Saturday, November 25, 2006

Anne Marie McSweeny Book Delivery Project

The Anne Marie McSweeny Book Delivery Project

The area of San Martin Plaza is a bustling center in downtown Lima, Peru. A huge bronze statue of General Martin on his horse overlooks a city square twice as big as a football field. Impressive buildings with ornate Colonial style architecture surround the square. This is the hub of both the best and worst Lima has to offer. The charm of San Martin Plaza is offset by dozens of armed police who are on the lookout for pick pockets and prostitutes that are as common as pigeons on the statue’s head.

This section of Lima is famous for it’s bookstores. The streets radiating from the main square offer a collection of small used book shops that would be fascinating to someone who spoke Spanish. I don’t read much Spanish, so I am usually attracted to the books with the best pictures. The biggest bookstore is called the Naverratte which is a cross between Barnes and Noble and Office Max. Here you can buy everything from novels to packing tape.

A project we started this year was to deliver books to remote schools in the jungle of Peru. This project came about after the death of my friend Anne Marie McSweeny who died in an auto accident in June of 2006. Anne had willed her bicycles to her friend Karl Stock. Karl wanted to use the money raised from selling Anne Marie’s bicycles for something that would benefit many people. As Karl and I thought of a plan we agreed that Anne Marie would be in favor of helping children with a book delivery program. Karl sold Anne Marie’s bikes and raised $5,000 for the project.

When I returned to Peru this October I needed to find the best way to organize the book delivery program. Buying the books was one concern. Delivering books to remote schools was another problem. I didn’t have a good idea of how many books I could buy or how I could transport them. This year would be a scouting trip to find more schools and the best way to distribute the books.

When I looked through the book stores in Lima I found many good books at the used book stores. There were many hard bound books available for $2 - $5. New paperback books could be bought for about the same price. When selecting books I tried to find a mix between educational and entertainment. Sometimes I found sets of encyclopedias, science text books, and “How To” books for sewing, gardening and raising animals. Since I am partial to Spanish books with lots of pictures I usually picked those first. I also found many novels that had been translated into Spanish, such as, Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Phantom of the Opera were some of the dozens of titles I recognized. To round out my list of 100 books I included some with a Disney theme such as Mickey Mouse or other comics.

My budget was about $500 per school. I would get books for three schools now and seven schools in the future. The next concern was how to box and transport 300 books for three schools. For comparison; 100 National Geographic Magazines fit into a square two foot cube box and weighs about 80 pounds. That was the average size for the books I bought. I divided my 300 books into five boxes of about 50 pounds each. Good cardboard boxes are rare in Peru so I had to reinforce each box with several layers of flimsy cardboard. The good thing is that clear packing tape is plentiful for thirty cents a roll. I used a full roll on each box to make it suitable for transport.

My ultimate destination was to travel by taxi 300 miles into the jungle to the school at the Puerto Occopa Orphanage. Along the way I delivered books to a school in the mountain town of Chosica and to another school in the jungle village of Yurinaki. The directors of both these schools were thankful for the unexpected gift since they had few books on their shelves. We gave each of the schools a photo of Anne Marie and told them about her gift to the school. Her photo is now on display in their new library.

A side note:
Two weeks later I flew to the Amazon River City of Iquitos. Three years ago we had helped build a school nine kilometers out of town.
A fellow named Juan Torres is the superintendent for all the schools in Lorento Provence which is Peru largest jungle region. He is based in Iquitos and is in charge of 120 school districts and 18,000 teachers. Juan is in a very influential position to determine the future of schools in Peru. I had a meeting with him to discuss the future of the Jack Wolff School we built three years ago. He wanted to see the school so we drove in his pickup truck with four other directors to visit the village. They were impressed with the progress made so far at the school. I was able to spend most of the afternoon with Juan discussing Peru schools and philosophies of helping the desolate areas in Peru. He asked me to come over to his house for dinner that night to continue our talk.

