Christmas Part 3: Show-time at Nazareno

26 Dec 2006 11:04 am

Friday morning just started off in a flurry. We woke up a little earlier than normal to get the last few little things together including cutting the fruit we’d give to the children at the party, organizing everything into what we’d bring and what we wouldn’t, wrapping the Christmas tree in a sheet for transport. By about 8:45am, we were ready to get the main supplies up to the school and put everyone else on a combi to start the 45-minute ride out to Pamplona. Jos hailed a station-wagon cab and, before the driver could protest or even ask what the hell was going on, five of us volunteers had already stuffed the back of the car full of 30 backpacks, balls, dolls, other various toys, all the food and drinks, and, of course, the Christmas tree all bundled up in its sheet like a swaddling, prickly green babe. And off they went to Pamplona as we headed for the combi stop.

A little preface so you can understand the situation. First of all, for those in the Northern Hemisphere, remember we were around the beginning of summer. Basically, the school year ends around the middle of December meaning Christmas and New Year’s are all wrapped up in a sort of summer break that lasts until the kids start the new school year in March. So, we were not only on the verge of Christmas break, but also the end of the year. At the end of every Bruce Peru year, the kids have to take their final exam, their performance on which determines if they will be accepted to a national school and, if so, to what grade. To make a long story short, if they don’t pass, they don’t go to school and much of our work with them as far as their education goes, has been unproductive. A huge disappointment…

Well, the kids at Minas had only started their final exam the day before. Prepare as I launch into a soapbox… Half the kids, when asked if they were ready for their test, sweetly replied, “What test?” This bothered me, to say the least, as this test wasn’t just some ordinary little pop quiz they’d spend ten minutes on during class. Nooooo no… this was THE test that measured the value of our hard work and the future of these kids and for some reason, they seemed oblivious of it.

I wasn’t at Minas the day they started taking the test but Andy and Sean were and they said it was a fiasco. It sounded to me like the kids came in with the giggles and took the test day to chat with their friends or play around rather than concentrate. Clearly, they had no idea of the importance of the test, which was problem number one, and they talked the entire way through it, which was problem number two as they shouldn’t have been allowed to talk at all. On top of this, because they were playing around, many of the kids didn’t finish the test. Over the course of 3.5 hours (longer than the normal day as the volunteers stayed on in hopes they’d finish!) they didn’t manage to finish the test.

Someone came up with the wonderful idea of having them come in at 8:30am the morning of the Chrismtas party to finish it. Because the party would be held at Nazareno, about a 20 minute walk from Minas, the test takers would report to Minas along with Andy and Thaily (the kids’ teacher), finish the test, then walk to Nazareno so we could start the party with everyone there at 10am.

Now, maybe some kids could handle it but these kids were SO incredibly excited about the Christmas parties so there was no way they were going to be able to concentrate on a test when they had gifts on the brain. Yet again, I can’t understand why they knew about a playtime Christmas party months in advance but had heard no mention of the final exam… sigh. Sean called it from a mile away saying they’d never finish it by the time the Christmas party was scheduled to start at 10am. So many of them had too much left to do and weren’t going to be any less chatty the day of the Christmas party when they had so much to look forward to.

Sean was right. Down at Nazareno, the party actually started at 9. That was no surprise as school usually starts at 9 so they just got there the same time, but they were ready to play and celebrate. We told them they’d have to wait until the Minas kids finished their test before we could start the party, so we tried a few activities to tide them over. These included a few games of Twister scribbled on the pavement with chalk and the aforementioned art project of Dennis’ called Ojos de Dios with the yarn and the crossed Popsicle sticks that makes a kite-looking thing.

Twister was a flop. The kids looked at the pitifully scrawled circles and, even with explanation, they couldn’t understand what we wanted them to do with them. Finally, the kids from the national school came over and started playing. We let them join in to get our kids playing but they just weren’t having it. So essentially, we ended up playing about four or five games of it with mostly national school kids and maybe one or two of our kids mixed in. Fun. Great party.

This wasn’t the first time this odd phenomenon of play (or lackthereof) had surfaced. Once Dennis tried to teach the kids at Villa el Salvador to play dodge ball. He lined them all up on the wall and was explaining that you have to throw the ball at people and when they’re hit, they’re out of the game until only one person is left. They didn’t understand and ended up just taking the ball and playing soccer. The same thing happened when I brought my Frisbee. They looked at it like it like I was asking them to toss around a turd and all attempts at organizing a circle to throw was frugal. Basically, the only game these kids have ever really played that has any sort of organization is soccer and half the kids don’t even play that. So when you ask them to join in something organized, they don’t get it and would rather just do their own thing. The national kids were fine with it as they play organized games in school all the time. Very interesting.

