Goose-stepping for Peru...

Trip Start May 18, 2007
Trip End Jul 28, 2007

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Flag of Peru  ,
Thursday, June 7, 2007

One of the most bizarre days of my life...

Thursday was "Dia de la Bandera" in Peru, which is Flag Day, celebrated in honour of Francisco Bolognesi and other Peruvian soldiers who valiantly and heroically fought in the Battle of Arica against Chile in 1879. To make a long story short, the heroic Peruanos lost to the 7000 nasty Chilenos. In that war, known here as the War of the Pacific, Chile took away Bolivia's access to the Pacific, effectively land-locking it (still is land-locked today), and took away a significant piece of land from Peru as well. Peru has never forgotten...

So - Flag Day. Our school prepared days in advance, with every child making their own little paper flag (two red stripes on the side, with a white stripe in the middle: the Canadian flag without the maple leaf...). The program for Flag Day was supposed to be as follows: normal lessons from 8 (or 8:30... remember, this is Peru...) to 10, marching in the "school yard" with the flag and to the sound of the national anthem from 10 to 11:30 (yes, 1.5 hours!), then lunch, and the end of the school day.

The teacher specifically told me to be there promptly at 8am, so classes could start with me teaching Fractions to the Grade 3 kids. I didn't have the heart (or patience?) to explain to her a fact that she already knows: I come on the GVI bus, and I don't control what time we leave, but it's always 8am, and we ALWAYS get to school around 8:20. So Flag Day would be no different...

8:20 Thursday morning, our little GVI bus (driven by our wonderful chauffeur Rene) drops us off at our school. Hardly any of our kids are there! Those who are, however, are clean, shiny, and dressed in their best school uniform. So much so that it becomes difficult to put a name to the face - up until now, I've remembered several of the kids' names based on what they wear every day... Our kids are thrilled to see us ("las profesores! las profesores!"), and it's obvious that little teaching will actually occur on this day.

The two Peruvian teachers show up at 9am, all dressed up in their Sunday best, and accompanied by another teacher who takes it upon herself to start combing the children's hair, and in several cases, giving them haircuts. Hum... that's interesting. It seems that Flag Day is used a bit like a "Spring cleaning" day!

By 9:45am, we (the volunteers) are wanting to feed the children something, before their expected 1.5 hours of marching around a basketball-court-size cement field in the hot sun. The teacher had insisted the day before that we should feed the kids, but it seems that she's now more focused with getting them lined up for the raising of the flag and has forgotten the time. That's OK, the kids are also more concerned with the flag than with eating.

At about 10:03... give or take a few minutes, all 22 kids are outside the school in the very hot sun, standing at military attention (kind of...), listening to their teacher telling them about Francisco Bolognesi, who died a hero in Arica. The flag is raised, to the sound of several anthems and military marches played on a small CD player 20 feet away in the classroom.

Peruvians, in case it wasn't already clear, are extremely proud of their heritage and history, going all the way to pre-Inca cultures, through to colonial times and modern day. They should be, their history is very interesting, and they do have much of which to be proud. So it's no surprise that the teachers and children were taking Flag Day so very seriously.

Once the flag was raised, we walked down to the "cancha", or exercise field, where the teachers proceeded to get the kids to line up, once again invoking military commands ("¡Atención!"). The scene reminded me very much of old M*A*S*H* episodes where Frank Burns (the teacher) would try to get Hawk-eye, BJ and the rest of the unit (the kids) to do anything military... The kids finally lined up, and carrying a real flag and each of their little paper flags, marched proudly around the cancha. Twice. This being Peru, the CD player didn't have batteries (no one had planned for that), and therefore there was no music to march to.

Then the teachers lined up in front of the kids, and led them into another circuit around the cancha. Once.

The volunteers, all 3 of us, were asked to join the teachers. So there we were - a British, an American, and a Canadian, holding little paper Peruvian flags, and wearing our GVI T-shirt of dark khaki, marching Peruvian-style around the cancha, followed by 22 kids doing the same thing. We marched around the cancha one more time.

Marching like the Peruvian army is very similar to goose-stepping. You take a very stiff step, and raise one leg straight up in front of you, without bending your knee. With our coloured T-shirts, I thought we looked like a very weird version of the Hitler Youths... but who am I to judge?

The whole march took a total of 7 minutes - yes, far less time than it took me to write the above description. The important part was to (1) have a sense of humour about it and smile, and (2) respect the fact that for everyone in Peru, this is a very important day, and our kids thought it was very significant. A hard fact of life for our little kids is that they are, to some extent, "pariahs" in their own country. They live in an area that was "invaded" (not my words, but the words of several Arequipeños with whom I've talked) by their families who just took over some empty land. So any opportunity for these little kids to be part of something bigger, and be proud of who they are, is very important, and definitely worth celebrating.

In the afternoon, the Peruvian teachers had decided we should all (teachers and volunteers) go out for lunch at a local "typical" restaurant, called Cecilia, which serves exclusively dishes of the Arequipa area. The main dish served there is called "chicharrón", which is essentially a heart attack on a plate: pork under all its possible forms, including marinated, roasted, greasy, and just plain ham, along with potatoes also under all their possible forms. I chose to have another local dish, called "rocoto relleno", which are stuffed peppers with "potato cake". The peppers are very spicy, and stuffed with a mixture of pork meat - very delicious, I must say.

There was beer flowing, as well as Inca Cola and Coke, and then there was live music, to which most of the others danced. I begged off, and left mid-afternoon, as I had to come home to prepare for the Colca Canyon trip and do a few more things. It seems that a good time was had by all as the rest of the group didn't get back til about 6pm!

I did go for a short walk in the Plaza de Armas. It was the Corpus Christi Catholic holiday ("Body of Christ"), and as a result, there were a few things going on in front of the cathedral. The roads were closed to motorized traffic, and groups of students from local high schools and colleges were busy putting final touches to large, very colourful mosaics laid out on the ground. All the mosaics had a religious theme, and were very beautiful. As I walked around, a stage was set up in front of the church, and soon, a priest was preaching loudly on the PA system. That's when I chose to walk back towards the Casa Avila, where I ran into my house mate Chris, and we walked home together.

An eclectic, somewhat strange day filled with new experiences. Awesome!
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