By the time they arrive at their school, their feet are dusty and their legs fatigued. Lydia´s teacher gives them each a small loaf of flat bread about the size of a bagel. They eat eagerly as the morning´s first lesson begins. As the sun warms the room, the spirits warm too and their once-tired little bodies awaken to the excitement of learning and the simple pleasures of being a child. By late morning, tummies begin to growl and attention spans wane. Lydia grabs her bowl that she is responsible for keeping track of and cleaning. She stands in line with others holding their bowls. In a carved out shell of a building, three mothers have been cooking the children´s lunch over an open smokey flame. The soup contains squash and herbs and carrots and barley. No meat. Apacas are sold to the school once a week from a nearby farm for $100 each. This assures Lydia and her friends protein about twice a week.They sit in groups of friends, eating their soup. Its flavor is mild, and its sustinence modest. But it´s just enough to provide Lydia the energy for some mid-day play under the now towering Andean sun that casts shadows on terraces her great grandfathers never finished. After running and teasing and gossip, Lydia runs up the hill to the stream that flows down from glaciers. She washes her bowl, which is dressed with the letters of her name that are beginning to fade. Now, it only reads “_ Y D I A”. Once her bowl is clean, she sits on her bottom and brings water from the stream up to her knees and rinses the dust downward off her shins and feet. She puts her still wet feet, sparkling with a thousand tiny water stars, back in her dusty sandals. Her bowl in hand, she returns to her classroom. When lessons are over at 2 p.m., just as the sun is at its most intense, Lydia and her classmates spread out from the school back to their homes. Lydia´s walk will get her home just as the last of the day´s glow is bidding farewell, and the moon´s dimmer light brightens. Just in time for dinner with her mother and father. Lydia can attend school through the sixth grade, because there´s no room for a secondary school and the closest town with one is too far for her to walk. She will marry at the age of 15 or 16, and likely stay in the village where she has grown up. Some day, Lydia will dress her children before the morning light and send them down a mountain in the dark, holding cold potatoes and wearing thin-soled sandals. Their clothes will adorn them as if for a ceremony; but it will be just another day.
The next classroom had about 40 younger children all practicing writing their names. The teacher showed us their supply of vitamins, and we counted out their supply to determine they had enough to get by for one more month. We went back out to the car, and took the inventory of my big green bag of vitamins. It would give them enough to last for the rest of the year. I reached for the strap of the bag at the same time one of the gentlemen from the village did. I said, “No, please. I´ve traveled with this bag all the way from Colorado. I want to see it to its final destination.” He smiled, I smiled back, and he said, “Muchos gracias, senor.”
We spent the next hour playing with the children and passing out candy. We had lunch together, and I worked as hard as I could to win their trust enough to coax their sometimes-reluctant smiles with smiles of my own and my camera.
They are so beautiful, and it did my heart so much good to be near them. With each pair of eyes I caught and turned into squints over smiles, I fell in love.
There is purity in them, and joy. I see their reason to grieve, and their refusal to indulge.
They smiled back at me, and made my every day beforehand worth all its while.
They hid between my knees, and pulled on my satchel.They put their hands out and said “gracias” with childhood lispses when offered candy. Before we left, one of the the village leaders came to Edwin as asked that he translate a message to me. “We wish to thank you for bringing our children these vitamins from such a long distance. We thank you for your care and for all that you have done to help. We wish for you that God richly bless you for what you do.”
I not only felt completely unworthy of his sentiments, I also felt like a small being for every bad thing I had to say about that green bag (albeit, all along, mostly in jest…except in Customs).My hand on my heart, I replied, “It was one of my life´s great honors. Thank you for all that you do. May God bless you, too.”
And when we left, they all yelled “Adios amigo!”Our next stop was Totora, a village who has asked for meal assistance for its students who also travel long distances to attend school. Totora was at the bottom of the hill from Pampa Llacta. The students welcomed us with high a pitched “buenas dias” followed by whispers and giggles. This was followed by the children singing us a song. It was so sweet, and their tiny voices echoed off the classroom walls and carried outside to the valley where I´m sure it followed the river over rocks and under the chorus of the wind through trees. I asked Edwin to translate the words of the song, and he explained that the words talked about calling out to a little bird. We´ll call out to you one time, little bird. And because we miss and want to be with you, we´ll call out to you a second time. But if we have to call out a third time, little bird, you really should just go away. I like that. We left behind vitamins, and an assurance that there would be more help for the children who currently only receive a small amount of food support from the government. Not nearly enough, though, for the daily journeys they are demanding of their young bodies just so they can go to school.