Tag: safety

Peligro en Perú: Huecos en el Suelo

A taxi driver in Lima recently robbed one of my good friends at gunpoint. Although you need to be cautious, I wouldn’t consider the level of danger in Peru much higher than other Latin American countries. In fact, my post on scary men is an example of the goodness that can always be found and this week’s follow-up guest post by Dr. Vincent Tufano on making the best of a bad situation recounts how lucky breaks factor in as well.

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Scary Men

In Lima, there’s a bus terminal in a shady part of the city called Yerbateros. It houses all of the buses that go to the province of Junín; the majority of them go to Huancayo. This is where you go to pay $3 for a bus ride to Huancayo, 8 hours away.

Whenever we arrive at the Yerbateros terminal, we’re always bombarded by a group of men the second we get out of the taxi. “Huancayo? You’re going to Huancayo?” all of them say at once. “I’ll take you there for 50 soles.” (This is around $17). They’re “taxi” drivers, they say, but about half of them just have their own personal cars and want to make some extra cash during their ride home.

I have always been afraid of these men. I’m especially afraid when I have luggage with me. I ignore them. I always take the bus anyway, they’re cheaper and they seem safer because you share your fate with 50 people instead of 5.

So, I wasn’t feeling the most secure when we arrived at the Yerbateros terminal this past Wednesday and got out of the taxi only to be faced with a double threat. The taxi driver who drove us over from the airport wanted to harshly overcharge us for the trip while we were being besieged by the intimidating crowd of “taxi” drivers at the terminal.

It was a mess. The airport taxi driver had initially told us that he was charging us “20,” but only later revealed that he meant “$20” and not “20 soles” and would also be adding $15 dollars to that price because of the extra traffic that he hadn’t expected. We knew we were being cheated because we’ve taken the trip between the airport and Yerbateros many times. We can often get there by paying only 30 soles and this guy was charging us 100 soles!

“They’re having an argument! Let them talk!” one man from the crowd says to another who was in our faces, trying to find out if we were going to Huancayo.

“How much is he charging you?” another man asks us. When the crowd hears the amount of money the airport taxi driver is trying to steal from us, everyone is outraged.

“How can he charge you 100 soles for driving an hour and a half from the airport if we only charge 50 soles for a 5-hour drive to Huancayo?”

“That’s abusive. Don’t pay him!”

“I’ve driven here from the airport so many times. I take route X because it’s faster and I only charge 40 soles maximum. He must have taken you through a longer route on purpose.”

“I have the special license to enter the airport grounds and only black taxi cabs are allowed in. This car is a white car. It must be his own personal car, just painted.”

“Robber! He’s charging you way too much.”

“Call the police!”

And one of the men actually did go call a police officer who was nearby. The crowd shouted out their grievances on our behalf. The police officer took a walk around the car. Soon after, we see the airport taxi driver taking off his tie and removing the taxi’s front tire. We hadn’t even noticed when it had deflated. The police officer would be taking him to the local jail to do a background check and to call his so-called company. If his taxi company even existed, he may have been overcharging passengers and pocketing the money for himself. We later remembered that the business card he showed us at the airport to prove his credibility said “Forza Tours,” but the official receipt he gave us cited a completely different company name.

I felt really thankful that we had all of those men on our side. They were even less insistent after: “You’re taking the bus? Yeah, it’s cheaper anyway.” I started seeing them as other Huancainos, neighbors that I may see on the streets of Huancayo. I wondered if I had seen them before at Yerbateros and I wonder if I’ll see them again some day.

What has renewed your faith in humanity recently?

The Protest

My parents, being the best-est parents in the world, came to visit me for my birthday. It was a tight 3 days they were going to be here and as much as I wanted things to go perfectly, things never seem to go as planned in Huancayo. (As a side note, I have decided that I will always plan future vacations for more than 2 weeks). Not only did things not go as planned, but during the few days they were here, my parents and I experienced a series of firsts.

La Huelga
This is what we had to walk through to get back home.
The Saturday evening my parents arrived, we had planned to go out for a birthday dinner, but it started to rain hard. It would be the first of three days in a row that it would hail golf balls in the afternoon. They say it was the first time it had ever hailed so much in Huancayo.

I had planned Sunday to be as Huancaino as possible, which is what my parents wanted – first, the patriotic flag ceremony in the main plaza and the parade that follows, led by the military’s band. I’ve seen at least part of the parade almost every Sunday because I love that community feel when all the families come out, kids running around, buying paper hats and ice cream. So, my parents and I are out there, ready and on time to see the whole thing, but the flags are already up, no ceremony. Turns out, it was the day of the yearly “Marathon of the Andes.” They had suspended the flag ceremony for the day to cheer on the exhausted runners who had started from Jauja.

