Our farewell dinner at Cala, a seaside restaurant in the Barranco neighborhood, was our last hurrah after 11 days of jam-packed learning, observing and sightseeing. Not since my days in summer camp had I spent such sustained time with a group of people I had just met. (Although we technically met in Washington, D.C. in January 2020, our original membership had changed.)
Whitney and Tiffany kindly gave out playful certificates to each of us. I received Most Likely to Write the Next Lonely Planet Peru because I was always citing something I had read in my guidebook. We went back to the hotel, tired and happy, if also sad that our time was coming to an end. A few people had to leave at 3 a.m. to make it to the airport for their morning flight home. The rest of us had plans to continue our explorations of Peru. I went with a group to Cusco, where we would spend the next few days visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. We hope to continue our relationships and even floated the idea of a reunion in Florida next year. Hasta la proxima vez mi amigos.
This was my favorite school, partly because I had relaxed enough to talk directly with students, rather than just observing, and partly because the students spoke English so well. I had sat next to English teacher Anny Salazar Cordero during a bus ride the day before and she impressed me by asking if I had seen what I expected to see and whether there was something in particular I wanted to observe. I told her I was interested in whether girls were pursuing a college education and she told me that the public universities, which are free, are extremely competitive. A student could be the valedictorian and still not be admitted to university.
So I was pleasantly surprised when two of our tour guides, Nadia and Maryori, told me they planned to study law and psychology, respectively, in university. While Peruvian schools only require two hours of English instruction per week, Dora Mayer School has an English club. Members printed business cards with their name and email and the school's logo and handed them to visitors. The former club president, Gabriel Flores, served as master of ceremony for our welcome. He will be attending Columbia College, a private art school in Chicago next year where he plans to study film.
With our time coming to an end, we spent the morning in the hotel meeting room debriefing our field experience. Using such sentence starters as "Experiencing _____ inspired a new perspective because ______" and "Before my time in Peru, I thought _______, but now I think ______" we sought to deepen our understanding of what we have seen. We made notes of our memories and thought about how we will craft the stories we will tell when we return home. We revisited our guiding questions and tried to answer "What outcomes did you find?" and "What do you still wonder?" Whitney Hough, our deputy project director, and Tiffany Hwang, our program coordinator, walked us through our last steps in completing our field experience and what resources will be available to us as alumni.
After this, we had time on our own to pack for Friday's departure, or to sightsee. I decided to walk to the next neighborhood of San Isidro, where an American I met on the plane ride to Peru, told me to visit Park Olivar where 400 year-old olive trees brought by the Spanish still thrive. The walk gave me time to contemplate the morning session. It has been strange being surrounded by a group of peers all day, every day. While dinners were on our own, we often went out in groups, as we did this night. Colleague Pedro Trivella of New Jersey had served as our ambassador during most of the trip. As a native Venezuelan, he was the most fluent Spanish speaker in the group and when he suggested we get Venezuelan food, we all got on board. While Los Angeles has nearly every food imaginable, I had never seen a Venezuelan restaurant before and had never tasted the cuisine. I order capacha, a corn pancake filled (in this case) with beef, cheese and plantains. It went well with Venezuelan Polar beer, but the portion was so big I couldn't finish it. Now I am on a mission to find Venezuelan food in Los Angeles.
From front to back on the left: Sara from Portland, Kate from Florida, Adriane from Texas, Agnes from Oakland, and Cassie from Wisconsin. At center is Greg from New Jersey. At right front is me, Avani from Washington, D.C., Greg from California, Paul from Michigan and Kat from Florida. Photo by Pedro Trivella, Asbury Park, New Jersey.
This STEM school greeted us with a band performance and later wowed us with their technology presentation, which included a robot that could disinfect floors in hospitals and other public spaces. Students here have to qualify for a spot. It serves about 200 students in what would be the equivalent of our 11th and 12th grades. There were not many girls in the technology presentation, but I spoke to one girl who was our guide. She wants to attend a university overseas but doesn't know how to go about finding a scholarship. I suggested what another teacher had told me, to go to the country's embassy and ask if they had scholarships. One Peruvian educator I asked said that very few students study abroad due to lack of resources.
Our group was impressed that the school had a 3D printer and students seemed to have individual laptops. My colleague Kate Strein gave a presentation about her school, Jupiter Middle School in Florida, sharing a photo book that she had made and translated into Spanish. Other teachers gave presentations in various classrooms. I handed out pens imprinted with Hollywood High School.
Host teacher Thalia Calderon welcomed us to her school, where we toured classrooms in small groups. I visited an English class where students took turns interviewing us: Where are you from? What is your favorite music? What is your favorite Peruvian food? My colleague Agnes Zapata, gave a presentation on her school, Fremont High School in Oakland, and passed out letters from her students as well as sentence starters so the students could write back.
Out on the school yard, I gave away about 25 comic books that I picked up from my local public library, which was giving them away. These were very popular and I wish I had brought more. Stella Maris has more than 1,000 students in primary and secondary grades. They attend in morning or afternoon shifts. I asked a teacher if older students worked after-school jobs. She said they were more likely to work in the mornings, with their parents, preparing and selling food or snacks on the street. We toured various classrooms, including one that had "practice active listening" and "respect the opinions of others" written on the whiteboard in Spanish, under the gaze of a framed photo of Jesus. We returned to the earlier English room, where the desks had been cleared away so that two pairs of students could demonstrate folklorico dances. By this time, it was about 5 p.m. We were offered tuna fish sandwiches, cookies and tea.
