A Love Letter to Perú

by Abi, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

Dear Perú,

I’m sitting here trying to figure out what I could possibly say that could express what you’ve meant to me over the past three months and I’m drawing a blank. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be here in this situation, I would’ve called you crazy. No one expects to fall in love, whether it’s with a person or a place or a thing, and I’ve done all three in the past three months here in Urubamba. I’ve fallen for you, Perú, head over heels! I love the chaos of the mototaxis in the morning, I love the mountains that surround us in our little urban bubble, I love my Peruvian mama bear Soledad who never fails to make me smile, and I love all the people who I’ve been able to share this experience with. There is nothing short of a miracle that could stop me from loving you, Perú, and all the incredible experiences I’ve had with you. Every day is different with you, and I can never predict the way I’ll feel at the end of a day after work and Spanish class and homework, but I know I’ll go to bed endlessly grateful to be sleeping here in Urubamba with my host family in the next room and my best friends a short walk away.

I don’t know how to bring you home with me quite yet, and I’m tearing up right now just thinking about leaving you. What am I going to do without you next week? I’m going to be lost without pancitos for breakfast and besitos before work, and I don’t know how I’ll handle not hugging Soledad before bed. It’s crazy how fast the time goes by when you’re absolutely enamored with something. I feel like I’ve taken our time together for granted, but I know I’ll forever remember every day I’ve spent here. The smiles of my family are imprinted in my memory along with my afternoon walks to class and our incredible excursions exploring your astounding culture and history. It feels weird to say goodbye like this.

I know they say long distance relationships don’t work, but I believe in us. I know I’ll be able to keep you in my mind all the time, and it’ll be hard to shut me up when I start talking about you! I want everyone to experience the kind of love I have for you, Perú, and I know we’ll meet again someday. I can’t wait for you to meet my parents! They’re going to love you, I just know it. I don’t want to say goodbye because that feels too real, so I’ll just say nos vemos, Perú.

Forever yours,


Marilu, el mundo y la naturaleza

by Isabelle, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

The rain was falling hard outside in messy drops while Marilu took her cutting board off the shelf and a knife from the drawer, setting up onions to be chopped.  While she laid out her materials, I did the same, but with a notebook and an audio recorder on my phone instead of vegetables, both of us ready in our own ways to have a chat.  After a morning spent weeding in the chakra and discussing potential rain-capture irrigation solutions with an American specialist, Marilu and I had been driven inside by the rain, and it seemed like a perfect time to learn her story, in a more holistic and inclusive manner than our snippets of conversation in the previous weeks.  When I asked if she could tell me some stories about Canastas Verdes and her own life, Marilu was excited to share, and, as the incredibly strong and busy woman that I know, she had a lot to say.

Marilu began her story with the birth of organic farming as she knows it in her own life, where years ago, it all started with a sweet potato on the back patio.  Since her childhood, Marilu and her family had cultivated vegetables and herbs on a small scale, and as organically as possible but not with those methods as their focus.  After she had grown into adulthood and began caring for her own family, and her aging father in return, Marilu began to experiment with different methods of gardening, adding new plants and researching the importance of organic produce, but only to consume in the house.  At the time she was a teacher, and as the chakra grew, she began to look for a way to sell the produce.  At this time, more than eight years ago, there was no market in Urubamba for organic vegetables, as most everyone was comfortable with the status quo—produce maintained through the use of pesticides and new-wave farming practices that began in the sixties.  Marilu, on the other hand, was looking to return to the farming practices of her ancestors with respect to the apus to whom she speaks in Quechua, her family’s native tongue.  Organic farming, for her originally, was a way to carry on the now-lost tradition of respect for la tierra and for one’s own body, a departure from the chemical-driven world.  With this in mind, she set out with an iron will to bring organic produce back to Urubamba and to the Sacred Valley, but she knew she couldn’t do it alone.  The municipality, and frankly the city, was not open to the changes that she wanted to see, so Marilu began to speak with other women who were farming organically and who wanted to sell their produce, or at least who wanted to try.

In the beginning, this new association was made up of eight women, all with their own chakras who were learning and growing together with their organic produce.  But, as Marilu says ardently, organic farming is hard work—you get your nails dirty and you hardly ever sleep.  For many of the women in this new group, though they were stronger together, this was too much, and little by little they began to return to the popular methods, or at least to working solo.  Marilu, and the five women who make up the association now, pushed on, and once their group was solidified, they began to develop into what they are today—Canastas Verdes.  Throughout this story of growth, Marilu maintained her pride in the fact that Canastas Verdes was her creation, her baby, so-to-speak, all the way from the first organic produce to the name and to her title as President now.  Although the work of the association is incredible—highly involved in the community and done with very little internal or external support—Marilu’s pride comes from her own struggles and how she overcomes them, and, in fact, the ways in which organic vegetables have helped her to do so.

