Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The landslide of march and its aftereffects

Last week I got the chance to go to Chosica again. As mentioned in previous blogs, this is one of the communities where we work. The aim of the visit was to talk to people whose businesses were affected by the landslide and subsequent flooding in March. And this was definitely the most impressing, and at the same time devastating visit so far.

Driving along the road leading out of  Chosica we stopped at this low building standing on a cliff, which looked quite neglected at first sight. Two men were working outside, digging. Abel from Soluciones Prácticas pointed to the side of the building, told me to look down the side of the building. “Look”, he said, “the people here are still living in the tents the municipality gave them right after the landslide in March”. Which was three months ago.

The front of the building, and the destroyed machines

Señor Vladimir Corso, still cleaning up

Tents. People are still living in them

The stories we heard afterwards were as devastating as the living conditions were. A small woman, marked from life, was trying to clean a heavy looking machine. “Everything was destroyed by the landslide”, she said, showing us around the front of the building. Señora Victoria Quispe de Corso had a tire business before the landslide in March, selling and repairing car and truck tires. All the machines she used for this were destroyed or broken by the landslide and flooding in March. She shows us the machines: “it would cost so much to repair these machines, and we just don’t have the money” she explains despaired. Since the landslide end of March her business has been closed, and she has since not been able to reopen it. She had 3 employees, all of which have now lost their job. “Until today I still worry about what my family and I are going to eat, and how we will survive”, she says, choking on her words.

Señora Victoria Quispe de Corso
Señore Victoria showing us her destroyed machines

The biggest problem is that her official business documents were lost in the catastrophe in March. As soon as the street was free again Señora Victoria went to the police to report the loss. She was then told to go to the bank and pay 7 Soles, and with this receipt she would be able to report the loss of her documents. She did that, came back to the police station, where she was then told that it was too late to report the loss, that she couldn’t do so any more. All losses have to be reported latest 48 hours after the loss. This, in her case and many other cases, was just not possible. Firstly because right after the catastrophe the families were concerned about surviving, what they were going to eat and where they were going to sleep. And secondly because the street was blocked by the landslide so they were not even able to get to the municipality. But rules are rules. Therefore, officially her business does not exist anymore as she has no proof of it, and this also means that she won’t get any help from the state to rebuild it. Abel emphasized on how important it was that she got the loss reported. She should go again and again, he said, and insist that the loss gets registered officially. Because without that she has no chance of rebuilding her business and the existence of her family.

These are the only documents she managed to save: a couple of invoices

Right after the catastrophe happened her and her family received some food and water, as well as a couple of mattresses, tents and blankets. But no other help apart from that. “I was so scared after  the landslide, I just didn’t want to live here anymore”, she tells us, and looks away. A couple of minutes later she had composed herself again: “It happened at 3 o’clock in the afternoon”, she remembers. “We were working up here. It came so suddenly. Gracias a Dios I was able to hold onto something when the landslide and the water came, otherwise I would have been carried down to the valley. I don’t want to remember this anymore, it was so terrible”. At this point her daughter comes to her aid, and continues their story.

Shortly after the landslide an official from the municipality came to look at the houses and constructions which had been affected, but since then they haven’t heard anything, she tells us. As they don’t have insurance, nobody else could help them to rebuild the family business. They emptied their savings and borrowed some money, and managed to do the most necessary repairs on the house. But still not everything is done – still part of the family is living in tents. At least they have a functioning kitchen again – quite an important thing with a family of 8. They had to wait for running water until the beginning of May – for working electricity even until June 8. Up to then, everything had to be improvised. At that point, Señor Victoria picks up again: “Gracias a Dios we got helped with water until the water supply started working again”. But, she continues, “Up to now, I am still preoccupied with the surviving of my family”. And at the same time she needs to think of rebuilding her business, to be able to earn money again. “We used to make 1500$-2000$ per month before the landslide”, she tells us. Since March she has had no income what so ever, only expenses. They even took up a loan, but as interest rates on loans are so high here she is finding it very difficult to come up for the interest rates.

Right next to Señora Victoria’s business her husband’s brother had his business, a lubricants business. Señor Vladimir Corso tells us: “Since more than three months we cannot work, and we can’t earn any money”. Standing in the entrance of the garage he shows us how high the water was – it was almost head high! “Thank god we have strong roofs, the houses were not totally destroyed” he tells us. Like his sister-in-law he was not able to report the loss of his business documents either. He was too late too, and made the same experience at the police station when he went to report his loss. Three months later he is still busy cleaning up, trying to set up business again. He had 2 employees, both have not been able to return to work yet and thus they and their families (both have two children) have been without income since March.

Señor Vladimir Corso

They have been other flooding and landslides before, tells us Señor Victoria, but this one was the worst so far. Often only water came down, but with the giant stones coming down too this time, and the sheer enormity of water, the destruction was much worse than on other occasions.

As if these stories weren’t enough, Señor Victoria and her brother-in-law tell us this at the end: In January and February, shortly before the landslide, the municipality had been building walls, on both sides of the path where the landslides normally come down. They did so because walls like this can help if it’s “only” water. But as not only water came down but also stones, mud and sand, it actually made things worse. Additionally, they had not finished building the walls when the landslide came down. So the half-finished construction came crashing down with the landslide, making it’s force and size even bigger. Abel explained what would help: they should build large stairs. This would hold up both water and landslide, and lessen it’s force and dimension.

In Chosica itself they were busy building the same kind of walls when the landslide occurred. 

You still see exactly where the landslide came down

Some people made a business out of the landslide: these men are selling stones 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tales of the traffic and the government

The last couple of weeks I spent a couple of days at various workshops which Practical Action either organized or co-organized together with the municipality or the national government. Quite an eye opener and really fascinating, as these really showed at which level Peru actually is. You can live a first-world life here – but there are two things where you notice that you are in a third world country: the traffic and the government. First of all a video of 9am traffic in Lima (no, it is not the busiest time!):

Let me just say a couple more words to the traffic in Lima: It is actually only crazy Monday through Saturday. On Sunday’s the streets are practically deserted. I’m still not quite sure why this is, as on Sunday many Peruvians go out for a big family lunch. Ah well maybe this may be the reason: they spend the whole afternoon in the Restaurant J. Another thing you notice here are the huge amount of taxis. I would say the taxis account for roughly 30% of all the traffic. They are literally all over. If you’re walking you will get hooted at constantly by taxis, asking you if you want to ride instead of walk. This is also very typical here: Peruvians do not walk. Even if it’s only a 10 minute walk, they take their car or go by taxi (of course taking them much longer than if they had walked J). Taxis here do not have taximeters, so you need to know how far your destination is and how much the ride should be. Prices all depend on the time of day or night you are travelling. During the day prices are lower than at night, but if you dare to travel during peak time (morning, midday or evening) then your ride will be much more. Taxi drivers just calculate the price according to the amount of traffic there is. Another thing you need to know when you catch a taxi here: you need to know exactly where you’re going and you need to be able to explain this to the taxi driver. Although you will find all of them playing around with their smartphones, and some of them even looking up on google maps, they do not use the navigation system. So they heavily rely on their passengers to tell them where they want to go. Bad luck if you don’t know your way around…

So much to the traffic – now some funny tales of the government: One of the workshops I attended was a workshop Practical Action co-organized together with the Ministry of Finances. The objective of the workshop was to make sure that every municipality in eastern Lima knows how to submit their budget. This might seem like basics to you – and I was also wondering why we needed a whole days workshop for this. The reason is very simple: many municipalities never submit a budget, thus never receive any money from the national government, simply because they didn’t know that they needed to submit a budget and would then receive money, or because they don’t know how to work with Excel! Yes, you have read correctly: the budget has to be submitted in a specific Excel form which all municipalities receive from the national government (welcome to Peruvian bureaucracy!), but so many people here do not even know how to use Excel. Actually so many people working at government level do not even have an official email address – they give everyone their Hotmail address J. So if the budget is not submitted in this specific Excel form you will simply not receive any money – so not knowing how to use Excel can become a major issue here. At the workshop we found out that only about half of the municipalities in eastern Lima had submitted a budget for 2015! So no wonder the new major in Chaclacayo complained about not having money – they were among the municipalities which had not submitted a budget! Here come some photos of the event. Emilie and Abel from Practical Action, both part of the Zurich project, held short presentations informing about the work Practical Action and Zurich do in two communities of eastern Lima.

