Friday, November 20, 2009
First weeks in Peru
Typical traffic scene on La Javier Prado
At times I misinterpret where I am and find myself believing that I’m back in Morocco, and wonder why the call to prayer sounds like thousands of cars honking their horns, or why all of the women are suddenly wearing tight jeans and short sleeve shirts. The Spanish language floating around the streets helps me remember that I’m actually not in Morocco, but before I fully establish my exact whereabouts, which I am conscious of the whole time but only need to clarify, I have to look at my Spanish friend Carlos, who I met in France, and realize that neither am I back in Spain, but that I am in Lima, Peru.
I’ve been in Lima for two weeks, and as I just said, am here with Carlos Alonso Ruiz, a Spanish lifeguard who I met in France on a training camp with the Alcarreño Lifesaving team. Knowing that I wanted to teach swimming and also to start a Junior Lifeguard program in Lima, I had given a general invitation to anyone on the team who could spend a few weeks or months in Peru, helping with the Junior Lifeguard program. Carlos accepted, arrived in Lima a week after I did, and is contributing three months to this cause.
Now is the time to describe how this cause has been defined since we arrived in Lima and how we are pursuing it. I had come to Lima in the hopes of doing two things. The first was teaching swimming to children in the very very low income community of San Juan de Miraflores. The idea was to work through a group called Solidaridad en Marcha, a Catholic solidarity organization that is doing amazing community work in this neighbourhood. Mike Taylor, one of my college roommates, first connected me to the group. Mike is down here undergoing his religious formation, living and learning with a group of young men from around the Americas, and Solidaridad en Marcha is basically the charity branch of their Catholic order. Besides a few visits with the organization and a local pool, this swimming project has made no progress. One of the major issues is funding, because we would have to pay for transportation to and from the pool for the children, as well as pay for use of the pool, and probably swim suits as well. The cost, however, isn’t what deterred me.
The main issue, I see, is the sustainability of this project, which is doesn’t seem to be possible unless I return year after year to keep it going. I can reason this, however, by realizing that we would be giving the children an incredible summer experience, which is the opportunity to learn how to swim, and that we don’t need to look much beyond this summer. If things fell into place a bit more fluidly with this project, I think that I would pursue it for this very reason, but they haven’t.
Before arriving in Lima, Carlos and I had connected via email with Luis Hermosa, the president of the Peruvian Volunteer Lifesaving Association, and shared with him our idea of beginning a Junior Lifeguard program. Awaiting for Carlos to arrive before meeting with this group, I had made several other contacts during my first week in Lima, including Aida Davis, a stellar 60 year old stud of a female swimmer who runs the Open Water section of the Peruvian National Swimming Federation. She has close ties with the lifeguards, and I immediately smelled something fishy when she had no idea who this Luis Hermosa was. Things seemed even more out of wack when every other person I asked had no idea of this organization, and all clearly explained to me that the lifeguards in Peru were run through the Police Department. Luis Hermosa, however, said that he would pick Carlos up from the airport with me, and given that I was still curious to meet the man and delve into the legitimacy of his association, I decided to attempt a double wammy of a free ride from the airport along with an uncompromising meeting.
Luis Hermosa and I met at the airport, and I was given specific instructions to stay waiting in the departure hall holding a white handkerchief to my nose at 11am. He would do the same, and in this way we would recognize each other. When he told me this I laughed, making a comment about using cell phones, but ultimately agreed and was even excited to see if his master plan would work. It did, and as we spent the next half an hour or so waiting for Carlos I began to probe my way into the mysteries of this Peruvian Volunteer Lifesaving Association. What I found was that every time I mentioned the Police Department and their lifeguards, Mr. Hermoza did one of two things: he either changed the direction of the conversation, completely bypassing any question or comment I had made, or he directly criticized them in a way that was reminiscent of how a jealous teenage girl would talk about her ex-boyfriends new girlfriend. It became clear that some part of his story was not legitimate. But before I could explicitly figure it out, Carlos arrived, tan as all hell from his past 10 days at a lifesaving competition in Brazil.
Aida Davis, Carlos and I after the San Lorenzo Swim
From the airport, Mr. Hermoza took us out to lunch where we continued the conversation. There was no opportunity, however, to explain to Carlos that this man may be a complete fraud. Neither did I have any concrete evidence, or I didn’t have any until the end of our lunch when I received a phone call from El Comandante Ramos, the Chief of the real Lifeguards.
Aida Davis had given El Comandante Ramos my phone number, and he immediately called to warn me of Mr. Hermosa. I stepped out of the restaurant when my phone rang, and was able to talk and get the details of this illegitimate volunteer lifesaving association (and by the way, there is nothing volunteer about these lifeguards- they are all paid). Basically, Mr. Hermosa was kicked out of the Police Department years ago for misconduct, and after starting the Peruvian Karate Federation (and he supposedly holds a black belt in Karate, something he is obviously very proud of given that he repeated this fact numerous times), he decided to move on to Lifesaving. Recently he has begun the Peruvian Volunteer Lifesaving Association, which basically consists of poorly training lifeguards and then sending them to Spain, gaining a commission out of the process.
Rookie school for the lifeguards. Day at the pool.
The Pacific Dolphins. Logo of the Peruvian National LifeguardsCarlos remained totally oblivious to this whole story until I found an opportune moment to share the news. At this point we were sitting on the couch of Mr. Hermosa's house, which Carlos still insists smelt like dirty feet, although I didn’t notice, but that is probably because I was so caught up in unravelling this fascinating story. When Mr. Hermosa left the room for a minute to talk with his daughter, I spilt the real deal to Carlos, insisting that we had to find a way to leave the apartment and this fraudulant man. If it weren’t for the smell of dirty feet I’m not sure that Carlos would have believed me and agreed to leave so hastily, but he did, and we left with some random excuse. We haven´t seen Mr. Hermosa since, although we did receive a menacing email from him.
The following day we met with El Comandante Ramos at the Lifeguard Headquarters and had an awesome first meeting where we were fed ceviche, left mildly drunk off of pisco sour, and got full support for the Junior Lifeguard program that we are organizing. In that first meeting and tour of the Lifeguard Headquarters, I saw a world of possibility open and was easily able to envision the program not only for this summer, but also for its future. During this past week Carlos and I have been meeting with some of the Lifeguard Captains who are helping us with the organizational details, but as it stands, the program should begin on January 4th and continue for the following four weeks. If the program does well, and we all believe that it will, then it will continue next year, run by the same lifeguards who are helping us with it this year.
Lifeguard demonstration for the media.
We've also been working with the lifeguards during the training camp they are currently completing. It lasts three months, which is really long compared to my 12 day rookie school, but theirs is so long because they basically spend the entire first month learning how to swim. In the end they finish well trained and share an incredible sense of civic duty, and we have been overly impressed by their program. What they are is missing, however, is previous ocean experience. Like I said earlier, the lifeguards are run through the Police Department, which means that they are all policemen and women. Becoming a lifeguard is a change of position within the Police Department, but it doesn’t mean that they are good swimmers (which is kind of important for a lifeguard). This Junior Lifeguard program could be the direct step to building a stronger level of ocean swimming and general lifesaving principles for children that may very well become policemen and lifeguards in the future, with the added benefit that the program is simply an awesome and amazing experience for young people to have.