The International Writers
Security in Peru
Dust of Ayacucho
in the warm wind, the mixture of laughter, music, and unfamiliar
languages swam through the air. I bounced a young boy on my knee,
as he gripped my long hair that dangled in his face, swirling
in the dusty breeze
Electric pinks, yellows, blues, and greens of the womens clothing
jumped out against the pale landscape, unsubdued by the constant layer
of dust in the air. Women were busy weaving and making purses. Children
scurried everywhere: chasing after a soccer ball, pulling on the long
skirts of their mothers for attention, and crawling through the dirt that
kids across the world seem oblivious to. A glimmer in the sky grabbed
my attention, and I lifted my head, gazing above the buzz of life happening
below. There, the jagged edges of the crude barbed wire pierced the sky
blue, but heavy with dust- and I instantly found my reality again.
I was in a jail.
Every bump of the bus surged through me as we rode down the broken streets,
past the broken houses. The bus was silent- the air heavy with anticipation.
Ayacucho, nestled within the Peruvian Andes mountain range, is a name
that carries with it a bloody past, full of recent terror. The Shining
Path, a guerilla group derived from the Communist Party in the late 1970s,
began meeting and developing in Ayacucho. Consequently, brutal slayings
and guerilla warfare took place there, beginning in 1980. In the following
years, blood and destruction ensued throughout Ayacucho and spread into
many parts of Peru. Though the imminent fear of the Shining Path has subsided,
an indelible mark of terror was left on Peru, and throughout the world.
Ayacucho lacks an immediate danger, but its streets still echo the destruction
that tore through the town-- leaving businesses destroyed, children abandoned,
and lives broken. Our group from Villanova made the long journey from
the safety of our ivy-covered-stone-building campus, to the crumbling
streets and dusty hills of Ayacucho, on a mission of community service.
I braced myself as we stepped off the bus, performing a mental inventory,
trying to locate the calculated, understandable reason why I needed to
come here. The dust was overwhelming as the first breath of Ayacucho coursed
through my body: it filled my lungs, stung my eyes, and crawled up my
nose. It must have clouded my mind too, for there was no logic I could
find, only a desire to discover this world unknown to me.
Traveling here through an international organization, Cross Cultural Solutions,
meant various volunteer opportunities set up throughout the week had been
scheduled for us-- including nursing homes, orphanages, growing businesses,
and a jail. The long days and the heavy warmth of the sun accompanied
us as we carefully explored this world.
Surrounding the valley,
countless churches with crosses stood tall, whispering the story of unwavering
faith. A tone of sadness, determination, and rebuilding seemed to resonate
through the markets, the buildings, and everyone, in the town.
plazas housed bustling marketplaces, buzzing despite the draining
afternoon heat. The dust that surrounded us brought with it the
smells of life in Ayacucho: the thick sweetness of fruit from the
marketplace, mixing with the sweat of the workers coming own from
the hills, and the odor of animals rambling through the street,
not seeming to belong to anyone or be on any specific course. Vibrant
clothing woven of blues, greens, oranges, and pinks that had illuminated
the city, and the faces of its people, for generations was found
in every market, on every street.
Our trip to the neighboring Yanamilla Maximum Security facility presented
an unimaginable situation. I lacked experience with jail or convicts,
and couldnt help but have a sinking feeling in my stomach as we
passed through many security checkpoints, each one bringing us deeper
into the gray, heavily secured walls. I could have never known that inside
this prison, surrounded by guards and guns, with a language I couldnt
understand, deep in the mountains of Peru, I would find an important part
of myself, which I would only realize as the years passed.
The sons and daughters of female inmates lived with them in jail, most
imprisoned for drug charges: cocaine production and sales produce many
problems in the region. Many of these children were born inside these
walls, and for the first few years of their lives allowed to stay with
their mothers. Regardless of the barriers that could have kept me separated
from this world, an immediate chemistry caused color, language, history,
and status to disappear. I instantly became theirs, and we spent the day
playing games, coloring, reading to them in broken Spanish, feeding them,
running around, and endlessly laughing. The mothers, who worked on weaving
goods that they could sell in markets, looked on with gleaming eyes, occasionally
shouting out their maternal commands.
Coming from a middle-class, conventional lifestyle, I carried with me
a sense of guilt, feeling out of place and awkwardly observing this world
from the outside. I was there, but soon I would be gone, like a ghost--
leaving everything as it had been before I arrived. I questioned what
would remain as I returned to the only life I had known, drastically different
from this one I was so fully, and unexpectedly, a part of now.
As the bus took us away from Ayacucho on our last day, I coughed and wiped
the dust from my face one last time. A tear fell with the thought of never
seeing this place again, a town that had so quickly embraced us. The fresh
feeling of life ran down my cheeks, and took away the remnants of Ayacucho
that had made my hair, face, and clothes all the same shade for the last
10 days. Remembering the screeching laughter, the soccer games, reading
endless books, and hugs-hugs that I never imagined I would be a part of-
a thought slightly soothed me. I knew that I couldn't fix all the broken
businesses, befriend all the lonely children, or change the world. But,
as the bus bumped its way through the dirt and out of town, I held on
to the hope that the world could change me.
© Emily Hopkins april 2007
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