Play Date

I was nervous.

The bus was to arrive at Anta at 3:00 p.m., and I wanted to be there so as to not miss a single moment with the girls at the orphanage. Jaime and two young students working at the hotel invited me to see Huchuy Cusco (“Little Cusco”) – a remote ruin of a small village high atop one of the surrounding mountains. It is a site that is visited very rarely, and the four miles of steep, narrow, barely-developed gravel roads made it clear why. The plan was to drive up to Huchuy Cusco, have a look around, then return to Urumbamba, visit the Pisaq market, then drive to Cusco (the big one) to pick up Edwin before heading to Anta in time to get on the bus back to Cusco with the girls. It seemed like an awfully full agenda to me, and my anxieties were elevated by the fact that Jaime didn´t seem to know exactly how to reach the remote road to Huchuy Cusco.

After asking no fewer than 10 locals along the way, we were finally pointed straight up the mountain road. We had lost at least an hour trying to find it. It was 10:30, and I was dealing with another nail-biting journey while calculating our schedule in my mind.

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I told Jaime, “Anta y las ninas: absolutamente primario, por favor.”

He got it. And I started to sense he was nervous too.

We arrived at the top of the mountain and had another 20 minute walk to the ruins. It was a stunning view of the valley below, and the ruins were fascinating. There were farmers tending sheep and preparing fields against the brisk whip of cold winds off the Andes. I kept our pace brisk, and at one point Jaime said, “Mister Patrick, you walk very good!”

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If my pace at 13,000 feet can impress a local who lives at 10,000 feet, then I guess all of that Hood to Coast training at 5,200 feet paid off. Thanks Jaime.

By the time 12:30 arrived, I made the move back to the jeep as a cue to my friends that we needed to be pointing ourselves elsewhere. They agreed, and we made our way down the mountain where the two students departed to go back to Urumbamba via taxi. With a nice blacktop under our wheels, we were able to start making up for lost time on our way to Cusco – having decided to skip Pisaq in the interest of time.

We fetched Edwin in Cusco in a downpour at about 2 p.m., and I felt more relaxed with him behind the wheel since I knew he knew the way directly to the orphanage. We arrived just in time for the girls to begin their procession into the common room where Edwin and I waited.

In twos and threes, they shuffled in and gave us hugs. All of them had wet hair and smelled soapy sweet from their showers, with fresh afterschool clothes on and rose in their cheeks. Little Dheysi ran up to me and reached up for a hug and kissed my cheek. She showed me a scrape on her right eye where she had fallen the day before. She had it covered up with her bangs, bashful for anyone to see. Sharmeli – my painting helper from Wednesday – pulled on my pocket and reached up for a hug. Then Ermelinda came in, along with two little ones. The buzz began, as the girls paced with impatience for the bus to arrive.

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The bus filled quickly, and Dheysi had carried my satchel to the bus and saved me a seat in the front. We waited for a few remaining girls, and when the last to be accounted for appeared through the gate the bus erupted in cheers. As we wound our way through Anta on our way to the route to Cusco, the girls said a blessing led by Sister Ana. One the formalities were tending to, the girls began clapping hands, singing songs, and dancing in their seats.

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Ermelinda sat behind me reading what looked to be the Peru version of the National Enquirer. She is one of the older girls, and clearly plays the role of older sister to all the little ones. She swiped my John Deere cap, and motioned for me to help fit in on her head and pull her ponytail through. As I´ve always known, John Deere caps transcend all cultural boundaries and they are cool the world over. Just ask a Peruvian teenager.

Sharmeli sat across the aisle from me, and reached out for my hands which were ice cold. She began to rub them to warm them up. She and her seatmates took an interest in my aviator sunglasses. I hope my prescription lenses didn´t damage their vision, but they sure were adorable showing them off. They handed them back to me and asked me to put them on. When I did, they all went “oohhhhhh.” I´m not sure what that meant, but it made me feel cool. ; )

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Once the bus arrived in Cusco, the girls could not be distracted from the sights out the windows. Their eyes were wide, and they pointed out churches and statues and stadiums. When we finally arrived at the playground, the pent up energy on the bus exploded out of the doors and they ran passed me in a blur of pink and baby blue. The rain from earlier had made it damp and a little chilly, but the girls showed only joy for the chance to run and climb and play.

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They rotated chaotically from merry-go-rounds to teeter-totters to giant slides and swingsets. My name was screamed from all directions with requests to push, pull, slide, take a picture, help someone down, or help someone up. They were screaming and giggling and holding hands and smiling and as joyful as you can imagine a group of little girls being. From time to time, one or two or three would run up to me, grab my hand and say, “Thank you Pah-teek…Thank you!”