Our logo is allover :-) 

Emilie giving her presentation

The representatives from the municipalities

Abel giving his presentation
Hard at work, learning how to submit a budget

I think I’ve mentioned before that Peru is a highly bureaucratic country with extremely complicated processes. If you want to do something correctly and legally it can take you ages, cost you a lot of money and nerves. And this is one big reason for so much illegality in this country: Actually only about 10 percent is official and therefor legal, everything else is unofficial or illegal (meaning: shops, houses, businesses, streets, mini buses etc!)

I’ve probably also mentioned before that elections here are always connected to people, and never to political parties. This automatically means that there is always a huge hype around a 2-3 people before the elections, and then one gigantic hype around the winner of the elections. And the winner of the elections of course has to show himself in an appropriate way. When the new major of Lima was elected last year, the first thing he did when he came into power was to change ALL the logos of the city of Lima ALLOVER. Yes, you have read correctly, this is no joke. Imagine if Zurich would change its logos every time a new CEO gets elected? Well, that’s exactly what happens here. So instead of spending money on something really necessary, he goes and changes all the logos to “his” logo. Of course, this will change again when he is voted out of office. Oh, and now guess what the second major thing was he changed? Yes! He painted all old houses in central Lima yellow, because they had been painted a different color by his predecessor and yellow is “his” color. Why spend money on something as unnecessary as a metro or better streets, or simply on the population itself, when you can go painting the city in your colors and change your logos? The metro actually, which is even been supported by big, international companies like Siemens or KfW, has now obviously been stopped again. Why? Well, there are national elections next year, and who would anyone want to carry on work now if his successor will change everything anyway again? But the hilarious thing is that an official metro plan already exists, here’s the link to it (so you can imagine how a metro system might look like if it eventually gets finished like in 50 years):
Actually they first started working on the metro in the 1980ies – but work stopped as a new government was elected. And even with international funding now it is not continuing.

By now you must think I am mad and making up all these stories, but no, you have read correctly and this is unfortunately no joke – it’s how I tend to say: Peruvian!

Some of you ask me from where our people here at Practical Action take their energy and dedication to work with such a government. Well basically the answer is quite simple: All people who work in the “field”, with the communities, local, regional and national government are Peruvians. So they obviously do not know it any other way, for them how the government acts or does not act is “normal”. They just are in the lucky position to have had a good education and to know how to deal with the government if you want to get things done. And this is their dedication: they want to help the poorer communities who are less lucky than they are. And you really need people like them here, because you are not going to change the political system or the government, so you need to teach the population to live with it, and to make the best out of their possibilities. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Peruvian cuisine

After more than a month here I still have not written anything about the Peruvian cuisine – and as it’s really worth a blog, I hope I’ll have your mouth watering half through this blog J

Peru actually has a lot of specialties. Especially here at the coast it’s all about fish. The probably best known and an all-days favorite is Ceviche. That’s a dish a raw fish and seafood (shrimps mostly seem to be cooked), marinated in lime, garlic, onion, coriander and chili. It’s served with corn (you’ll find this in practically every dish here) and sweet potato (a beautiful compliment to the spicy and sour Ceviche!). It’s served cold. Locals tell me that Ceviche is a typical midday dish – but thank god you can find it in evenings too. Especially when I was up in Piura and surroundings I basically lived of Ceviche. It’s become a regular for me on the weekends.

Another special is the so called “Causa”. This is also a starter (Ceviche is officially also a starter, but the portion is always large enough for the main meal). Causa is basically a “tower” built of mashed sweet potato, avocado and fish or seafood. It looks and tastes fantastic!

Another dish which actually reminds me of a mix of paella and Asian rice is the so called “Arroz Chaufa” (which translated just means fried rice), and mostly comes with seafood or fish, but you also find it with chicken or meat. Always served with limes, it tastes excellent.

Going over to the meat side of Peruvian meals, you find all sorts of excellent steaks here: beef, lamb, alpaca to just mention a few, but alpaca is definitely the specialty here. Alpaca is basically the baby brother of a lama, it looks very similar but is smaller (here’s the photo). And it’s meet is lovely and tender, and tastes delicious! This is something you find especially in mountainous areas like Arequipa or Cusco. It’s mostly accompanied by various different potato mashes, all spiced differently but all equally delicious.

