Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What has been going on in Peru

YES YES YES. The Junior Lifeguard Program in Lima.
What is going on in Lima? This is a wonderful question, with a series of equally amusing answers, because it was only after two months in Peru that things began to flourish into a series of swimming and lifesaving projects, and it is only after four and half months that I’ve found the time to write about it.

Carlos in an abandoned building in Lobitos, surf town in northern Peru.

The road to the realization of these projects began in Spain, or actually France. It was there that I met Carlos Alonso, whom I’ve introduced before as the Spanish lifeguard/athlete/good brother-friend. We’ve been working/living/doing most everything together since we landed in Lima in early November, having arrived with a few contacts that for various reasons we didn’t use. The people we have met while in Peru, however, are the real deal, and have guided us more than we could have imagined, making possible the progress (and creation!) of our goals.

La Casa de Octavo/nuestra casa en Lobitos.

The best place to begin is with the principal figures in our Peruvian life, because it is with these people that we are working, living and creating. I’ll start with Aida Davis, someone who I’ve previously presented as the 60 year old stud of a women swimmer. Well, Aida has developed into many things besides the amazing athlete that she as: she has become our Peruvian mother, our great friend, and the person who has most helped to connect us with the swimming and lifeguarding communities in Peru.

Hell yes. My sister Juliana came to visit! Here were are at La Catarata Gocta, near Chachapoyas.

Kicking it in a moto-taxi in Talara...very unstable way to travel.

I got in touch with Aida through the Peruvian National Swimming Federation during my first week in Lima. She represents the open water swimming section of the Federation, which as we have been learning, is looking to grow (from essentially nothing). Open water swimming is an Olympic sport, and while the three official Olympic distances are long; 5km, 10km and 25km races, these distances are rarely used except in the few classificatory or international competitions. The sport is really nourished by summer competitions of various distances, where pool swimmers of all ages get a chance to swim in the ocean.

Mercado Mayorista de Frutas, Lima. The central fruit market of Lima. DELICIOUS!!!

Kicking it with Aida.

In Peru, however, neither are there shorter open water swimming competitions nor are there any official classificatory competitions, meaning that open water swimming as a competitive sport hardly exists in the country (and this in a place that has one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world). Another important facet of the story is that without any open water swimming competitions of shorter distances, it is extremely difficult for the youth to get involved and for the sport to grow. Aida has been helping us understand this dilemma while also showing us that open water swimming does exist in Peru, but in a very particular and privileged way.

Aida and Carlos on the kayak. GO AIDA!!!

Patty, Max, Aida, Juliana, Carlos. We swam to this island, 1.8km off the coast of Asia.

A Peruvian priest was the first person who told me about Aida. The priest said “Hay una señora de unos 60 años, aunque no los parezca, que siempre está nadando por allí en el mar. Ha salido por la tele y todo. Deberías contactarla.” Aida is in fact that person the priest said was always out there in the ocean swimming. But she’s not alone, always swimming alongside a group of swimmer cronies. These people make up the swim club Aguas Abiertas Peru, and aside from a group of tri-athletes, is basically the only group of open water swimmers in the country. They complete long distance swims in the ocean, of distances usually greater than 5km, and have invited me on some amazing swims with them. The average age of these swimmers is probably 40 years old and each of their yearly incomes is much much greater than the normal Peruvian. They are a privileged few who enjoy the exercise and peace that ocean swimming brings them.

Getting serious with a dead iguana and a dirty cat.

El Superior Andres, whom we call be his first name Javier, is the man in charge of our Junior Lifeguard program. He deals with all of the official business surrounding the program, which basically means documenting everything that we do and saving it in some sort of official police files (that we still don’t understand but which consists of stacks of blue notebooks). He is also in charge of what seems like most every other project at Lifeguard Headquarters, but specifically takes care of all of the lifeguard vehicles, including jet skis, boats, cars, trucks and tanks. This boils down to a lot of repair, but mostly a lot of time refueling. The man is constantly abasteciendo, or filling the vehicles full of gasoline. The image I have of Javier is when he is walking with his two cell phones ringing incessantly and his arms full of papers and folders. But even within his busy day, he also always finds the time to help us with everything that we need and seems to have made the success of the Junior Lifeguard program one of his priorities (or an order received from his chief).

Here is the Superior Andres

Javier is the man that provides us with lunch every day after work and transportation from the Lifeguard Headquarters back to our home. There are two dinning rooms at the Lifeguard Headquarters; one for the higher ranked officials and another for the normal-Joe police/lifeguards. The food comes from the cafeteria that they call El Rancho, and supposedly what is served in the officials dinning room is of better quality, and Javier always makes sure that we get a table in the officials’ section. We’ve recently moved away from the official’s café and now eat lunch with our fellow instructors in the normal-Joe café, and the food is the same.

The Junior Guards getting lunch in El Rancho.

After lunch, or after finding Javier after lunch (and I still don’t know when he himself finds the time to eat), Javier calls a police car to escort us back to our home. At first I felt uneasy about being escorted around Lima in an armed police car, and then I started to feel slightly proud, as if we were important. Finally we were told that most people looking into the car probably thought that we had actually been arrested, which made me laugh. Now I’m just grateful to have a ride back to our house after every long day under the sun with 30 kids.

Our ride.


El Comandante Ramos, the chief at lifeguard headquarters, has been more than supportive of our project- he has been our number one fan. His daughter Camila is one of our students, which may explain his support, but I also feel like he is genuinely excited about innovative projects that promote lifesaving in Peru, and sees the junior lifeguard program as one of them. The police take their hierarchy very seriously, and my general impression is that whatever the chief says is the final order around headquarters. Having El Comandante Ramos on our side has facilitated most every one of our requests.

