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Stories - Lima & Pamplona Alta

Lima is the capitol of Peru, and its largest city, by far. It has some six million inhabitants, and sprawls over a vast area on the Pacific coast of Peru. Lima is a very nice city with colonial architecture, museums, universities, parks, and landscaping lining the streets. However, surrounding Lima proper are miles of shantytowns, known as “pueblos jovenes” or young towns. The shantytowns are miles of ramshackle huts that climb brown, monotone, arid dirt hills that surround Lima. The only color that breaks through the brown of the towns on the hills is the rare splash of turquoise or pink paint that covers a few of the shacks.

In these shantytowns live millions of people who moved to Lima in the hopes of a better life, the lure of jobs and prosperity overcoming the love of their homes in the jungles or in the mountains. Homes are scrabbled together with wood or bricks or cardboard or sheets of plastic. Some are lucky enough to find jobs. Some make jobs of their own by selling goods on the streets or in make-shift stands. Some may find good jobs and eventually move into nicer homes, but most eek by, barely surviving. Unlike the agrarian societies the people have come from where they could have been largely self-sufficient, there is no way for them to grow crops or raise llamas in Lima’s desert climate, so they are generally forced to rely on Lima’s job market.

According to the BBC news, the official unemployment rate in Peru is only 9.3%. But in Lima alone approximately a “third of the working-age population is without a formal job.” ThirdWorldTraveler.com estimates “only about 10 percent of workers occupy positions on company or government payrolls with protections and benefits, while millions of others work off the books. More than 50 percent of workers are unemployed or underemployed.” Additionally, “Of the 27 million people in Peru, more than half live in poverty, with a quarter eking out an existence on $1 a day. As foreign debt payments eat up a quarter of the country's budget, millions lack running water and electricity.”  The reality is even more dire than the statistics.

Pamplona Alta is one of the shantytown communities skirting Lima, comprised of about 500 families. Their houses perch on a dun-colored hill and trucks bring fresh water to their homes and fill up big barrels for them to use throughout the week. Pamplona Alta, meaning High Pamplona sits on the hill above Pamplona Baja, or Low Pamplona, which nestles in a valley. There is maybe 50 yards of vertical separation between the two. Pamplona Baja, besides being the home of another 500 families, is the site of a large pig farm. Or actually, many small pig farms clustered together. There were maybe 200 pens made of scrap wood tied or hammered together. Pamplona Alta may rise above Pamplona Baja but it doesn't rise above its stench. If you've never been near a pig far, the odor is peculiar and pungent.

Because Pamplona Alta’s location was so unique, the outgoing Doctor I was translating for began an informal poll of the patients. Do you like living here, he asked. I cringed, my nose plugged against the onslaught of the stench, thinking of the tiny shacks with dirt floors and tin roofs perched on the sides of the mountains, with no running water, no electricity. How could anyone like living here?

The first person said she liked living in Pamplona Alta. She loved it, in fact. She liked the weather, the serenity, and the quiet. We kept asking patients, and they kept telling us why they liked it. No one complained about the pigs. No one. Not one person said, I'd like it, but I'd really love running water. There were no qualifiers or complaints. Not even one complaint about the odor. They said they liked it because it allowed them to be close to jobs. Because all of their family and friends were nearby. Because it is much nicer than where they used to live. Only one man said he didn't really like it, but, he said with a shrug, where else could he go? He still didn’t complain about the pigs.

The one question we didn’t ask the people of Pamplona Alta was how long they intended to live there. Did they see themselves living in those houses for the rest of their lives, or did they see themselves saving up, and moving into the wealthier (e.g. less impoverished) districts closer in to Peru, where jobs would be closer, running water and electricity would be the standard. Alternatively, did they imagine themselves living in Pamplona Alta forever, but working as a community to make needed improvements?  At least for one man, the latter was true. He was working to form a council to bring in electricity and running water.