Finding A Swim Team In Cusco

I’d love to take full credit for getting our kids onto the Cusco Swim Team but the truth is I subcontracted most of the job to company in Mountain View, California. Yes, I’m talking about Google.
Piscina Municpal in Cusco, Peru
In the latter half of 2008, I was working for a client that had purchased a bankrupt retailer and I was helping to integrate and move operations from San Francisco to San Diego. Since this transition went pretty smoothly, by November there was less and less for me to do, so I spent part of my time searching for a Peruvian swim team for my kids to join. With very few people speaking English in Peru and the fact that I hadn't spoken my intermediate-level Spanish for the previous four years, it was bound to be a challenge.

I began to spend a few hours a week Googling search terms like "swimming,” “team” and “pool,” along with “Peru”…all to no avail. I searched the same words in Spanish (“natación,” “equipo,” “piscina”), but was unable to find the results I was looking for. I looked though many websites: a Chicago personal trainer who swam competitively for a Peruvian college, a Princeton water polo player who did some volunteer work in Cusco, an American volunteer who was a high school swimmer in Trujillo, etc, etc.

Frustrated with my results, I loaded Google Earth onto my work computer and started systematically scanning the satellite photos of Cusco, Ayacucho and Arequipa – the three towns that we were targeting. While virtually soaring above the Cusco city center one afternoon, I spotted a light-blue, opaque rectangle not far from a train station. Was that a pool? Was that an indoor pool?

I quickly typed in the name of the street and district into the Google search bar along with “piscina” and “natación”. The results quickly came up and displayed a news article and accompanying video newscast about what was indeed a pool. As I slowly read the article and watched the video, I was struck by simultaneous feelings of horror and elation: horror as I read about 17 kids rushed to the hospital for inhaling excessive amounts of chlorine and elation as the newscast showed clips of a beautiful, indoor heated pool in the middle of the Andes. I justified the chlorine accident as something that could happen anywhere and gave in to the elation of finding a pool. More searching failed to turn up a swim team of any kind, however. I decided to check out the pool during my planned Peru visit in February 2009.

By February, we had narrowed our sights on Cusco and I went there for 10 days to set things up for our family. In addition to checking out Spanish schools, jobs and housing, I thought I’d take a look at the pool I’d found. On my second afternoon in Cusco, I went there and asked if there was a swim team and the woman working there gave me a definitive “no”. On the third day, I returned in the morning and a different woman told me there was a “Swimming Academy” and that I should come back at 2:00 pm in the afternoon. At 2:00 pm I talked to yet another woman who said the Swimming Academy meets early in the mornings and that I should return the next morning at 7:00 am.

Thinking that by now I should probably give up, I walked over at 7:00 am the next morning and asked again. This time, the same woman told me to wait while she brought over the coach, whose name was Cristian. I told Cristian what I was looking for and he seemed mildly interested. In colloquial and rapid-fire Spanish, he talked about practice times, swim meets and the twice-yearly TransAndean Youth Games. He asked the kids’ ages and when we would be back in Cusco and we exchanged email addresses.

In my numerous Spanish-language conversations while setting us up in Cusco, I’ve sometimes had exchanges like this that have gone nowhere. I’ve found that if people have something to gain from an interchange (i.e, shopkeeper, innkeeper, tour guide) the motivation and politeness displayed in the initial face-to-face conversation is more likely to be sustained when following up via email or telephone. With Cristian, I just didn’t know if he felt he had something to gain by our relationship.

With this in mind, I sent him an email with some apprehension once I returned home. I sent an email that clearly detailed information about us as well as the many questions we had. I decided to send the kids’ best times from the previous season to hopefully add some incentive.

A few days passed -- with me eyeing my email multiple times per day – with no response. Finally, five days after getting back to California, I received a response with an enthusiastic “hola!” in the subject line. Cristian was indeed motivated to make it happen. We exchanged emails frequently in the weeks leading up to our departure, such that the swim team became a large part of our plans in Cusco.