Although I have known her for over two months now, Marilu had never told me all that she was up against while building a program of community health and involvement.  That’s just how strong she is.  But she’s a single mother to a son with autism, who also cares for her ninety-three-year-old father.  She can’t afford a home of her own, and often the cost of caring for her family and running Canastas Verdes is too much, but after years of perseverance, she’s making it all work.  In fact, her son, who is now a young adult, has been her inspiration for continuing with organic produce, because his health has benefitted from the removal of pesticides in his system.  In his younger years, when she couldn’t produce enough for complete meals, her son struggled both neurologically and physically, but since she was able to make an organic diet possible, he has been able to function at a higher level and have fewer complications.  What’s more, Marilu says she has learned patience and compassion through raising her son—as most mothers do, but with greater intensity—and she asserts that he has been her greatest teacher, and these lessons of humanity are ones that she takes directly into her work.  The produce that she grows comes from a love of the earth, of the Pachamama, and a love of family, both for her own and that of Urubamba.

Tears are beginning to stream down Marilu’s cheeks as she discusses all this with me, and they begin to flow harder as she details the lack of action in the world, the ways in which most people sit by and watch it all being destroyed.  Here in the Sacred Valley, fed by glaciers and maintained by very specific climates, Marilu and the people of Urubamba are at great risk as the environment changes rapidly, and she knows this.  The water, the land—everything is being polluted and mistreated, she says.  No one wants to change their ways because they think it’s too hard, but this will take a toll on their lives.  Marilu sees the pollution of her ancestral land, the planet, and of the bodies of her neighbors, consuming pesticides and processed food, diets that can cause cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and many other detriments to health.  She sees that soon there will not be enough water, and therefore not enough food.  She says of the people in poorer countries and regions: “We’re like rats in a lab and we will be the first ones to die,” her eyes read with sadness and anger.  This is the reality that she’s actively working against, but she knows it’s not enough and that Canastas Verdes is running out of time.

We’ve been talking for over a half-hour at this point, and Marilu points out that she should probably start making lunch.  The onion she’d prepared to cut will chatting sits untouched on the cutting board in front of her—forgotten as she answered my questions, delivered with passion and force like the most moving of speeches.  But before I go, she thanks me for taking the time to talk to her, and reiterates all that she struggles against and the hope that she has despite it all.  By the end, we’re both crying and embracing, because the planet is dying and we’re forced to watch it happen.  Marilu is doing all that she can, and I tell her I wish I could do more, both for Canastas Verdes and for the Earth, but she just shakes her head and gives me another hug.  “I really should make lunch,” she says as she wipes tears from her eyes, and I thank her for her time and say nos vemos—see you later—as she finally begins to cut the onion.

After leaving Marilu to cut onions in the kitchen, I walked slowly home in a bit of a stupor.  The rain that had been falling in a torrent just minutes before but the sky was now open and bright.  My feet moved slowly and my mind felt heavy as I wiped tears out of my eyes, trying to hold back the ones threatening to spring forth with each though of Marilu’s words.  In particular “somos como ratas en un laboratorio” stuck out in my mind and the pain that she expressed while saying them.  As I walked along the river that rushes passed the cemetery, such a sentiment felt that much stronger—the power and life of the Earth running parallel with death, a concept that will become much more prevalent if we don’t care for the planet.  When I got home to and empty house, I sat down and tried to process the conversation I’d just had, but I couldn’t do it in my head, so I called my dad and told him all about it.  Thankfully, he let me interrupt his day to recount Marilu’s story because I really had to say it out loud to become more grounded.  Regardless, I was still overcome with a feeling of helplessness—what had I really done to help her and all of Canastas Verdes?  What could I even do in the next few weeks that could be meaningful?  In fact, I felt quite guilty, because I had never spoken to someone in such depth, in this place, about the direct impact on their lives and that of their community from climate change and loss of resources, and I felt like I was leaving too soon.  If I stayed on with Canastas Verdes for a year, could I make more of a difference?  Up until this conversation, I didn’t know the depth of the personal stories behind this project, or the needs of Marilu and all the women, because they hadn’t told me, and what’s worse, I hadn’t really asked.  All of this swirled around in my head even hours and days later, that is until I was able to speak with Marilu again.

