I have just returned from a visit to the shanty towns which form the 'suburb' of Pamploma.. Actually suburb doesn't quite describe Pamploma - there are 400,000 people living there. 400,000.
We left the hotel at about 7.45am local time and made our way through the managed chaos that is Lima traffic. The car horns get a serious workout here and road rules are merely suggestions - at least to the drivers. Cars drive on the right-side of the road, as well as the left, the centre and occasionally on the pavement. Traffic police give their shrill whistles a serious workout but they go largely ignored by drivers. Don't know why they bother.
We drive for about 40 minutes through heavy peak-hour traffic and the students are in good spirits. They point to things of interest and laugh and banter about their travel experiences from the previous two days. As we get further out of the centre of the city, we start to climb. At this point, the quality of the road deteriorates and gutters and pavements disappear. Most buildings are in serious disrepair and sprayed in graffiti. Rubbish is strewn everywhere. There is less talk now - perhaps even some apprehension.
We continue to climb and the landscape, both natural and man-made become ever more stark. The road surface is potholed and corrugated and buildings smaller and even more ramshackle than before. The shoulders of the roads are littered with discarded building materials and rubbish, and dogs - lots of dogs - roam around listlessly looking for something to eat and someone to follow.
The roads become narrower and slippery and the air thick with mist. It becomes hard to see for than about 50 metres ahead. Our minibuses stop and we learn that we will need to walk the last bit to get to our destination. We head off through the murk and mud along narrow lanes, up long flights of stairs (we didn't know it at the time but the stairs would be identical to the ones that at we would be building later that day) until we arrive at our destination.
The poorest of the poor live on here on these mountainsides. They are Peru's displaced and dispossessed, mostly farm people who have fled to the city to escape persecution and civil unrest. They have formed this extraordinarily large community with its own social networks, basic infrastructure and even schools. With help from each other, they have built their own tiny houses on tiny barren block in an inhospitable terrain. The very steep sides of the mountains are covered with broken sandstone and the soil is clay. Absolutely nothing grows here.
Most people who travelled up to Pamplone today were there to build a staircase. It was explained to me that staircases were very important to the community for two reasons: obviously to allow people to safely get to and from their home (it can be dangerous trying to walk up the mountainside because of so much loose rock and slippery clay) and also because it gives the community leverage with the local government in their efforts to have the most basic of services (running water, electricity etc) installed in the suburb.
The poverty is very confronting but every local person we spoke to or greeted was friendly. Some looked sad and blank but not once did they not return a greeting.
Some of the students were assigned toscraping back and sanding walls in what will eventually become a community common room. The tiny shack had to have its roof taken off because it was inadequate so it was decided to repair and paint the walls at the same time. The students given this job jumped straight into it and made quick progress. The rest of us headed further up the hill to the start work on the stairs.
We soon realised that we had been given a massive task. Timber formwork was been created for a flight of 43 stairs. Our job would be to cart rocks and cement from the bottom of the stairs right to the top. The ground was steep and slippery and our tools of trade were gardening gloves, plastic buckets and converted oil tins. We were working10 minutes after arriving.
It was incredibly hard work. We formed long lines to carry the heavy rocks and cement to each section of the stairs. Here, there were no cement trucks or mixes or conveyors to move things - everything had to be done by hand. The slippery sloping terrain only made things harder. The site foreman spoke no English and we relied entirely on the directions of a very impressive young Aussie who had come to Peru 3 years ago and stayed. He explained what we had to do. It was the most manual of labour.
The students were just magnificent - there is no other way to say it. For many of them, the task took them out of their comfort zone but they responded. They needed to work as a team, and they did. When things got really hard they just dug deeper. By the end of the day, 34 of those 43 steps had been built - right on schedule, and every student had played a part in this result. There were a few cuts and bruises, some aches and pains, a few broken fingernails but no broken spirits. There were no egos on display - just an unquenchable collective spirit to get the job done. And that is just what they did.
On the way back to the buses at the end of the day, they had another chance to see up close just how hard a life the people of Pamplone had. By this time, the fog had lifted a bit, the sheer scale of the shanty town developments became clear. In valley after valley, families had set up home on barren, treeless hillsides and were making the best of it. Some had even set up pens to keep pigs and chickens. The conversation among the students on the return walk was all about feeling fortunate for the life they had. Some of them had brought with them from home some trinkets to distribute to the local children: small koalas, pencils, pens, key rings and the like. When they offered them to the Pampalone children, their eyes sparkled and they broke onto broad smiles. We got back to the bus exhausted but I suspect feeling as if we had done something that will make life a little easier for a community where little was easy.
Tomorrow, a different group of students will go back to the same place to finish the final few steps in the staircase and do the same thing all over again to create another one nearby. Those students don't know it yet, but they are very lucky to be granted this privilege.
While World Youth is officially some days away yet and in another country, the spirit of the event was there in the hands and hearts of every young person form Sydney Catholic schools who worked on the Pampalone mountainside. The opportunity for us all to travel to Rio for WYD is a gift - today we gave a gift in return.