Monthly Archives: November 2011

I am Where I am….

I can look out my window and see, 100 feet in the distance,  a solid wall of mountain. It goes straight up for about 3,000 feet. That’s right, over half a mile. It is beautiful. It is breathtaking. It is like something I have never experienced before. Slightly to the right is another mountain – with a glacier of top.  A flipping glacier! Imagine that – not only to see a glacier – but to live right next to one. That’s right, here it is burning hot in the midday sun, and I am looking at a glacier. A world far away from manicured grass lawns or cement sidewalks. This is awesome.

Glacier Out my Window

Every single day, I catch myself, not once, not twice, but many many times, just looking up – how is it that you cannot ignore the shear awesomeness that surrounds you? If I go downtown to pick up some shampoo, recharge my phone, get some over-the-counter antibiotics without a prescription, or get some photocopies made (in our WalMart of sorts – all being overseen by one of the many varieties of Jesus that is ever-present – Señor de Choquekillka)

One Stop Shopping

– there they are…

Downtown

If I turn to rest in the plaza, I still can’t escape them –

Our Plaza

They are gorgeous, awe-inspiring, and need I say more? They just really kind of put you in your place. They sort of make you feel insignificant. I mean, here they are, in all of their massiveness – their beauty – their downright powerfulness. All of a sudden you feel like a little speck of sand on the face of the earth. Your problems, your worries – just seem to fade away. I mean, compared to the grandness of these mountains, everything else seems teeny. Really.

But that’s not all. Carved into the mountains are ancient Incan Ruins. Outposts for the military to guard the Incan trail from Cusco to Macchu Pichu. Grain storage houses. And royal thrones carved into the mountain so that the emperor could sit and look out over his people and watch the sun set. Yes, it’s all right here, in my little town.

Incan Ruins

And the streets themselves are original Incan roadways…

Typical Street

And that’s because Ollantaytambo is the oldest continuously inhabited Incan town that exists! Imagine that… it really blows my mind to think that the stone houses that are in this old section of town were actually built by the Incans. And their families have been living here ever since! They are set up communally – so if you go in one of the doorways you see below, you will find a courtyard surrounded by dwellings where several families live.

Our streets are..... quaint!

The townspeople are quite colorful, too. For instance, here’s a local kid that hangs around with her mom and sisters. Granted, they are looking for tourists to take their photos, and I did give her 50 centimos, but they are, nonetheless, a beautiful indigenous people just trying to make a buck. No protesting for them! They’re just out there working to put food on the table – and happy to have the chance to do it.

One of our local kids

Someone not posing for photos is the bread lady. She sits outside the market every day – and for 1 Sol (about 30 cents), you can buy a bag of 5 panacitas (little breads) that are fresh from the bakery. The bread lady is there, rain or shine, and is a real fixture in our town. You’ll notice her traditional dress, braided hair and hat. That is NOT for show. Most traditional women dress like this. Every day.

Bread Lady

My new apartment is in a newer part of town. It is, in fact, in one of THE nicest houses in Ollanta. We really lucked out to get such a nice place. Our road, though, is not new. Or maybe it is too new. Either way. It is not paved, nor is it cobblestone. It is dirt. And rock. And you never know what you will find in it. I have come out of my front door to find random horses – just kind of hanging out in front of my house. Not tied up, mind you. Just chillin’ in the road. Of course there are always stray dogs, but several times I have woken up to the squealing of Pigs!!! Right out my front window! And, on more than one occasion, I have come home to find a burro tied up outside the house.

You just never know what awaits you on our street.........

Our house is actually a little further down the street, next to the house with the Pepsi sign on it.

We're right next to the Pepsi sign...

The new house on the block!

