Derek and Michael are living and serving with people for whom Spanish is a second language in a tiny settlement deep in the central jungle of Peru. San Miguel de Marankiari is an indigenous community perched on a hillside far above the Perené River Valley, in the province of Chanchamayo and the state of Junin. San Miguel is about a 20-minute drive on a bumpy dirt road to Perené (also known as Santa Ana), the closest populated area with markets and telephone and Internet service.
San Miguel is home to several dozen indigenous Asháninka families (about 100 people in all), who live in the jungle at the edge of the Amazon. Tribal history tells of an elder and his three wives, displaced from their ancestral homeland in the valley below, who founded the community some 60 years ago.
Derek and Michael are teaching English to children, helping families with farming and working in the community library. They also are playing with children, hiking through the surrounding jungle and adjusting to a slow and peaceful way of life among people who value personal relationships and community above wealth and individual desires.
More than 25,000 people still speak the language of the Asháninkas, one of dozens of native nations that originated in the Amazon basin (now parts of Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia). Many people still live far off the beaten path, but the Asháninka people are quickly becoming westernized due to forces beyond their control. Their native language, customs, traditional diet and ways of life are disappearing as members move to cities to pursue an education or make a living.
In San Miguel, electricity, water and sewer systems, and even satellite television have arrived in recent years, bringing comforts but also changing life. Community members are trying to preserve the best of their traditional lifestyle. The founders of Ecomundos, a non-profit organization based in San Miguel, are proud of their Asháninka heritage and are helping the community maintain its distinct identity and customs and stay free of destructive outside influences. Derek and Michael commented that it reminds them of some of the challenges facing the Amish in the United States.
Community leaders hope that cultural tourism, in which a limited number of outsiders (no more than 100 per year) pay to visit and stay overnight in San Miguel in order to experience the unique aspects of Asháninka culture, can provide incomes to families who choose to remain in the village. Many of the residents of San Miguel still live in houses built of carrizo (bamboo), dress in their traditional cushmas, cultivate traditional foods such as yucca and plantains during the day and hunt for game at night, sometimes with a bow and arrow.
Derek and Michael are fully participating in the village’s mix of age-old practices, including communal gatherings and subsistence farming, along with more modern activities, such as watching television and using personal computers. They live in small bamboo huts and rise with the sun and go to bed by 9 p.m. Although Derek and Michael bathe by drawing water from outdoor faucets, they use the village’s new bathrooms (built for visitors) while their host family members often prefer the traditional outhouses. The village also has a new, modern school building, where Derek and Michael teach English.
Derek and Michael usually eat breakfast early and set aside time to study every day. They teach English to school children for at least an hour a day and staff the library and provide computer assistance two afternoons a week. Mornings and afternoons they help on the small farms of their host families. They play soccer with children or hang out with family members and also explore the jungle. And they have formed close relationships with the people of San Miguel and adjusted to a peaceful way of life.
Asked to describe his time in San Miguel and what he will take away from his service experience, Michael wrote, “The biggest unexpected surprise for me is my family and how much they enjoy having me, or so it seems. The first week was weird because I am the first tourist this family has hosted and they seemed a mix of unsure about my presence and unsure what they all needed to do for me. But since then, everything has been great and they have really treated me like family. That will probably also be what I take away from San Miguel – the love the community has shown us.”
Derek shared similar feelings, adding that his service experience has helped him appreciate a simpler life. “The biggest unexpected surprise is how close I have gotten to the community and my family members. I really feel like they accept me as one of them, and I think this will really make it hard to say goodbye. The highlights are also this; being able to get so close and have some really good experiences with the kids and other members of the community,” Derek wrote. “My biggest takeaway is how I have learned to enjoy being able to do nothing, and slow my life down a lot. If I don’t have anything to do, I either find something or just enjoy being able to do nothing, instead of being bored.”