It’s almost half a year since I left Cusco, and yet Peru and the experiences I had at LAFF are still a huge part of my day to day life. Let me explain.
In mid September 2016, my partner joined me in Peru and the day after he arrived (from a city at sea level), we hiked up to 4600 metres and did an alternative trail to reach Machu Picchu. Despite ignoring all the (many) health warnings about acclimatisation, he had none of the nasty effects of soroche (altitude sickness) and in fact outpaced me – with a full two and a half months of acclimatisation – for most of the weekend!
We then spent a jam-packed week visiting LAFF’s projects while I finished off my time as Programmes Officer and completed my handover notes. Some of my favourite memories of my months in Peru come from those last encounters with the Sacred Valley Project students at the Calca and Ollantaytambo houses. We filmed them engaging with one of LAFF’s problem-solving workshops and then interviewed some of them about their future aspirations and how SVP and LAFF have contributed to their educational development thus far. Initially, they were shy and giggly, but little by little they opened up in front of the camera. One of them reminisced about past workshops and volunteers, remembering one evening when we spread large mapamundis on the tables and played a game of Capitals. She knew all of them, even those of countries furthest from the South American continent. She said wistfully that ever since a friendly Italian volunteer spent time at the house, she’s wanted to visit Italy, and also New York and the USA. I asked her if she’d like to live or work in another country and she hesitated, smiling, then nodded definitively.
Before we left to take the colectivo back to Cusco, all the girls crowded round to speak into the microphone we were using to record for LAFF’s new promotional video. They told us to come back and visit again. They told us not to forget them. Their smiling faces and hopeful invitation for us to return has stuck with me since leaving Cusco and embarking on another adventure, far away from the Sacred Valley and yet nonetheless very much connected to it.
After spending a full day in Lima airport, we returned to Canada, where I quickly unpacked and repacked my bags, then took a flight to my parents’ back on the other side of the Atlantic. I had a couple of days at home, and then all of a sudden found myself on a seven hour drive down to Cambridge, where my Masters course in Latin American Studies was just about to start. Those were a whirlwind couple of weeks of farewells and departures, but in some ways I feel closer than ever to Cusco, the SVP girls and everything I learned while I was in Peru.
A month into my course, we had a seminar on networks and intellectual property rights in Peru. I enthusiastically signed up to give a presentation, which reflected on the opportunities for Indigenous artisans to take control of their place on the supply chain between producer and consumer. Accompanying my presentation was a series of photographs from community visits with Mosqoy’s Q’ente Textile Revitalisation team, including meeting the Nueva Esperanza weavers’ association in Parobamba and picking up orders from the well-established weavers in Amaru, which is developing its own sustainable tourism network, known as turismo vivencial in Peru.
Mosqoy’s encouragement of the intergenerational transmission of Quechua traditions resonated strongly with me. I took Quechua classes while I was in Cusco, and although I didn’t really progress to a conversational level, I intend to stick at it. Before going to Peru, I was interested in the rights of Indigenous peoples globally, but spending time with LAFF’s partners allowed me to understand issues of participation, bilingualism and interculturality much more deeply.
Another first-hand experience that informed my understanding of and appreciation for everyday life in Peru was Cusco’s Ni Una Menos march. The LAFF team was very active in covering the protest online and discussing how the movement is empowering Peruvian women who have been affected by gender-based violence. We bumped into some of the girls from Casa Mantay on the march and together we chanted “¡No es no! ¡Te dije que no! ¿Qué parte no entendiste, la “n” o la “o”?”
A couple of months after the march, then Communications Officer, Andreas, wrote to me to tell me that the feminist society of Keele University in England had read about LAFF and were interested in fundraising and learning more about how our projects impact young women in Peru. I liaised with Aysha, their Gender Equality Officer, and in a journey that overall involved four different buses and three separate train journeys, I made it to Keele to present on LAFF, SVP and the Ni Una Menos movement. After telling them about the work we do, we all sat down with cakes and cookies to plan a fundraising strategy for the remainder of the academic year. Among other things, they will organise a sponsored walk which will have a symbolic duration; it will represent the number of hours SVP girls are saved walking to school by living in the SVP houses in Calca or Ollantaytambo.
I really enjoyed revisiting LAFF’s fundraising guide, which I presented to members of the Red Semilla group in Cusco back in September. In my role as Programmes Officer, I became especially interested in diversifying our fundraising strategies and developing links with Cusco hotels, restaurants and travel agents to give tourists opportunities to give back to the place they were visiting in some form of ethical, sustainable turismo vivencial. I talked to the manager of a luxury tour company, the community liaison officer of one of the most expensive hotels in the city, and a number of restaurants frequented by tourists. These experiences have informed my academic studies; I am now researching the impact of tourism on Indigenous communities in the Lake Titicaca region of Peru for my final dissertation.
Another opportunity to present on LAFF’s work arose recently, when the Edinburgh University Sustainable Development Association contacted Melissa in Cusco to ask if we would be part of a conference on Sustainability in Latin America co-hosted with the university’s Latin American Society. Although I wasn’t able to get to Edinburgh in the end, I recorded a video of my presentation, which was shown alongside presentations about dengue fever control in Nicaragua and regional environmental co-operation in South America. I particularly focused on LAFF’s key values of fostering participation and partnership, self-sufficiency and independence, as well as quality over quantity. I discussed our commitment to environmental sustainability in the installation of three solar showers at each of our Cusco-based projects, and our growing successes with social enterprises, such as the Mantay leather workshop and the T’anta Wasi Bakery in Ollantaytambo.
Just today, I gave a presentation on Indigeneity and development in my module on Race and Indigeneity at university. I showed a clip from the promotional video that I mentioned earlier and we reflected on the importance of educational provision for girls from Quechua-speaking communities in the Andean altiplano. Like I said, the experiences that I had in Cusco with LAFF are still very much at the forefront of my mind, and they inform my day to day life here in Cambridge
I feel incredibly lucky to be a LAFF Ambassador and to keep spreading the word about the important work we do. While I am currently gaining a different kind of insight into Latin America through my Masters course, above all it is the face-to-face interactions I had with students, local volunteers and Cusco residents last summer that continue to inform and encourage my deep appreciation for Peru and Latin America as a whole.