On the Monday, the last full day my parents would be here, I had to go to work. I left early in the morning for Jauja where we were doing some home visits, finished as quickly as possible and was on my way home by noon so I could spend the rest of the afternoon with my parents. The only thing stopping us from getting back were a million huge stones, lit up tires, and tree trunks lying across the highway – the 2,500 citizens of Concepción (a city in between Huancayo and Jauja) were protesting against all the garbage Huancayo was dumping in their little town. It was my first time experiencing a protest. We walked for two hours past all the vehicles, past all the road obstructions, past the crowd of protestors, past the police on the other side with their body-length shields, to the part of the highway where cars were finally moving.

Thankfully – although the protest continued through the rest of the week – my parents were able to get out of Huancayo safely and on schedule. Thanks for coming to visit, mum and dad!

Search Him

So, I’m going for a walk with my friend, Kevin, through the streets of Huancayo. There are always a lot of people out and about in the evenings in the centre of the city. On a whim, I ask if we can cross over the walkway that spans the busy highway. It’d be fun to see the cars whizzing by from above, I think. We’re walking up the stairs when we run into two young guys chilling in the stairwell. They start talking to Kevin in Spanish and I can’t understand completely what they’re saying. I think at first they’re just saying “Hi” until I notice that they aren’t smiling and that Kevin has given them 1 sol. We’re being robbed.

As far as I understood, Kevin was trying to negotiate. “Search him,” the taller guy said. So far, they’ve left me alone. I’m frozen, watching all of this in amazement and fear. The shorter guy leans in to pat Kevin’s pockets (or maybe to reach inside), but Kevin pushes the guy away. I imagine he’s saying something like, “Calm down. I’ll give you more money.” He takes out his wallet and gives them 2 more soles. They aren’t satisfied. “Search him,” the taller guy insists. I’m thinking of how much money I had in my pockets and in my shoes; if they only knew.

I’m really scared and a million thoughts run through my head. Give them my money. Help Kevin. Escape. Yell. There are so many people walking along the pathway just below us. I feel horrible because this was all my idea. I feel horrible as I start to instinctively inch my way towards the staircase to escape. The taller guy notices me move and puts him arm around me, blocking me. I have never felt so afraid in my life.

The taller guy lets me go for a moment to help his friend out and I run down the stairs, turning back once or twice to see Kevin getting hit in the face, double teamed. A few seconds later, Kevin is beside me. He was hoping for and waiting for me to escape. Apparently he’s a scrapper, has been in many fights before, but was being passive because he was afraid of what they might do to me. On the way home, he spits out blood more than a couple times. I’m saying “sorry” over and over again. He’s just happy that I’m safe. So am I. Peru can be a dangerous place. It was a lesson I needed to learn because I tend to see the world as one big happy place; I tend to be very gullible, trusting. Next time, they might not be amateurs. I’ve gotta be street smart and even then, you just never know.

Update 2/15/11: After traveling through Peru and living in Huancayo for an extended period of time, I’ve learned to become more street smart and I feel incredibly safe living here. In fact, Peru is one of the safest places to live in South America — It’s why I’m back here!

I finally have a key to my room (as of yesterday) and I’m starting to feel like I’m really here, in a new province, away from home. I’ve been exploring the town and meeting the locals on my runs, walks with friends, at the gym, and around campus. The 50 Coady Diploma participants from all over the world are trickling in and I’ve already met:

  • the pastor from India, Father Paulson
  • the Argentinian with the Russian accent who has worked in Macau for the last 10 years
  • the Sudanese who swims naked in rivers (because that’s what they do in South Sudan), and
  • the dude from Malawi who was all decked out in a tourist-y shirt and baseball cap with “Malawi” splashed across the front (“Hi, I’m Alex from Malawi,” he says as I shake his hand)

When else would I ever get the chance to chat with, eat lunch with, and take three weeks of workshops and classes with fifty international/community development specialists from all over the world? They’re here for six months for Coady’s development leadership diploma program, but we as interns still get to sponge up as much as we can from them before we head out to our NGOs. When else would I ever get to do this? I am continually challenged to engage in serious, intellectual, political, philosophical conversations on topics that I’ve never even thought about most of the time – other interns are always recommending books to read (notably, Race Against Time by Stephen Lewis) or watching and discussing movies on developing countries in the common room just across from my bedroom. I feel like I can’t keep up! =P

Today is my first day off and I have a lot of catching up to do in terms of both internship-related errands and in this blog. I have so many things I want to post about that I could write a novel on the past week, but I should probably be time-efficient and just get them out in a list of random rambling notes. I figure it’s most important to just get them down so I don’t forget. Then I can come back to reflect upon these ramblings later and talk about them more in depth when I get back home next year and get the chance to meet with you guys in person! =)


