Thoughts from Pisco


I've never been good at ending things. Saying goodbye is a weak point for me and usually it is only the start of a process where you have time away and adjust to whatever meets you on the other side. Knowing what's ahead of you can make things easier but my experiences at PSF were too big to be forgotten easily.

My friends from Richmond have just ended their ski season and will be shortly starting their work in Samos again. They are never far away from my thoughts and thinking about that reminds me that some things will persist to be as raw and vivid now as they were then. While this can sometimes be painful it is useful in that it can continue to positively influence you long after the initial event occurred.

Sitting in a quiet hostel in San Salvador makes the colour, noise and buzz at Pisco ever more apparent. I leave it more humbled and grateful but also more inspired and optimistic. I've been fortunate to meet some fantastic people and I look forward to seeing them again.

Pisco Sin Fronteras, Week Four


I’m going to write about my last few days at PSF now and then talk more widely about the 4 weeks in a few days. This week has been an enlightening experience due to a lack of power and water; I won’t detail the often severe consequences which that can entail! The absorbing PSF atmosphere and constant busyness hasn’t really given me a chance to think about the fact I am actually leaving this place tomorrow, it doesn’t seem real and I don’t feel ready for change.
One of the daily features at PSF is the ‘Rock Off’ after every meal. Instead of simply washing your own dishes, gambling to escape doing your own at the expense of having to do all of your fellow competitors is one of the key aspects of PSF life. It can be intensely competitive and anyone who plays can safely assure you it is mainly a matter of skill and not luck. Now a seasoned player of 4 weeks I like to consider myself as a professional in the sport and I quietly boast a glorious win/loss ratio. Standing on a table playing Rock, Paper, Scissors with over 40 people wildly cheering will be one of the obscure but most enduring memories from PSF.
This week has been typically active and, after 4 weeks, there is still so much to learn and to give back. Highlights from the past 7 days include starting a modular home project, building a bridge for the playground and cooking some impressive BBQ chicken and chocolate brownies for all 50 volunteers. Friday was also my last day at Ludoteca, which is the children’s centre I have been involved in over the past month.
It’s going to be hard to adjust from what is considered perfectly normal here to the norms of life back home. Yes, chicken and rice for lunch has slightly lost its impact but Pisco hasn’t. I haven’t even had enough time to digest and properly understand it. Maybe it was too ambitious to think that this was possible and I guess its true meaning will come in hindsight.
Five years after the earthquake, there is still so much good work going on here. New projects are always starting whether this is biodegradable toilets, modular homes or community centres. Making the blurred transition from disaster relief to community development, I assume will always be relatively difficult. So far, so good. I’d be interested to see how things have changed in another five years.

Pisco Sin Fronteras, Week Three


Over the last week our 50th day on the road passed by, it’s gone so quickly and already I’m looking ahead to volunteering at the Olympics and beyond to Uni at Edinburgh. For now though, there is plenty in Pisco to keep me occupied.
Since coming here I have been involved in over 10 different projects, taught English at 3 different schools and have gone from being a disgrace to the DIY world to reaching a solid mediocre level. One of the biggest achievements involved inspiration from home as Ed, Joe and I cooked a 3 course evening meal for 40 people. As 5 days have gone by and there have been no reports of Typhoid, I can safely say it was a great success. If any of you are interested we made a classic sausage and bacon casserole. We are doing it again on Thursday so any suggestions would be appreciated!
Outside the kitchen there has been a range of interesting projects taking place. New ventures are happening all the time so there is a great opportunity to get acquainted with several. The earthbag project is the construction of a community centre made out of sustainable and earthquake resistant dirt bags. The dirt is mixed with concrete and water and it is designed to move with the earthquake if such an event occurs. Its hard work and it is where Joe has spent the majority of his time.
FMB is the generic nickname given to most wood work projects. Ed and I have been building some stations for the exercise part of the park including chin up bars, tricep dips and sit up benches. It’s a shame they have only just been put in place for my last week but at least Ed should be able to get some deserved practice after his shocking personal best of 2 chin ups today.
The final project I will talk about is the Aceros wood collection. PSF gets the majority of its wood for free from the massive steel factory about an hours drive away. You get to experience Peru’s public transport at its worst (best?) as we catch a ‘colectivo’ to get there. A colectivo is basically the same size as a small people carrier in the UK with up to 35 people crammed on to it. Breathing is a luxury in such vehicles but for 38p for a 50 minute ride I guess you can’t complain. You then load a truck with various bits of wood, tyres and whatever else you can find before climbing up on the back and enjoying a precarious ride home on top of your recently collected haul.
I hope that through reading between the lines you can tell that all of these have been great fun and hugely rewarding. I would highly recommend this place if you ever find yourself in South America. One more week to go and it’s going to be sad to leave this place!

Pisco Sin Fronteras, Week Two


The variety that exists here allows 40 people - who are all distinctive and unique - to be fulfilled and happy with the life, work and surroundings. But it is much than simple diversity that creates this satisfaction. 
The PSF bubble allows an engaged eclectic group of people to come together under a unified purpose. It is something they believe in and this belief is enforced by similar thinking from all their peers and by the hard work done in the day which gives a greater feeling of achievement. I’m not saying this isn’t good and without doubt this bubble and sense of purposeful accomplishment sustains the people here with motivation and passion; but ultimately it would be wrong to say this, or anything like this, is any more meaningful or significant than life at home. We like to glorify things and put things on pedestals. This can lead to a general perception that a life here or in similar circumstances is a more noble pursuit than a life at home in our western culture. This in turn can give people who live such lives an unjust sense of superiority. That they have somehow beat the system and triumphed over the people ‘back home’. The truth is, everybody is human and equally fallible to succumb to anger, jealousy, arrogance. Which is what we should measure things by, if we are going to measure at all. While actions and ‘end product’ are more visible tools to measure output; ultimately it should be the slightly surreptitious measure of attitude and heart that should define us. 
I don’t think the work here in itself makes you any more purposeful, directed or significant. It doesn’t give you some kind of immunity to the many corruptions in this world. But what is refreshing is the fact that through life here people are given a different perspective and from this their attitudes change. I don’t think anyone could come here and not be shaped to some degree. There is something about PSF which brings out humanity in people. There are less worldly distractions and influences. Is it easier to be good when faced with adversity? Especially with such a positive atmosphere?
There are things to be learned here that here that are easily forgotten at home. I can happily say that it’s been a privilege to be able to come here and it’s a shame that I can’t be here longer. So two weeks down and two to go. Next time I will actually say what I’ve been up to!