Our House

Which brings us full circle. Back to my house, and my own little view. Of the mountains in my yard – and out the window. As you can see, there is no escaping the mountains. Wherever you go, wherever you are – just look up – and there they are. Giving you a sense of security, a sense of belonging to something far greater than you can comprehend. And I realize that it is not just MY view that does this to one’s soul. Anywhere that I’ve lived, or that I’ve been, there is always that nature-inspired awesomeness. Whether it’s the waves lapping in the ocean or the dense, lush forest, the starry night in the city or the throngs of people on the subway – we are part of something a lot larger than ourselves. Everything is one – and we are just a little speck in it. But all of our specks together create an incredible being. I love to look around every day, and find all of the reminders of that. It makes you feel like you are contributing to something bigger, something grand… something good.

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The Communities

The town of Ollantaytambo, where I live, is  9,250 feet above sea level. Sound impressive? Well let’s see…. in the U.S, the town that I live in,  in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, is at an altitude of a whopping 801 ft. And, where my dear son is at University, is all of 50 ft. So, yes, I’d say, it’s impressive. However……… we are in a valley. Hence the name. (Sacred Valley – for those of you new here.) So, needless to stay, we are living at a pretty high altitude. It takes most visitors a few days to adjust to the altitude, and pharmacies in the bigger cities of Cusco and Arequipa even sell personal cans of oxygen that you can purchase to stick in your backpack for moments of wooziness. But, my dear readers, 9,250 feet is just where our trek begins.

My last post detailed our truck ride up into Socma – one town that two of our girls live in. Socma is about 13,000 feet above sea level. So now we are really getting up there. The amazing thing is that the people who live in these mountain villages are totally self-sustainable. They farm the land and raise animals. When I think of farms, I think of huge spans of rich, flat fields. Not so in the mountains. Take a look for yourself:

Imagine Farming This Land!

The first stop in Socma was at Nohemi’s house, where we were graciously invited for dinner. We would also stay in this community for the night – in a guest house that has been set up to accommodate random travelers. The families of our girls are always thrilled to see Alex and whoever may be traveling with him. Needless to say, we were treated like royalty. You will notice that all of the houses are made from mud bricks. This is typical. Although you may see power lines in Socma, there is actually no electricity. Yet. A year or so ago, Alex created a project called “Light Up Socma” which brought power lines up to this remote village. They haven’t been turned on yet. So, the villages we visited have no electricity, no running water, certainly no indoor plumbing, and really none of the modern conveniences we are all so used to in first world countries.

Nohemi's Community

Nohemi's Community

In the morning, we rose early, with the sun – as do all people in the mountains, were treated to a breakfast of oatmeal drink and tea, and headed off to our next community, Markuray. The 2 hour hike, which brought us up another 2,000 feet, was exhausting. We had only brought day packs with our sleeping bags and food, but the altitude of  15,000 feet was killing me. I still was not totally adjusted to living this high up to begin with, and trying to keep up with the ‘kids’ in the group that are 25 to 35 years younger than me was a challenge. All I could think of was the old song from Frosty the Snowman “put one foot in front of the other….” and I kept going. I could not believe that this was the hike that Maribel, the student that we were going to visit, did every weekend to get home. I need to remember this the next time I am stuck in traffic.

Yes, We Were Tired

We arrived at Maribel’s house mid-morning, where once again, we were greeted by her entire family – parents, siblings  and cousins. They had been awaiting our arrival. It is rare to see gringos in the mountain communities, and we were not just any gringos – we were accompanied by Alex – the founder of The Sacred Valley Project that has given their daughter an opportunity to become educated. Needless to say, we were treated very well.

The Kids love Alex

We were ushered into their one room mud house, where the entire family sleeps, her mom cooks over a wood fire, and they raise guinea pigs. Yes, that’s right. As we sat on the floor and had our delicious coffee, potatoes, and egg, there were guinea pigs running around our feet. Many families raise guinea pig or cuy to sell to restaurants as a delicacy. It can be a pretty good source of income.

Maribel's Mom Cooks for Us

We were also accompanied by Bianca, another founding member of The Sacred Valley Project, and a real role model for the girls.

