One of my biggest frustrations with the Peruvian culture lies in the reality of (lack of) safety. I’m not just talking about the lack of seatbelts or the common transit/pedestrian dangers of daily life. I’m talking about the daily dangers surrounding each woman – and likely not just Peru, but presumably all of Latin America. Now that I’m about to leave, I feel like I can comment on it a little bit (without hopefully freaking out my parents too much!)
It’s hard not to be a bit paranoid here. Whenever anyone asks me where I live, I get the gasp and the “Oh, no, you shouldn’t be living in that neighborhood, it’s so dangerous!” Parts of my neighborhood are notorious for murder and gang problems, but fortunately I live in a “nicer part of the ghetto” as it’s affectionately called. I chose to forego the comfort of an apartment in Trujillo for the many benefits of immersion– in order to truly get to know the community for work in public health, I wanted to become a part of it. It worked out well - my living arrangements have been excellent – complete with wireless internet, my own bathroom that now has hot water(!), great proximity to the clinic, and the best part of all… an AMAZING family!
Sure enough, once they began to recognize me as a long-term volunteer at the local health clinic, it was clear that my neighbors “had my back” and I really began to feel more like part of the community. True, I still get stared at all the time, but I certainly feel safer walking around my community. During the day, the main worries are robberies. Peruvians are constantly looking over their shoulders as they walk. Don’t talk on your cell phone outside of the house- someone will run by and snatch it. Don’t carry a purse unless you absolutely have to. Avoid certain streets that are notorious. Don’t sit near the door to the public transportation- someone may run up and grab your bag. Don’t use the bridge unless you have to- they wait to rob you there. Lock the house 3-4 different ways.
Many Peruvians in my neighborhood are terrified to leave their homes at night. I’ve become much less social at night, simply because it’s not safe to go out. If I want to go play soccer at 8pm in Trujillo, by the time we finish, the public transit will have stopped running and I’ll have to take a cab by myself back to La Esperanza at night. It was frustrating at first, but now I’m used to it and instead use night hours to either work from home, spend time with my host family, or read and drink tea ☺
|La Esperanza is working to improve the crime situation|
Trujillo and many other parts of Peru have had an escalating problem with what they call “extortionistas” – basically, groups of thugs who select homes or businesses and threaten them. They demand monthly payments and if they don’t receive the payment, they blow up the home. I’d heard of these groups before but didn’t realize how bad the problem was until about 6 months into my stay here. We were sitting around the table after dinner talking, when all of a sudden we heard a series of extremely loud explosions that were so close they made the house shake. We began running around in circles in the living room, unsure of where to go or what to do. They evacuated the sisters who had been in the back rooms and we huddled near the other side of the house, trying to figure out what was going on without leaving the front door. It was then that my family confessed to me that their neighbors had been having problems with the extortionistas. Just before I arrived in Peru, their neighbors’ house one street away was blown up because they refused to make the payments (fortunately, nobody was home at the time). The house across the street from mine is currently being threatened and the family has been making the monthly payments.
This news terrified me – it was suddenly a much more real threat. I began to worry that these people would see me entering my own home and start to threaten my host family since they have an obvious gringa living with them. Fortunately, nothing has happened, but it’s been a constant worry. On top of that, I’ve had many friends who have been mugged. I know people who have been kidnapped in taxis and taken out to the desert - and luckily somehow got away to tell. Safety is a real concern – whether you’re Peruvian or not.
It’s obvious that God’s watching over me during my time here. I am still amazed that I haven’t even been robbed (knock on wood!) I’ve had a few attempts but have managed to get out of each situation. I have a handful of taxi drivers that I know and trust – as for the rest, I only use taxis as a last resort – and almost never alone. I’d rather it take 30 more minutes but be on some type of public transit where the worst that could happen would be a robbery. I only get into certain types of taxis, and they have to pass the “face” test - Creepy? Bad feeling? Young? NEXT. Elderly man… okay! (Maybe we’ll get in a car crash because he’s half blind, but at least he’s less likely to kidnap me!)
My biggest struggle this whole time has been in how 2-sided my life is. I’m walking in Peruvian shoes for a year, but deep inside I’ve known that come October I’ll be whisked back to my safety net of top quality health services and few personal safety concerns. It seems so unfair that Peruvians, and in particular Peruvian women, have to live in daily fear like this for their entire lives. They are constantly worrying – Where can the kids play safely? Will someone rob the home? Sexual assault? Taxi kidnappings? Extortionistas? Muggings on the street? And it never ends. They say that with the new president Ollanta, Peru should start to crack down on crime…. let’s hope they’re right.
But, safety concerns and all, Peru nonetheless feels like home now – a beautiful place and at it’s heart, beautiful people who I will miss deeply – come Saturday. Can’t believe the year is coming to an end!