Something you find all over is Lomo Saltado. This is basically pieces of beef, spiced, cooked with onion, sweet pepper (mostly red pepper), tomatoes and coriander, accompanied by rice or potato. I have had this in all types of places all over the country and it always tasted really good.

Another specialty is Anticucho. This is basically heart and other innards, mainly of beef and chicken, on a skewer. Yes, yes, I know what you are thinking now. But it actually tastes delicious. It is served with potato and corn. THE place to eat this is the famous “Tio Mario” (“Uncle Mario”) in Barranco.

Before coming to the drinks there are three other really lekker dishes I would like to mention. One of them is “Papa Rellena”: this basically just means stuffed potato and might not sound very exciting to you – but: you find it in soooo many different varieties that it gets exciting! Firstly, this is really a potato country – there are sooo many different varieties of potatoes. And all of them can be filled, of course. Most commonly you probably find it filled with a mixture which reminds me of the South African Bobotie. It’s a mince meet mixture with onions and raisins, nicely spiced of course like all dishes here are. This is really good! In Arequipa you’ll find “Rocoto Relleno”, stuffed pepper, an amazing dish too: Rocoto is the spicy pepper in Peruvian cuisine. It’s the shape, color, and size of a red pepper. It’s boiled to soften, then stuffed with finely cut steak or minced meet, cheese, black olives, ground peanuts, various spices, sometimes raisins, then baked. 

Last but not least – you must have been waiting for this one, Alice: the famous Cuy – or guinea pig. As you see in the photo, it is much bigger than our pets we know. Crisply baked and all tender inside, it tastes delicious. The meat actually compares to chicken, but it’s more juicy and tender. It mostly comes served with the usual potato (sometimes sweet potato, sometimes the “normal” one) and corn.

Have I got your mouth watering by now? I do hope so, because I’m feeling hungry just writing this J
But now let’s go over to the drinks, because Peru has nothing to hide when it comes to drinks either!

THE national drink is Pisco Sour. Pisco is basically a Schnapps made out of grapes, similar to Grappa (don’t tell any Peruvians I said that though J). Now, Pisco Sour is a great cocktail made out of that Schnapps. The basic Pisco Sour is Pisco mixed with fresh lime juice, beaten egg white, syrup, crushed ice and a couple of drops of Angostura bitters. They also make it in all different flavors, from Maracuya (Passion Fruit) to Mango, from Apple to Cinnamon. It’s sweet, so you don’t notice how strong it actually is – but I wouldn’t recommend having more than one if you have not eaten yet J

Peru actually also has really good wine. But don’t try to go to any wineries to try wine, because they give tourists (even those who actually show interest like I did) the very worst wines, often much too old (they gave me a white Sauvignon Blanc from 2005 to try. When I told them that it was much too old because it literally tasted sour and like pure alcohol the guy told me that that’s what Sauvignon Blanc tastes like. Thank god I know better – but I don’t even want to know how many tourists he has bullshitted out of Sauvignon Blanc). But they actually make really good Malbecs and Cabernet Sauvignos – definitely comparable to Argentinian or Chilean wines. But this is just one side of their wines. The other side are the “Vinos Artesanales”, which basically means manually produced, as opposed to the mass production of industrial wines. The artisanal wines are much sweeter, basically like a desert wine, they remind me a bit of Port wine. They are really good too – and when you go to a artisanal winery you actually get to taste the good stuff!

Oh and last but not least – the beer: Here too, you get industrial beers and artisanal beers. The industrial beers are very good and varied – my favorite is the Cusceña Negra (a dark beer). Oh but the artisanal beers! They are truly amazing, and you get them in all sorts of different flavors. One of them has a slight lime taste – oh it is sooo good. The artisanal beers are slightly stronger than the industrial ones, between 6-8 percent.

This is longer than intended again, and I probably forgot half, but I hope that this has given you a mouth-watering insight into the Peruvian cuisine.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A glimpse into Practical Action’s work - and my life

As promised in my last blog, after telling you all about certain communities and their problems I would now like to focus on Practical Action’s work. But as I haven’t written much about my life here for a couple of weeks either, I will start off by telling you a bit about my life here.
I have actually been really lucky: I live with a lovely German girl, and I actually could not have wished for a better flat mate. She has already been here for 2 years, and she takes me along everywhere. So I am constantly out and about, meeting people and living the everyday Lima life. I am now also the proud owner of a bright pink bike. 

