Ever since my first day here my host family, and extended relatives, have made me feel not only welcome but have done their best to make me feel like a part of their lives. Through their efforts I have had the opportunity to really integrate, never being made to feel as merely a renter or an outsider, but more as a distant cousin visiting for the first time. During my two years here I have had the great honor of being involved in family birthdays, church events, holidays and even drama. Unfortunately, today I can count my integration complete on a much more somber note as I share in my family's grief at the loss of my host uncle, Willy Castro, who died in a boat accident on a river in Jaen on Saturday.
Willy was a dear friend to me these two years and not only the first that not only welcomed me with open arms but the first to become an active and helpful advisor during my first confusing and scary months in site. My first impression of "Tito" (as the family refers to him) was that he was almost too friendly. Within a week of meeting him, he would find me in the streets and give me big hugs, laughing and telling me how wonderful it was for me to be there. He wasted no time in sharing his favorite hobby with me: birdwatching. Initially I would avoid Willy in the street for fear of losing an hour of my time to his long-winded and excited stories of his most recent excursion. He would have me sit down next to him and show me each and every one of hundreds of photos of birds... often the same bird - looking to me we raised eyebrows after each to see how much I approved of his birdwatching prowess.
Tito was the kind of guy who either grew on you fast or became "that guy" you would always try and avoid. Fortunately for me, he quickly became the former and was inviting me on nature hikes, to see his family on the outskirts of town, and giving me my only real glimpses of life in the poorest parts of Peru. Willy was an amazingly dynamic person who was/is adored throughout the region as a great man in every community he touched, be they rich or poor. He was a professor, a writer, a cook, a comedian, a friend, and a loving husband and father of three daughters. He truly was one of those rare and exceptional human beings that you can meet once but remember forever - and I will.
It is often the case that we get so wrapped up in our daily routines that we forget the people around us who make our lives worth living. I have had my fair share of frustrations and pessimistic fits during my two years here but I would do it all over again if given the chance because the people I know today (volunteers, host family, friends, counterparts) have enriched my own existence in so many wonderful ways. It is my hope that I can keep contact with as many of them as possible after I go home. It is, however, much to my detriment that Willy cannot be among them.
Edit: The wake was only one night as upposed to the traditional three because of the length of time it took to bring the body to Cutervo. However, there were over 1,000 people waiting for Willy at the entrance of the city and over 2,000 came to grieve as his casket was escorted by police through the streets to his home. The next day an equally impressive number of Cutervinos gathered for a huge mass and parade to see Willy off to his final resting place in the new cemetery on the hill overlooking the city and hills he fought so hard to protect from environmental destruction. Appropriately, the skies opened up and rained heavily the second the priest said the last words and his casket was slid into the crypt. It was a very touching time for the whole city... something I have never seen happen here in Cutervo - proving how amazing of a person Willy Castro was.