A Humble Meal

Outside, Maribel’s father was proud to show us his plot of land that he diligently farms. He had all sorts of vegetables – potatoes, cauliflower, beans, herbs… and elderberry trees.

Maribel's House

Although it was tempting to stay longer – it was not even noon yet and I was totally exhausted, we had to push on to the next community – Ryan – where Elisabeth lives. Another hour and a half up higher into the mountains. Again, my admiration for Elisabeth and her family increased with every painful step that I took. Did she really hike this every Friday after school? The dedication of this girl and her family – to get to our dormitory every week was unfathomable to me. How can I explain this to my kids? How can I explain this to anyone back home? I don’t know. There are no roads to her community – the only one that did exist was wiped out in a landslide a few years ago. The elementary school for her community is serviced by a teacher who comes on motorcycle… sometimes. Anyway, our grueling hike to visit Elisabeth in Ryan turned up empty-handed. A neighbor told us that Elisabeth’s family was out tending their sheep. Well, I guess it was not really empty-handed. Although we did not get to meet with the family, I gained a true appreciation for the mountain people. The simple, yet physically hard life that they live.

We headed around the mountain, in search of our next family, in Pilcobamba. As we hiked, we came across a set of Incan ruins. Why were they there? Why were these families here?

Incan Ruins

Why on earth would anyone choose such a desperate place to live? I don’t know. Maybe it’s about the view. Maybe it’s because that’s where they could find land to farm…. Maybe they don’t see what the big deal is, living at 15,000 feet – the height that jet planes fly at. Maybe it’s just what they are used to. The same way that other people are just used to living in Connecticut, or New York City, or Iowa. No big deal. But I don’t know many people who roll out of bed and see a view like this….

Amazing Waterfall

Or this…..

It's All About the View

Amazing. That’s all I can say. It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived in Pilcobamba. Anita’s family had been waiting for us, and of course insisted  that we have a meal with them. Her mom had killed a chicken. This was a big deal. We were getting a little worried about the time – we still had a good 3 hour hike down the mountain to get to a road where we could hitchhike back home. But the love and gratitude of Anita’s family was so overwhelming that we had no choice but to stay and wait while the meal was prepared. After the meal, we hastily said our good-byes. Anita walked with us for about 20 minutes, to show us a shortcut to the trail back home.

The rest of the hike down was excruciating for me. As hard as it had been to breathe on the way up, I was in agony from the pain on my feet from the steepness of the mountains on the way down. My hiking boots were a tad too big – and my toes kept jamming into the front of my boots with each step on the way down. Every step was painful. I felt as if my feet were a bloody mess. (In fact, when I took my boots off at home, I realized they were. My toenails are still completely black – weeks later.)  But each step made me think more and more about our girls and their families. This was their life. And they were happy. They had little to no modern conveniences. They had excruciating hikes to get anywhere. And we are not talking to get to the mall or McDonald’s. We are talking about just getting to a town that has a school. And a small market. That’s it. This is a life lesson that I believe will always stay with me. The next time I have to wait in line at the supermarket, with my overstuffed basket of pre-killed animals, and blemish-free fruits and vegetables, I will think of Nohemi, and Maria Elena, Maribel, Elisabeth and Anita… who have never even seen a supermarket. And who have to walk up to eight hours to get to school. And I will be grateful for all that I have – and whistful of this place that is much simpler.


Getting to School

So I have mentioned that the communities that our girls live in are very far from towns with schools. That is why we have a dormitory for them to stay in during the week – so that they can actually reach a high school. What better way to understand our population, than to actually visit them there, and make the trek myself? Great idea – I can thank Alex (our founder, and inspiration behind the Sacred Valley Project) for taking us for a “hike” into the mountains one weekend to meet with several of our families. It was an experience that changed my perspective on who are girls are, how they live, and what we are doing here.