Why There Are No Movie Theaters In Cusco

Cusco does not have a single movie theater and for a city of 320,000 people that is downright strange. Perhaps the reason can be found in a makeshift jumble of market stalls on the outskirts of Cusco; a "black market" called El Molino. During my first couple weeks in Cusco, I heard the words "El Molino" more than a few times. My Spanish teacher told me to visit El Molino for inexpensive CD's and DVD's and my landlord told me to go there for household items that we needed for our kitchen. During our first week in Cusco, my daughter and I frequented a restaurant on the Plaza de Armas called Mythology, a salsa bar-cum-restaurant that shows movies. For the price of a couple drinks or a plate of appetizers you can choose from hundreds of new DVD movies to watch while you enjoy your lomo saltado. Many of the titles come out as soon as a few weeks after their U.S. theatrical release. When I asked where they got so many brand new titles, the answer was "El Molino."

El Molino lies alongside a foul-smelling river about a 10 minute taxi ride from the Plaza de Armas. I'm told that much of the merchandise is brought in duty-free from Peru's southern-most port town of Tacna. The market itself is a collection of hundreds of small stalls with corrugated tin roofing that are jam-packed with merchandise. Look down one aisle and you'll see books, bicycles and bootleg CD's. Look down another and you'll see perfume, pinatas and pirated DVD's. Glance to the side and you'll see clothing, cameras and costume jewelry. Turn around and you'll spot hard liquor, housewares and HDTV's.

Obviously, all the DVD's are pirated; how else could you charge only 3 soles ($1) for a brand new DVD movie that just hit the theaters 3 weeks ago. With every movie title on the market available for just a dollar, who needs a movie theater?

This smorgasbord of cheap digital media does have its risks, however. As El Molino veterans, we have learned from experience what to look for when purchasing DVD's. The first thing to look for is: Does the disc have English-language audio and subtitles? Wheny we bought Steven Soderbergh's 2-disc "Che" (Guevarra) biopic and we previewed the first disc to verify that it had English-language subtitles. After enjoying the first disc about Che's role in the Cuban revolution we popped in the second disc to find that it did not have English-language subtitles. The second thing to look for mainly applies to new releases: Is it a disc-to-disc copy or was it filmed in the back row of a movie theater? Pirated versions of new releases get out quickly because someone sits in a movie theater with a digital movie camera and films it. Our kids watched "Ice Age 3" a while back and a baby started crying in the middle of the DVD soundtrack. When we bought "Transformers 2," the excitement of seeing this new release outweighed our concerns about the video and audio quality. We got home and watched about 10 minutes of it before we gave up. The action scenes were impossible to watch and understand. The third thing to look for applies to TV series: Are all the discs present? My daughter has bought four seasons of "The Office" and on two occasions, we found episodes missing.

Even with these risks, the economics of pirated DVD's means that it will be a while before we see a multiplex adorning Cusco's Plaza de Armas.

The Evolution Of A Volunteer Decision

Spinning alpaca yarn at Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco
The decision to spend 6-8 months volunteering in South America was easy; deciding where and how to do it was more difficult.

Lots of volunteering organizations
My requirements for volunteering included being able to use my intermediate-level Spanish, to use my retail business consulting skills (if possible), to be part of the community that I help (if only for 6 months), and to have a sustainable impact.

Once I’d decided to volunteer in Peru, I searched the web and found various volunteer organizations and researched what they provided, what type of work was available and what costs were involved. I was happy to find that there were lots of organizations working in Peru but I was disappointed to learn that most of them required a fee of between $500-1,000 per week. I found dozens of these “voluntour” organizations, but felt that spending money to work for free didn’t feel right.

Muhammed Yunus and Microfinance
About the time that I started adding up the costs of “working for free,” I read Dr. Muhammad Yunus’ book “Banker to the Poor,” an inspiring memoir about how he created microfinance. I read about Dr. Yunus’ first experiment with $27 lent to a group of Bangladeshi women, a miniscule loan that started an industry.

