"Happy anniversary. On this day for reflecting about how much our lives have changed in the past year I wanted to share a recent experience that made me grateful and proud to be a United States Foreign Service Officer.
USEA - an "affiliate" of the embassy - in Lima has an annual art sale fund raiser that raises a serious amount of cash. A USEA committee then reviews grant applications by Peruvian non profit organizations and decides how to spend the money. Last year one of the grants went to an organization that wanted to purchase an electric generator and to build a public toilet and shower facility for a town called Camacho, located about 100 miles south of Lima. Don't look for Camacho on a road map, because there aren't any roads that go to it. To get there you turn west off of the Pan American Highway at a designated kilometer marker and follow a not very obvious dirt path about a mile west until you see a collection of tents — not really tents, but rather plastic tarps suspended from wooden pole frames. This town previously had straw and a few stucco homes but they were destroyed in the massive earthquake of last August. So what little they had was taken by Mother Nature.
New "homes" in the background
The homes that were damaged by the earthquake:
In Peru you can find nearly every climate zone, including a strip of desert along the coast that is among the driest areas in the world. When you look at the landscape outside of Lima, the word "moonscape" comes to mind. Camacho sits in this barren area. The tarp huts of
Camacho are pitched in a land of dust and rocks on which nothing can grow. There is a small strip adjacent to the ocean shore which can sustain some plant life. That land is used exclusively for grazing and crop cultivation. So the 60 or so inhabitants of Camacho who
make a very meager subsistence living on the precious little green land, built their town on the dusty moonscape. But thanks to a grant from an Embassy-related group a new brick toilet stands at the edge of town.
Last Saturday the people of Camacho invited a group from the Embassy to join them for the "inauguration" of their new toilet and Kathleen and I were lucky enough to be invited. It was surrealistic to see a new brick building at the edge of a tarp city. The building
contains two genuine flush toilets, a shower and a wash basin, all for the common use of the town's inhabitants.
The grant also funded a diesel electric generator from which electric lines were precariously strung to each of the tarp houses. The townspeople explained that they ran the generator about 2 hours a night so that their kids would have some light by which to study.
On Saturday these hard-working and long-suffering people lined up plastic chairs in front of the toilet building for their guests. Then the Embassy delegation of about 15 and a good part of the population of Camacho heard short speeches by the DCM's wife, for whom this was an especially important project, and by the government representative of Camacho. This gentleman gave a speech that would have been good for a professional politician, but that was a masterpiece considering that it was delivered by a subsistence farmer. He said, "Most people drive down the Pan American Highway on the way to their beach houses and think, no one lives here. They think that no one could live here. But yes, we do live here, and we thank you for realizing this and for helping us." After the speeches the DCM's wife christened the outhouse by smashing a bottle of white wine against the brick wall.
Then Camacho treated us to a special feast - a Pachamanca. Everyone gathered round while a couple of young men grabbed shovels and started digging in the dust.
When they got to a depth of about 2 feet steam started rising from the ground. Then they uncovered a layer of palm fronds. The feast had been cooking for several hours under the palm fronds in a pit lined with stones that had been heated by a wood fire. The town elders then started pulling big chunks of beef out of the pit. I started worrying at that point. Being a vegetarian, I didn't feel like noshing on pit-roasted beef, but I didn't want to offend the wonderful people who really sacrificed and took great pains to prepare this meal for us. Luckily for me the town elders then started retrieving yams, called camote in Peru, and corn on the cob, called chokle. Peruvian corn on the cob is amazing. Each kernel as about as big as the tip of your thumb and is very tasty. So I was able to chow down on the camote and chokle while ignoring the beef. I don't think our hosts even noticed.
During the event I got to talk to several of the townspeople, including the mayor. While we were taking his five year old son ran up to us. The mayor said that he knew that the toilet that the Embassy provided would make it less likely that his son and the other children of Camacho, would fall sick from diseases related to bad sanitary conditions.
But the highlight of the day for me was when I was talking to one of the really old men from the town. He pointed to the DCM and asked who he was. So I got to explain that one of the people who spent his Saturday celebrating the inauguration of Camacho's toilet was the second in command to the United States Ambassador. The old man said that no one that important from his own country had ever visited his town. I believe that as long as the brick outhouse is
standing in Camacho there will be 60 people in the Peruvian countryside who will not be swayed by the anti-United States rhetoric that one hears these days in South America.
So as I look back on my first year as an FSO, I'd have to say that life would have been easier if I'd stayed practicing law in Denver. I wouldn't have been uprooted from a neighborhood and a group of friends that I really liked. And I wouldn't have had to learn the
totally non-transferable skill of non-immigrant visa interviews. But I would have missed out on days like last Saturday. I will never ever forget the scorched desert town in Peru, and I'm getting the feeling that quite a few more unforgettable days are in store. And though I left good friends behind I am lucky to count all of you as new friends. And you, more than anyone, can understand the crazy and difficult and wonderful lives that we have the privilege to lead.
I hope that all of you are happy at the end of your first year as I am.
I hesitate to add anything to Richard's accounting of this wonderful event but have to add some pictures of the children. The only buildings of note other than the bathroom facility are the two small classroom buildings that provide schooling through 5th grade. Thereafter they have to go a fair distance to attend the school in the neighboring town. Many cannot afford the bus fare to get to the school in town so education stops way to early in the lives of many of these dear children.