How difficult could it be to get to school?  I mean, really? I have listened to my in-laws’ stories of how hard it was for them to get to school – walking to school 5 miles, uphill both ways, in the snow…. which made my own high school journey seem like a piece of cake: walk 2 blocks to the bus stop – take the B58 bus for about 15 or 20 minutes, then take the “EE” or “GG” subway line  to Continental Ave. where I switched to the “E” or “F” subway to the end of the line. 45 minutes total. Not bad. My kids, growing up in the suburbs, think that my trip was kind of insane. Let’s face it, they’re spoiled. But neither they nor I could ever have imagined how difficult getting to school could be. Let’s face it. I’m spoiled.

We started out for the first village of Socma. Socma is probably the easiest village to get to – as twice a week, there is transportation that goes there. Luckily, one of those days is Friday afternoon, so the girls from that community can get transportation home for the weekend. Unfortunately, it is not available on Sunday evenings, when the girls return to the dorm – so they have to walk the entire way. Two of our girls live in this community. To start with, we walked to the mercado (market), where we took a combi. A combi is a Toyota passenger van, that in the U.S. would normally hold 8 to 11 passengers. These vans have been re-fitted however, and it is most common to have about 25 passengers crammed in like sardines – some in seats, some standing over the people in seats.  Oh, and of course, you have all of your “stuff” on top. I am used to taking a combi to our next town, Urubamba, as that is where I take language classes once in awhile. Once you are stuffed inside, you try to hold your breath if you are not lucky to be sitting next to a precious window, because let’s face it – it’s pretty ripe in there!

What else can you fit in here?

A 15 minute combi ride to Pachar, where we sat, kind of in the middle of nowhere…. waiting. I wasn’t sure for what, but I have learned that in Perú, don’t ask questions – as you probably won’t understand the answer anyway, and you will just become more frustrated. Watch and observe – that’s the name of the game. It soon became apparent that our next mode of transport was a truck. Really? This is it? Where were we going to fit – it was brimming to the seems already.

Truck to Socma

The truck experience was something I could not have imagined at all. It was a far cry from my Toyota Highlander with it’s plush leather seats, adjustable lumbar, coffee cup holder and sunroof that I practically live in, and have used to shuttle my kids back and forth to school . Well, I guess the truck did have a sunroof of sorts….but there were definitely no coffee cup holders.  We climbed into the truck, along with 80 other people. Yes, 80during the 45 minute ride I counted them. Most were women and children and babies. Piling into the TruckFor most of the ride, I stood on one foot – as there was absolutely no place to put my second foot. I was standing on top of a 50 lb. sack of rice. Crammed in like sardines, my body was juxtaposed so that my foot was at least 4 feet in front of where my head was. I was holding on to a little girl who must have been about 5 or 6 years old  named Marylin. Actually, I had my arm around her waist, and was holding her up so that she would not be completely crushed by the crowd of people as we made our way up into the mountains on a rocky, hairpin turn road. Old women on their way home from market were crowded next to nursing mothers, next to children trying to catch a ride home from school, all on top of huge sacks of supplies from town.

Don't Step on Anyone!

Don’t Step on Anyone!

The amazing thing to me was that everyone was in a great mood. “Why?” you may ask. Not only do they not have cushy seats, but they can’t even rest their Starbucks comfortably in this vehicle. Well, the answer should be pretty obvious by now – they actually had caught the truck, which meant they would not have to hike about 2 hours up into the mountains. Sweet. The ride lasted about 45 minutes, and we jostled against each other the entire way,  holding each other up, trying not to fall underneath the huge pile of human mass. When we finally arrived in Socma, I felt much closer to my new Peruvian amigos…. their joy had rubbed off on me, and my eyes were beginning to open. Be grateful for what you have. Take joy in each thing that comes your way – look for the good in everything. We are truly fortunate.

Look at Those Smiling Faces!

Speaking of being fortunate, every day I am grateful for all that I have – and today I am grateful that you are even reading this, and learning about us!

