The journey began well, with the M25 parting like the Red Sea as we made our way to Heathrow. After emotional goodbyes and with the flight attendant turning a blind eye to our bulging cases, we wondered whether this was going to be easier than we thought. However, travelling with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old half away across the world was, indeed, tough. We turned up in Lima having discovered that Sophia is airsick and our children don’t like to sleep in planes. I felt as if we had had quite enough adventures, but this was only the start of our 2-year placement in Cusco, Peru with BMS World Mission, working with young people and children.
Cusco is stunningly beautiful, nestled in the Andean mountains at a heady 3,200 metres above sea level. It attracts lots of tourists, as it is situated close to Machu Picchu, but there is also a great contrast between the rich and the poor. I want to share my experiences of what it has been like adapting to life in a new country with small children, as a mission worker. Indeed, the first time we visited the incredible Plaza de Armas was overshadowed by Daniel’s constantly reminding us that he was very hungry. He seemed entirely unimpressed with the colonial influence mixed in with the Inca architecture. A 4-year-old has a different perspective on things – especially when he feels lunch is overdue.
Although Cusco in many ways is a wonderful place to live with so many challenges, like most people, day-to-day life is pretty normal, with a slight twist. There is the school run (a private school), cleaning (I am currently dealing with cockroaches and fleas), playing with the children (without the support of parents and toddlers groups) and shopping (although this is the view as I walk to the supermarket).
The School Run
Here, Daniel attends a fee-paying school, something which I doubt I would have considered in the UK. However, in Peru, teaching styles are very different and formal from a young age. Daniel’s school is more similar to the education ethos back home as well as being bilingual. Daniel loves it there, and despite a rocky start where he found the amount of Spanish overwhelming, he has settled in amazingly. He has started to speak more Spanish, and always has tales to tell of his many adventures. I was very proud of him the first morning as he walked into this new school in a new country with a new language, without even a backward glance. However, it still seems strange to send him to this more exclusive place when the majority of people in my church can’t afford it.
Cleaning the Cockroaches
We are currently at the end of rainy season, which I have discovered means lots of fleas, ably helped by the large number of stray dogs on the street. They appear to have taken a likening to me, as my legs are often covered, and I suspect that they are occupying my bed. The good side is that they don’t seem to like the rest of the family, and at least they are able to keep the cockroaches company that I have discovered in the kitchen. As I write, I can make it sound funny, but the truth is that I hate the thought of these creatures co-existing with my children. It troubles me more than I would like, and I have become quite obsessed with eradicating them. Indeed, there are risks and dangers here that did not worry me in the UK; rabid dogs (and vampire bats in one part of the jungle), intestinal worms, crazy transport, the dengue fever outbreak in the jungle, other diseases, the affect of high altitude and the strength of the sun and higher risk of crime. These are all possibilities to some degree, although some are ably aided by my over-active imagination. There are other worries too, such as removing our children from much loved family and friends, and the affect that this will have on them.
Although Daniel is older and able to verbalise his response to his new world, I wonder how things must be for Sophia. She is only 2 and her experiences of life are so different to her brother’s at her age. In Peru, young children are normally put into nurseries from a young age, or, if childcare is too expensive, taken to work with their mothers. I have often struggled with how and when it is appropriate to include my family in youth work. However, I felt that this was taken to the extreme the other week, when a small child kept trying to get her mother‘s attention during my rather protracted dental treatment – her mum was the dental nurse, and I was hoping her primary focus was me!
On a day-to-day basis, though, it means that there is not the same network of toddler groups that Neil and I were used to with Daniel, providing social interaction for the children and much-needed support for the parents. Sophia seems very happy, and life is easier now that the rain has stopped and we can go to the park, but I wonder if she mixes enough with other toddlers. We are thinking of putting her into a nursery for a couple of mornings to help with this, although this is something we wouldn’t have considered at her age in the UK.
Playing and leisure here is different, too. There is no cinema or bowling, although we have found a clean(ish) swimming pool. There aren’t as many clubs, and although things like music lessons are available, they require a huge amount of commitment. We also try to get the balance between providing our children with appropriate activities, while simultaneously trying to be sensitive to the opportunities available to other children in the area. The children have to play simply, which is generally fantastic for them, and helping with their imagination. And, of course, Daniel can always play sport; he has one good friend who only speaks Spanish, but they get on very well as they converse in the international language of football.
Children in Peru, though, do of course know how to have fun. We recently experienced our first Peruvian birthday party, which was a great experience. Once we had decided that it didn’t matter whether the children had a late night (our children have a 7pm bed time, whereas Peruvian children normally go to bed at 10 or 11pm); we relaxed and enjoyed the madness. Birthday parties are very important, and the entertainer played lots of games and music. Perhaps the best part, though, was the way that all of the parents joined in with the silliness and fun without inhibitions. It was wonderful to see – and to participate in.
Now that I have got used to the initial newness of the food, I love shopping and cooking here. The meat tastes amazing and the fruit and vegetables are really fresh from the market. In fact, it gives me a chance to practice my Spanish and has helped me learn new words. Every time I go out with Sophia to the shops, I hear words like ‘preciosa’, ‘muñeca’ and ‘linda’ (precious, doll and beautiful). Although most people are used to the gringos in Cusco, my little blonde, curly haired, blue-eyed gringita is something of a novelty!
So, we are adapting to life here in all its newness, with the accompanying challenges it brings. I cannot deny that life is sometimes difficult. However, my concerns were put into perspective recently when I visited Mariciel and her family.
Mariciel is a beautiful little one-year-old. She lives quite close to me, maybe 15 minutes on the bus. I visited her with some nurses, who had met her and her mum the week before at a local Christian clinic. Mariciel is under-nourished and the nurses wanted to provide some after-care by talking to her mum about nutrition. Her family live in a simple adobe house, and as we chatted, it became apparent that they do not have running water, and use the communal bathroom. Afterwards, I asked to see this, only to discover that it is a hole in the ground without any form of shelter, and dangerous for a number of reasons. Water comes from a communal tap.
It was such a privilege to spend time with this family and chat and pray with them, but difficult to return to my flat with running water, two bathrooms and plenty of toys for my children such a short distance away. It seems every day I am faced with this contrast and I ponder and pray over the decisions I need to make. However, often, there doesn’t seem enough time to reflect, as there is lunch to be cooked, washing to be done and games to be played. At other moments, though, I realise that we are all in this together.
Team Roper: We are all in this together
We often refer to our family as ‘Team Roper’, as we talk about needing to be there for each other and watch out for one another. This seems even more important in a new country. Not long after we arrived in Cusco, I received an email from someone I don’t personally know reminding me that our whole family has been called to Peru and has a part to play, not just Neil and me. It was perfect timing, as the same day, Daniel suffered classic culture shock, exclaiming that he hated everything about Peru – the language, the floor, being far from friends and family - and wanted to go home, at that very moment. It was hard for me to hear him say these things and it made me question why we had come.
However, as well as receiving such an affirming email, Daniel later that same day said this, completely unprompted: ‘Some people in Peru are poor. We need to show them not to be poor, and they need to show us how to be poor. Some poor people don’t know Jesus is here.’
I was blown away by this profound yet simple summary of mission, and I knew that God has called us here – the whole family. As the children play alongside friends from different stratas of society, as they experience new food and a new culture, as they eat freshly harvested corn grown from seed provided by BMS in the garden of a house partially destroyed after last year’s floods, I think that there is no better place in the world that we could be.
Amanda Roper is a Mission Worker with BMS World Mission in Cusco, Peru. www.bmsworldmission.org. They blog at http://theropersinperu.blogspot.com/