Urumbamba has become my sanctuary. Never did that feel as true as returning to its comfort and solitude after our cold night and long day – yet indisputably magical time – in Pampallacta.
I joined Edwin Thursday on a ride into Cusco to meet the advance team of physicians from the Cleveland Clinic. A team of several dozen medical workers will spend the coming weeks in Pampallacta and other communities where healthcare is needed. The time we spent in Pampallacta only underlined the countless needs of its people. There are potatoes in abundance, but very few sources of quality protein for the vast majority of the 200+ families in the village.
After greeting the doctors and getting them settled at their hotel, we stopped to buy a new volleyball and volleyball net for the Hogar. Last week, I spent awhile with the girls playing volleyball without a net. This seemed like a simple enough amenity to add to the grounds. Before heading back to the valley, we stopped at Edwin’s home in Cusco to have lunch with his family.
They truly are such dear, dear people. His littlest girl screamed at the sight of me during my last visit. Upon greeting me this time, the first words out of her mouth were “I’m older now” as though she recognized her previous interactions with me were those of an infant. Edwin’s wife, Yanet, is such a gracious hostess and always makes me feel as though I’m part of the family. Of all the moments spent in Peru, sharing a meal with Edwin and his family is among the most special.
We reached Urumbamba by nightfall and had dinner later with Jamie. Elizabeta and Flor invited me to go to a local disco with them. It still feels so odd to use the word “disco.” I think the U.S. is the only country that has all but abolished the word. The little club reminded me of the worst example of a thrown-together cash-cow college dance bar. Just an empty room with some booths and tables scrapped together. The smoke machines were out of control, as was the alcohol content of the drinks. But we had fun just the same as a few of only about 10 occupants. I have to say, I really like Peruvian club music. But then the DJ had to ruin it by putting on a gringo mix that included Flock of Seagulls mixed with Eddy Money and Bon Jovi. Huh? Boo.
Yesterday (Friday) morning I found myself still struggling with the conditions in Pampallacta and what might be done – in a sustainable fashion – for Gladys, her family, and those in her community. Over breakfast, I got into a long discussion about chickens and the possibility of buying some for the village. Edwin reminded me that there’s not much for chickens to eat in the highlands. So the animals suddenly become a liability for which the families need to account. We talked about guinea pigs – but their food is just as scarce in Pampallacta and therefore costly. I had seen herds of sheep atop the mountain, and it appeared that a single woman owned most of the village’s animals between her herd and a few chickens she owned that seemed to be managing okay. I wouldn’t let the chicken discussion go until we had visited the morning market and taken a look at what was available.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more pathetic collection of chickens in my life. They were skinny and picked over to the point of near baldness. They were very cheap, but based on my one night in Pampallacta I wouldn’t give any of the chickens I saw more than 24 hours there. I wasn’t satisfied with the offerings, but am still not satisfied there is something more than can be done.
We had a few more errands in Urumbamba before leaving for Anta where I planned to spend the night at the Hogar. We needed poles for the volleyball net, and Edwin needed to pick up food from the local market for the hotel. We purchased the most elaborate, custom-made volleyball net poles one can imagine. I cannot imagine these things will ever crumble under a forced spike from one of the girls. The Urumbamba market is one of the most colorful I’ve ever seen. It’s must friendlier than Cusco’s, with a greater proportion of fresh food and less junk. I could have wandered there for hours.
Before leaving Urumbamba for Anta, I tricked some bees into letting me photograph them, and then we all sat down for lunch together like a family (not the bees, the people).
Edwin refused to let me pay for a single night I spent at his hotel – including food. Jamie is such a gentile soul, good-natured and funny. Always compassionate, he even told me he wanted to contribute some money to whatever help we devised for Pampallacta. Flor and Elizabeta and the other girls at the hotel were such sweet caretakers. We spent the last few moments all gathered together looking through my photos. As I stood next to my bags outside, Jamie’s otherwise very-broken English seemed to all come together fluidly just to deliver the kindest sentiment he could to me.
“Thank you for coming again to visit with us, Patrick. You always make all of us so happy by being here with us, and we will be waiting here for you again.”
I honestly – truthfully – have no idea what I did to deserve such a beautiful departing message. But like so many of life’s good things that we encounter without understanding how we earned them, I could only just sit well with his kindness and pledge to earn it any way I could.
It was dusk by the time we arrived in Anta last night. They had prepared a guestroom for me that was cozy and had a private bathroom and locking door. They took great care to ensure my comfort and privacy while still wishing for me to be a part of their household for a little while.
The girls were finishing up their studies, and I spent awhile with them looking through some of their study materials. They were each so proud to show me their work, and their exams. It’s so clear the girls continue to thrive at the Hogar, and take their studies very seriously.
Once the room had cleared out a bit, a few of the girls kept me at the whiteboard asking me to explain the different meanings of “I love you.” That’s a hard lesson to give in one’s native language. But the girls seemed to get the general idea of what I was trying to explain. Before we left the room, they wrote in big letters on the board: “Te amo, Patrick.”
Sister Ana Yolanda refused to let me dine with the girls because the dining hall was too cold. So I sat down with her and Sister Graciela. Neither of them speaks any English at all, but we managed to navigate our way through a really lovely conversation about – among other things – the ease of communicating with children even without the benefit of a common language. This is a subject I discussed at length with both Edwin and one of the doctors from the Cleveland Clinic.