Max, El Comandante Ramos, Carlos

Aside from the junior lifeguard program, El Comandante Ramos genuinely cares about all lifeguards. As a police chief, his post is only for a single year, but he has extended his stay for a second to continue with his broad set of projects at lifeguard headquarters. In the time between my arrival in November 2009 and now, February 2010, the facilities at headquarters have undergone a dramatic change for the better. One random thing about life at lifeguard headquarters in Lima is that it seems like every day there is some sort of news group filming the lifeguards.

The boards and the jet-skis, ready for the demonstration.

Getting interviewed by a film crew...this time with on crutches.

They prepare one of their classic demonstrations that by now have me at my wits, mostly because they always end up involving Carlos and I. The demonstration works like this: Ramos orders the lifeguards to take out 10 rescue boards and plant them in rows in the sand. Most of these boards are broken and few lifeguards know how to use the even fewer semi-functional boards. Then they take out their three jet-skis, two of which don’t have engines and act as ornaments on the sand, and one which seems to run with a mixture of diesel, gasoline, and lot of smoke. Next up is the rescue simulation, where two lifeguards act as victims and await for the troops to arrive. The jet-ski arrives first, which was already in the water, and drops off a lifeguard with a buoy. Then two lifeguards jump out of the tower and sprint towards the victims. Then two more lifeguards jump on the semi-functioning rescue boards and struggle their way to the victims. When all is said and done, the two victims have a jet-ski, three lifeguards with buoys and two with rescue boards to save them. I wouldn’t have a problem with this exaggeration of a rescue if it weren’t for the fact that the lifeguards here don’t use rescue boards, jet-skis, or six people to execute a rescue, and giving the public this image doesn’t make sense, especially when they could benefit tremendously from new equipment.

HAPPY NEW YEAR from La Plaza de Armas, Lima.

Lobitos. Northern Peru.

In Peru I’ve been working and living within two different social groups. The first is the lifeguard division of the Peruvian National Police force. Nobody gets rich off of joining the police force in Peru. Their starting salary is 1100 Soles a month ($350 US), and even as they move up the police hierarchy their salary doesn’t rise all that much. Due to this fact, and also that the police only work three or four days a week, almost every single policeman has a second job, which means that they work almost every day of the week.

Carlos getting purified for the new year. I was up next.

The second group that I’ve been hanging with is the open water swimmers of the upper elite of Lima. Aida Davis got me connected to these people, and I’ve grown close to many of them by spending the weekends at Aida’s summer house in Asia, a beach community south of Lima. Going to Asia is like going to a beach resort that could be in any country of the world. When my sister Juliana came to visit and we went to Asia, she said that it was like going to Asia (as in the continent). Everything there is perfect. The houses are all constructed in a similar but very esthetically pleasing style, silence abounds (no cars are allowed within the neighborhood), and everybody has at least one servant, so things are incredibly clean and ordered in every home. Spending my weekends in Asia has juxtaposed my time with the kids at lifeguard headquarters and made me feel like I am moving between two very distinct communities.

Getting ready for a swim in Asia.

On a rooftop terrace in Asia.

I’ve discovered that these two groups, which together represent the spectrum of the Peruvian swimming community, share a similar relationship with the ocean. They both have a relationship with the ocean that is built upon fear of the unknown. They fear that a wave will crash on them in the middle of the ocean, or that an undertow (which doesn’t exist) is going to suck them into the waters’ depths. They always talk about the oleaje anomalo (the anomalous surf), as if there was something completely unknown about wave direction or tidal surge. As a means to demystify the ocean, I’ve taught much more ocean science than I had imagined to both the swimmers in Asia as well as to the junior lifeguards.

Hanging with Ines, trying to get her into the ocean.

All these groups of people came together for a day of ocean swimming competitions that we organized in Lima, something we’ve labeled El Dia de Travesias en la Costa Verde (www.travesiasperu.blogspot.com). With the help of Daniel Montreuil (head of the Peruvian Triathlon Federation), Aida Davis, the Peruvian National Swimming Federation, El Comandante Ramos, El Superior Andres, and others colleagues at Lifeguard Headquarters in Lima, we were able to organize the first day of Ocean Swimming Competitions in Lima. Over 140 participants from 8 to 64 years old representing all economic strata competed in a shorter 400 meter or a longer 2500 meter swim.

In the morning, getting ready for el Dia de Travesias

Awards for the youth male 400meter swim. On the right is Junior Lifeguard Jaime Vivanco

The Dia de Travesias was an opportunity for our Junior Lifeguards to compete in an open water swimming competition with other swimmers, and attempt to win medals and get on the podium. The event was a way to inspire swimmers to overcome their fear of the ocean. It was a way for young swimmers to see older swimmers complete a longer swim and thus set that distance as their goal. It was a truly special event that was a clear and evident example of how to bring together the swimming organizations of Lima.

Since my arrival I’ve embarked on a profound exploration of lifeguarding and open water swimming in Peru and have had the good fortune of being able to organize a related series of projects that all have future potential. The Dia de Travesias (the ocean swimming competition in Lima) was the first of what Carlos, I, and those at the Peruvian Swimming Federation would like to see as a circuit of open water swimming competitions along the Peruvian coast, something that would culminate in the first national championship. The junior lifeguard program was also a huge success (see blog entry Salvavidas Junior), and the first steps are already being taken to ensure its continuation next year. This being said, I hope to return to Peru next year to continue with the set of projects that we started.

Sharing the wealth. Bembos, a burger joint, donated vouchers for el Dia de Travesias. The extra ones were given to the lifeguards that helped and the Junior Lifeguards that participated.

1 comment:

  1. Hello this is the United Nations calling. We are looking for stories of people who are doing innovative projects for peace, before the International Day of Peace, 21 September. Are you still swimming around the world?
    Susan Manuel