So after the Twister debacle, we tried with the Ojos de Dios. Ha ha ha. The problem was that Dennis (or any of us for that matter) hadn’t first tried to make one himself and no one knew how to do it, we just knew what it was supposed to look like. So Dennis tried to teach it but all the kids just ended up with a ball of yarn with a Popsicle sticks poking out the sides. At first they were really proud of their art, marveling at it just because it was colorful. But then they started getting frustrated, wondering when they’d know they’d finished it. Would they just keep balling up yarn the entire party?

After about 30 minutes of balling up yarn, we were losing the kids’ attention. The boys seemed to be realizing they were effectively sewing… decidedly UNmasculine… and few kids had started to get up and run around the classroom. All the while I sat there, frustrated at myself for not being able to figure this simple project out quicker. I kept wrapping, unwrapping, twisting, knotting, and winding until, with furrowed brow, it came to me. I had worked out how to do it and managed to make the little kite-looking thing. While some were long since lost, some of the kids were very impressed, rejuvenating their interest in the project. That’s when Sean came over and reminded me what a crap party I had planned, as if I needed to be reminded.

We played with the Ojos de Dios for another 30 minutes or so. By this time, it was already 10:45 and we hadn’t heard anything from Minas. I was in a state of disarray with all the botched plans and screaming wild, crazy kids with thoughts of presents so thick it may as well have been leaking out their ears. To make matters worse, we had told everyone we were waiting for the Minas kids to arrive before we ate or drank, so half the kids were whining about being hungry or thirsty and wanting to know where their gifts were and all this. Just when I was about to start crying, Andy walked in with Minas kids hanging all over him. Everyone started clapping and sat down to eat our Christmas bread, fruit, and ham sandwiches, and drink our Kool-Aid.

That’s when things started getting good, at last. Laura and Thaily, our teachers, stood up at the front of the class and started handing out backpacks full of goodies like the toothbrushes and toothpastes, a plastic drinking cup, a pair of shoes, and a ball or a stuffed animal. But they didn’t just call a name and have the kid come up, they actually did a little presentation for each kid, saying what his or her strengths were in class and what they’re known for. Like little Angel, one of our favorites, who diligently collects the cups after we eat everyday and Xilary who is best known for hanging all over the volunteers and begging them to carry her. It was great fun listening to all the funny stories from the year then watching each kid, SO excited, give the teacher a kiss on the cheek and walk off marveling at their new backpack.

It was during this hour-long gift giving session that I realized why we, as volunteers, are here. Unfortunately, by this point in the year, I was feeling incredibly frustrated with the lack of appreciation the Organization has for us volunteers. Our hopelessly disorganized attempt at the Christmas party coupled with all this junk about the final exams just really tired me out. But sitting there listening to all the stories we’d made and seeing how excited the kids were, well, I started to understand.

Apparently the kids got it too as the first one started crying right after we’d given out all the backpacks. I caught him tearing up and asked him what was going on. It was Jhon, who is no stranger to tears and sulking, but him crying now was incredibly contradictory to what he was feeling 10 minutes ago and to all the happy cheers from everyone. He said he didn’t want to talk about it but then absolutely burst into tears. I hugged him as long as he would let me, then he went and sat with some of the older girls from Minas, still sobbing.

At last, he started talking. Through the tears, snot, and excessive saliva that inevitably make words sound like gurgles when a kid cries, I couldn’t understand a word he said. The girls sitting around asked him to repeat it, then translated it for me. It came out as, “He says he doesn’t ever want to leave. He wants to spend all his days together with you guys.”

While it made me so proud and appreciated to here him say it, I also got a knot in my stomach. Back when we were feeding Queri, the starving puppy at Villa el Salvador, I wanted to give him all our dinner scraps at one time but everyone said someone who is starving can’t handle so much at first. You have to increase the food little by little or else they could pop their tummies. Sitting there with Jhon, I started to wonder if we’d popped these kids’ tummies. Here they were receiving all sorts of new things from us and enjoying all this nice food and a Christmas tree and fellowship with their friends when they probably wouldn’t receive much at all, if anything, from their own families. I don’t know what Christmas would have in store for them later but, by the looks of it, this party had been more than they expected, almost too much more.