Exactly one week later, we got that next chat.  In the time between, I had been fully immersed in nature in the Amazon with my mindset heavily influenced by Marilu’s words.  I spent my time there walking through the jungle with the group and our guide, Robin, taking it all in with heightened appreciation.  Although I have always had a deep love of nature and a passion for its protection, there was just something so powerful about her story, and then Robin’s stories, that validated what I’d always felt and challenged me to think further on my own impact and ideas.  So after all this, I got to go back and hear Marilu’s story again, this time as she told it to Raquel and Mindy, leaving some details out but with all her important points.  It was a great experience for me to be able to experience her telling of her life once more, because it gave me more clarity and a deeper sense of knowing her.  Within this same time, I was also privy to Marilu’s answers to questions relating to how helpful I’d actually been in my role as an intern/volunteer.  After coming away feeling so guilty and useless, though inspired, from our last talk, it was affirming and hope-building to have Marilu say directly that I had done some good, both for her and Canastas Verdes.  Although this need to be validated is somewhat egocentric, this second conversation gave me a push forward, because in the time in between I had felt somewhat lost.  What’s more, I was able to talk to Marilu in-depth for a third time, in the same week, while we answered the questions together for the Dragons’ Community Grant Fund, something I am applying to for Canastas Verdes.  And yet again, Marilu’s eyes lit up with passion, and then watered with tears, while we talked about her work and her struggles, and I was left in awe for a third time in that week over how strong she is and all that she has accomplished.

Looking back on Marilu’s story and message, I realized that there is a lot that I need to change in my own lifestyle, and even more in the lifestyles of my two family’s (here in Peru and back in Maine).  Actually, there needs to be a drastic societal shift, but I think while working towards that, I can also work small, by changing my own ways and looking to educate those around me.  Eating organic, eating healthy, recycling, not wasting—because as Marilu says “La basura no es la basura, la persona con basura es la basura”.  Change must happen, and fast because if not, we’ll have nothing left.  La Amazonia, the glaciers that stand tall over the Sacred Valley, watering the people beneath and feeding into the global rainforest, and all the other life-sustaining and beautiful resources, will be gone sooner than we know.  Here in Peru, the country is slated to be the third most impacted by climate change in the coming years, bringing home Marilu’s fears that much more.  Living in this amazing place, making it my second home, I fear with her, and I can only hope that people begin to wake up, both here and all over the world, because the Earth is dying, crumbling right between our capable yet inactive human hands.

Originally posted here

Farms & Stuff

by Yong Quan, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

Coming from a country where 90% of its food is imported and the agriculture industry is almost non-existent (although there’s a growing movement now!), working in a farm always seemed like the most far-off thing I could do growing up. The hard conditions, the heat of the sun, getting your hands dirty “just to see plants grow” sounded a little mundane and the idea of it felt disconnected from my technologically advanced city back in Singapore.

(Of course, my attitudes towards these things changed during my time in the army; the physicality of hard work is one of my favorite feelings now)

In Peru, however, my first choice for my internship placement was with Eco-Huella (EH), a farm based in Calca. On the first day, Jason and I met up with siblings Julio and Jessica, who would be our bosses for the next 3 months. Though the daily activities of farming were very much a part of Eco-Huella, we also did other things: learning about local specialized plants that cleaned chromium and lead from the river, building greenhouses for higher altitude communities to expand their possible agriculture & food options, learning about different methods of farming & creating composts (e.g. EH uses Bokatchi/Bokashi, a Japanese method, to create their compost), hosting other local initiatives (e.g. Las Verdes from Lima) that came over to cross-share information about sustainability in Peru, welcoming short-term volunteers/students who learnt about the farm’s sustainability model or helped with building it’s walls. Recently even, we were very glad to collaborate with Jessica to evaluate EH’s model of sustainability by drawing up maps and taking stock of the farming equipment we have, to ensure that their resources are used with sustainability in mind, and to keep track of the plants’ growth.

Initially, all these activities seem minute. They are, if you fail to consider the people behind them, and their stories. The Nina siblings believe that sustainability is important, and they are part of Andean Alliance (a US organization that promotes collaboration between farmers and the government to promote their livelihoods), as well as the growing movement against climate change. They also believe that the sharing of ideas is important, and in that endeavour, they are very open about receiving other and providing their own inputs. I was surprised during the first few days of work when Jessi mentioned learning about ‘vertical agriculture’, a common method of growing food in land-scarce Singapore, and how that innovative enterprise is the sort of spirit that EH is trying to build up; with that conversation, I knew that Eco-Huella was the place for me.

