At some point or another whether accidentally or intentionally as children we have eaten dirt, haven’t we? I remember one of the joys of play out doors while growing up was making mud pies with my friend and next door neighbor Monica. I would grab one of my grandmother’s aluminum pie pans, dig up the dark soil under the tree to used as the filling, various leaves and berries as seasoning and fruits, then sprinkled the lighter gray top soil on as sugar. Of course I also remember going to the beach with my Dad – burying him under the sand, building sand castles with shells as decoration, and just digging holes until I reached water. These are just a few of the fun memories from my childhood when I’m sure I did indeed ingested some dirt!
I’m sure that you have some similar memories. Guys seemed to love dirt, it was always on your faces, clothes and in your hair. It is still part of all your out-door games…you might have just grabbed a handful of dirt and put it in your mouth, or thrown it at your friends. By now some of you are now creating these dirt filled memories with your own children or are you keeping them nice and clean, and away from the mesmerizing element?
These fond memories are what ran through my mind as I visited Cantagallo, Lima, Peru. A city that most Limaneans don’t even know about (based on my brief survey); although, it sits on the Rimac River and is just behind the Palacio de Gobierno (The Presidential Palace). It is literally less than 3.2km in driving distance from the Palacio de Gobierno.
My friend Carol, a doctor who studies infectious diseases in the jungles of Peru, suggested I visited this town after I asked to go with her on her next trip to the jungle. I thought a trip to the jungle of Tarapoto would be the best way to see how people really live rather than going on a pre-scripted tour for gringos. I figured might fit in as her gofer while she was trying to figure out how to save the world.
Carol informed me that Cantagallo is now inhabited by indigenous people who moved there from the jungle and that a few of them still make traditional crafts. I thought why not? I’ll see and experience something new, another part of Lima, that’s why I’m here, right?
Carol sent an email to her friend Jeiser who would take us there and serve as guide. We decided to go the following day. I Google searched the place before we left, but the only information I could find about this place was on Wikipedia Espanol. The brief paragraph mentioned that Cantagallo was originally settled by 14 Shipibo families in the year 2000, and that it is located between the flower market and the Rimac River, just behind downtown Lima. I knew of the area just behind it the Barrio Altos because you can see it from downtown – a mountain side with shacks of multiple colors scattered all over it and a large cross perched atop.
I assumed that Cantagallo would be very similar to the Barrio Altos that I had seen previously off in the distance.
Matthew and I met Jeiser this past Saturday for our visit of Cantagallo. Jesier spoke Spanish and I was quite proud that I could have a full conversation with him for our approximately 30 minute taxi ride. Jesier is a really friendly guy with a warm smile from Pucallpa – Peru, a Peruvian Amazonian city where the people of Cantagallo are from. He has a degree in Public Health and I think he mentioned he had a heart condition.. that is how he met my friend Carol. Jesier’s sister and his cousins presently live in Cantagallo.
Our taxi pulled up to a dirt field (I found it ironic that Google maps has a green patch to mark this place) with people walking around and kids playing. We then walked up a hill, through a market and finally walked on a thin dirt path lined with square boxes and shanties that make the humble shotgun homes of Coconut Grove, Florida look grand.
We walked into Jesier’s cousin’s house where we were greeted by his sister and his Aunt Fidela with cheerful smiles. This was a very hot day, and it was even warmer inside their house than out so we only visited for a few minutes then continued on our way. We walked through the paths of Cantagallo walking past dirt covered children as Jesier explained the difficulties of life in Cantagallo. I was told that the majority of homes here are made from garbage cans and what looked to be plywood; the electricity is turned off at night (not that I remember anything electrical at his cousin’s house) and that there is no police or presence of law whatsoever. Jesier was greeted by quite a few people as we walked along and everyone was very nice to us and greeted us with hand shakes, hugs and the typical Peruvian kiss on the cheek.
At this point I’m screaming in my head PLEASE DON’T GO! Because this is when I noticed that my dirt path was actually a dirt covered trash path, and Jesier told us that this hill that we were standing on was actually a landfill, and the Rimac River is not pleasant itself!
