From 10 – 21 August I volunteered at the Pronoei Project, a school in San Sebastian, Cusco. On day one I go to the Semanario Paradero ( bus stop) on Avenue De Cultura watching the busy traffic and numerous buses going by on a dusty hot Monday morning. The buses resemble little vans seating about 20 people, and cram in many more if people are willing to distort their bodies as standing is impossible, (this actually makes the London underground seem civilised). As each bus stops the ´conductor´usually a young male teenager slides open the door and shouts out the locations where the bus will be stopping ahead. I ask the driver for San Sebastian and he nods his head. I have to duck my head to look out of the window to make sure I don´t miss my stop. Sitting close to the door means holding on tightly to your seat or else you´ll be out on the street when the bus jolts to a stop and the door is flung open admist the many cars and taxis on the road. I clutch on to my bag and ipod carefully and my journey lasts only about 7 minutes. I remember where to get off, pay the driver 60 cents (about 11 pence) and walk accross the busy street to the school.
Myself and Haydee the teacher start the school day at 8.30am to get the classroom ready
for upto 11 3-5 year olds, who normally arrive anytime between 9-10pm either alone or accompanied by a parent/sibling.” Buenos dias!” they exclaim excitedly. The floor needs to be dusted and wiped down with a damp cloth, we don´t have a mop-that would be luxury. The school is like a square cellar or dungeon smaller than my living room at home. You have to duck your head to enter and the ceiling is pretty low. There are no windows and it gets quite stuffy and smelly, so the front door is kept open all morning, and to provide some daylight as there is no lighting of course. The children squeeze around two tables that have been joined together in the centre. In one corner there´s a small table for their bags, and one wall has a basic shelving unit to hold a few old pots of crayons, paper, 4 story books with half of the pages missing and various pots and containers that have been made by recycling old food cartons and bottles. There´s another tiny little table that holds a plastic tub of lego, and 4 jigsaw puzzles of various characters including Barbie and Winnie the Pooh.
On my first day I notice there is no toilet, no other space or room in fact so I make sure I don´t drink any of the bottled water I always carry with me! The children are quite simply
fantastic, full of energy, appreciative and happy. Thier clothes are very dusty and dirty, bt then so is everything else so I guess it´s very hard to keep squeaky clean around this part of town. Most of them have runny noses and patchy red cheeks. They help themselves to jigsaws and keep busy, playing alone or together. At 10.30am its break time and they munch on snacks ranging from biscuits and cakes to apples and oranges-so many oranges! I make a note to take in in cleansing wipes the following day as my hands are sticky from peeling so much fruit! I´m warmed by their kindness, as each child opens a packet of crisps the first thing they do is offer some to their friends, sharing is something that seems to come very naturally to them. After break time Haydee and the children says prayers and sing some songs, I join in with the physical actions. I hand out some paper and crayons and ask them to draw me pictures of their parents. Liset I notice cannot sit still, she is very noisy and disruptive
and very easily distracted! She does not complete her picture, in fact she doesn´t even start it! There are only two boys in the class, Emerson and Milagros. We practice counting and numbers using nuts and seeds, I spend some time one to one with Natalie and Chema to help them focus and its good for me to practice my numbers too so we learn together! Haydee enjoys having me there as an extra helping hand as she does her job carrying Gonzales her 4 month old son on her back. He is quite demanding and regularly cries so she is often stopping to breast feed him in the classroom. I carry him and play with him from time to time to give her a break. Haydee does not speak any English so our conversation is limited, I find this a bit frustrating but its great being able to use some of what I have picked up during my Spanish lessons the week before. The children are very patient with me and we find our own little way to make sense of things and communicate.
At 12pm its time to go home, some of the kids are collected, others run home, I watch them giggling down the street. Me and Haydee tidy up and I brush the floor, so much mess! At 12.30pm I ride the bus home after saying hasta manyana (see you tomorrow) to the teacher. I am saddened by the fact that the school is so under resourced, there is no play area for the children, hardly any toys or educational games. We have no running water to wash our hands and not a lot for them to do, but they keep busy and the smiles never leave their faces. Over the two weeks I spend a long time tracing worksheets for them to colour and count, so this is what life was like before photo copiers! I take in some simple colouring books and new crayons for them to use, they love colouring in the pictures and request more of this. When complete they proudly show me their masterpieces before hanging them on a washing line with pegs, this is our picture gallery.
I notice Liset does not show up for school during week 2, I think she has swine flu. One morning we are entertained with music, a brass band playing accross the street. People are busy putting up colourful decorations down the main road accross walls and shop buildings, is there a fiesta? Haydee tells me there is a celebration for the local mayor or councilor, I´m not quite sure. By 11am various cars and taxis spill into the road and various well dressed and groomed men and women climb out of them wearing make-up, smiles and smart clothes, they are definitely not local that is for sure! People run and dance in the street and place garlands around the ´mayors´ neck and cameras flash. There are cheers, hugging and applause when he smashes a small clay pot that is hanging at one end of the street. The classroom is hard to manage today as we are all distracted with the noise coming from the visitors to our neighbourhood.
On my last day only 5 children are in the class, I don´t know if the others are sick, or why they have not come in. Their attendance is very irregular so its hard to tell. I give them lollipops and this gets them very excited, “gracias profesor” they shout. It´s been an interesting and enjoyable two weeks, hard for me to accept at first but then I come to realise that although they do not have all the material possesions we seem to be spoiled with in the developed world, they at least do have clothes, food and water, a roof over their heads and parents that love them. San Sebastian is only minutes away from Santa Monica were I am staying with my wealthy middle class Peruvian family, but the contrast in terms of lifestyle, housing and the quality of the roads and pavements is stark. I wonder how long these children will go to school for before they start their working lives.
Its been a pleasure spending my time at the school with Haydee and the children, who will remain in my heart and memory forever for making my time in Cusco more meaningful and special in so many ways.