My pink bike and I, on a sunny Sunday afternoon riding along the Malecón.

A bike in Lima is really the best way to get around. It is flat, and there’s so much traffic that you do not get anywhere by car. Buses are complicated, random – and stuck in traffic too. And there is no other public transport. I have found myself a gym too (actually the same as my flat mate goes to) and go there in the mornings before work. You might think I am crazy. But as working hours are so much more relaxed here, it’s the best time to go. Arriving at work at 9 am I’m still one of the first to get in. Oh and if I stay on longer than 5.30 pm the office is deserted and I say bye to myself J. I have become somewhat of a consultant actually: I have set up team meetings (at first the team wasn’t quite sure why I wanted this, but the first meeting then went on for 3 instead of 1 hour and now I think they see the necessity of talking to each other from time to time J). I advise on any social media activities, infographs, videos, and even held a social media training last Friday – 16 people attended (not even half of them actually do social media). Apart from that I’m writing a Social Media strategy and concept for them – which is quite challenging with over 16 channels to integrate! Oh and this is in Spanish too, of course…

My colleagues and I. Back left my boss Doris (she calls herself Chani)

Anyway, enough about me, now I’d like to tell you something about Practical Action’s work here.
I’ve come to learn that key is really to work very closely with the communities. Each community has its leader (or depending on the size of the community there might be various leaders (sometimes also called directors)). They have small teams of so called “brigadiers”. But the main points of contact for our people here at Practical Action are the leaders. They are often young people, and often females, as most men work. They need to be well known and well connected in the community, and trusted. Every volunteer has to attend a certain amount of workshops, each on different, relevant topics. A workshop is actually quite something to experience, as everybody of course brings their children along, all pile in to the room, happily chatting. The highlight of the workshop (at least for the children) is the part where cold drinks and snacks are distributed.
Practical Action organizes these workshops together with the local municipality and INDECI, which is the national government. Actually all of Practical Action’s work is closely coordinated and arranged with the local and national government. Many of our field visits start or end with a stop at the local municipality or INDECI, to hear how they are getting on with certain topics, to exchange data and talk about future projects.
This is important as nothing can get done here without the help of the government. One thing which Practical Action does is educate the people and teach them how to file a complaint with the government or ask for something to be built. As it’s a highly bureaucratic country, everything has to be done according to a certain process. For example if a community needs a wall to be built, to avoid the river from overflowing, a certain form has to be filled in (by hand and correctly), and this form then has to be brought to the municipality on a specific day at a specific time, and only then will it be acknowledged and (maybe) looked at. If something is approved (which can take years, people tell me) then Practical Action might help with funding, but the money will always be paid directly to the people building the wall, and never to the government.
A lot is about awareness, and about the communities to get things done themselves. They tend to (and that is actually a characteristic I’ve noticed in many Peruvians) sit around grouching and blame all their problems on others (like the government). Instead of standing up for themselves and getting things done. Easy things which can be done like cleaning up the environment or planting trees on the river bank giving more of a protection, the community can do on their own, without big funds. This is where Practical Action comes in too, encouraging them and helping them with their plans.
Not only people blame their problems on others, the government does so too. At a recent Simulacro (simulation of an earth quake) the local government, including the mayor, also attended. After the event had finished the mayor said a couple of words to the community. And his first words were: “We first had to clean up after the previous government, they left a huge mess. And they left us a lot of debt too, this is why we cannot fund as many local projects as we would like to. Now we are ready to start sailing, but it will take time until we can really start work.” I almost laughed out loud. But it really is quite symbolic for Peru. Oh and after this speech he went around and kissed every single person on the cheek (check my video!).

Unfortunately this is quite characteristic for the government in Peru. This is why, in a megacity like Lima, there is virtually no public transport (except mini buses) – no tram, no train, no metro. Although in the last 30 years various projects were started, they were always stopped once the government changed.

