Wednesday’s drive to Lamay was without event until the phone call was made.
It was Edwin, on the phone with the contractor who was supposed to be working on the kitchen and pantry expansion at the school in Lamay. It’s in Lamay where 250 schoolchildren are fed daily from the support of Peruvian Hearts, and the need has outgrown the rather Spartan accommodations in which the current kitchen operates.
The contractor, it seems, had taken some advance payment for the work and then decided to leave the job. I’ve never heard Edwin so agitated. “Respóndeme! Respóndeme!” The guy was apparently offering to repay whatever was owed, which would not be known until we inspected the progress of the work. So just outside of Lamay we stopped at his worksite to pick up him and his partner.
I got out of the truck while Edwin walked up the road to greet them. I was standing there innocently gazing about when my eyes caught theirs. And suddenly it occurred to me: they thought I was there to make sure the money was repaid. They extended to me the most timid “Hola. Como stas?” I’d heard, and did a double take when Edwin told them to get in the back seat.
I felt a little badly for the poor guys – all 4’10” of them. But I could tell Edwin was enjoying the vibe, and I wasn’t keen on the notion of the children’s kitchen project being the source of easy money for deadbeats who wouldn’t follow through on their commitment. So we sat there. Quietly. Zooming toward Lamay.
Once we arrived at the school, I trusted Edwin to take care of the negotiations while I loitered outside the kitchen area where the children were having recess. It was an odd juxtaposition of noises. I could hear Edwin and the contractors debating in the background, while in front of me were dozens of little rascals climbing everything in sight. They didn’t quite know what my deal was, and I didn’t immediately start snapping photos. But once I did, it was as though I became a piece of chum thrown to circling sharks. They all but tackled me. “A mí! A mí! A mí!” Relentlessly.
As Edwin brought the headmaster into the debate, I was playing peek-a-boo with two girls hiding in the balcony. As the argument over the missing bags of cement ensued, I was showing a group of boys their photos on my camera’s display screen. And as the contractors conceded to come back to finish the work once doors and windows were in place, a little girl was yelling “Hey! Gringo!” at me to get her photo taken. By the time Edwin had bought the boys outside the schoolyard new marbles, all was well again in Lamay.
As it just so happened to be lunchtime for the kids, we stopped at the existing kitchen and shared a bowl of stew with the children. All a little bashful to start, but set aglow with a simple smile, a “hello”, and any expression of interest in who they are.
When we returned to Urumbamba, two of the young women who work at the hotel – Flor and Elizabeta – brought to my room a bowl of soup, some bread and coffee. They also took care of my laundry after seeing me wandering around with my laundry bag the previous day. And with their nurturing and kindness, I had another encounter of feeling I was home.
Urumbamba is such a beautiful, quiet and neat little village. During my last visit, I missed having the chance to stroll through town during the evening. All of the merchants and families take over the main streets and plaza, and the air fills with the smell of grills and open wood fires. Dogs take a different posture, as though they partially own the dusk. And all of the hubbub begins to settle down and quiet into a charming cadence of dog barks, the laughter of friends, and the rooster in the distance whose timer must be off.
I picked up a bottle of wine to take back to the hotel, and shared a toast with Edwin. It had felt like a long day, so I retreated to the balcony off my room to look at the stars and find a deeper quiet in the spaces in between.
This morning we made our way to Patacancha – a remote high-altitude village above Ollantaytambo. I was curious to see a project being overseen by an NGO to develop a women’s weaving cooperative. It is a huge problem (i.e. injustice) in many villages like Patacancha where local crafts are being purchased at ridiculously (unfair) prices by middle-men who then take them to town for huge profits. The co-op will not only help provide the women with suitable facilities for their weaving, but also expand the use of natural dyes which will in-turn up the value of their creations. The finished products are then sold at a single site in town, also managed by the same NGO. This puts more profit in the hands of the weavers.
On our 90-minute journey up the mountain, we gave a ride to a husband and wife, and again to a father and daughter. Edwin is fluent in Quechua as well, which made for rich interactions with our passengers. The husband and wife had awoken at 4 a.m. to walk down the mountain to go to the market. Their trip back up would have taken them 3 hours had it not been for Edwin picking them up. The father and daughter were an especially sweet pair. I try to be particularly sensitive about photographing Quechuans, as I know some find it offensive and intrusive. But everyone I met today was very gracious and happy to allow me to photograph them.
When we arrived at Patacancha, it was very quiet. We happened upon a gentleman mending a fence, and he invited us to follow him up to where the weaving project was. He had just returned from harvesting his potatoes, and his wife was sitting on the ground weaving a new band for her hat. He explained that everyone in the village was out in the fields harvesting their potatoes as well. We chatted for a few minutes before heading to the weaving project. We spoke to the project director for awhile, and shared information about Pampallacta – a similar village where Peruvian Hearts is lending assistance, and where a weaving project would be of great benefit.
After we’d finished our visiting, we strolled back through the village and gradually began to encounter more and more people as the harvesters were returning. They came in waves of horse caravans carrying bags of potatoes. The potatoes are extremely good and earthy tasting. They are no bigger than the size of a medium-sized new potato, and many have purple centers. In fact, they are good enough to serve as currency between families when favors are needed.
On the ride down the mountain, we encountered Florenzia and her little boy Joel. We took a U-turn to give them a ride back up the hill. We then gave a farmer a ride to check on his crops. All such friendly, beautiful people living such noble, simple lives. It made me again wonder, when did all of this stuff become so important? When did the notions of possession, status, distinction, ambition, accomplishment and legacy take such a strong hold on our higher, better selves?
Having traveled to many of the world’s most impoverished places, and spending time with – and in some cases even studying – the people, I can bear witness to this absolute fact: poor people are generally happier. They are. I’m not talking about the starving people in the Sudan, or the desperate Haitian families still wondering about loved ones. I’m talking about the people living out their daily lives with simplicity, humility, and gratitude in places like Patacancha, Soweto, Tortuguero, Kekchi, and even the slums of Delhi. I believe very strongly that there is deep, rich, and extraordinarily powerful wisdom to be derived from these people. And I want to know more of what they know.
As I pondered all of this, Edwin pulled to the side of the road where a group was harvesting some corn. He asked to buy 10 kilos, and we were offered some chicha (corn beer). It appeared to be poured out of an old anti-freeze container, but my guess is the chicha neutralized whatever else had been in that jug. I had a few sips. Very strong flavor with just a bit of sweetness. But maybe that was the anti-freeze.
I took a taxi back to Cusco this evening, and stopped in to see Vanessa at her newly renovated hotel. Her parents happened to be there as well, and were as graceful and beautiful as they were upon our first meeting. Both dressed as though they were on their way to visit the president – her mother in a sophisticated dress and her father sitting elegantly in his hat and overcoat watching a soccer game on one of the suite’s new flat-screen televisions.
I invited Vanessa to come with me to see the girls on Sunday. I told her about our plans to rent a bus to take the girls to the festival in the valley, and that I thought it might be nice for her to get to see the girls again. She looked at me with true feeling in her eyes and said, “yes, I wish for me to see them all again.”
It startled me for a second. And it took me back to our time with the girls in September, when Vanessa argued with me at the market over who would pay for what for our dinner in Anta, the constant smile she wore while we were at the Hogar, and her parents commenting later on what a special time she had with the girls. The expression on her face as she accepted my invitation this time made me worry about her a little. And all I could think to do was put my arm around her, and squeeze. I got a very strong sense that there is something about the girls that Vanessa needs.
Then again, I believe there is something about the girls that all of us need.