Lately a big shift has taken place in my experience living in Peru. I’m beginning to feel more and more comfortable here in the community of Amashca, a small town of 1,200 people in the high altitude of the Andes Mountains. Life isn’t always easy here however, and there are moments when the sites of some of the “ugly” begin to grind on my western trained psyche. These are the familiar sites of underdevelopment: trash in the landscape, small children playing with broken toys (or just a rubber tire), unsupervised for long stretches, animal feces everywhere you go, dark and dingy kitchens with open fires, and then there’s you, passing through, taking it in, but also not taking it in, because it’s raw, and a little scary.
Why is it scary? Our purpose for being here is an attempt to make shifts not just within our selves, but in the world that surrounds us. What we see, the sometimes garish scenes of poverty, is representative of what any idealist aims to change. Slowly, it becomes clear, that most of this will remain, at least during the two years we are present in these communities. The shifts we hope to make are mostly invisible to the eye, and perhaps, that is what matters most.
There is one family, with which I am becoming closer, I go and visit their two room home (one part living/sleeping area, one part kitchen) frequently to chat over soup, play with their four kids, or just smile and say hello. The father of this family, Francisco, is a mild mannered, thin man. He and his wife Esperanza dedicate their lives to the fields, planting potatoes, oca (another tuber), corn, peas, and other crops. They have one milking cow, a few bulls, pigs, and burros, and when there is milk Esperanza makes queso fresco to sell. Their kids, age four, ten, thirteen and fifteen, help out with tasks after school; this is normal life for them, even the four year old is accustomed to long two hour hikes up to the high slopes where potatoes grow best.
This family has gone through some tribulations, Esperanza had an operation to get her gal bladder removed, and although almost a year has passed still experiences some pain. While generally liked in the community, they lack any important connections in the local municipality, or businesses. Esperanza scans her house, the small adobe structure which utilizes a huge boulder as the far wall, and says, “Look at my house, it’s like this because of my health, that’s were our money has gone.”
But this family is not impoverished of strength and values. This, Francisco makes clear by always insisting I sit down for a meal, that his kids say “hello” and “thank you” and by treating his wife with respect. While Francisco’s understanding of the world revolves most intensely around the pueblo, the crops, the forces of nature, he understands that there are systems of injustice at play that dictate much of his well-being and that of his family; crop prices, controlled by an unfair market system is a piece of the oppressive hand that keeps this family in an uphill struggle. Esperanza’s ill health was met by a discriminatory health system that puts patients like her, indigenous Quechua speakers, on the back burner, only until a medical crisis is their adequate intervention.
To have the ability to share in their lives, and to hear their stories puts a face on all the academic work I did in the past, learning about the “sub-altern,” the more than 2 billion people on the planet living off a few dollars a day. It helps me to understand that life goes on, happy, sad, joyful, tragic, whether you have a bank account or not. But what is striking is the growing awareness, due to changing global information and the shrinking of the planet, that Esperanza and Francisco have of what is out there and unavailable to them and their children, and there is a tinge of grief that comes along with this awareness.
The other day Francisco said to me, “When you go back to your country, tell our story.” I don’t have the ability to eradicate poverty, but I have the ability, and the privilege to observe and bare witness to the lives of those who surround me. And here, thanks to the newest and latest technology am bringing it home as it unravels before me.
"One sees clearly only with the heart, anything essential is invisible to the eye."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry