Postres, brownies, alfajores, un sol, un sol, un sol,” I shout as I push a brightly coloured bike along a dusty road.
I had been walking along the streets of Peru for over two hours, expertly manoeuvring our ‘shop’ for the day. A small French patisserie with home-baked produce that I had helped to prepare. If truth be known, I was in my element, selling freshly-made produce on the streets of Peru and interacting with the locals. We were on a mission – to sell the most cakes ever and we were well on our way there.
I was visiting Mano a Mano, a non-profit organisation which operates in the slums in the North of Lima. My home for the night was a women-only run restaurant in the area of Comas, one of the poorer areas in Peru.
The project was started by Sylvie, a French nurse who came to the area 24 years ago with the organisation Doctors Without Borders. Mano a Mano was founded in 1994 to assist local women in their daily tasks and help promote solidarity, cultural openness, and community development in La Ensenada (a Peruvian favela).
Upon arrival we were given a tour of the building, meeting the ladies who worked there. During our tour I meet Emma, a lady who makes the artisan products. All the handmade items are made out of recycled material and takes Emma up to teo hours to make. Her unique bags and purses are sold here and also in France paying her a salary and also going towards the project.
I was already impressed by this project but there wasn’t any more time for chatting as I was here to work and help. Working alongside Lily and Gloria, two ladies who now training in pastry making both used to work in construction. Under guidance from the ladies, we helped to prepare and make desserts, which we were to sell on the streets that afternoon. As I painted egg whites upon apple tarts and spooned dulce de leche upon alfajores (a Latin American cake with a sweet creamy paste), Jaga, my travelling partner cut out pastry circles.
The restaurant opened for business and we sat with the locals to sample the local food – chicken in beer with avocado, whilst enjoying the Peruvian sunshine. Whilst our desserts were being baked, Sonia, a volunteer who has been here for one year told us more about the project.
Primarily working in the area of La Ensenada, the project works closely with the community. Mano a Mano has built parks for the children, earthquake-proof walls, and ensures that the community has access to health care and clean water.
Sonia visits the community every Saturday and teaches them about Peruvian literature, how to protect themselves with sexual protection, and how to protect themselves in an earthquake. The library is the main focal point for the community and gives the children in the area a place to play twice a week. A psychologist attends each Monday. They also work alongside young people, helping to fund their education. This has a snowball effect with the teenagers then in turn giving support to the younger ones with their studies.
Every year in December, Sonia along with the chief of the library and the young people visit the houses and schools in the community to ask if there are people who are willing to help the project. They educate the adults on the relationship between parents and children to raise awareness of family life and help them to take an interest in their children’s growth.
Volunteers play a big part here and in total there are 15 volunteers. Volunteers come for two days to four months, helping in construction, ecology, workshops, cooking, and sewing. The project teaches women the skills they need. They create the teachers who then teach the kids.
I meet Rocio, one of the volunteers who was once the leader of the library in La Ensenada. Rocio was just eight years old when she became a beneficiary of the library and the project. At the age of 28 she is studying administration, her studies paid for by the project. I ask her what her life would have been like if the project wasn’t there.
“I would have had lots of children,” she says. “Four, maybe five. Being twenty-eight with no children is very uncommon here.”
There is a high rate of teenage pregnancies with girls having babies at the early age of fourteen meaning that they have to quit high school to become mothers. Life in the favela can be tough. Many street kids sell sweets to survive whilst others turn to a life of crime from as young as 4 years old, robbing from tourists or selling drugs. The unlucky ones fall into underage prostitution. With only 100 places at the university most parents don’t finish high school. Mano a Mano gives them an alternative to gang life.
Knowing that our pastry proceeds and our fee for visiting the project was doing such amazing work, we were on a mission to sell as many pastries as we could. On a typical day they sell 117 Peruvian Soles worth of desserts. As we placed our French price-flags on each tray, we made a pledge to sell out.
Now we were parked up on a dusty road in Peru with ten pastries left. Night was falling, cars were honking and lights were flashing from the buses pulling up and picking and dropping off passengers. We were ideally situated for the passing bus trade. We had sold to practically every geographic – young children and their reluctant mothers, professional people on their way home from the office, and workmen who we had sweetly persuaded to come down from the roof and buy our brownies.
It was nearly 7pm, our cut-off time for selling. With only ten minutes to go I felt propelled to sell more.
“Just 5 more,” I said, wanting to beat the target of the previous sellers.
At 7pm we pushed the bicycle and our ‘shop’ back to the restaurant. We didn’t sell everything but with only 7 pieces left we had beaten any previous sales and were now the top sellers! But most importantly we had had an insight into the daily life of a street vendor, had fun whilst doing it and had also helped raised funds for a poor Peruvian community.
Visiting Mano a Mano
Although Mano a Mano primarily works in the community of La Ensenada, you can visit the women-only run restaurant in Comas and stay the night. I took a taxi from Lima but you can get a bus here (they tell you how when you book your tour). During the visit you get to interact with members of the La Ensenada community and learn about life in Peru’s capital. The revenue from the tour helps to finance Mano a Mano’s projects including health campaigns, children’s libraries, and the construction of parks in the La Ensenada community. Book your tour through Visit.org.
Note – Although the description states that you visit a market, the ladies only do this once a week on Wednesdays.
How good is Mano a Mano for solos? Although I wasn't solo for this project I had so much fun here. This project is amazing value and includes lunch and your own room overnight. I give it 5 stars.
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Where To Stay in Peru
We stayed at Nuna Wasi, a nice quiet hostel in Miraflores. I really liked it here as it was only a 10 minute walk to Larcomar, a stunning shopping complex with views of the ocean and the Lima cross which is pretty at night. If you stay here I recommend staying in the 4 bed dorm instead of the larger one. A dorm bed costs from £11 a night including breakfast.
If you are travelling to Peru and looking for some company for all or part of your trip, G Adventures is a responsible tour company and has group tours from 8 days to more than 3 weeks.