I was full of excitement and anticipation as I prepared for my September 2007 trip to Peru and Ecuador. It was going to be my first time in South America, and my feelings were beyond words.
August 15, 2007.
A magnitude 8.0 earthquake hit the west coast of Peru, just southeast of Lima. The most affected areas were Pisco, Ica, and Chincha Alta. Hundreds died, and thousands upon thousands of homes were destroyed.
My first, selfish, thought was, “will I still be able to go on my trip?”. I’d been waiting so long for this trip, sacrificed a job for it (long story), and just plain really wanted to go.
But, I knew, that in times like these, sometimes it’s not appropriate or helpful for tourists to travel to disaster-stricken areas.
Our tour operator, G Adventures (formerly Gap Adventures), informed us that while the devastation was pretty bad, it was also very isolated, and so our tour, the Inca Explorer, would simply not stop in Pisco and the Ballestas Islands, as scheduled. We asked if we could bring anything to help, and were told that (warm) clothing and non-perishable food items would be very helpful.
So, we got a box. It wasn’t a big box, but it was probably a couple feet wide by a foot or two high. We packed it with fleece jumpers, long pants, sweatshirts, and boxes of pasta, tins of beans, and any other food that could fit. After taping the hell out of it, the box was ready to be flown to Lima with us. It was a bit cumbersome on either airport end, but we knew we were doing the right thing.
When our tour guide picked us up, he had no idea where to take the box. Great, we thought, we brought this all the way here and now can’t do anything with it. He made some calls, and found a solution. Upon leaving Lima, we would still have to drive through Pisco on our way to Nazca. As we drove through Pisco, our bus driver slowed down in the devastated town, and our tour guide opened the box and handed things out to children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, everyone.
We sat there in the van, watching our old Roots sweatshirts and boxes of PC White Cheddar macaroni and cheese be placed in the hands of some of the most thankful people I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe it.
I honestly thought our box of stuff was going to end up in a disaster relief depot and be coordinated by volunteers, etc. I didn’t realise we’d actually see the people who were appreciating our efforts.
I only wish I’d taken another box, or two, or five, with me.
Sometimes, when you travel, you are reminded that it’s not all about you. It’s not about foreign disasters and whether you get to go on your trip or not. It’s also not about avoiding areas during times of distress. This can actually harm destinations if the situation isn’t dire (see: SARS Toronto 2003).
Obviously, though, you need to respect the people and countries, and if your presence as a tourist will hinder relief efforts, stay away. But, if the issue is isolated and there’s something you can do, do it. It may seem small, but you can make a difference, and you may even get to see first-hand the difference you make.