The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 30, 2007


Peru diary: land of blue sky and brown rubble

Jo-Ann and David Driscoll of Fiske Street volunteered with Hands On Disaster Response after a powerful earthquake struck Peru in August. Jo-Ann was in Peru from September 30 until October 20, and David stayed on another month. They share their story with the Mosquito.

It's 6 a.m. and I quietly exit my sleeping bag in my upper bunk in order not to disturb the other
These scenes of devastation greeted Hands On volunteers and others when they arrived in Pisco in September to help earthquake survivors. At top, a building in Pisco is upended and, below, workers tear down the wall of a house damaged by the earthquake. (Courtesy photos)
11 people sleeping in my room. I walk to the kitchen where Cole from New Zealand has already put some water on the propane stove to boil so that those rising a bit later can make some coffee or tea. He and I quickly wash up the cups used after dinner the night before so that there are enough for the breakfast crowd, while my husband, David, walks down the street to pick up the daily bag of fresh rolls. Then the three of us make our own breakfasts while the rest of the volunteers come to life for another day of work in Peru. By 8 o'clock, everyone will be putting on work boots, filling canteens, pulling out tools, loading wheelbarrows and heading out for various work sites around Pisco.

We're definitely not in Kansas — or Carlisle, for that fact — any more. David and I are with Hands On Disaster Response, founded by Carlisle resident David Campbell in 2004, in Pisco, Peru, where a devastating earthquake hit in August of this year. The earthquake registered an 8.0 and lasted for two minutes. Think of being in Boston's Back Bay and having the earth shake so that you can't stand up while buildings fall down all around you for two minutes. (Look at the clock and see just how long two minutes really is.) Where could you go to be safe? Over 30,000 homes were destroyed in this city of 130,000, and more than 500 people lost their lives; 148 lives were lost in the cathedral in the center of the city alone. Three-hundred-year-old buildings that had survived countless earthquakes didn't make it through this one.

A desert environment

Pisco is located about 3 1/2 hours by bus south of Lima on the Pacific Ocean (and in the same time zone as Carlisle). It is extremely dry in this part of Peru — complete desert. (My geography from second grade certainly didn't prepare me for that fact.) It's blue and brown here — blue sky and brown sand, and brown rubble. And dust. Lots and lots of dust.

We've been here four days and it feels like we've always been here. So far, we've worked on a "product placement" project (as my husband calls it) — sorting food for distribution — and sanding and painting toys to be distributed to families. We did part of that work at a local school while getting to know the kids there. We also got to know parents who would come to the school and stay all day because they were afraid of another earthquake.

October 5. Today I volunteered to lead a project to stuff backpacks for school children. The kids are afraid to go back to school and UNICEF is supporting this project to entice them back. Marc, the Hands On director, Andrea, a Spanish-speaking volunteer from Texas, and I head over to the UNICEF offices to set the project up. However, as we walk to the school where UNICEF is located, we find a huge trailer truck full of the school supplies sitting outside with no one to unload it. We immediately called in our Hands On troops and had it unloaded in about two hours. Then, in three hours this afternoon, 11 of us packed 1,000 backpacks, at one point doing 100 every 14 minutes in a tent set up in the school yard. The school staff saw how much fun we were having and the next morning set up their own line to stuff bags themselves. That's always one of our goals — help people to help themselves.

Volunteers from everywhere

Hands On volunteers come from all over. During the three weeks I was there, 22 countries were represented in our group of 50 to 60 volunteers. South America is a huge backpacking
Jo-Ann and David Driscoll pose before the Hands On sign in Pisco. Hands On was founded in 2004 by Carlisle resident David Campbell. (Courtesy photo)
destination for Europeans, so there were many folks from England, Ireland and France. In addition, there were a great number of volunteers from Australia and New Zealand and some from places you would never expect, like South Africa and Slovakia. Some would take a week or ten days out of their travels to volunteer because they had heard of our group from someone else or from one of the backpacking web sites. Others — such as Lenka from Slovakia — had found us on a web site and come expressly to volunteer for three months. Volunteers stay from five days to four months. It's great to hear all the different accents. A few, like David and me, have been on several deployments with Hands On, but for most, this is the first time.

There's not much left of this city. Blocks and blocks of houses are just rubble. Lots of families are living in tents. The government of Peru has been quite responsive in helping out with temporary housing, but the people must have a flat place on which to place the structure before they can get one. That's another of our projects — rubble removal. That can involve anything from pulling down walls to hauling the remains to the road via wheelbarrow. It's dirty, physical work. Rubble workers always get first dibs on the showers.

Daily life for the volunteers

The dust is incredible, and it's impossible to keep anything clean. We have a couple of local women who cook for us and the food has been really good. Of course, I'm not sure what I'm eating most of the time. We're staying in what was a restaurant, with two rooms as bunkrooms and a kitchen. We've built three showers outside on the back patio.The living conditions are a bit primitive, but we do have running water (almost hot in the showers) and electricity. It's surprisingly cool at night, enough so that you need a sweatshirt, and we usually have a small fire outside. Days are nice and comfortable for a tee-shirt and long pants, but watch out for that Peruvian sun. You can get a sunburn in no time flat.