  • I had no idea that when people travel, they have a higher risk of engaging in risky sexual behaviour.
  • We met the president of StFX who shared some insights and advice on his travels during a lunch with Coady staff. Later, we hear through the gossip mill about what he can be like outside of his presidential role. Only in a small town…! And speaking of small towns – my fantasy of living in a place like Antigonish has been tainted a little as I inadvertently hear more gossip and begin to see how complicated relationships can be here. Imagine having a limited crop of potential suitors, knowing who everyone has slept with, and having everyone know about your nasty break-ups!
  • I am so lucky that I have the ability to run. Two of the interns are beautiful and lean ladies, but can’t run anymore because of physical injuries. One was injured just before the triathlon she had signed up for after having been training for many months!
  • Advice from a former intern: as a female, if you feel unsafe (e.g. at night in a dangerous part of Africa), approach a sex worker. What a powerful bond there is that connects women from all walks of life.
  • Kim’s (the internship program coordinator) philosophy is to squeeze learning opportunities out of every situation. For example, the fact that we don’t have our visas yet? Patience and trust in the system.
  • Turn judgment into curiosity. For example, if my NGO has a very roundabout system that seems inefficient, turn the frustrated “Why the heck would they do it this way?” attitude into a pondering “I wonder why they do it this way?” outlook. Look into their iceberg and see the “invisible”/below the surface reasons for their thoughts, actions, and behaviours. Now that I think about it, I guess this goes for any interaction, not just cross-culturally.
  • From the sounds of it, development work seems to consist of a lot of planning and reporting, especially when it comes to funding. On a completely separate note, there are also a million acronyms used in this field. Do you know what NGO, CBO, ASRHR, OVC, and PLWA stand for?
  • We received our work plans, which were developed last year (because that’s when the funding applications were due). It will be a true test of flexibility and my confidence/trust in my own abilities when we get to our host countries because things will most likely not follow these plans, if at all. I guess that’s what life is like.
  • Coady’s philosophy is centred around Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), capacity building (thanks for explaining this to me, Crystal!), with the view that these communities already work. Our role is to assist these communities in identifying their assets instead of their needs or “what’s missing” (a very paternalistic attitude).
  • It will be difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the experience we will have and/or the difference we’re going to make. Change is ongoing, can be internal, and will hopefully continue beyond the time period of out internships, particularly because sustainability is a fundamental theme of all of these projects.
  • The more I learn, the more questions I have instead of answers. Development work seems to be an ongoing discussion, as is research, as is morals and ethics, as is determining what it means to live a good life.
  • I feel that I’m really good at making eye contact with people, but I start looking away when I’m speaking to people as I try to formulate my words.
  • If you find yourself riding in the back of the truck, choose the spot closest to the driver.
  • I love how in many parts of the world, fat is beautiful.
  • Has anyone ever heard of “sex bracelets”? I think a certain number or colour of bracelets signifies how much sex you’ve had!
  • I’ve been writing down all the things I want to blog about so that I don’t forget, but there are already three to four notes that I’ve made that seem completely foreign to me now. Bah!

People that I want to remember

  • Cassie’s boyfriend came to visit and we met his friends Mory from the Ivory Coast (in West Africa) and Thesfaye from Ethiopia. It’s weird to think that French is the national language of the Ivory Coast.
  • Joseph from Tanzania.

Joseph’s living at our dorm right now and was in Halifax to present at a conference on the radio station that he and his colleagues have started up in the rural Kagawe region. People in Kagawe are in so much poverty that many still don’t have toilets, need to carry water from so far away, and need to grow their own crops despite not being educated as farmers. It is through radio that he’s been able to reach out to the rural communities, broadcasting on issues such as agro-forestry, health, and sanitation. I had a chat with him this morning about how this first trip to Canada has been an eye-opening experience for him. He thought he was making a difference when he planted 500,000 trees in his home country, until he saw all the trees that we have here in Canada. It just goes to show that we often think we know, we understand, we’ve tried our hardest, we’ve made a difference, until we open our eyes a little wider and take in the rest of the world.

I asked Joseph if he ever felt like giving up. Wouldn’t he? After seeing how much more he needs to do, how many more trees he has to plant, how much more work he has to do to educate the people of his country – wouldn’t it be so easy to get lost in the sheer magnitude of the task? He told me three things:

  1. Use only what you need. He had visited CBC in Ottawa, was given a tour, saw the rows and rows of cubicles and equipment, but instead of feeling overwhelmed with all that he still needed to do with his tiny radio station in Tanzania, he thought about how he had everything he needed. There were some pieces of equipment that he would like to have, but he was striving for one cubicle’s worth of equipment, not to become like the entire CBC station.
  2. Patience. It took him 15 years to get his radio station up and running and it started with a little collection of resources that turned into a library that turned into a newsletter that turned into information boards that turned into a radio station.
  3. Be a catalyst. We could drown in thinking about all the little things that could still be done/changed, but if we take the broader perspective and view ourselves instead as a catalyst for change, it almost feels as if we can make a substantial difference in the world.

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