But let’s pull back for a moment. How did I end up in farming? Wasn’t I (excuse my pigeonholing) not a farming person? Well, it all started with how Eco-Huella was described to me (as well as Jason’s infectious passion for physical work): EH was a place where they were fighting for social change, against climate change and were a group of very passionate farmers. It was clear from how the instructors mentioned them that the people of EH had a thirst for adventure (and experimenting, which is why I sometimes reference the farm as a laboratory), and a pursuit for change based on collaboration and hard work. While I guess you could find people with these attributes anywhere if you look hard enough, there’s something about unfamiliarity that brings people together in unique ways because unfamiliarity demands initiative and trial & error. As Julio once said: “There are no problems, only opportunities”, and that spirit of courage and innovation is the driving factor for the farm (and our daily ventures under the heat of Calca’s weather).

In my journey, I hope to learn that we are both connected to our food sources and detached in our awareness of them in ways profound and intimate enough that the seriousness of the issues posed by climate change and pollution are both urgent and invisible to us. And while the rest of the world has much area for improvement, I’m hopeful that it’s better off with the minds and hearts behind the people in Eco-Huella.

Originally posted here.

Getting Lost

by Austen, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

To put it mildly, I’m not the best with directions.

One of my biggest worries about spending three months in Urubamba was spending three months without the assistance of Google Maps, which has always been my guiding light, whether I’m driving somewhere new or walking around my own neighborhood. As someone who had to use a GPS during the drive to school every morning sophomore year (it was about three turns away), this was a legitimate concern. Walking solo to Spanish class, or to my favorite cafe (Antojitos obviously), or to the gardens where I work seemed like an impossible feat.

Thankfully, a few weeks in I found my compass; the central market. It’s one of my favorite places, and it’s always easy to find. It sprawls out over about two square blocks, is characteristically noisy, and everyone in the city can point you to where it is. If I know where I am in relation to the market, I can find almost anything else. And even better – because I go there so often, I can find everything inside the market! It’s great.

This spectacular plan failed about a week ago. Last Thursday, it was announced that the big indoor market was going to be closed for cleaning, much to the dismay of both the women working there and the people in my group. We took one last trip to the market to stock up, assuming that we wouldn’t have access to life-saving staples like yuca sticks and chocolate covered raisins during the upcoming weekend. The next morning, I made a trip past where the market was – and for the first time in weeks, found myself utterly lost.

All of the streets surrounding the market had been closed off to make way for a hundred vendors, selling fruits, vegetables, meats, and our beloved snacks beneath the bright blue shade of their tarps and umbrellas. The women of the market had single-handedly turned their city into something unrecognizable. Once I entered, the effect was both beautiful and disorienting. The sky was completely blocked out, pieces of the city only visible through chinks in the plastic armor valiantly protecting produce from the sun and heat. All of the market stands were in an unfamiliar order (to my dismay), and everything was washed in a watery glow. It was impossible to see what was at the end of each blue corridor until I was just a few feet away. All in all, it was otherworldly and stunning and very, very unhelpful for someone with my gift of navigation.

After several minutes of struggling to exit the maze I had unwittingly trapped myself in, I eventually made it to the Plaza de Armas, feeling like I’d just solved a particularly grueling sudoku puzzle. Of course, I had to brave those uncharted waters again the next evening; I spent approximately four hours hunting for strawberries. Little by little, however, a mental map of my surroundings began to emerge. The fruit vendors were on Huascar street, the grains were parallel to the meats, chocolate quinoa could be found on a little offshoot. By day three, I had a brand new compass.

Sensing this, the outdoor market disappeared the next day. I was both relieved and disappointed.

Being in Peru has been an exercise in adapting to change; change in language, diet, environment, and culture. Even during the time we’ve been in-country, we’re constantly relocating, getting to experience life in touristic cities like Aguas Calientes as well as rural mountainous towns like Cancha Cancha and Paru Paru. At times, it’s felt more than a little disorienting. There’s not a map available to show us the best ways to spend our time, help our internships, or even find our way through the market. Even if there were, as my many lost hours searching for strawberries have proved, routes in Urubamba are always unpredictable and changing. We have to figure things out the old fashioned way, by stumbling around until we find our way through them.