It turns out Juan had grown up in a remote Indian Amazon village a hundred miles from any major towns. He was able to come to Iquitos when he was 16 years old and finish high school. He then went to Lima and went to college to become a teacher. He eventually became involved in the management of the education system. During our discussion he said he would like to return to his jungle village from 30 years ago and visit his original school. We thought we could combine this trip with a book delivery tour to six other remote Amazon village schools. Juan wants to visit these schools in his district because this area is so remote they do not have many state government visitors. It is kind of like the governor of New York showing up for a small town hall meeting. We are now planning the schedule for this journey back to his Indian village roots. He seems interested in making this trip possible and a way to expand the Anne Marie Book Delivery Project.

Another side note:
We recently have been asked to help build a new school 25 miles further into the jungle from Iquitos. The village has a lumber mill and can manufacture some of the material for the school. We are discussing what type of help we can provide and if the government will recognize the new school and provide the teachers. More updates on this new school project later.

P.S. These projects have been made possible by the generous donations of PAC Tour riders. If you would like to contribute to the Orphanage or School Builders Fund you can make a tax deductible donation to:

“The Christ Lutheran Church Peru Fund”.
Mail your check to:
PAC Tour, P.O. Box 303, Sharon, WI 53585.

A receipt will be sent to you acknowledging your donation. Thank you for your continuing support with these projects.


Over the Peruvian Andes

Over the Andes to the Orphanage

The shopping in Lima had been frantic and productive. We still had 100 books in our taxi for the orphanage. Besides the boxes of books, we had three huge sacks of clothes for 100 orphans. We had bought a set of new clothes for the kids ages 3 to 17 years old. A complete outfit included: a t-shirt, pants and sandals. Including our personal gear bags we packed the back of a Toyota station wagon taxi pretty tight. All these things would need to be unloaded into a different taxi each time we changed vehicles every 50 to 70 miles. Our trip to the orphanage would take four days and include seven different taxies. This would be a 300 mile adventure from Lima over the 16,000 foot Andes Mountains to the jungle orphanage in Puerto Occopa. Along the way we would buy and accumulated more supplies such as gardening tools in other towns. The orphanage has a small farm garden where they grow vegetables for many of their meals.

My traveling companions would include my friend Vioricka from the jungle city of Iquitos. Vioricka has worked as a translator for our tours the past three years. Her European Spanish ancestors is where she inherited her white skin and red hair. She always contrasted with the majority of dark skinned Indian natives. Also traveling with us was an eight year old girl named Aracely and her mother Neyda. I met them both last year in their jungle restaurant during our bike tour to the orphanage. I had an immediate connection with Aracely and was impressed by her spunky attitude. Her mother asked me if I would take Aracely back to the United States to go to school. It wasn’t possible to bring Aracely home but we kept in touch by mail during the past year. She calls me “Papa Lon” and I consider her my adopted daughter in Peru. This year Neyda moved to Lima to clean houses. Aracely lives in a boarding house for twenty girls whose parents work full time. I was able to track them down and see if they wanted to travel back to their home in the jungle. Neyda and Aracely were thrilled to be able to spend a week together and travel with us back to their home.

The four of us made quite an assortment of demographics. Vioricka was the elegant glamor queen. She always dressed like a fashion model. Neyda was the stern, hardworking mother who liked helping lift and move the packages. Aracely had that Shirley Temple personality and was always charming taxi drivers and waiters. She could meet a stranger and within two minutes be sitting on their lap telling them a story. I was the bumbling gringo who tried to speak Spanish. I am sure the locals wondered why I was traveling by taxi with Vioricka, Neyda and Aracely.

Our second night we arrived at the old home of Neyda and Aracely. Aracely’s grandfather still lives there and he was delighted to see his family again. We were deep in the banana and pineapple jungle now. Their house doubled as a restaurant on stilts overhanging the river. The construction was similar to a backyard tree house. They showed me my bedroom overlooking the 200 foot wide, fast flowing river. The view was exceptional. I could look through the floor boards and see the chickens below pecking in the mud. The outdoor toilet was down another flight of stairs near the edge of the river. To flush the toilet you poured a bucket of river water into the basin and the toilet flushed through a plastic pipe into the river.

