In August 2007, earthquakes devastated the small coastal town of Tambo de Mora, located just south of Lima, Peru. This spring break, about three dozen students, myself included, traveled to the town as part of CityScope (4.001/11.004) to learn how we could help its residents.
Our mission was to learn about the people in the area, their problems, and their ideas for recovery, and to find a semester project that will serve their community’s needs.
During our first day in the town, a reality more complex than what I or my classmates could have imagined emerged. The local government was caught in a quagmire of organizations with different scopes and competing interests. Town residents disagreed with many of these organizations’ management of their town’s reconstruction.
A tour of the town revealed an astonishing physical reality: in the disaster zone, tinged by a strange emptiness and marked by an absence of life, you couldn’t tell from the amount of rubble that the earthquake hadn’t happened yesterday.
The initial shock caused me and many of my classmates to question our purpose in Tambo de Mora. Who were we, and how were we, to make an impact without running into a wall of bureaucracy? What power did we have to make our work worth the price of our plane tickets?
We found confidence in our goals as day by day, concrete, realizable project ideas came out of our experiences on the ground and our interactions with individual people.
We helped a group of women start a local materials construction business. We helped find alternatives to sewage-system waste removal.
Some of my most memorable experiences during the trip came out of simple activities in a new place: looking out the window, speaking to people. The ride to Tambo de Mora from Lima kept my eyes glued to the window for four hours.
After spending a day luxuriating in a metropolis, where, in the tourist areas, stores sell Armani and Prada and restaurants serve continental pre-Incan fusion cuisine, the drive took us south for four hours on the Pan-American Highway, through sandy mountains that roll into the distance further than my eyes could follow them, past the occasional hill dotted with a collection of abandoned shacks that formed a ghost town, and by flashy billboards advertising cell phones and “Cristal: The Beer of the Peruvians” to tourists on their way to resorts. (It’s not very good.)
But I didn’t really understand the city until we began to talk to the people.
We talked to the doctor in the public health clinic who took a few minutes out of his day, away from the never ending stream of asthma attacks and upset stomachs, to tell to us about the town’s problems with high humidity and the need for an emergency room in the area.
We talked to Elizabeth, one of the many children in the 300 families who have lived in tents since the earthquake destroyed their homes. She took us from her tent to the tent where her NGO-sponsored dance class takes place. When we arrived, the girls jumped into a full routine. Elizabeth gave me a tour of her community and then followed me on my way back to our group’s bus that took us to and from the town each day.
We talked to a group of gruff community leaders, also from the tents, who told us they had temporary houses from the Red Cross, that they were ready and waiting to put up, but that they could not move without the permission of the mayor, who would not sign the go-ahead documents.
The evolution of the ideas and connections of our whole group interested me even more than the evolution of my own perspective on the trip. Rarely at MIT does any one group connect people from such a variety of backgrounds, including professors of urban studies, masters students in city planning, premeds, and freshmen. Added to the mix were a few students from the Universidad de Pacifico whose class at their school is collaborating with ours.
One night, in the middle of our trip, we drove inland, into the hills, where the green of a lush valley replaces the desert and a botanical garden surrounds an oasis of a restaurant where we ate that night. I forget the name, but I’ve been telling my friends it’s called paradise.
After our tour of the biodiversity of Peru contained in the garden, and before our candlelit Andean cuisine dinner, we sat in a circle around a fire and made toasts to each other, our group, and the people of Tambo de Mora. I think the night made me and many others more conscious of how, despite our disparate backgrounds, in Tambo de Mora our common goals tied us together and motivated us to work. I hope to maintain this sense of social commitment to the people of Tambo de Mora here in Cambridge.
A whole week of swimming in the same waves of cultural encounter as the rest of my class finished off with a stop at the beach, where the waves were wet and tall and salty. I never could have imagined seeing an MIT professor barefoot before, or even a TA or grad student.
But of course, at the beach, what else would an MIT professor, TA, grad student, or anyone for that matter, be expected to do?