Starfish

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I moved from my hostel in Cusco to a nicer hotel for the same price.  It’s in a lovely neighborhood just a few blocks from Avenue del Sol and just a 15 minute walk back to the plaza.  It’s very quiet, and it could be that I am only one of two guests staying here since I’ve seen only one other person.

His name is William, and I would guess him to be in his mid to late 60s.  He’s traveling alone, and based on his own account it seems he’s signed up for every tour that is offered of Cusco and the Sacred Valley.  Upon sharing with him the purpose of my trip, he spoke of an orphanage here in Cusco that he had visited the day before.  He had learned about the missionaries through his church, and had brought down a few things to support their work.  He went on to express his deep frustration with his church’s unwillingness to send help from the congregation.  But it was clear that this frustration did not lessen the impact of his experience at the orphanage.

As our conversation drew to a close, we began to wax a little philosophical and William shared with me a fable – through tears – that I have not heard in a long, long time…

A man is walking along the beach picking up starfish and throwing them back into the sea.  Another man notices this and approaches him.

“Why are you doing that?” he asks.

“Because if these starfish do not get back into the ocean they will die here on the beach,” the man answered.

The inquiring man looked down along the coastline, and for as far as his eyes could see there were starfish dotting the shore.  He turned again to the man throwing starfish.

“But look at all of these!  You’ll never be able to save them all.”

The man picked up another starfish and handed it to him.  “Go ahead.  Toss it back to the sea.”

He did as he was asked and threw the starfish as far as he could back into the ocean.

The man looked at him and said, “See.  Even though you cannot save them all, you just made a difference for that one.”

***

I decided to make an unannounced visit to the Hogar on Friday.  Manuel picked me up in the afternoon and we drove the hour to Anta.  There were only about 10 girls when we arrived, as some had school late in the day and Sister Ana Yolanda had taken the girls with braces into Cusco for their regular appointments.

We spent about an hour playing volleyball without a net.  Then the girls gradually started wandering off to take care of their chores.  As it was approaching the time to leave, the woman who is the cook for the Hogar came to me and handed me a drum.  Manuel translated.

“I want to give you this gift so that you may greet each day with music.”

I kissed her on the cheek and thanked her.  Manuel went on.

“I wish also though to ask of you a favor.  My granddaughter has lost both her father and her mother.  She needs someone in her life to love her as a father, and be a good male role model in her life.   It would mean a lot if you would be her godfather.”

As Manuel translated all of this, I felt both touched and awkward.  Awkward because I didn’t know exactly what was being asked of me, exactly.  Given my bond with all of the girls, and the commitment I have expressed to them all, I didn’t want to in any way confuse things by taking on a higher role with a single one of them.  But this concern was soon erased as I saw the girls huddling to listen in on this request with smiles and anticipation of my answer.

Manuel explained that the woman understood I could not be here for her granddaughter, and that I would miss out on important events and ceremonies.  The woman replied, “I understand.  But she would know him today, and know he is a source of love and support for her in this world.”

It was such a beautiful expression of faith.  Faith in love.  Faith, as well, in me.  I agreed, and the girls all applauded, and the grandmother immediately began knitting me a scarf. J  My new goddaughter’s name is Marisiela.

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I took Saturday as a rest day and spent most of it walking around town, browsing a few new markets and watching a group of middle-aged men play one of the worst games of basketball I’ve ever seen.  Sunday morning I took a taxi to Anta to meet the girls for our bus ride to Urumbamba.  When I arrived at the Hogar no one was there, and I assumed they were still in mass.  I walked to the church and through the open doors I could hear their little voices singing.  I stood outside and waited for service to end, and then we all walked together back to the Hogar where our bus was waiting.

It looked to be the exact same white and yellow bus we had rented during my first visit.  And though it wasn’t that long ago, seeing them all pile in took me back to our first excursion in September when it first became so difficult to leave them.

The ride to Urumbamba was mostly along winding dirt roads through the countryside with extraordinary views of the Andes, large fresh water lagoons and bronze and copper fields.  They all gazed in wonder at the mountains and the lakes, taking note of fishermen and boats and birds.  Lizeth was sitting in the seat behind me, and gave me a rather thorough explanation of how the lakes were being fed by the Urumbamba river.  A very impressive presentation for a 7-year-old.

