il viaje d´equipaje verde (the journey of the green bag)

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***

Her name is Lydia. She is 8. She walks down the mountain every morning before the security of the sun appears. In her bag she carries two potatoes, boiled the night before and now cold. Her face, feet and legs start the day clean. Her dress adorns her as if for a ceremony, but it´s just another day. Her journey will take her two hours – but only because it´s downhill. Her journey home will take closer to five. She joins the cold, dusty diaspora of children leaving their remote villages that appear on no map, to attend school in another village that appears on no map. They stumble downhill on the unstable gravel, with sleepy eyes and yawning jaws. Lydia and her classmates gnaw on their cold potatoes as the sun´s iris catches a glimpse of them.

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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.

***

Judi had just returned from Peru and called me with some ideas for my volunteer service. Peruvian Hearts operates several different programs to benefit the children in poverty in Peru. The longest standing program is a girls orphanage. In addition, the organization provides breakfast and lunch programs for children who travel down mountains to attend school during the day. Judi´s recent visit had cast a light on another important need.

“Would you mind taking some vitamins down with you? The children are all terribly malnourished, and we´re running low on vitamins.”

I suppose in retrospect, I should have not assumed that “some vitamins” meant a few large bottles or maybe a box. There´s value, I´ve learned, in understanding the scale of a request prior to agreeing to fulfill it.

“I´d be happy to,” I said.

“Great. I have a large duffel bag we´ll get ready for you and we´ll arrange to get it to you before you leave.”

Duffel bag? Large duffel bag?

“Uhm, how many vitamins are we talking about?”

“Oh, I think we can fit around 5,000 in a bag. But we´ll keep it right at 50 pounds so you won´t have any trouble checking it on the plane.”

Ok. Fair enough. Chaperone a fifty pound bag of vitamins to the mountains of Peru? Sure.

I had a vague picture in my mind of what a 50-pound duffel bag full of vitamins might look like, and a general idea of what carrying an extra 50 pounds might feel like. I was wrong on both accounts.

Danny, Judi´s son, arrived at my office the week before I was to depart. There at his feet, a huge olive green duffel bag poofing out on all sides that rattled when he kicked it.

“Here it is!”

Yes. There it is.

“Thanks so much for doing this.”

“You´re welcome. Uhm, am I going to have any trouble getting this through Customs?”

“We´ve never had any trouble in the past. We just say it´s vitamins for orphans and we get right through.”

I knew as soon as the words came out of his mouth that my fate would not likely be as seamless and friendly. A mother and her son traveling together illicit one set of responses, a 6´3″ shadowy-faced gringo illicits a whole other category.

I got my first interrogation at DIA. I passed the test okay, but despite all of my hopes I could not check the bag all the way through to Lima. This meant I had to haul the green monster from the Toronto airport to my hotel for the night. The next morning, hello big bag of vitamins. Off to the airport, another set of questions. Pass. By big green bag…see you in Peru. Off the plane, through Immigration, off to the side to Customs. Here it came, all rattly and proud of itself. I hauled it onto a cart, minded my own business and placed it on the xray machine.

“Buzz!”

Great.

“Senor! Senor!”

Not only did I get a look, I got a finger and a point and the stink eye all in one gloriously choreographed gesture of suspicion and disdain.

I grabbed the duffel bag, carried it over to the exam table, and plopped it down with a thud and the rattle of 8,000 pills.

The Customs agent just looked at me curiously, as if to say “What in the hell?”

“Vitamins. For orphans.” I knew this was not going to work.

He unzipped the bag and called over one of his colleagues. They took in hand a few bottles, rattled them, read the labels, rattled some more, and then pointed me to another station.

Here I had to fill out a form, go through another two interrogations, and finally pay a $37 tariff. At each turn, I was leered at up until the time they took my cash. Then we were all friends. So then I had to go BACK through the same Customs agent and it looked like I was going to have do it all again. I managed the flag the guy who originally flagged me. He recognized me, and shouted out something to the agent guarding the exit. I don´t know what he said, but I distinctly heard the words “amigo” and “vitamins.”

Good. Now I was their vitamin friend. That, I can live with.

Off to my next hotel in Lima with the big bag of vitamins. The next morning, another stroll around another airport carrying over 100 pounds of vitamins, clothes, and Cipron. I got my green duffel bag´s last boarding pass, sent it on its way, and we met again like destiny in Cusco where the bag was loaded in the back of Edwin´s car.

This morning, I met Edwin downstairs at 8 a.m. with the green duffel bag, awaiting our departure for two villages. The first one, Pampa Ilacta, was about a hour away straight up a dusty mountain road. It is one of the sites of the breakfast and lunch programs supported by Peruvian Hearts. Our objectives were simple, deliver vitamins and assess any other needs the school/village might need.

We arrived shortly after 9:30 a.m. A few of the village leaders greeted us. Edwin opened the back of his truck to show the supply of vitamins, and explained why we were here. He first wanted to take a quick inventory of the vitamins they had on-site to see how many more they needed.

The classroom buildings had received a fresh coat of paint just a few weeks ago, the colors flashing vivid against the bright blue of sky. Inside the first classroom sat about 30 students in the fifth and sixth grade. This is as far as the sixth graders will go through school, unless they find a way to make it another 15 miles down the mountain.

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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.”

“My pleasure.”

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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.

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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.

Their spirits are so soaring, and their young souls seem to emit something far too profound for me to understand.

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There is purity in them, and joy. I see their reason to grieve, and their refusal to indulge.

I saw cheeks rouged raw red from wind and sun and dust. And above them, white brighter than snowcaps and cocoa deeper than the forests.

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They smiled back at me, and made my every day beforehand worth all its while.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Today I received the most remarkable dose of medicine that my body and spirit so desperately needed after a harrowing journey and being so sick. My body has its strength back, my spirit has a path, and when I get home I´m buying this green bag from Judi.

Love,
p

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