52. Stranded in Peru - A Reflection on the True Meaning of Community
Through the Essential Elements of a Christian Brother Education, Vancouver College promotes inclusion, co-operation, and creating a world in which people have a say in the decisions that shape their lives. As a part of this ethos, VC offers opportunities for Senior School students to put their faith into action through Faith in Action programs and trips that allow them this participation.
The 2020 Peru Faith in Action Team of 12 students, three teachers, and one former teacher was scheduled to travel to Peru in the Spring to, amongst other activities, help build homes there. We prepared for many months, holding meetings, organizing fundraisers, and raising awareness of the plight of the marginalized people in Lima with whom the Christian Brothers work.
On the morning of March 7, 2020, the Faith in Action Peru team, full of excitement, boarded a flight from Vancouver to Lima. We knew adventure awaited us, but no one anticipated the kind of adventure that lay ahead in the coming weeks.
Upon arriving in Lima, the team was thrust immediately into action. With the help of Brother Stephen Casey, the organizer and leader for the trip, we undertook the task of building a house in the hills of Canto Grande, an impoverished area in Peru’s capital. We spent six days flattening terrain, carrying buckets and buckets of gravel and sand, pouring concrete, raising walls, assembling a roof, painting, and furnishing until finally, our efforts were brought to fruition. This house was of particular importance. Not only was it a new beginning for a mother named Tania and her four children, it was also a stopping point for other immersion groups to experience authentically Peruvian culture. Tania’s new home can now host larger groups of people to help with her small business of making placemats from scraps of material that she collects. We learned a lot through Tania. The conversations while working are invaluable and Tania’s stories unforgettable and enduring.
Throughout this time, we experienced the neighbourhoods and markets of Lima, as well as a local school, Fe y Alegria, run by the Christian Brothers. These experiences really connected our Team with the local people, and helped us to realize they were helping us as much, if not more, than we were helping them.
After the completion of the immersion part of our trip, on March 14th, we set out for a two-day excursion to the town of Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. It was on the train ride back to the Sacred Valley town where we were staying after a day at Machu Picchu when we heard the news: Peru was on lockdown. The government was shutting down the country's borders and airports at midnight because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Around the world, nations had given travellers and foreign citizens a few days to return home, but we were stuck. This was not what we wanted to hear as we were scheduled on a flight back to Canada in two days.
Upon hearing the news, our group experienced a range of emotions. We were worried, frightened, and many of us felt helpless. This is when the community of Vancouver College showed its true colours, as teams of people, staff, parents and others, worked tirelessly to do whatever was necessary to bring us home. The support came quickly in a wave of emails and phone calls back and forth from concerned parents and members of the community.
Our team of students and teachers bonded to create a safe and nurturing environment. We continued to stay at a local hotel, Tikiwasi Valley, and were grateful to their staff for being so welcoming and accommodating. They allowed us to use their kitchen to prepare meals for the boys, while other restaurants, particularly the Apu Pitusiray, welcomed us even though they were officially closed. After soldiers forbade the opening of the restaurant to us, they delivered and served us dinner at our hotel.
One evening, in order to give each other some space, we told the boys to go into the town to get dinner and we would do the same. By sheer coincidence, we ended up in the same restaurant as the boys decided to all stay together. What we saw as we entered the restaurant is an image forever ingrained in our hearts: twelve heads bowed in prayer. It was at that point that we knew we were going to be okay.
By now our story was all over the news, locally and internationally. The staff and parents back home had taken action writing to their local MP’s and other various organizations expressing their concern over our situation. The support from the VC community was tangible. We never felt alone or isolated from our community. In particular, Mr. Daryl Weaver, then Assistant Principal of Senior School, communicated with us daily. He was working hard to get the news of our situation to the Canadian government to pressure them to get us home while finding other solutions, including chartering a private airplane.
On March 21st, after six long days of waiting, an early morning bus was arranged by the Canadian Embassy to take us from Ollantaytambo to Cusco. We picked up fellow Canadians in the Sacred Valley along the way. After a harrowing 10-hour bus ride on roads manned by soldiers in full fatigues, we finally arrived in Cusco. There were hundreds of other foreign nationals, and we were fortunate to get rooms at the Hilton Hotel in Cusco as many other hotels had closed.
Each day seemed like an eternity as we waited, but at least we knew we were one step closer to home. On March 27, we flew from Cusco to the military base in Lima and were bussed over to the Air Canada flight. When we saw the Air Canada plane with the flight attendants waving the Canadian flag from the top of the stairs, tears threatened all of us - tears of joy and gratitude. We were overwhelmed with a release of tension and a sense of calmness that we would be going home. We had never felt more proud to be Canadian.
Although we had to spend one night in Toronto Pearson Airport, we finally arrived in Vancouver on March 28 at 12:22 PM, 10 days later than expected. What a glorious feeling! Seeing all of the parents waiting for us is an image we will not soon forget. We left for Peru to stand in solidarity with those marginalized by poverty and injustice, only to discover that our VC family was standing in solidarity with us the entire time.
Throughout this journey, our VC boys behaved like brothers. Many travellers commented about their level of maturity and the way they treated each other and the people they met along the way. We were so proud of them.
For us, the definition of community was forever changed because of this experience. We will always be grateful to the VC staff and community for their unwavering support during our time there. Indeed it was the VC community that got us home.
By: Paul Legge, Lorida Robles, Lilian Vernier