for people in the shantytown, their only chance for improvement seems like it potentially brings more problems to their everyday lives than living in the shantytowns would have.