Side note:
Last year when our bike tour stopped at Neyda’s restaurant for lunch our group had ordered chicken. The cook took a five foot metal spear and tried to catch and kill a chicken below the restaurant. After 20 minutes of not catching a chicken he returned to report they did not have chicken today. He asked if we wanted fish. We said that would be fine. The cook then went and got his fishing pole and went down to the river. After ten minutes he had caught several twelve inch fish of various types. He cleaned and cooked the fish for us on his open pit wood stove. This was a typical lunch at a roadside restaurant in Peru. The meal was never very quick but it was always entertaining.

This year it was a challenging night staying there. The local dogs barked at every vehicle on the main road just outside my room. The roosters below my bed were on various time zones and would crow on the hour. The outhouse toilet was filled with fast four inch spiders that liked to come out in the dark. I wondered how many spiders would come up though the gaps in my floorboards and find their way into my bed. This is where Neyda grew up as little girl and how 80% of the jungle people live. It was an interesting visit and something I would like to do again.

The next morning we found another taxi and began our third day of driving to Satipo. We only needed to travel 45 miles to arrive at our two star Majestic Hotel before noon. Satipo is a large town of 15,000 people and has a wholesale type food store. We waited to purchase the heaviest food items here. It would take us six hours of grocery shopping to buy and collect everything. Our convoy had now expanded to include an old cattle truck. It was loaded with 3,000 pounds of bagged rice, sugar and beans, pasta, canned milk, salad oil, toilet paper, laundry soap and toys. This was enough packaged food to last about two months. Our budget was about $3,000 for the food and $2,000 for the clothes. The next morning we planned to travel the final miles to the orphanage. After dinner it started to rain. I knew it would be a sloppy ride tomorrow.

The jungle road ahead was 50 miles of mud and rocks. A fast taxi driver could cover the distance in three hours. A loaded truck would take four hours if it didn’t get robbed by bandits or stuck in the mud. Our traveling schedule was intentionally vague of when we would arrive at the orphanage. The road ahead was known to have hijackers waiting for worthwhile loot. We didn’t want anyone to know when we would be on this section of road. Even the nuns at the orphanage didn’t know we were coming.

Aracely and her mom would be riding with the truck driver. Vioricka and I would be traveling behind in our taxi that was still loaded with books and clothing. We had bought an industrial sewing machine in Lima and had it shipped by separate truck to Satipo. The truck was a day late but we had received message the truck should arrive at the shipping docks at any minute. Vioricka and I went to look for the sewing machine and gave Neyda and Aracely a head start in the slow cattle truck. As they left town we tracked down the sewing machine delivery at the docks. Everything was intact including the heavy steel support table and countertop. After thirty minutes of securing the table to the roof of the taxi with coils of rope we were ready to catch Neyda and Aracely in the supply truck.

The gravel road from Satipo to the Puerto Occopa Orphanage is relatively good the first ten miles. The remaining 40 miles vary from bad to terrible as deep ruts and rocks scrape the floor boards of our Toyota taxi. Our driver did his best to straddle potholes and avoid the occasional oncoming car who is trying to miss obstacles in their lane. We barely averaged 15 mph for the next two hours. A good mountain bike racer could easily have kept up with our slow, jarring pace.

The road to the orphanage is like going to the edge of the earth. It is a road to no where. We could have picked an easier place to deliver supplies. There are plenty of orphanages in Lima who could use our help. We had spent a third of our budget just trying to transport our items to the Puerto Occopa Orphanage. Three years ago our bicycle tour group came here to this area to go white water rafting. We didn’t even know there was an orphanage until our guide asked if we could bring some food supplies for the children. Our visit that year turned into a more powerful and enjoyable experience than the boat ride. As Vioricka and I bounce down the road in our taxi, I remembered why are we going to all the way to Puerto Occopa.