We have very little free time — working from 8 in the morning till 5:30 with an hour or so for lunch, which includes the time it takes to walk back from the work site. We work six days a week. At night, after dinner, we have a meeting to plan for the next day. People sign up for projects they are interested in, from rubble removal to working with kids to stuffing backpacks, as well as working around our living quarters doing the dishes and hanging up laundry. New projects are always popping up, many identified by volunteers, so there is usually a lot of variety and opportunity.

The local Internet café

At night, we usually go to the Internet café to catch up on our e-mail, our connection to the rest of the world. There's nothing like using a Spanish keyboard where an @ sign requires Alt+064 and a spacebar doesn't always work. This Internet café is in a garage attached to a small store. There are actually 19 computers squished in here costing one sol an hour — that's about $.30

Right now, I have a car parked right in front of me as I work in the cubicle, and there's a huge crack from the earthquake going down the center of the garage. The sides of the garage slope so much that the computer feels like it's going to slide into my lap and my chair is perched on broken concrete. But at least we have a connection!

October 7. It's Sunday and our day off. It's the first time we've had an opportunity to see anything of the city and we head to the marketplace in Pisco. It's an amazing place — very crowded and noisy. We mosey around from booth to booth fighting the crowds. You won't find much in the way of crafts here; this is a working market where everyone comes to get their daily needs.

Tomorrow David and I are heading up into the foothills of the Andes where we have an irrigation project going on, to the small village of Concon about 2 1/2 hours north of Pisco. We'll be up there for five days.

Another earthquake

October 9. We're in Concon now, a village of only about 40 people, and we're working on the

On the side of an embankment in Concon, volunteers climb up makeshift ladders to get rocks to fill in gaps between the cement forms and the outside wall of an irrigation canal they are building. (Courtesy photo)

irrigation project. The only way to get to this town is to ride the bus two hours north from Pisco and then get on a little bus with our baggage up on top and take a dirt road 45 minutes east through the Cañete River valley and then through some real badlands, with no real road. Then you come out on an embankment looking across the river valley. The valley is about one kilometer wide with rocks and cane, and it floods every December. All the growing takes place up on the embankments above the river. There are rickety walking bridges over the water part of the valley, just a couple of logs wired together that wash out every year. You can walk across to the other side where there is a paved road. The side we're on is really the end of the road.

The house we are staying in has no running water and we're pretty dirty all the time. The ten of us from Hands On sleep on the floor in the living room, and our hosts feed us and are so supportive. The only place to bathe is about a quarter mile walk down to the river. You might get clean down there, but you get really dusty walking back up again. There's a ton of dust, sometimes three to four inches thick on the road. We walk to the work site, about a mile, and the dust goes up in clouds with every footstep. We brought along three solar showers, but, after the first day, the sun hasn't really been out — just mist from the ocean. So we didn't get their full benefit and will leave them for the next group. Eventually, they'll stay with our host family.

Some houses were destroyed by the earthquake, and on our first night, there was another earthquake. We found out later that it was about 5.1; it did no damage. The father of the family where we stayed made sure everyone got out of the house right away. Then, today, while we were working up on the side of the mountain, we heard another earthquake but didn't feel anything. That was good because there was really no place for us to go. The mountain towered over us with punky rocks that could easily come down on us, and below us was a 20-foot drop to the road.

Building an irrigation canal

October 12. We've had a very productive time up in the hills this week. With local farmers, we dug out and cemented about 100 meters of an irrigation canal. The valley up here is really beautiful. They grow mostly apples and grapes and use every bit of land available to do it. Without the irrigation ditches, their crops just wouldn't survive and neither would they. The earthquake caused some major leaks.

The portion of the irrigation canal we've been working on starts at road level, but the road then drops, so, by the end of the week, we were carrying buckets of cement down the road and up makeshift ladders up an embankment about 15 to 20 feet high. I say "we," but David and I did mostly rock work. A great many of rocks are needed to fill in the gaps between the cement forms and the outside wall of the canal. There are plenty of rocks because we're working on the side of a mountain, but we have to climb up to get the right size rocks and throw them down. Then we get a chain of people to pass rocks to the more inaccessible places on the canal. We let the young guys carry cement buckets up the ladders. Pedro from Australia works in bare feet because he forgot to bring his boots. Everyone is in bed by 8:30 at night, even the ones who boast of their partying prowess.

It's going to be hard to leave; it's the kind of project you would really like to see through to the end, and there's still 200 meters to go.

Back in Pisco

October 13. We're now back in Pisco, and it's quite a change from up in the hills. David says that this is black and white, and Concon is in color (although that's not quite true. See entry for October 21).

October 15. We've been working on building some temporary housing, which is a nice change. It's always more positive to build something rather than tear it down.

Although it's almost summer here, today is quite chilly. We were working close to the ocean and the ocean breeze was definitely cold. We actually walked down to the ocean, the first time we've had the opportunity to do so since we've been here.

October 20. I can't believe it's time to go back to the states. David and I take the bus back up to Lima. He sees me off at the airport and then, after doing some errands for Hands On, heads back to Pisco for another four weeks. Because I don't have any more vacation time, he has to go back alone.

October 21. Carlisle. Wow! This is truly the land of color! I got home at 10:30 last night and this morning, I open the curtains and there is blue sky, green grass, and bright red, orange and yellow trees. It literally assaults the senses after three weeks in brown and blue. I'm in awe. But I can't forget all those people back in the land of brown and blue.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito