Since Cusco, Abe and I (Michael) have traveled as high as we’ve been above sea level and now met the sea in Lima. We’ve seen old friends from college and met a number of new Peruvian friends from the coast to the mountains to the jungle. It’s been quite a whirlwind. We also are grateful to hear that Matthew made it safely back to the United States and his loved ones, and that Levi has had a chance to start what will certainly be an intensive learning experience–both in medicine and Spanish–in Ecuador. These last few weeks have meant many changes in our group, and for me, it’s meant an acute appreciation of the people I’m spending time with in particular moments and places. Times in Paraguay and Bolivia with Matthew and Levi have a special place in our memories; moving as a somewhat quicker and slimmer duo through Peru has been a fantastic opportunity as well, and we look forward to reuniting with Levi and continuing through Colombia and Central America as a group of three. Now that we’ve left college, we value these friendships even more because we can’t go down the dorm hall to visit. We’re also at an age of life changes when friendships lend continuity.
We left the comforts of Cusco for Ayacucho to visit our friends Emily Kraybill and Nikita Zook on their service portion of Goshen College’s Study-Service Term. Emily’s host family, who previously hosted Jeffrey Moore, Ben Sutter, and Quinn Brenneke, took us in with warm bowls of chicken soup and Spanish vocabulary accustomed to beginner speakers. Many of the extended family members lived close in the neighborhood, including a sarcastically sweet grandmother who immediately tried to line us up with Peruanas. Emily’s parents were true community organizers, living below the school and next the church which they were actively involved. Abe will never forget standing on the roof of the school in light of a full moon, the city of Ayacucho in the valley below, sharing travel experiences and reminiscing about times in Goshen. It was surreal to meet up with friends that we are used to seeing in Goshen in a totally different environment.
After Emily’s uncle biked with us to the city limits, we traveled on to the unofficial avocado capital of Peru: Huanta. We loved staying with Pastor Heber and his two bubbly kids (Mateo y Caleb). That afternoon we had the chance to play 2 hours worth of volleyball with Kendall Friesen, Hannah Bachman, and a whole passel of Peruvian children who were much more into the game than Michael was. Six-foot-tall Abe was in his element. Kendall and Hannah were also on SST service, teaching English and running an afterschool program.
The biking from Huanta to Lima was gorgeous despite 30 km of gravel and stinging gnats to begin. The single-lane, paved road curved along steep cliffs as we moved upstream. Traffic was minimal, but meeting an occasional truck head-on reminded us that we weren’t riding on a big bike trail. The other unbelievable biking experience was coming down from an elevation of 4850 m to 850 m in the course of 4 hours. From being light-headed and cold at the summit to air that felt like warm bathwater near Lima, we coasted through switchbacks and straightaways at 40-60 km/h. Unlit tunnels were another biking phenomenon on this downhill, and the sudden change to brief darkness and the inability to see the ground made us feel at times like we were stopped. Tailwinds, crosswinds, passing trucks, hairpin turns, tunnels, cliffs and bridges all made an impression on us–we doubt we will ever get to bike such a descent again.
A hazy mix of winter clouds and smog from the choking traffic greeted us as we came into this huge capital city. This winter haze, which Lima’s residents promise comes back every year, makes biking or busing around Lima disorenting. When visibility is limited to just a few city blocks, crowds and endless chifa (Peruvianized Chinese food) joints appear suddenly, making us feel a bit like being in a maze. For Abe, the smog took him back to the expanse of Chengdu, China.
We had a warm welcome at the small urban Mennonite Brethren church, the RETO community. A number of members live at the church, and this tight community feels like an extended family. From the first meal on we had great conversations with Pastor Ronald, daycare instructors Silvia and Elicia, university student Alejandra and 11-year-old Juan Luis. Peruvian presidents embezzling money and running to France, Chilean belligerence over sea territories, and what goes well with the Peruvian pepper ají were all part of dinner and breakfast conversations. How people present their own history in their own language adds a subjective narrative and mood to what otherwise would just be cold facts, and so it was great to hear the perspectives of these Peruvian Mennonite Brethren. They took us all around the city, from Surco Viejo, a town square that has managed to keep its smallness even whilebeing swallowed up by Lima, to the Convento San Francisco and the Museum of Congress and the Inquisition. Abe got to try speaking some Chinese in Chinatown and colonial courtyards with elaborate tile reminded Michael of his SST time in Morocco–influence of the Spanish Moors felt halfway across the world in this city founded by Spanish colonists. But this cosmopolitan city has a distinctive Peruvian flair: the most famous painting in the old Franciscan convent is one of the Last Supper with a cuy (guinea pig) spread out to eat on the table.
Along with meeting SST leaders Jerrell and Jane Richer and family preparing to go back to the US, we had the chance to connect with Hans Weaver, a Goshen friend visiting his girlfriend and making business contacts in Peru. He invited us out to the Peruvian jungle past the Andes we had crawled over by bike, and we couldn’t turn down the opportunity to see what this entrepreneur was up to in the rainforest. So we took a night bus out to La Merced and stayed at Highland Coffee, an all-organic jams, jellies, liquor, and coffee company tucked away behind banana, guanábana and cocona trees. Hans did SST service with this company and has maintained connections. Every night buses of tourists from Lima would pull up and be treated to long lines of samples and loud Peruvian tunes on repeat. It was quite the place; one of the company’s highlights is Cafe Misha, perhaps Peru’s most expensive coffee at 95 soles, or around 35 dollars, for 100 grams. This coffee came from beans pooped out by furry little mishasho animals. European specialty coffee buyers are sold on some sort of reaction that goes on in the bright orange dung of the mishasho. Abe and I took it no further than playing around with the little critters.
We got to ride in the back of a pickup to neighboring town Oxapampa and chat with Highland Coffee’s founder, Jose, as well as with Hans about making his own product, Menno Tea, here in Peru. Marketing has taken a different swing in this experimental run; the Lancaster County story of the tea remains, but as the only bottled black tea sold in Peru, Hans promises a té energizante with enough caffeine to wake up any Peruvian bus driver. I asked a few Peruvians what they knew about the tea in a little unofficial research, and indeed, the energizing feature was what they told me. But that’s enough to sell it–sales have exceeded Hans and Niles’ expectations.
Back in Lima, we spent Sunday morning at RETO’s church service, a warm house-church sort of feel with small groups and where everyone knew each other’s names. We are still thinking about what draws together different groups in the Anabaptist tradition from John Roth’s class in Paraguay, and this sense of strong community is one commonality we shared with this group across cultural and linguistic differences.
Michael and Abe