As not to prolong this blog too much I'll stop now - but will try to write my next blog again sooner this time :-)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Discovering Piura and surroundings

Sooner than I had hoped I got to travel up north to Piura. Piura lies inland, about an hour’s drive from the coast. But there's a big river flowing through the city, and because of its proximity to the coast it also sees a lot El Niño rains and subsequent flooding. Speaking of flooding: there has not been heavy flooding here since the last big El Niño in 1998. In the March rainfalls, which caused huge landslides and subsequent flooding in Chosica, only small areas were lightly flooded. But there is loads to do all the same:

It is quite apparent that there are many problems here. It strikes me from the beginning that there is garbage lying around all over the place. Alcides, the local Practical Action Project Manager, explains that half a year ago a new government was voted in. And as so often happens when a new government comes to power, first of all ministers are exchanged, as a new president brings along his own ministers. Once this is done he sets about changing everything - especially everything implemented by his predecessor (no matter if it was a success or not). So this new government in Piura decided to change the whole - very well working - garbage system and to fire all people working there. Alcides tells me that this is nothing compared to a couple of months ago, things have already got a lot better. Hard to imagine for me. But apparently there are coming to collect garbage again - at least from time to time and in some areas.
Oh but instead of bothering about things like cleaning up the city the new government is busy! It has just issued a law saying that all motorbike helmets have to be open, a protecting glass shield is forbidden as it lets people hide their faces (and delinquents subsequently get away with their crime) the latter seems sensible enough - but to issue a law about that, provoking demonstrations? So you see, the government is busy.

One area we visited was the community of Polvorines. It’s story is really devastating. It’s basically an illegal settlement on the outskirts of Piura, although Alcide calls it “semi-legal” as they some parts do have electricity, but do not have running water. Polvorines is located in a very low area of Piura, and this is the main reason why it is so heavily effected by rains. All the water runs down to the area of Polvorines and collects there. Alcide tells me that they will now show me the “lagoon”. Already beautiful pictures of lagoons come into my mind. But what actually awaits me is even worse than what I’ve seen so far: in the lowest part of Polvorines all water, waist and so on collects, creating a huge waist area. 

The lagoon in Polvorines

Now you would expect people to keep away from an area like this, as this is where mosquitos and Dengue breeds. And also because this is the very first area flooded when it rains, this is a high risk zone. But no: when we arrive there are people building houses there, just a couple of meters away from the waist area with water and garbage. The Director of this community, Jhoans Rodriguez, tells me that the people building the houses here afterwards sell them for 3000-5000 Soles (1000-1500 USD) – to poor families who are not able to pay more and thus end up living in an area like this.

A house being built

He himself lives in a simple little house in Polvorines, in a medium risk zone. In the last big floods in 1998 his house was  flooded too, but only until his knees, he tells me. “Imagine, in this zone the water stood at almost 2 meters!” he explains. And yes, here people live. The problem is really that nobody should be living here, because the water will automatically collect here as it has nowhere else to go. There is no river here where it can flow into, so it all collects in this lowest area in the lagoon. But houses are being built here constantly, and the government, as this is anyway an illegal settlement, doesn’t care (they probably don’t even know that this is happening). Jhoans points do a certain section of the lagoon: “A year ago there weren’t any houses here, now more than 100 people live here!”

Another section of the lagoon

The people living in Polvorines have various problems: a current big problem is Dengue. Here Practical Action is teaching and encouraging people to make and use a very simple system, made out of an empty plastic bottle filled with water, yeast and sugar, and covered with black paper, to attract mosquitos and keep mosquitos away from the people themselves. 
In the dry season the problem is the water supply, Jhoans tells me that because there is no running water, everyone has to buy water, for washing, cooking etc. In the dry season water gets very expensive: “Then they sell one liter of water for 1 Sol!” “They”, that’s guys riding around on a motorbike with a whole lot of colorful cherry cans on a cargo area at the back. It is not even drinking water what they are selling. And one liter is nothing for a family of 5-6 people.