The same festival we were hoping to see in Ollantaytambo was also being celebrated in Urumbamba.  The main street had been closed for the procession, and the other streets throughout town were completely congested.  Though our intent was to get to Edwin’s hotel, Sister Ana Yolanda decided it would be best to just leave the bus and head down to watch the procession.

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It was particularly hot, and while the parade was colorful and entertaining, all of us became a bit restless under the sun with our bellies growling.  We finally connected with Edwin just as the procession ended and the roads opened back up to allow us to get to his hotel.  Edwin had made a last minute decision to host a lunch for the girls at the hotel since all of the restaurants in town were full from the festival. Once the girls set eyes on the pool, lunch seemed to be the last thing on their minds.

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As they splashed and swam, I helped Jamie and Flor in the kitchen with lunch.  It’s quite a production fixing 30 plates and serving them hot.  I took a few breaks from lunch duty to see how the pool party was doing.  The screams and giggles were deafening inside the enclosed pool area, only heightened by the discovery of a cute little turtle that the girls took turns poking.  Poor turtle.

Flor, Jamie, Edwin and I all rushed to get lunches served while coaxing the girls out of the pool.  Just as we sat down to eat together, Flor appeared with her sister to introduce me.  It felt unusually formal, and I minded my gestures and sentiments very carefully lest I find myself inadvertently engaged.  I was already a godfather – that felt like enough for this trip.  Though were I to find myself in an arranged marriage, I could certainly do a lot worse than lovely Flor.

After lunch we played a little while longer on the swing sets and teeter-totters before loading back on the bus to Anta.  The ride back was very quiet, with many of the girls either dozing off or simply too intoxicated by all the fun to move any more.  I held one of the little ones in my lap where she fell sound asleep.  And everything got painted gold as dusk spilled over the villages and fields.

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The bus drivers were taking the bus back to Cusco, and offered to drop me at my hotel.  I said goodbye to the girls with promises to return in 2 or 3 days after going to Pampallacta.

Before the bus left Anta, though, the drivers had other plans.  They drove into the center of town and began to solicit passengers for the ride back.  This struck me a little bit since I had paid for the bus for the entire day.  But then I thought that if we could fill the bus with people in need of a ride, why not?  The drivers had no charitable intent, though.  They were going to charge people for a ride on the bus I had paid for.  This made me mad, and as much as I kept protesting the bus kept filling until finally I was literally buried in bodies crowded on the bus.

I remained in my original seat, where others were standing huddled together over bags of potatoes and onions.  It was suffocating, and I was grateful I at least had access to a window to crack open for some air.  My body was being pushed against the glass by the stomach of a large, elderly Quechua woman who smelled like wet smoke.  She was actually resting her stomach on me, and try as she might she could not find a position that was any less miserable on her or me.

I started to become claustrophobic, and felt myself getting angrier and angrier at the drivers for completely exploiting the bus I had rented to make money off of these people.  I was plotting what I was going to do at the end of the ride.  My first inclination was to rush all of the people off the bus without paying, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that from my vantage point.  So my next thought was to simply ask for all of the fares collected by the drivers since I had paid for the bus in the first place.   Then I thought I’d just report them to the bus company.

Her hand fell on the back of my neck.  It was rough, but warm, and set lightly in contrast to all of the crowdedness and pressure surrounding us on all sides.  It felt like she was trying to calm me down.  Like she was saying, “we’re here together in this.”

The bus made an intermediate stop and let about 6 people off the bus.  This finally provided just enough room for the woman to not be pressed against me.  She let out a little laugh of delight, and I took her hand and said, “It’s okay, mamá.”

All of the remaining passengers unloaded in Cusco, and the drivers asked me for the name of my hotel.  I gave them curt instructions to just drop me at Avenue del Sol.  As we wound through town, I was revisiting my plans to confront them on hi-jacking the bus for profit.  But then I had a change of heart.

I felt her hand again, though it wasn’t really there.  So what?  So I rented a bus that was then used to give about 30 people a cheap ride that saved them about 6 soles each.  So what?  Two young men put about 10 extra dollars in their pockets for their families.  I didn’t want to end such a wonderful day being upset about something of such little consequence.  The more I thought about it, the more I actually felt really good about it.  It was a good use of the bus.  A great use.  And I’d do it all again.

It must have been her hand on my neck helping me through it.

We are each a starfish.

Love,

p

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