As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry about mass. We had our first encounter with Peruvian time when our bus driver was over an hour late so we had to cancel on the Jesuit. We had planned on going to a small, underfunded church where a late entrance would be noticed. Instead, we walked to the main square in Miraflores to drop in on mass in the large church there.
We had some time to kill before the service, so we were free to walk around the park, which was still warm and vibrant at dusk. The park is filled with stray cats who wander through the flower beds and lap up spilled arroz con leche. We steered clear, but the locals did everything they could to catch the cats’ attention, clicking at them and dangling untied shoelaces to lure them closer.
In the middle of the square, a large crowd was huddled around a small dugout where a PA system was set up. Couples, almost all over forty, danced together in the middle while a crowd formed around them to watch. Someone in our group pointed out that not a single person in the square had their cell phone out. When I thought about it, I hadn’t seen anyone on their cell phone all day.
This realization, along with the romantic lighting and the slow beat of the samba made me nostalgic for a time I never lived through in the United States. When driving past Starbucks on the way from the airport, I had been frightened that we had come to Peru too late, that it had been spoiled by globalization and cultural imperialism. Standing in the park, looking at community doing the same things that their grandparents had probably done on summer nights, was a comfort.
When we reconvened at the church, it soon became clear that normal mass was not scheduled for that night. But we had already settled into our pews. It was too late. We were officially wedding crashers.
The sermon was in Spanish, which I was only vaguely able to follow. I spent most of the service gazing at the neon lights extending from the glorious fingers of an effigy of Mary, watching the stray cat that was wandering around underneath the pews of the adjacent aisle, and trying to keep track of when to sit, stand, and kneel.
An hour later, there was finally a kiss, and we hurried out of the church. After some pasta and a few rounds of Texas Hold’em, we went to bed, where I finally got a solid night of sleep.
The drive out of Miraflores was quite a departure from the previous scenery. Instead of the lush tropical landscape I was expecting to see in Peru, we drove past brown, dusty hills dense with brown, unfinished houses. The only color came from the graffiti (much of which was leftover propaganda from the prior Peruvian president Fujimori, whose incredibly corrupt administration left office in 2000) and the laundry lines that swung from the crumbling upper levels of the hillside homes. The air was permeated with the smell of burning trash. Towering above the slums, all the way to San Bartolo, were an astonishing number of billboards. Most were hypersexual, and all portrayed beautiful, smiling white people.
We dropped off our bags at our beautiful hotel in San Bartolo. The stark contrast of the past hour of driving and our giant rooms with an ocean view was not lost on us. After putting on a heavy layer of sunscreen, we climbed back on the bus to meet with the street kids at the beach in Puerto Viejo.
This trip is a sort of partnership with a Peruvian non-profit called Generacion. The Peru Arrupe Immersion trip has been funding a beach camping trip for seven years, and the workers at Generacion invite all of the homeless children they work with to attend. We are told that they ask about the camping trip all year long, and the turnout is usually around 150 kids.
Driving to the beach, I felt nervous. I’ve never been good with children. Kique had warned us that these children have never been taught how to interact with other people, and not to share water, because many of them have tuberculosis or other diseases. I pictured acrid smells, skeletal bodies, and visible disease.
But the children were clean, and they were children, smiley and eager to meet us. After introductions were made, the USF group stood outside the tent, unsure what to do next and extremely out of place. The Generacion women sliced up the huge cake we had brought and began to distribute it, while a few of the older street kids disappeared and came back with instruments. We sat down, ate cake, and tried to blend in as they played music. Everyone knew the words to the songs.
Soon the group split, and all the men took their surfboards (provided by Generacion) down to the beach to give all of the younger children surfing lessons. The younger girls ran around in the sand and water, playing with the boys. The older girls sat in the shade, nearly silent and clearly exhausted as they breastfed their babies and held toddlers’ chubby arms as they washed the sand from their rolls.
The boys clearly loved us being there. They showed off and crowded around the pretty girls. The women didn’t care about us, and I don’t see why they should have. They were, however, happy to hand off their babies to the visitors. So we, the sheltered college girls who are children ourselves, gave a brief break to these mothers, 16 going on 30.
This classic image of patriarchy and the uneven burden on these young girls snapped me back to reality. This wasn’t just a picnic on the beach. This was a group of homeless Peruvians from Lima. The poorest of the poor. The turnout this year was much smaller than usual because they told the children that they couldn’t bring their drugs (mostly glue) to the camp. Many children chose drugs instead of the activities. The youngest mother at the camp, with two babies on her lap, looked fourteen years old. Kique informed us that one of the women, who’s arms were latticed with scars, is a pimp, partnered with Lima’s most infamous kidnapper, who is currently in prison.
I respect the fact that Generacion is a non-judgmental group, but sharing cake with someone who is involved in child prostitution doesn’t sit right with me.
We ended the day by discussing ten points that the street kids compiled the year before. These ten points are basic demands, like housing, sufficient food and health care, and the halt of child trafficking in Lima. With the help of Generacion, they gave these points to the Peruvian president and the mayor of Lima. So far nothing has been done.
We brainstormed seven ideas for how to continue the fight, but the conversation was not a hopeful one. Most did not voice an opinion.
Personally, I had nothing to say. I have never had to fight for food, shelter, or the rights to my own body. I wouldn’t know where to begin. It is clear to me that I could not live a day like these small children do.
We left the camp quiet and tired. Eventually we went to dinner, where we cracked jokes, and chatted happily. We tried a traditional (very strong) Peruvian drink called Pisco Sour. We went out for ice cream. No one talked about the day we had shared.
At the night’s reflection, we opened up about it for the first time. We were all required to share about our impressions, and the overall theme was clear: discomfort. Most of us have never been so out of our comfort zones, and the trip has just begun.