After a surprisingly successful chess-tourism jaunt to Africa, it seems like I’ve arrived on another planet. Joining the volunteer organisation Light and Leadership Initiative on the outskirts of Lima is really a far cry from the Commonwealth chess championships at a resort named the “Emperor’s Palace”. Peru is a reasonably developed country by South American standards, but the district in which the volunteer program resides, Ate-Vitarte, is a world unto its own. Five-star hotels, autograph sessions and African safaris, exit stage left; cue shacks, dirt and…gangs?!
Yep, that’s right. After ‘surviving’ the perils of late-night Argentinean muggings and the hair-raising intrigue of paying car guards in Johannesburg, it seems we’ve reached a new standard. After explaining in broken Spanglish my plans and final destination to the Peruvian woman next to me on the plane, she replied with a look of horror and disbelief, “Much danger! Much danger!” The town of Huaycan (pronounced “Why-kahn”) apparently has quite the reputation for housing Peruvian gangs, perhaps started back in the ‘90s when it was home for the Shining Path, a political terrorist organisation.
Armed with this somewhat frightening information, and combined with discovering at the carousel yet another (unsuccessful) attack on my luggage, I strode out into the Lima arrivals hall a little more tentatively than I’d envisaged. Scanning the packed crowd of awaiting locals bearing handwritten signs, I spotted my name on one in the distance, held aloof by two tiny hands of, I assumed, some invisibly short, monolingual Peruvian. In fact, with admittedly guilty relief, I discovered the hands belonged to Sarah, a petite, fair, red-headed American girl from Indiana who manages the volunteer house.
On the hour-long drive to our town, Sarah filled me in on a lot of the cultural surprises to be expected during my stay. The local district mainly sits at and below the poverty line, with quality of living rapidly declining the further up the dusty hills you go. There remains a general culture of ‘machismo’, an ingrained chauvinism, and our female volunteers are constantly subject to whistles, stares and obscene commentary (in multiple languages) as they walk the streets.
In fact, wandering the area late at night is considered unsafe for all of us, but particularly the girls. Inconvenient, given the house is largely female. In fact, when I arrived, it was the first time since LLI’s inception in 2008 that two males had been in the house simultaneously! Chris, a wiry, erudite 27 year old from Maryland in the States, has had the male quarters (well, room) to himself since January, before my arrival doubled the testosterone.
History was rewritten again come my first day, with the arrival of the enigmatic Frenchman, Valentin. Three boys is an unheard of amount for LLI, and with talk of a further male by the end of the months, the balance appears to be shifting. But for now, there are just the ten of us (although Lara, the founder, lives in central Lima itself). The volunteers are almost entirely American, with the exception of Ellie (an energetic and highly entertaining English lass who reminds me of home every time I see her wearing flip-flops and correctly pronouncing “banana“), and of course Valentin and myself.
The house itself is small but cosy, consisting of two levels with two girls’ rooms and a boys’ room. Bunk-beds are the order of the day and sleep made more difficult by our overlooking incredibly noisy streets, central heating is absent (but the nights are reasonable), the one shower is fickle with not only its water temperature but also its volume, and the toilet doesn’t accept paper – used or otherwise. But it’s been surprisingly easy for this aristocratic chess tourist (formerly in a posh Kingston apartment) to become accustomed to these things. So far.
Although I arrived on a Wednesday night, the program runs Friday to Tuesdays so technically I’d arrived on a weekend. My first day, though, was hardly Peruvian, and nothing like I expected. The volunteers (most of whom have been here some time) had a craving for local cuisine, so we trekked into the Lima city centre for lunch. Not as easy as it sounds: it took two hours and three ‘combi’ rides (like local buses, but actually packed, sweaty, decrepit mini vans where I usually stand hunched in the middle, reminding me of my schoolboy bus days).
Lunch was served at ‘Chiles’, an American burger chain, followed by my inaugural visit to a tattoo parlour to watch a volunteer get a permanent LLI memento (don’t worry Mum, I have no such plans…). A brief stop for coffee in a very Western café was followed by a night out at karaoke singing ‘90s tracks in English, to round off an incredibly bizarre, unexpected and not-at-all Peruvian introductory day to my new home.
But the next day was different.