As much as I miss the security of Google Maps and a predictable schedule, I’m certain that I’ve gained more than I’ve lost through the past few months of trial and error. I still may not be able to find my way out of a paper bag, but I understand more about how to deal with uncertainty, and I have more faith in my ability to navigate unfamiliar territory (both literally and metaphorically). I’ll keep my GPS, though, just in case.

Originally posted here.

Wow, I’m lucky.

by Ann Yancey, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

I am truly in love with Peru. As much as I miss the comforts of having parents to come home to that understand without me having to explain, being able to take a car to the grocery store, coming home to my own bed at night, and getting to see my sister’s face every day, I’m already dreading saying goodbye to this place and the people that make it so special. However, I have my host-family and the women at Tika (my placement) to thank for making this place feel like home.

Thus far during my time at Tika, I’ve brought new ideas to the organization; however, I’ve undoubtedly received more from working alongside Guadalupe, Mari, Maribel, and Rosi than I could possibly give. In a tangible sense, I’ve learned how to weave (a little bit), and the small amount that I’ve improved is due only to my inability to retain the process, rather than a lack of hours that the women at Tika have dedicated to teaching me. From a philosophical perspective, I’m learning that being hardworking while remaining flexible and relaxed is possible. I struggle to balance work and relationships but the women at Tika always take time in their busy days to sit, talk, laugh, and share a meal together. Furthermore, I’ve learned how to be genuinely hospitable, making guests from any place feel welcome and treating strangers with love and compassion. One day, when a family of tourists from Germany came into the store, sick with food poisoning, Guadalupe forewent her usual demonstration so that she could prepare a medicinal tea for the customers and give them head massages that they swore healed them. In addition, my coworkers have effortlessly shown me how to care about understanding a person for who they are, rather than where or what they come from. From my first day my coworkers were eager to teach me about their histories and weaving processes, so I would feel like part of the family. They engaged me in conversations, asking me about my opinions and experiences here. However, they didn’t ask me about my biological family or life in the U.S. until they got to know me as a person. With time, they showed interest in my life at home, but it felt nice to first be understood in an individual way. Finally, Guadalupe, Mari, Maribel and Rosi are the most generous people that I have ever known. They have a passion for teaching and sharing with others, yet they never expect anything in return. I won’t try to begin describing the countless cultural experiences that these women have shared with me.

In terms of what I’ve been able to return to the women at Tika, I’ve established an inventory system using an Excel spreadsheet to make this collection system easier and more sustainable for future use – given that taking inventory by hand monthly is too time-consuming for the busy lives that the women at Tika lead. Furthermore, I’ve begun making a website for the business, on which I’ll post photos that I take of the women and my Tufts peers this weekend; I think my coworkers are really excited for this, as it will provide publicity for their business. Finally, I hope to create price tags for the items at Tika, to dissuade customers from bargaining, because the products are already very fairly priced. However, when I think of what I’ve given and received during my time at Tika, the contrast in the value of these things is obvious. While the contributions I’ve made are useful for the company, they’re all material. In contrast, I’ve received lifelong lessons from my coworkers. Accepting the reality that I’m the true beneficiary in this situation, I can only hope that genuine reciprocity will result from the friendships that my coworkers and I have developed.

Each day that I have the opportunity to work alongside these incredible women at Tika, our relationships grow, and the amount of time that we spend laughing increases. Over time, the trust that I’ve developed with my coworkers has led me to open up about some of my most vulnerable personal struggles, which for the first time in my life, I’ve found shockingly easy to share. Mari has a unique ability to empathize and make one feel loved without saying a word;  Maribel effortlessly makes me feel completely understood before I even open my mouth to express myself or share an experience. Guadalupe and Rosi have a contagious laughter that makes those around them feel instantly comfortable and included, and they never pass up an opportunity to initiate a good, shared laugh. In return, my coworkers (and trusted friends) have been generous in sharing their own challenging pasts; yet in spite of each of the difficulties that they’ve faced, they are such joyous, appreciative, selfless people.

If I could go back and thank my past self for deciding to press the “send” button on that email to Jessye and Mindy that confirmed my decision to participate in this program, I would – a million times over. Again, I am truly in love with Peru, and I simply cannot think about saying goodbye to this place and these people; I’m already planning out a return visit here – maybe even as a temporary place of residence. While I have loved every hike that we’ve taken as a group, and I wouldn’t trade the incredible daily views that come with living in the Sacred Valley, it is truly the people that make this place so special; I especially have Guadalupe, Rosi, Maribel, and Mari to thank.

Originally posted here.