Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Just Another Crazy Night

(Motupe, Peru)

I used to joke about it when I lived in Honduras with the Yueng family. When their friends from Canada would visit and ask in awing wonder, "How much does it cost to live in the hills and who lives there?" Monica, the mother, would chuckle in reminiscence of how in places like Canada or the United States, the rich would pay fortunes for the scenic view, but in Tegucigalpa, like it is here in Lima, it is the opposite. It is the marginalized poor that live on elevated land, in places where one would call, shantytowns, slums, or just places asking for more inhabitable conditions.

He approached me one day while I was sitting in the boxing gym. Ricardo Espinoza, a social worker whose dream was to see the betterment of his neighborhood. He invited me and a Cuban boxing coach to see where he planned to establish a boxing program to dissuade youth from the growing influence of drugs and alcohol. It was about an hour and a half bus ride from the familiarity of the national stadium. Dust clouded into the air as the paved road disappeared into a bumpy dirt path. The closer we approached, the more it appeared that the area was currently under construction, only that "currently" didn't really apply. It was just the way it was. And sure enough, we were going upwards.

Ricardo brought us to what appeared to be his home and I immediately noticed about a dozen children obediently sitting in chairs, all wearing a football (soccer) uniform stamped with the phrase "Acad. de Futbol de Menores Si. De Drogas No" (Academy of Football of Minors Yes. Of Drugs No) written on it. Each child came up, introduced their name and age, then shook our hands. One boy then came up and handed me a plate. Chicken and potatoes covered in a savory sauce. As the rest of the boys began receiving their plates, I noticed that theirs only included potatoes. They ate like they hadn't eaten all day, but earlier Ricardo had asked them how many had eaten breakfast, and judging by the absence of raised hands, it probably was their first meal.

Afterward the coach began giving a speech about boxing, intermixing mood raising questions of who wanted to learn how to defend themselves, who wanted to be a future champion and interestingly enough, noting the importance of knowing your family background. But the core of the speech laid in one topic: about what it takes to succeed in the sport. Of course he discussed the characteristics of determination, sacrifice, perseverance, and so on, but the main reason was to advocate the abandonment and avoidance of drugs and alcohol. He kept saying how one needed to stay away from them to find success, how in becoming consumed by them, you would disappoint your family and yourself.

We later walked around to possible sites to where a boxing gym could be built. In my honest opinion, the scarce bareness of the land didn't offer much hope. But the kids didn't seem concerned. They seemed more interested in my ability to speak English and Chinese, began asking me to translate words in both languages, asking me what the United States was like, if there were neighborhoods like this one. I wanted to say yes, because there is poverty in the US, but to these levels? I don't really know anymore.

I hate to say that this story is beginning to sound like a broken record, that I've already been to so many places suffering from the same ills of poverty that I can no longer, nor have ever been able to, discern whose story deserves more attention. But what I have never been able to get my head around is the state of inequality this world suffers from; how in one moment I am in a place where drugs and alcohol will drag a life into the cold depths of destitution, and in the next, I am working in a place where drugs and alcohol appear to be a common daily occurrence, yet these users' lives are not affected by the same adverse consequences. Nobody seemed to be disappointed in them. Their privilege manages to allow their habits and experiences to be packed away as "just another crazy night".

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