The rain began to fall gently, and then gradually picked up. The girls strolled around oblivious to it, eating their ice cream and muddying

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their shoes. The giant slides were not very good sliding slides – more scooting was going on than sliding. As a result, the mud from their shoes began to appear on their bottoms. Once this was discovered, it became the source of laughter among all of them. One would go up to the other, turn her around and lift her coat tail, see the muddy bottom and then start laughing.

Our hour at the playground ended way too soon, even in the midst of the rain. The girls lined up on the sidewalk awaiting the bus, and I sat down on the ground with them all around me looking through all the

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day´s photos on my camera screen. I felt sets of tiny hands on my head and neck, and others wrapped around my shoulders and arms. Then I felt my hat returned to my head, while others sought to re-adjust it so it would fit me again.

Edwin and I would take a taxi back to Urumbamba, while the girls returned to Anta on the bus. My plans were to move back to Cusco on Saturday, and leave from their to Arequipa on Monday night. The girls were still laughing and joking over their wet butts and ice cream dribbles. I caught Ermelinda´s eyes, then her smile, and then Rosa Maria´s, and then Marilin´s…one by one, as my eyes passed over them, they held my glance, and with only their soft expressions and gracious smiles, quietly said “Thank you.”

The scale of their gratitude was more than I could take in all at once…I´m still feeling it pass through me, like warm rose water displacing every tiny thing, to leave more and more space for what´s big – what matters.

I didn´t want to go. And my eyes began to fill.

“Edwin.”

“Yes Patrick.”

“Can you please ask Sister Ana if I can see the girls again before I go?”

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By the time the words “I go” escaped my mouth, my eyes were full and my voice hoarse. Edwin passed on my request, and she knodded and said yes. “Yes, Patrick, you can go back either tomorrow or Sunday.”

I put on my sunglasses to cover my eyes, and turned my face to the window.

“Patrick,” Edwin called. I turned my face to him as I wiped tears from underneath my sunglasses.

“We can stay here on the bus with the girls and then take a taxi back here and then go back to Urumbamba.”

It was so sweet of him to offer that, and I knew he did it as he saw how hard it was for me to leave the girls. But Edwin had spent a lot of time with me on this journey, and I didn´t want to ask more of him…not right now.

“It´s okay, Edwin. If I can see them again, it´s okay.”

By this time, my feelings had been revealed to the girls, and they became hushed. Sharmeli reached across the aisle and tapped me.

“Pah-teek, solo feliz.” Oh honey, how I wish I had the words for you to understand that my tears are the most ultimate and pure feliz imaginable.

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I caught Dheysi´s eyes peeking back at me from the seat in front…they were worried. I smiled at her, and she smiled back. Then Ermelinda´s hand fell upon my shoulder. They were coming to my rescue.

The bus pulled to the taxi stand, and one of the little girls in front looked back at her friends and yelled something that included my name. When she was finished, they all crowded around me and hugged me and said “Thank you, Pah-teek. Thank you!” I was overpowered, and overwhelmed, and overjoyed knowing I´d see them again.

They hung out the windows and said goodbye, and smiled and shouted and yelled, “Come tomorrow! Come Sunday! Come every day!”

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When Edwin and I got settled in the taxi, he went right to work arranging my next visit. We made plans to go back on Sunday, cook the girls lunch after their returned to mass, and then spend the afternoon with them. I asked him about other things they needed, and just as I was to inquire about coats (having seen a number of them with no coat at all) he mentioned how they needed raincoats for walking to school in. They wanted to get them all alike, with their names on them. I agreed to take care of that for them. (I thank my friends and family here for your generosity in chipping in. All of the girls´ jackets are paid for, and we´ll pick them up today and give them to the girls when we arrive Sunday mid-day.)

It had been an extraordinary day, and the privelege of spending time with the girls is something I will forever hold high within the span of my life.

When we arrived in Urumbamba, Edwin and I had dinner and then walked back to the hotel. On our way, we talked about politics, home towns, children and families. Weaving in between us as we walked were little boys and girls no more than five or six years old, out in the dark playing with their families and friends..as safe as could be. The lights lit the plaza, and smoke from open grills filled the air with salty aromas. The gravel crunched under our feet, and dogs resting on sidewalks lifted their heads only long enough to see we were no threat at all. Just two men – two friends – talking about what matters.

I thought about the girls, about this journey, and about my life. As we approached the gate of the hotel, it seemed like as good a time as any to allow my voice to ask the question that my heart was screaming to my head.

“Edwin. What would be the process for adopting one or two of the girls?…”

Love,
p

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