Pisco Sin Fronteras, Week One


Having been here for just one week, I think it’s a shame that many people have and never will do something like this. I’m not talking about it in the polarised selfish way that volunteering often gets tainted with. I’m not talking about paying thousands to be placed in a relatively comfortable environment just so you can say ‘you’ve done your bit’.
What I am talking about is being engulfed in a environment where you can’t help but be humbled every time you step outside. A place where humility is the norm and a place where you have the unquestioned knowledge that people have more enjoyment in helping others than themselves. Just reflecting on this and the past 7 days here, it’s frustrating and painfully clear how weak and fallible I am in this regard. I want to be better. Pride is killer and I hate it.
I spent each of the first 5 days here doing something different and learning about all the various projects and work the organisation does. This meant I did mixture of community work (such as teaching in local schools) and construction work. I think I will continue to do both but stick to only a few projects.
My favourite project is probably the building of a park in the district of Vista Alegre. It will take a few months to fully complete but we already have a modular building to work as a community centre and the requisite swings and sea saw to form the start of the park. Ed and I went down to the park after finishing our construction project for the day and it was amazing to see close to 30 kids playing on the 4 swings and 2 see saws. They were probably between the ages of 3 and 10 and they were each fully equipped with a big smile and plenty of laughter. Before they had what we would call a small shed to be their house and a big dusty space to occupy themselves. And now for barely any cost they have a park to come and play in with their friends and also an area for them to come together as a community. Happiness doesn’t come in different qualities. It is the same in every country.

The Inca Trail and Amazon Rainforest


Both of these probably deserve their own post but as I’m already getting stuck in at Pisco I thought it’s time to get fully caught up.
Before, in between and after the 2 expeditions I have enjoyed a few of the more adventurous activities available in Peru; namely paragliding, white water rafting and ‘The Slingshot’. The first two are fairly common (both equally worth doing) but the slingshot was something which was unknown to me. To describe it in two words: brutal and brilliant. It was basically a reverse bungee where you get launched into the sky, reaching 100mph in 2.5 seconds. Hard to explain what that feels like but it’s something that needs to be experienced. I will eventually get a video on facebook when we have wifi that meets some of our normal western standards. 
The Inca trail was a thought provoking and interesting 4 days. The 2nd day 1200m climb at altitude was tough but apart from that the difficulty didn’t compare to the expedition for DofE Gold in Snowdonia 2 years previous. It’s mandatory to have porters and a guide to lead you through the trail and I wasn’t used to such ‘luxury’ when camping. All the porters are employed from local villages in the mountains and it was good to seem them in high spirits the whole time and through my broken Spanish we were able to have a few good conversations about their heritage. The inca ruins along the way really were stunning but not as incredible as the general Andean landscape. Snow capped mountains, meandering valleys with the Urubamba river carving it up in the middle. Machu Pichu itself was as grandiose as people make it out to be but the thousands of gringos that descend onto it make me prefer the more solitary, over powering hike to get there. 
I had high expectations for the Amazon and I can say it met and exceeded all of these. I assume most people know most of the information already but even when amongst it all, it’s hard to fully comprehend the sheer diversity there. At a push I could name a dozen British trees, there were over 300 different species of above canopy trees found in one hectare in the Amazon. I’ll leave any nerdy admiration there and say it was cool to see the monkeys, tarantulas and piranhas. Time was also spent getting thrashed by the local tribe at football and catching a few diseases when swimming at a nearby creek.  
This marked the end of our 3 week tour and the soon to be beginning of our month of volunteering at Pisco. In between was my birthday which unlike previous years spent at school was enjoyed paragliding over Lima city. There’s a great vibe at PSF (Pisco Sin Fronteras) and we meet up with Ed tomorrow which I’m looking forward to. It’s going to be a rewarding month.

Paracas to Puno


Not sure where to start but it’s been an incredibly busy week. We’ve been working our way through the south of Peru stopping off at Paracas, Nazca, Arequpia, Chivay and finally Puno.
Perspective is a powerful thing and every day mine is shaped and adjusted. People here are incredibly content, whereas improvement and progression are western values that go almost unquestioned. Despite the general hippy/anarchist consensus, I don’t think either is better than the other. Everybody is wired differently, nobody reacts and thinks the same way. 
One anecdote from the last 10 days is from the couple of days I spent with a traditional family based on the edge of Lake Titicaca. We helped out with everything from making the breakfast to pick axing our way through a particularly stony field in preparation for planting potatoes. They live a fairly hard life compared to most standards but I don’t think they could have been any more satisfied in what they had. They were a family of 6 and it was about a 30 minute walk from the local village. They had their priorities straight and they lived a rich life because of it. I don’t think this should condemn the whole of our western culture but placing our aspirations and hope in our postmodern values is premature.
Tomorrow we leave for Cusco for the Inca trail!