The yearly festival in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, popularly known as Burning Man, may always be stereotyped as a gratuitous hippie fest. Hippie fest? Probabaly. But, gratuitous? Disagreed. Although, I’ve never been myself, I am learning from a group of burners here in Pisco, Peru.
The Burning Man event includes one salient and noble theme: it’s a “gifting society.” Money hardly exists, and the only thing you end up buying is ice. Over the course of a week, a city is built by volunteers, you eat food at different stations which are gifted by various groups of people, you celebrate community & radical self expression, and then leave without any trace.
But what has any of this have to do with traveling in Peru? I’m getting there. After Katrina, a group of Burners decided to take those values developed on the playa and out into the real world creating the organization, Burners Without Borders (BWB). They helped the communities affected by the Hurricane and continued on to other places devasted by disasters.
On August 15, 2007, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit the coast of Peru, and the closest city was Pisco, a city that was once debated to be the capital of Peru by Spanish Conquistadors. Most of the buildings were built in traditional Spanish adobe style, and they all collapsed in the quake leaving hundreds of people killed and thousands displaced and abandoned. BWB soon arrived and started to help rebuild the community.
I’m far from being an expert in economics, but a few issues have become apparent with the help of some veterans here. Typically, a huge amount of funding comes in immediately after a disaster. Unfortunately, this huge heap of money is too much to handle initially and corruption & embezzlement soon follow (likewise for Haiti right now). In Peru, the government even decided to claim the earthquake as a 7.9 when in reality it was an 8.0 magnitude earthquake. Why? Because any earthquake at or above an 8.0 requires more responsibility and help for redevelopment, and the Peruvian government just wanted the easy way out.
As a result of the corruption, countless NGO’s pulled out of Pisco after six months and the people of Pisco were left to mend for themselves. In came BWB who quickly noticed the corruption and decided that a long term organization was needed with a native Peruvian from Pisco overlooking the project. So the prodigy child of BWB became known as Pisco Sin Fronteras (PSF) which is still running strong today, and where I’ll be spending 4 weeks of my time in South America.
The culture here is extremely upbeat and DIY-natured. People have ideas everyday and they are rapidly set in motion. Since there is no hardware store nearby, improvisation and efficiency are crucial ingredients. After spending a little over a week here, I’ve learned a great deal from everyone and have had the opportunity to do tasks which I would never be allowed to do in the states. Such tasks include mortaring, moving houses, and even engineering assessments on new projects. Overall projects include rebuilding, boosting the economy by providing home-grown biodiesel, teaching English, and cooking for the volunteers.
Tenacity and fulfillment are what drive the people of PSF. Last week, I had the opportunity to join a group of volunteers from all over the world on a project involving moving a house in a shantytown to a new location and rebuilding it to be bigger and safer. The move was necessary since the government intends to build a plaza at the old location. Besides getting sweaty and learning some new tricks, the most eye-opening experience was being provided food by another Brazilian NGO that has committed to staying in the area and helping anybody in the shantytown. The Brazilians come from poor backgrounds as it is, and still find the means to help those in more dire need. It’s quite humbling, especially since I’m here for such a short while.