Dang I’m tired.
I traveled back to Urumbamba on Monday afternoon to stay the night before traveling to Pampallacta on Tuesday. Pampallacta is another Quechuan village in the mountains above the Sacred Valley that I visited in September during my first trip to Peru. It is where over 150 children are fed breakfast and lunch every school day because of Peruvian Hearts.
One of the best parts of the journey to Pampallacta is the stop at the bakery in Calca. Beyond an unmarked rickety wooden doorway, more than 10,000 loaves of fresh bread are wood-fired every day. We fill three bags with warm, soft loaves – two for the kids, one for us.
The road to the village was washed out during the flooding and mudslides earlier this year that stranded tourists at Machu Picchu. There are still remnants of the damage everywhere I’ve been in the last 10 days, and still rather precarious areas along the route to Pampallacta where mudslides or rockslides seem poised to release at any moment.
As we pulled into the village, I began to see the gorgeously clad little children firing up the otherwise barren landscape with their colorful dress. And as their faces began to peer at us from behind walls and over stone fences, culminating in a sea of quizzical expressions upon the opening of the truck door, I could see a few who were familiar to me.
The Quechuan children are such a contrast to the girls in Anta in how reserved and stoic they can be. They are first and foremost observers. There is no smile or greeting that suffices to earn their favor. It takes a little more than common courtesy to break through with these little ones. They don’t just pass out the benefit of a doubt.
That is, except for Gladys.
Gladys and her little sister (and I do mean little), Veronica, stood like perfect dolls in front of an immense mountain backdrop as though that was their designated greeting station. Gladys didn’t include her face among the dozen or so staring up at me. No. She would rather greet me on her own terms – bucking convention and actually offering a smile before she got one from me. She cannot look me in the eyes for more than a few seconds before bursting into a contagious giggle. And she is always ready with a song.
There are a few things that tend to annoy Gladys, and one is the improper pronunciation of her sister’s name. It’s not Veh-RON-i-kah, like Americans would say it. It’s Veh-ron-IH-kah, like Gladys says it.
Our mission in Pampallacta only became formal once we arrived. Truth is, the motivation for the journey was just to drop me off to stay the night in the recently constructed volunteer quarters that sets atop the new restrooms for the schoolchildren. I had my sleeping bag, a sack full of still-warm Calca bread, and an electric boiling kettle. I was set. After Edwin introduced me to a few from the village, they suggested that I could be provided with – uhm – let’s just say “special accommodations” to make my stay more comfortable. Uh, no thanks. I already had my intimate experience with a Quechuan woman on a bus a few days ago. I think I’m good.
Though the building was largely complete and habitable, the workers who had been hired had left the job undone (sound familiar?). Running the electricity was easy enough. We just ran the wires from the school building to the out building and connected them to the fuse box. No big whoop. Even Gladys would testify to this as our step-by-step observer.
The primary task at hand was to clean paint off the tile floors. The kids found old tattered clothes to rip up into smaller rags. Paint-thinner was then poured on the floor while feet scrubbed up the paint with the old rags. The fumes were overwhelming, but I seemed to be the only one who minded. In fact, one of the little boys who was been scrubbing the floors with his feet was prancing around showing off how clean the paint thinner had made his feet. Dear Lord.
Edwin seemed content with the progress we’d made, and checked in with me one last time before taking off down the mountain. Gladys assured him that she would look after me until morning.
As much as I love Edwin, it was kind of nice to have the sense of autonomy on the mountaintop. He is very respected among the people in Pampallacta, and it certainly helped build good grace towards me by being his companion. But I also enjoy the independence of being by myself in an environment – even if that causes some anxiety and discomfort. Those are the times when magic tends to happen, and this would be no different.
We stood there simply regarding one another quietly. She looking up at me, twisting her tiny weathered sandal-clad foot into the gravel. Me looking down into her big black eyes, grinning at what fumbling conversation was set to begin. I decided to break the silence.
“Si!” she said with excitement. She reached out for my hand as a little boy grabbed the other one, and in total there were four of us marching through the schoolyard toward the village.
Walking through the narrow footpaths of the village, between mud walls and mud houses with thatched roofs and tiny wooden doorways felt like strolling through the Shire of Lord of the Rings. In a few encounters, though I had no idea what she said, Gladys seemed to be showing me off as some sort of creature she had discovered. Fair enough, I suppose. As long as I’m not tripped up and tied down in some kind of Gulliver’s Travels meets Quechuan village nightmare.
