Saturday, April 3, 2010

Salvavididas Junior II - Another session of the Junior Lifeguard program

And the Ceremony Begins!!! The first Junior Lifeguard program ends and we get ready for another.

The first session of the junior lifeguard program ended on February 1st in a very elaborate closing ceremony that included lines of police in full riot gear, lots of marching and standing in formation, the Peruvian national anthem, and certificates with official police seals. I had been working hard and was so dedicated to the success of the program that I didn’t see how much it was valued by the kids, their parents, and all the police at lifeguard headquarters, and it wasn’t until this closing ceremony that I felt how important it really was to all of them. When we were preparing for the ceremony, I felt like they were putting too much importance on something that we see in Los Angeles as a summer camp for kids. Here, however, it was the first time that a group of international lifeguards had come to lifeguard headquarters in Lima since the mid 90’s, and our “simple junior lifeguard summer camp” was respected as a youth training in lifesaving skills. Our last day of junior lifeguards was more than a ceremony, it was a real graduation.

This is our container...our equipment box. I painted it with the help of Chiroke and the wife of El Comandante Ramos. We had it made especially for the Junior Lifeguards

Because of the success of the first program, we were asked to continue with a second session and a new group of kids. I wasn’t quite convinced that we could make it happen- it was hard to find 30 decent swimmers for the first session and we didn’t want to organize a second session if the new kids didn’t meet the swimming requirements (which were same as the first session, 100m in 2min). I was also exhausted. Our daily schedule during the month of January started at 6:30am and usually ended at midnight. We were constantly busy, whether it was preparing power point presentations for the following
day, writing lesson plans, creating the instructors manual, getting uniforms, certificates and awards made, or simply spending hours discussing the successes and difficulties of each day and reflecting on the program’s future. We were the program’s founders, instructors, directors, and coordinators all at the same time. And on top of this we were organizing the Dia de Travesias, a day of open water swimming competitions in Lima. This being said, you can understand why it was hard to imagine doing this all over again and why we were looking for a bit of repose after the first program ended. The second session didn’t really concern Carlos, although he is invested in the program’s longevity and thought that a second session would help this, but Carlos was going to return to Spain two days after the start of second program, and I would continue alone. I ultimately agreed to instruct a second program if enough kids met the swimming requirement, and left the swim test in the hands of El Superior Andres. In hindsight, this passive attitude of mine seems rather silly, because the second session was almost more miraculous than the first, but I swear that it was just my fatigue that had gotten to me.



To escape from our busy schedule in Lima, Carlos and I returned to Lobitos, a surfing and fishing village 18 hours north of Lima. We arrived on February 3rd and went directly to Gustavo’s house, a small shack of a home that we had stayed in during our previous visit to this surfer’s paradise. Aside from Gustavo, we were accompanied by a 20 year old rasta Argentinean from the mid to upper class of Buenos Aires who had recently found out that his girlfriend was pregnant with his child, and a crazy Italian who has spent the past 11 years of his life on the road in search of perfect waves and who was presently bitter because he couldn’t get in the water due to a seriously bad ear infection. I wasn’t in perfect form myself- I passed most of the ten days we spent in Lobitos swinging in a hammock nursing bruised to broken ribs to health, praying that I would recuperate in time to swim 21 kilometers across the Bay of Lima on the 14th of February. While it would have been great to surf, it was honestly awesome to chill in a hammock for hours each day and have the time to relax. I also did a lot of writing, including my med school application essay, and was able to finish the junior lifeguard instructor’s manual.

The 12ft rescue board. Carlos accompanied me on this board, with a big plastic bin full of snacks and water attached to the front.

After a few days of rest and reflection, which included processing the impact of our first closing ceremony, I began to get motivated about instructing a second session of the junior lifeguard program. I didn’t have cell phone reception, and there is hardly electricity and definitively no internet access in Lobitos, and so I had no way of staying in touch with El Superior Andres to find out enrollment numbers for the second session. The days continued to pass, my ribs were healing, and on the bus ride back to Lima, Andres told me that 20 kids had passed the swimming exam and that we would go ahead with a second session. To me, this was a perfect number. Most of the kids from the first session never wanted their program to end, and continuously asked if we could prolong the course through the remainder of their summer. Having 20 kids that passed the swim exam allowed enough space for ten to fifteen of the kids from the first session to continue with a few more weeks of instruction. I saw that allowing the dedicated junior lifeguards to continue and act as leaders during the second session would benefit the group as a whole.

The finishers of La Ruta de Olaya...21 km across the Bay of Lima

After swimming 21 kilometers across the Bay of Lima in 5 hours and 14 minutes on Valentines Day, the second session of the junior lifeguard program in Peru began at La Comandancia de Salvataje en La Costa Verde de Lima on Monday February 15th at 9am. Even before our first buoy swim I noticed that something was different about this second group of kids. During our baptizing bano de la foca, or “seal swim”, where we drag ourselves across the sand and into the ocean, the group was much keener about reaching the water’s edge than the first group was. And during our first buoy swim we didn’t have to help so many kids past the surf and around the buoys. Likewise, the few kids that were scared of the ocean progressed towards a more friendly relationship with the sea in just a few days, something that took weeks for few scared ones in the first group. In general, the kids of the second session advanced towards a relatively high comfort level with the ocean much more quickly than the kids of the first session.