Sunday was a free day, so I returned to Museo Larco to see more pre-Columbian artifacts. We had limited time at the Pachacamac Museum because we were in a group. I went alone so that I could spend as much time as I liked. During the 25-minute drive, the cab driver tried to chat me up, but my Spanish was not up to the task. He finally used Google Translate to ask me what my astrological sign is.
Founded by Rafael Larco Hoyle in 1926, the museum is housed in an 18th century building covered with bougainvillea. As an agricultural society, ancient Peruvians symbolized the celestial world through birds, the terrestrial world through felines and the underworld through snakes. These are seen frequently in their ceramics and tapestries. The museum contains an erotic gallery which depicts ceramic figures in sexual acts, not only between humans, but between humans and the deity and humans and their ancestors (who apparently re-animate in order to fertilize the underworld). It is one of the few museums who have their storage in open display. Visitors can walk through the storage area and see the shelves of objects behind glass.
Lunch was at La Lucha Sanguacheria, a local chain of sandwich shops open from early to late. I had roast pork on a fluffy roll, along with papas fritas y chicha morada, an Andean drink that is consumed nationwide, made from purple corn, fruit and spices, all for about $5.
For dinner, a group of us set out to dine at a chifa, as Chinese restaurants are known in Peru. I was expecting a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian food, but it was standard Chinese.
We toured the ruins of Pachacamac, the deity that was believed to cause earthquakes and provide food to humans who sacrificed virgins to him. Teenage girls were kept in a compound, Palacio de las Mamacuna (House of the Chosen Women) before they were ceremoniously strangled with ropes at the Temple of the Sun. The archeological site is about 25 miles southeast of Lima and is one of the most important pre-Hispanic ruins. It's adobe and stone palaces pre-date the Incas by about a thousand years. The Incas incorporated it into their mythology, but the Spanish destroyed buildings and forced people to convert to Catholicism. We toured the museum before walking the hillside grounds with a guide. There were several school groups in their sport uniforms, which seemed strange because it was a Saturday.
Our school tour was canceled because they had a case of Covid 19, so we took a walking tour of historic Lima, starting from the Plaza de las Armas, where Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro founded the City of Kings as the new capital. (The Incan capital, Cusco, was known as "the belly button of the world.") The plaza is surrounded by the cathedral and the palaces of the government, the archbishop, and others. The cathedral has its own museum, so while the others were taking photos outside, I paid 10 soles (about $3) to go inside. There is the resting place for Pizarro's skeleton and another crypt for his head.
It got even better when we toured the Monastery of San Francisco and its catacombs. The remains are considered the largest and best preserved on the continent, rivaled only by the catacombs of Paris. Unlike Paris, however, these people did not die of plague. They died of natural causes and the catacombs served as the cemetery. In the 20th century, the bones of at least 70,000 people were reorganized and rearranged in geometric patterns.
Above ground, the monastery includes a library of books dating back to the 16th century. It contains some 25,000 volumes, including Bibles written in Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and other languages.
Lunch was at Limana, a modern, courtyard restaurant in the upscale San Isidro neighborhood that serves vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free options. After a mini-slider appetizer made with mushrooms instead of meat, we had perfectly cooked salmon and a sweet potato puree. This was my favorite meal in Lima.
Our morning session introduced the foundations of the Peruvian education system. It is divided into pre-K/kindergarten, who attend 25 hours a week; primary school, who attend six hours a day; and secondary school, who attend seven hours a day, including one hour of tutoring. They receive two hours of English instruction a week. Education has reached 70% of the school-age population. In 2020, when the pandemic forced schools into remote instruction, 72% of students in the capital Lima had internet access; 42% in the rest of the country had internet access. Uniforms are not mandatory, but there is peer pressure to wear them.
Lunch was at Panchita, one of Peruvian super chef Gaston Acurio's restaurants. It specializes in grilled meats served with vegetables, rice and potatoes.
In the afternoon, we visited the American embassy, where we surrendered our phones at the first checkpoint and our passports at the next one. We were given tags that read "escort required" and were escorted into a meeting room. A security officer briefed us on staying safe in a city where 4,000 phones are snatched each day from people on the street and in cars by thieves on bikes or motorcycles. They also warned us to stay away from ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic drink that was originally used for spiritual purposes by Amazonian tribes and is now making the tourist rounds.
We also had a roundtable discussion with principals from various schools in Lima. An interpreter facilitated the discussion, as only a few of us are fluent in Spanish and the principals were not fluent in English. We found we shared many of the same challenges in educating students but agreed to continue the conversation digitally and through a pen pal exchange.
I am a National Board Certified Teacher of English at Hollywood High School in Los Angeles. I also advise the student newspaper, which is an elective class. When I am not teaching, you can find me traveling, hiking with my dog, or doing yoga.
How common is it for girls in Peru to attend universities?
How does their rate compare to boys?
How has the rate of university attendance changed over the years?