We stopped at a playground where I showed Gladys how to take pictures with one of my cameras. She and the others were obsessed with seeing the images on the display screen, and insisted that I send them copies of all the photos of them when I got back home. Would someone please loan me a thousand dollars?
The sun had gone down and it was getting full-on dark, so I asked Gladys if we could return to “mi casa”. She again led the way, and on our return route we attracted the curiosity of two older boys who joined our footpath caravan back to the volunteer quarters and bathroom building. Just as we entered the schoolyard, Gladys turned to me with wide eyes and whisper-shouted “Senor Edwin!”
Five seconds later, I heard the sound of the truck engine. As we cleared the slope beyond the school, there his truck was. He had decided he wanted to continue work on the restroom, and stay the night after all. There was something so perfect about his return, in that he was gone just long enough for me to have a really special moment all to myself.
We dug right back into the plumbing repairs, along with mounting soap dishes on the tile walls next to the sinks. The children stayed with us the whole time, helping as best as they could while also horsing around just enough to slow progress at critical moments. Like when all of the soap dishes had been precariously secured with masking tape and supported with broom handles while the silicon dried, only to have the brooms swiped from their positions so the kids could swish around in the water. We went from one soap dish to the next, and then back again, and again, until we finally managed to get them all in position. Then came the towel racks, and another series of Keystone Cop-esque trial and error to get the damned things to stay put.
Someone appeared outside near Edwin’s truck, and the kids took note. They were acting as surveillance, while also playing a hiding game with the man outside. He seemed to appear and then disappear.
The evening’s final task was to seal a water leak in one of the pipes outside. As we all huddled together around Edwin as he prepared an epoxy mix, the kids were still talking about the man who had been near the truck. At one point, they assured Edwin that if the man returned and did any damage to the truck that they would burn him.
Burn him? Goodness. Well THIS I had to pursue.
So I asked Edwin what happens in these villages if there is a crime committed. Apparently, it’s not unheard of for the criminal to be killed. Curious about the kids’ very specific reference, Edwin asked if anyone had been punished for a crime lately in the village. They answered that there had, in fact, been a man who had robbed a family years ago and he had been burned as his punishment. They said it happened a long time ago. As horrific as this image was, I was relieved their “burn him” reference was at least anchored in history rather than some troubling fantasy they had dreamed up.
Gradually, the kids began to wander off to their homes. Except for Gladys, who I had somehow lost track of during the burn-the-man conversation. Here she appeared as sweet as could be with her keperina across her shoulders carrying blankets for Edwin to sleep.
We slept on the wood floor on seed bags filled with alpaca wool along with a few dirty pillows. It was chilly in the room, and deep space quiet all around. No wind. No animal noises. Nothing. I didn’t sleep much at all. Maybe an hour total. I woke up just before sunrise, and Edwin soon followed.
The children gradually began to reappear, Gladys included. She wanted to check to make sure her blankets had served their purpose. She also wanted candy for breakfast. She hung around and played until time for school. Then checked back in with us around lunchtime. Always smiling. Always chatty. And offering up a few songs to the welcoming ear.
The morning’s plumbing problems would test our sanity. It was like a cruel, plumbing Rubik’s cube where you are certain your last move was your last, only to turn the damned cube around and discover a little yellow square surrounded by green ones. I couldn’t help but believe Edwin wished he had just left my door ajar, banked into a steep left-hand turn, tumbled me and my gear into the dirt, and dashed himself back to the comforts of his lovely home base.
It took a total of 8 hours to get all of the plumbing problems resolved. As soon as the last leak was sealed, I urged Edwin to get in the truck and speed away before anything else was discovered. He obliged.
We gathered our things and packed ourselves up as the last pieces of candy were passed out. During my stay, Gladys managed to build her English vocabulary to include these critical phrases:
“Give me some candy.”
“Do you have candy?”
Before we drove away, she spotted the torn-open bag of candy in the floorboard.
She pleaded to Edwin: “Why would you have any left-over candy? Why wouldn’t you just give it all to us?”
In her own beautiful way, she reminded me of my mantra about giving what it is that we mean to give now. So I filled her tiny hands with candy and said “shhhh.” She hid her grin with her stuffed-full fists, whispered “gracias” and chased us for a little while as the truck pulled away.