As I read about Dr. Yunus’ ideas I thought about the money I might be spending at “voluntour” agencies and started to think about what that money could do if lent directly to those in need. In fact, even if they never paid the money back, I’d be no worse off than if I gave the money to a “voluntour” company. I envisioned buying a bunch of food carts for street vendors and setting them up with an initial supply of inventory.

The Idea of Sustainability
The more I thought about this, however, the more I thought about the potential obstacles – locating worthy candidates, getting ripped off, creating community jealousies and getting stonewalled by local bureaucrats -- to name a few. I was worried about sustainability and I wasn’t sure that giving away a bunch of push carts and food and then leaving after 6 months would be consistent with that. It seemed like I needed six months just to get the lay of the land and to avoid getting ripped off.

As I pondered this, I learned about the Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco, an NGO weaving cooperative run by an indigenous woman that helps nine communities in the Cusco area. They needed help with budgeting, grant requests and some financial analysis and I had made my connection with them without the benefit of a paid intermediary. (I was introduced through a Spanish Language school in Cusco). I met with the Director and I liked the idea that I’d be making an impact and that impact would continue to be felt after I left. During our meeting, she hired me and gave me a project to work on immediately.

From pondering a myriad of paid volunteer organizations to contemplating my own microfinance shop to supporting an established NGO weaving cooperative, my road to volunteering was not a straight line but one that worked out well for me.


Shooting Hoops At Two Miles High

My son and daughter were breathing hard. I was breathing harder. Three-on-three pickup basketball is a good workout but if you are not used to playing at 11,000 feet, your lungs can feel like they are on fire. (more on Sunday morning pickup basketball here) The three of us were playing against three cusqueño men in their early 20’s and we led for the first 10 minutes but then the altitude started getting to us. After my son hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key and my daughter stole the ball and converted it for a layup, we were huffing and puffing and we didn’t score again, losing by a bucket.

Coach Juan talks strategy during time out
We moved off the court to make way for the next team and I plopped myself down on the grass behind the basket. A short man in a track suit came up to me and said, (in Spanish) “Good game. You should have won.” I countered with some altitude-related excuse and he said, “How old is your daughter?” “Twelve,” I replied. He was quiet for a moment and then said, “I coach a team of twelve-year old girls. We will practice in a few minutes. Does she want to join us? My daughter shyly agreed and practiced with the team. She was one of the better players, along with two twin girls. Juan the coach told her to come back for another practice. This is how my daughter joined her basketball team.

For the next few months the pattern was the same. Juan would call me a day before a practice or game and give me the name of some school where we were playing and we would rearrange our schedule to make sure she got there. Once he told us to be at a school that we’d never heard of that was around the corner from our apartment. We walked there and entered a door off San Blas square that we passed by every day and discovered there was a large school inside with a very nice outdoor basketball court in the middle of the interior courtyard.

Usually Juan would give me a time for the games and I found that I could pad those times by as much as 40 minutes. The first few times we’d show up at the time he mentioned only to wait for 45 minutes for everyone else to stroll in. (more on Tiempo Peruano here). Once the games started, it was a great experience for our daughter, who was always the only blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl on the court. Everything was communicated in Spanish so her ability to communicate colloquially improved significantly and she made some new friends. In all, she played in about a half-dozen games and just as many practices.

Within a couple months, we were due to leave Cusco. I never got Juan’s phone number (I’d always wait for his last-minute calls) and we went 2 weeks without a call from him, so we were never able to say goodbye to the team. Despite this, it was a great experience for us and particularly our daughter. She is now proficient shooting hoops at sea level as well as two miles high in the Andes.


Peruvian Fusion: Doña Pepa

Doña Pepa
During our first few weeks in Cusco, my daughter took Spanish lessons at a school just off the Plaza de Armas. Quite often Patty, her teacher, would take her on walks around the city to learn Spanish through the other senses instead of only her eyes and ears in the classroom. Quite often they’d stop at a small kiosk off the plaza and buy a Doña Pepa candy bar and soon this became a ritual on their daily walks. When my daughter offered me one, I looked askance at the packaged candy covered with sprinkles and said “no thanks.” It was only later that we learned about Doña Pepa and her story.

