On the day of my departure, I am so very glad that I came back here. It’s been the exact trip I had hoped for, without following a script, plan, or agenda. As I said in my pre-departure post, some experiences cannot be contained in a single event. I feel like the last week here in Cusco and with the girls in Anta have helped satiate what felt like a premature end to my last visit.
Because Edwin’s truck broke down, we were not able to make the trek in Pampallacta. While this was a disappointment, it in no way affected the overall experience of being back in Peru among familiar, loving faces. I know that experience of walking home with the little children awaits for another time. So I get just that much more time to experience the excitement around the idea.
We then made the drive to Urumbamba where Edwin’s hotel is. This is where I spent most of my stay in September. As it turned out, Edwin’s good friend – Flavio – was passing through the area during a visit with his wife and daughter. Flavio was the man who met me in Arequipa in September as I ventured south toward Chile. As I greeted Flavio and his family, and also got to see Jaime and the rest of the hotel staff, it felt like a reunion. There were two new puppies scampering around the grounds. And all of the hotel staff remembered me by name. Such a nice feeling of being home.
Flavio’s daughter studied in the U.S. and now lives in Texas. It had been years since she had been back to Peru, and she was marveling at all of the changes. She invited me to dinner that evening after we all returned to Cusco. The heavy rain that fell while we were inside the restaurant cleansed the cobblestone for a stroll through San Blas after dinner. The lights of the plaza shimmered so beautifully against the wet stone and puddles, creating a lava field of orange glow.
Sunday afternoon, I met Manuel at the plaza to take a taxi with him to Anta. Manuel teaches English to the girls twice a week. When we arrived in Anta, we walked through the streets toward the Hogar. As we turned the corner toward the gate, little shouts came tumbling down the hillside. About eight of the girls were high above on the hill harvesting plant samples for their Nativity scene.
After the Nativity was complete, we moved inside to the common room to hang Christmas lights and tinsel. As I have grown accustomed to over the years, I was the designated placer of all things requiring a reach. The girls’ job was to untangle all the lights. I was perfectly content with my share of the assignment.
While we were decorating, I asked Manuel to take my other camera and video the girls saying what they wanted for Christmas. The overwhelming request was “ropa” – clothes.
After finishing with the decorations — and reconciling the mystery of a broken infant Jesus — we took a mango break outside the dining hall. The girls seemed to take a special interest in whether I knew how to properly eat a mango. Apparently, I don’t. The remains of my mango retained an embarrassingly generous portion of fruit, whereas the girls had all managed to strip their mango seeds of every strand of sweetness.
The sky began to dim, and time started to weigh heavy. The girls asked me to stay at the Hogar for the night, and asked that I come back for Christmas. I think there was something special for the girls in my return…by its very being. It occurred to me that the girls probably get lots of visitors throughout the year. But I have to imagine not many return. When the realization occurred to me, it made me smile. I was happy to walk through the other side of that definition for them. Someone who came back.
As Manuel and I exchanged glances to acknowledge the time, my arms began to get squeezed, and my hands engulfed, tension pulled on my shirt tail, and palms rested upon my back. One of the girls asked me if I had any children. When I answered “no,” Ermelinda squeezed my left hand and proclaimed – in Spanish – “WE can be your children!” All of the girls laughed out and cheered “Si! Si!”
I answered: “You are my children.”
Again, they cheered and I even caught sight of Sharmeli spinning and jumping in place, smiling toward the sky. As they began to call out to me “Papa! Papa!” I was swimming in a downpour of love. It was the most beautiful sound that has ever landed upon my ears.
They all walked me inside and pushed me down to take a seat. Sister Ana Yolanda handed me an envelope full of notes from the girls. She then thanked me for everything. There was something about the words “muchas gracias” as she spoke them that immediately returned me to Karina’s hand upon my shoulder. “Mucho adoracion para tu, Patrick.” And in the bottom curve of humility, sitting there surrounded by these little girls, my hand held by a Sister, I stared up into the corner balcony where the question of worthiness stared back at me. My eyes filled as my hand went to my heart so I could say, “No. No. Gracias para ustedes. Para todos. I love you.”
My head lowered, and Sister Ana laughed with comfort, took my head in her hands and raised my face back up to where her and the girls’ smiles were.
The corner balcony was empty, and silent. There was no one. Just me. Just me, and the girls.