Being from São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, made me feel pretty much at home in Lima. In fact, except for the (slight) language difference and the Inca Kola instead of Guaraná, everything else seemed very much like what I was used to back home. For example, it took us over three hours and a hundred dollars to retrieve the testing equipment we’d shipped to Peru because of creeping bureaucracy and uncooperative officials – just like it would in Brazil.
However, when I first got to Samne last week I was struck by how different the city and the lifestyle were. Samne is a small town, a winding dirt road up a mountain, with houses on each side of the road. The first thing that caught my eyes was the scenic mountainous landscape: Samne is surrounded by mountains in the Andes, that go up to 10 000 ft. Down below, meanwhile, the houses are made of widely different materials. They range from a few nice brick houses, to a majority made of adobe, and to a few even simpler houses with bamboo walls stuffed with mud.
In economic terms, perhaps surprisingly, the differences don’t seem as big. Most of the families seem to make their living either off agriculture (there are several small plantation sites around) or working in Trujillo, a city about an hour and a half away from here. Some people also have stores, where you can buy very basic things, like bread, milk or chocolate (a daily necessity for us). For everything else, though, you need to go to Trujillo.
The life here in a lot of ways reminds me of an idealized country life. People don’t have Internet access, nor do they seem to spend a lot of time watching TV. They do, however, spend a lot of time playing soccer and volleyball, or simply talking to each other. Every morning, a bread woman goes through the city, house to house. As you walk, everyone says hola or buenas. Everyone knows and talks to the mayor; he even hangs out with us most of the time.
It’s easy to get carried away by this impression and forget about the problems the city faces. While the streets seem pretty clean, if you look closer down the mountains you will see huge trash dumping sites, or the untreated sewage being thrown right into the river. The tap water is contaminated and unfit for human consumption. Samne is a charming city, but it has lots to improve.
After being in Samne for about a week, I think it is fair to say we all got used to our lives here. The houses that first impressed us because of their simplicity now just seem another element of the landscape. I thought that the rest of our time here would be spent getting more accurate data on the pollution or interviewing more people, to refine our understanding of what they think and what they want. As Lord Kelvin said about Science in the late 19th century, it seemed all we had to do now was improve a few decimal digits the measured values of our constants.
It turned out however, that just as Relativity and Quantum Physics proved Lord Kelvin was mistaken in thinking so, our visit to Pitajaya, a hamlet of samne, proved we were mistaken in thinking we had more or less figured things out. Unlike Samne, Pitajaya has hardly any amenities: no electricity, no roads. Their drinking water comes from Río Moche, one of the most polluted rivers in Peru; it is stored in a pre-Incan reservoir, and is used without any treatment. It was hard for me to grasp how people would live in such a place; Samne suddenly seemed such a nice place to live in comparison.
The people there were very glad to know that we were considering doing something for them. In a little meeting we had (which even had a written documentation signed by all of us and the mayor), they agreed that having a proper water source was their main concern right now. Perhaps we’ve found our project!