It only got worse as we started talking about the party being over. Suddenly, I was surrounded by crying girls. Shirley started it. She sat next to me and stuck her head in her new backpack and just lost it. At first I tried pulling the backpack off her head but she obviously didn’t want to be seen crying, so I just hugged her and told her we’d be ok. Then I started tearing up, silly as it may sound, me hugging a girl with a Barbie backpack on her head. Then Benedicta came over to give me a hug and she didn’t let go. Maybe she saw me tearing up and that made her give way but she just hugged me and cried into my dribble-spattered Bruce Peru vest. She said she was scared she’d never see us again and that she would miss us over the break. She asked over and over again if we would come back in January and what would happen if she went to a national school. I reassured her we would be back.

The worst was when Yuliana came to say good-bye. This girl is about as gansta as a 15 year old can get, from the way she walks and her fashion sense to her insistence upon ghetto-blasting reggaeton every day at the end of class. She’s sorta the head of her little clique, which is known for caring but acting like they don’t if you know what I mean. They try desperately to put on this Too-cool-for-school persona, so I was only just realizing that they really are sweet girls. She approached me with her normal nonchalance looking as though she would just give me the obligatory check kiss, possibly say thanks, and head for the hills. Instead, she gave me a pretty strong hug and backed away with this stiffened but puffy look on her face. She was trying to hold back the tears, which made two of us, so I told her she couldn’t cry or I would too. In accordance with her gangsta reputation, she took a deep breath to suck back the tears and said she wasn’t going to cry. Whew.

We packed all the Christmas supplies up as the kids were starting to leave… by “leave” I mean loiter around outside the classroom snagging volunteers for their 10000th last hug. I had fully intended to help pack up with everyone but I made the mistake of pulling out my digital camera to take one last photo. Then, all of a sudden, there were 30 kids surrounding Andy and me begging to either be in a photo or, worse yet, take a photo. I could just imagine 300 little ham-sandwich-coated fingers poking the many buttons and smearing the LCD screen on my new digital camera. Nope… we’ll have to settle for being in pictures. We must have taken 100 photos out there while everyone else was laboring away inside.

In about an hour, the inside team had rolled everything up and was ready to go. Somewhere along the line, they had decided to ride a combi back rather than take a cab, which meant the five-foot Christmas tree would be riding along with us. To get to the combi stop, you have to walk about 10 blocks through the streets of Pamplona, winding around stores, the football pitch, and finally down the main street to the market.

Imagine this: about 20 Peruvian kids, aged 8-14 tagging along side 9 adults, 5 of which are Gringos (white folk), one of which is carrying a Christmas tree over his head. It was a very odd scene, explaining why everyone we passed stopped what they were doing to stare at us. If Bruce Peru hadn’t made a name for itself with the positive work it does for the community, it certainly made one for itself that day if not in the name of altruism than in the name of circus freaks everywhere.

The combi ride was enjoyable as the branches of our Christmas tree blew in the wind from the opened windows and occasionally scraped across the skin of boarding passengers. A few people looked really surprised at its presence but I think most people just assumed the combi driver and his fare-collecting assistant had gone a little overboard with the decorations. Nonetheless, we rode along, the whole way home, thinking about the day. While it had started out quite distressing, it had obviously ended up alright. The kids banked in terms of gifts as each one went home with a new backpack, a pair of shoes, a doll or a ball, a new toothbrush, toothpaste, and a few other things plus all the wonderful surprises they found stuffed in their little bag with the photos. All the adults were happy as, even with all the problems, we had managed a pretty good party and tomorrow would be much easier. Not only would there be no children taking those ‘unexpected’ final tests, we also had an idea of what to anticipate. But my day wasn’t even close to being over.

The rest of the day, I sat in my room stuffing the goody bags for Villa el Salvador. Using the rest of the little surprises the women’s club sent, I stuffed about 28 bags full of glow necklaces, toy cars, lollipops, marbles, playing cards, all sorts of other things and, of course, the photos each kid had picked out. By the end of it, I was in dire need of a nap seeing as how I hadn’t slept more than 5 hours a night in the last week. But there were places to go and people to see, so off I went without resting.

Later that night, around 10pm, Andy and I hopped in a cab to pick Michael up from the airport. His plane was supposed to land sometime around 11pm, so we stupidly decided to get there early. Around 11:30, we started wondering what was up so we checked the board and both flights from Atlanta had been delayed though we didn’t know by how long. Around 12:30, we had seen so many Michael look-alikes that we were just bored… who knew there’d be so many fuzzy-headed, beefy little Cuban men running around the Lima airport?! At 1am, we thought how nice going to sleep would feel. And finally, at 1:30am, we saw Michael walking out with backpack on the back, another bag hanging off the shoulder, and yet another massive rolling suitcase trailing behind him. He wasn’t joking when he said he had gifts for the kids. We taxied it home quick as we could and were in bed by 2:30pm. The night wasn’t long enough as day broke in the middle of my first dream. Off we went again.

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