“Oh, by the way, sleep with your passports and money under your pillow tonight.” The PSF Director pokes his head into our muddy, disorganized room. “There was a tremor felt in Ica and it will probably affect us in a couple hours. If you have to run out of a crumbling building, it´s best to have the important things with you.” I look around my room. My 70 liter pack and little day pack lay sprawling and gutted at the foot of my bed, equally filthy. Small piles of sand speckle the floor. There are six beds all strewn with clothes, boots, water bottles, leaving barely a square foot of space between. Not exactly the best setup for an emergency evacuation.
On the wall, the evacuation route notification reads: In the case of an earthquake, we are to proceed to the big brick wall about a half block down the street to hunker down. Good to know. Earthquakes are very common in Pisco, and as Ica is about an hour South, chances are good we´ll feel something.
Half of us stay up, can´t sleep, anxiously checking the time and the news. I pass out right away, with vague sleepy thoughts of how cool it would be to feel a little tremor- just a little one- you know, for the experience. Last night I got my wish.
The sky was alight. We thought the sun was rising already; it was five o clock in the morning. It was the moon. The night of Saturday, May 4th held the year´s fullest of full moons in its sky, a gleaming sphere rounder than a coin, a blazing orb that washed the crumbling streets of Pisco in a white light. I had been on the roof twelve hours prior to watch the setting sun. A rusty blue ladder on PSF Headquarters´ top floor (which was build by PSF) leads to the small concrete roof. It´s a cramped space shared with the water tank. A small concrete ledge with a bird´s vantage of the Pisco´s roof life below, and only a few blocks ahead, the sparkling blue Pacific and the perfect view of spectacular fireball sunsets.
We had just come back after PSF´s own PS Fest, or “Pissfest”, followed by a wild salsa dancing night. For a handful of volunteers it was their last night in Pisco, and it had been a magical one. Now, with pillows and sleeping bags strewn across our small rooftop perch, lying dangerously close to the edge, we watched the sky for the sun´s rising and then fell asleep and missed it.
Two hours later, 7 AM. A train bowling past at abnormal velocities. A billion people pounding on the walls below. My eyes jerked open; the sun was up, people were running everywhere. It was an earthquake. To my left, Sander had been so close to the edge of the roof, sleeping, when the rattling began. We stumbled down the ladder; I was still asleep. Still in my salsa dress, hair a mess of knots, blanket wrapped around my shoulders, we assembled in the “yard”, or ground floor area. The director was making a speech. I was asleep. “You all have your passports, right?” Hah. So much for preparedness. How did I miss the sunrise? Damn. “You have just experienced a 5.5 earthquake.”
Something tells me that´s no small deal. It´s true- the scale used to measure quakes, the Richter scale, sets each level of shake as ten times the previous, using numbers from 1 (“micro”) to 10 (“massive”). So an earthquake that measures 5.0 on the Richter scale has a shaking amplitude 10 times greater than a 4.0 earthquake. For a reference, the tremor we felt in Seattle in 2001 was a 6.8. That´s 13 times massiver than the rattling I felt on the roof last night. A 5.5 is considered a solidly “moderate” quake.
Because of the depth of the earthquake´s center (it had a hypocenter depth of 59 km), the earthquake was reduced to a mild shaking at the earth´s surface, so where humans generally hang out, there was no major damage. After our brief meeting, the volunteers were dismissed to go about our business; most of us went back to sleep. When I woke at 12:30 there was little talk of last night´s (I mean that morning)´s adventure, and our earthquake acclimated town continued on with its day.
Pisco is an earthquake disaster zone. It´s a small city, about 235 K South of Lima, roughly a five hour bus ride. It´s a beach town, and used to be an immensely popular holiday vacation spot for Peruanos and foreigners alike. Pisqueños are used to mild tremors. They have to be; they live on a major converging fault line, the perfect geological setup for ground splitting shakes. Pisco sits along the oceanic “Nazca” and continental “South American” tectonic plates. Like the Carribean and Cocos plates in Nicaragua along which the Maribios volcano chain rises, the Nazca plate is subducting, or sliding under, the South American plate as you read at a rate of 3.1 inches a year.
On August 15, 2007, the two plates screeched to a critical friction point and an 8.0 magnitude mother tremor seized Pisco by the scurf of the neck and shook the city until it split at the seams. 80% of Pisco was completely destroyed. 615 people died in the quake, and of those, 598 were from Pisco itself. The most populated destroyed areas were Plaza de Armas (the center square), and the wealthier neighborhoods that used to line the beach. Now, almost no traces remain to suggest Pisco was once a ritzy summer vacay destination. Formerly elegant seaside residences are now stripped, cracked, crumbling, and buried in piles of rubble. The owners of the houses (yes, they still do have owners, technically), ran off, leaving most of their belongings behind. They never came back. In their absence, others ransacked and stripped their homes.
The cracked wall of a former home, still abandoned.
Looking through the wripped apart carcass of a beachside home; you can see the marsh and the ocean through the back door.
These crack lines show how the earth moved during the quake.
So many Pisqueños were killed near Plaza de Armas that bodies were piled up on the square to be identified. It´s a bit eerie to be strolling along the plaza- now rebuilt and peaceful- and imagine the bloody massacre that mother nature inflicted on the same ground just a couple years back.
Pisco is set on a raw, sweeping desert beach on the Pacific, once very famous for its marine birds. Directly after the 2007 shake, Pisco´s government decided their beautiful beach would be a great place to dump all the rubble. There was a massive pile of trash on the sand for several years, extending miles down the playa, hundreds of meters onto shore, and 5 meters into the air. One day a year or so ago, the government finally agreed to move it all, and now Pisco has its beach back.
