Global Service Scholar: Denise Delgado
When I first arrived in Peru, it was late at night and all I could see were the city lights accompanied by the heavy traffic usually produced by large international airports. It was beautiful to see the city lights and bustling people. Yet, I obviously formed preconceptions about my upcoming experience – and especially about the altitude – because I immediately began to complain about a headache. I attributed it to the altitude, only to find out that we were still at sea level.
Arriving in Cusco I expected it to be a middle-of-nowhere rural town but the colonial city I encountered was far from rural. The inhabitants of Cusco have found a way to maintain their Incan and colonial roots while modernizing parts of the city to accommodate the demands of herds of incoming tourists. I will admit that the high altitude greatly affected my ability to function and enjoy the city for the first two days, but in the end experiencing the city, its culture and its beauty were well worth the discomfort.
The amount of pride that the people of Cusco and Peru overall feel about their Incan roots has impacted me the most. They are always encouraging tourists and locals to take trips to their historical monuments that relate back to their indigenous roots, and they even call themselves indigenous names such as Huapangos in Ayacucho. Furthermore, although most of the people in Peru are Catholics and Spanish speakers, there are a good number who still speak, and more who understand, the Quechua language used by the Inca.
Arriving in the city of Ayacucho, it was the way people drive that surprised me the most. There aren’t many traffic lights and drivers honk halfway down the street to notify pedestrians and other drivers that they will be crossing. Drivers block each other from merging, making it a competition. The lack of care for pedestrians is astounding; they do not stop when pedestrians cross the street and they get upset and honk when they almost run you over. So being watchful is a necessity for survival when walking on Ayacucho streets.
I’m looking forward to working at the women’s prison, since the other volunteers and I didn’t get to go last week because of prison protocols, a long holiday weekend, and a switch in the prison director. Today was my first day at the prison, which is close to yet isolated from the central city of the Ayacucho region. In the morning we got to work with the female inmates, who, despite their mistakes truly want to reform themselves in order to provide a better life for themselves and their children after they’re released from prison.
The women’s half of the prison is not ordinary. Yes, there are high cement walls with barbed wire topping them, but the women have painted them different colors of pinks, greens, and purples, giving the pavilion a warm feeling. There are little shops along the wall where prisoners purchase goods to meet their basic needs. There are central sinks where they wash, and hanging lines where they dry clothes. They are so willing to work. They’re open to the idea of volunteers coming in to their home to provide them with various activities and services tailored to their needs. We got to go out with them to the courtyard they were all very respectful, welcoming and willing to participate and listen to the messages we were attempting to share with them.
Working with the children was a special experience. When I walked in, I saw different colored walls with various drawings of cartoon characters such as Dora the Explorer and Winnie the Pooh. The children were in a room with letter foam carpeting, and various shelves filled with toys, musical instruments, and books in both Spanish and Quechua. The bathroom was not the most sanitary and the area wasn’t the most clean, but it was a space where the children got ample sunlight and yard to run around and swings to play on. It’s a place where they get to escape the reality of prison life with their mothers.
Some children were timid and afraid, while others were aggressive and frustrated. The principal caretaker advised me that most experienced fear because the only visitors to the nursery were nurses bringing vaccines. She explained that others were angry and frustrated because of their experiences while living with their mothers. The most aggressive children she knew received little attention from their mothers and often learned the aggression from their frustrated mothers. Over the course of this month, I would like to observe the children’s behavior and see if prison life or the time spent with some neglectful mothers has any effects on their own behavior over time, while providing them with care and fulfillment of their needs while in the nursery.