CPR with Chiroke

It wasn’t that the 20 new junior lifeguards were much better swimmers, or that they had spent more time in the ocean than the 30 kids from the first group, but it was the fact that there were 10 to 15 kids from the first group that continued with the program and led the novices into the water. I saw it as creating tradition, or even culture, because what I experienced was that a group of people were suddenly doing something that they wouldn’t do if it weren’t for the fact that their entourage was taking part in the practice. From the first day, a large group of the kids already felt comfortable in the ocean; they knew how to get in and out of surf, they understood what a buoy swim was, and they simply weren’t afraid of the ocean. This was the ocean tradition that we had created during the month of January, that we saw being practiced in February, and it was a shockingly beautiful image.

The awards ceremony at the end of the second junior lifeguard session. Somewhat less dramatic than the first ceremony, but equally powerful. Here, I'm with Carlos Castaneda y El Comandante Ramos

Like I said before, Carlos was only present for the first two days of the program, and from there on I was helped by a rock solid group of instructors: Puca Puca, Anita, and Chiroke. Puca Puca is young, sassy, and always had a lot to say. Anita is a sweet young mother that consistently told me to sit down while I was on crutches. Chiroke was the man; a paramedic lifeguard, father of two, and more kind and considerate than the friends I met in Yemen. We all worked well together, and having Chiroke there to do the first aid and CPR lectures was a real treat.

Max, Chiroke, Ana and Puca. The rock solid group of instructors.

The program lasted three weeks, from February 15th to March 5th from 9am to at least 12pm, Monday thru Friday. About eight kids were only able to participate in the first two weeks of the program because their schools began on Monday the 1st of March. Another chunk missed their first week of school to finish the program, and like I said before, of the 35 kids in the second program, 20 were novice junior lifeguards, and 15 had taken part in the first session.

Giving the results of the OCEANMAN

Making good use of the boards....doing a Taplin relay.

Thanks to the consistent persistence of El Comandante Ramos, another quality that made this program different from the first was that the insurance company La Positiva donated 10 rescue boards to lifeguard headquarters, and the junior lifeguard program had full and even primary access to them. It was awesome. We went from having 2 boards and 30 kids, to 12 boards and 35 kids. Because of this, we used these rescue boards every day and the kids have developed a love for paddling. La Positiva also donated uniforms to the junior lifeguard program, which basically took away the only cost we had to run the program.


Carlos Castaneda...completed the OCEANMAN 3 times!!!

I organized an Oceanman as a final exam on the last day. It was a 400 meter swim, followed by a 1500 meter run, and ending in a 400 meter paddle, all continuous. We had three heats of kids, and there were a number of them that completed the event twice. Because we had the closing ceremony of this second session scheduled for that same afternoon, many of the parents were present, and the event was a perfect way for them to see all that their children had learned and how strong they had become during the past three weeks. Carlos Castaneda, who won the award for best athlete, did the entire oceanman three times. He had the champion time after the first round, but was then beat by Luis Ramirez in the second, and so completed a third round in an attempt to regain his title. He could have won if he hadn’t gotten slaughtered by a set of waves as he entered with the paddleboard, but his determination was an inspiration to us all.

Luis Ramirez. Champion of the OCEANMAN

Both sessions were a huge success, and the next step is to think about the future of the junior lifeguard program in Lima. El Comandante Ramos talked about using experienced junior lifeguards as part of a civilian volunteer lifeguard force that could work alongside the “real lifeguards”, and in exchange for their service, they would receive university scholarships. All firefighters in Peru are volunteers, and there is a similar government sponsored program in place for student firefighters. It will take a lot of work to put this project together, but I see it as a real possibility. Plus, I honestly believe that many of our junior lifeguards are just as capacitated as the actual police lifeguards and would do a great job working at the beach.

No hesitation. Going right into the water.

The second set of future plans is to continue with the aspect of international cooperation and cultural exchange that has been a major part of this year’s program. I would like to see foreign instructors in Peru every year, from the US and/or from Spain. I would also like to see if a few junior lifeguards from Peru could come to L.A. and take part in the Junior Lifeguard program there, living with a host family for the summer. Likewise, it would be great if a few kids from L.A. could come to Peru and become salvavidas junior for summer. Many details will have to be figured out, including funding, responsibility, and the fact that the northern and southern hemisphere’s summer vacations don’t exactly line up, but the idea is great, or at least we think so.

Photo of the second group of Junior Lifeguards in Lima. Los Pequenos Delfines.

Here is the photo presentation from the ceremony of the second was really funny, but you may have had to be with is to get the real laugh.

The progress we were able to observe between the first and second sessions of the junior lifeguard program was an immediate example of creating an ocean tradition in Peru. I’ve previously written how most Peruvians have a relationship with the ocean that is based on fear of the unknown, and that they constantly talk about “el oleaje anomalo” as if the ocean could rise up at any time and swallow them whole. The kids from the first program lost much their fear of the ocean through learning ocean science-in and out of the water- and were able to transmit this to the second crew of junior lifeguards. They exchanged fear for respect, and I can only believe that they will also pass this knowledge to their friends and family.

Crutching across the sands of Puertro Viejo...our field trip to the beach

I hope to return next year. I promised the kids, and I can’t go back on a promise. I want to be a leader, an example, a friend and a role model for this group of 60 teenagers, and believe that consistency is the key to long term effectiveness. And because I can and want to come back next year, I believe that I will. I should also mention that Carlos is planning to return as well, for many of the same reasons. For now, I am forever thankful to all the people that have helped to make these two sessions of the junior lifeguard program possible. For the past few years I have been envisioning the junior lifeguard program abroad, and can honestly say that the success of this project has been a dream come true.

My going away party at the sad to go home...or back to Spain.

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