Key in this area is to be able to evacuate people fast enough and thus to save peoples lives, Jhoans tells me. Vital to this point are the “Simulacres” they do. These are simulations of real situations, so that people learn how to react when a flooding alarm comes in, for example.
Another thing to keep the rest of Polvorines as safe from floods as possible are drains. But all the main drains are clogged up with garbage and other waist at the moment. Meaning that the water can’t even flow down to the lagoon but instead starts flooding much earlier on. Jhoans estimates the number of inhabitants of Polvorines at about 7000 people – growing daily instead of shrinking, as one would expect in a high risk zone. He explains that people have nowhere else to go, and don’t want to leave their house either. Even if it gets flooded, they return. He also, living in a medium risk zone, does not want to leave his house, he has lived here for so many years and it is his home, he explains. So the only thing to do is to make sure that people know how to react when a flood alarm sounds, that they can be saved. But this also presents a problem: the “safe zone” in Polvorines is actually not big enough for all the people living there. It actually has hardly any “safe zones” at all, being the lowest point of Piura.

Jhoans (on the right) talking to a local

In order not to prolong this blog too much I will stop with this. In a later blog a will tell you more about the work Practical Action does in these various communities.

And just to make you jealous (and to show you that yes, there are beautiful parts of Peru a mere 2 hours away from Polvorines) I have attached a couple of photos of the beach of Vichayito where I spent the weekend.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A visit in Chosica

As mentioned in my last blog I got to visit one of the areas where we are active last week. To say the least: it was fascinating. But let’s start from the beginning: the day before going I spoke to Miluska, a lovely woman from Practical Action who is part of the “Zurich team” here. Her first question was: do you speak Spanish? (in Spanish of course). Her eyes lit up when I answered with a yes, because she then confessed that she doesn't speak a word of English. This is no isolated case, it’s quite usual in Peru.

It’s about an hour’s drive from here to Chosica (in normal traffic – in heavy traffic on the way back it took us almost 4 hours (yes, quite right, traffic in Lima is CRAZY!)). All the way there Miluska explained the various areas where our flood resilience program is in place, how it works and what the problems are. In the area around Chosica we work with 9 communities, each has a “Director” who’s the contact person for Practical Action. Each of those communities have different needs and problems, and often much more than “just” the risk of being flooded. “People in this area live with the river, but not from the river”, Miluska explains. And this is the big difference to Piura, for example, the area up north where we also have a project going. The people there, in contrast, live from the river. The people here in Chosica however do not see the river as a useful resource, but rather as a necessary evil of the landscape where they live. This means that they try to adapt the river to their needs, meaning that they fill it up with sand or stones if they need more place for living, through which they change the course of the river. This might help their community, but it results in huge trouble for other communities further downstream, who then all of a sudden find the river flowing directly in the direction where their village is, eating its way into the river bank. This might not be that much of a problem if some houses weren't built so close to the river bank. In 2004 a law saying that houses need to be built at least 50 meters away from the river. But so many houses were built before this law was passed, and thus stand much too close to the river bank. Their owners of course would never think of rebuilding their house in a different location, and the government is simply not interested either in helping them or to really enforce the law. This is where Practical Action comes in: they educate the people, explain why it is important that the village is built at a certain distance to the river, and to make sure that no new houses are built too close, a park area with trees is built between the village and the river. But of course houses are still built too close to the river. Miluska shows me a house which was built just 9 months ago. Back then it stood about 5 meters from the river bank. Now, through the changing of the rivers course by upstream communities, the river has eaten its way into the river bank and the house now literally hangs over the river:
This house once used to be 5 meters from the river
But this is not the only problem in this area: the other big problem in the village of Chosica are landslides, which are caused through heavy rain falls. Locals tell me that this actually happens every year. But “the government leaves us alone with this problem, they don’t help us”, says Señor Dueñas, a close associate to the Director of the community. He himself has lived here since 1951. Nobody has ever helped them, he tells me. “But now Practical Action is here and is helping us, we are so happy!” he says, with a big toothless smile. He then shows me photos of the installation of some water pipes which they had installed with Practical Action’s help, these are necessary to control the waters flow. 

Señor Dueñas

When there is a landslide first of all a whole lot of rocks, sand, mud and stones come down into the village, destroying houses as they go (many houses are built on the hill). All this then jams up at some stage, and the continuous rainfalls then cause flooding. So after the people have been hit by a huge landslide, they are then flooded – and this is happening every year. Not every time as bad as in March this year though, where there even were 9 casualties.
Miluska tells me that the important thing in Chosica is to make sure that a landslide has a path to go, to avoid more damage than necessary. Otherwise is will look for a path, causing damage and casualties on its way. But people don’t understand this, and thus keep on putting up new buildings or walls where they actually should be leaving the space free.
Road cleaning is ongoing

The huge landslide and subsequent flooding of March is now almost 2 months ago. But you still see definite traces: streets are still being cleared, and sandbags still lie by the roadside where they were once put to protect houses from the nearing masses.
Sandbags on the roads in Chosica

So many houses still lie in devastation, and where they were not destroyed you the traces the water, mud and rock masses left on the walls, on the doors, in the streets. Miluska points to a big blue building up on the hill: “That’s the school of Chosica. It’s still closed”.