Make no mistake, I do truly wish to learn much more Spanish. But I can also say that there is something particularly powerful about finding a way through a conversation with someone without knowing each other’s language. I believe it gives one practice on expressing one’s intent. It’s said that 90% of communication is non-verbal, so would it not also then have to be true that without a common language we are tapping into a deeper – perhaps truer – part of our expressions? I believe so, and I have dozens upon dozens of enriching, memorable and nurturing conversations with the girls at the Hogar (and now the children of Pampallacta) upon which to base my belief. This is not an excuse to avoid the study and practice required to become more proficient in Spanish. Rather, it’s simply an acknowledgment that how we reach out to – and impact – one another transcends words and their meaning.
After dinner, I sat with the girls in the common room where we had started a game of “telephone.” This got interrupted by Sister Ana Yolanda for what I was only able to gather was a serious behavioral intervention with the girls regarding their chores. The discussion lasted at least 20 minutes, and though I have no idea of what the details were, it was clear to me that the expectations of the girls are set high, and that there are clear accountabilities in place from the Sisters. Sister Ana Yolanda commands such respect from all of the girls, and there was something really touching about watching all of their countenances as she expressed her disappointment. In the end, everything was settled with some light-heartedness and giggles before everyone turned in for the night.
The girls woke up before 5 a.m. for their chores. I managed to doze through the commotion until about 6 a.m. and walked out of my room just in time for breakfast. This time we all ate together. The girls then went to work on the volleyball net. Within an hour, it was up and being enjoyed. I contributed barely 10% of the total labor. The girls worked like a team of engineers getting the poles set and level just by sight. It was yet another demonstration of their talent and resolve. I would never imagine seeing a group of 7-15 year old America kids taking charge of such a project with such focus and intent. For the girls at the Hogar, I believe it’s in their spirits and in their blood.
The hot morning sun and relentless volleyball serves tuckered me out, so I went back inside to get out of the heat and rest a bit before our bus arrived to take us to Cusco. Sister Ana Yolanda found me there, and sat down next to me. It was obvious she wanted to have a conversation.
She told me she was sick. And while I didn’t understand everything she said to me, I could tell she needed something from me. As I sat there listening as intently as I could, I also found my brain wrestling with a small dose of shame that I had not/have not given to the Sisters the same amount of attentiveness as I have the girls. It reminded me of something very sweet and caring that a friend did for me in advance of this trip. Upon thanking my friend and telling her how she didn’t need to go to such trouble, she promptly corrected me:
“It’s not for you, but for those who are in need of you.”
I still cannot type her words and recall her telling me that without getting chills. I just think that is such a profound and powerful notion. And it shut me right up. As Sister Ana Yolanda shared with me what she needed of me, I gave special attention to what I was being given an opportunity to do. I remembered the previous night’s “intervention” and how stern yet compassionate she was. I envisioned the girls’ expressions, and recalled how abundantly clear it was that whatever health, happiness and outright joy the girls are experiencing in their lives, it can all be credited to the Sisters – especially Ana Yolanda. If ever there was an application of “those in need of you,” it was between the girls and Ana Yolanda.
She sat next to me with an empty box of medication to treat Parkinson’s. As she referred to the box and explained, she held out her hand to show me its very slight tremor. She again pointed to the box. We struggled a bit with my comprehension, but I finally was able to gather that she needed more of the medicine. The medication is too costly in Peru, and she was asking me to find a way. Together, we figured it out. For starters, she needed another month’s supply so she wouldn’t miss a dose. Our conversation provided just one more model of how intention between two who care for one another can resolve all. It was beautiful.
About 30 minutes before our bus to Cusco was to arrive, I began to feel sick. I traced back all of my food, and I’m pretty sure breakfast was the culprit. I told the girls I was going to my room to rest before the bus arrived, and by the time it did I needed to keep myself in the cool shade with my water while we awaited departure. Ermelinda and Lourdes noticed I was a little pasty, and I told them I was feeling a sick. They immediately went into EMT mode and took me by both arms and marched me back into the Hogar. They joined Ana Yolanda in the kitchen, and brewed some tea from herbs grown on the property. They sat and watched as I drank it, and quizzed me on my state of being. It was like a miracle remedy, because as soon as I finished the last drops I felt completely normal again.
When I joined the other girls on the bus, they had saved me a seat and each asked how I was feeling. Little hands reached out and touched my arms and neck as though they each wanted to put a healing touch on me.
We traveled to Cusco to the same big playground we visited during my first stay. Afterwards, we walked across the street to a restaurant to have lunch together before the girls returned to Anta. Karina, our benevolent dentist, joined us for lunch and gave me a lunchtime Spanish tutoring. It’s clear she really loves the girls, and it was special having her with us as part of the family invested in them.
As the girls boarded the bus, I dropped to a knee so I could give them all eye-level hugs. My flight home leaves tomorrow, and my time here has gone so very quickly. Far, far too quickly. As I knelt and gave out hugs and kisses, I felt proud that I had not immediately begun crying. It actually looked like I was going to make it all the way through. That was until I stood up and Sister Ana Yolanda took my face in her hands. “Gracias por todos, Patrick. Por todos.” And then I turned around to see all of the beautiful – beautiful – faces looking at me from their bus seats. And I could tell by many of their expressions as my eyes filled that they were fully expecting this. They shouted to me to always be happy. That I must always be happy. That I must only be happy. And somehow it felt that just by their words, they could make it all so. So easily.
I kissed as many faces and hands out of bus windows as I could while they pulled away. Edwin, Karina and I got into the truck, and as has become her custom, Karina’s hand fell on my shoulder.
We caught up with the bus as it made its turn to the hills of Anta. I raised my arm out the window to wave at them, and I could still see their faces and little hands until buildings came between us.
But there are no bounds to what love – and intention – can do. None at all…