Aid money was sent to the government, but it all seemed to mysteriously disappear. To create the image that they were doing something, the government built brick walls around the periphery of the town. The locals now call them “walls of shame”- they serve absolutely no purpose but to create the false image of progress. (“Look! We´re doing something!”) Nice try, Pedro. The government was replaced, and the current mayor is actually helping. Unfortunately, the initial corruption was a major reason for Pisco´s slow rehabilitation and progress.
A park that PSF built.
One of the fake walls.
In the time immediately following the quake, Psco received international aid from various NGO´s and non profits, but they help lasted less than a year before funds fizzled out. In 2008, a pair of Peruvian siblings named Harold and Carolina realized that there were still many homeless and suffering Pisqueños in dire need of help. With meager supplies and funding, they began carting shabby wheelbarrows around town and helping to rebuild the town one project at a time. Soon enough, Harold and Carolina´s work gained international attention and they teamed up with a group from the states who called themselves “Burners without Borders” (referring to Burning Man). A year after the earthquake hit, Burners without Borders morphed into “Pisco without Borders”, and thus Pisco Sin Fronteras was born.
Since then, the organization has thrived, and seen unprecedented growth. So many volunteers pass through in a week´s time, you can find these idealistic and hardworking former volunteers all around the globe. I can personally confirm this. Tumbling along the dusty camp road to the Pilas-El Hoyo Reserve 2,000 miles North in Nicaragua, I told a cheery volcano border that I was going to be volunteering for Pisco Sin Fronteras. She pulled up her shirt and there, tattooed on her belly, was “PSF” in bold black lettering. “I was just there! I could only stay 2 weeks, but I really wish I could have stayed longer.” Two weeks?! And she got a tattoo?! Dang, she must have really dug the place. I was impressed. For me, that was absolute confirmation that I had picked a well liked nonprofit after all my tedious research.
Now I know the whole story. Pisco Sin Fronteras relies almost solely on funds raised by current and former volunteers, many of whom return to their home countries, fundraise there, and send the money to Peru. In the case of my new friend, she actually got the tattoo as a dare/ fundraiser; friends and family bet money that she wouldn´t get the permanent reminder of a two week volunteer vacation branded onto her stomach. When she actually went through with it, she collected all the money and donated it right back to PSF.
On the top floor of headquarters.
The roofs of Pisco.
I´ve been here for three weeks now, and I can already understand the impact PSF made on her- this is an incredible place. After watching busses pass along the perilous sand dune highway behind Eco Truly for five days in fascinated horror, I finally bussed along that road from Eco Truly Lodge to Lima, and then from Lima to Pisco. The bus ride along that gripping cliff edge felt exactly like being in a plane. We flew through the clouds and I sat next to a window white with fog. In moments the haze around would break and with a lurch of my stomach I could see down, down, down into the sparkling Pacific Ocean far below the precariously rolling wheels of the bus. They veered so near the sharp drop-off that I couldn´t see the road below, no matter how sharp I craned my neck.
Inside the bus was a first class jet. We sat in plush seats, watched feature length films on a shiny new flat screen, and were require to buy a real ticket for a real, individual, comfortable seat. No one stood in the isle. I was blown away. It just kept getting better, though- the bus terminal was akin to the poshest of airports. Like airlines, bus companies occupied stations lining the upper floor, advertising tickets to Trujillo, Huaraz, Cusco, and other popular destinations. Most importantly, there were escalators!!! I am truly in a different world here.
Pisco is a bit different. I´d say today´s Pisco is somewhere between funky and a shit hole. It´s a sandy, sprawling confusion of concrete box buildings and what used to be concrete box buildings. Sort of like a run down city in the deserts of Southwestern US. The light here is different- it´s a pale dune yellow that settles over the city in milky dust. But the minute you leave town, the dust clears, the light changes, and the sky is the blue bluest of blue.
The gate to Pisco Sin Fronteras would be lost among the shabby buildings along La Avenida las Americas would it not be painted in the brightest turquoises, oranges and reds. Beyond the iconic entrance lies an energetic organism of volunteers serious about helping and serious about work. About responding to the direct needs of the Pisqueños still affected by the 2007 earthquake, and delving deeper into the relief effort through finding inventive and sustainable means to reach the common goal: Rebuild Pisco sustainably and improve the quality of life.
The energy here is contagious. I instantly forgot about being burnt out. The air seems electrified with a go-go, get down to work ethic and enthusiasm. And you need that sort of energy for the work we´re doing here. Work begins at 9 from Monday to Friday and the day sets with the sun- this means (depending on the project) over 8 hours of backbreaking physical labor in the heat of the sun so inescapably close to the equator. But whether you´re on a construction site or working in a classroom (teaching English, tutoring school children, etc.), the challenges less in the physical labor and more in the emotional reaction to seeing the many here living under tarps, in crudely thrown together bamboo shacks, or literally under plastic bags.
PSF differs from Quetzaltrekkers in that we´re literally rebuilding the down one hammer stroke at a time, instead purely fundraising. In that way, we´re much more connected to the impact we´re making on the town. I feel like I´m making a difference here. It´s only been three weeks, and Pisco already feels like home. This is a special place; the energy and enthusiasm are unstoppable. I have never heard a complaint. Somehow, the positive energy is circulated and multiplied and leaves room for nothing else. PFS is proof positive that it is possible to work really hard and have a lot of fun at the same time.- It must be the camaraderie- people are kind and supportive. Whatever the case, I am happy happy happy to be here and I´m love love lovin it.
More details soon about what I am actually doing!