A split down the middle of circumstance divides society in Lima, and we were offered the opportunity to run headlong into the challenge of wrapping our minds around the schism between rich and poor.
For perspective, a Peruvian woman working diligently in the city as a maid in a high class household might make 30 Peruvian Soles per day, or S/600 per month. In US dollars, our current exchange rate puts that at $11.10/day, or $222/month.
A trip to the grocery store for Ted and me to buy olives, cheese, plums, a bottle of (cheap) red wine, and a few fresh baked rolls came to S/53.80, or $19.90. Nearly double a maid’s daily wages.
Our Servas hostess, Anna, arranged for us a visit with her housekeeper Dadi, to see her under-construction home and gain a clearer picture of life outside the capital’s popular districts. During our travels, it’s important to us to see beyond the tourist cityscapes.
In Portland, Oregon terms, we left the Nob Hill of Lima and spent the day in the back alleys of Rockwood.
It is common for Peruvians in the outskirts of Lima to dwell in homes shared with extended family. Anna is a kind employer who has assisted in seeing to it that Dadi and her husband Ramon have the opportunity to build their own house and move out from a two bedroom home shared with seventeen relatives. The luxury of such a change in living circumstances is nearly incomprehensible at the wages of the poor working class. Granted, as Anna explained, there are two different tiers of pricing and resources for the wealthy and the poor, but the cost of building materials remains high.
We donned our hats and sunscreen and handwritten directions and set off to see the other face of the city.
Under bright Sunday sunshine, we headed from the second story condominium in lush San Isidro toward the Metropolitano, Lima’s newest mass transit effort recently spearheaded by the current mayor. A walk through the Parque de Olivar, a sidewalk-less traipse through a bit of the business district, and a thirty minute effort to cross a multi-lane highway and locate the station terminal meant that we already an hour into our journey and hadn’t even stepped foot on the bus.
Anna told us that Dadi made the journey frequently. With practice, I suppose we could’ve cut the walk down to twenty minutes.
Another two hours: riding the Metropolitano through the heart of Lima, piercing out the other side, and watching the face of the city turn away from the oncoming barrios. I’m sure we were oddly out of place; bright white skin, broken Spanish and all.
We exited the Metropolitano at the literal end of the line, sorted our way through the feeder bus system, and took a final ride through the shabby, chaotic streets until we reached our stop.
Dadi’s smiling face opposite the opening bus doors put us instantly at ease.
After a warm greeting, we followed her along the last stretch of her daily commute: walking several dozen yards up a sloping road, pounding a hundred or so cement stairs underneath our feet, winding through shanties of cement walls and corrugated roofs and at last emerging at the path leading to her new front door.
There, perched at the face of the hillside, stood Dadi’s home.
Dadi and her husband Ramon have been working on construction since at least 2008 (judging by dated pictures they proudly showed us at lunch), piecing it together bit by bit as time and money and materials allowed, despite shady dealings and downright cruel treatment from a few sketchy individuals. Working with just enough for the next step, over time they had come to the current condition: a finished first floor with two bedrooms, one kitchen, one bathroom and a common area, and stairs leading to an eventual second story with future bedrooms and a kitchenette to possibly share with relatives.
Their craftsmanship was lovely. (Wish I could share more pictures! The internet is simply too slow to upload them all…) Though the foundation and framework were the same concrete and rebar of the surrounding homes, the wooden window that Ramon had built, the 186 year old wood used for the magnificent entry door, the cantilevered second story overhand with spaces for future light fixtures along the front facade of the building all displayed a beautiful attention to detail that stood out from among other homes visited later in the day.
Anna instructed us to offer assistance by carrying building materials or supplying labor, as Dadi and Ramon had carried every last piece of wood, bag of concrete, and scrap of brick and rebar up the hill themselves (in nearly full part before the installation of the mayor’s concrete stair project).
They would have none of it. Multiple offers of assistance were turned down, to Ted’s and my disappointment. We would’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to give them some extra muscles and manpower, but instead Dadi and Ramon led us across town to Ramon’s father’s home where many extended family members had prepared and invited us to join them in an extravagant Sunday meal.
We were humbled; we’d been informed ahead of time about the high cost of meat especially, and there on our plates were generous portions of fried chicken with rice. (I inquired about the batter for the chicken and learned that it was “cervesa and spices” – some sort of beer battered chicken fried in fat in a cast iron pot on open flame just outside the front door).
Beet and potato salad with corn and beans; aji (pepper) sauce so hot I could only dip the tips of the tines of my fork before burying them in rice and bringing them cautiously to my lips; fresh squeezed fruit juice with an unrecognizable name; and the second mango of the trip, vying for first place in mango flavor all the world over. (Sara B., I would die to have them on your key lime cheesecake!)
Lunchtime chatter consisted of valiant efforts at broken English and Spanish. We managed to make fun connections. One twenty year old girl named Susan was born on my birthday. One little six year old, Ronaldo, shared Ted’s birthday. We talked about football, and how Maradona got axed and was now coaching in Arabia. We laughed about how Ted and I thought we had big families with six boys and a girl in each; Dadi and Ramon came from ten and eleven children, respectively.
After the meal, we were lead by Dadi and Ramon and their sons Andre and Jonathan through the streets of their neighborhood, and by the end of the afternoon, we had visited the home of every relative living in the area.
We drank Inka Cola, exchanging saluds and smiles.
We hiked to the farthest outpost on the hill where Ramon’s sister and brother in law and their two sons shared a three room house standing on ground carved out by hand from a rocky hillside. The husband had mastered the art of excavation: he built fire underneath boulders then doused them in cold water and followed with a swift swing of his mallet to break the rocks into manageable pieces for hauling. Their boys helped tend the farmstead of ducks, rabbits, and cuy (guinea pigs).
They had no running water, though there may have been electricity.
Homes with tin roofs, gaping holes, and water jugs for carrying back and forth to the nearest cisterns still had strands of electrical wiring strung piecemeal throughout to power televisions and stereos. One friend from the day, 24 year old Alejando, Dadi’s younger brother, shared that he was a big Lakers fan, but they had to cancel Direct TV because bills were too high.
We were told about the broken pieces of life: the theft and manipulation, the tragic loss of a child to a doctor’s malpractice, the difficulty in keeping families fed with healthy foods.
Yet, in the dusty, rocky, rustic homes full of tired people, joy lived. Children smiled. Families helped each other build houses and passed the decades as neighbors living a stone’s throw apart.
Alejando asked Ted, “Why? Why you come here?” And the answer, “Vacation…Education…” was met with quizzical looks. We were asked why we didn’t have kids yet. Why we would travel when we could be home.
It was hard to share an honest answer.
We found ourselves there to learn from them, to witness their lives, and to hopefully share their stories in meaningful ways. But we also had money in the bank and plane tickets to the next destination and the prospects of a comfortable life ahead of us.
Why? Why did we come here?
Alejando told Ted, “Things are different. I build my home, I have a family.”
What could we say to that?
There was a deep sense of satisfaction behind their eyes; these families had built their homes with their own two hands, something Ted and I have never experienced.
We rode home on the bus that night, pondering the plight of families who work so much harder for what they have and yet live their entire lives in a second tier of society.
Our budget for the week was more than an entire family’s combined income for the month, and an invitation for our new friends to come visit Oregon might well have been an invitation to the moon.
At the end of the day, we were invited to consider the merits of deeply rooted home and family and the perils of those marginalized by culture’s status quo.
What of an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work?
What of the deep value of people and place?
What of the meaning of satisfaction?
So much to witness.
So much to ponder.
So much to learn.