We could see the trash sticking out the edge of the hill as it approached the trash lined river. We were told that the landfill was filled with all types of hazardous waste, including dead cats and dogs and supposedly human remains. The people are sick for unknown reasons of course related to living on waste, and all types of sexually transmitted diseases are being shared. It seems that lack of electricity and law has also lead to “banditos” (criminals) ruling the town at night- rapes, burglaries, assaults, and who knows WHAT make this an unsavory place to be at night. Later we ran into a few more friends who told Jesier about a friend of his from college who passed-away two weeks ago. They had found his body just laying there..the cause of death was unknown, and more than likely not investigated. It’s dangerous here because there is no law, police, or anything that maintains order here. Even though as I mentioned earlier, the President of Peru sits less than 3km away from here. I found it interesting that in-spite of these inhumane living conditions, the people have prescribed to a discriminatory class system. Here’s the best way I can think of to explain the mentality; I live in Upper Landfill so I’m better than you and my kids aren’t allowed to play with yours. Which is hard to believe because there are approximately 1,200 children who live there and they literally run the place! Why they have decided to put this discrimination structure in to place I’m not sure. Discrimination anywhere is always cruel and demoralizing. I have a few theories; one, it somewhat mimics Peru’s classicist structure; two, perhaps it’s done to others to gain control and power in bad situations; three, just plain lack of education. On another note, one of my friends asked me “why do poor people continue to have so many children?” (more than they can afford). It seems to be a universal commonality among people living in poor situations. My thoughts are that lack of education is the main factor; other factors might be that children having children is usually a cyclical pattern, some of the children are the result of rape (it is illegal to have an abortion in Peru- with the exception of the mother’s life being at risk), and not to be funny but when you have a lack of entertainment – sex tends to be the entertainment. But after experiencing a day in Cantagallo, the idea of growing-up in the Cabrini Green projects of Chicago seemed to be a preferable option. Where clean water, lights, emergency services and a play ground are at least accessible!
Jesier’s Aunt Fidela brought out the jewelry she made and also explained that she could sew Shipbo designs for me. I purchased two necklaces and she was kind enough to give me a bracelet and necklace set that she thought I should have.
During our visit Matthew and I listened to this family speak to one another in what we differentiated as two maybe three different languages!
(Jesier later confirmed that his mother spoke one Amozonian language and his father another so they grew up conversing in those languages and Spanish).
Jesier then mentioned Ayahuasca and that his cousin Cesar knew how to perform the ceremony. Ayahuasca apparently is used by shaman for medicinal and spiritual purposes. It is known to be a hallucinogenic cure-all. Cesar came out with his bottle of Ayahuasca, a bottle of unpleasant looking brown liquid and we spoke with him for a while. I gathered that he had studied to become a shaman for five or six years and had been a shaman for maybe eight years. I’ve never met a shaman so this was quite interesting to me. I asked him what I should do about my migraines, his response was Ayahuasca. The verdict is still out about that; furthermore, from my understanding the ritual is supposed to be done in harmony with nature and in a safe place. Unfortunately, I don’t believe if I do venture off to try this miraculous drug that it will be in Cantagallo.
So you ask, what has the government done to help the Shipibo people who live here in Lima? From what I understand up until this point nothing – but several people have told me that there are plans to build a highway along the Rimac, hence they will be displaced then the government will have to provide them with housing. We shall see. So, you ask why did this group of Shipibo people leave their lush jungle to come to the slums of Cantagallo? Jesier doesn’t know himself. The only explanation he has received is that it’s because they believe there children will have the opportunity to have a better education in Lima. But Jesier says that no one from here has gone to college, they are not teaching their children Shipibo so that they can assimilate into the Spanish world. It’s sad too that they don’t know about the animals, plants and streams in the life filled jungle their tribe come from. They are only learning to survive in a slum.
Meanwhile Jesier who was born in Pucallpa, educated in Puacallpa, has graduated from college, studied in Europe, and still lives and works in Pucallpa. For some reason this particular group of Shipibo have continued dreaming this unfulfilled dream that moving to the capital of their country would somehow make life better.
What I will remember most about Cantagallo is that it was filled with children, laughing and playing just like I did when I was a kid. Like my 11-year-old little sister does now, our god-children do, and as our children and your children will in the future.
There were happy little faces in this place, playing in kiddie pools and shooting Super Soakers in the hot summer sun. There were kids running around playing tag and girls walking around chatting it up. But there were also sullen little faces in this place, walking slowly sitting in corners. All of them happy or sad their faces were smudged with dirt!
Do you remember coming home from the park or play ground – your clothes covered in dirt from playing? I do, I remember my grandmother saying “ooh baby you need to go take a shower, you smell like the great outdoors”.
As we left Cantagallo the last images that remain with me are of two little boys covered in dirt, playing in the dirt park, digging a hole in the trash filled dirt underneath the sidewalk. I remember playing in dirt – all kids play in dirt, if allowed.
Unfortunately, my Peruvian friends remind me that this is Peru, and this isn’t the only slum town here. You can see another one in my friend Ric Francis’ blog titled Golden Slum, which describes an even more profound existence. And the more you really think about it, there are more places like this all over the world. I really don’t know how we would end this epidemic, I’m sure it’s by taking just one step at a time, helping or giving hope.
People always say things like “the world is your oyster”, “you have to make your opportunity”, “I made it out of the ghetto, so can you”; but do the babies born here in this place really have that chance without a helping hand?
I am just asking that you remember how blessed you are. – You just happened to be born to the parents you were born to, in the city, state, and country you were born in. Be thankful for the dirt you played in!
Everyone should be able to play in clean dirt!
If you have the resources to make a difference, please find a way to do so.