Creative Writing Major
International Development and Community Service in Peru
Summer I short-term, faculty-led
The Welcome Party
My purpose in Urubamba is simple. Deceptively so. Ostensibly, I travel to a remote village to build clean burning stoves with chimneys and distribute water filters to improve the villagers’ quality of living. By doing so, we hope to reduce the instances of preventable diseases. When I see the charred ceilings inside the homes, with tar collecting like drips of dried paint, I feel good knowing that we’re making a small step forward to recognize people in an under-served region. But, what are the lasting effects of our work? One of the other students referred to our arrival as showing up in a “White Hero Van.” Hearing that immediately made me angry. After all, don’t the villagers want these new kitchens? Isn’t the face of that change native Peruvians from ProPeru?
Today, my inner conflict over this question was compounded. We went to a new village and were greeted again by musicians, dancers, and flower necklaces. Everyone was ushered up the hill into a small house, the door framed in a flowering wreath, and were asked to sit on a sheepskin-covered bench for a demonstration. Again, they welcomed us and thanked us for the work we were doing. Then, the show began. A short woman in traditional garb showed us how they make the yarn for the clothes and blankets they sell, using plants to dye the wool. One root was even used as a shampoo. It was a fascinating presentation. I especially was surprised to find out how many hidden meanings and symbols there are in
Peruvian fabrics. However, after we applauded, all the women laid out their wares to sell to us. My Spanish was lacking for the most part, but what I remember distinctly were the zippers. Purses, Bags, Change holders. None of their clothes had zippers, yet they were unfolding mounds of woven crafts with something that would only appeal to tourists. I realized that the whole production was an effort to sell their goods. It was an like a limp handshake that cheapened the experience for all of us.
As I look back on it, I can understand why they did it. We (foreigners) are their economy. As a visiting professor on the trip told me, “We didn’t have to buy, but they had to ask.” As much as the stoves we’re building will help them, they still need to find a way to put food on them. Arriving in Lima, I saw all of the backpackers, wearing the same style of clothes, sh
oes, and stuff sacks, made of space age materials. I thought, “Thank God I’m not one of those people.” But, to them, I am. We both came here to hike their mountains, see the sights, and update our Facebook accounts with exotic photos. Maybe right now they can’t see a difference. But, maybe we also leave different footprints.