After two and a half hours we still hadn’t caught up with Neyda and Aracely in the supply truck. I was expecting the worst and that they have been stopped by robbers in some secluded section of the road. Vioricka and I had arrived at the orphanage with our taxi driver. No supply truck is within sight. Maybe the truck went further down the road to the boat docks. We drove the last mile of road and asked local villagers if they saw our truck. No one has seen a truck today. Another taxi driver arrived behind us and said he had seen our truck parked in a town 25 miles back getting gas. By the time we get back at the orphanage our truck had arrived. Neyda and Aracely said they didn’t have any problems. We must have passed them without seeing the truck. I was very worried about them, but relieved that we all arrived safe.

P.S. These projects have been made possible by the generous donations of PAC Tour riders. If you would like to contribute to the Orphanage or School Builders Fund you can make a tax deductible donation to:

"The Christ Lutheran Church Peru Fund".

Mail your check to:

PAC Tour, P.O. Box 303, Sharon, WI 53585.

A receipt will be sent to you acknowledging your donation.

Thank you for your continuing support with these projects.


Puerto Occopa Orphanage

Arriving at the Orphanage

The orphanage is run by the Catholic Church and there is a staff of four to six nuns who run the school for the town of Puerto Occopa. The huge stone building was a monastery build over 100 years ago. It looked like a fortress in the jungle compared to all the other thatched roof houses in the area. I expect the orphanage receives minimal support from the Catholic Church now since the living conditions there are very basic.

This was the third year we have delivered supplies to the orphanage. I recognized some of the children. They recognized me. It was like a family reunion again with hugs and kisses. The surprise arrival of our truck disrupted their daily schedule but it was a festive occasion that was taking priority for everyone. Many of the children had only one or two shirts. They wash their clothes as they swim and bathe in the river each afternoon. The clothes they were wearing looked like the same shirts we had delivered last year.

After our greeting, the children began an assembly line to unload the truck. In 15 minutes everything was unloaded into the school classroom. The desks and tables were put into a horseshoe shape. Neyda and Vioricka displayed and arranged all the clothes for boys and girls. The bags of rice and food made a huge stack in the middle of the room. Aracely sorted all the sandals by size. Another table was just for the toys, games and stuffed animals. For the children it was like Christmas morning. They were excited and the giggles and laughs spread to the nuns and even to our truck driver.

Just as we had finished sorting all the clothes the church bell rang signaling it was time for lunch. We all went into the dining hall. Metal plates and cups were waiting for each child. A scoop of rice, beans and fried bananas was served to everyone. Before we ate the children sang their song of thankfulness. The loud, chanting type song echoed in the large stone room. I couldn’t understand their spanish but I will remember their voices and music.

After lunch we returned to the school room to distribute the clothes. The nuns helped line up the children from smallest to biggest waiting at the door. In a very orderly system each child walked along the table of clothes. Neyda and Vioricka helped them try on shirts and pants. Aracely would find them the proper size sandals. The final table had a choice of toys and games. One by one all the children received their clothes. After all the obstacles of delivering the supplies to Puerto Occopa it was very satisfying to see everyone wearing a new set of clothes.

The 100 book titles were displayed. The children and teachers were excited to have new books for their library. Then one of the teachers helped assemble the sewing machine. She tested it and was impressed with the speed and ease of repairing a pair of blue jeans. The machine will be a big help maintaining the limited clothing for the orphans.

Later that night the children wanted to give us a talent show in the stone courtyard. There were no lights outside except my strong LED bicycle headlight I brought along as a flashlight. As the children performed their songs my flashlight was the spotlight for their stage. It was probably one of the few times during the year they had a chance to perform for a new audience.

The next morning Vioricka, Neyda, Aracely and I got ready to leave in a taxi. We could make it back to Lima in two days if we drove fast without many stops. Earlier I had wondered why we had decided to deliver supplies all the way to the Puerto Occopa Orphanage. Now I understood why we had been drawn to such a desolate place. This is a just a small unknown place on a dead-end road. Few people care that it is here. Even fewer people ever visit here. We are their link to the rest of the world. My experiences here have told me 100 stories. I have lived 100 adventures and most importantly I have made 100 friends.