Next up………. the communities.


The Dorm

A little about the dorm itself. We currently have 10 or 11 girls at the dormitory. I say 10 “or” 11 because when I got here we had 11. Now, it appears that we have 10. A little more on that in a later post. The object of the project is to provide a safe, supportive environment for impoverished girls from the Andes Mountains to live in, so that they can get an education. Why is that necessary, you may ask? Why don’t they just get on the bus and go to high school?  Well, the mountain communities are far. Very far from towns that actually have high schools. The shortest hike that any of our girls has to our town is 3 hours. The longest hike one of our girls has is 8 hours. Each way. So most kids finish their education in the 6th grade. Boys, after that point, are usually sent away to schools or to work in the cities. Girls are left behind to get pregnant.

A community where one of the girls lives.

So, the Sacred Valley Project has set up a dorm in our town of Ollantaytambo. There is a high school here in our town. The goal of the project is to take on 6 new girls every year. So eventually we will have 6 girls in grades 7 -11 (high school.) The girls walk to our town on Sunday afternoon, and live in the dorm throughout the week. On Fridays, they hike back to their communities. What do we do here at the dorm? Glad you asked. Well, aside from giving the girls food and lodging, we give them a lot of educational and social support. They really aren’t very well prepared for high school courses, since their prior education may have been in a one room mud hut in the mountains. So, after they get home from school, we tutor them and work with them on their homework for another 4 or 5 hours. It’s a huge game of catch-up, as well as trying to keep up with new concepts. And we help them acclimate to a different social setting. Oh, right, and learn Spanish. Their native language is Quechua.

Some Math Help - Me and Maria Elena

The dorm itself is quite adequate. Actually quite luxurious compared to conditions in the mountains. We have an outdoor courtyard,

Courtyard

Courtyard

A kitchen, study room, dining/homework room, 3 bedrooms for the girls,

Dining/Homework Room

a shower and toilets (albeit they are sort of outdoors), and a room for our house mom, Maria.

Toilets/Washroom

Flushable Toilet

All in all, the dorm itself is a wonderful,caring community, where the girls have learned to grow in so many ways – to live away from home, form a new community of peers, work hard, and fulfill their responsibilities through chores. I am thrilled to be here. And although we lack the amenities of home, I have found so much more in the warmth and caring of the people that I am living and working with. I have found that you don’t need tons of money and stuff to have a happy and fulfilling life. Sometimes, less is more.


who, what, where, when……….

So, you may ask –
What is this all about? What are you doing? Why are you in Perú?
All good questions…….

Let me start at the beginning.

So, there I was. Sitting in a cubicle at an insurance company. Programming. I had taken a short-term assignment just to have steady work, make some dough and pay some bills. Well, I was still at the assignment 2 years later… and I had never worked in a cubicle before. I often thought, “I wonder how many of these people had the wish to work in a cubicle when they were a child?” I knew I certainly didn’t. I didn’t even know what a cubicle was. I wanted to be a puppet show. Not in one. But be one. Go figure.

Meanwhile, my youngest child was away at a 5 month “semester” school. Yes, I missed her, and knew that upon her return, she would be leaving home for good – to attend a University out of state. Hmmmm….. she was only 16. I thought this would be the most opportune time to spend one final year with her – working closely together – doing something that would stretch the both of us – and help the common good. My dear husband, although he would sorely miss us, agreed. So, to make a long story short, I found the Sacred Valley Project, in Ollantaytambo, Peru. They had advertised for a long-term volunteer to do curriculum planning. They were also more than happy to have a 16 year old young woman volunteer to work with their 12-15 year old girls – tutoring, and being a big sister. A marriage made in heaven. Plans were made. Tickets were bought. I quit my job. We packed our backpacks, and we left. So here we are.

<NOTE: I wanted to post a very lovely mother/daughter photo here, but alas, after 15 attempts, I am giving up…. Ahhhhh. Perú.>