The school in Chosica

There’s so much more to tell, but I would definitely be stretching your patience if I do so. I have attached a couple of photos (unfortunately it wasn't a very bright day, it was the usual Lima gray in this time of the year).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

I've just been here for a couple of days now, but it seems like much longer. The first two days Google Maps was my best friend, now I'm navigating my way round the city (at least the small part around where I work and live) without any technical help. Knowing that, if I should get lost, I'm sure to find a friendly helping hand rather sooner than later. I guess that's the first lesson learnt, and it's a nice one too: Peruvians are very friendly and helpful. My very first experience to this extent was actually quite a funny one: I arrived on Mothers Day. In Peru, Mothers are the most important thing here. So I walk into a supermarket, quite lost in thoughts, when a voice, right next to me says: "felicitaciones!" I get such a fright that I just stare at the friendly smiling man who had said this. He carries on saying: "Feliz dia de madre, hoy es su dia"! (Happy Mothers Day, today is your day!) I still have not found my words so continue to stare at him, whereupon he says, a bit less sure of himself this time: you are mother, right? I just shake my head and stutter something to the extent that no, I'm not a mother. Whereupon he says, equally enthusiastic like before: "eres extranjera!" (You're a foreigner!) It's not a question, its a statement. I just nod again. He then proceeds to grab my hand, shakes it enthusiastically with both his hands and says: "Bienvenida"! After asking me how long I'll be here for (2 months is "muy poco, que pena), he finally lets me go, wishing me all the best and a lovely stay. Quite overwhelmed, I get on with my shopping.

I've got a couple more anecdotes just from the first days here:

- when you want to cross the street here do not wait for a car to stop for you, or you'll never get across. Just run for it. Maybe you might get a car flicking its lights at you, but without slowing down a bit. This also means: I've seen you but I won't slow down, so run, now! The rule on the streets is quite easy: be biggest and strongest always gets right of way.
- it's normal that security men, police men or other workers standing on the street greet you with a friendly "buenas dias" when you walk by. By day three I am greeting them before they get to greet me :-)

And now a couple of anecdotes from my working life: 

- you think our internet is slow? Actually it is fast! Oh and the EuroSDS is getting on your nerves? After a couple of days here I love it! Practical action does not have any common server or folder for all its documents or pictures. Everything sits on the intranet. And because the internet is sooooo slow it takes you about 10 minutes to look at 5 pictures, and then half an hour per picture to download them. Oh yes you learn patience here!
- I noticed that, on their website, Practical Action (here they are called "Soluciones Practicas") does not have a page dedicated to their flood resilience project, rather all the documents are scattered over the whole website. As flood resilience is one of their key projects I was rather astounded and asked for the reason. Well, 10 minutes later we had discussed where the flood resilience page should be and what it should look like, and half a day later we had it! Wow no legal feedback needed, no long approval rounds. If everything goes so fast here I'll get a lot done ;-)

Tomorrow I'm going to the "field", I'm going to Chosica, a place in the greater Lima area which was very badly effected by the heavy rain falls and subsequent flooding in March this year. My job is to speak to people and take photos - that sounds right up my alley :-)

Apropos photos: I know, I know, I still haven't posted any here, But I plan to take some at the weekend and then you'll soon see where I work and where I live. But a couple of words to where I live: it's a beautiful little guest house with 3 rooms and 2 studios. In the top part, where I live, we have our own kitchen and living room area. I share this with a German girl (who's been here for 2 years, which is most useful I can tell you) and a Swiss guy (who's also been here for almost 2 years). Both very nice and very sociable - and after speaking Spanish the whole day at work I am quite glad to be able to speak my "own" language in the evenings.

Oh no - I have written so much again! Well I'll stop now :-) But you'll here from me again, next time with photos!