According to legend, an Afro-Peruvian slave named Josefa Maraminillo lived in the Cañete Valley, south of the Peruvian capital of Lima and went by the name of Doña Pepa. Doña Pepa could not work because of paralysis in her arms so she prayed to the Señor de los Milagros (“Lord of the Miracles”) and traveled to Lima to view that saint's image to supplement her prayers. Allegedly, Doña Pepa was cured of paralysis on the first day of the Señor de los Milagros procession. That night she had a dream that a saint gave her a recipe for a cake. She baked the cake the following day and brought it as an offering to the procession. Since that time Doña Pepa cakes are traditionally eaten each October during the Señor de los Milagros procession.

The cake is also called a Turrón de Doña Pepa, but is different from the Spanish turrón in that it does not contain nougat. The traditional cake is flavored with anise and cane sugar and decorated with sprinkles. The candy bar that my daughter enjoys is basically a two-layered cookie covered in chocolate and dipped in sprinkles, but the wrapper bears the image of Doña Pepa. Sometimes you learn about a country’s culture from the unlikeliest sources. The one sol coin that I gave my daughter each day for her Doña Pepa has turned out to be a good investment.
Doña Pepa candy bar (courtesy of


Why We Left Suburbia

In late 2008 Congress passed what is commonly referred to as the Fiscal Stimulus Package. I haven’t read the act, but I believe that there is nothing in it that provides stimulus for the sagging spirit of the suburban American family.

Eight feet in the Andes: Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
There are swift and decisive actions in the Stimulus Package to reinvigorate a stale economy, but none to reinvigorate the day-in, day-out staleness of suburban life. There is plenty in the act to address the global financial crisis, but there’s nothing that addresses mid-life crisis. There are measures to get investors excited again about the American economy, but none to put more excitement in the lives of a suburban family from Marin County, California.

Just as the aforementioned legislation is geared to get the economy moving, our family decided to get moving…initially to Peru. Immediately following a family congress in April of 2008 we decided on the cornerstones of the first part of our Stimulus Package: volunteer, work and put down new “roots” in South America. We would later decide on the second half of this trip: a grand tour of the Mediterranean to trace the origins of western civilization.

Our principal goal was to find a sense of community in a completely foreign locale. We decided to try to find work and volunteer opportunities somewhere in the Peruvian Andes and have our two kids become proficient in Spanish. Since both kids are pretty good swimmers, we would also try to find them a swim team, to help build their language skills in a familiar environment and contribute further to a sense of community.

Certainly, the timing was right for an extended sabbatical. The economy hadn’t been this bad in decades and both my spouse and I work in cyclical industries (real estate and retail, respectively). With both of us professionally independent there was a good chance that we might not earn 6 months worth of income in the upcoming year. Some quick math showed us that continuing to toil in this manner left us financially worse off than renting out our house, volunteering and spending the next 12 months traveling the world.

This was easier said than done. Our strategy required renting out the house, home-schooling, or “road-schooling” the kids, finding a home for our dog, selling the car, canceling the cell phones and taking care of the myriad of details that go with an entrenched suburban life. We immediately launched into the planning phase and started ticking things off our list.

Although admittedly not the centerpiece of our Stimulus Package, we started to focus, like virtually every U.S. bank, on selling “troubled assets”. For example, we used Craig’s List to sell the lawnmower that hadn’t been used for 10 years, as well as the dust-covered wicker chairs that were purchased at a Williams-Sonoma sample sale 15 years ago. The government’s Stimulus Package was designed to utilize idle resources; the idea behind our Suburban Stimulus Package was to become more idle -- and less rushed -- in order to enjoy life.

This online journal will record how we made it happen and will document our progress.