P.S. These projects have been made possible by the generous donations of PAC Tour riders. If you would like to contribute to the Orphanage or School Builders Fund you can make a tax deductible donation to:

"The Christ Lutheran Church Peru Fund".
Mail your check to:
PAC Tour, P.O. Box 303. Sharon, WI 53585.
A receipt will be sent to you acknowledging your donation.
Thank you for your continuing support with these projects.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Lon's Camera in Peru

Lon’s Camera in Peru

I walked into the Lima restaurant. A waitress graciously seated me in a corner booth. “Sit here” she said in Spanish.  She motioned to me to put my backpack in the corner behind.  I put my sunglasses, hat and camera inside the top of my backpack. I sat in the chair with my back to the corner.   My backpack was secure behind me. The waitress was friendly and chatting in Spanish even though I could not understand a thing she was saying over the disco style music.  She motioned for someone in the back room to turn up the music which made it even harder for me to hear her words.
The food came after 15 minutes.  I ate quickly and left.  I took my backpack and went outside. I noticed a side zipper pocket was open and some loose coins were missing, but maybe I had not closed it. I put on my hat and sunglasses and got in a taxi.  As I was riding back to my hotel I opened my back pack and looked for my camera.  I did not see it on top of my things.  Maybe it had fallen to the bottom of my pack.  Maybe I had not put it in my backpack that morning.  Now I was not sure.  I better go back to hotel and look for it.
I did not see my camera in my room.  I began to reconstruct my meal in the restaurant.  The corner seat. The chatty waitress. The loud music. The open zipper pocket. The missing coins.  I was sure now someone had opened my backpack and took my camera while I ate.
I was going back to ask for my camera.  I better take some insurance.  The only thing I had was a 12 inch metal file I had bought a week earlier to sharpen machetes at the orphanage.  The file was not much, but it had a good handle and the serrated edge was as good as a sharp knife.  I put it in my pack and took a taxi 15 minutes back to the restaurant.  What would I say to the restaurant waitress?  I was sure she took part in the plan to look through my pack.  I did not care some much about the camera as I did about the 100 edited photos from my tour to the orphanage the week before. I had traveled 300 miles into the jungle to the orphanage to deliver food and clothing and I had some interesting photos of the children and adventure I wanted to keep.
I walked into the restaurant.  My waitress was not there. I looked at the corner booth.  I think there was a hidden wall panel that would allow someone to put their hands through the wall. I asked the other waitresses where my camera was.  They gave me a blank look.  Now they pretended not to understand my English.  I motioned I wanted my camera by clicking a photos with my imaginary camera.  “No say” (no se)... they said. “I want my camera”... I said.  “No say” ...they said and walked away. “The lost money was not important...I need my camera”... I said.  I motioned that the photos of my children were important.  I needed the camera.  I took the file out of my pack and sat down in a chair near the door blocking the entrance. I slapped the file into my palm.  I crossed my legs and looked comfortable in front of the door so no new customers could enter.
“One momento, one momento, one momento” a waitress said as she went into the back room.  I repeated my need for the camera because of the photos of the children.  It was a long five minutes as other people in the restaurant did not know whether to leave or stay and watch what would happen. Maybe the waitress went to get three cooks with bigger knives to get rid of me. At least I was near the door in case I needed to run.
Finally one of the waitresses appeared from the back room with my camera.  I grabbed it checked the battery and disc.  Both were still there.  “Gracias” I said.  I turned on the camera and motioned for the waitresses to look at my photos on the disc.  I showed them some photos of the kids in my camera . They smiled and understood I was not a crazy man.  I put the file back in my pack.  As I was about to leave one of the waitresses had the nerve to ask for one dollar for retrieving the camera. I rolled my eyes and shook my head no. “Ask the waitress who took the money” I said as I walked outside. I knew I had another story to add to my adventures in Peru.