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Essay

When a country is shaken, tourists can lend a steadying hand

Email|Print| Text size + By Lee Bailey
Globe Correspondent / January 13, 2008

ICA, Peru - "What on earth are you doing in Los Romanes?" Elvira said, waving her hands around the Peruvian hamlet where we stood, choking on dust amid rubble from last summer's devastating earthquake. "Just bringing some help from friends," I replied, pointing to the bags of food that my small crew and I had unloaded from our van. Grasping my hands and staring into my eyes, she said simply, "Muchas gracias."

I traveled to Peru in September to work through the Lonely Planet checklist: hike Machu Picchu, surf world-famous breaks, drink Pisco sours. But once there, I had the opportunity to visit Ica, a region that had been slammed by a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in August, killing 600 and destroying the homes of tens of thousands. I decided to do something to help.

It turns out that doing a good deed can dovetail with tourism. Properly conceived and executed, ad hoc relief missions are within the reach of most resourceful travelers, and mixing pleasure with principle by helping those in need can be immensely gratifying.

To finance my plan I turned to friends and family, who ponied up $2,400 within 48 hours of receiving my solicitation from Peru. I found that if you articulate a clear plan and promise full accountability (and low overhead), people can be generous beyond expectation.

Early on I encountered Lesley Myburgh, a South African expatriate. When we met in Cusco she had just returned from her own relief trip to Ica. Her advice was invaluable, and she connected me with Francis Chauvel, a Lima guest-house owner, who would serve as my fixer in Ica. He explained the system of communal kitchens that had sprung up after the quake, and through this grass-roots network we distributed more than a ton of food.

Natalia Paredes, a British medical student, also made the trip to Ica. Fluent in Spanish, she performed medical consultations on the spot. Younger girls took to her immediately, while the boys went wild for the soccer balls we had stocked up on in the capital.

If you want to pitch in after a disaster, you should make certain the affected region is sufficiently stable and secure. I quizzed everyone I met who had been to Ica about the situation and was assured that visitors were being met with hospitality and good cheer.

Another consideration is infrastructure. Peruvian officials had been criticized for their response to the quake, but they did manage to repair the main roads immediately. Many hotels were destroyed in Pisco, the region's tourist center, but a few were still open.

It is also important to find out what victims need. With reports of people sleeping in the open air, where temperatures dip to near-freezing at night, I thought tents and plastic sheeting would be needed. I learned that the short-term shelter problem had been addressed and that what quake victims needed most was food. So we selected five basics - tuna, pasta, sugar, rice, and condensed milk - and bought them in industrial quantities at a Lima supermarket. Later, when we visited schoolchildren lunching on potato chips and throat lozenges, I knew Chauvel had been right.

The people of Ica seemed to welcome the social engagement. Though aid workers made the rounds after the quake, few had the time to stop and chat. The Peruvians I met were happy to talk with foreigners, and appreciated that they were aware of Peru's plight and the challenges it faced.

Other Americans brought another valuable asset: talent. A trio of New York musicians had accompanied Myburgh on her trip, and what food aid and friendly smiles couldn't fix, their special blend of bluegrass did. One of them, Mark Patterson, described the scene: "There we were, these three guys from New York playing country bluegrass for a crowd of villagers improvising their own Peruvian-style square dance."

Pitching in like this creates connections that time spent in a hotel or on a tour bus never will. While we were able to leave some Peruvians with a couple days' sustenance, what we received in return was to us just as precious.

Lee Bailey, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at leewilsonbailey@gmail.com.

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